The road to hell is paved with felled trees

A compilation of some of my FB posts, published in the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine.


The road to hell is paved with felled trees
The long walk from the bus stop to the farm, and back, never ends without a long conversation with someone in the village. Engrossed in the conversations, we sometimes miss the bus, which comes every half an hour or so. So what? There is the next bus.
Yesterday, we were talking to an elderly lady, and her husband, whose house was on the way. She was mentioning how painful it was to see any tree being cut, especially the palmyra trees. She said people used to believe that palmyra trees (and snakes) live for a 1000 years (பனைக்கும் பாம்புக்கும் ஆயிரம் வருஷம்). A palmyra tree can withstand any drought, and a snake gives its pearl (manickam/nagamani) after 1000 years, she added. Science may claim otherwise, but there could be something more than the literal meaning in her proverb. The tamarind tree at the bus stop was older than their living and inherited memories.
I shared a news item from the Hindu with her, which stated,  ‘A long-pending demand of the district is likely to be met soon, with the National Highways (NH) wing of State Highways Department preparing a detailed project report to develop the Coimbatore – Pollachi Road into a four-lane one.’
She was, obviously, not part of those in the ‘district’, who make such demands.
Then when I spoke of another part of the report, I couldn’t quite retain its cold, indifferent ‘non-editorial’ tone:
‘Almost all the trees (nearly 1,700 of them) on either side of the road will have to be felled for this project.’
“Isn’t that road already broad enough? (அந்த சாலை ஏற்கனவே அகலமாத்தானப்பா இருக்கு?)” she exclaimed.

No amma, not broad enough for those of us who covet infinite development. Not broad enough for those of us who charge by the hour. Not broad enough for our luxury sedans, with headlight beams turned high, to race along. We don’t have the time to relish the shades of those 1700 trees. There may come a day, when we yearn for the shade of a single tree, under which we can leave our grandchildren. But no, not yet. Climate change is still a state of the body and the mind.
An educative encounter
“What games did you play at school today?” I asked (in Tamil) the sixth standard boy from our neighbouring farm, situated across the river. He goes to a government high school in the next village. He comes over to our place, often, with his younger sister, who is in fourth standard. They are vibrant children, bustling with activity, helping us with planting saplings and watering them, even on days when we couldn’t visit the farm. Our daughter’s first friends at the village.

“We didn’t have any PT period today,” he replied glumly.

“Oh, tell me what games did you play during the class hours?”
“I don’t play any games inside the class…I listen to the teachers”

That made my next question, which was the original intention anyway, easier to shoot.
“So, what did you study at school today?”
“An English poem,” he answered.
“I love poetry. Whose poem was it?”
“Do you remember any line from the poem?”
“No, I have to see the text book,” the boy was getting jittery.
“Ok , tell me any one word from the poem,” I persisted for a bit more.
“Do you know what the poem was about?”
“…,” the whiteness of his two large front upper teeth flashed through the uncomfortable smile.
“Does your teacher explain the poem in English or Tamil?”
I was surprised.
“Do you understand English?”
“No,” the answer came promptly.
“Get me your book tomorrow. I will teach the poem in Tamil.”
He seemed happy.
“Did you read the book that I gave you? Did you understand the stories?” We had presented him with a Tamil story book for his ear-piercing ceremony, held last week.
“Yes,” he cheered up.

Now, his sister chipped in, with some strange actions with her hands:”We didn’t have our regular classes today. They taught us words s*ell.”

I heard it as smell. It didn’t make sense, obviously.
“ka-a-tch. Catch,” she droned with the typical phonics sounds. Oh, she meant ‘spell’.
“Did they teach you spelling? How do you spell catch?”
I spent sometime guiding her through “t’, ‘tch’ and ‘catch’.
“Anna, what is the meaning of ‘little’?” she spurted out suddenly.
“Little means ‘kutty’.”
“Yes. Can you now tell me what is the meaning of little girl?”
“No, little girl.”
“Little means kutty. Girl means ponnu. What does a ‘little girl’ mean? You just have to join the two words,” I repeated in a variety of ways to no avail. Her brother also didn’t have an answer.

“Don’t be shy. Tell the answer boldly,” their father said. He is unlettered but has an extensive knowledge about farming. He is the village priest at a local temple and tills the temple lands. When I had asked him, a couple of hours earlier, if he intended to continue with the education of his children, he had replied in a firm affirmative. I looked at him hopefully.

“Payyannu sollumaa (Say, it is a boy),” he said, feigning confidence.

“No, no. Little girl means kutti ponnu. Now tell me, what does a ‘little boy’ mean?”

After a few more errors, they arrived at kutti paiyan. Then we moved on to little dog, little cat. Finally, they seemed to have got a hang of little-something and rushed happily across the river – dry but for a small stream, overflowing from the check dam.

