(All proceeds from the sale of The Color of Freedomgo to support environmental, community development, and child development projects in South India – www.friendsoflafti.org)
Introduction to The Color of Freedom
by Laura Coppo
edited with an introduction and notes by David H. Albert
(Common Courage Press, 2005) It is stifling, but not unusually so, in a courtroom that is always stiflingly hot. Around the defense side of the courtroom, there are 112 lawyers, all in suits. The suits were tailored in light, elegant tropical worsted wool in the finest tailoring establishments in New Delhi, Mumbai (Bombay), Chennai (Madras), Hong Kong, Singapore, Los Angeles, New York. Seated around and in back of them are their assistants, usually younger, with tailoring not quite so formidable. Most of the rest of the courtroom is filled with representatives of their employers -- more than 100 Indian, other Asian, and multinational corporations -- in suits of the more expensive variety, and observers from the state and national governments and, more than likely, the World Bank, which has much at stake here. The trial hearing before the Supreme Court of India will go on for 20 days, for six hours each day, from 10:30 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. There will be many changes of suits, the combined value of which, taken together -- and including the cost of the uncomfortable shoes and ties which accompany them -- would likely feed the village of the petitioner for several years.
Among the hundreds people in the courtroom, there are only four around the petitioner’s table, including a relatively young lawyer plus his two legal assistants. The fourth, the petitioner, is there, an old man, seemingly taller than he actually is on account of a perfectly straight back and an almost aristocratic bearing. His face bears virtually no wrinkles other than some rather deep laugh lines around his mouth and his eyes, surprising perhaps, given that the petitioner can no longer count the number of times he has been imprisoned in his close-to-85 years. His limbs are strong and sinewy, betraying a former grace, but he moves more slowly now, as he suffers from a cataract in one eye, and glaucoma in both. He hears the proceedings with difficulty, as he has become deaf in one ear.
The petitioner may be the only comfortably dressed individual in the courtroom. He is not wearing a suit, but is dressed all in white. A dhoti, a piece of cloth one meter long and one and a half meters wide, is slung around his waist. His lightweight short-sleeve shirt, open at the neck, hangs loosely from his shoulders. Both the dhoti and shirt are made from cotton thread the petitioner spun himself and gave to the village weaver, as he has every piece of clothing he was worn on his body – when not traveling in colder climes – for more than 50 years. On his feet are backless leather sandals, with wooden soles.
The petitioner is asking for something extraordinary. He is demanding the closure of virtually every intensive prawn1 farming operation on the coast of southern India, and unspecified damages for the suffering they have caused. In doing so, he is essentially asking for an indictment of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, which recommended the projects; the World Bank that partially funded and promoted them; the Government of India that backed them; and the politicians and investors seeking a quick killing who got caught up in this latest ‘development’ craze. He is indicting the engines of multinational capitalism that have despoiled coastal lands from the Philippines to Ecuador, destroyed entire fisheries, and left millions of people without any means of earning a living. And he has indicted the consumers of Japan, Europe, and North America, who go into their supermarkets and purchase human misery, without any clue or interest really in what they are buying. He has a knack, by simply being who he is, of raising embarrassing question, the kinds most of us what would like to leave unasked, such as “What is the true cost of unbridled greed?”
The petitioner is engaged in a radical experiment with truth that has been, and will continue to be, his life, He has the strong beginnings of an answer to the questions he raises, whether there is someone listening or not. In the meantime, anyone who has followed the story of this old – or maybe not so old – man, and that of his wife, also knows that this is an unfair fight.
The suits will lose.
* * * * *
The challenge facing any biographer or oral historian is locating his or her subjects in time and space. In this particular case, the challenge of placing S. Jagannathan (the petitioner) and Krishnammal Jagannathan2 (whom I, the author Laura Coppo, and probably several hundred thousand other people know affectionately as “Appa” and “Amma”, “father” and “mother” in Tamil, their native language) is especially daunting. For anyone who confronts India at the beginning of the 21st Century, the first impression is of time and space that is almost totally fluid.
