Not many people would know of the ‘Ramayan chor’, besides his victims and a handful of policemen. He wasn’t extraordinary in the amount he stole or his skills. His uniqueness lay in his timing. In the 1980s, when Ramanand Sagar’s TV serial on The Ramayan held India in its grip, chawl dwellers would leave aside everything and run towards a neighbour’s television set on hearing the title music. Most would leave their houses open. Once the serial got over and the hypnotism subsided, they would discover that their home had been robbed. The ‘Ramayan chor’ was a young boy who enjoyed 2 to 3 months of easy pickings in a chawl in Jogeshwari, Mumbai. The cops remember him fondly. For even they respect thieves who can enter through open doors in broad daylight.
Creativity in everyday India is humble. It has a purpose, and remains invisible. When a multinational bank decided to give Bombay Dyeing bedsheets to the homeless families that I volunteered with one Christmas, I was curious to see how people who slept in bus stops would use it. A few days later, I saw a toddler run around in a dress made out of a pillow cover.
Recycling is a typically Indian tradition. Children in rural areas often learn to swim by making temporary floats out of Dalda dabbas and nylon ropes. In slums, empty car batteries make attractive flowerpots. Not every innovation bears the nobility of recycling, though. In 2004 in Varanasi, an estimated 600,000 condoms were being utilised daily, the majority of which were distributed free of cost by the government. Family planning departments were busy congratulating themselves over the growing demand for condoms till it was discovered that Banarasi weavers were using it to lubricate the loom’s shuttle. The condom’s lubricant didn’t stain the silk threads yet increased the pace of production.
While yuppies at rock concerts thought they had subverted the system by blowing condoms into balloons, their rural counterparts had many more uses for them, like carrying water to the fields, waterproofing leaking roofs and using them for drip irrigation. Such innovations aren’t unique. But when solutions aren’t readily available or affordable, most are forced to re-invent the wheel, or steal a tyre from a car instead.
Creativity becomes a necessity if a problem surpasses one’s imagination. When Lal Bihari, resident of Amilo, a Banarasi sari weaving village, was told by a local officer that he was officially dead, that all his property was transferred to his cousins, he thought it was a joke. It took him 17 years of innovative protests to undo the joke and be declared alive again by the government. He kidnapped his cousin’s son, in the hope of being arrested by the police as official proof of being alive. He contested elections against VP Singh and Rajiv Gandhi, getting 1,600 votes against the former. Lal Bihari is illiterate. His absurd predicament and innovative protests got him featured in Time magazine.
The daily struggle for most below the poverty line isn’t one for just ‘roti, kapda, makaan’. It is also for survival. Mumbai’s street children are little Scheherzades, who must tell a story each night, if only to laugh. I remember a joke composed by 11-year-old Pankaj, who grew up on the platforms of Mumbai Central station. There was a policeman nicknamed Ghati, notorious for beating up platform kids. “One day khadoos Ghati raised hislaathi and told a haathi, main pehelwan hoon. The elephant lifted his trunk and hit him, and Ghati fell on the ground.” It never ceased to make them laugh.
Professor Anil Gupta who teaches at IIM, Ahmedabad, is also the force behind the National Innovation Foundation that documents grassroots innovations and systems of knowledge. Twice a year, he walks with a group through rural India documenting anything interesting. He has come across an amphibious cycle in Champaran Bihar, and people who measure the temperature of fire in the furnace by studying its sound in Bastar. In a village in Purulia, West Bengal, there is a tradition of displaying the best-crafted clay horses under a community tree. This is to let the entire village know what the current standards of excellence are, he’s told.
The professor makes a timely warning in a lecture at TIFR. “If a creative mind isn’t engaged, it will indulge in something else. Don’t underestimate the power of a creative mind focused on destruction.” In the early years of insurgency in the Northeast, he was told that people would collectively urinate in a spot to generate ammonium nitrate, used to make explosives.
Some of the innovations you saw in the blockbuster 3 Idiots, like the sheep shearing cycle and power generating scooter, were outsourced from the National Innovation Foundation. The scooter that works as a generator was invented by Sheikh Jahangir of Jalgaon, who was forced to drop out after his second standard and graze animals to support a family of ten. A painter by profession, he invented the scooter primarily to power his painting machines. Aamir Khan has called him the “real life Rancho”. While the film was one of the most successful Bollywood films ever, the filmmakers paid Rs10,000 to each of these innovators. Therein lies the difference between creativity at the grassroots and the highbrow variety. For one, sustenance is the reward. Recognition and wealth is for the privileged others.
Anil K Gupta