Elango was a good student and so entered the A C College of Technology, Chennai to study Chemical Engineering. He tried staying in the hostel for a few months. But was disturbed by thoughts of having run away from his reality. He began to commute the 40 km from his village by changing many buses each way. In the village he teamed up with his old mates to try and put some hope and dignity in their lives. They formed youth clubs, stuck wall posters with reformist messages, organised study groups, gave special tuitions and tried a number of other heart-achingly inadequate activities. Elango seems to have intuitively understood the importance of human development but was lost for a platform.
Flying on reluctant wings:
The first technical graduate from Kuthambakkam was grabbed from the campus in 1982 by Oil India and posted in an exploration site in Orissa. For most young men in India to be on such a promising career belt is dream come true but Elango found himself tethered to his village. A brief holiday revealed his youth club members were drifting away. He quit his job and joined the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research [CSIR] in Chennai. Commutes to his village began again. His youth club revived.
In a while Elango was married to a young lady who was a chemistry graduate. Two baby girls arrived in quick succession. By then Elango had visualised a long term road map. He and Sumathy had many conversations and agreed on a plan. They would make a home in Chennai, he would take care of the children and she would do her Masters in chemistry. Then she would find a job and provide for the family and he would return full time to the village. He speaks feelingly of her: "I can't quite estimate her contribution in whatever I have done. Until I began getting some money from an Ashoka Fellowship in 2002, she has been the bread winner. She has supported the family for over a decade without a murmur and raised our two girls."
In 1994, Sumathy got a job in the Oil and Natural Gas Commission [ONGC] and Elango promptly quit his. Two years earlier there had been caste riots in the village. Kuthambakkam is a Dalit majority village. There had been upper caste taunts and mob fury in response. Vanniars fled the village. After about a week when they did not return, Elango began to make many trips seeking the scattered Vanniars and persuading them to return. He was but a young man in his early thirties.
Kuthambakkam: some facts
Kuthambakkam village where Elango lives is about 30kM from Chennai on the road to Tirupati. Soon after passing Tirumazhisai, turn left off the highway at Vellavedu and you begin the pleasant drive to Kuthambakkam.
The Panchayat covers a 36 sq. km area. It has a population of 5000 people in 1040 households spread over 70 hamlets. Kuthambakkam itself is a delightful village with numerous ancient small temples. Clearly it is a long lived habitat.
A vast lake irrigates 1400 acres. Agriculture is practiced in another 700 acres which are rain fed. Water conservation has clearly been a part of its heritage. Elango's leadership continues this tradition.
Though 55% of the population are Dalits they own only 2% of the productive land. There is only one Muslim family and about 4% are Christian. Mudaliars, Naidus, Vanniars and Yadavas are the other major castes. Caste barriers haven't completely broken down but at least there is no animosity. In the last year there have been about 6 inter-caste marriages. There are 10 college graduates now.
Village Republics :
Not many Indians are sufficiently aware of the impact of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment spear-headed by Rajiv Gandhi in 1993. It sought to create totally self governing villages with far reaching powers. A plenary of village people [Gram Sabha] was mandated to meet every quarter and elections to the office of Panchayat President [Sarpanch] was mandated for every five years. The intention was to create village level Republics. Tamil Nadu ratified it in 1994 and elections were announced soon after.