I think an image provided to me by an Indian friend encapsulates it best. There is an Indian nuclear power plant (one of 14), modeled perhaps on the same Soviet design as the one that exploded in Chernobyl. It operates almost error-free, the result of the efforts of some of the brightest and best-trained (as well as best-dressed) nuclear scientists and engineers in the world. During the day, barefoot chai wallahs in khaki shorts and shirts and wearing security badges go from room to room, dispensing overly sweet tea through a rubber hose from large metal samovars strapped to their backs. Lunch is brought in on bicycles, carried in tiffin pots (an especially ingenious piece of engineering, consisting of three stainless steel bowls, form-fitting, stacked one on top of the other and held together by a metal brace that doubles as a handle) on bicycle handlebars and racks, thousands of them, without a single error being made by the bicycle transporters, wearing plastic sandals and towels around their heads, regarding who gets what. Mistakes would be cause for great consternation, as more than half the staff is veg.3 All of a sudden, the monitors indicate a major incident is about to occur, and the sirens go off. But after hours of checking, no one can find anything wrong. Finally, workers, without any protective clothing -- which would be too hot to wear in any case -- are dispatched to enter the cooling vessel. They poke and prod at the reactor core with bamboo poles. It works! The gauges return to their normal settings. It seems that an unrestrained lizard was chewing through some of the gauge wires.4 The reality one confronts in thinking or writing about contemporary India is that virtually everything that can be said is true, but so is its opposite. It is a primarily rural country, but with some of the largest, most overcrowded, fastest-growing, and most polluted cities in the world. It is home to great poverty, as the shacks and shanties near the major railway stations attest, and also home to the world’s largest middle class – with perhaps the largest agglomeration of TV satellite dishes to be found anywhere on the planet. Modern buses and automobiles vie for position on major motorways with wooden carts, affixed with massive rubber truck tires, and pulled by highly decorated camels, if not lumbering water buffaloes, large flocks of sheep and goats crossing the roads at irregular intervals, and contentedly chewing cows lying down elbows akimbo in the middle of the black-top and acting as natural speed controls. It is a land filled with temples, holy sites, pilgrims, and more than its share of religious fanatics, and the first democratically elected avowedly atheist (Tamil Nadu, 1948) and Communist (Kerala, 1957) governments in the world. It is by far the world’s largest democracy, with some of the highest voter participation rates to be found anywhere, but with a single family ruling the country for most of it 50-year post-colonial history. It is self-sufficient in, and an exporter of, food grains, and has been for decades, but tens of millions of people are malnourished. It exports brainpower, trained at its best universities – it is hard to imagine either Silicon Valley or hospitals in American cities without Indian-trained professionals – but 600 million people are without clean drinking water. Major computer manufacturing facilities and international call centers grow up beside rice paddies; ten-year-olds rent out cell phones to illiterate villagers from within little straw huts especially constructed for that purpose. There is fertile land, and land that has been so covered with toxic chemicals leaching from rayon or chemical manufacturing plants – equipped with World Bank-financed effluent treatment devices -- that even the crows disdain it (but people continue to live there.)5 Internet cafes are located next to restaurants serving “Meals Ready” on banana leaves. Sadhus and sages and devotees with ten-inch needles passing through holes in both cheeks, untreated human waste flowing into holy rivers, auto rickshaws careening down overpasses, blue parrots sitting undisturbed in coconut palms, centuries-old music and dance forms competing, sometimes successfully, with the world’s largest movie industry, sacred cows, beef rendering plants, and a booming frogs-legs exporting business -- this is the testing ground for the new modernity, the natural (or not-so natural) and human landscape where our 77- and 90-year-old heroine and hero find themselves and call home.
* * * * *
If this description of present space-time is dizzying rather than orienting, the very longevity of our heroes’ lives, and the changes they have witnessed, is almost as difficult to hold in mind. Jagannathan was born in what is now Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state, in 1914, a year before Gandhi returned to India from South Africa. We think of Gandhi’s association with the spinning wheel, but when he began his struggles for Indian independence, British dominance of the country was so complete – and so brutal – that he couldn’t find a single working spinning wheel in the entire country. They had all been destroyed by the British to ensure a market for the English cloth-manufacturing industry. A vast land that had been completely self-sufficient in village-based cloth-making for centuries couldn’t supply a single one of its residents with a pair of home-made underwear, even if he could afford to wear any. British rule marked for India a descent into a new medievalism, marked by the fueling of religious divisions that plague India to this day. Prior to British rule, there hadn’t been a religious war in India for more than a thousand years. And so Jagannathan is born into a time when, as if in some primordial tale, his grandfather is killed, stuffed into a bag of salt, and pulled home by a team of bullocks that have never known another route.
The prime decades of struggle against British colonialism were also the formative years for our couple, and once having freed themselves from the shackles of family expectations, for them these were especially heady times. It was as if everything had become possible – freedom from British rule, yes, but also freedom from centuries of superstition, ignorance, discrimination, poverty. The omnipotence of youth, coupled with the attainment of independence from British rule without firing a shot, gave them and thousands like them the sense that absolutely anything was possible!
Nation-building was to begin at the bottom, not at the top, in the slums and villages, rather than in the capitals. Rooted in the example of Gandhi, but also in the long tradition of Indian and, specifically, Jain religious practice (from which Gandhi, though a Hindu, drew many of his principles and orientation6), the independence of the new nation was to be built upon the awakening and complete moral self-examination and scrupulousness of new and renewed men and women in the process of making and remaking themselves.
