Three Thousand Stitches, p.1Sudha Murty
THREE THOUSAND STITCHES
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives
1. Three Thousand Stitches
2. How to Beat the Boys
3. Food for Thought
4. Three Handfuls of Water
5. Cattle Class
6. A Life Unwritten
7. No Place Like Home
8. A Powerful Ambassador
9. Rasleela and the Swimming Pool
10. A Day in Infosys Foundation
11. I Can’t, We Can
THREE THOUSAND STITCHES
Sudha Murty was born in 1950 in Shiggaon, north Karnataka. She did her MTech in computer science, and is now the chairperson of the Infosys Foundation. A prolific writer in English and Kannada, she has written novels, technical books, travelogues, collections of short stories and non-fictional pieces, and four books for children. Her books have been translated into all the major Indian languages. Sudha Murty was the recipient of the R.K. Narayan Award for Literature and the Padma Shri in 2006, and the Attimabbe Award from the government of Karnataka for excellence in Kannada literature, in 2011.
By the Same Author
Gently Falls the Bakula
House of Cards
The Mother I Never Knew
Wise and Otherwise
The Old Man and His God
The Day I Stopped Drinking Milk
Something Happened on the Way to Heaven: Twenty Inspiring Real-Life Stories (Ed.)
How I Taught My Grandmother to Read and Other Stories
The Magic Drum and Other Favourite Stories
The Bird with Golden Wings: Stories of Wit and Magic
Grandma’s Bag of Stories
The Serpent’s Revenge: Unusual Tales from the Mahabharata
The Magic of the Lost Temple
To T.J.S. George,
who gave me my first break to write in English
I often get letters from students and parents telling me how beneficial my books have been for them and their children. I want to thank them and all those who have exposed me to different facets of life, filling my pot of learning with knowledge and experience. This includes the young men and women who have shown me how they put aside their bitter experiences to move forward in life with joy and hope.
There are some who feel that most of my writing is fiction, but my life has unmistakably proven to be stranger than that.
Fifteen years ago, renowned journalist T.J.S. George asked me to write a weekly column for the New Indian Express. I was hesitant at first—all because I was educated in a Kannada-medium school till the tenth grade. It was only natural then that I was more comfortable with Kannada than English. George said to me, ‘A language is but a vehicle. It’s the person inside who’s weaving the story that’s more important. You are a storyteller. So just get on with your story and the language will fall into place.’
And so began my journey in English. I am what I am today as an English author because of George. He gave me the title of my first book, Wise and Otherwise, and wrote the foreword too. His foresight and encouragement catapulted me from a hesitant writer to a widely read author.
I often dream about the world being filled with many Georges who will come forward to support such writers and encourage them to experiment and explore their potential.
I want to thank my young and bright editor, Shrutkeerti Khurana, and also Udayan Mitra and Meru Gokhale for bringing out this book.
Three Thousand Stitches
We set up the Infosys Foundation in 1996. Unfortunately, I knew precious little of how things worked in a non-profit organization. I knew more about software, management, programming and tackling software bugs. Examinations, mark sheets and deadlines occupied most of my days. The concept behind the foundation was that it must make a difference to the common man—bahujan hitaya, bahujan sukhaya—it must provide compassionate aid regardless of caste, creed, language or religion.
As we pondered over the issues before us—malnutrition, education, rural development, self-sufficiency, access to medicine, cultural activities and the revival of the arts, among others—there was one issue that occupied my uppermost thoughts—the devadasi tradition that was pervasive throughout India.
The word devadasi means ‘servant of the Lord’. Traditionally, devadasis were musicians and dancers who practised their craft in temples to please the gods. They had a high status in society. We can see the evidence of it in the caves of Badami, as well as in stories like that of the devadasi Vinapodi, who was very dear to the ruling king of the Chalukya dynasty between the sixth and seventh century in northern Karnataka. The king donated enormous sums of money to temples. However, as time went by, the temples were destroyed and the tradition of the devadasis fell into the wrong hands. Young girls were initially dedicated to the worship and service of a deity or a temple in good faith, but eventually, the word devadasi became synonymous with sex worker. Some were born into the life, while others were ‘sacrificed’ to the temples by their parents due to various reasons, or simply because they caught a hair infection like the ringworm of the scalp, assumed to be indicative that the girl was destined to be a devadasi.
As I thought about their plight, I recalled my visit to the Yellamma Gudda (or Renuka temple) in the Belgaum district of Karnataka years ago. I remembered their green saris and bangles, the smears of yellow bhandara (a coarse turmeric powder) and their thick, long hair as they entered the temple with goddess masks, coconuts, neem leaves and a kalash (a metal pot). ‘Why can’t I tackle this problem?’ I wondered. I didn’t realize then that I was choosing one of the most difficult tasks for our very first project.
