T.S. SATYAN: The genius of the Indian villager

T.S. SATYAN sends us a copy of his first article published by the Christian Science Monitor of Boston. The article appeared on July 15, 1950, and fetched the renowned photojournalist a grand sum of $50, “a big sum in those days”.


Rural India: Ageless Tradition

If anyone were to ask what is the outstanding quality of the Indian villager, the answer would be simple. It is his indomitable genius for living on hope.

His hope tends to be a negative virtue—it is three parts patience and one part bovine resignation.

Most Indians are fatalists, and the rustic more than others. Yet the kind of hope inherent in the Indian villager is a militant one, full of a dynamism that has carried him unscathed through droughts and famines, through epidemics, through unceasing poverty and through many kinds of social tyranny.

He does not sit “like patience on a monument smiling at grief.” He meets it with arms outstretched. He weaves it into the very fabric of his daily life. He incorporates it into his songs, he builds his folk arts on a foundation of sadness, he prays to his God with tears in his eyes.

He is happiest when he is in gloom.

There is nothing paradoxical about this, once it is understood that his attitude is a natural result of his way of life. Basically, he is ignorant, illiterate and steeped in age-old traditions born out of superstition.

From the time he is a suckling babe to the day he is buried or cremated, he lives in a world where both man and nature are against him. Starting with fear, he gradually develops a protective armour of hope, which, like the hood that is round a storm lantern, keeps his courage from blowing out.

The daily life of the Indian villager is the best testimonial to his unconquerable spirit.

Whatever might happen, he is up with the first rays of the sun. Then a couple of gulps of ragi (a variety of millet) gruel for breakfast, and out he goes with his team of oxen to his land, which may be three or four miles away.

There, his half-clothed body exposed to the burning tropical sun, he plows the land, one furrow at a time, until noon. Then an alfresco lunch, consisting of a few handfuls of the unvarying ragi, a few grains of salt and a green chilli, brought to him by his wife or child. A little stretching in the shade and it is time again to walk the lonely furrow till sunset. Dinner is almost the same as lunch.

After dinner, his community life begins. He and the residents of the village foregather under the banyan tree to sing devotional songs, watch a torchlit puppet play, or listen to the itinerant storyteller, who spins nightlong yarns about the gods or near-gods of the Hindu pantheon.

During sowing or harvest time the daily round is transformed into a period of picturesque human activity, when the entire village goes to the fields to work, work, and work. Hope is aflame in their hearts, for at the time of harvesting, prosperity, however brief, is with them once more.

This, with slight variations, is the life cycle of India’s teeming millions who live in the countryside. The wonders of modern science, barring perhaps an occasional airplane passing overhead, are completely unknown to them.

Medical care, organized education, even postal facilities, are just fairy tales they have heard from someone who had visited the town or city.

In the last few years, since India became independent of foreign rule, some rural reconstruction work has been attempted here and there. But the republic contains 600,000 villages. Progress is apt to be measured in decades.

Such, then, is the life of the Indian villager, a life of pathos, hardship, and ignorance to the casual visitor from the West, but to those who know him and his heroic struggles against man and nature, he is a giant among men, beloved of himself and of God.