This nation-building, for Gandhi and, as we shall see, for our couple, was to draw upon many traditional Indian forms. First among these is the ashram, an intentional community where (at least in theory) people live and work together in harmony. Much in decline during the British years, the ashram was traditionally a place where a sage or scholar lived with his disciples to study the spiritual nature of being, to learn and share knowledge. Perhaps we in the west can best think of it as a cross between a medieval university and a religious retreat. But, as revivified by Gandhi, the ashram became a place where people could support themselves collectively by their own labor, take part in spiritual and religious practices, recollect themselves for social and political struggle, plot strategy, and ensure care for their children while they themselves engaged in other activities. They were, as the founder of Resurgence magazine Satish Kumar notes, “models of sustainable, convivial, frugal, ecological, self-reliant, and spiritual society.”7 The ashram provided a way for individuals to be in the world, but not of it. There is virtually no period during their adult lifetimes that Krishnammal and Jagannathan were not closely associated with ashram communities, often ones they physically built themselves.
A second traditional form, elevated to a high political art, was the padayatra, or consciousness-raising footmarch. Its greatest political manifestation during the pre-Independence period was of course Gandhi’s Salt March of 1930. The British greatly miscalculated in allowing the Salt March to go forward because of their failure to appreciate the role of the padayatra in Indian life (as well as their lack of the understanding of its potential impact on newly emerging world media.) For millennia, Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist holy men and novitiates would walk from village to village with begging bowls, gathering under a tree or on a verandah in the mornings and evenings to share their wisdom, retelling the stories of the traditional Indian epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and dispensing advice to the common folk on all aspects of village life. The padayatra also served as the main conduit by which the various religious sects communicated with their followers, and recruited to fill the ranks of their religious orders. Finally, the padayatra was one of the key methods by which a mendicant reinforces his or her commitment to non-attachment. When Krishnammal and Jagannathan engage in a padayatra, as they have done on scores of occasions, it would be a mistake to understand it as amounting to little more than a protest march, for it is understood by all to be so much more.
With Independence came both optimism, and a reality check. The country was now free, and the politicians took their homespun and Gandhi caps into government, but, for the vast majority of the population, little had changed, except there was no foreign ruler to blame. The traditional mal-distribution of land, later to be exacerbated by the U.S.-backed so-called ‘Green Revolution’, left hundreds of millions of people on the brink of starvation, open to political exploitation, but also to the quite sincere efforts of those who looked to the Maoist revolution in China as a model.
Into this breach stepped Vinoba Bhave and the Bhoodan (land-gift) and Gramdan (village-gift) movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Looking back at a global century of hate, war, and mass destruction on a scale unparalleled at any other time in human history (and, hopefully, never to be witnessed again), it seems difficult to believe that such movements ever happened, and our hero and heroine still look back upon this period of their lives with very real astonishment. Over the course of a decade, a small of Gandhian adherents fanned out over the country, and, in a kind of religious enthusiasm, collected four million acres of land for redistribution to the poorest of the poor. They had gone forth without a plan, other than walking, and, in places where their work was consolidated, brought forth changes in both village economic and social structures that were astounding.
Here again, we see the use of traditional forms being used for revolutionary purposes, in this case, ‘begging’. Only it was not begging as we know it in the West. The followers of traditional monastic sects for centuries had gone about with their begging bowls, but there were rules to be strictly observed. One goes where the doors are open, not closed. One accepts gifts only from those who give happily. The food to be accepted should not be specially prepared, but come out of that which is prepared for the family. And one is to fill one’s bowls from many places, never accepting more than a single person is able to be without.
Vinoba’s movement, in which Krishnammal and Jagannathan were intimately involved, built on these long-standing traditions. The idea was not to alienate the landlord from his gift, but to bring him into the larger embrace of the community. The movement depended first and foremost upon a transformation of the heart, a harnessing of the ‘divine spark’, so that the poor would simply be seen as members of the same extended family, as the Hindu proverbial sixth son with whom one’s belongings had to be shared. And often, much more often than the western rational mind would have cause to expect, it worked!
The Bhoodan movement was at once short-sighted and yet ahead of its time. It was forward-thinking in its notion of government as a mediator of interests and enforcer of social consensus, rather than as a leading institution of change. In the newly independent India of the 1950s, in the heady development of Five-Year Plans, and the proclamation of a new force of active neutrality in world affairs by Jawarharlal Nehru, this was a quite startling idea. As Vinoba was to say when he first heard the plea for land, “I have no land in my pockets, and I can’t bring land from Delhi.” The community itself had to be the locus of social and economic transformation, an understanding that was to stay with Krishnammal and Jagannathan throughout the rest of their lives.
