People travel for many reasons. While 90% of the travels are based on bucket lists and a report card exercise, there are those 10% travels that happen for a purpose. Foodies travel searching for food, photographers travel searching for capturing unique memories and so on. I travel to meet people. As I explore places and wander around, I try and meet locals and collect stories from that place. Stories fascinate me and my most inspiring stories come from the streets.
India with it diverse spread and a thriving rural locations is a hidden treasure. India’s rural offers many choices for travel ranging from food, historical places, natural beauty and also a very diverse culture. Once, I happened to travel to a a small rural village in India near Madurai, a place with 50 streets in total and mostly living out of farming and agriculture. The place is also famous for some temples, that attracts a lot of tourists around.
As I was wandering around, I saw a mother-daughter duo trying really hard in a very busy market to sell a big spread of vegetables, legumes etc. That was the farmers market where locals sell their produce to families. Just next to the vegetables, there was also a very small spread of books — they can be counted with fingers in hand — roughly around 7–8. As the mother was trying to attract customers to buy vegetables, the little one was trying to sell books to younger kids. I was fascinated. Books in a small town village? Who is going to buy them and who is going to read them?
I sat next to the little girl and started talking to her. The first expression on her face was a very big smile. She thought I was going to buy her books but then I wanted to understand why she was selling books in such an odd place as the vegetable market. It turns out her father makes money driving the Indian 3 wheeler auto rickshaw, and her mom works in a fields in the day time and 3 days a week they also put this additional shop to make money. She has an elder brother, who is in high school. Both of them go to a government funded school and she was in 7th grade.
Her day begins at 5 am in the morning, along with her mom. The duo help each other cook, clean the house before they head out for their respective duties. After coming back, she is sent to fetch water from a lorry that supplies water — a couple of shuttles back and forth the home to fill their water needs. Then she pursues her homework while her mother cooks dinner for the family, washes all their clothes and the house goes to sleep. Her brother, usually goes to play with his friends in the evening or goes to tuition, his board exams approaching. Like typical Indian households he is not involved in the household chores.
There are days, though, when her papa comes very angry and drunk, home. Those could possibly be days he has had no luck getting passengers for his auto. Those days, it is guaranteed that there is a big ruckus and fight between the two parents. It usually ends up with father beating the mom and extracting all the money that they have made in that week thus far. The story pinched my heart to its bottom. But this is nothing new, this is the household story of every other family in the most under developed regions of India. The next day the family continues as usual as if nothing happened.
This was our conversation:
S : What is your name?
M: Manju — Manjula.
S: What do you want to become in life?
M: I want to be a writer.
S: Why do you want to be a writer?
M: Because I love books and I love reading and writing
S: Do people buy them here?
M: Yes, I sell 1–2 books every time by talking to parents to buy for their kids
S: Why are you selling books?
M: Because books are our best friends and we can learn a lot from them
S: Who told you so?
M: My teacher in school
S: What will you write about?
M: I will write that men should not hit women and everybody should be treated equal and fair
S: Do you write now?
M: Yes, I write essays that my teacher asks me to. I also go for speech competitions in school
S: What else will you do?
M: I will also speak in public forums, because I like to talk
S: What do you do with the money you make from selling these books?
M: Buy books for the next sale
S: Do you make any money for yourself?
M: Not much.
Here is this girl, simply rotating books from sellers to buyers and making absolutely no money in the process and she was totally worry-free about it. I was very intrigued that her focus was not on making money but in spreading books for other children, she being poor herself.
So I spoke to her more.
S: Don’t you want to make money for yourself?
M: No, after I study and go to college, I will write, work in more than one job and make money.
S: So why are you doing this now?
M: Because I want all other kids to read and help buy books for cheap
S: Why do you want kids to read?
M: Because if everyone reads enough, they will be knowledgeable and they will not go through the pain my mother goes through. My mom did not study well, that is why she is suffering like this.
Wow. Here is a mini Michelle Obama talking about education and knowledge.
Then I asked her this — does she ever get angry with her dad? I know it was kind of invading into her privacy but she told me with giggles and compassion:
I get very angry with my dad but I also feel very sorry for him. If he had good education and brought up well, he would not be behaving like this. He is very upset, he is not making enough money and he does not know how to make more money. And he has not been brought up in a manner that he will exhibit his anger well. We should forgive him and continue to do what we have to do. This is what my mom has taught me and so we really don’t get angry with him. We need to be kind. My mom has told me that I need be well educated and help everyone, as much as I can so this type of violence stops. And one day my father will stop being so bad if we continue to be kind to him.
Really? The humbleness with which she spoke about her current situation, her uneducated parents, yet the big vision with no hatred or angst humbled me too. Everyone goes through shit. No one spared. But when we look at the situation with a big ego, without humility, angst and anger sets in and we get dragged into a whole different rathole. The rathole of looking at this with self-pity, helplessness and a victim mindset. But the girl looked beyond her current situation to go and help others to not to go through the same experience. She believed that education and reading were the key paths to that. And she was doing that selflessly, all other chores in her life notwithstanding. I have her a hug, bought all her books and returned with a wonderful memory.
What girl demonstrated is leadership. That is human. That is kindness blossoming in full form. Leaders seem to unilaterally spring from suffering, pain and going through a humbling process because of that exact pain. Her mom might have been a big influence in her thinking, but she was worthy enough to absorb and radiate that influence. And what more, she was not showing any animosity.
I am now carrying for myself a new mandate and a new definition of heroism: Humble, Kindness and the courage to be ego free and think beyond the self for the larger good. Thank you Manjula.