Thankfully, both these kids are still studying in Tamil medium. I shudder to think of the day when their schools will also be converted to English medium. English is certainly compounding the problems but the problem is not merely with English. We are faced with an entire educational system that alienates the rural children from their surroundings and knowledge systems. More needs to be written on this (and done about this).

But, for now, we, the English speaking elite, can go on belaboring about how we want our kids to compete with these children on a so-called ‘equal footing’ in a ‘meritocratic system’.

A close shave
I had gone to a barber’s shop, new to me, early in the morning. After a short wait, as the scissors started cutting off my over-two-month long unkempt hair, the unbearable stink of liquor from the barber pervaded my nose and thoughts. With a scissor and knife over my head, I meekly, but wisely, shut my eyes and mouth, and stayed quiet till it was over. Then I asked him, when did he have his ‘cutting’ – so early in the morning, or through the night?
He said something on the lines of ‘mind your business, and go away’.
“Go away, I shall. But don’t you want me to come back?” I murmured. He went off to get some change for the hundred rupee note that I offered.

The shop owner, who had just walked in, told me that it was habitual for this guy to drink at 4am. He was putting up with him, since he was a talented worker. But he was looking for a replacement.

The drunk barber returned with the change. I confronted him with some questions and unsolicited advice, “Give it up, anna. You can’t afford to get drunk in this work.”

He said, “Don’t worry, I have 25 years of service (in drinking and cutting).”

“But I don’t have any service. I could hardly resist throwing up.”
Cars and compromises
An essay in the Economic and Political Weekly, dated 1-Aug-2015, was about ‘Car Credo’.  The essay made an important point:  “Countries—including many in the developing world—are now learning that discouraging cars, narrowing roads, improving public transport and reserving road spaces for buses, and building more pavements for pedestrians foster healthy and more equitable living. We in India are doing exactly the opposite.”
I completely support this view of EPW, and it pushed me to introspect on my own compromises.
We still own an 8-year old car (earned during my corporate life) – and not without a few pangs of guilt, and dilemma. I must also say that we walk when we can, take a bus if it is longer, and take out the car only if we must (and mostly, if I am not alone), after a lot of calculation and ‘convincing ourselves that this is the best of the feasible alternatives’. We have stopped using the AC on the car…our daughter has learnt to insist on it. In fact, it has stopped functioning now, thanks to non-use. Since, we have the car anyway, and it doesn’t make ‘economic sense’ to sell it, we do envision a few ‘essential’ occasional uses for it. But I, definitely, don’t need high-speed, multi-lane highways. I shall be happy to drive slower on narrower roads, with trees, shade and pavements on both sides. And I look forward to the day, when I could be a lesser hypocrite.
Degrees of despair
It was depressing and satisfying at the same time.
I was on a truck, with 6 mason workers – in their early twenties, who had come from Dharmapuri to demolish a century-old house near Coimbatore. They were doing real hard physical labour. They had started the day at 5 am, after sleeping on the street at night. We had some tea on the way to the village, where we were taking the remains of the house. The truck got stuck in the mud, dampened by showers at night. We blamed it on the inexperience of the driver. We had to wait for the tractor to come and clear the load in multiple trips. Work that we had expected to get over by 8 or 9, went on till noon. With no access to food in the vicinity. Some unripe guavas on the tree saved the day for a while. I felt cruel to preside over this but their priority was to finish the work and head back for more.

I came to know that most of them were diploma holders in civil or mechanical engineering. Almost all of them also held farm land, of even over 10 acres. They said, thanks to bad rains and failure of crops, they were now travelling all over Tamilnadu, doing any work that comes their way. Their next stop was Karaikkal.

I said it was good to see them not sit at home waiting for a suitable job.

In no time, the sharp reply was shot at me: “We can’t afford the luxury of sitting at home.”

Then I heard the cleaner telling them: ‘The driver keeps reading endlessly. He has already completed 4 degrees.’

None of us asked what degrees. Somehow it seemed superfluous.
“Four degrees? Why are you driving this?” one of them asked.
“I have to eat, no?”
To be horrified by the picture of that Syrian child
on a distant shore
was regulation horror.
What do I do to that haunting look of the lonely lady
sitting amidst the ruins of her erstwhile house
with the calendars and photos
on the undemolished wall behind her,
and the JCB doing its thing to the next house,
and well dressed officers watching over,
with the uniformed policemen protecting them.
Roads, yes, we need broad roads,
to zip along and slip past such haunting looks.

2 Responses to The road to hell is paved with felled trees

  1. Aadhira says:

    I’m blogging two extracts from these on my blog soon.. Wonderful writing style.. 🙂

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