With innocence and bubbling enthusiasm, I chose a place in northern Karnataka where the practice was rampant and prostitution was carried on in the name of religion. My plan was to talk to the devadasis and write down their concerns to help me understand their predicament, followed by organizing a few discussions targeted towards solving their problems within a few months.
On my first day in the district, I armed myself with a notebook and pen and set out. I dressed simply, with no jewellery or bindi. I wore a pair of jeans, T-shirt and a cap. After some time, I found a group of devadasis sitting below a tree near a temple. They were chatting and removing lice from each other’s hair.
Without thinking, I went up to them, interrupting their conversation. ‘Namaskaram, Amma. I’ve come here to help you. Tell me your problems and I’ll write them down.’
They must have been discussing something important because the women gave me a dirty look. They lobbed questions at me with increasing ferocity.
‘Who are you? Did we invite you here?’
‘Have you come to write about us? In that case, we don’t want to talk to you.’
‘Are you an officer? Or a minister? If we tell you our problems, how will you solve them?’
‘Go away. Go back to where you came from.’
I did not move. In fact, I persisted. ‘I want to help you. Please listen to me. Are you aware that there is a dangerous illness called AIDS that you could be exposed to? There is no cure for . . .’
‘Just go,’ one of them snapped. I glanced at their faces. They were furious.
But I did not leave. ‘Maybe they need a little convincing,’ I thought.
Without warning, one of them stood up, took off her chappal and threw it at me. ‘Can’t you u
Insulted and humiliated, I felt my tears threatening to spill over. I turned back and fled.
Upon returning home, with the insult fresh on my mind, I told myself, ‘I won’t go there again.’
However, a few days later, it occurred to me that the women were probably upset about something else and that maybe I had simply chosen the wrong time and date to visit them.
So after another week, I went there again. This visit took place during the tomato harvest. The devadasi women were happily distributing small, oval-shaped bright red tomatoes to each other from the baskets kept near them. I approached them and smiled pleasantly. ‘Hello, I’ve come to meet you again! Please hear me out. I really, really want to help you.’
They laughed at me. ‘We don’t need your help. But would you like to buy some tomatoes?’
‘No, I am not very fond of tomatoes.’
‘What kind of a woman are you? Who doesn’t like tomatoes?’
I attempted to engage them once more, ‘Have you heard of AIDS? You must know that the government is spending a lot of money on increasing awareness about it.’
‘Are you a government agent? Or maybe you belong to a political party. How much commission are you getting to do this? Come on, tell us! We don’t even have a proper hospital in this area and here you are, trying to educate us about a scary disease. We don’t need your help. Our goddess will help us in difficult times.’
I stood dumbfounded, struggling to find words.
One of the women said decisively, ‘This lady must be a journalist. That’s why she has a pen and paper. She’ll write about us and make money by exploiting us.’ Upon hearing this, the others started throwing tomatoes at me.
This time, my emotions overpowered me and I started to cry. Sobbing, I fled from there once again.
I was in despair. ‘Why should I work on this project? Why do they keep insulting me? Where else do the beneficiaries humiliate the person working for their well-being? I am not a good fit for this field. Yes, I should resign and go back to my academic career. The foundation can choose a different trustee.’
When I reached home, I sat down to compose a resignation letter.
My father came down the stairs and seeing me busy with my head bent close to the paper, he asked, ‘What are you writing so frantically?’
I narrated the entire episode to him.
To my amazement, rather than sympathizing with me, my father chuckled and said, ‘I didn’t know that you were so impractical.’
I stared at him in anger.
He took an ice cream from the fridge and forced me to sit down and eat it. ‘It’ll cool your head,’ he said and smiled. After a few minutes, he said, ‘Please remember. Prostitution has existed in society since ancient times and has become an integral part of life. It is one of the root problems of all civilizations. Many kings and saints have tried to eliminate it but no law or punishment has been successful in bringing it down to zero. Not one nation in the world is free of this. Then how can you change the entire system by yourself? You’re just an ordinary woman! What you should do is reduce your expectations and lower your goal. For instance, try to help ten devadasis leave their profession. Rehabilitate them and show them what it means to lead a normal life. This will guarantee that their children will not follow in their footsteps. Make that your aim, and the day you accomplish it, I will feel very proud knowing that I gave birth to a daughter who helped ten helpless women make the most difficult transition from being sex workers to independent women.’
‘But they threw chappals and tomatoes at me, Kaka,’ I whined petulantly. I always called my father ‘Kaka’.
‘Actually, you got a promotion today—from chappals to tomatoes. If you pursue this and go there a third time, maybe you’ll get something even better!’ His joke brought a reluctant smile to my face.
