Smt. DAYA BAI is a fairly well-known social worker having a long-standing association with tribal people in Madhya Pradesh [now Chhattisgarh],
. Her journey to reach where she is currently, was not an easy one, in the least. It has been an exploration of her inner self, her search for ‘light’, the true path, her calling. Almost70, she humbly admits, she’s still looking for the purpose of her life. That is an astonishing admission from someone with a body of work like hers. But then, it is the journey which adds meaning to life, and not the destination itself! India
On the 10th of July 2010, she graced the weekly meeting of SPICMACAY and shared her experiences with us. It was inspiring to hear about the dual pursuit driving it. One being the welfare of tribals, and the other, her continual search for a purpose. It is the latter search which has shaped most of her life experiences. As a septuagenarian, there is undoubtedly a lot she has been through. It is her journey, and never-say-die attitude that made this interaction most memorable.
Despite hailing from a well-to-do family in Kerala, she was not spoilt. She has a twin sister and at the age of 3, she moved from
to the state of Travancore. She was there till the age of 15-16. In her house, inhabited by members of a large extended family, she saw untouchability being practiced. That difference between ‘us and them’ was what struck her, and it was her trigger, the starting point. Five of her aunts were nuns, and that inspired her. She went to the convent too, but did not become a sister. Cochin
As a child, she heard a song in Malayalam on the life of priests [missionaries] in north
. “I wanted to be like that, carefree and devoted.” Then she told her family about it, but had health problems. Hence, she made herself “tough”, and then applied and got through the training centre in Hazaribagh, India Bihar. When in the campus, she saw tribals doing menial/servant jobs. This shattered her dream and broke her into tears. Then she realized, this was not her vocation!
During the period of her training at the seminary, a sense of sensitivity emerged. On Christmas, hordes of tribal people came from far off for the Midnight Mass. Seeing them, she couldn’t stay in the convent! After the next day’s prayer, she took a resolution – to finish her course, and at the end of it, if she had even a bit doubt, then she won’t take the promotion.
And that’s how it was to be. She finished her course and moved out, did odd jobs to get an experience on the field, and to find the ‘purpose of her life’. She did a BSc from
. There was one Austrian Sister running a school-cum-training centre for tribals in Chhattisgarh, and she went to her. But, she was given a job in another school. In search of light, she worked across places, including at MISSIONARIES OF CHARITY during the cyclone. So, basically, being in the social work line, she applied for MSW at Nirmala Niketan, Mumbai, while she was on field in Ranchi . Bangladesh
Her application was immediately accepted due to her vast on-the-job experience. But the course, fashioned largely on European and other non-Indian lines, with its strictly academic focus, did not appeal to her. Here too, she considered herself a misfit! Somehow managing to finish the first year, she left on her journey again, this time working in
Maharashtra and Haryana. Eight years down the line, after two syllabi revisions Field Work was introduced in the course. And then she returned to do her 2nd year!
It was during the field work for this course that she went to Chhinwada, to do her study with the people of Gond tribe. After random unwelcome experiences, she finally established a bond with the people, due to assistance during childbirth to a tribal woman. Apart from being a voracious reader, she’d previously done a course in nursing too! After having submitted her final paper, she came back to this place. But her attire drove the women away. They weren’t used to draping their saree around a petticoat, unlike her!
But Daya Bai-ji had her trust in God. The village could be reached only by walking a stretch of 23kms through the jungle. People of the Bhil, Saam and Gond tribe lived together in relative harmony and no one was literate. The World Bank had forcefully made them take loans through the local banks for ‘development’. Cheating was rampant in this and the Gondwana tribe had become dehumanized. She was shocked out of her senses when one tribe/ village senior referred to themselves as ‘jungle ke bandar’ [monkeys of the forest]. She was determined to bridge the gap between ‘us and them’.
She came back there for Christmas and started with doing labour and earning with them. Then, by trick, she saw the records on papers and told the people about how they were being cheated. This was in 1981, and she began her participation with spreading awareness about labour ill-practices. A school was set up and a well was dug. There were night classes held for adults, to whom the first word she taught was हक़ [haq, right]. Letting her creative juices flow, she taught Fundamental Rights by means of songs and stories. This launched her active phase and gradually the inferior feeling amongst the tribals started to reduce.
After laying the foundation, she moved on to tackling environmental problems like deforestation and hybrid seeds. Her current focus is on organic farming, planting trees, organic manure [humus], water harvesting by building bunds and diggings pits, etc. A believer in ‘practice what you preach’, she does not use tap water, for it always results in wastage. And, she left the use of soap and toothpaste right after her course at the seminary. She also established a now successful self-help group amongst the women there.
She has received many awards in recognition of her work and is well known in the Kerala press. But progress breeds enemies too. She has many blockages planted in her path, having been tortured by the police, her teeth-broken for filing an FIR and mocked at in the court during a trial. Currently she’s fighting a case against her, which has reared its head after three years. She has published a collection of her poetry and her biography has been penned and published in Malayalam.
By her own admission, she is still searching for the ‘purpose’ of her life. Her journey is an inspiration for everyone, to contribute their bit towards a fair and just society. And, the search continues….