Me: How did you go about winning the trust of the tribals?
Ms Daya Bai: I never thought I would win their trust . Firstly I had to bear in mind that they were royals who had ruled for almost eleven centuries. Besides that I wanted to base my work in a location where churches and NGOs weren’t around. I did all this, never telling them that I came for social work but for research purposes.
The tribals normally do not take others into their fold and hence I had to sleep on an open verandah. I went about and did my work, naturally gaining their trust.
Once, at a particular place was staying at, I had returned in the evening and the neighbour came , asking me for tea leaves . His wife was in labour pains. I brought the tea leaves and asked if I could come inside, he agreed. I was curious to see how they would concoct the beverage. The whole night, I sat near the woman and spent my time rubbing her little hands and feet as if to share in her ache and pain, giving her some moral support and consolation. In the morning I accompanied the women in their rituals despite being an outsider. When I returned, the woman said “Tum mere ‘goi’ ho” (You are my special friend now) .You are now a ‘bandhewaali ’ “. So that was a relationship built and there was love and trust. Similarly when I knew that there was a wage problem created by the Forest department I didn’t approach the authorities as a professional social worker to find out about the rate of the wages. Instead I went to work as one among the tribals and received a wage of Rs 5 per week. When I saw the wage record and based on what I witnessed, I made the tribals conscious of their rights and how they were being exploited. They were not willing to do anything in the beginning but eventually they did. News about me started spreading and they understood that I am for them and with them
Me: I have often wanted to ask somebody this question, isn’t calling our fellow brethren as ‘tribals’ almost like a racial slur?
Ms Daya Bai: Yeah, even I don’t like to address them thus. I call them as ‘our people’ but we need to categorize them as ‘tribals’ for legal purposes. I refer to them as ‘tribals’ as they have a clear racial identity and they are proud to be that. So I would use it for them. In the Indian scenario they are to gain as they have a lot of reservation, benefits etc.
Me: Do you think a better term other than ‘tribals’ can be used to address them?
Ms Daya Bai: No, not at all. They are happy with being called ‘Tribals’. They proudly call themselves so. But it may be different for ‘Harijans’; It may not go well with them as it has more to do with caste and is considered truly demeaning. As for tribals they think highly of themselves and we are considered low. Initially I was looked upon as untouchable with them. I had no entry into their house till they saw I was fully with them and they accepted me as one of them. Then I had access to their house, I could participate in their ‘pujas’. Otherwise I was like an outcaste.
Me: Have you ever felt lonely in your struggle?
Ms Daya Bai: I haven’t felt lonely but have experienced aloneness sometimes. I am usually busy the whole day but come home around evening time and am alone. I then want to share my feelings and thoughts with somebody in that level with which I don’t usually do with the village people. This is often missing. But then I have managed to work it out, I speak to the ‘ooperwallah’ and I speak to animals.
Me: So would you call yourself a pantheist?
Ms Daya Bai: I don’t call myself by that name but I see God in everything, everything.
Me: What is the most turbulent experience that you have undergone while working with the tribals?
Ms Daya Bai: Well, there are many like that case about the torture that I had undergone while opening a school. There was much opposition when I took up a lot of cases. Even the Forest Guard cutting teak from the forest and leaving it in my land to frame me was truly an example of how people’s minds work to defame and trap you in some way. The higher officials felt that the story was fabricated when I said I was ready to go to the Supreme Court. They didn’t have the courage to make a case against me or to take that wood away. I wrote again and again but eventually the person I wrote to died of heart attack. (frowning) I don’t know whether it is because of me that it happened. However many people have come and told me “Madam, aap ka sab ooperwallah settle karta hain” because those who have had this kind of thing died or something else had happened to them; I don’t will it to happen. What I feel is we human beings have lot of power; more than a nuclear bomb. We have to use that power and channelize it by strong will, strong conviction and clinging to the ‘ooperwallah’ because there is a power beyond you.