‘They won’t even talk to me. Then how can I work for them?’
‘Look at yourself,’ my father said, dragging me in front of the nearest mirror. ‘You are casually dressed in a T-shirt, a pair of jeans and a cap. This may be your style, but the common man and a rural Indian woman like the devadasi will never connect or identify with you. If you wear a sari, a mangalsutra, put on a bindi and tie your hair, I’m sure that they will receive you much better than before. I’ll also come with you. An old man like me will be of great help to you in such an adventure.’
I protested, ‘I don’t want to alter my appearance for their sake. I don’t believe in such superficial changes.’
‘Well, if you want to change them, then you have to change yourself first. Change your attitude. Of course, it’s your decision in the end.’
He left me in front of the mirror and walked away.
My parents had never thrust their choices or beliefs on me or any of my siblings, whether it was about education, profession or marriage. They always gave their advice and helped us if we wanted, but I made all the choices.
For a few days, I was confused. I thought about the skills needed for social work. There was no glamour or money in this profession and I could not behave like an executive in a corporate house. I required language skills, of which English may not be needed at all! I should be able to sit down on the floor and eat the local food, no matter where I travelled for work. I had to listen patiently, and most of all, I should love the work I did. What would give me higher satisfaction—keeping my external appearance the way it was or the work that I would do?
After some introspection, I decided to change my appearance and concentrate completely on the work.
Before my next visit, I pulled my hair back, tied it and adorned it with flowers. I wore a two-hundred-rupee sari, a big bindi, a mangalsutra and glass bangles. I transformed myself into the ‘bharatiya nari’, the stereotypical traditional Indian woman, and took my father along with me to meet the devadasis.
This time, when we went there, upon seeing my aged father, they said, ‘Namaste.’
My father introduced me. ‘This is my daughter and she is a teacher. She has come here on a holiday. I told her how difficult your lives are. Your children are the reason for your existence and you want to educate them irrespective of what happens to your health, am I right?’
They replied in unison, ‘Yes, sir!’
‘Since my daughter is a teacher, she can guide you with your children’s education and help them find better jobs. She’ll give you information about some scholarships which you may not be aware of and help your kids with it so that your financial burden may be reduced. Is that okay with you? If not, it’s all right. She’ll go to some other village and try to help the people there. Please don’t feel pressured. Think about it and get back to us. We’ll be back in ten minutes.’
Grasping my hand tightly, he pulled me a short distance away.
‘Why did you say all that?’ I asked. ‘You should have first told them about things like the dangers of AIDS.’
‘Don’t be foolish. We will tell them about it some other time. If you start with something negative, then nobody will like it. The first introduction should always be positive and bring real hope to the beneficiary. And just like I’ve promised them, you must help their children get scholarships first. Work on AIDS later.’
‘And why did you tell them I’m a teacher, Kaka?’ I demanded. ‘You could have said I was a social worker.’
My father offered a calm rebuttal. ‘They consider teaching to be one of the most respectable jobs and you are a professor, aren’t you?’
I nodded reluctantly, still unsure of his strategy.
When we went back, the women were ready to listen. They called me akka or ‘elder sister’ in Kannada.
So I started working with them to help their children secure the promised scholarships. Some of these children even started going to college within a year. Only after this happened did I bring up the subject of AIDS, and this time, they heard me out. Months went by. It took me almost three years to establish a relations
Innocent girls had been sold into the trade by their husbands, brothers, fathers, boyfriends, uncles or other relatives. Some entered the sex trade on their own hoping to earn some money for their families and help future generations escape poverty. Still others were lured into it with the promise of a real job, only to find themselves tricked to work as sex workers. Hearing their stories, there were moments when I couldn’t hide my tears, yet they were the ones who held my hand and consoled me! Each story was different but the end was the same—they all suffered at the hands of a society that exploited them and filled them with guilt and shame as a final insult.
I realized that simply donating money would not bolster their confidence or build their self-esteem. The best solution I could think of was to unite them towards a common goal by helping them build their own organization. The state government of Karnataka had many good policies that encouraged housing, marriage schemes and scholarships, but if we started an association or a union exclusively for the devadasis, they could address each other’s problems. In time, they would become bold and independent, learning to organize themselves in the process.
Thus, an organization for the devadasis was formed. I believe that God cannot be present everywhere at once and, in return, he sends people to do his work. Abhay Kumar, a kind-hearted and idealistic young man from Delhi, joined us unexpectedly. He wanted to work with me and so I decided to give him the toughest job in order to test his passion for social work. I told Abhay, ‘If you work with the devadasis for eight months and survive, I’ll think about absorbing you into the project full-time.’
As promised, he did not show up for eight months, and then one day, he confidently strolled into my office, a little thinner, but grinning from ear to ear.
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