Towards the west of Badgaon in Gogunda Tehsil of Udaipur, Rajasthan, lies a small hamlet called Kataar*. Famous for a beautiful lake and a dam aptly called Bada Talaab amidst green hills, Kataar served as a great destination for the first rural immersion as a part of India Fellow induction training. As we (a group of 4 co-fellows) roamed around the village, local people assumed that we were tourists like many others who come and flock to seeKataar’s beauty. Our presence seemed ordinary except the glances at my co-fellow’s blue hair!
Typically, I enjoy reading signboards and banners while travelling in new places. While fun, this exercise also becomes handy for a topographically disoriented person like me (quite unlike my name) to remember the way back. Hence, the slogans painted on the walls and houses towards Bada Talaab also caught my eye.
Every other house in the pukka-housing community had witty slogans written in Hindi urging people to go vote. There were also multiple bright banners of political parties campaigning for their candidates. What surprised me was that the two prominent parties had women candidates. I wondered if it was deliberate. On the banners, one woman in a relatively modern attire had her caste written in brackets while the other woman was in ghunghat.
An unlikely coincidence but I kept thinking of reasons and circumstances for this uncommon sight, particularly in rural Rajasthan. Throughout the day, I continued observing similar paradoxes in the society. Most of the men and young boys of the village were absent. We assumed that they had gone to the city for work. There were women harvesting maize on our way to the dam and on the other end of the field who we saw while returning from the dam hours later.
I remember complaining about the hot sun as they worked the entire day and would possibly go back home to complete their domestic chores.
A few houses down the lane, I saw another woman, this time on a shiny new scooter, an Activa. She was wearing a helmet as she zoomed past us. For me, she clearly stood out as the only woman in a kurti while all others were in bright orange and red ghunghats. Loud and lively little girls near Chota Talaab bathed and ran around without a care in the world while their elder adolescent siblings blushed as we asked them for the bus timings.
As we walked along narrow paths, we bumped into women holding piles of firewood atop their heads swiftly pulling down their ghunghat as they saw my male co-fellows. At the same time, I also recall a young girl in a red off-shoulder top and jeans, standing outside her house with a car parking space, cheerfully waving at us. It is difficult to explain how, but we, in our kurtis looked more of an anomaly amongst ghunghats and turbans as compared to young girl.
Often, we claim to be open but just these physical appearances made me realize that I too went with several assumptions, putting women ofKataar in a box, and finding these differences surprising because how amongst them, they could be different from each other. They did not fit in the ‘rural’ image I had in my mind.
Women ofKataar came across as blatantly unique and obviously different. They made me want to know more about them, learn details of their work, their perceptions, their dreams. For the first time, I had gone to a village without a purpose. It was neither a picnic nor an assignment. It made me anxiously look around to force myself to refrain from asking multiple questions. However, I am not sure how successful I was, since all my conversations were passing one-sided inquiries (close to interrogations).
Isn’t it weird? I would totally dislike and may even dismiss a stranger if they bugged me with the kind of questions I asked, and yet, I was behaving as if people were obligated to entertain mine.
This seemingly aimless visit made my village experience much more profound than expected. It made me pause and observe my surroundings with a sense of objectivity. The freedom to do anything or nothing translated to a deeper immersion in contrast to going with a defined goal in mind.
The experience made me feel excited. Just looking around and observing taught me so much about people that I couldn’t wait to go back and actually sit with them to interact and share stories. Would the seemingly paradoxical women have similar tales to tell or would they continue to surprise me with their diversities. I think I already know the answer!
*Name changed to maintain confidentiality