I walked out of the craft bazaar at Tilonia village, where the engine of the bus was humming unbothered in the oppressive heat of Rajasthan. A young boy of around eight years of age was leaning his light frame against the sky-blue pole of the signboard that read,
With the imitative muscle memory of adults having done the same for me in Bhutan, I reached for my pocket and pulled out two ten-rupee notes which I had received as change after buying a shirt and a wall decor. I handed it to the kid and said, “Here’s something for you and your friend over there (as I pointed to the other boy looking at our exchange) to buy some mithaiyaan (trans. sweets)”. He refused, as an innocent smile coloured his entire face. Assuming he was shy, I took his hands and shoved the money into his hands and made my way up the stairs on the bus to find my seat. It was barely three seconds when my Sri Lankan friend, Rishad, tapped my shoulder from behind and told me, “The kid just left the money on the steps”. Surprised at this, I paced back to the door where I found the two ten-rupee notes lying lightly crumpled and rejected on the floor. I looked for the boys but they were long gone. As my other friends got on the bus and we started moving, I was consumed by what had just transpired.
Tilonia is a small town in Rajasthan, about 7 hours of bum-flattening bus ride from Delhi as the landscape gradually takes the shape of Gandhi – austere, resourceful, minimal and self-reliant. And just like Gandhi, if one focuses too much on its brown, earthen, arid exterior, one is at the danger of driving straight through it thinking nothing much of it. Tilonia seems okay with such transient passengers as well – in the words of one of its most important inhabitants, Mr. Bunker Roy, “We have thrived and existed long before the internet and social media ever came into existence. Why do we need to prove to anyone else that we are here?”
In Tilonia, through the Barefoot college (set up by Bunker Roy in 1972), one comes to experience what thinkers of the west calls ‘naive idealism’, actually working in practice! Illiterate elder women run and hold 6-month long trainings for other illiterate Asian and African women to become solar engineers. Only two things remain in common: their mutual inability to understand a single word from each other, and the universal language of colours and pictures to understand wiring and engineering concepts. These women, loving called ‘solar mamas’ have gone back to their villages and electrified their villages and homes. Till date, 1,700+ solar mamas have been trained who have electrified around 75,000 households.
Other illiterate women work in simple factory to produce sanitary pads. They cut the pads into uniform shapes using a sharp metallic mould on some days. Other days, they cut through the stigma and gender inequality by carrying out educational awareness campaigns on menstrual health and hygiene in the surrounding villages. One of the women told us how women were sent to sleep in animal sheds during their periods in the past.
Walk into a small two-room adobe house and you find a man in a pink pagari (Rajasthani headgear) explaining how they connect the grassroots people to the local government officials. They bridge the gap between local realities and bureaucracy by surveying issues related to administrative processes, land issues, Aadhar card issues, etc. One of my friends, Alvi from Bangladesh asks, “So legally, how do you exist?” The man replies with the simplicity characteristic of Tilonia, “The villagers trust us. Our social capital ensures our purpose and role”.
The entry into their ‘art studio’ is an entry into one’s childhood, as one is greeted by an awesomely colourful retinue of puppets! Drawing the lineage of puppetry proudly to 400 years ago, a middle aged man resurrects one of the puppets, Jokim Chacha, who comes alive and speaks to us about water issues and need to improve literacy. A lady puppet is known for bringing up the need to ensure equality in minimum wage. Another male puppet is known for having built the entire Barefoot college campus. Tilonians skilfully utilise puppets to critique their own society as well.
FRAGMENTS OF WISDOM
As the sunset rays penetrated the large windows of the circular hall, we were in quiet conversation with the founder of the Barefoot college, who was inspired by the Bihar famine of 1965 to work
for with the rural poor of India. I jotted down in bullet points, whenever I felt it was worth writing it down. Here are my notes:
Towards the end, I asked him a simple question, “Is it possible to decentralise an urban area?”
Bunker replied, “Fix the problem at its roots. Reverse the migration. Let villagers live with dignity in their villages. Create jobs for them”
HOW MUCH DOES DIGNITY COST?
Definitely not ten rupees; not that I was trying to ‘buy’ the kid’s dignity by my unthinking gesture of giving him ten rupees. However, in his defiant act of not accepting the money, he inspired me to think of my own country and our culture – which is one of ‘freebies’ at best and nepotistic favour-trading at its worst form. On the bus back to Delhi, I couldn’t help but see its connections with our future political direction, a mindset of entitlements at a massive societal level, a willing prostituting of our dignity, a transactionally-based foundation for relationships, the ‘choosing of’ the easy way out of hardships.