ஊருணி நீர்நிறைந் தற்றே உலகவாம்
பேரறி வாளன் திரு. (Thirukkural, 215)
The wealth that wise and kind do make,
Is like water that fills a lake.
(Translated by Kaviyogi Shuddhananda Bharati)
Yesterday, I had occasion to meet a very respected business leader in Chennai, who shared with me, a page from the story of his life.
This must have been forty years ago, or so, and he was a young industrialist, having taken over the reins from his father, and others. He came from a Chettiar family and his immediate forefathers had operated in Burma. They had chosen to do so because, during the British rule, business families from North India were stifled by the British from transacting business overseas, and so many had shifted south, undercut the local businessmen, forcing a number of them to relocate, some to Burma. And Burma was good business, as British banks worked for just a few hours a day. And so our Chettiars used to sleep during those few hours, and rise and do money-lending business the rest of the long day. And they reached out to places where British banks did not care to reach. Every day, the interest rates would be decided and relayed from George Town in Madras, and business was good in Burma.
But this story is not about Burma.
It is about deep south Tamil Nadu, a district called Ramanathapuram, famous for its dry heat and water shortage. Our young industrialist’s (lets call him “S”) family had shifted back to India, after independence, to their native place, a village in Ramanathapuram. “S” was young, well educated, and had just returned from a seven week stint at Harvard Univ.
He was also the leader of his village Pancayat. And one day, when he arrived at his Pancayat office, he found a whole lot of villagers waiting for him. They were Dhobis (washermen) and had come to him with a petition. The local village had three Oorani-s (water bodies, tanks) for human use. One Oorani was for ‘drinking water’. One was for bathing. And one was for washing clothes. And that time, the area was suffering from drought. The tank for washing clothes was stone dry. The Dhobis came, offered their respects to him, and conveyed their problem. They had no water to carry out their work. “S” conveyed his helplessness, ‘how could he make water appear’. The Dhobis did not take no for an answer, and so “S” went and met the local government authorities. They threw up their hands and said, that “water was not in their jurisdiction” and “S” should go to the Government department dealing with water supply. That department was in Karaikudi or somewhere, not anywhere near. And so the matter rested, unresolved.
(But it irked. For in the village, the different communitites lived together in harmony. No one charged money for services. Grains etc was bartered for work. During weddings in S’s family, all the local dhobis, hairdressers, carpenters, etc would come and camp with them, rendering their services to one and all, and all their needs, from food onwards, were taken care of, just like family. The village was a self-reliant unit. A concept that Gandhi understood. A concept that has been bid good bye by Nehruvian economists and leaders of independent India)
Coming back to our story, that evening, “S” went to his home in the village, an ancestral house. His family had always been the big landowners of that village. When “S” reached home, he was surprised to find a much bigger group of people waiting for him at home. The Dhobis were there in full force and had brought their wives, children. And seeing “S”, they prostrated on the ground before him, Saashtaangam.
“S” was stunned. The Dhobis said “Yeshamaan, you must do something for us. There is no water. We cannot carry out our daily work. We have no one else to go to” etc….
“S” again expressed his helplessness, and said “Listen, you already met me at the Pancayat office, and I have told you, I don’t know what I can do”. The Dhobis said, “There, you were a Pancayat leader. Here, at home, you are your father’s son. And our yeshamaan. If you dont do something for us, where will we go” etc. “S” again expressed his helplessness and somehow persuaded them to leave.
All this time, his family’s business accountant (or some elder who was working with the family and was also a sort of mentor) summoned “S”, saying “Vaadaa…” (Come here, you) in a tone, which “S” had never heard him use. “S” went to him, somewhat nonplussed. The mentor was upset and conveyed so to “S”. He scolded him and said, “Here, these people have come to you to express their helplessness, taking refuge in you, and you have sent them off with some words?”…
“S” was bewildered, and asked his mentor, “indeed what else could i do?”.
His mentor told him, that the same incident had happened forty years earlier, when S’s grandfather lived here. That too had been a year of bad drought and the Dhobis of the village had come to S’s grandfather, with a ‘save us’ petition. “And you know what your grandfather did? He heard them through, and then gave orders that from that day onwards, meals were to be provided once a day for all of these people. But it was not for free. The Dhobis were to desilt and clean up the village temple tank, which was lying dry. And only if they worked on that every day, would they be given their meal”. The villagers were happy and accepted.
Now, “S”, decided to follow his grandfather’s example. He called the Dhobis and told them just the same thing, and they too happily agreed. They toiled every day and cleaned the tank, and had their daily food provided for.
One day, they finished the cleaning work. It was a hot day, the sun was high and the temperature was upwards of 40 degrees C. They came, bowed to “S” and conveyed that they had finished the work, and requested him to come and inspect. As per local tradition, they took pieces of upper-cloth, wetted them with water, and laid them down on the ground, all along the half a mile path to the temple tank. It was a hot day, and so wetting the cloth had to be done in relay, and “S” walked on the clothes, barefoot, to the temple tank.
No sooner “S” reached the temple, there was a thunderclap. The skies opened up. It poured and poured.
“S” said: “Here I was. I had just returned from seven weeks at Harward, to my village in Tamil Nadu. And experiencing the wisdom of our ancients”.
“I cried” he said. “Standing in the rain, I just wept. I cried in joy, in humility. What else could I do?”