My darling boy!!

How are you? I am conversing with you in this fashion after a long time …… Unfortunately, we cannot meet. So, you must be thinking that you are entitled to at least a letter from me. But, what can I do? There is too much of work pressure! I decided to write a letter to you today as it is your birthday. You must have celebrated your birthday by wearing new clothes and distributing chocolates to your classmates in the school, right? Do you know dear boy, that there are lakhs of children in our country who do not know what birthday means, who do not even know the date they were born? They do not know their age, even their parents cannot tell them since they are not educated and do not keep records. At an age where they should be playing and going in a nice uniform to school to study, they struggle to earn their livelihoods by herding cattle or working as farm hands in villages, working in companies or being rag pickers in cities.

My dear boy! I would like to tell you how some of these children who never went to ‘school’ are learning life’s lessons. A ‘light’ shines on their dark lives with the help of which they are learning life’s lessons. ‘Annas’ are that light in their lives. These annas go around the villages which are remote from towns and cities, and educate the young boys who herd cattle in villages, the boys and girls in Dalit bastis and the children of fisher folk. These fisher folk had migrated from hundreds of miles and settled down on the shores of the rivers. Know how the annas impart wisdom to these young children. You will never find this story of how the young ones are learning new things in any of your textbooks or your story books. Let’s get into the story then.

That was a full moon day! The moonlight was so bright that it looked like daytime! The guerilla squad came marching with rigour in the sandy shores of the Krishna River. The fishermen who saw the squad from afar gave them a whole hearted welcome. There wasn’t a single proper house in that area where twenty families were living. All the families lived under baskets, the very baskets that they used for fishing in the river. There were thickly forested hills and hillocks around that place. The squad that consisted of two akkas and three annas greeted all the elders and the children with ‘red salute’ and shook hands with them. The children were greatly excited looking at the squad members who carried kits on their backs and guns on their shoulders. After a while, the hubbub died down!

Sagaranna took position on a boulder to act as a sentry. Meenakka from the squad started making preparations for food while talking to the women there. The squad commander held a meeting with the fishermen. Ramanna, the deputy commander of the squad, called over the young boys and girls and told them “let’s start doing exercises”. As soon as he said that, the girls and boys came running and surrounded him.

“All of you should first stand in a line. The girls should stand in the first line and the boys should stand behind them in the second line” Ramanna said.

The children jostled one another and finally stood in lines as suggested. Seetakka who had been talking to other women saw the group of children and came over to them. She viewed these children as the future heirs of the revolution and was very keen to mould them. They were between four to twelve years of age, so they could grasp things easily. So, she loved spending time with them. She was constantly in search of ways to make them understand the exploitation and oppression present in the society. She went to the children and made them stand at equidistance from one another.

“All of you should see what I am doing and follow my instructions” Ramanna said and started giving commands. He said “savdhan” and stood in attention. The children followed suit. When Ramanna said “visram”, they moved to an ‘at ease’ position imitating him. Seetakka corrected the children who were not doing it properly.

After the drill, the children stood in a single line, chanted ‘left, right’ and started marching. Seeing the marching children, Seetakka started singing in ecstasy “Victory to red army! Victory to people’s army!” Ramanna and the children sang in chorus.

After the march was completed, Ramanna showed crawling position to the children. As soon as he gave the command “down”, the children lied down on the ground. As Ramanna showed them how to crawl, they also started to crawl behind him methodically. Seetakka again corrected those who were unable to do it properly.

“The squad is marching …. the multitude is marching!” Ramanna sang in a thunderous voice. Seetakka and the children sang in chorus. Seetakka added a couple of sentences of her own at the end of the song.

“The squad is marching on the shores of the Krishna River! The squad of young brothers is marching! The squad of young sisters is marching!!”

Ramanna picked up from there and sang – “The multitude is marching …. The children’s army is marching! Are the landlords running away? …. Are bombs exploding in Chandrababu’s1 heart?”

As the enthusiasm and passion accompanying the song and the tidal wave of the chorus were echoed by the hills around, it seemed as if the waves of the Krishna river provided music to the song, sharpening it further. After completing crawling, the children jumped up and executed a “break up”. After that, all of them gathered around Ramanna. Ramanna sang a couple of songs, made them also sing along with him and then said “now, I will tell you a story”. Then he told them the following story.

“There was an old woman in a village. She had two sons. The elder one is named Raju and the younger one Ratnam. Before dying, she distributed her property equally between her sons. But, there were three things that she did not bequeath to either of them – a cow, a mango tree and a blanket! She asked them to use these three jointly and not to fight with each other. Then she died.