However, the shortcomings of Bhoodan-Gramdan are just as obvious. While it was remarkably successful in organizing landlords to give of their lands, it was on the whole much less successful in organizing and empowering the poor in such a way as to make good use of it. This should not be seen as surprising. Virtually all of the followers of Vinoba – Krishnammal Jagannathan being a very notable exception, and with implications that will be discussed later – came from the upper castes, and were perhaps often more comfortable visiting with the wealthy and simply preaching to the poor as they walked on, rather than digging deep roots into the communities. Maybe even more salient, and with Jagannathan as a critical exception, the Bhoodan adherents neglected one of the key psychological lessons of the Independence movement itself: namely, that their own self-confidence was a result of personal transformations and empowerment which occurred for them as individuals as a result of the struggle itself. This route for the building of personal and political self-esteem, of new men and women -- a crucial element in the entire lifetime of struggles waged by our hero and heroine -- was almost entirely absent among the recipients of the land-gifts, and was only partially offset in the communal experiments of Gramdan that succeeded the land-gift phase, (Tamil Nadu being again a key exception). As a social-political force, by the end of his life the power of Vinoba was to tail off into saintly, sanskritic irrelevancy.
Virtually unique among the post-Independence Gandhians, Krishnammal and Jagannathan continued the use of satyagraha (“truth-force” or “truth-grasping”, Gandhi’s form of active nonviolent resistance) through the 1960s. But they too might have veered off into confining themselves to the constructive program or Gandhian institution-building if was not for an event that was to utterly transform their lives.
Krishnammal recollects her own dark forebodings, even as the event was transpiring: “On Christmas night in 1968, I was sitting by myself in Gandhigram. The moon was shining high in the sky. I could not sleep, and I kept on thinking about how humanity seems not to have understood the importance of Christ and his teachings.” That night, though as yet unknown to her, 44 women, children, and infants were being murdered by landlords and their henchmen in the village of Kilvenmani, some 200 kilometers from where Krishnammal and Jaganathan lived, a place where they had never been and knew no one, and which would transform what little remained of something bordering on a normal home life for the rest of their lives. Forty-three of them were burned alive; the forty-fourth -- a newborn -- was stabbed through the heart and was found pinioned to a tree by the knifeblade.
For Krishnammal, perhaps, this new phase was peculiarly one in which she was to take the lead. It was “a call from God”, she recalls, and although Jaganathan disapproved, his absence allowed her to move her (and, eventually, his) entire base of operations. To this day, Krishnammal says she remains committed by the reality that the souls of these murdered women and children now live inside her.
Those burned alive were dalits – variously called “untouchables”, “harijans” (“children of God”, a term coined by Gandhi, but now thought by many to be patronizing), pariahs. It is easy for an outsider to forget, or to not even notice, that India today is as divided by something akin to race as the United States would have been prior to 1950,and with roots even deeper. When westerners learn about India, they are almost always taught about the caste system, consisting of the brahmin or priestly caste, a warrior caste, a merchant caste, and a laboring class, conceived of in classical Hindu thought as the head, arms, torso, and feet of the body politic. What we are not taught is that the largest group of people has no caste at all, but are simply the mud upon which the other four castes heavily trod. When one speaks of the lack of safe drinking water, or electricity, or sanitation, or primary school enrollment, or illiteracy, or hunger and malnutrition, or lack of access to justice in India, one is primarily addressing the conditions of the more than 200 million dalits, the backbone of the nation’s unskilled workforce and, especially, its agrarian economy.
Krishnammal, herself born into a dalit family, and of whose hardships she speaks so eloquently in the text, illustrated this to me personally in 1990. She took me to a celebration in a village not far from Kilvenmani, where land had just been purchased from a landlord and distributed to the landless. She told of purchasing the land at a fair price, but insisting that the landlord throw in all the improvements to the land and, especially, his house, as part of the sale. That day, the formerly landless were taking possession of the house and turning it into a community center. What I never would have learned from a newspaper account of this event was the symbolic nature of the changeover. For centuries, the dalits had never been allowed even to walk on the road in front of this house, and the mere touch of a dalit’s shadow on the walls and fences surrounding the house compound could result in his being killed. In this context, the celebration that took place on that day was somewhat akin to what the Israelites might have felt if they had been redeemed from Egypt, and then been given the palace!
By the time Krishnammal moved to Thanjavur (now Nagai-e-Millath) District in 1969, sides were already chosen up. The landless were to find no other real allies. There were to be no appeals to the landlords’ magnanimity, no direct building of community across caste divides. The landless dalits were to learn to rely on their own resources, aroused to action by one of their own – and a woman yet! – and their capacity to provoke the government into action on their behalf.
