Husband and wife writers, Wendy and Allan Sharfe, first published A mouthful of petals, the story of their three years in the remote Indian village of Sokhodeora, in 1967. It is not, however, their only book. Wendy Scarfe has written poetry and several novels, two of which I’ve reviewed here, Hunger town and The day they shot Edward, while her late husband, Allan, also wrote some novels and short stories. Collaboratively, they wrote several books besides A mouthful of petals, including a biography of Indian independence activist Jayaprakash Narayan.
It was Jayaprakash, or JP as he was known, who invited the Scarfes to return to Sokhodeora in 1960, after their 6-month volunteering stint, because he believed serving India was in their hearts. Their service would, he wrote, be “of great value to us and would add to that international good-will and understanding that are so badly needed”. In their opening chapter, the Scarfes write poetically of the place that was to be their home for three years:
Sokhodeora is a dot that is part of the plain: beautiful, serene, full of a sense of continuity with the very beginnings of human civilisation.
But to enter the narrow, zigzag alleys between the congested houses is to lose much of the impression of beauty and to realise the antiquity of man’s anxiety, poverty and misery.
Their role was to be education-related, though on their arrival JP admitted that “frankly” he didn’t know “what specific, clear-cut work” to give them! Ah, the days before KPIs! (Or, more likely, as the Scarfes say, the difference between Western and Eastern world views.) The big picture, the ideal, was that education was needed, and that the villagers needed to see that education was about more than gaining Government employment, which, of course, most villagers would never do.
And so, the Scarfes set about developing their own goals and schedule of work, regularly calibrating with the supportive JP. Uppermost was starting a school for children and night classes for adults. However, they also responded to the practical reality of village life which was characterised by extreme poverty, which in turn meant problems like hunger and poor health. How can children learn, for example, if they are not reasonably nourished? When Jayaprakash comments on the villagers’ apathy, Wendy replies that she believed it was “nutritional”:
People can’t have physical and mental vitality on two meals of rice and pulse a day. A huge proportion of village women suffer from anaemia and they must be just dragging themselves around.
Here is where we realise that aid work like this requires not just the necessary professional skills – in this case, teaching – but resourcefulness and entrepreneurship. The Scarfes, for example, discovered the existence of a supply of powdered milk, and developed a program for its distribution. They wrote many appeals for foodstuffs, eventually landing a winner with the American Meals for Millions Foundation, which provided an awful-sounding but highly nutritional product called “Mysore Multi-Purpose Food”. Again, they were heavily involved in distribution and teaching how to use it. They looked at other issues too, including the provision of toilets, family planning, the building of a classroom, and so on. All this is macro-level. They also worked at the micro-level, supporting individual villagers in all sorts of ways, especially in obtaining the medical help and pharmaceuticals they needed. It’s no wonder that, as this edition’s Publisher’s Note says, this book served, for years, “as a primer for intending field workers”.
None of this was easy of course, and the challenge was exacerbated not only by the usual infrastructure problems – such as transport – but also by cultural and personal issues, particularly the challenge of engaging the villagers in an environment characterised by caste prejudice, gender inequality and inter-family quarrelling.
A mouthful of petals, then, has plenty of interesting content, but I would also like to comment on the writing. It’s a collaborative book, but what voice do you choose to write a book involving both authors’ lives? Ruth Park and D’Arcy Niland, in their memoir The drums go bang (my review), used first person plural when writing about joint experiences, and third person when writing about the experience of one of them. The Scarfes took a different approach, narrating the book in first person from Allan’s point of view, with Wendy spoken of in third person. It works, but I rather like Park and Niland’s approach.
Overall, the writing is straightforward, as it has to be to impart all the information it does, but there are lovely flourishes all the same, like the description of Sokhodeora I cited early in this post. The book is also enhanced by the people populating it. Not only are we given some insight into JP, but the Scarfes tell stories about several villagers, including the initially apprehensive but willing Mahadev who works for them from the start and the ultimately tragic Kesurwa whom they choose to train as their kindergarten teacher. These people give life to the bigger picture being told.
Now, when I read a book like this, by which I mean a book that is about a different place and time – after all, we are talking India of 60 years ago – I think about its relevance (beyond any intrinsic interest in the subject matter) to my place and time. This book provided a few such points, one being the importance of education. There’s literacy, of course, but the Sharfes specifically discuss the value of understanding cause-and-effect, of the ability to draw logical or useful conclusions from observation and experience – regarding pain and illness for example – and how this lack impeded village and villagers’ development. This made me think, rightly or wrongly, of what has been happening in the USA recently where there seems to be just that lack of ability in some of the populace. A failure of education?
Then there’s the big point: the idea of having global responsibility for each other. The Scarfes write:
We are all responsible for the human condition and those who are educated are responsible to those who are not.
I like the use here of “responsible to” not “for“. It shifts this idea of responsibility from a patriarchal notion to something more cooperative or service-oriented.
A mouthful of petals is a passionate book that still offers much to think about. It is well worth reading.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed and reviewed this book.
Wendy Scarfe and Allan Scarfe
A mouthful of petals: Three years in an Indian village
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2020 (rev. ed. with Epilogue; orig. ed. 1967)
Review copy courtesy author and Wakefield Press.