The Kiplings and India: A Collection of Writings from British India, 1870-1900

"Famine Experiences" (Pandita Ramabai)

(The following is an excerpt from Pandita Ramabai's essay "Famine Experiences" (1897). The full text of the essay can be found in Meera Kosambi's collection, Pandita Ramabai: Through Her Own Words. Selected Works.)

My recollections carry me back to the hard times some twenty-two years ago. The last great famine of Madras presidency reached its climax in the years 1876-77, but it began at least three years before that time. I was in my teens then, and so thoroughly ignorant of the outside world that I cannot remember observing the condition of other people, yet saw enough of distress in our own and a few other families to realize the hard-heartedness of unchanged human nature.

High caste and respectable poor families, who are not accustomed to hard labour and pauperism, suffered then, as they do now, more than the poorer classes. My own people, among many others, fell victims to the terrible famine. We had known better days. My father was a land-holder and an honoured Pandit, and had acquired wealth by his learning. But by-and-by, when he became old and infirm and blind in the last days of his earthly life, he lost all the property in one way or another. My brother, sister, and myself, had no secular education to enable us to earn our livelihood by better work than manual labour. We had all the sacred learning necessary to lead an honest religious life, but the pride of caste and superior learning and vanity of life prevented our stooping down to acquire some industry whereby we might have saved the precious lives of our parents. " In short, we had no common sense, and foolishly spent all the money we had in hand in giving alms to Brahmins to please the gods, who, we thought, would send a shower of gold mohurs upon us and make us rich and happy. We went to several sacred places and temples, to worship different gods and to bathe in sacred rivers and tanks to free ourselves from sin and curse, which brought poverty on us. We prostrated ourselves before the stone and metal images of the gods, and prayed to them day and night ; the burden of our prayer being that the gods would be pleased to give us wealth, learning, and renown. My dear brother, a stalwart young fellow of twenty-one, spoilt his health and wasted his finely built body by fasting months and months. But nothing came of all this futile effort to please the gods—the stone images remained as hard as ever, and never answered our prayers. Oh that we had found out then that, ' Every man is brutish in his knowledge, every founder is confounded by the graven image ; for his molten image is falsehood ' ; ' The idols have spoken vanity, and the diviners have seen a lie, and have told false dreams ; they comfort in vain.'

We knew the Vedanta, and knew also that we worshipped not the images, but some gods whom they represented—still all our learning and superior knowledge was of no avail. We bowed to the idols as thousands of learned Brahmins do. We expected them to speak to us in wonderful oracles. We went to the astrologers with money and other presents, to know from them the minds of the gods concerning us. In this way we spent our precious time, strength, and wealth, in vain. When no money was left in hand we began to sell the valuable things belonging to us—jewelry, costly garments, silver-ware; and even the cooking vessels of brass and copper were sold to the last, and the money spent in giving alms to Brahmins till nothing but a few silver and copper coins were left in our possession. We bought coarse rice with them and ate very sparingly ; but it did not last long. At last the day came when we had finished eating the last grain of rice—and nothing but death by starvation remained for our portion. Oh the sorrow, the helplessness, and the disgrace of the situation!

We assembled together to consider what we should do next; and after a long discussion came to the conclusion that it was better to go into the forest and die there than bear the disgrace of poverty among our own people. And that very night we left the house in which we were staying at Tirpathy—a sacred town situated on the top of Venkatghiri—and entered into the great forest, determined to die there. Eleven days and nights— in which we subsisted on water and leaves and a handful of wild dates—were spent in great bodily and mental pain. At last our dear old father could hold out no longer—the tortures of hunger were too much for his poor, old, weak body. He determined to drown himself in a sacred tank nearby, thus to end all his earthly suffering. It was suggested that the rest of us should either drown ourselves, or break the family and go our several ways. But drowning ourselves seemed most practicable. To drown oneself in some sacred river or tank is not considered suicide by the Hindus; so we felt free to put an end to our lives in that way. Father wanted to drown himself first; so he took leave of all the members of the family one by one. I was his youngest child, and my turn came last. I shall never forget his last injunctions to me. His blind eyes could not see my face ; but he held me tight in his arms, and stroking my head and cheeks, he told me, in a few words broken with emotion, to remember how he loved me, and how he taught me to do right, and never depart from the way of righteousness. His last loving command to me was to lead an honourable life if I lived at all, and to serve God all my life. He did not know the only true God, but served the—to him—unknown God with all his heart and strength; and he was very desirous that his children should serve Him to the last. ' Remember, my child,' he said, ' you are my youngest, my most beloved child. I have given you into the hand of our God; you are His, and to Him alone you must belong, and serve Him all your life.'

