I arrived in Tamil Nadu on Monday, and I now in Pondicherry, which in fact is a unitary territory independent of TN state. It's a former French enclave and the town has a colonial seafront and treelined avenues seemigly at war with the unruly Indianness that encoroaches from all sides.
My guests are Lalida and Perimar who I met at the conference in Nagpur that I attended at the start of my trip here. They are a dynamic, impressive couple who run a networking a organisation called ADECOM devoted top improving the lot of dalits by developing things at the grassroots. They offer training and support for a cooperatives and projects in dalit villages and communities across the state. They broker shared funding requests to western ngos such as the Karuna Trust and offer monitoring in return. At first sight it seems as impressive a set-upo as I have seen in this area. They are dedicated to staying small, devolving responisbility to the village groups wherever possible and training local people to take it on.
Top of Lalida's shopping list of issues are women's rights and land rights. The British passed statuesd promising land dredistribuition to the dalits, and 59 years after Independence the dalits here are waiting to see the benefits. Perumal is an actor and singer, and his focus is developing cultural activities. In Nagpur he and his troupe shocked the audience with drumming that was performed explosive, passionate and raw, followed a superbly staged piece of agitprop street-theatre. They use their performances to campaign on issues from AIDS awareness to demands for economic justice, and increasingly, the importance of DR Ambedkar and his Budhist message
This afternoon I attended a meeting in a dalit village in Pondicherry. Most of the dwellings are thatched wooden huts - dark interiors, rough floors, and often overflowing with children. The tracks between the houses are shared by buffaloes, goats and stray dogs and children dressed in scraps of clothing. Vill;agers gather to met us in a building that in most places would be considered a derelict wreck, but here is the community centre. It is hurriedly swept clean of the piles of litter including discarded cigarrette butts and playing cards - because the men gather here to gamble. They haven't come to the meeting: it is filled by women, their arms filled with children - the older ones of whom stare at me with unabashed curiousity. Their parents join them when Perumal tells that that I am a BBC reporter who will tell the world about their difficulties. I start to think, 'How did this happen... ?'
We have been travelling today with several of the girls from Peruma's company, and Vijaya starts the meeting with a soulful, vibrant song. I hear the word 'Ambedkar' repeated in it, though Perumal tells me that in fact Dr Ambedkar is little known here. 'They know he is the Dalit leader who did much to help dalits. That's all.'They have probably never heard of Buddhism, let alone considered adopting it. He whispers that Vijaya's song si about the need to be united in the struggle for justice.
In turn the women introduce themselves to me: each represents a co-operative, a self-help group, or a savings group. Although they earn just 30-50 rupees a day in the fields, and often can find no work at all, they manage to sav 100 rupees a month, which they put by to start a business. Perumal and his team have been training some of them to make cards and small sculptures constructed from coconuts,a s well as embroidery work. But they don't know how they will sell the work. Perumal says his friends will help with taking it to the market as well as continuing their training.
He tells them they have a good chance to learn tailoring at the government training centre. 'But it's too far away, it costs 10 rupees to get there. Can't you build a centre here?' they ask. 'If you get training and make a start you will get help, otherwise you won't he replies.
Then a litany of complaints and problems pours out, and Perumal mutters explanations beteeen taking on the vehement protestations. This woman's husband has a good education, but he couldn't get a government job and lost his job in the rpivate sector. They don't have the confidence to send their children to school. This woman works on the land, but it is not the season for work now, and anyway there is less land since the large school was built.
My respect grows for Perumal and hjis team. The needss are huge, but they are insist that what they can do is to help the women to help themselves. They have no money to hand out, but they can help them to organise, to improve their own l;ives and to campaign for help from the government. I sit back watching the growing intensity of the discussion in Tamil, and before I leave I offer some encouraging and, I hope, appropriate words about the need for unity and collective effort. I feel like an old-time socialist - and here the need for collective action is so plain.
In the jeep driving away I ask Perumal what they were saying in the heated conversation towards the end. 'They were asking what I would do to bring relief and help them with their problems. They were saying that they need help right now. I told them you are a jopurnalist, but they said, he is a forieigner, how will he help us?' He paused. ' Maybe I shouldn't take foreigners to villages.' I am subdued on the drive back, and we stop for chai on the outskirts of Pondycherry. We drink from plastic cups. 'See the others,' says Perumal, pointing to the metal cups served at a separate counter. 'Two tumbler system. We have to use separate cups.'
Caste practice is alive and well in Tamil Nadu. Staying with Lalida and Perumal I think of civil rights movements in the US and liberation struggles in Latinn America. This is the experience from which the Ambedkarite Buddhist liberation movement is growing.