It was an historically important moment, too, though one of which Krishnammal and Jagannathan were probably only dimly aware at the time. Soon, the new dams erected well upriver from the Cauvery Delta were to irrigate much of the arid lands of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the neighboring state to the north, but were to leave this traditional granary of Tamil Nadu with less water for intensive agriculture. The land was now well-suited for subsistence farming (though heavily affected by cycles of flood and drought), but less fit for the continuing but less than liquid investment of the upper castes, whose sons and daughters were increasingly making their way to European and American shores (and many of whom became extraordinarily wealthy in the newly emerging computer-related industries.) Being tied to the land was no longer so desirable for the newly mobile rich.
Having watched as the Communists and others organized the landless laborers for better wages through strikes and other forms of work stoppages, Krishnammal became more keenly aware of a reality that Gandhi himself had recognized, but that the government-run banks were yet to acknowledge: the power of pooled labor could represent capital itself. Once Krishnammal was able to convince the government of this truth, she was able to use this power to leverage the purchase of the land. Through her vision and an opportunistic practicality, Krishnammal saw a simple unvarnished truth: purchasing land at a fair price provided both landlords and landless what each desired. Once the landless dalits could be organized for struggle, something that had been wholly foreign to them, it was only a small step to organize them to own the land they had already been working for centuries. Through a combination of nonviolent struggle and shrewd financing, almost 11,000 formerly landless families now, it seemed, held the keys to their own futures for the first time. The shadowy outlines of Gandhi’s self-reliant, self-sufficient village republics, the Gram Swaraj to which Krishnammal and Jagannathan had devoted their entire lives, would slowly begin to come into focus.
If our tale was allowed to have a fairytale ending, our story outline should have ended here, with the sprouting up of schools and nurseries, house building projects, orphanages and children’s hostels, women’s self-help associations, farm implement cooperatives and agricultural experiments, small industrial workshops, new cultural flowerings, and campaigns against alcoholism and other social ills besetting the community. I have perfectly etched in my mind a 1990 picture of Krishnammal (I have a photograph, too!), lying stretched out on the masonry in front of an ancient stone bull at the great Thanjavur Temple – the same temple that would have prohibited even the approaching footfall of her mother – smiling, and looking totally relaxed, something between a cat sunning itself and a recumbent queen, having just signed papers that would result in 550 new families receiving title to their own land. And I have a second picture, taken two weeks earlier, of a similarly relaxed and smiling Jagannathan holding my older daughter (then age 3, and this being their first meeting) in the Madras City Jail, where he was imprisoned for leading protests against the state government’s ‘cheap liquor’ policies.
History would deal them a different hand. In late 1992, Krishnammal and Jagannathan set out on a year-long padayatra to promote Gram Swaraj and to organize village assemblies. It should have resembled a valedictory tour, and likely did, until they reached an area where they found people in an absolutely desperate situation. “Our land has been taken, our water polluted, and the fish are dying,” was their cry. As quickly as some of the wealthier landholders had gone to the West, so prawn farms, backed by multinational corporations, with World Bank loans, and government blessing, had moved into the breach. Large tracts of fertile land that had been traditionally cultivated for centuries were taken out of agriculture. Mangroves guarding the coastal areas from cyclones and tidal overflows were ruthlessly cut down. Land was salinated, and massive amounts of chemicals used, quickly reaching down into the water table, and destroying supplies of drinking water. Polluted water was discharged into the sea, decimating entire fisheries. All to provide luxury items for western tables.
It is the same story elsewhere, a new form of ‘slash-and-burn’ agriculture, though ‘slash-and-flood’ would be more accurate. It has destroyed entire coastlines in the Philippines and Ecuador, Thailand and Indonesia, and unleashed an epidemic of skin and eye diseases in its wake. It was a way, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, to create job opportunities in depressed Third World areas, and to ‘support people with a vitamin-enriched diet’. Except that where the land used to support 120 agricultural workers, it now supports two prawn farm managers, and only until the tanks give out, and the companies move on. It was supposed to improve the nutritional status of communities, but, as our author notes, not a single prawn has ever appeared on the table of the local people, although the price of prawns in American supermarkets has dropped from over $14/lb. in 1986 to under $5/lb. in 2003, adjusted for inflation.
And so we have the continuing tale of our two aging heroes, who wanted only to supply a measure of rice, a house with a roof that doesn’t leak, and a measure of self-esteem and self-worth to people who had known little but centuries of degradation, but now find themselves fighting the combined forces of multinational capitalism and the global marketplace. The odds are very long. Jagannathan is now about to turn 90 and has already, quite literally as you will read in this book, sacrificed his eyes in this titanic struggle.
* * * * *
Having done my best to place Amma and Appa in their social and historical context, I am acutely aware of how far away I am from having captured their essence. Social history is only the backdrop in front of which Krishnammal and Jagannathan have played out their lives.
