Friday, August 24, 2007

Training in Malgudi - Part I

It finally was time to proceed to P Rudravanam for my rural family visit for a week. The purpose was to understand consumer behavior, the attitudes of our people living in rural areas. My company thought that management trainees like myself would have had our life spent in affluent parts of the country and a stint like this should broaden our understanding. In my view the stint has more than served its purpose.

Getting a glimpse of how 75% of our population live was in more ways than one, an eye-opener to what constitutes the real India. Rudravanam Village is in Kurnool District of Andhra Pradesh, a village of around 1500 people in about 300 families. I stayed with the family of Shyam Sundar Achari, son of K. Bramhiah Achari, a carpenter in this village.

03-May: Kurnool

After buying a kilo of mangoes for the family I am to visit, I waited with Achari to proceed to the village. To my dismay, I found that I need to wait for about two hours to get a share-auto to go to the village. I suggested that we hire an auto by ourselves and save the time. Achari was greatly surprised that I am ready to shell out a princely sum of Rs 50 just to save a couple of hours. He joined me and en route, we visited a welding shop where Balakrishna Achari, Shyam's brother was preparing a metal ring. It was to be fit over a wooden wheel his father had made which in turn would find use in a bullock cart.

03-May: Rudravaram

For about a half-hour on my travel, I neither saw people nor homes. A windy road took me and the Achari brothers to their village and we finally aboarded near a small mud-house of about 200 sq feet size outside which a lot of carpenting action was on. Achari had a younger sister Usharani who was helping the family with the daily chores. The house had a 5*3 feet bathroom on the outside covered partially by stone walls. The house did not have a toilet and I figured most people use the farms nearby. The family owned a cycle, and did not have a TV, radio or a fan. These luxuries wouldnt have been much use anyway as the village doesnt get power during the daytime. The house was lit by two bulbs and they used wood to make fire for cooking.

Immediately after the introductions with Achari's parents and sister, I requested Achari to take me around the village. To my surprise, I saw more cows, buffalos, goats, monkeys in that order than men during my visit. I heard stories of dried up wells, unfinished canals sanctioned to be completed during the chief minister NT Rama Rao period, and vast areas of arable land. On my way back to the village, I saw huge crowds of people appearing from nowhere and all proceeding towards a particular direction. My enquiries revealed that people are going to attend the wedding reception cum inauguration of a residential school built by one Raghava Reddy. The entire village was invited for the function and I too joined them accompanied by Balakrishna Acharya and Usharani. After 1 km of a leisurely walk, I reached the school and I was entirely taken aback seeing the arrangements for the wedding recception. I can honestly say that I have never seen a grander arrangement all my life. It was truly a food exhibition, about 100 people employed to serve the 5000 people invited for the function. Varities of Rotis, Parathas, Dosas, Biryanis, Vegetable and Non-vegetable dishes, sweets, fruits and so much more I didnt see all found its way into the menu served.

Here I am, just a 1 km away from a poor village, witnessing massive spends of money for food, orchestra and performances by famed movie stars to entertain the audience. Not much was required to prove the existence of the divide between the rich and the poor. Only one question was racing through my mind: “Who's Raghava Reddy and where did so much money come from?“ I found he hails from Rudravaram and had started a chain of residential schools in nearby towns like Kurnool and Nandyal. On inspecting the school that was inaugurated, I was impressed that the facilities match that of a average private school in a metro. Education has not just become exclusive and expensive but has become extremely profitable too.

The film and TV show stars were in full flow entertaining the audience. It started pouring down and still the audience did not budge from their seats. The craze for film stars and stage shows was too high for the mighty shower to interrupt. I suggested to Balakrishna that it probably is time for us to leave. He got so saddened by the idea of leaving half-way. He started looking for umbrellas and he finally managed to pull me under one, shared by 4 already. He pleaded to me “Please sir, 15 minutes“. His 15 minutes never got over even after 2 hours. When finally the stars called it a day, I silently let out a sigh of relief. It gave Balakrishna great happiness that he was able to shake hands with some stars when they descended the stage. It was already 11.10pm and I, Balakrishna and one more went back to the village through an unlit passage. I didnt let out a word as I was slightly scared and kept looking all around me for any signs of strange people.

I reached the village around 11.30pm and immediately had a bath and got prepared to sleep. The family suggested that me and the Achari brothers sleep in the mandapam outside a nearby temple. The mandapam was a simple shelter under an old neem tree and Achari explained that the four-way open ventilation made it one of the best places to sleep in the village. I got phone calls from Kedar, Shubham and Animesh during midnight. The Achari brothers got curious and asked me why phone calls were coming at that time and I replied that it was my birthday and my friends were wishing me.

04-May: Rudravanam

Birthday celebrations in rudravanam were under way without my knowledge. Achari had made some arrangements for someone in the family to go to town to buy Semiya (Vermicilli). I was pleasantly surprised to see Semiya Payasam served during lunch. I can see that more than me, it was them who were happy that they could do something special for my birthday. Usharani had told few girls staying in nearby households too about their new guest and word about me quickly spread around the village. Often there would be somebody coming to the house to enquire about who I was and the family members proudly introduced me that I was a friend of Achari and that I get paid a high salary as chik shampoo company manager. Most of them were dissapointed that they couldnt speak to me in the only language they knew, Telugu. I soon got acquainted with Bade Basha, a close friend of the Acharis. He is a voluntary teacher in the village govt school and speaks Urdu, Tulukam, and Hindi. His father rears goats in the nearby jungle and sells them to meat shops in Kurnool town. Basha takes private tuitons in his house and thus makes a living for his family. He soon became my communication link with the village people. He translated my Hindi to Telugu and told Acharis and others what I am here for.

Daylight slowly faded and as night approached, I took out the book I carried from home to read in case I was bored. I had chosen India Unbound by Gurcharan Das. As I randomly read some chapters “If we were once rich, why are we poor now“, Capitalism for the rich, Socialism for the poor“,“A million reformers“ I was convinced that entrepreneurs if encouraged well, could do wonders for any economy starting in as poverished a village as I am located now. Examples of Raghava Reddy's success came to my mind. If there is so much that can be done from a village, how much more can educated youth do for the entire country? My thoughts randomly drifted from one subject to another and I slowly dozed off. I woke up from my slumber to pick up a call from Nilavan in US. After he wished me on my birthday, I discused my experiences and thoughts and he told me that there is something I should be able to do to the village. He told me about the movie Swadeshi and said its a great chance for me to try and assist an Indian village. Once again I took my inspiration from Nilava's noble intentions and looked for ways to help the family.

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