Crafts

Serving humanity

Ms. Neera Sarmah
Progress and prosperity of any nation does not come from a single man's efforts. It comes from the dedicated labors of a large number of people, who work unselfishly for the nation to improve the physical and mental conditions of the masses, and provide them with purposeful living.

It is true that every person can contribute in their own manner to the progress of a nation. However, it requires knowledge, dedication, wisdom, strategy and massive power to fight against prevailing odds and set the things right. Great inner zeal and unconditional love can carry anyone to their destination.

There were times in my life when I wanted simply to be alone; to ponder over the secrets of life, to explore my inner being and to find out how I could serve humanity better, until I felt a Divine authority command me to start a new mission in my life. I felt the need to serve the poor people of remote areas in my country, and thus my journey began.

On evening walks, I used to go far beyond the tea garden boundary in Assam. The elders would admonish me because it would get quite late in the evening by the time I returned. Most of the tea estates were in very interior places. Every day I used to notice that many villagers would carry wooden logs on their heads and carry them to the local markets so they could sell them.

Sometimes I saw them carrying vegetable and fruits such as jackfruit, tamarind, jamun, star fruit and plums, among others, from the interiors of the forest. I would talk to them and buy fruits and vegetables from them. I also tried my best to explain to them the ill-effects of wood cutting, but all of them told me that cutting wood was their only source of income as they did not own any farm land. After deep thought, I came to the conclusion that people who did not have their own farm lands were the neediest ones. They had no other alternative except to cut trees and sell them in nearby towns and in the monsoons their conditions got worse.

It was then that I decided to do something for them and made a break from my normal, luxurious life. This feeling urged me to go out into the world to guide these unapprised villagers about living with dignity by creating something which would bring them a sense of prestige and also self satisfaction. Bringing alive their imagination through art and craft would bring a deep sense of self-admiration, achievement and creative fulfillment to them.

Someone asked me why I was struggling in these remote villages when I was gifted with all the luxuries of tea garden life. I only said that I was merely executing a wish that would emerge in success if I could bring a ray of hope to those sections of society that crave in hunger for love and care. I would bring those deprived a taste of joy in being loved and cared for.

I decided to leave my earthly comforts aside and involve myself in my newfound endeavor by visiting interior villages in reaching out to the poorest of the poor. There was much social prejudice against my enterprise; but I told myself that I would follow my heart as it dictated me. In following myself would lie my happiness. Since then there has been a complete transformation of my lifestyle - fancy clothes, good food, the odd movie, the palatial tea estate Manager's bungalow - became objects of a vague and distant past. The village where I lived became my village, the room where I stayed became my home and the people with whom I worked became my family. A suitcase and a rucksack became my companions for my days and nights. And life became interesting as I met different people with different personalities and behaviors.

Gradually my dreams took shape and I saw the difference I could make to those people living in remote areas - deprived, simple and innocent as they were. If nobody lent a helping hand for my mission, I would find the way myself and I did it with faith, a faith that moved mountains and made everyone believe eventually. I started ploughing a lonely furrow, but invariably found a large following later.

It would be wrong to evaluate any mission on grounds of its ultimate success or failure. Victory is achieved by those who fight and overcome difficulties. I treat my capacity to forget all the disadvantages as my biggest strength, a blessing of nature even. I was laughed off as the “bamboo lady” among all and sundry, but this naïve chide did not bring disappointment nor antipathy. On the contrary, they helped me find the true direction of my life. Although my child was ill for years and I had to give my time to my family, I did not give up on my work entirely. Those days I would invite young children to my home and teach them many kinds of handicraft in an affordable manner. My objective then was to simply motivate these young children to play a useful role in society.

I approached the village head (“Gaon Bura”) in a village in Assam and asked for his helping hand for my project. In many places the village heads immediately agreed, but in many places many fingers, eyebrows and voices too were raised against me. They thought I came with political intentions to influence them on their “vote”. I suffered another bout of resistance which made me question myself - why all this loitering around for so long, and to what benefit? But it could never deter me from going towards my path. This was the start of my experiment.

I was happy and satisfied that I could serve these people who were in need in various aspects of life - the young widows, lonely and neglected old parents, unmarried sister, orphan, deaf and dumb, blind, mentally ill person whose paths I crossed, and who could not afford their treatment became my first priority, to make them self reliant and happy in an easy way. At most times, I did not really bother about my personal welfare. I drove myself onward relentlessly despite many hindrances, both socially and emotionally.

At times there were no proper toilets or bathrooms except the barren field and a nearby river or pond. I started staying in their half-roofed houses, eating their meager food, and as a result earned the goodwill of the villagers. I then slowly trained them to create small handicraft items from local resources, which were easily available and affordable. I also made them aware of the market potentiality by involving them in exhibitions, trade fairs etc. across the country, guiding them in every possible way. I found the greatest delight in the service of these poor and ignorant simple villagers. I would receive great energy from all their love and care. Gradually, I could also sense myself succeeding in my mission to provide an alternative livelihood among the forest dweller.

I enjoyed walking through the forest with the village ladies and would bathe with them in the river. Sometimes I would cycle around the forest with young boys to collect raw materials for making the handicrafts. They treated me with variety of wild fruits which were unknown to me. I would think my life had become meaningful to me at last. I felt extremely happy to see the enthusiasm and excitement in those boys exploring raw material like seeds, leaves and creepers from nearby forests in remote villages in making handicrafts. I saw people of all ages keen to learn the art of handicrafts from me. During such training workshops, I found many talented villagers in these places. I never charged any amount of money and the lunch and tea they provided me with was done whole heartedly by them.

