As soon as the first part of our fellowship program, i.e. the induction training ended in Udaipur, one by one all the fellows and the team members started leaving for their respective field areas. I was the last one left to see off everyone as I had been placed with an NGO called Aajeevika Bureau which is in Udaipur itself.
I realized how much I got attached to everyone in the fellowship in such a short period of time. This overwhelming feeling of finding “My tribe”, my “Own people”, those who I can relate to, left me amazed. Also, initially for a few days, I felt a little abandoned. Far from home, family and friends, I started seeing how lonely this year is going to be and got a little apprehensive about it.
The last month, also the first in the organization, has been a struggle for me, in terms of being able to relate myself to the people and culture of Rajasthan. The other day I was telling my friends and family members that I am unable to refer to this part of Rajasthan. They often ask me how are you finding it and my reply is constant.
“It is different and I haven’t figured out, in a good way or bad. I had some perceptions about the rich culture and pride of locals here. No doubt it is evident and people are capable of upholding their traditional practices, but some things are just not falling into place. I believed myself to be compassionate, but here I am not even able to understand”.
For a month, my organization decided to give me an elaborate induction in Salumber, Udaipur before I move to Kushalgarh, Banswara (my actual work location for this year) so that I am able to seriously understand the core work of the organization and also become familiar with the place as well as team members. The month has been tiring, yet overwhelming. Aside from my weekly tasks, I rented out some time for myself. During this while, I came to love the long evening walks in the local market area of Salumber. Plugging in my earphones, listening to my favorite music, I observed the local spots daily to get some sense of familiarity, and also tried my hands at pottery by convincing the local potters nearby. My two-wheeler rides from Salumber to nearby villages were full of joy.
The unexpected yet breathtaking views of open field areas, hilly terrain, cold wind in the evenings, the range of mountains in the backdrop and sunsets completely overpowered my worries of hot weather in Rajasthan, for a bit. I counted the blossoms on the cactus plant as a metaphor and thus was able to see it as a sign of positivity associated with all the challenges that are lasting to come my way this year. A small ray of hope was smiling for me despite all the drastic conditions which surrounded me.
The month has now ended and the training period is also over. I had gone for a field visit to Kushalgarh and stayed there for a few days with a team member Teena ji. We managed to reach Banswara on our office two-wheeler and for our return journey, waited to catch a bus till Salumbar. Sitting quietly on a small public bench, I realized how difficult this year is going to be for me, in terms of travel, as the public mode of transportation system is not the most efficient in this part of Rajasthan.
The closest railway station to me is Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh, 85 kilometer from my location and the other one is in Udaipur, 204 kilometer away. People here usually rely on private buses for long as well as short distance journeys. Every day, approximately 2000-3000 of them migrate to Surat, Gujarat, for work from Kushalgarh. Only 5-6 private buses are available to cater to such a huge crowd. These buses are overloaded with as many people as possible who have accepted this as their fate.
Now, who would complain as these people don’t have time to get into all this. They are barely surviving and therefore, certainly will not leave their work to fight for their rights. Poor and illiterate are the most vulnerable and hence most impacted when it comes to any service failure or dysfunction of the government. This was surprising to me as Kushalgarh is politically active but so far, not much has been done to fulfil the basic infrastructure of the city.
After waiting for 45 minutes, Teena ji and I, at last boarded a private bus going to Jodhpur. The private buses in Rajasthan are like a savior for locals. These long route buses usually have vacant seats and they allow everyone to get into. However, they do not give a ticket and charge more than the public bus fare. Anyhow, I got a seat, bought my ticket and sat quietly with a sense of relief, thinking how comfortable the people in my organization have tried to make me feel, about my journey in the fellowship so far and what to write in the blog…
But then, two people sitting behind me, having a conversation on politics, gained my attention. As the elections are near, such discussions are common to hear. One of them appeared to be a Modi supporter, and another one was attempting to interrogate him on rational evidence as to why Modi.
I have always been a little less interested in politics but since this year is about pushing ourselves to things we may find uninteresting yet useful, I thought I would take some insights about Rajasthan’s political scenario from their discussion. The supporter guy was telling how he has supported Modi in the last elections by funding 50,000 rupees, and this time it will be 75000 rupees. “Modi ji humare lie bhagwan samaan hai, dekh lena iss bar bhi Modi ji hi jeetenge” he said. At this point Teena and I saw each other and exchanged smiles. The other person asked him several questions like “What has he done for our nation”, and “If you have any idea about the number of scams he is involved in?” to which he responded, “Look how hard he has worked to reach here, he was a ‘chai wala’, a poor person, a commoner like us”.
