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The other side of the story - Those who count

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Those Who Count


Madhurantakam Rajaram

Every man and woman has his or her own special world. That’s why, to know about a new person means, to explore an unknown world. However, whenever we face a new person, it would not be nice to shower questions like “what is your name? What is the age? what is the job? Married or not?” Etc. To do so there has to be what is called a license. Such a license is given to only a few people, that too only once in ten years. The process is called “collecting census data.”  That is a procedure of gargantuan proportions. I had a chance to participate in such an exercise thrice in my life. Instead of calling it a chance, I feel, it would be better, to say it was a privilege. Because, me – in fact even you – we are all, the representatives of  the good old human civilisation. To know about people is to find out about our civilisation itself.


In 1961 I was performing my duties in a place called Paidipalle. By 71 I was

transferred to Bommagudi. I had to shift to Vanasthalam by 81. At that time  I was the first assistant in the local Upper Primary school..


Vanasthalam is not exactly a forest as the word would mean. That is a small village near the forest. The revenue village was trifurcated and three enumerators were appointed for the census work. Fringe villages on the forest side came to my share. There, the  houses were all scattered without a method, as if only to heckle the science of Vaastu. Looking at the material they are built with, it was apparent that they were yet to witness the cement age. People there are the real sons of soil in more than one sense, particularly due to the building material.. People are good by themselves. But when I went there with all the census records and started asking them questions, they decided for themselves that I am the representative of the Government.

“ When are you going to sink a borewell in our village?”

“ Why are the bank loans not sanctioned yet?”

“ When is the bridge coming up on the rivulet that cuts off the traffic during rains?” They took my life out, with similar questions.

After I explained that I am not capable of tackling the grievances of people and am a simple schoolteacher performing the official duty, they cooperated with me very sincerely. Whenever felt short of that commodity, they even offered me some material satisfaction in shape of hospitality and bid farewell to me in most respectful manner. I could finish my work a little before the deadline. Unable to contain myself, I had expressed my happiness about the same, to our Head Master.


He  was about to retire in a few days hence and also was a native of Vanasthalam. A man with a lot of information about the place. He paused for a couple of moments and said, “ OK! My friend! I am also happy that you have finished the job quickly. But I am sure, you must have omitted at least one family in your jurisdiction. I can’t find fault with you for that. Perhaps that family was never placed on records either in census counts, or in the voters lists. Enumerators could go round the villages. But, who has the patience to go into the forest?”


I was shocked. “What sir, Why do you say so?  Government has ordered us that each and every person, wherever they may be,  should  be enlisted with us. It does not matter if they are in the forest, or even on an island amidst the ocean. We must go there. You tell me where that family is! Then ask me, if I leave them alone.” I said.


I was verifying the information received from the Head Master. The family he mentioned is there in the forest. They are always in the forest. That too, not permanently in one place. Once they are at Nakkalabanda. Next, they are at the Maddimaku deep forest. Next, you will find them at the Pigeons hill. Why were the Aryans of the Vedic period nomads? Because their professions were like that. This family also follows suit. That is a cattle grazers family. Head of the family is Mallesu. He grazes the cows. So, he is known better, as Cowherd Mallesu. But, not a single cow of the herd is his own. All of them belong to the farmers in the villages. A herd of not less than two hundred cows is always there in that forest area. Grazing them during the daytime and  keeping a watch on the herd during night – that is what Mallesu does. All his family members share the work.


My search for Mallesu started early next morning. I set out with an escort who knew the forest well. We crossed the fringe hamlets, and walked for two kilometers in the gorge formed as a result of the rivulet’s course. Then, we entered the thick forest. It was growing thicker as we proceeded further. At last, we felt as if we were lost in the labyrinths of the jungle. Except for the sky above, we  were unable to see anything even ten yards further. The villager who came as my escort climbed onto the top of a tall tree, looked around and came down like a winner. “ Looks like we have to walk another mile, sir! That way, I could see the cattle moving” he declared.


 Our exploration continued for another one hour from under the thorny trees, and through the bent down bamboo groves, and through the brooks flowing silently. Then we accosted a big slanting boulder occupying a large area. On that, there were three huts made with branches and trees from around the place. Scantily clad children, all below the age of eight were playing on the rocks. Beyond, we could see a clearing surrounded by a high makeshift fencing. That must be the place meant for the night halt of the cows. There was a fire place before the huts, but not aglow at that time. There was only smoke emanating from the place. I could imagine that fire will be made in the nights to scare away the beasts of the jungle.


I caught hold of one of those elder looking boys and enquired about Mallesu.


“ Came for Grand father! Yes. He is there. In the forest. Shall I call him?” the boy said.


I asked him to do that. I was wondering there could be a special technique to call people who are beyond vision. But nothing of that sort.


“Tata! Tata! Somebody came for you!” the boy shouted loudly. His words reverberated in the hilly terrain.


Minutes passed.

“ Come out Mallesu! Even if you are hiding in the caves of the jungle, this census enumerator is not going to leave you alone. Whether in the rivulet or in the gorge, be in the bushes or in the thickets, you have to come and you must come!” As I was chanting the mantra of my determination, there were foot steps heard from behind. I turned back.


