One of the most widely-known and deeply-admired of all Indian nuns who gave up the habit after receiving the call of liberation theology, is a daughter of Kerala who goes by the name of Dayabai. When she left home at Pullattu Veedu in Poovarani, near Pala in Kottayam district, to become a missionary nun, she used to be called Mercy Mathew and was sixteen years of age. But she gave up convent life to seek her own path of service to poor and marginalized people. After a wandering life which took her to different parts of the country, she settled down among the Gond tribals of Chhindwara in Madhya Pradesh. Living as one of them for the past forty years, she has been fighting for tribal rights to land, proper employment and rightful wages, but above all, to a life of dignity and honour.

To quote Trivandrum-based Shiny Jacob Benjamin, who has made a film on her called Ottayal – One Woman, Alone : “Mercy Mathew was transformed into a one-woman army called ‘Dayabai’ whose life story is a beautiful paradigm of how one person can transform herself and her portion of the world into a meaningful place. Her life is a striking example of the theology of liberation in practice, expressed in terms of one woman’s courage, commitment and profound sense of justice.”

Within days of entering the convent, Mercy Mathew felt the need to choose between the Church and Christ – meaning, the Church began to seem to her like an empty shell devoid of concern or compassion for the poorest of the poor and the most wronged among the wronged. She opted for Christ and the open, parched spaces of the land inhabited by the hungry and angry millions. She decided that it was in these spaces that, working with a pair of bullocks and the children of the soil, she could put her understanding of Christ’s message and example into practice. The choice of place and people that she ultimately made couldn’t have been better – the Gonds of central India had been for centuries at the mercy of the institutions of State power, notably the police and the law courts, both manoeuvred by the middle and upper classes, money-lenders, flesh traders and musclemen, to the extreme disadvantage of the original inhabitants of the land. Come to think of it, Dayabai began to follow a trail that had since long been walked by many a former priest or nun disillusioned by the ways of a conservative, mummified Church, and which led directly to the heart of aboriginal country – the seat of the worst exploitation suffered by the voiceless and the invisible.

The plight of the tribals tugged at Dayabai’s heart from her first day in the convent. As she told Shiny Benjamin : “The very first day I went there I had the feeling that this is not what I want. And just after the first midnight mass at Hazaribagh (a town then in Bihar, now in Jharkhand), I saw them. They camped near the convent… wearing scanty clothes, their children tied to their backs, cooking in small utensils, warming themselves around a fire in the cold… We (inmates of the convent) were not allowed to go and speak to them. We just looked through the windows. We had been preparing for Christmas for a month… making cakes, biscuits and German sweets. We could give in writing what gift we wanted. We would get it. There would be a big Xmas tree. Somehow, I could not fit into that atmosphere. There was a strong pull towards those people…”

As mentioned earlier, Dayabai sees a world of difference between Christ and Church; and this is what made her decide to leave the Church. She took Christ in a firmer embrace than ever before in her life. “For me it’s very difficult to follow both Christ and Church, Church meaning official Church. So my option is Christ. I feel I am not with Christ when I fully follow the Church. Church is very secure and comfortable, Christ is not like that. Christ is with the struggling people, with the marginalized, with the rejected, with the nobodies of society. Even look at the freedom struggle in India, the Church was with the British, not with the freedom movement. Everywhere I think it was so, and even today.”

Some years ago I had the privilege of meeting Dayabai in the Calcutta Films Division office of Joshy Joseph, the documentary filmmaker. Till that day I was aware of the existence of this extraordinary woman in a remote sort of way. I kept hearing about her from here and there or reading about her, but this was the first time that I was meeting the activist-former nun. After meeting her, I understood what gave that wiry, metal-beaten look to that Malayali face that must have at some distant point in the past reflected the oily lushness of the extensive green and blue waters of her native land. Shiny Benjamin’s film gives us a detailed idea of the hard life that Dayabai chose over what could have been days and nights spent within nunnery walls in comfort and security; in prayers and back-biting; and in unvoiced anger at the workings of the Church bureaucracy. Having made that choice, the self-defrocked nun goes about her life with a joie de vivre that can come only from an abundance of inner peace.

Dayabai ploughs her own field and harvests her own crop with the help of one or two local persons. She raises chickens, grows a variety of fruits, and tends to goats in a small compound adjoining her humble dwelling. There is an energetic dog and a docile cat for company. And she takes on money-lenders, local policemen and other suspects as only she can, using a firm but civilized body and verbal language that inspires the victim and intimidates the wrongdoer. The confidence and serenity on her face could not have come easily and in short time. Christ is truly well-served by this brave and smiling child/bride of his.

What does Dayabai mean to her flock? One of them is clear in his assessment of the woman who is called ‘Behenji’ (sister) by thousands of people spread over many miles of parched fields and rough roads. “Behenji has done so much good for us, she made us men and women come together. Previously, before Behenji came, we were all so divided and had no unity. There was no school; there was no hand-pump too. We drank water from the pond. We didn’t even think we had to stand together. Once we started listening to Behenji, we became united. We have benefitted a lot from her teachings.” The speaker is Jayapal, a tribal, who is currently a sarpanch (panchayat president) after having educated himself, thanks to the guidance that he, like many others, got from Dayabai.

Parsu, another villager who has benefitted enormously from Dayabai’s teachings, sings a song for the director and her crew. ‘Didi’ (Dayabai) had taught Parsu this song many years ago, but he remembers it still : Keep each foot forward cautiously/ If you fall, just get up/ And be careful not to fall again/ Keep each foot forward cautiously/ The law is with us/ It will liberate us from exploitation

Dayabai could not have turned her back on convent life in the firm way she has if she weren’t a strong ‘political’ person with clear views on individual initiative, group action, and social change dependent on both. While her life is devoted for the greater part to Gond welfare and uplift, she has been known to travel to different places in the country to show solidarity with fellow-activists. She was in the Narmada movement, in Gujarat, in Manipur, and participated in the land struggle at Chengara (in Kerala). Would convent life have permitted her to participate in these important expressions of dissent against State terror and oppression? Never.

