Empowered9 mins 425 9 mins 425
“Selvi Selvi,” called Muthuanna, from outside the house, Selvi, an 11-year old girl was sitting with her books in the inner courtyard of her house in Uthiramerur. Wondering why she was being called at six in the evening, Selvi ran to the front of her house to ask Muthuanna what he wanted. “Selvi”, he said, “My son, Manickam is not at home, I have looked for him all over, is he at your house?” asked Muthanna of little Selvi.
Such enquiries came often from the villagers. Selvi was the unofficial leader of the children in their village. Never mind she was only nine, or that she was a girl. Whenever any activity – good or naughty was planned, the children turned to Selvi for strategy and execution. She decided who would play in which team or lead the girls in singing or the boys in cleaning the temple grounds. “Don’t worry, Anna,” Selvi said, “Manickam must be watching the well being dug in the outskirts of the village. There is huge earth-moving machine and drilling rig there, the boys are fascinated by it. Go there, you are sure to find him. Muttering his thank-yous, Muthuanna left saying, “Why can’t this boy come home straight from school, why can’t he be more like Selvi, she knows when to come home and here I have to go searching for this boy.”
Born on 11th February 1948, to Sri.Venkatachala Naicker and Srimathi Vishalakshi of Uthiramerur, Selvi was one among nine children. A delightful girl with spunk and wits, growing up in rural Tamil Nadu, where even during the best of times, girls were not given their due, she grew to a fine, responsible and comely maiden. A good student, she graduated in Tamil literature. When she was married Bangaru Adigalar of Melmaruvathur on 4th September 1968, it was not trendy to talk about women empowerment or Stree Sakthi even about rural empowerment. Such words are bandied about today on TV channels and by leaders and in the social media. Much before it became fashionable, women empowerment was the norm in the sleepy village of Melmaruvathur.
The major turning point of her life was when she became Adigalar’s life partner, thereafter all the potential organizational skills in her could be brought to fruition. Bangaru Adigalar was himself a teacher in a government school at Acharapakkam. Melmaruvathur was a one-horse town or rather a few cows could be seen grazing. Most people were employed as agriculturists or were involved in agri-based activities in and around the villages. The government schemes for rural development had not petered down to the panchayath level. These villages are 100 kilometres away from the metropolis of Chennai. However progressive Tamil Nadu, with a rich history of liberal thinkers, social reformers and pragmatic local leaders led the nation in empowering the weaker section of society. Soon Thirumathi Amma had secured a job of a teacher in a government school.
Thirumathi Amma could have easily turned into a society lady, or buried herself in purely spiritual activities and family matters. Within a few years, she had borne four children, two sons and two daughters. But the spark in her was identified by Adigalar, he entrusted the task of building and structuring the social network of his followers.
Meanwhile, Adigalar gave up his teaching job and devoted his time to spiritual activities, he had emerged as “Amma” a spiritual guru, guide, philosopher and teacher for thousands in and around Melmaruvathur, where in a temple he worshipped Adhiparasakthi, the goddess. The followers of the Om Sakthi group believe him to an Avatar of the goddess.
While bringing up her own children, trying to give them a schooling in the remote areas of Kancheepuram district, Thirumathi Lakshmi felt the need for a good Matriculation school at Melmaruvathur. Hence, she began in her own fashion, a primary school, where she was the first teacher of the toddlers and lower classes. Meanwhile, her husband’s spiritual, charitable and religious activities and followers were increasing at an exponential rate. For better efficiency and maximizing the benefits to the followers, the Adhiparasakthi Charitable, Medical, Educational and Cultural Trust was created in 1978 to spread spirituality and render social and community services with a motto - Service to Humanity is Service to God.
The Trust focused on the upliftment of the poor and have-nots. In 1988, with the direction of Bangaru Adigalar, the Adhiparasakthi Siddhar Peetam Women's Trust was founded for organizing the spiritual activities. The moving spirit of the women's trust was Selvi Lakshmi Bangaru Adigalar who was the Vice President of the ACMEC trust.
After that there was no stopping Thirumathi Amma, perhaps she had herself been inspired by “A Town like Alice” a book by Nevil Shute which was based on a real-life incident. She led enthusiastically and others followed. Her friends, family and relatives joined her in the movement to transform the educational landscape of Melmaruvathur. Soon the school had grown to the Higher Secondary level, a Tamil Nadu Board school was opened for poor children who could be given an education free of cost.
The Trust under her leadership began a series of professional courses that could lead to better employment opportunities for the youth in the rural area, who could not travel to Chennai. (Madras in those days) The aim was to expand their horizons so that there was enough confidence in the village girls and boys to go out to the wide world and compete with the convent-educated, city-bred youth.
