On a rainy morning in Udaipur, a week into the India Fellow training, I found myself standing in a crowded bus, unsure of my destination. As a millennial too comfortable with certainty, I had been plunged into the deep end. Our group had been instructed to spend six hours in any village on our way, without initiating conversations or asking any questions.
Having grown up in a city, I was both excited and terrified. Thousands of questions were running through my mind: How would the villagers react to us? Would we be able to come back with anything meaningful without asking questions? Would they think of us as intruders?
With an immense effort, I managed to shut down the overthinking, and decided to take a leap of faith.
As luck would have it, our bus had several teachers who worked in schools of the neighbouring villages. They were highly bemused by our chatter, and kindly helped us decide on a village to visit: Iswal, which was on the Udaipur-Ahmedabad highway. After a quick but tasty breakfast of samosas and chai, we entered the village; amazed by the lush greenery we saw around us in what was supposedly the land of deserts.
Green fields and the winding black road contrasted each other with a clarity that only the rains could provide. Our explorations led us to a Jain Tirth (place of worship), an ancient temple and a medical centre under construction. We also came across what we later realized were the houses and workplaces of the Adivasi community. In a short while, we were tired of the uphill climb (yes, we have abysmal stamina for young people!), and took a pit stop at a chai shop across the highway. Little did we know that it would become our planning space cum re-fuelling station over the next two days.
Downhill, the other side of Iswal was densely populated, with more houses and narrower streets. We exchanged smiles with passers-by, but were beginning to feel restricted by our inability to ask questions. However, things changed when we reached the fields. It felt like entering another world: where green fields met the foothills of the Aravallis. Several women were working on their crops, while others were carrying piles of hay and cow dung for manure. A magnificent imli (tamarind) tree stood in the center, surrounded by a stone plinth with idols of mythical significance. A few yards away was a bawri (step-well), with a motor that pumped water to the makka (corn) fields.
A few women initiated conversations with us. I let curiosity get the better of me occasionally, and asked what they were growing. As we were talking, an elderly woman making her way back from the fields called out to us and invited us to her home. Gulaabi Bai lived alone and was a widow. She was the mistress of her own affairs, but we could see that she worked incredibly hard to earn a living. As we sat in her home drinking sweet chai, we were bombarded with questions about who we were, where we came from and why we had come to her village.
Her natural willingness to know about us was a stark contrast to the apathy strangers usually experience in cities. Although I found it hard to follow her Mewari dialect, I managed to understand the gist of the conversation. It brought home to me the realisation that communication was almost as dependent on context and non-verbal cues as on language itself. Gulaabi Bai had a satirical sense of humour, gently poking fun at some of the silly things we said in a bid to keep the conversation going. Quite reluctantly, we had to leave her house as it was getting late. For some reason, we had a feeling that this wouldn’t be the last time we were meeting her (it wasn’t!).
My first day in a village may not have been as eventful as I had expected. I did not receive profound words of wisdom from an old man/woman (as too often happens in novels and even ethnographic works). Neither did I leave with the laughter of children ringing in my ears. But everything I experienced was significant because it taught me an important lesson; that it is the humdrum simplicity of everyday activities that reveals the most about village life.
I had gone into this village thinking that I would have deep and meaningful conversations with people I had only just met; that I would come back a changed person. That certainly did not happen; no doubt, the expectation was hopelessly naive. But it led me to the realization that even though the denizens of Iswal and we came from different worlds, there were still small, innocuous and thoroughly non-glamorous moments in which we could unearth our common humanity.