Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 18, 2020

A Mouthful of Petals: Three Years in an Indian Village, by Wendy Scarfe and Allan Scarfe

Wendy Scarfe is the author of Hunger Town, (2014, longlisted for the Kibble Award), and The Day They Shot Edward, (2018) and I featured her in Meet an Aussie Author in 2015, but until I read this updated edition of A Mouthful of Petals: Three Years in an Indian Village, I had not really grasped what a remarkable woman she is.  I wonder, when the good folk of Warrnambool encounter her in the shops, do they realise who she is?

My image of Wendy is based on an elegant publicity portrait, so it’s difficult for me to imagine her living in the squalor of an Indian village in the 1960s.  But that’s what she and her husband Allan did, for three years, and A Mouthful of Petals is the story of their sojourn.  This is the blurb:

A Mouthful of Petals is a nonfiction account of three years working in an Indian village in 1960. Previously published, it became a minor classic among good Samaritans, particularly in Britain, and was reviewed by The Times, New Statesman and such like.

At the invitation of India’s venerated political leader and activist Jayaprakash Narayan, Wendy and Allan Scarfe, two dedicated but far from solemn young Australian teachers, travelled to the remote village of Sokhodeora in Bihar in 1960. They had been asked to take charge of the educational activities of his ashram, but over the three years they lived there, their activities extended far beyond that.

This humane and important book recounts their efforts in helping local people counter the misery, poverty and ignorance that afflicted so much of the region. By the time they left, the Scarfes had succeeded in teaching both children and adults much that would help them to lead better and fuller lives. And they left behind, for the young at least, something to hope and work for.

This new edition of A Mouthful Of Petals includes an account of Wendy Scarfe’s return trip to Sokhodeora during a famine in the late 1960s, and how those who live in Bihar state fare in the early twenty-first century.

So the book is not your usual travel book, but like the best of travel books it takes the reader into a different world.  This is a world in marked contrast to the images we see of an increasingly prosperous India today: Britannica tells me that with its well-developed infrastructure and diversified industrial base, India has made astonishing progress since independence.  It’s now one of the wealthiest countries in the world by some reckonings; and it’s home to three of the biggest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world, (Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi).  From its massive population it draws on a huge pool of scientific and engineering personnel to be among the world’s preeminent hi-tech centres of IT and software; and it’s a world leader in cultural exports of music, literature, and cinema.  But the country’s population is still mostly rural, and India’s rapid agricultural expansion still depends on a work force still living in poverty.  Literacy is still a long way from being universal and there is a depressing gender disparity too.

A Mouthful of Petals takes us into that world of grinding poverty and ignorance.  Allan and Wendy put their social justice principles into practice in the village of Sokhodeora in Bihar in 1960, travelling there to set up an experimental rural school, develop the curriculum, and organise the infrastructure.  But they ended up doing much more than that: running night classes; offering family planning advice and resources; doing rescue feeding for starving children; adding shark-liver oil to the kindergarten daily milk supply to cure malnutrition sores; installing lavatories; dealing with exasperating caste issues; and in a village where even matches are a luxury, even setting up the village radio.

‘Wendy sister, Allan brother, what can you do about it if the man on the radio tells lies?’

‘What do you mean?’ we asked in some astonishment.

‘He said it was going to rain today but it hasn’t rained at all.’

So there was no doubt of the radio being educational.  (p.98)

They adopt a little girl called Vidya and suffer guilt when she thrives amid other babies barely clinging to life.  And they are not alone in feeling intense frustration when ignorance makes the situation even worse than it needs to be:

Sokhodeora people were accustomed to eating so little that contained iron — a handful of miniature spinach for a few weeks of the monsoon, a tiny pea grown in the rice crop.  At one time the Ashram Management Committee, for the sake of getting the Maternity Hospital open again, employed a midwife, Shrimati Medulsa, when no doctors answered the advertisements in the Patna papers.  This brisk, dynamic tireless woman, supporting her husband while he underwent leprosy treatment, used to take Wendy on her lightning progresses through the village, regaling her with a stream of impatient comments:

‘Look at these women, Wendy sister.  They’re pregnant and they won’t eat any green vegetables.  They’ll all be anaemic.  I tell them to eat green vegetables and they don’t take any notice of me.  They’re so stupid.  What can you do with them?’