On a daily basis, Ratnam brought fodder for the cow and watered the mango tree. He washed the blanket every fortnight. Raju only roamed around the village like a lord and never did any work. He wouldn’t feed the cow but milked it daily. He wouldn’t water the mango tree but took all its fruits. He wouldn’t wash the blanket but used it daily to cover himself. Ratnam worked very hard every day but lived in poverty because Raju took all the money Ratnam earned by selling milk and mangoes.”

At this point, Ramanna stopped telling the story and asked “tell me, who is doing all the hard work?”

“Ratnam” replied some of the children instantly.

“And, who is sitting idle and enjoying himself?” Ramanna asked again.

“His brother Raju” replied the children.

“So, is this just?” asked Ramanna.

“No, it is unjust” replied the children in a chorus. Seetakka laughed happily listening to the children.

Ramanna continued with the story.

“Ratnam then thought that despite his hard work he was not getting the fruits of his labour. So, instead of using those three things jointly, he proposed to split them between him and his brother. Raju knew how naïve Ratnam was. So, he agreed to the split but insisted that he would decide on the split. Ratnam agreed to that. Raju first tackled the cow. He said the front part of the cow was Ratnam’s while he owned the hind part. With the mango tree, he gave the base of the tree to his brother and kept the upper part of the tree for himself. He asked his brother to use the blanket in the mornings while he will use it in the night. Ratnam agreed naively to everything his brother said. After the split too, there was no change in Ratnam’s condition. Since the cow’s front part was his, he spent every day feeding the cow while Raju, who owned the hind part happily used the milk from the cow. Similarly, Ratnam watered the mango tree daily but he wasn’t allowed to use its fruits since the upper part with fruits belonged to his brother. Raju harvested all the fruits, sold them and made a lot of money. Ratnam never used the blanket in the mornings as he did not need it and Raju would cover himself snugly with it in the night and sleep. Ratnam did not blame his brother for any of these things he merely cursed his fate for it. He thought it didn’t matter as to who was enjoying the produce. He continued to work hard and lived in poverty. Seeing his naivete, some people in the village told him that his brother was being unjust to him and asked him to demand his share of things. After being repeatedly told this, Ratnam finally decided to ask his brother for his just share. He came up with an idea of how to broach the subject with him.

Ratnam did not feed the cow one day. That evening, when Raju came to milk the cow, Ratnam brought fodder for the cow. As the cow started eating, Ratnam hit the cow with a stick on its mouth. The cow got angry and kicked Raju who was milking it. The milk pail fell far away and Raju fell on his back. Raju asked his brother angrily ‘why are you not letting the cow eat? Why are you hitting it?’ Ratnam replied innocently that he was only trying to hit the flies on the cow’s face. Raju tried milking again and Ratnam repeated his act. Raju was furious with his brother. ‘The front part of the cow is mine, I will do as I like’ said Ratnam. Raju understood that unless his brother provided fodder to the cow and took proper care of it, he cannot obtain any milk from it. So, he fell in line. He proposed that both of them would take care of the cow and share its milk. The next day Raju climbed the mango tree to pluck the fruits. At the same time, Ratnam brought an axe and started cutting the base of the tree. Raju asked him why he was cutting the tree. ‘The lower part of the tree is mine, I will do as I like with it’ said Ratnam. Raju understood that the tree will not stand unless the base is strong. He said to his brother ‘let us take turns watering the tree and share its fruits’.”

Ramanna stopped telling the story and asked “how was Ratnam earlier?”

“An ignoramus” replied a girl.

“And, how did he become now?”

“He became wiser” responded one of the boys.

“He became wiser gradually” added another girl.

Ramanna continued with the story.

“On the third day evening, Ratnam washed the blanket and hung it out to dry. Raju roamed around the whole day and came home in the night. After completing his dinner, he looked for the blanket to cover himself. It was absolutely wet. He understood that his brother was not naïve as before and he cannot cheat him. So, he told Ratnam that both of them will share the use of the blanket and he started washing it occasionally. Raju also started bringing fodder for the cow and watering the mango tree. So, both the brothers shared the work and the fruits of their labour.”

Ramanna concluded his story and asked the children “did you understand the story?”

The children nodded their heads.

“What is the moral of the story?” he asked.

One of the older girls said “we should fight for our rights”.

“Yes, we should fight. This story tells us that we have life only if we rebel. As long as Ratnam remained submissive, Raju exploited his brother. Only when Ratnam became wiser and started fighting with his brother for his share, he got his due. Tell me, does mother give you food at home unless you tell her you are hungry?” said Ramanna. The children shouted “no”.

“Let us say we have an infant sister at home. She is lying in one corner and mother is busy with her work. Unless the infant cries, will the mother feed her?” Ramanna asked them.

“No” said some of the children.