It is closer to the truth to say that to know them is to experience the power of living myths. Jagannathan evokes the pathos of a Don Quixote, jousting impossibly with windmills, only the windmills are all-too-real, and winning at least his share of the skirmishes. However, he is far more hard-headed than Quixote could ever be, and, is now embarked upon a colossal battle, has a keen awareness of what he is up against. Krishnammal is, to cite a 1999 award given her by the Women’s World Summit Foundation, India’s Joan of Arc. They live in time, and yet out of it at the same moment. We are fortunate that the tool of oral history is perhaps the best way to get at the human qualities behind those who have taken on mythic proportions, and to allow us at least a hint at what turns ordinary human beings into such extraordinary ones.
If our heroes were painters on a canvas, the first and primary color for the entire work would be the color of freedom. Somewhere along the line, both Amma and Appa attached themselves to the rather unusual notion that they could be the authors of their own lives, and in doing so, spent their lives enabling others to give authorship to their own as well. They think nothing of moving to a village hundreds of miles from their homes, where they have never been and where they know no one, because they have read in the newspaper that people have been killed. They will transplant themselves thousands of miles away to another state, where their own native language isn’t even spoken, and spend seven months sleeping literally in pigsties, and living on boiled potato leaves, because keepers of temples are treating people unfairly. They walk freely out of police vans to which they have been confined, and lie down in front of trucks and bulldozers. They wear clothing made only of thread they have spun themselves, and if they haven’t had enough time to spin, their clothing will be threadbare. They go to prison and demand the right to wash their clothes, and make it possible for everyone else to do so as well. They make new bank rules for bankers, adopt and take it upon themselves to feed, clothe, house, and educate several hundred children at a time, and find laws and their application where no one thought there were any. It is disorienting, but ultimately liberating. No one who has ever met Amma and Appa goes away unchanged.
The source of this freedom is not easily knowable, although it is possible to catch glimpses of it. It is certainly not the usual response to life of a woman who grows up in the poorest possible household, with 12 children born into it, and headed by an alcoholic and wife-beating husband who dies, leaving a widow to work both day and night to fend for them all. But even here there are hints, as Krishnammal’s mother finds and feeds handicapped people even poorer than herself, and begins each day facing the rising sun with a prayer. Krishnammal begins to experience small acts of kindness from those with backgrounds far richer materially than her own, and her experience of her own mother demonstrates that acts of charity and kindness do not have to be reserved to the wealthy. Anyone who ever meets Amma cannot fail to notice that even when she does not have a rupee in her pocket, she acts and speaks as if she is rich in abundance, knowing that she will be provided for. To the question “how many children do you have?” a common response from Krishnammal will be, “How many are there?” She is a queen without a palace, an empress without a treasury, a pauper whose beneficence animates virtually everything she touches. She herself identifies with the Tamil saint in a traditional folktale, one Manimegalai, a daughter of a prostitute who withholds her chastity from the king, is surrounded by a protective ring of fire, and is finally given a magic vessel – the achayapatra – which at her request provides food for the hungry.
Indeed, it was from this abundance of feeling that I myself met Krishnammal for the first time. Following a conference in northern India in 1977, she invited me to follow her more than a thousand miles to the south to her home in Gandhigram, which I did. I stayed for a week. Every meal, three times a day, consisted of rice and rasam, a fiery hot pepper broth of which South Indians are fond. While I thought that this diet was rather odd, I ate it happily. It was what they were eating, and it was tasty. Little did I know then that the reason for this rather sparse diet was that Krishnammal and Jagannathan had nothing else to eat at the time, he having just been released from being imprisoned by Indira Gandhi for more than a year, and both of them trying to put their lives back together again. To this day, when I return to Gandhigram, those who remember make jokes about the strange American who subsisted on rice and rasam and didn’t know the difference!
With Jagannathan, too, we catch but hints. His early home life was far, far different from hers, especially in that he was always well provided for. But we begin with the story of a 13-year-old, home from school, organizing the village boys to carry a large photograph of Gandhi from village to village, throws his English-manufactured shirt and pen – gifts of his father – into a swadeshi8 fire, and at 15 is beaten within an inch of his life by policemen wielding iron-tipped batons. He is to be imprisoned, locked in solitary, given rotten food, and degraded, along with, it should be noted, thousands of his compatriots, the very flower of India’s youth. Choosing paths that might lead to personal sacrifice in furthering a higher cause soon becomes second nature to him. It is what any human being should be expected to do when faced with the suffering of others. It is as natural as breathing itself.