What could be done?  Their monotonous diet of race, dal and spices, twice each day, was responsible for so many casualties: adults with no resistance to disease, children going blind for lack of vitamin A, children deprived of protein during their growing period becoming spindly of body and inactive of mind, toddlers catching dysentery and developing rickets when weaned straight onto the family diet.  We wrote many long letters of appeal for foodstuffs but only one was rewarded.  (p.141)

That response came from an American charity called Meals for Millions.  It eventually merged with Freedom from Hunger (see here) and it provided a three-cent meal using protein that was wasted or fed to animals.  The advantage of this product was that it overcame the reluctance to eat something unfamiliar.  It was a powder that could be mixed into the usual diet whatever it was.  (Though amusingly, it was hungry children who were brave enough to try it first and shamed the adults into tasting it.)  The story of little Shova on the brink of death is heartbreaking, but the before and after photos are beautiful to see.

I was rather saddened to read about Jayaprakash Narayan’s speech outlining Gandhi’s vision of a non-violent social order:

From the theme of internal peace he proceeded to the destructiveness and immorality of nuclear weapons, outlining a role that India might play in securing international disarmament and love between men. (p.131)

Well, we all know what happened to that.

Though A Mouthful of Petals is a serious book, there are light-hearted moments.  When Wendy sets up the kindergarten, she makes it attractive with whitewash decorated with painted animals and illustrations from nursery stories.

There were, for instance, the three bears, Michaelovitch, Alexandrovna and Mihaelovitch chasing Goldilocks Nastasya, a result of the fact that the only cheap, well produced and beautifully illustrated nursery books in Hindi we had been able to find, had been printed in Moscow.  (A friend sixty miles away in Gaya who sought our advice in setting up a kindergarten was alarmed that we might be indoctrinating our pupils, but for us The Three Bears did not seem excessively political.  (p.77)

My favourite moment in the book is when Mahadev discovers the exhilaration of reading.

‘On his fifth journey the sailors broke a roc’s egg and ate the young one,,’ related Mahadev, ‘and then the parent birds threw rocks from a mountain on their ship and broke it.  But Sinbad got to some place and he met an old man’ — broom under one arm he followed Wendy from our workroom into the kitchen —’and he carried him on his shoulders across a river, only for kindness, and then he couldn’t get him off.’

‘You listen to this bit—’ he broke off.  With almost trembling eagerness he opened The Arabian Nights in which his finger had kept the place and read slowly and blunderingly to her.

‘Isn’t that wonderful?” she responded.

‘This is the first story I have ever read like this,’ he commented and went on reading. In the end she had to break his rapt enthusiasm.

‘How about finishing the sweeping, Mahadev, and telling me afterwards?’

He emerged with a start from another world that we had gleaned from Patna, Lucknow, Bombay and Delhi for our school library.  It is doubtful whether the intoxication of his breakthrough to the printed word could ever be conveyed to Westerners who have all been to school. (p. 57)

Indeed.  But this inspiring book gives some hint of it.

Authors: Wendy Scarfe and Allan Scarfe
Title: A Mouthful of Petals: Three Years in an Indian Village
Publisher: (new edition) Wakefield Press, 2020, first published by William Heinemann 1967, revised edition published by Seaview Press 2011
ISBN: 9781743056844, pbk., 275 pages, 22 greyscale photographs
Source: personal library, purchased from Fishpond: A Mouthful of Petals: Three years in an Indian village $28.92

You can also buy A Mouthful of Petals direct from Wakefield Press, or your local Aussie indie bookstore.


Responses

  1. Love the title!

    Like

    • HI Karenlee, It refers to the children eating flowers when there isn’t much else to eat. Flowers which we tend to have as edible decorations on the food we eat in restaurants.
      It’s chastening, to say the least.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. One more to recommend to our local library! Thanks Lisa.

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  3. I love stories that inspire and this sounds like it is at the top of the list. I am almost finished with your ‘Ambulance tale’ you wrote of this past week and this sounds like it might be my next read (or listen). Enjoy your weekend.

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    • Thanks, Pam, happy reading!

      Like

      • I can’t find it in library so may hold off.

        Like

        • Can you request titles? I have to hunt around on my library’s site to find the page where you can do it, but they are usually very responsive.

          Like

  4. I have this book too, but it will be a little while before I get to it.

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    • I predict, with more certainty than an Amazon algorithm will ever have, that you will love it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My sister in law went to live in northern India and founded a women’s co-op for making hats. She even brought back a Tibetan husband. She has been in the final stages of self publishing an account for more than a year now, but I haven’t seen an advance copy.

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    • That’s interesting… do you mean recently?

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      • Feels recent, but maybe 15 years ago. She’s been an invalid pensioner all her life so it was a big effort (wrote a guest post on depression a few years ago).

        Like

        • That’s the kind of quiet heroism I admire…

          Like


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