“So, only if the infant cries, the mother stops her work and comes and feeds her. Since the infant doesn’t know how to speak, she is crying to tell her mother she is hungry and wants milk. Similarly, when somebody faces injustice, they should question it and fight against it. Only then will they obtain justice. It doesn’t help to be meek because the whole world tries to suppress the meek.

See now, we work hard day and night knitting the nets and catching fish in the night by sacrificing our sleep. How much does the merchant pay for our fish?” Ramanna asked.

“Thirteen rupees” replied some of the elder children.

“How much does he charge for the fish when he sells them in the city?” Ramanna asked.

“Who knows” replied some of the children.

“That is exactly what we need to find out. He buys the fish from us for thirteen rupees and sells them at forty rupees or more per kilo in the city. After deducting his expenses, he still makes a profit of twenty to thirty rupees per kilo. How much do we earn? Even if the entire household works day and night, we barely earn ten rupees per kilo. We have to buy the baskets and nets from what we earn. What is left for our living expenses? Isn’t this unjust?” Ramanna looked enquiringly at the children.

“Yes! It is definitely unfair, unjust!” shouted the children angrily, in chorus.

“Do you see how he weighs the fish?” asked Ramanna.

“He puts the weighing stone in one pan and puts fish in the other pan of the weighing scale till the pan with the fish goes down below the other pan” explained one of the older girls.

“Correct. That is how he takes more fish than the weight. But when it comes to money, does he pay more than the weight?” asked Ramanna.

“Ahh… Why would he give more?” answered the previous girl.

“Then this is also unjust” responded one of the younger boys whose childishness could still be seen in his smooth cheeks.

“Well then, did any of you ever question this injustice?” asked Ramanna.

“No” answered some of the kids guiltily.

“Well, shouldn’t you question?” Ramanna asked.

Immediately some of them said “yes, yes we should question”.

“Who should question?” said Ramanna. There was only silence in answer.

“You should ask, because your fathers won’t. You are seeing everything. How did your grandfathers live? They worked hard and ate rice with chilli powder in it. How about your fathers? They also work hard on a starvation diet. They continue to live in poverty. Did they earn any wealth? No. But look at the merchant who buys fish from us, how was he ten years ago? He used to come on a cycle and buy fish from us. Now he comes in a steamer and loads kilos of fish in it. He has two steamers now. Where did he get so much money from? He got it by exploiting us. It is all due to our hard work. We work hard from the break of dawn till night and all we get is rice with chilli in it. Does the merchant do any hard work? He just comes in a steamer and loads it with fish and goes. So, without doing any hard work, how is he making so much money? If he sells the fish for forty rupees a kilo, he should give thirty rupees or at least twenty five rupees to us. All this is injustice to us. You should note one more thing – when it comes to selling in the city, the merchant fixes the rate as he likes it and when buying from us also, he fixes the rate. How is this correct? Tell me, who do the fish belong to?”

“To us” said all the children in unison.

“Then, if the fish belong to us, shouldn’t we be able to sell them at a rate acceptable to us?”

“Yes” said the children.

“But, are we doing that? Who is fixing the rate?”

“The merchant” said the children.

“Is that fair?” asked Ramanna and the children replied “no”.

“Then what should we do to get a fair rate?” Ramanna asked.

“We should fight, we should fight” replied the children passionately.

“What did we observe in the previous story that I told you? For as long as Ratnam kept quiet about the injustice his brother was perpetrating on him, he had to put up with troubles. Only after he became wiser and rebelled against his brother, he got his fair share of things. Similarly, you should also question this injustice. Our fathers are not going to question it, so you should.”

Then Ramanna asked all the children about their grandfathers and great grandfathers. All the children said their grandfathers died.

“So, our grandfathers and great grandfathers are not there. After some more years, our fathers will also be gone and more years later, we will be dead too. All of us have to die one day. Some will die earlier either due to old age or illness. Anyway we have to die one day, so why not die fighting for justice? At least then, the next generation will be rid of some of these troubles. Unless we fight, our troubles will not end!” said Ramanna.

His words made the children think. They looked as if they understood new things and unconsciously they nodded their heads in agreement.

“What happens if you fight with empty hands?”

“We will die” said some, “we will lose” said others.

“So, what should we do?”

The question wasn’t even completed when a young boy answered sharply “pick up guns”.

“Yes, we need weapons to fight. Weapons don’t necessarily mean guns. After you grow up, you can pick up guns. But now, you can use sticks and stones and chilli powder as weapons. Let’s say we fight with the merchant to increase the rate for fish. What will the merchant do? He will bring the police to beat us up. Who are the police? They are the servants of the government. And, whose government is this? It is of the wealthy people. So, whenever the wealthy people call them, the police come. When the poor rebel against their exploitation by the wealthy, the police suppress them. Therefore, only if all of us poor people unite, we can fight against the wealthy. The Annas are the ones who came to unite the poor. Tell me, who are these Annas?” Ramanna paused.