This quintessentially radical fearlessness can almost not fail to make us feel uncomfortable. We are safer viewing them as Quixote and Joan, or as Rama and Sita, than as an expression of the same modernity we inhabit. For just as they have steeled themselves in fearlessness, we are programmed for safety and security. We experience with Amma and Appa the urge to respond when we come face-to-face with suffering; it is part of the nature we share. But unlike them, we have learned that we are safest and most secure in ourselves when we are placed in a position that when it comes to suffering, we don’t have to see it. Out of sight, out of mind. Krishnammal and Jagannathan, in contrast, find it difficult to hear of suffering without first exploring, then wrestling with it for themselves, and finally putting their entire spirits behind ameliorating it.
One of the gifts of oral history, however, is that it cuts down the distance between us. Having been beaten, imprisoned repeatedly, and starved, having walked the length and breadth of India without a rupee and meditated with rishis in the Himalayas, having overcome all the usual fears and about to abandon his new bride for almost two years without a second thought, at the age of 36 and having celebrated an extremely unconventional marriage, Jagannathan is afraid to go home for a day to meet his parents. Krishnammal, having adopted a revolutionary’s lifestyle, is forced to address the question, “How does a revolutionary raise her children?” (For one, the answer was to bring him along; for another, the answer was to place her in boarding schools!)
Something else that makes us uncomfortable is Amma and Appa having come to their feeling of abundance by owning virtually nothing. Jagannathan’s marriage vows,
“Do not expect any wealth or comforts from me. We shall have no property. Even the vessels we use at home shall be made of mud, so that when we move on, it shall be easy to abandon them,”
read like they are taken straight out of some lost Indian epic -- a forgotten Ramayana – not something from the year 1950. It is only up close that one can see the freedom this has provided them. Their daughter Dr. Sathya Jeganathan notes that she cannot remember a time in her entire life when her parents weren’t simply “camping”. In 1981, my wife and I, living at the Worker’s Home in Gandhigram, discovered when we decided to do a little of our own cooking, that Krishnammal and Jagannathan indeed did not own a single pot. Having purchased some ourselves, we gave them to Amma and Appa when we left. Returning in 1990, we saw the same pots waiting for us, lying virtually unused for nine years. And while educators, activists, and political leaders from around the world had come to visit Krishnammal and Jagannathan since the 1950s, it wasn’t until 1998 that Amma and Appa had any chairs for guests to sit on, a gift from their daughter. Now relocated most of the time in Kuthur for more than a decade, Krishnammal and Jagannathan still do not have even a bed, no less a room, they can call their own. Having virtually nothing in the way of material possessions personally, they also have nothing material to defend. Liberated from the tyranny of things, they are total free agents, free to seek leverage points upon which they can move the world.
This lack of possessions and possessiveness is also bound up with a high degree of fastidiousness regarding those items – food and clothing – that are the basic requirements of their existence. Besides Jagannathan’s spinning for his own clothing needs, Krishnammal has for decades lived in hand-me-down sarees provided by her daughter. I have seen Krishnammal keep a collection of used paperclips and safety pins in her bodice, ready to be called on for use whenever needed. This fastidiousness, however, is not clung to solely as a matter of personal purity, but rather as a reminder that the goods we consume come with their own human and environmental price tags. What if, as they seem to imply, every piece of food, every stitch of clothing, every paper clip and safety pin we purchased in the market came with pictures of the human and environmental costs affixed to each? Would we, to use Jagannathan’s clothing choices as an example, choose to have our own brothers and sisters, sons and daughters chained to the floors of Third World sweatshops if we knew there really existed other options?
In short, Krishnammal and Jagannathan have made their challenge to the global marketplace a personal affair, as much a spiritual as a political matter, and, in so doing, suggest that we do the same. The ideal of gram swaraj – the village republic, self-governing, self-sufficient in all its basic necessities, existing on the basis of mutuality, of democracy unfettered by so-called “free trade” – offers both a critique and a naked challenge to the ubiquity of the market. It represents the one form of competition that the market itself cannot tolerate: namely, the notion that somewhere, someone and something could actually exist quite comfortably outside its boundaries. Perhaps, just perhaps, free human beings might choose as a goal to encompass larger spheres of conviviality, and reduce those in which human beings and the natural world are bought and sold. Amma and Appa demand of us that we challenge the very idea of progress itself, and dare to seek an itemized accounting for this so-called progress’ fatalities, not only in human and environmental casualties, but in the deadening of the human spirit, including our own. In place of free trade and free markets, in place of tiger prawns on the dinner table or in the buffet line, Jagannathan and Krishnammal offer us a real, living 21st Century alternative idea of progress -- the possibility and potentiality of free men and free women. It only remains for us to decide whether to take them up on it.
