Small Things and Small People

by Madhu Kaza

On the evening of April 13th I heard the news that the Uraguayan writer Eduardo Galeano had passed away. Earlier that day, after work, I had gone to get a manicure at a salon in my neighborhood; my hands and wrist hurt from typing all day and more than new nail polish I wanted a little break. The manicurist was a young woman just three years out of high school. She had been born in Mexico City, and at the age of five she left for New York with her mother and siblings to join her father who had come a few years earlier. She arrived one month before September 11th, 2001. While she filed, soaked and painted my nails the young woman, L, told me about her dog, Amigo, whom she had to leave behind in Mexico, about her sense of loss when she arrived in the United States and her even deeper sense of loss when her mother returned to Mexico a few years ago. “It's been so hard,” she said, “No one gets you like your mom.” L lives on her own, and though she would love to go to college it's beyond her financial means; it's enough for her to manage getting by by working full time. At the end of my appointment when I told her that she had a beautiful name she said, “I'm named after my father.” “What is your mother's name?” I asked. Her eyes brightened as she said, “Maria. But it's very interesting because her name is Maria Herculia – it's like Maria Hercules.”

Ujjwala5-1170x720I was still thinking about L when I heard the news of Galeano's death. Galeano often spoke of his work as a project of writing historical memory; it was an oppositional history of remembrance in the face of historical amnesia. In a 2013 interview with The Guardian Galeano spoke of this amnesia in systemic terms: “It's a system of power that is always deciding in the name of humanity who deserves to be remembered and who deserves to be forgotten … We are much more than we are told. We are much more beautiful.” The stories that Galeano collected and wrote formed an underside of history, the memory of those who are easily forgotten in the grand narratives of conquest, capitalism and progress. Even as his writing had a broad historical sweep – he wrote histories of Latin America as well as a histories of the world from pre-historic times to the present day—he was interested in the particulars; his works of short prose commemorated and celebrated ordinary people in their labors, their loves and their woes. It was through these stories of individual people and particular communities that Galeano's writing came to life. He noted his interest in “small things and small people.” That night when I learned that he had died, I imagined how Galeano might have delighted in and given shape to the narrative of the daughter of Maria Herculia, whose story contains both the residue of disruptive historical currents and the heroics of everyday life.

The day before Galeano died, I had gone to see the Indian writer P. Sainath speak about his newly launched project, the People's Archive of Rural India or PARI. Like Galeano, Sainath trained and worked as a journalist; for many years he was the Rural Affairs Editor at the English language newspaper, The Hindu, and the only journalist with such a position in an increasingly corporate Indian news media. Like Galeano, Sainath questioned and experimented with form; he has remarked that his writing turned in a different direction once he realized that “conventional journalism is about the service of power.” He began to travel through districts of rural India collecting stories about how people had been affected by the shift in government policy from a focus on rural development to economic growth and urban infrastructure since the economic liberalization beginning in the early 90's. Though two thirds of Indians still live in rural areas, their lives and concerns – labor, migration, poverty, agriculture – are vastly underrepresented in the media. Sainath's narratives, which highlighted these aspects of Indian life formed the basis of his book, Everybody Loves a Good Drought.

In December of 2014 Sainath launched PARI. Though he is the founder of the archive, PARI is an enormous volunteer-driven effort which aims to document rural life in all districts in India, which includes a population of more than 800 million people who speak more than 700 languages. If nothing else, the archive is a testament of India's diversity – ethnic, linguistic, religious and as Sainath insistently points out, occupational. He speaks of the hundreds of jobs that are unique to the subcontinent. For instance, he points to the toddy tappers, who daily scale a height greater than that of the Empire State Building in order to tap and collect the sap of palm trees. They do their jobs barefoot and without insurance, harnesses or other safety precautions.

Like the work of Galeano the aim of PARI is to counter historical amnesia and erasure of small things and small people. The banner on the archive's website reads, “The everyday lives of everyday people.” Sainath was clear about not romanticizing village life. He admits that there are many oppressive facets of village life, but he argues that in the last few decades government policies and practices have strengthened the power of the regressive forces while the cherished aspects of rural life are under siege. He recognizes, too, that archives have traditionally also been in the service of power – a means for classifying and controlling populations. The notion of the people's archive is that it is not owned and cannot be owned by anyone; PARI does not take money from the government or corporations, and anyone who follows its guidelines can contribute photographs, videos, reports and narratives to the site.

One story I found especially moving was the story of P.V. Chinnathambi, a 73 year old man who runs a small library and tea shop in a very remote, low-literacy, tribal region that borders Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Chinnathambi's hut P1020242lies at the crossroads of wild elephant migrations and requires that some locals walk several kilometers to check out books. His library consists of 160 tomes, all classics, which are regularly checked out by the locals. It's a reminder that the story of rural India is the story not only of the mind boggling statistics, but of individuals like Chinnathambi, whose devotion to his impoverished and marginalized community and commitment to ideas and learning is humbling.

See Chinnathambi's story here.

Access the PARI website here.

Photo credits:

Top: Photo of Ujjwala Pethkar, a farm widow from Vidarbha, Maharashtra, by Jaideep Hardikar.

Bottom: Photo of P.V. Chinnathambi in his library, Idukki, Kerala, by P. Sainath.