Me: As a woman what was the kind opposition that you had to face from the society
Daya Bai: Nahi Nahi , it’s not only opposition but a whole lot of unpleasant things. In Malayalam there is a book called ‘Pachcha Viral’ where the first chapter is ‘May I Come In’. So, an officer came to my place when I was sleeping on an open verandah in the middle of the night in to have his time with me. I have experienced torture at the hands of many , many, women who did all kinds of things to me in the bus, in the train, in public places and when I came as a forward class woman, a gaowali . It has happened to me so many times.
Me: So you believe that patriarchy is not restricted to the manly form.
Ms Daya Bai: Of course, even women advocate patriarchy. In the dowry case it’s usually the mother in law who’s the mastermind. It’s part of a kind of system but men have a patriarchal attitude much more strongly.
Me: As someone who has led most of your life alone what do you have to say to today’s young women who experience all kinds of abuse alone?
Ms Daya Bai: I don’t have to say anything because each one has to find their own space and what they want to do with their own lives. But what I want to say to them is that each one should find what they want to do, who they want to be and to be that. Very often they compromise for the sake of their husband , son or parents and are not living their lives.
Me: For someone who has gone through a lot of abuse do you believe that kindness can pull these people out of what they go through?
Ms Daya Bai: It’s not only kindness; their own realization of their personal worth, their potential, what they want is crucial. I think they can. What is important is the discovery of oneself and a positive attitude. This can make a woman realize her potential.
Me: Do you feel that social ethic as such is unfair to women? It is a very popular tradition to blame the rape victim and not the perpetrator.
Ms Daya Bai: Not necessarily. Most of the women raped in India are poor. Hence poverty and ignorance are the enemies here. Secondly women who raise their voices , uncompromisingly going against the prevailing patriarchal system are made to be silenced through rape. It is a grotesque and inhuman way of ‘punishing ‘ them without murdering them. Otherwise how can anyone pick up a shabbily dressed, untidy girl who is constantly salivating? There were four young men from reputable families who did so. They locked her up in a room all night and took turns using her. This is so perverse! Day by day the victims are becoming increasingly helpless.
Me: Do you offer rehabilitation for the victims you are fighting for?
Ms Daya Bai: There are certain cases where I have to. Take for instance when one of our supporters was murdered in cold blood, It was made to look like an accident. I had to rehabilitate the family of the person. There are also some cases like eviction caused due to dam building or thermal power plant construction that require me to offer rehabilitation. I have other people to help me with it. However it demands a lot of continuous work but I cannot be away for long.
Me: What are your poems inspired by?
Ms Daya Bai: Ah, I never thought I could write poems. It was because of some serious opposition that I had with a minister who during a huge public meeting at night invited me to accompany him to the guest house. I refused to go and instead had an argument with him when everyone was present. Following this I faced a lot of threats from the party officials. From then on I used to think of every day as my last day. That was the first time in my life when I wrote something born out of the intense feelings that came from the experience. I never read any of my first poems as I would tear and throw them away. Then I later wrote a couple of poems on some bits of paper. A priest who visited home one day saw one such scrap paper with a poem on it. He suggested that I compile all my poems and publish them. They have so far been published in a book called ‘Daya Bai: The Lady With Fire’, a feminist magazine and some of my poems during the World Social Forum.
Me: Can you recite a few lines of any of your poems?
Ms Daya Bai: This one is from my own experience in a train where a young Malayalee couple was seated opposite me and the man said to his wife on looking at me “Nokkadee oru saadhanam” (“Look dear at that ‘thing’ sitting there” ) presuming that I don’t know Malayalam.
‘Do you see that bundle of bones
With a bit of skin and flesh around?
Clad in torn rags,
She’s called a poor woman.
Do you see her trying to fit in a crowd that cares not?
Look into her eyes
Enter into her heart
Put yourself in her naked feet
And now listen ,
Listen silently within
And you will never be the same.’
Me: How do you want the world to remember you?
Ms Daya Bai: (laughing) I often say that you’d better not start any kind of monument or award in my name. If I have got anything I would urge you to continue to live that!
This interview was published in the Stella Maris Literary Journal 2014-15.