-- A Note on the Text --
The text of the first 12 chapters of this book are based on taped interviews conducted by Laura Coppo in Tamil Nadu, India in October-November 1999. The interviews were conducted in English, but English is neither the native language of Jagannathan and Krishnammal (which is Tamil) nor of Ms. Coppo, who is Italian. The interviews were then translated into Italian, and formed the basis of the book Terra Gamberi Contadini ed Eroi: 70 Anni di Lotte Nonviolente di Una Straordinaria Coppia di Indiani (Bologna, Italy: EMI della Coop. SERMIS, 2002). In January 2003, I worked face-to-face with Ms. Coppo in the small village of Aramengo in the Piedmont region of Italy to turn the text back into English of a more idiomatic variety. We have, however, striven to retain some of the linguistic mannerisms special to our subjects, and which often makes them so approachable and endearing.
The differences in the way Appa and Amma have chosen to relate the stories of their respective lives should come through as obvious. Jagannathan frames his life story in a highly linear fashion, as if he has told it dozens of times before. He is also given to little outbursts of sarcasm, and sees irony at every turn, and lets the reader know it. Conversations, having taken place decades earlier, come through as morality tales, almost miniature theatrical dramas, which determine or dictate the next phase of struggle or of work.
Krishnammal, in contrast, is a character who finds herself in parables, or almost in fairytales. Although barely conscious of that fact, she is one of the world’s great storytellers. Having studied the lives of the Tamil saints in her childhood, and who undoubted played so great a role in the early formation of her character, she speaks of her life almost as if it is similarly out of time. There are bursts of emotion and of color, and simple, uncomplicated, and direct links between thought and action. There is scarcely a ‘strategic’ or even ‘tactical’ consideration. In the West, we might think of her way of being as embodying a fundamental faith: she is illuminated by her own inward Light which is available to all, she is led to where she needs to be, and, she has learned through experience that when every available avenue seems blocked, “the way will open”.
Among the more amusing aspects of having both oral biographies told in tandem are the contradictions unearthed. Krishnammal and Jagannathan do not agree about either the date or circumstances under which they met each other. Jagannathan is clear that he met Krishnammal for the first time in 1941, at a training camp organized by him, and was immediately smitten. Without telling anyone of his future intentions, he went to her village and saw her house and her family. And, according to his version, he declared his intentions of marrying her before his second imprisonment, in 1944. His account is very detailed on this score, but speaks of the visit of Gandhi to Madurai in 1941, at which time Krishnammal helped care for the Mahatma. The trouble with this account is that Gandhi did not come to Madurai in 1941, but in 1946! Krishnammal, in contrast, relates the date of Gandhi’s Madurai visit correctly (and she should know, since she was very much involved in it, and there is a photograph), but is sure she did not meet Jagannathan until 1945. This date is impossible, as Jagannathan was in prison in 1944 and 1945, and the training camp in Madurai predates his imprisonment. Future scholars may ponder. For our purposes, this is the stuff of which legends -- or at least good family arguments -- are made!
1 Through much of the world, the words “prawn” and “shrimp” are used interchangeably. “Prawn” is more commonly used in India and in Great Britain; “shrimp” in the United States, though “prawn” often denotes larger varieties. A distinction can in fact be made between coldwater shrimp, which tend to be much smaller, pink, and which are commonly harvested in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and warm water varieties, which are often intensively farmed. “Prawn” will be used throughout the text.
2 A note on Tamil names: for men, the second name is one’s given name. The first name, always abbreviated to a single letter, is one’s father’s given name. S. Jagannathan’s son, for example, is named J. Bhoomikumar. Women adopt their father’s given name as their last name, until married, when they take their husband’s given name in its place. S. Jagannathan’s wife is thus Krishnammal Jagannathan. Their unmarried daughter is Sathya Jeganathan. The difference in English spelling is a matter of personal choice, and would not show up in Tamil.
3 Slang for vegetarian.
4 Radiation leaks have become endemic to India’s nuclear plants, with more than 300 incidents of a serious nature contaminating workers. The secrets regarding these incidents seem to leak as quickly as the plants themselves, with some scientists believing that a Chernobyl-style disaster is just a matter of time. See the Christian Science Monitor, October 11, 2002.
5 The work of Michael Mazgaonkur, Swati Desai, and a whole new generation of neo-Gandhian activists in this regard is a real eye-opener. Read about his visit to the World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC at www.rediff.com/news/2002/oct/16ash.htm
6 Gandhi himself was to write that the three greatest influences upon his life were Ruskin, Tolstoy (with whom he had an extended correspondence), and an obscure 25-year-old Jain jeweler and poet, named Raychandbhai (also known as Rajchandra), living in his hometown. Gandhi considered him the greatest of the three influences. See Gandhi, M.K., The Story ofMy Experiments with Truth, Part II, Chapter 1. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1993.
7 Kumar, Satish, Path Without Destination. New York, NY: William Morrow and Co., 1999.
8 “One’s own country”: a movement to consume only those goods that were produced in India itself.