The Largehearted Warrior: Dayabai

Her finery lies in her simplicity, her beauty lies in her tanned skin and thin frame. Her eyes don’t lie, her words don’t betray her emotion. She found her calling neither in a convent nor a church but in the villages of Madhya Pradesh where her fellow human beings were and still are ill treated, exploited and abused because of their illiteracy and ignorance. She decided to become one of them, to stand with them and fight for them. This completed the metamorphosis from Mercy Mathew to Dayabai : the disciple of Christ and the woman of steel. I have taken care to avoid questions that have been asked earlier by several others who have interviewed Dayabai. Allow me to take you through a small journey of introspection.

Me: You don’t like being called a ‘social worker’; why?

Ms Daya Bai: I don’t like that term because it’s too narrow in scope. However I am not against the use of it when there is a need to, like when I go to the officials to say who I am. After all, I am professionally classified as a social worker and have a say, no?

Me: Should you also become part of the oppressed if you want to genuinely want to emancipate them?

Ms Daya Bai: You needn’t become one of the oppressed but you must become part of them to understand their problems and tensions. I completely disagree with the American work ethic that professional social workers taught us; that the client and worker should maintain a great distance and the latter should not identify himself with the former. The examples of Christ and Gandhi did not adhere to the American work ethic. Why did a privileged barrister like Gandhi choose to be with the oppressed? Why did Christ choose that kind of a life? When I place myself than the people I work with, I am neither on the same platform nor wavelength. I think we must go by equality. Personally, I do it because it’s my way of indirectly telling them “I love you and I accept all what you are”. Everything begins with love.

Me: How has your journey changed your perspective on spirituality and ethics?

Ms Daya Bai: For instance I don’t see spirituality contained in the so-called ‘religion’ but I follow certain principles which may not be accepted by the church. I believe in Christian values which are human values however given my present circumstance I resort to some alternative options. For instance I don’t go for Holy Mass as the nearest church is a hundred km away but I do celebrate the Holy Mass because I have believed that with baptism we have become part of Christ and also as part of Christ’s own body. I have also read somewhere that with every second there is a Eucharistic transformation taking place somewhere in the world. I may be roaming around for most of the day, giving to somebody some kind of help. I may come home feeling broken and wanting to share a great deal of my feelings with somebody. I sit alone and say “Lord, here is my broken body and bones. I offer it with Eucharistic transformation’ and this way I celebrate the Holy Mass.

Me: How did it feel to leave behind a familiar culture for one that’s totally different?

Ms Daya Bai: Well, It was not a sudden change but a gradual one. Also by reading a lot I had totally decided that this is the kind of life I wanted. Similarly the chorus of a hymn on missionary work that goes “Kaatum Mazhayum Vaeyilum Manjum kootaakaathe thaanum” (roughly translated as ‘one who is unperturbed by the wind, rain, harsh sunlight and snow.’) inspired me a lot. So, it was a blunt decision. I wouldn’t be what I am today if I didn’t allow myself to fully imbibe the change.

Me: From your experience can you tell me about the various ways by which the society can take advantage of a woman?

Ms Daya Bai: Its single women more than just women as such; women belonging to the lower strata of the society, scheduled caste , tribal communities; illiterate ones and rural women who are not used to the city and have no access to the so called ‘ development’ are easily vulnerable. People take advantage of their ignorance thereby used them for work and eventual sexual exploitation. I too have experienced this.
In a partly biographical book called ‘Pachcha Viral’ I happened to share this incident under the first chapter which was called ‘May I Come In’. One evening a certain officer landed up at the guest house I was residing at and pretended to want to do a lot of help for the tribals and to use me as the mediator. Judging by his mannerisms I understood that his interest lay elsewhere and he was more concerned with spending the night with me. After the meeting he made the crowd disperse. To those who were still hanging around I asked that the officer be taken to the guest house saying “He has come for your welfare.” The officer left only to return again at my place, an open verandah at a widow’s house. Noting her absence, he came there at 2 AM asking “May I come in?”. I had to handle him in such a way that none of my neighbours were to come to know of his visit. I took him to a faraway place and responded “You are to consult me for tribal related work only during the day and not at night”. These type of incidents happen quite often.
I noticed that when I changed my way of appearance and came to public places I very easily got invitations to spend time with people at movies. People offer me jobs like ‘jhadoowali’ (sweeper) in their office just so they can use me for their pleasure.

