The day I was returning to Bangalore from one of my visits to Sittilingi, it was raining heavily, to a point that I was thinking cats and dogs and other members of the fauna world might drop down if I stared at the sky long enough. As it happens when the rains come down hard, the bus that would take me out of the hills was late. Often times, these buses don’t come by at all, maybe because a tree has fallen and blocked a bridge or the roads may be flooded. Such times, the tribals have to wait many more hours for another bus or walk to the next town, huddled under near-broken umbrellas.
After a nice hot lunch made by the two Ammas in the community kitchen, I heaved my backpack and went to the bus stop just outside the hospital. There were several other tribals waiting, it being OP-day. The aforementioned rain was pouring and I struck up a conversation with an old lady who was holding to her husband to walk a few steps. I got asked all the usual questions that I am now used to answering there; ‘Are you a doctor?’, ‘Where are you from?’, ‘What work do you do?’ and the inevitable ‘Are you married?’ My answer that no, I am not married and that I live by myself in a big city scandalizes the tribals because most girls, even the boys, get married very early.
The old couple, who are from Kotapatti, ask me all the set questions and then it’s my turn. I ask them whether they come in every month for a check up under the health insurance scheme. They say that they are registered, but are too weak to come by regularly. They are there that day because the paati had a weak knee that was giving her a problem.
The bus is running late and in an exchange that I quite don’t follow, the lady says something sharp to her husband. Just then, a woman walks by carrying a huge basket on her head. As she sets her luggage down on the stone bench next to the bus stop, we all notice that she is taking out corn from within the folds of the gunny sack that lines her basket. The next minute she is calling out to people to come buy them at Rs 2 a piece. A crowd gathers slowly, some argue that Rs 2 is too much, others buy 4-5 pieces each. Meanwhile, I am again marvelling at how cheap everything is; we pay well over Rs 10 for corn in cities, more if it is boiled and you want some masala on it.
I am a passive observer. By then, I have found out that the couple in question here live alone in Kotapatti. A daughter is married off. The only son died in a bike accident just about a year ago; the lady’s eyes still fill with water when she tells me this. Money is rather tight, making the ends meet, difficult; I can sense that. The other side, the corn business is going on fast. Almost everyone there is munching on it when the old lady asks her husband how much it costs. “Two rupees”. “That is expensive,” she says. Her husband is silent, but catches his wife looking on. He digs into his pocket and pulls out a coin and tells her to buy one, “you are yearning for it, go buy,” he says. She hobbles over and comes back slowly; it takes her several minutes to do so, with her bad knee acting up again.
I can’t take my eyes off them; for here is a little love story, in an unlikely setting, between a rather unlikely couple. I am deeply touched at the innocence of the whole thing, the sheer simplicity of joy that is evoked by a little kind act, a touch, a smile. The love in the husband’s eyes for his wife is very evident. I know two rupees was not cheap for them. Even then, the old lady breaks off a piece of the corn and gives it to me. I tell her I have had lunch, but she insists that I will need to eat it on my long journey back. I am very touched; her gesture remains one of the sweetest things I have ever come across.
Paatis and Thathas like them stand to benefit some more now. A crucial help from HelpAge India has come through, something that will enable us at Tribal Health Initiative to help the old tribals in the region some more. We are thrilled about the support, and all your wishes that drive us to take giant steps ahead. Meanwhile, I continue to remain inspired by the little stories that I get to be part of in tribal land.