A few incidents, deep set in my memory will I cherish forever. Once in Kailash Sahar, a village in Tripura near the Bangladesh border, I felt very thirsty and hungry. I was looking for some water to drink on the way to a very remote village. Someone gave me a glass of water from an open well, which was not covered by cement. I hesitated as I saw a worm in the well. One lady came running to me and took away the glass. She told me to wait and vanished, almost immediately returning with a glass of milk which she took out from a small black goat in front of me. I could not help drinking the full glass of milk! She tried to convince me that the milk was pure and nothing would happen to me. It touched my heart. I wondered how caring and helpful one could be, without any selfish reasons or motives. It was possible and could be felt perhaps only through these good and kind hearted people.

Another incident took place in Assam near Barpeta road. I was walking in a very poor Muslim Village called Raipur and was staying in Sikender Ali's home. During the day I would eat my meal with my guides. They would bring my meal one by one. Due to a sudden declaration for “Assam bandh” (strike), I had to stay on an extra day. I saw two girls quarrelling hard, though I could not follow their language. Later, I found out thatthe reason of their quarrel was due to my extra day's stay which had become an issue between the girls as to who would provide me the meal for that day! I had to give the judgment of their care and love. It also touched my heart.

One boy from Tripura wrote a poem on me, which was beyond my dream that someone could write anything for me! The handwritten poem is attached as an Annexure to my write-up; however, I have tried my best to translate it as best as I could from the 'Tripury Bangali' language, which I'm afraid I'm not very conversant in either:
“O mother,
You are the mother of us all,
You show us the path of life,
You are the one guiding us
To be independent and alive with self pride!
I am a small boy named Abul Husain, a village folk singer,
I am delighted to write this song for you, Ma, …

My thought was this that for those people in remote villages who struggled for their daily meals, what could I do for them in an affordable way? I began to use local resources for my craft which was easily available. My first step was the use of cow-dung and bamboo. I began to train people from nearby villages close to the tea estate by making bricks using cow-dung with dry withered leaves, so that they could also use it in the monsoons. I also asked them to dry the cow-dung and make small packets which were eventually sold in the city to middle-class households, who then used it as manure for their plants and tubs. It was a particularly viable opportunity as cow-dung was scarcely available in the city and this was a convenient method to buy it in small packets. This little innovation came rather good and the cakes began selling in large numbers, becoming very popular. It was a very simple concept but with very powerful impact. I was overjoyed and advised them to stop cutting wood in the forests and instead take up this form of an alternative livelihood.

In one village I trained the ladies on how to preserve vegetables for times of scarcity and the monsoons. I also guided them to sell those dried patha in local market. Later on I found the ladies started earning good money by selling them in the local weekly hat (bazaar).

In another village I had seen most ladies do nothing in their free time except indulge in gossip. These poor women were not even aware of basic sanitation and proper living! I invited the village ladies to the tea garden school and asked them who wanted to be self dependant by simply staying at home. I told them they could earn good money without even crossing the boundaries of their home. I found many to be interested although they were rather conservative about “Ladies working” and “earning money.” I tried my best to motivate these uninformed women as I only wanted to know from them what they thought about themselves.

I did not get any answers from anyone. I asked them about the things easily available in their neighborhoods or farm land but again none of them could give me any answers. So I requested those ladies to get anything by the following week, from the forest, farm land or from their neighborhood. I waited for a week without giving them any hints about what they should bring to me.

They seemed a little confused about what I said but the following week brought many things like seeds, rice grain, sesame seeds, coconuts, tori (long green gourd), small dried mushroom, papaya, dry leaves, bamboo etc. I was excited by seeing their enthusiasm and effort. That very day I started teaching them on how best we could work with those raw materials, and I created some jewelry and utility handicrafts from whatever raw materials they had brought.

These ladies were very excited and now wanted to do something with their local resources. I found great enthusiasm when they brought many small items in the next week. I was reinvigorated by these village women to proceed with my project, and to encourage them in every possible way so that they could maintain their dignity as productive members of our society. It is thus that I have devoted myself with my all energies in dedicating my dreams, talents and learning to the less privileged ones through my various projects.

Future Plan

I believe in a self generating economy. I desire for each and every large industry to contribute to the upliftment of less fortunate people of our remote and forsaken villages. I feel that the most practical and meaningful way of living and in giving back to society is to bring hope to poor and needy. Social services have traditionally been a part of our Indian culture.

There are several selfless workers, who have been working silently and over the years rendering selfless services to humanitarian causes. It is imperative that society acknowledge their contribution and pay tribute to them with the respect and honor they deserve, so that others are inspired to take the cause ahead.

I will be satisfied to have lived a meaningful life if I can do my bit for my noble endeavor, and so will pursue my project by venturing in to newer places and newer cultures to me, within India and abroad. I will seek to venture into hitherto unexplored parts of this country; a continent by itself, for such varied skill-based teaching and that which has so much more to offer. In teaching the poor and oft-neglected many diverse skills in using their creativity to produce self-sustainable and profitable handicrafts, my objectives lie clear in aiding small industries to contribute to the welfare of the craftsmen and women in remote areas both economically and socially, and in the wider spectra to the recognition of the country as a vibrant cultural destination.

Because I believe that “only a life lived for others, is a life worthwhile.”
2012