“They fight for the poor” answered one or two.

“Yes. That means they are on our side. The police and the government are on the side of the wealthy. You understand that, right? So, if the police come, you should inform Annas immediately”. Ramanna continued telling them many things.

The children learnt many things which are not taught in any formal school.  They understood the roots of exploitation and the ways to fight it. It was not just these children but the poor children in villages, the Adivasi children in forests and the Lambadi children in Tandas were learning new things. They also learnt how to protect the Annas who bring light into their darkened lives. They knew how to do sentry for Annas while playing marbles in front of the house or while herding cattle in the forests. If they saw the police, they conveyed that information to the Annas without the police being aware of it. If the police came to their houses and asked for drinking water, they mixed salt or urine in that water and told them innocently ‘where do we get drinking water sir? This is what we drink’. When the police descended on the villages like vultures and beat the poor people, they knew how to attack them secretly by pelting stones at them.

Chandrababu1 may be very pleased that he is making ‘education’ unaffordable to the poor by closing all the government schools and privatizing it. But he is unable to understand that his misdeeds are pushing the poor closer to ‘real education’. On the bank of the Krishna River, Ramanna gave military training and political education to the children of the fisher folk for two hours. He then sang a couple of songs and taught the children how to give slogans.

When Ramanna said ‘children’s union!’ the children cried in unison ‘Long Live!’ When he said ‘tyranny of lords and merchants’ the children responded angrily ‘down down’! In response to ‘exploitation and oppression’, they said ‘may they perish’. As a response to ‘martyrs’, they clenched their fists and said ‘Red salutes’. In response to ‘ideals of martyrs’, they said ‘we will take them forward’. Seetakka who had been watching the children giving slogans with a smile on her face, showed them how to clench the fist and raise it while giving slogans. They prepared some more slogans impromptu. When Ramanna said ‘all the lords in the village’, the children responded with ‘ran away in their loin cloth’. Seetakka laughed whole heartedly at the children giving the slogans. The future dream gleamed in that laughter. The funny slogans attracted the attention of the elders who looked at the children’s group with excitement. It seemed as if Nature was also entranced by the enthusiasm of those young children!

My dear boy! You would have only seen city bred children who tell sweetly ‘I am three years old’ when asked ‘how old are you’. The children of the fisher folk cannot tell you their ages. It is also difficult to estimate their ages on the basis of their height or weight. They don’t have houses on the shore of the river. If they cannot find fish in a place, they move to another place on the shore. They are always on the move. The baskets they use to catch fish act as their houses. Those cannot protect them from vagaries of nature. Since they are exposed to the elements and eat only fish curry and chilli powder with no other nutritious food, they are stunted. So, it is difficult to figure out their age. They start working from the age of six from dawn to dusk, helping their fathers to fish. Because of the hard work they do, their bodies are so hardened that you cannot find any traces of childishness in them. When I contrast these kids with the convent kids in cities, I feel heart wrenching pain! These families migrated to this place twenty or thirty years ago from Srikakulam. These children are learning why there is no improvement in their lives even after so many years. From a very young age, these children had been meeting Annas and from them they started to understand why they are unable to know their ages, and why they are carrying burdens way beyond their ages. From this understanding, they will show courage beyond their age and they will arm themselves to change their lives.

Dear boy! Do you know why I am telling you all this? It is so that you understand the real meaning of a birthday!  ‘Birthday’ is a day for us to assess whether or not we are living meaningfully. Many creatures live and die on this earth. But, having been born a human, we have to live in such a way that there is a ‘meaning’ and an aim to our life. There is no satisfaction in living for our self. Life has meaning only in living and dying for others. That gives us satisfaction. On every birthday, we should assess if we are getting closer to our aim in life. With each passing year, we should mould our personality to greater heights. So, you should give importance to learning good things on your birthday rather than celebrating it. I know that at barely ten years of age, it is difficult for you to understand these things but I may not be around to tell you when you grow up. I am writing all these things with the hope that you will understand what I am saying at least when you grow up. Hoping that every birthday is a step in your growth, this is my small gift to you darling boy! Goodbye!



Note: ‘Anna’ and ‘Akka’ are the words used by people to address male and female Naxalites respectively.

Amma* – Mother

1 Chandrababu Naidu was the Chief Minister of erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh from 1995 to 2004

(Translation of “Kanuka”. [Initially published in Arunatara, February 2001] From the collection of “Viyyukka”) –Translated by P. Aravinda

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