- July 1, 2005
I am often asked “who are your inspirations in life?” in the hope that I will rattle off some famous names that would make a good sound byte! Mercy Mathew or rather Daya bai, (as she’s known in the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh), may not be ‘famous’, but she is a very very special person who has constantly inspired me and reinforced my sense of commitment in certain values my choices in life.
Mercy looks every inch a tribal woman, behaves like a passionate maverick activist and talks like a razor sharp lawyer. A bewildering combination that never fails to turn heads and get surprised stares. Born into a landed joint family in Kerala with plenty at home, Mercy bucked the family routine and set out to be a nun, like a good Christian. She went to a missionary in Bihar but couldn’t bare the contradictions between the world outside and the one she lived in. Soon she jumped the wall and wandered off for months on end in search of her calling. In that wandering, she worked at refugee camps in Bangladesh after the 1971 war, worked in a couple of NGOs, did an incomplete Masters in Social work…from where she ran away again, this time to the wilderness of central Madhya Pradesh, finally settling in a small village.
Reaching the Chindwara district wasn’t part of any master plan. It’s just that she barely had enough money to take a train up to a small town in Madhya Pradesh from where she decided to walk (25kms!) till her feet could take no more. That’s how she came to Barul. That place became her home for the next 15 years. Here she worked with the tribals, sleeping in the verandahs of those who let her in at night and eating whatever they happily gave her. There were no ambitions and importantly no regrets. But being alone and without enough legal knowledge, she felt a little lost in her attempts to fight for the rights of the tribals.
This made her decide to go to Bombay and finish her master’s degree in social work (after a gap of seven years). She returned to Barul to continue her work and simultaneously did a correspondence course in Law. A couple of years ago her father passed away and she was forced by her family to take some money from his will. She decided to buy a little piece of land with this, and built for the first time, her own home.
I went to her village last year. Her mud house was cool and welcoming under the hot summer sun. I spent a week with her and her extended family of chickens, cows, some cats, a little pony and her dog called Athos. To my surprise, she talks to them about everything and they seem to understand it all and respond with all their affection. Her possessions apart from basic knick knacks of a minimalist, are a bright red solar cooker, a self made compose pit for bio-gas and a small well. She has a small farm where she grows wheat, pulses and a couple of vegetables that seem to grow happily! One day I even heard her talk to her tomatoes!
I could go on and on about her, her way of life, her struggles, her joys and her choices. But I am not even sure if this would interest anyone, as the prisms through which we see life are probably so different. Most people would think of her as either being mad or foolish or at the most take pity on her-“What a waste of a life”, “Poor thing! Look at her cracked hands and feet”, “She could have done so much better-after all she’s a double Post Grad and speaks fluent English!” “What a big sacrifice she is making!” When Daya bai hears these comments, she just heartily laughs like a child. She finds it amusing and strange. “Working and caring for people is not work for me, its simply life”, she says. “It is not a sacrifice…far from it…it is the only way I know I can live and be happy.” “Not living this life, not doing what I do, would in fact be huge sacrifice.”
I know that if she was given another life, she would lead it the same way all over again.