Daya Bai is an amazing lady. I still remember the night she came to our house. I thought she was a tribal woman. She came with Fr Augustin who is a priest and well-known social worker in Kochi. When she got out of the car, her bangles and anklets made a clinking noise. I stood there looking at her wrinkled face thinking she was a poor woman who had never been to school. Then I heard her speaking fluent English!
After she left, I asked my mother a string of questions. Who was she? Why was she in tribal dress? Where did she learn English from? Did she have a job?
My mother replied that she was Daya Bai, and that she was no ordinary woman.
Daya Bai was born into a rich family in Pala, near Kottayam. Her name was Mercy Mathew. My mother explained how Mercy Mathew had transformed herself into Daya Bai who worked and stayed with poor tribal people in Madhya Pradesh’s remote villages. I realised then that she was indeed a great woman.
During my summer holidays I had the opportunity to visit Daya Bai in Barul, in Madhya Pradesh. Fr Augustin and Daya Bai came to receive us at Narsinghpur railway station. From there it was an hour’s journey to Barul.
When we reached the house, a large dog came jumping out and began licking Daya Bai. I was a little scared, but Daya Bai told me not to be afraid because he was very friendly. She lives in a small, pretty house made of mud and bamboo. Inside, it was calm and cool with mud floors and a thatched roof.
Daya Bai has many pets -- two ponies named Gagat and Chandni, nearly eight hens, many cows, and two dogs. One of the hens was busy with her newly-hatched chicks. The dogs are called Athos and Kranti. They quickly became my friends. Later, Daya Bai told me how she got them. Athos is older and the bigger of the two; he was gifted to her. Daya Bai had a friend from France living with her then who had a dog called Athos (the name of a musketeer in the book The Three Musketeers). The friend suggested calling the dog Porthos, but Daya Bai didn’t want such a cute dog to have a serious name like Porthos. So she named him Athos as well. Kranti was a deserted pup that wandered into her home on Sankranti day. So she named her Kranti.
We spent three days with Daya Bai. The first day, I must confess, I was very bored as there was no electricity, therefore no television. But from the second day on I began to enjoy the place. We went to Harrai market and bought sweet potatoes and glass bangles. We also picked up a big brass pot on which Daya Bai got my name engraved.
We did a lot of work too. I cleaned the cement buckets from which the cattle drink water. And we carried water from the hand-pump for the kitchen.
One day, I visited a tribal village. It was a neat place with small huts and a lot of poor people. They all love Daya Bai. She has set up a school in the village. We watched a documentary on her life which showed all the problems she had to face in that place. She lived among the people as one of them, fighting for justice for them. She has been given a number of awards for her work.
From Daya Bai I learnt two lessons. Firstly, that the soil is a living thing. If we throw waste onto the soil, we kill it. We should take care of the soil just as we take care of a child. We should keep it clean, prevent pollution, and avoid dumping plastic bags. Daya Bai has banned the use of plastic in her house and on her land.
The second lesson was on water conservation. Don’t pollute water and don’t waste it are Daya Bai’s messages. She has many trees and plants in her compound, and all around is barren land. That’s because she preserves the soil and water, and loves nature.
Daya Bai is a kind and happy person with a very good sense of humour. One day we were having dinner and my father went out to wash his plate. Daya Bai called out: “Don’t wash the plate, leave it for me. You only wash your hands.” I pointed out that my father had washed his mouth too. Daya Bai replied: “Oh no! I told him only to wash his hands! Why did he also wash his mouth?!” We all had a good laugh.
(Shruthi Dileep is a student of Excelsior English School, Kochi)
InfoChange News & Features, April 2009