At a time when the country is overrun by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Dayabai has some strong words to describe these bodies. “The NGOs are funded by either foreign sources or political parties, so they naturally want to work according to their target… because of that I think the NGOs are not so much in the struggle with people… they have projects… they are more project-oriented, not people-oriented.”

As if to dispel wrong notions that anybody may have about her own sources of funding, Dayabai says : “I have no accountable or predictable money. I have some friends. They give something now and then. Now some people know me. Some people come here for experience. They too give something. Good friends like Nandita Das give me something when they see me. I don’t have to give account, they trust me. Twice or thrice a year I go out to take classes or as a visiting lecturer. I get some money that way too. I don’t need much money, my life is very simple. For food I am self-sufficient.” Now that word has got around about the work she is doing at the grassroots level, even the government has begun to show interest in her ideas and her methods of popular participation in social change. One expression of official interest is that at times, she is asked to be a guide to IAS probationers. This again adds a little to her small kitty.

Her life as a farmer in the midst of people who know no way of life other than farming, has made Dayabai a quintessential inhabitant of the place she lives in. Agriculture and activism have blended easily to make life a holistic experience for Dayabai. Her ideas about how to enhance the quality of the soil that provides livelihood to the people, are born out of a devoted engagement with traditional wisdom. Dayabai : “In my personal life, I don’t buy multinational products as far as possible. I don’t use chemical-based products, especially petroleum-based products. After I started doing organic farming, I don’t allow detergents to mix with the soil. I want to keep my soil maximum pure without getting polluted… I use original country seeds as much as I can. I don’t use high-breed seeds. Also, I give back to the soil whatever my animals and I do not want. I use all waste to make compost. After harvest, everything is returned to the soil. The soil then becomes more moist…”

To get people to realize the usefulness of farming practices like these, Dayabai has chosen impromptu theatre as a tool of communication. She has performed at more than fifty places so far. “I have performed at Chhindwara and other places in accordance with people’s demand. Not just theatre, theatre is not an end. There would be discussions afterwards.” The street plays have no written script. They are written on the spot with the intention of making people aware and ready to fight. Dayabai’s poems are also recited. Fields, streets and markets form the stage most often; and everything happens in the language spoken by the villagers, thereby making for easy and effective communication.

Dayabai has come a long way, following a direction of her own choice. By her own admission, she has had “no great connection with the Church”. She is also on record that there are many people who “see me as a person who jumped the walls of the convent”. One can form one’s impression about her life’s philosophy and vision of social justice from this statement : “What fascinated me most were the lives of Gandhi and Jesus and Rani Lakshmi Bai who went about her job with a baby in her arms. I like all that, I started thinking that service is perhaps like that. I have never had a disconnected life.”

Here, it may not be out of context to compare Dayabai’s lifework and her ideas of service to the poor with those of Mother Teresa, founder of the Missionaries of Charity and India’s best-known nun. Clearly, Mother Teresa was the antithesis of someone like Dayabai. Where Dayabai refused to bow before the demands of organized religion, discarded the nun’s habit as a symbol of acceptance of the hierarchical authority of the Church, and struck out on her own to be of service to the poor, Mother Teresa was a most obedient servant of the Pope and the Vatican establishment all her life and never said or did anything that might seem to be an affront to the settled order. She, too, served the poor but it was always within the clearly defined jurisdiction of the Church in Rome which, it goes without saying, has never been an ally of those men and women of God who saw and continue to see meaning and substance in liberation theology.

What is liberation theology? Briefly, liberation theology is a school of thinking which proclaims that methods of direct action are at times necessary for the material and spiritual liberation of the poor and the powerless; that prayer and persuasion have to be accompanied by firmer and sterner methods when the former fail to yield the desired results. The conservative Vatican hierarchy is known to look upon the members of this school as godless Marxists who have made their way into the Church, when the truth is quite different. Liberation theology originated in Germany with the rise of the Nazis and made its way most forcefully into Latin America in the decades that followed the World War. Nearer home, many a Kerala nun or priest has taken the lead in applying the teachings of the Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, commonly regarded as the original propounder of liberation theology – and literally lost their head, as proved by the case of Sister Valsa in Jharkhand.

If Dayabai is still breathing – meaning, she has not gone the way of Sister Valsa to a violent and premature death – it is perhaps because her way of engaging with the evil elements in society out to keep the local tribals in a state of permanent bondage, are gentler, more Gandhian, but no less determined. It is, however, difficult to say how Dayabai would have reacted if someone close to her had been raped – after all, the immediate reason for death to come visiting Sister Valsa was her defiant refusal to let a local young man who had violated a close associate of hers, go scot-free. This incident appears to have lit the fuse that had long been in the making against her by a local coal mining company and other vested interests.

To go back to the brief meeting with Dayabai in the cool of Joshy Joseph’s office-room. At one point of our conversation, I asked her whether it was possible to visit her village home and see her in her natural surroundings. She said it was okay with her but warned me that I should be prepared to put up with physical hardships, and the food would be nothing like what city people are accustomed to having. Suddenly, I asked her whether there were snakes around where she lived – I have had a life-long fear of snakes. Her reply was short and to the point – “Did you expect the open to be free of snakes?… If you are afraid of snakes, please don’t come.” No beating about the bush, direct and clear, so unlike the culture of evasion and euphemism that urbanites are used to. Dayabai lives in my mind as a picture of no-nonsense dignity.

Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.)


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