Me: What made you go on despite calling yourself a ‘misfit’ under the umbrella of the church?

Ms Daya Bai: I was a misfit practically everywhere. It was not only in the church but often at public places. When a student, I was a misfit as I differed from my colleagues in opinion. I did whatever I felt convinced was right. For instance a new fashion came into existence when in was in 9th or 10th std. When The neck and back of the blouse that we teamed with a skirt or ‘dhawani’ went so low and the sleeves were extremely short, I went to my family tailor and said “Chacko cheta please make a new blouse for me.” and showed him a sketch of the long sleeved, high necked blouse with frills on top that I wanted. When I wore it and went to school everyone stared at me. In the first period a teacher who had taught my mother entered the class. After attendance was called out He asked me to walk to him and face the class, He then began singing a beautiful song about modesty being important for girls and women. I felt so happy but otherwise I wouldn’t fit in there. I walked out during the first year of my MSW as they were teaching a very American based and urban oriented syllabus. They taught us that 75% of the population was in the rural area but there was nothing to prepare me to work for the rural population. So I questioned and after first year I dropped out. Our college was so good that you could give all kinds of evaluation and criticism and I did that. They changed the syllabus twice and I returned after eight years to finish my second year. This time they gave me a lot of freedom.

Me: I am curious to know what your definition of Jesus Christ is like.

Ms Daya Bai: (chuckling) I have no definition, He’s a person. He was very sensitive to everything, even the minutest thing in every situation. The way he taught, the way he went about his mission, the way he responded and reacted to situations. That was something wonderful and he was a real human being. He could cry, he could laugh. We don’t hear anything about Jesus’ laughter but he must have laughed (smiling brightly). He was affectionate to women; he could be very gentle with them. He was sensitive , a human being with all the possibilities of one.

Me: So you were greatly inspired by the human side of Jesus.

Ms Daya Bai: If he was God then I wouldn’t follow Him. He could have done anything for that matter.

Me: Who is the ‘Ooperwallah’ you believe in?

Ms Daya Bai: ‘Ooperwallah’ is the big power above me. It has no shape. You may call it God or nature but it’s something more than that.

Me: You are a witness to how money has corrupted the tribal people. Do you think that they can go back to their previous way of living?

Ms Daya Bai: No, bringing them back to what they were may not happen but It is possible to make them understand the reality, how they are easily manipulated and also how they are losing the good things in their own culture. That’s what I am trying to do: go back to the age old processes of cultivation, sustainable agriculture, simple dress, to have very little articles of possessions, to shun synthetic clothes. It’s not only money that has corrupted them. It’s also the fact that they were unprepared to use money in the proper way. It has made them quite greedy and selfish.

Me: How does it feel to have transformed and entire group of villages in terms of water conservation and otherwise?

Ms Daya Bai : That would have been wonderful. It was my dream to do so but it is delaying a little bit. I don’t need to work the way I used to because people are now more empowered and conscious of their rights. What I think we need now is a kind of community of people irrespective of faith and class to do this kind of work: close to the earth, preserving the soil, cultivating food at least through manual work and helping the tribal people. This kind of a community should help in preparing for the future an alternative kind of education and not the traditional kind of schools. This is what I dream of now if I have the right to do so. My little land will be open for that purpose.

Me: How do you stay level headed?

Ms Daya Bai: I don’t really know. I leave everything to the ‘Ooperwallah’. I practice yoga, meditation and live in communion with nature. A lot has to do with nature. There is no overt attempt for me to stay balanced, it just happens.

This interview was published in ‘Agape’ the bulletin of the Madras Diocese(Malankara Orthodox church). It was put up on my blog ‘Conversations’ on 21st November 2014


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