Meeting Padma Shri Harekala Hajabba: An ‘Illiterate’ Orange Vendor Who Has Educated Hundred Of Students And Is Determined To Do More
Harekala Hajabba, the orange vendor who started a school in his village, now wishes to build a college, and he will do everything possible to achieve this.
In a white cotton mundu and a plain white cotton shirt, top buttons of which are all open, showing a part of the white vest inside, Harekala Hajabba's humility can put anyone to shame. He has just received Padma Shri, one of the highest honours this nation confers, yet he is merely answering calls, media queries and all else with just a list of 'thank you' notes.
From those who helped him with money as little as Rs 100 to a teacher who recharges his phone, from a former MLA to leaders, and the bus association that "gifted him a new shirt to wear for the award ceremony" — Hajabba can't stop thanking the countless people, who he says have given a man who "isn’t worth a penny" national honour and recognition.
Having spent a lot of time at his school and home during my earlier meeting back in his hometown, I have known Hajabba as a restless man. He has been restless since the day he decided to get a school built in his village so that no child is deprived of education. And he would accomplish this almost impossible dream by doing what he did for a living — selling oranges.
Read his journey in detail here.
He is even more restless now — since he, in his own words, doesn't or can't sell oranges anymore. "But we need to get a PU college for our school and it should happen soon," he says. He says he sought Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's help to build a PU college at the 'cha koota’ (tea get-together). He says: ‘awaru namma Kannada davaru alla.. nadu adakke awarige kannadadalli helped namma samsadara mukhantara maadi Modi anta’ (She is our Kannada person right? So I told her in Kannada to help build a PU college through our MP).
Forcing a smile out of Hajabba is difficult, for if one praises him for his efforts and ask him to smile even for a photograph to honour his efforts, he finds it difficult, and says, "this is not my effort, this has been made possible by hundreds of people, who have all through these years contributed whatever they could to build our school and to ensure it is the best".
But he is yet to come to terms with the fact that he shook hands with the Prime Minister. As he goes on to narrate how he waited for his turn, we sit down at the lobby of the hotel floor. Not one to sit down even otherwise, the energy in his frail frame is even more intense today, reliving the morning that was.
As he bows down yet again expressing his gratitude to "such a great Prime Minister of such a big country", he takes off his slippers and does a namaskar. The roll he holds in his hands has the award certificate I tell him, asking him to open it, and he looks in disbelief. "This is the award the President gave me," he insists, as I open it for him. A smile gently slips out as he then holds the certificate that has his name in Nagari script.
"Oh so this is what is to be framed. I will frame it, I will frame it," he says, sharing in all humility that he was wondering how he would frame the roll when someone earlier in the day told him that he would have to frame the award.
As I read it out for him and show him his name and the President’s signature and seal, he says "oh nange gothirlilla madam avare" — for, this visionary vendor of oranges can't read or write himself.
But, he enabled the creation of a wonderful institution that would provide education for hundreds of students in his village. He has marked his own attendance every single day he was in his hometown, opening the school gates and classrooms way before the students or teachers arrived. He checks every classroom, every washroom, ushers the children into the classrooms and then leaves as the lessons begin.
His journey was first highlighted by journalist Guruvappa Balepuni of Hosadigantha. He says he owes a lot of the attention that followed to this "very good man" who told people Hajabba is building a school. As Balepuni calls to enquire about Hajabba, he gives him an update and hands me the phone saying, "this is the man because of whom all this has happened, you talk to him”.
Starting from Balepuni, he relives his journey for me mentioning every single donor, leaders, politicians, locals and media houses, and how they have all ensured his dream comes true, reducing his own efforts to having just wished for a school.
With a bandaged left thumb, he holds the roll in one hand and the two medal boxes in the other. When asked how he hurt his thumb, Hajabba narrates that he cut it while chopping a tender coconut that he had served the district administration officials who had come home to do his Covid tests two days earlier. "Imagine the DC said he will send them home only to do the test… for a person like me, can I imagine such a treatment," he asks in all naivete.
Talking of disbelief, he shifts back to the events of the morning. "With these very hands, this broken thumb, I received the award from the President of India, can you believe madam avare? Is this possible?" he says.
"These are the hands our great Prime Minister held. He asked achcha? But I don’t know Hindi. He then told the person next to him ‘orange seller... has built school’ so I knew he was talking about me. Can you believe it madam avare (honorific) that out Prime Minister is talking about a poor, ordinary man who is worth nothing, the son of a farm labourer, an ordinary orange vendor is being praised by the Prime Minister of this country? I am grateful to the government of India for this honour," he says, adding that he also met the President and Home Minister Amit Shah at the gathering.
"I am thankful to being born in Tulunadu," he says, bowing down, that such honours have been bestowed upon him. His language is a feeble, fumbling mix of Kannada and Tulu, his speech not very clear, but his intentions sure are, and crystal clear at that.
"I can no longer sell oranges, it's been few years now, my health fails me. But I get some Rs 600 pension, and some donors help me with the medicine I need and for any small expenses I have and I get some 60 kilos of rice, that’s enough for me," he says.
An ever content man, who hasn’t kept a single rupee of the prize money from the various awards he received, he is only worried about raising funds for the development of the school.
"It will need a grant of around Rs 1 crore for the PU college to be set up, and I have made this request to our Finance Minister. And I have faith, he says, if lakhs of people have trusted their hard earned money in my hands to make a school happen, even this will," he says, as I help him put back the award into the roll and get set for the flight back to Mangaluru.
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