Just spoke to a guy called Mallikarjuna. On paper – your standard, generic, lower middle class Indian with what would seem like a diffident attitude, a socially awkward wife and an overindulged toddler. For many of us, there would be incredibly little reason to engage with a guy like that. But he was my HOCM2. (Hyd, 25+, shops competitive brand, male, SEC B). And it was my job to know his story.
The thing in AP/TS (Telengana, apparently) is that there is no dearth of techies and accountants (or businessmen) to speak to – I can almost fill that field ahead of time. In that miasma of predictability, this man tells me he is a Research Scholar on Rural Studies. Not exactly a subject that triggers interest, passion or envy. But he wanted to talk about it. As he switched from halting Hindi/English to super-fluent Telugu, the joy he derived from what he did was obvious. He spoke of how the architecture in Madurai, the history of South India etc fascinates him. We sat across from two worlds, fascinated by precisely the same things.
He then talked about how he studies a particular tribe called Chenchus, an Adivasi tribe. They speak a Dravidian language that apparently sounds like a mix of Telugu and Tamil.
He goes into the insane Nallamalla forests and gathers data to cross reference it against the census. This is a primitive hunting gathering tribe and they don’t even cultivate land. Levels of education are very low and they’re deathly afraid of the city. What they did know though was that while STs had earmarked budgets, none of it was making its way to them. From 2000 to 2015, there had been no improvement in any of their indices.
So Mallikarjuna, after a few terrifying but inspired nights in the forest, he heads back to the city determined to improve their lot. So he does what any of us with limited means and exposure would do. He writes to Narendra Modi telling him how the current program is failing the Chenchus and that they need investment so they have at least one post grad or one IAS officer. In Telugu. He gets back to his regular life of incredible Indian ordinariness with his brahmasthram, which he tells me is “positivity thinking.”
45 days later.
A letter from the PMO, in English, reaches him telling him he has an appointment with the PM. He will meet him personally and it asks for an agenda. Mallikarjun now responds in English, with help, and sends the agenda. His worry now is what to wear. He felt all his clothes were just too casual to meet the PM and he wanted a “shoot (suit).” But nothing he saw at Big Bazaar felt PMworthy and he wasn’t sure how to go about it either. A techie friend from BLR plays fairy godmother and sends him his own suit. This is a six footer with a slim build and chances are that it wasn’t a great fit, but he was set for his meeting.
True to his word, Modi meets him and speaks to him for 22 minutes. Our man was understandably blown away by the grandeur of the office, but also the PM’s manner of speaking. “Kaise pyoor Hindi mein baataan karta!” He put his hands to his face and shook it in disbelief, like a teenager would if acknowledged by their crush. The awe was obvious. I asked him if he had a translator, to ensure he got what was going on. He told me not really, but the Chenchus now have a road, electricity for the first time and other infrastructure. I go, “Wow, they do …because of you. That’s something.” He switches back to that diffident, self-effacing avatar and goes, “Well…many people (NGOs) have worked hard for this. Not just me. But yes, it happened.”
I tend to process a lot of what I see like a security guard watching multiple CCTV cams. Except I hope I’m paying slightly more attention. That’s my method to process what I see without assumptions. One screen records what is going on, another is prepping follow up questions, a third offers references etc. It was the third screen that offered a certain vocal Adivasi activist and made me think, how amazing the difference between a vocal social media activist who does nothing but screech divisive, anti – establishment rants vs this guy who decided to work with the establishment and make a difference. Not once trying to “other” anyone. Or at least nothing in his personality made it seem like that was his currency of engagement. Thank goodness for this fellow.
I share this not to make this out to be a banal platitude about the awesomeness of regular Indians. Very few people among us ever get to be Mallikarjuna. But it did warm my heart to get to (a) know his story and (b) know that the PMO does have the back of people like this.
Also, seriously, why do we not know that this happened? Why am I not Press Secretary for the PM’s office? Why is good food invariably fattening?
– Penned by Nima Srinivasan
Nima Srinivasan, is an expert on culture and consumers, a profiler of people, a lover of words and is passionate about figuring why humans do what we do and think what we think. She is the founder and CEO of Berylitics(Making Ideas and People Shine), a boutique market research, brand consulting and career training agency.