In his thirties, Naren returned to his village, to work on his farms and pursue a quiet life of service. He was born into a landlord family. His father, unwilling to alter the rules of the caste society of the village, refused to allow dalits to enter the kitchen or sit at their table. Naren too was stubborn, but in his gentle way. The satyagrah he crafted was uniquely his: in all his years in the village while his father was alive, he ate his food on the kitchen floor, not on the dining table, and when there were dalit visitors, they ate with him on the floor. His wife and two young daughters joined him in this practice. So that his father was not lonely when he ate, Naren would sit with him at the table when he had his meals, but not eat himself. Only later would he eat, seated on the floor.
Narendranath Gorrepati, or Naren as we called him, breathed his last a few months ago, succumbing calmly on July 5, 2009 to a malevolent brain tumour. I was among his devastated family and close friends who gathered by his side, as his life ebbed away. We knew he was widely loved, but none of us was prepared for the crowds that gathered as news of his death spread. His body was taken to his village Venkatramapuram in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh. Overnight people had prepared posters saluting him. The District Collector and senior officials observed silence in respect to his memory, which had never happened for a non-official in living memory. Hundreds of people joined his funeral procession. It was as though every home in the village, dalit or upper caste, had lost their own son or brother.
I had known, loved and admired Naren for three decades now. But I had not suspected the extent to which he had touched — and illuminated — so many lives. There are very few who wear their goodness so lightly, so casually on their shoulders, as did Naren. I decided then to set out to rediscover my friend, after he left us. And in so doing, he taught me many lessons, of life and of goodness.
Naren was in university in Delhi with me, a few years my senior. He joined as an officer in the State Bank of Hyderabad, but was restless from the start. He resigned in five years, and initially worked for Lokayan in Delhi in 1980, at half his bank salary. He then moved to Hyderabad, with his wife and life-long soul-mate Uma Shankari. He soon involved himself in efforts to document the suffering of people displaced by the Srisailam mega-project, and joined efforts for communal harmony in Hyderabad.
A series of personal tragedies — the loss of Uma’s father, and Naren’s mother in a fire accident — pushed them to take the next decision, changing the rest of their lives. Uma recalls, “Somehow death became certain, life very, very uncertain. We realised that whatever good things we want to do, we should do today, now. We planned therefore to follow our hearts: go to our village, look after the lands with organic farming, and continue Naren’s social work”. So in 1987, the family returned to Venkatramapuram, where they lived until Naren took ill this year. Naren’s father joined them, they sent their elder daughter Samyuktha to school in Chennai, and raised their younger Lakshmi in the village until she grew older.
Naren was disillusioned by funded NGOs, so he crafted his own mode of social engagement, what Uma calls “a kind of Gandhian swadeshi-swaraj model. He believed that apart from taking care modestly of their own families, everybody should do some public work. It could be on a very small scale, restricted maybe to a panchayat or even a village. He also felt there were enough resources, funds for public work within even the poorest communities in India; it is just that people are not inspired to contribute these”. Naren decided to work within the district, without any funding.
He was troubled by oppression of dalits, and joined hands with friends for a padayatra, or march, through many villages, where they documented practices of untouchability like barriers to drawing water from the village well or worship at the temple, symbolically breaking the separate cups for dalits at tea stalls. He contributed invaluably to land reforms, countering conventional wisdom that there was no land left to be distributed to the landless, by painstakingly identifying — over many years — 12,000 acres of lands in the district, which were legally surplus but still held by landlords, and also temple lands. He would on an average day leave home at dawn and return by the last bus, travelling to villages and collecting evidence in land cases, which he would present to district officials every week. And when all else would fail, he would join the peaceful but forceful occupation of these lands by the poor. Naren would be at the forefront when the police would use force.
Naren firmly believed in organic ecological farming, therefore he cultivated his own fields experimenting with these technologies, defying conventional market wisdom. His own travails and losses taught him first-hand the suffering of dry-land farmers, about which he campaigned extensively, and wrote a Telugu book Itlu Oka Raithu. He contributed to village self-rule by reviving and participating in village settlement of family and land disputes. He fought the destruction of crops by elephants in ways that would protect both the elephants, by creating a corridor for them, and victims who lost crops, by adequate compensation. He resisted and helped reverse heavy electricity tariffs on farmers.
Naren had phenomenal moral energy but he was not a moralist, as Vijay Pratap, another friend recalls. He was never judgemental about others; he did not make other persons feel small for the choices they were making. Yet he was resolute and uncompromising in the pursuit of his own convictions. He strived to practise every idea he preached; he was not always successful, but he always tried.
Even much more important than what he contributed to his people, was how he related with them. Dalit families recall how Naren used to routinely visit their homes, eat with them and wash his own plate. He helped educate many dalit children and youth, and encouraged inter-caste weddings. In his own home, everyone was welcome and fed generously, even as Uma sometimes argued with him about how they would make ends meet. He sent mangoes from their orchard every year to all: to comrades, and officials, but never forgot all the poorer people who had no mango gardens of their own — the washer-folk, barbers, potters, smiths, carpenters, mechanics, and school teachers.
His comrade Rajni Bakshi recalls how he uniquely crossed all boundaries: everyone was his friend — the police, government officials, Naxals, RSS members, Communists, Ambedkarites, dalits, casteists, even the very persons whose lands they were claiming for assigning to the poor. Human rights activist Balagopal recalls, “To Gandhians he spoke of class struggle. To Naxalites he spoke about the immorality of violence”. Both mourn him inconsolably today.
There are perhaps many who did more than Naren for land reforms, for organic farming, for dalit equity. But what made Naren different was that all the work he accomplished, he did with humility and great love. He carried no rancour against those he fought. “Naren did not work for a mere acre of land or more wages or better farm prices or subsidies. He worked for truth, justice and love.”
In the months since I wept by his bedside, bereft as his last breath left him, these are the lessons — of life and goodness — that I learnt from my friend Naren.