“What image comes to your mind when you think of a village?“
Our day started with this opening question put up by our facilitator, Anupama . Like everyone else, I began thinking of the image I had in my mind. I have been to a village earlier, in the mountain region with scenic views. Knowing the geography of Udaipur, I thought the Jiswal village would not have a river flowing right next to the houses. Yet, the interior parts of the village amazed me completely.
We asked at least ten people for the entrance of the village, and everyone willingly helped. The moment I entered, I was mesmerised by the simplicity of the surroundings. A small school, a healthcare facility, beautifully painted houses, temples, hand-pumps, animals, kids smiling and running, and an Aanganwadi. The life looked simple.
My immediate thought was to wonder how life would have been if I always lived in a village.
While we were walking, we reached a dead-end. A family saw us wandering and invited us inside. It seemed that they might be interested in small talk, probably would want to know where we were coming from. But we ended up spending about two hours at their place. It was a two-floor house, with a swift desire parked outside. In my head, I couldn’t place it in a rural setup.
We were greeted by Radha Bai*, a woman in her mid-50s. I’ll refer to her as Amma. She introduced us to her daughter Reshma*, a 22-year-old; her daughter in law Sonal* a 23 year old; Sonal’s son Suhaan*, a 4-month old, and their dog Fluffy*. The vibe of the house was quite homely. Amma spoke Marwari, the local language, slightly difficult for us to understand, so Reshma gave us a tour of their house.
She took us to the terrace, and we were able to catch a glimpse of the Aravalli mountain range covering the wholevillage. Reshma told us a bit about Jiswal and we bombarded her with questions about the weather in Udaipur, their fields, their cow, people in their family, and more.
After chatting for 5-10 minutes, she invited us to have a cup of tea followed by a full-fledged afternoon meal. Amma made sure that we filled our tummies with delicious roti, dal, buttermilk, and spicy chutney cooked by her. The warmth and the sense of belongingness I experienced there, in a house of a stranger is ineffable. We didn’t even realise how the time went by.
When we got up to leave, Reshma came to drop us till the gate. We were talking about the paintings on the entrance wall, and she explained how it is a ritual to paint these for a marriage ceremony. She told how, the day a girl turns 20 in the village, the groom hunting process begins, and within a year, she is married off. There aren’t any colleges here, and as per Reshma, even if there were, girls wouldn’t be allowed to study after school education.
“Unlike you all, we will never get a chance to work. At least there’s freedom in the city to choose to study even after 20.”Reshma added
She went on to say how divorced women are treated in the community, and that they are never accepted as own. They are not allowed to marry for three years after the divorce. Even in the day-to-day life, they are looked down upon if they wear western clothes, step outside the house or use phones. People expect them to wear traditional sarees, the ones usually worn by elderly women in the community.
I could sense the quiver and disappointment in her voice. She told us that she fought with her husband, who lives in Surat, and left it to come back toJiswal. She never shared if she got divorced or legally separated. We all went quiet and didn’t know how to react. Vania, my co-fellow asked her about her thoughts on the ways divorced women are expected to live here.
While Reshma is grateful to have completed her 12th grade education, she found herself marrying a man at 22, the rishta being arranged by her family. She looked at Vania and exclaimed, “In your place, girls get married by 30, right? Over here, we all have full grown children by then”. We laughed at it, but now when I look back, was it really funny!
Reshma’s story walked towards my door, knocked on it and asked me to listen carefully. Again, what is the point of this? I just have questions. Why are things the way they are? Is this a story of triumphed patriarchy? Does this situation need to change? How do we term certain practices as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the society? What role do we play in enabling this system to exist?
All I know is that I want Reshma to be my friend. She is brave, she speaks her mind and once she has picked her battle, she fights it the best way she can. Knowing that the village norms don’t allow her to welcome strangers, specially from another religion, she took me in, fed me and invited to come back again.– Vania
Reshma knew she was being oppressed with no fault of hers. She knew it was wrong. She looked straight into my eyes and said, “Gaanv bahar se dekhne mei bohot sunder lagta hai but andar se bohot alag hai.” She had burst our bubble in a fraction of seconds with this statement. It gave us an instant reality check. Two hours ago, we had sat our foot in the village thinking it to be simple and beautiful. But Reshma had shattered our illusion, our mirage.
Co-written by Sweksha Gupta and Vania D’Souza, India Fellow 2021 Cohort