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My Village Home
My childhood was spent in the Konkan region of Maharashtra. Gagode was a small village of about eighty houses, in Colaba district. It had no school and most of its inhabitants were illiterate.
The women of every household used to get up with the first light to begin their work. The first job was to grind grain into flour for the day’s needs, in the circular stone hand-mill. Then followed the sweeping of the courtyards, which were sprinkled with a mixture of cow dung and water to lay the dust and keep them fresh and clean. While their hands were occupied with these and other chores, the women’s lips would be singing hymns in the name of the Lord. The sweet sounds filled the morning air with purity.
My grandfather was an Inamdar, a kind of landlord. We lived in quite a big house, with a spacious courtyard where there were a great many frogs of various kinds, which all night long kept up a regular Mandukya-Upanishad.1 I was quite scared of these innumerable frogs; later I read the description given by the sage Vasishtha in the Veda: ‘One frog looks rather like a bullock, another like a goat, another is spotted, and they all croak in chorus like Brahmins chanting the Vedas. In the hot weather they grow dry and withered like Brahmins performing austerities, but in the rains they grow fresh and vigorous and shout with joy.’ What an imaginative way of looking at frogs !
But people tell me that nowadays the number of frogs in our courtyard is not even a quarter of what it was then. Frogs’ legs are regarded as a delicacy in America,2 so frogs are caught for export. Sometimes when I am asked when I plan to go back to Gagode I answer: ‘When the courtyard is as full of frogs as it used to be !’
Gagode had a lake—a very large lake ! There was a very tall tree beside it, and a spacious temple. Many years later, when I was forty years of age, I went back there and found that lake, tree and temple had all shrunk ! One could easily throw a stone right across the lake, easily climb the tree. It was only in a child’s eye that they had seemed so big.
I used to wander about the village watching labourers at their work. One day I was standing watching some men splitting a big rock. One of them noticed me. ‘Would you like to try your hand, Vinya?’ he asked. ‘Oh yes please !’ So when after a few more blows the rock had reached breaking point they put the hammer into my hand. I struck with all my little might, and sure enough the rock fell apart ! To please me the good-natured labourers stood and cheered: ‘Well done Vinya ! The Inamdar’s boy split the rock !’
Sometimes on special occasions a Brahmin would come to our home at Gagode and give recital from the Vedas. I would sit and listen, and soon had made up my own Veda in Marathi, which I chanted with all the sonorous intonation of the Brahmin’s Sanskrit mantras. All it said was that ‘horses are grazing on the bank of the river’, but delivered in that style it sounded magnificent !
A blind uncle lived with us in the Gagode house. He was very hard-working and gentle, and everyone loved him and cared for him. Later on when we went to Baroda with father he remained in Gagode, and one day a letter brought the news of his death. Usually when any such news came mother would give us all a bath and bathe herself, but this time there were no such rituals and I asked her why not. ‘You see, Sonnie,’ she said, ‘blind uncle did not really belong to our family. He was in great need and had no one to care for him, so he lived with us.’ So it was only after his death that I learned that the uncle we had known for so many years was not a blood relation.
The first nine years of my life were spent in that village home. Then in 1905 we joined our father at Baroda, where he was employed. During our holidays we used to go and stay with our grandparents at Gagode, but I had no more close contact with my native village, and a few years later I cut loose from my family also. As I have said I went back to Gagode in 1935 at the age of forty, just for two or three days. While I was there I had something to write for Bapu3 about the spinning wheel. By the time I had finished it was midnight, and I was about to go to bed when I heard the sound of singing from the temple nearby. The villagers had assembled there, and I went and sat quietly among them. Hymns of devotion went on for about an hour. My feeling for language would normally have been outraged by their crude pronunciation, but before the depth of their devotion nothing else mattered. I was completely carried away, sunk in bliss.
One of their hymns struck me as specially sweet, and I remember it to this day:
Nowhere in this world is happiness,
crave it not in vain:
The whole world is a snare of sorrow,
where happiness is not to be found.
Here, I thought, are these villagers in this tiny village, miserably poor, like walking skeletons, with practically nothing to cover their nakedness, and yet they can lose themselves in such devotional music ! I was delighted. Where had these people, in this village without a school, where no one could read or write, obtained this knowledge? It must surely be because they sing with such devotion so many of the hymns of Tukaram and other saints, that they keep to this day their understanding and intelligence. It is here that our strength lies.
Saint Tukaram himself fell into such great poverty that his wife died of hunger. Yet he turned to the Lord and said: ‘Oh my God, if there were no sorrow, there would be no remembrance of Thee !’ and in the midst of his grief he found joy:
Joys piled on joys have filled
my heart to the brim
Love is an everflowing stream
resounding with Thy Name
It is because our country possesses this spirit of devotion that even the very poorest show the world a smiling face. The people of poverty-stricken Gagode, outwardly so dried-up and withered-looking, were filled with the nectar of devotion.
Once before, in 1920, I had spent a day in Gagode. Some had died, others still survived—some of the grain, as it were, was being cooked on the stove, some was waiting its turn in the basket, that was all the difference ! The same stars that I had seen in Wardha shone over Gagode also; I was the same too, except that in Gagode the sight of the hills haunted me. Perhaps I had once been a wild creature of those hills, a deer or a tiger maybe, the companion of some hermit? Perhaps by mistake I was born as a man? I am not wholly tamed even now—I am still the same Vinoba, even though I have been ‘fried in Gandhiji and rolled in Jamnalalji.’4
During my 1935 visit I wrote, in a letter, that the mountains and the mother, between them, are the symbols of all creation and all relationships. In the course of those three or four days I must have recalled my mother about forty times. Gita, Mother, Takli:5 that is my ‘Trinity’, and for me those three include every one of the thousand Names of the Lord.