“Who are you, Sami? Did you come for me?” He was saying.


Must be seventy plus. Dark, lean, hardened body, and closely cut hair looking like a cap on his head, gray eye lashes, small eyes, a thick silver ornament in the neck, like a wrestler he wound his loin cloth tightly around the waist. There was a blanket on the shoulder and no shirt on the torso. He had a staff in the hand. That was Mallesu. The cowherd Mallesu who lives in the forest.


“ Yes Mr. Mallesu. I came just for you. The government takes count of all the people in the country every ten years. Each and every body, whoever they may be, should be taken into account. Otherwise even if they are there, it is as good not being there. I want the details of you and all other members of your family. The child if still in mother’s womb is exempted. But if he is born even minutes ago, should be accounted. Now you got me! You must answer all the questions I am going to ask ….”


Mallesu sat down, resting his chin on the knees and holding both hands around the legs. His face was full of awe, as if he was listening to some really curious news. He was staring at me in confusion.


Mallesu’s wife passed away ten years back. Three sons, daughters-in-law, their children, in all, there were fifteen members in the family. I had a prolonged interview with him to take the details of all those people.  If we leave all those details for the census records, we can condense the life story of Mallesu thus:


Mallesu’s father’s name was Venkatesu. He also was of the same profession, namely cattle grazing. Along with Mallesu’s birth, his past, present and the future  were all tied with this forest alone. Daughters-in-law go into the villages and come back by noon after collecting food from the farmers. That is the source of food for the family all through the day. Sons take the cows into the village only for impregnation. When due for delivery, the cows are taken to their owners in the villages. Once they stop giving milk, they are brought back to the forest. Family members left in the jungle keep a watch on the cows from atop high boulders.  By evening they bring back all the cows to safety within the fence.  During night, Mallesu sleeps on the cot near the fire place. If he listens the noise of any predator, he strokes the fire high, raises a flame, and starts beating a tin container, raising alarm. All the people including womenfolk and children collect there and start shouting “ Hoop, Hoop.” After they get satisfied that the beasts are gone, they would go back to sleep.


Wonder of wonders is that, even Mallesu it looks, could have had competitors in his business. But for the hereditary expertise his family  has in treating the sick cattle, people could have employed others for this job. The medication is purely rustic. They pick up some leaves and roots, pound them in the stone pestles on the boulders, collect the potion in bamboo tubes and administer to the sick cows. Best thing is that it works even in worst kind of illnesses. For the service they render to the farmers, apart from the food, this family gets a little money also. When Mallesu was young the rate was half a rupee for a cow, and is now raised to ten rupees per head. The couple of thousands collected that way,  Mallesu says, would barely suffice for the clothing for the family.


“ It’s OK! Mallesu! But, there is a proverb which says the man who collects honey, would also get to lick his hand. You are looking after such a big number of cows. Are you then, able to get any milk, curds or butter milk for your share?” I asked.


“ How is it possible, Sami? All the milch cows go back to the village and come here only when they go dry, Isn’t it?” Said Mallesu. There was not even a hint of complaint or dissatisfaction in his words.


“Mallesu! I thought I should ask you one more thing. Was there ever a necessity for you to leave this forest and go into the villages?” I asked.


“How can I avoid it? I have two daughters. Have I not to go and see them or what? The elder one is in Nadigadda. The younger one is given to Masandram. But both the places are within walking distance from here. If I start before dawn, by noon I am in Nadigadda. From there Masndram is not at all far off.”


“You are great Mallesu. You choose to walk to the places where your daughters are. Then, when is it that you get into a bus?” I asked.


“ Who will get into a bus for nothing, Sami? Without a need for that?”


“Then, how about the train?”


“ Of course, I want to see a train! What to do? There is no track nearby!”


True . Vanasthalam is in such a location. Nearest rail station is reached only after two hours of travel by bus.


Mallesu saw a bus but never got into it. He never had even a glimpse of a train. He is not educated. Not even worldly wise. Looking at his appearance, his words, abode, and the food habits, it appears, he has not moved much further from the stone-age man. But you can’t find fault with him for that. Civlisation has blessed him only that much. Truly speaking, we are aware of millions who are not in the reach of any niceties of life, and are devoid of even basic facilities, who could be worse or a pinch better than this Mallesu. Government so generously is trying to get all such people including beggars, poppers, and all sorts of people into the census records. However careful these efforts are, there would still be some, who would give a miss like the fish which slips out of the net through a gap.


Albeit, there is one point. There is place for sure, in the census records, for all those who while away their time eating from their ancestral property, and those who amass wealth by wrongful ways and grow in stature, and those lazy employees who never work but take their salaries. Would it not be injustice, if people like Mallesu, who work with utmost sincerity, do not find place in it?


By the sociological standards, Mallesu could well be an uncivilised man. If we divide the population into two types, where one lives for the society and the second fleeces the society white, Mallesu easily falls under the first kind. Because we are born on this earth as humans, there are certain good deeds that we are expected to do. The one good deed that I did in my life time, is to enroll Mallesu into the census records. 

One of Rajaram's extraordinary stories