He could speak no more. My father's prayers for me were, no doubt, heard by the Almighty, the all-merciful Heavenly Father, whom the old Hindu did not know. The God of all flesh did not find it impossible to bring me, a great sinner and unworthy child of His, out of heathen darkness into the saving light of His love and salvation. I can now say to the departed spirit of the loving parent—' Yes, dear father, I will serve the only true God to the last.' But I could not say so when my father spoke to me for the last time. I listened to him, but was too ignorant, too bewildered to understand him, or make an intelligent answer. We were after this dismissed from father's presence; he wanted an hour for meditation and preparation before death.
While we were placed in such a bewildering situation, the merciful God, who so often prevents His sinful children from rushing headlong into the deep pit of sin, came to our rescue. He kept us from the dreadful act of being witnesses to the suicide of our own loved father. God put a noble thought into the heart of my brother, who said he could not bear to see the sad sight. He would give up all caste pride and go to work to support our old parents ; and as father was unable to walk, he said he would carry him down the mountain into the nearest village, and then go to work. He made his intentions known to father, and begged him not to drown himself in the sacred tank. So the question was settled for that time. Our hearts were gladdened, and we prepared to start from the forest. And yet we wished very much that a tiger, a great snake, or some other wild animal would put an end to our lives. We were too weak to move, and too proud to beg or work to earn a livelihood. But the resolution was made, and we dragged ourselves to the jungle as best we could.  go out of the village into the ruins of an old temple where no one but the wild animals dwelt in the night. There we stayed for four days. A young Brahmin seeing the helplessness of our situation gave us some food.

The same day on which we reached that village, my father was attacked by fever from which he did not recover. On the first day, at the beginning of his last illness, he asked for a little sugar and water. We gave him water, but could not give sugar. He could not eat the coarse food, and shortly after he became unconscious, and died on the morning of the third day.

The same kind young Brahmin who had given us some food came to our help at that time. He could not do much. He was not sure whether we were Brahmins or not; and as none of his co-villagers would come to carry the dead, he could not, for fear of being put out of caste, come to help my brother to carry the remains of my father. But he had the kindness to let some men dig a grave at his own expense, and follow the funeral party as far as the river. Father had entered the Order of a Sannyasin before his death. So his body was to be buried in the ground according to the commands of the Shastras. As there was no one else to carry the dead, my brother tied the body in his dhoti like a bundle, and carried it alone over two miles to its last resting-place. We sadly followed to the river bank, and helped him a little. So we buried our father outside the village, away from all human habitation, and returned with heavy hearts to the ruins of the old temple where we had taken our above. That same evening our mother was attacked by fever, and said she would not live much longer. But we had to leave the place ; there was no work to be found, and no food to be had. We walked with our sick mother for awhile, and then some kind-hearted people gave us a little food and money to pay our fare as far as Raichur. There we stayed for some weeks, being quite unable to move from that town, owing to the illness of our mother. Our life at Raichur was a continuous story of hopelessness and starvation. Brother was too weak to work, and we could not make up our minds to go to beg. Now and then kind people gave us some food. Mother suffered intensely from fever and hunger. We, too, suffered from hunger and weakness; but the sufferings of our mother were more than we could bear to see. Yet we had to keep still through sheer helplessness. Now and then, when delirious, mother would ask for different kinds of food. She could eat but little; yet we were unable to give her the little she wanted.

Once she suffered so much from hunger that she could bear it no longer, and sent me into a neighbour's house to beg a little piece of coarse bajree cake. I went there very reluctantly. The lady spoke kindly to me; but I could on no account open my mouth to beg that piece of bajree bread. With superhuman effort and a firm resolution to keep my feelings from that lady, I kept the tears back; but they poured out of my nose instead of my eyes, in spite of me, and the expression of my face told its own story. The kind Brahmin lady, guessing what was in my mind, asked me if I would like to have some food ; so I said, ' Yes, I want only a piece of bajree bread.' She gave me what I wanted, and I felt very grateful; but could not say a word to express my gratitude. I ran to my mother in great haste, and gave it to her. But she could not eat; she was too weak. The fever was on her; she became unconscious, and died in a few days after that. Her funeral was as sad as that of my father, with the exception that two Brahmins came to help my brother and me to carry her body to the burning ground, about three miles from the town.
I need not lengthen this account with our subsequent experiences. My elder sister also died of starvation, after suffering from illness and hunger. During those few months before our sister died, we three travelled on foot from place to place in search of food and work; but we could not get much of either. My brother and myself continued our sad pilgrimage to the northern boundary of India, and back to the east as far as Calcutta. Brother got work here and there ; but most of the time we lived wanderers' lives. Very often we had to go without food for days. Even when my brother had work to do, he got so little wages—only four rupees a month, and sometimes much less than that—that we were obliged to live on a handful of grain soaked in water, and a little salt. We had no blankets or thick garments to cover ourselves ; and, when travelling, we had to walk barefoot, without umbrellas, and to rest in the night, either under the trees on the roadside or the arches of bridges, or lie down on the ground in the open air. Once on the banks of the Jhelum, a river in the Punjab, we were obliged to rest at night in the open air, and tried to keep off the intense cold by digging two grave-like pits, and putting ourselves into them and covering our bodies—except our heads—with dry sand of the river bank. Sometimes the demands of hunger were so great that we would satisfy our empty stomachs by eating a handful of wild berries, and swallowing the hard stones together with their coarse skins."

[Essay continues] 

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