One after the other, many institutions came up at Melmaruvathur, a Polytechnic, an Engineering College, College of Physiotherapy, College of Pharmacy, College of Nursing, and finally a college for Medical education. At the nearby hamlet of Kalavai, she was instrumental in founding a College of Science and an Agriculture College.
Never forgetting her roots, she insists on the need to remain close to nature, growing fruits and vegetables besides paddy farming. She never hesitates in going into the field to check on the crops and view a plant, planting and nurturing crops. She also dabbles in animal husbandry. She does mind getting her hands dirty with mud or manure.
Whenever there is an important function at the temple or at home, she personally supervises the preparation of various culinary items and ensures that the right and correct proportion of ingredients are mixed. She understands the requirements of devotees who descend at Melmaruvathur every December on a holy pilgrimage. They say no one who comes on the pilgrimage goes hungry, kitchens run 24 by 7 for almost three months feeding lakhs of people and the pivot of tremendous feast preparation is Thirumathi Lakshmi.
Besides this, Thirumathi Lakshmi is a hands-on administrator in the running of the schools and colleges, supervising the admission process and the graduation day functions. When invited for lunches or dinners, she personally serves food with love and affection. She, very often, drives herself to work and quality checks the food prepared in the community kitchens, and ensures that the culture programmes in the institutions do not display obscenity or have underclad dancers. Under her leadership and directed by Bangaru Adigalar, the ladies are permitted to do poojas and yagnas. The sanctum and sanctorum of the temple premises are maintained by the ladies.
With time, she has also effectively involved her children in the organization. Her sons and daughters manage the schools and colleges. Some charitable activities by the Trust include providing relief during natural calamities, assisting poor farmers and artisans with implements and conducting last rites in ceremonial manner for the poor. Besides the Trust also provides free and quality medical aid to the rural poor by organizing medical camps on geriatric, eye, ENT, skin and blood donation. The lady ensures that farmers are helped by organizing with veterinary camps periodically. The Trust conducts free immunization programs, renders free maternity assistance to the rural womenfolk.
“So you say you are going on strike ah…is this the way you are going to help the people of your town, your own brothers and sisters who come to seek treatment in this hospital?” Thirumathi Amma said to a group of young men and women who were protesting that their salaries had not been increased for nearly two years. The young man in the front, Anand –got up, pointing his finger and shouting, “Down, down, the trust must increase our salaries.” He went aggressively towards Thirumathi Lakshmi.
She extended her hand to him and told him, “Come! Come forward, I know you, aren’t you Ranganathan’s son? The seniors in this group should come to the office to meet me. Don’t forget, it was last year that I had given Anand a job, here, because his mother came crying to me. After losing his father, there was no earning member in his big family of six – his siblings and old grandparents, I tried to help him out in his moment of crisis, now he comes and waves his finger at me. Is this his way of paying back to his community? Isn’t he biting the hand that feeds him?” As one of the trust members, she did not quail from confronting the hospital staff. In fact, she had allowed them to protest peacefully for a week before she decided to talk to them.
“Your complaints are legitimate and not unreasonable”, she told the striking workers. “But you know the hospital is being run purely for charitable purposes, we don’t collect any charges from the patients. It is for the poor and needy villagers who can’t afford the high-class exorbitant facilities of the corporate hospitals of Chennai. You know when your father or mother has a fall and need urgent treatment or fixing of the bones, you had to carry her to Puthur, in Andhra Pradesh or to the village osteopath for setting of the bones - all the time they would cry in pain. It's only after this hospital has come up that we have orthopaedics and a full-fledged operation theatre where we can provide relief from pain while not wasting time and money taking the patients to Chennai”.
“As hospital staff, you do know that you are essential and a vital component of welfare for the local villagers, the primary health centre cannot provide relief to the extent we can. Moreover we are doing service here for our own people. Once we start the medical college we will increase your pay, you know that I have personally promised you a hike. And please do not forget you have been trained in our colleges and to give you an opportunity to work near home and be close to your parents, we have employed you. Once you garner enough experience and develop skills you can leave for Chennai.” Saying this, red with exasperation and exertion, Thirumathi Lakshmi turned around and went back to her office in the hospital- sure that the staff would have come to their senses.
She is not a quiet or a sophisticated lady, when angry, she can give a shouting that would make the listener quail in his feet or dissolve in tears, she can kick a** if required.
Where empathy is required, she offers her support, when sympathy is needed, she donates generously, both in kind and her time, but she brooks no nonsense and is a task master. She is very organized and expects others to be similarly systematic in their work.
A true inspiration to all women and an effective administrator, – Thirumathi Lakshmi was indeed a wise choice by Bangaru Adigalar, to run the organization.
Her life is a shining candle to those from unprivileged backgrounds, as to how one can rise and overcome all obstacles, to make a difference in society if one has the determination and the will to do it.