I have constantly heard stories about how people have deep faith in Modi and I understood it clearly that day. This went along for a while and just when I was losing attention, suddenly the supporter guy mentioned Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in one of his sentences which made me concentrate again. He said, “People in Rajasthan are so innocent unlike those in the other states, who are corrupt. They may have a lot of money, but Rajasthanis have a big heart. Rajasthan is a land of fortune, a golden state with no problems as such.”.
I have always loved Rajasthani culture since I was a kid. The traditional lehenga choli, the food they eat, folk music and dances; I have enjoyed all of it. Even in my school days, while participating in the annual day performances, I always requested my music teacher to have me in the Rajasthani dance group so that I could get to wear those heavy embroidered lehengas and ornaments.
Possibly he was right, Rajasthanis are innocent. A general statement to make though, but most of the people I have met here are helpful and kind. Still, I couldn’t completely agree with what he said, not just because I belong to Haryana as I relate little with the identity of a Haryanavi, but because I was shocked that he knows so less about his surrounding areas and that Rajasthan is surely not a “land of fortune” for a large number of people living here, especially the migrants. I interrupted him at this point.
“Uncle ji, sorry to interrupt you but I am from Haryana. I have lived there, studied there for five years, worked for a while and have now come to Kushalgarh, to work with migrant labor to enable them to live their life with dignity and you are telling me that there is no problem here. I am sorry but…” I said, and he interrupted.
He (supporter): Beta aap Brahmin ho? (Are you a Brahmin?)
He (other guy): Hogi, Brahmin hi hogi, lagti hai! (Must be a Brahmin, she looks like one)
Me: Nahi, mere yahaan jaat nahi hoti. (No, we don’t have castes)
He (other guy): Aise kaise…Jaat toh sabki hoti hai, Haryana se ho, vahan toh Haryanvi JAAT hote hain” (Everyone has a caste, you must be Haryanvi JAAT if you are from Haryana)
Me: Nahi mere ghar mein nahi maante. (No, my family doesn’t believe in caste)
From the rural immersion activity till now, I have been asked about my caste several times. Irrespective of the socio-economic status of people, anyone you meet here will ask you whether you are a Brahmin or not. They will ask you this, to know if you are one of them, so that they can respect you accordingly. I dismissed this and without diverting the actual topic of discussion, I asked them if they know about Kushalgarh and the condition of the villages nearby.
“People do not have access to fresh water, health status is poor, they are unemployed, social security of women and children are at stake and yet you are saying that Rajasthan is a land of fortune. Haryana might not be the best state, but certainly not the worst to live in. Of course, the two cannot be compared but Rajasthan, especially southern part is in distress” I added.
Nearly 80% of the population from southern parts of Rajasthan seasonally migrates to different states including Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, for their survival. Having less flat land, fewer employment opportunities, scarcity of water and also a pressure of society to follow their traditions, people are left with no other option than to migrate and earn a livelihood. In Kushalgarh, we observed family migration. Some couples prefer to take their children along with them to the destination, while others leave them with the elderly in such harsh conditions. The children who accompany their parents leave their education to take care of younger siblings.
On an average, people in the villages have to walk 2-3 kilometers daily to fetch water as there is no government water supply available. The groundwater tables are low and infected with high level of fluorine. Geography and global warming can be blamed for it. As per the locals, the forests have turned into barren land as the government took charge of the mountains and sold the grass as fodder for animals in the market. The mountains in the background look like big piles of mud, shaved to the extent that only small patches of greenery are left now. Not only the government, but the residents are also not much concerned. While driving from Kushalgarh to Banswara in the scorching heat, I asked Teena ji, “Wouldn’t it be better if there were some trees along the roadside.”, to which she replied that people cut down trees and use the wood to make their houses and of course, don’t plant them back.
Soon, I realized that people in the bus were quietly paying attention to what I was saying, with a bit of curiosity on their faces about what I do and how do I know all this.
I concluded by saying, “A large number of these migrants would not even be able to vote in these elections. Being more privileged and aware than those poor people, it becomes our responsibility to think rationally as it will directly affect their lives much more, as compared to ours.”
Clearly not wanting to offend any Modi supporter, I stressed upon taking elections seriously and thinking logically before voting. It was a lesson for me also to be more responsible as a citizen of this country, be aware of governance and politics and accepting that having “no interest” would not help.
I generally choose not to publicly speak on such topics and give “gyaan” but rather like to observe and think of what I can do. It has been just a month and I know very little about this region, still struggling to understand a lot more. But certainly, this incident has hit me to my core and I could not resist myself to take a stand. It felt as if they were talking about my people, my community, that their ignorance will affect my tribe. Surprisingly, the incident also made me realize that I was already resonating with them. I was able to empathize with their condition and felt that they are likewise a part of “My kin”.