I’ve been meaning to write this post since the discussion on tribal people a few posts earlier. I finally got around to writing it today!
These events took place many years ago- around 1976-77. I was not at home at the time, I was away at college, living in a hostel. My mother wrote to me, telling me about this.
Our home was in a small town here in Maharashtra. We also owned a small plot of land some two-three miles out of town. Some Mango trees grew there. Every year my father hired someone from the Katkari (tribal) community to guard the trees during Mango season. This was usually from March to June.
For the past couple of years a man named Vitthya and his wife had come to do this job. That year too, they built a small Zopdi under one of the trees and started living there. My father noticed that their two young boys were not with them. Vitthya told him that they had sent the boys to live at a Catholic Ashram School .
A few days later when my father went there he noticed that Vitthya and his wife were very upset. Their children had come home the previous day. The boys had told them that they would not be allowed to come home again and they had been allowed to come for a couple of days to say goodbye.
Vitthya and his wife did not like this and did not want to send the boys back. My father asked them what the problem was then. If they didn’t want to send them back, then they needn’t. The parents were almost in tears, but kept insisting that they had to send the children back. My father could not understand this, and became quite exasperated.
When my father narrated all this to my mother, she decided to go and meet Vitthya and his wife. And the next day she did. Having the knack of getting people to talk, my mother soon found out what the problem was.
It seemed that a few days after the boys arrived at the Ashram school, the Sisters had put a chain with a cross on it around each of the boys’ necks. They had told the boys that this meant they had now become Christians. And if they took off the chains with the cross, something bad would happen to them.
Vitthya and his wife had believed all this and they thought that since the boys were now-as they thought- Christians, they were not allowed to stay with them. They thought they had to send them back to the school. By the time they told my mother all this, Vitthya’s wife was crying and asking her for advice.
My mother told her that if they did not want to send the boys to the school, they did not have to. But they were Christians now, they told her, they are not allowed to stay with us.
She thought for a bit, then told them to take off the chains and crosses, then they would no longer be Christians. The boys were scared to take them off- they had been told something bad would happen to them. The parents were scared for the same reason.
Finally my mother said that she would take them off- if anything bad happened, it would happen to her. And she did just that. Vitthya and his wife were very grateful and thanked my mother repeatedly.
But there still was the problem of the boys’ schooling. The local Zilla Parishad school was not very good- only one teacher, and even he was absent for most of the time. That was why the boys had been sent off to the Ashram school in the first place. So my mother solved that problem, too.
For the next two-three years Sitaram and his younger brother Raja, around eight and six years old, came to my parents’ house to study every morning.
After a while some other children from the Katkari community started coming, too. On any given day there were around five-six students in my mother’s ‘class’.
Some of the children came for six months, some for a year. Sitaram and Raja came every day, though.
Some of the mothers came to town in the mornings to sell bundles of wood. The children would come with them.
The children studied till twelve-thirty or one o’clock, then my mother would serve them a simple lunch, rice and dal. And the parents would take turns collecting them and taking them home.
I got to know these children when I came home for the vacations. My mother would frequently delegate the job of teaching the children to me and enjoy a well deserved rest.
One thing I never got used to was that the children thought nothing of taking whatever caught their eye. The problem was that they simply did not think of this as stealing.
When it was time for them to go home every afternoon, My mother used to make each one of them turn out their pockets and give back whatever they had taken. It would never be anything costly, just a handkerchief or a small toy or some coloured paper.
One day I noticed that the strap of my watch, which I had kept on the dresser, was gone. One of the boys had had his eye on my watch for a couple of days. It was a present from an uncle and had a very colourful strap, just the type to appeal to the children.
We found the strap in the pocket of one of the boys. I made him give it back, but I had to smile. He had taken the inexpensive strap but had left the watch which was more costly!
My mother had an arrangement with the ZP school, and the children were allowed to sit for exams in the school and were given passing certificates. In those days that was possible.
A couple of the children managed to pass the fourth standard exams and went on to attend high school in our town. We were all very proud of them.
Raja was not very interested in studies and did not complete primary school. Sitaram was pretty intelligent, though, and he passed his seventh standard examination and then went as an apprentice to a mason in a town some distance away. That was a huge achievement for someone from his community.
Years later Sitaram moved back to the area- to a village not far from our town, and used to come occasionally to visit with my parents. My mother told me that he had several times expressed a wish to meet me again. I was busy with various activities at the time and couldn’t go immediately. But after a few months I decided to go to his village.
One Saturday afternoon, my mother and I reached the village, and came to Sitaram’s house.. He was overjoyed to see us. He introduced me to his wife. He called his two children, who were playing outside, to come in the house.
I noticed that there was a television in the living room. I was surprised that the children were not watching the movie. (There used to be a Marathi movie on DD every Saturday afternoon.) So I asked him about this.
He smiled and said “Manjutai, don’t you remember, Bai (my mother) always told us that Saturday afternoons were for playing outside. That’s what I tell my children, too.”
[Names of the persons in this story have been changed, the events have been narrated as they actually happened]