I distinctly remember when Mr. Ajit Kanitkar had visited Udaipur for a session during the fellowship’s induction training on ‘Understanding The Rural Context’. He had asked us all to describe what we thought rural India was like. Around 25 of us were there in the room – the crux of the conversation was that they live in a better environment surrounded by greenery, eat healthier food, are physically fit and definitely have better life skills than us. He smiled after hearing our thoughts and motivated us to find out more when we finally go to the field areas …
In the first month of working with Centre for Social Action, I got a chance to visit several wadis (hamlet in Marathi) across Mangaon block of Raigad district and interact with the people for an upcoming project of my host organisation. I was obviously extremely thrilled to finally begin my field work. I planned the entire day with Mahesh ji, who works as a field animator in Mangaon. I was happy he was accompanying me as he has been working here for the last 8 years and it was always a delight speaking to him owing to his vast experience. I hopped on to his bike at 10:00 AM, wearing a raincoat, all set to start my day.
It never stops raining in Mangaon during monsoons. You have to be prepared all the time. But this is also the time when the entire region is at its prettiest; greenery all around you, a sight which soothes your eyes. I think this is also why i loved travelling on a bike, a clear view from both the sides, allowing your eyes to wander everywhere, at every corner. My first destination, Khardi, was just half an hour away from Mangaon. Khardi is a very small hamlet with a population of just 130 people and 35 households. This was going to be my first interaction with the community. Before the gavki (general body meeting, comprising of at least one member from each family) Mahesh ji took me around the wadi to see the place, their houses, the fields etc. I happily followed him and the children of the village followed us. It was a beautiful small village surrounded by hills. Right at the start of the hill there was a well which was collectively made by the residents of that village.
Around 14 people came for the Gavki, i introduced myself in Hindi to everyone and asked whether they were comfortable in understanding the Hindi to which they replied ‘Hindi picture ka samjh lete hai toh aapka bhi samajh lenge’ (we understand Hindi spoken in films so we will understand yours as well). On this happy note, i began my discussion with them. As i walked passed a few houses, i was invited inside and was given sugar to eat. According to them, if you cannot offer food to someone, sugar is what you give. I was awed by their gesture and the way everyone was so lovingly inviting me inside their house.
On my way to the next village which was Tasgaon, Mahesh ji stopped for a moment and pointed towards a group of women. They were all sitting at a distance from each other concentrating looking at one point. He told me that they were catching crabs. I shouted with excitement and asked if i could go near and see. I crossed the road and asked for their permission in Marathi, which i had memorised while crossing the road. I quietly sat down beside them seeing what they were doing.
They instructed me to not move and make any sound. They had dug small holes and had a long stick with which they would seek out the crabs. I sat there for about 15 minutes and was already losing my patience. I wondered how they sat there every day patiently. Crab is one of the things eaten the most by the people of the region and they also owe their strong bones and healthy white teeth to eating crabs.
My next destination was Degaon, I was told earlier itself that the village is not accessible by road and was an hour’s walk. The way to the top was surrounded by trees on both the sides and mini waterfalls here and there. I was happily marching my way forward eagerly wanting to reach as soon as possible. We chatted our way up the hill and in no time i could see small houses and children playing on the ground. The houses were build under a government scheme but the interesting thing was that the people built their own houses. Some of the people in the village were trained in masonry and they helped and taught others the same skill. It did take longer than usual to build but all of them were so proud of what they had made. We stayed there for about 2 hours and exploring the place and people showing us their houses. I was treated with yellow daal, rice and chutney made from red chilli and coconut called thecha by two generous young ladies. This was the end of my fun filled field outing.
After coming back to my place I realized how in all the villages that we went in, people had come forward,together, to make something beautiful. It was not about individual gains but about collective goals. We may have forgotten our traditions but they made sure they remembered theirs – especially while welcoming someone new.
This is just the beginning of what I experienced. Over the next few months, i understand that as i nose dive into work and the villages here, I might not have just pleasant experiences. And in hindsight, this might even sound very simplistic and superficial. Till then, I bask in the glory of finding out more about rural India with each passing day at the fellowship!