Lakshmi does what she thinks is right. She made that clear right at the start.
"I do what is good for my village. And if I see something wrong, I speak up. Why should I not?" Her village, Samuthiram, in Trichy, Tamil Nadu, is a quaint little place with an old white arch, new cement pavements and a rainbow coloured temple. It's about four in the evening and Lakshmi Periyaswami sat on the floor of her living room, sifting through pages. Her teenage son sat watching the television. I simply sat, watched and listened.
Lakshmi's work essentially helped change the face of her village. She first joined the village union office as a volunteer in the road waste management plan. "People threw things on the streets all the time. They didn't seem to understand that they're littering their own land. We installed large dumpsters on every corner of the region and even initiated a plan where the people can sell their plastic waste in order to recycle. This is still an ongoing project, but I've moved on to other things."
But she didn't move far. The next problem Lakshmi tackled is something quite popular these days--open defecation. And that's actually where this conversation headed. "Back when I started this work, we didn't even have a toilet at home. This was two years ago. Things are a lot different now." But she quickly added, "Don't get me wrong. I'm not deluded into saying that my village is open defecation free. It is not. Many at the village panchayat show false data stating that there are only 15 houses in our village without toilet and that amount is small enough to ignore." She scoffed, sort of shaking her head in defiance. "They're wrong obviously. Firstly, there are a lot more that 15 houses without toilets. Two of my own neighbours don't have toilets." She then chuckled. Her son chuckled as well, watching something on the television.
Lakshmi paused, and then continued, "People think I'm arrogant for speaking up. But I wouldn't stop. I'm a volunteer at the union office, so I have nothing to lose and certainly nothing to gain. Just because a blunt lie helps people feel good about themselves doesn't make it true." I suddenly think of the Dark Knight Trilogy, but found it inappropriate to mention. So I simply nod and ask, "So what has improved?"
"Oh, lots! Many hamlets in the nooks of our panchayat now have toilets. Imagine, when I first went to spread awareness in these regions, people shooed us away." She smiled and said, "We go early in the mornings to places where people openly defecate and chide them. So we can't blame them for being annoyed. But eventually people started to listen. We made them understand the need for hygiene. And if they didn't have the means for a toilet, we tried to find a solution. We are not open defecation free yet, but you won't see many squatters in the morning anymore." Lakshmi and I laugh. Her son joins in too, this time not at the television.
"We are not open defecation free yet, but you won't see many squatters in the morning anymore."
"Of all the things I've done though," Lakshmi whispered now, trying to avoid her son from listening in, "I'm proud that I taught my son to be socially responsible. The other day, a neighbour drank poison to kill himself. My boy ran to his aide. Took him to the hospital by himself on a bike." Lakshmi's eyes gleamed. "And the neighbour lived"
Lakshmi is now appointed as the leader of Samuthiram under the Village Panchayat Development Plan. That might not seem much to many, but when it comes down to it, it is in the grass roots where the work is done. It is women and men like Lakshmi Periyaswami who do what they can in making things better. It might not be the greatest thing in the world, but it's definitely one of the truest.