Often times, waking up early is a task, more so when you know that you have something exciting to do the next day. But an easy way around it, is to not sleep at all. Perhaps the reason why most of us were letting out wide yawns and cracking knuckles as we moved to the bus stop to catch a bus to a village. It was 8.30 am and the first day of rural immersion during the induction training of India Fellow.
While we were ousting our laziness, Udaipur was on its feet and a lot was happening in a blink. Flower sellers had put up their stalls, tea and breakfast were being gulped at high speed and buses plied to some place or the other every five minutes. Soon, we got into one of the buses and were on our way.
Iswal, the village assigned to us, is 25 kilometre away from Udaipur and belongs to the Badgaon Tehsil. One moves along the highway, crossing multiple hamlets surrounded by tiny mountains to reach there. The bus dropped us off on the main road and we walked half a kilometre to find a sign board directing us to our destination. Iswal is spread on either sides of the highway. However, the right thing to say would be that the highway, when it was laid, cut through the settlements and a few families had to choose to relocate to one of the sides. We got to know this only on our last day of the visit.
All my life, I had been to only one village, that of my grandparents. And so, there was only one image in my mind when anyone mentioned ‘village’. A timeless, idyllic place. Iswal, in many ways was similar to that image except for the tar road that happened to pass through its entire length. As we walked, we did not find many people moving around. It was close to 11 am and the sun was already hitting hard on our heads.
A Jain temple was built here recently. It was a famous landmark. However, it turned out that this was not the only famous temple in Iswal. There was a Vishnu temple built by Maharana Pratap, tucked away from the village, almost outside, quietly revelling in its own state. The structure looked aesthetic and strong for an ignored 12th century monument. We had the pleasure of listening to the temple caretaker as he went on and on about the history of the monument. Finally, when he was exhausted of knowledge he could share, he let us go. We happily went to the Peepal tree opposite the temple and took a relaxing nap under its shade.
Without a doubt, people make for one of the most interesting aspects of any place. Iswal was no different. Throughout the five days of rural immersion, we met various kinds of people, from farmers to small businessmen, tea sellers to teachers and school goers to homemakers. We also met an almost equal number of four legged beings and winged creatures who amused us as much as humans.
Once, we walked into a farmer’s home who was glad to have us. His family had a baby cow longing to be pet. One of my co-fellows was ‘sort of an expert’ in animals. She taught me how to pet a cow and because of her, for the first time in my life, I did it. I pet a baby cow which licked me in return. The farmer however was least interested in my new-found pleasure. To get his attention, I asked him, “What’s the calf’s name?”
He shrugged. For some reason, we thought that the calf should have a name and were contemplating a suitable one. The farmer, on the top of his voice, said, “Iska naam Sharmila Tagore hai!”. (Her name is Sharmila Tagore!) I was pleasantly surprised by his creativity while all we were doing was coming up with mainstream animal names. Did I think that a farmer could not be creative?
On our 2nd day, we walked into one of the homes in the village, trying to use a tool called Transect walk and were also curious to know people in this particular home. (It had a huge front lawn with a lot of animals) Kamala ji* welcomed us and instantly asked why we didn’t visit yesterday. I was surprised that she had seen us roaming the roads of the village as I did not expect her to have noticed us.
She asked us to sit down and as I did, I asked for some water, to which she obliged and casually asked my caste. This was the first time someone was asking my caste for no obvious reason. In an impulse, I said I was a Brahmin. My co-fellow also immediately said that she was also one. While my co-fellow really was one, I in all means and ways, wasn’t. Why did I say it then? Perhaps, it was the effect of videos I had recently seen on caste discrimination along with some built-up notion of how caste is looked upon in a village, that led to my false reply. The water soon arrived in a steel tumbler and I drank it all in one go.
Kamala ji asked more about us and especially insisted on knowing why my female co-fellow, at 21, was not yet married. She went on to say that the Brahmin girls in the village get married by the age of 18 and that my co-fellow is really late. All my attempts to deflect the topic went in vain. Thankfully, Kamala ji had a baby goat, which, at this point of time, started running from one end of the lawn to another, creating a safe distraction. This led to a change in topic and she spoke about her goats, cows and a dog, Tommy, which was not to be found anywhere at the moment. We spent a good 45 minutes at her home and soon bid our farewell.
Throughout the rural immersion, I had many conversations with local people and each one of them surprised me in some way or the other. A farmer who was creative, a women who knew about climate change, a small businessman who understood the importance of multiple revenue streams and many more.
I feel that I have several layers or lenses with which I see and interact with people. One of an urban dweller, one of an engineer and maybe sometimes just that of a privileged person. Would we ever be able to see a human being just as another human being with a mind and a heart and limbs and dreams stuck together? I wonder…
*Name changed to protect identity