Tuesday, November 15, 2005

My first Experience of Staying in a Poor Indian Village

My First Village Stay

Staying in a village immediately after joining PRADAN is a litmus test as well as an acclimatization drill for the newcomers. I was taken to a village called Chaapu, which was a pre-dominantly Gond Tribe Village, about 15 kilometers from Sironj. Not long ago, about 15 years ago, this village was totally encircled by a dense forest and people made it appoint to get back inside their homes by 4-5 o’clock every evening because Tiger roamed about in this area. But the main occupation of these landless tribal was wood cutting and they were allotted this land by the Nawab of Sironj to exploit the Khair (Acacia) trees of this area. Since they used to cut the khair trees, this community itself got a new name- ‘Khairua’. After years of reckless felling of trees, and diverting this land for the agricultural purposes, today the majestic forests exists only in the maps of the Forest department like so many other forest areas in Madhya Pradesh. Every morning the women from this village take head loads of the wood collected from the nearby scrubland and walk 15 kilometer to Sironj, where they fetch about Rs.30-40 for each head load that is sold as the fuel. They have this hand to mouth existence in which when a woman cannot go to the market for some reason, she has to look for food from her neighbours or the money lender.

Two Tribal SHGs
Sulakshana, my colleague in PRADAN, had helped these women to get themselves organized into two SHGs (Self Help Group- a group of 10-15 women associated for collecting small amount of money, 5-10 rupees a week and lending amonst themseves once the amount becomes significant) for getting easy credit within the village itself during the time of ditress. She used to hold meetings for these villages every Tuesday, in the night, when the women would be through with their household chores and would take out some time. It was one such meeting to which I was taken the second day after I joined PRADAN.

We reached the the Khairua hamlet at about 8 in the night and waited for the women to come. It took a long time till they all arrived, and this time I utilized for observing the landscape. We were in a hamlet that was on top of a hillock not very high, may be 15 meters from the fields below, on which there were a number of huts located. We sat in the verandah of one of the huts. Although it was mid April already and day time temperature was considerably high, it was very pleasant in the evening- the typical Malwa /Rajasthani climate. The women were talking to Sulakshana and asking questions to her in hushed voices, pointing me. I knew they were asking about me, and I was not surprised. The biggest surprise for these women was that PRADAN people were going unmarried even at the age of 24 that I was, because in their village, guys usually got married at a very young age, the latest being 18.

The Best Song in My Life
As we sat there, myself, Sulakshana and some women SHG members, waiting for the rest to come, they started singing some bhajans in the way that I will not forget to the last day of my life. They made two small groups of 5 women each- one group would sing a line in chorus, and the other would repeat in chorus just as the first group completes a song. It was so sweet, so natural that I was feeling that the summer breeze itself is singing the song in tune with the valley that lay in front of the hillock that we were sitting upon. The starlit sky above our heads seemed to be dancing softly in the tune of the song- “Tune kaali gai ka doodh piya, tone kali gai ka doodh piya, tu isililye kaala hai, tumhara rang kaala hai” (Mother of Lord Krishna consoling the young lad when Radha, his childhood sweetheart would tease him by telling him that he was of dark complexion- “You drank the milk from a black cow, that is why you are dark, your complexion is dark”). The song reverberates in my mind as I type these lines.

Kudos to the Spirit of the Khairua Women
These women, with no material valuable in their lives, just a few old shanties, and small patches of unproductive lands without any irrigation facility used to live their life in here and now situation, singing songs, dancing and living each day of their life as if it were the last one of their life, their life full of laughter and enjoyment despite the sorry state that they live in, the exploitation that they face on a daily basis. Those half-naked people who don’t earn enough to cover their bodies and full their guts, whose women travel everyday to the nearest market 15 kilometers away with a head load of wood weighing not less than 35 kg and come back the same day covering the same distance on feet, both way- live life king size, and we, despite having so much in our lives still carve for more and crib about how bad our lives are, looking for happiness in material assets, discotheques and pubs- what a contrast!

Moharbai and Her Clan
Next day, I was dropped into a village called Tarwariya, which was the star village of PRADAN. I was putting up with a harijan family headed by Moharbai, an elderly widow, who was a member of one of the SHGs in that village. She owns a few goats, who share the courtyard with her family members in night to sleep in. I was staying put with them, taking bath at the handpump in their side of the village, predominantly habitated by Harijans and Mehtars, both of them the most exploited and downtrodden lot of the Indian Society through the ages- sharing food, and sleeping in a group in the shared courtyard, being a part of their life- and I never felt discriminated agaist- in fact, they would take pride in a 17th pass (what villagers called a person who has completed his Post Graduation) urbane youth staying with them. I accompanied them going to the fields, were wells were being dug and kids would take the goats out for grazing. In the month of May, where Sun would bake the animals and plants alike in a parched central Indian village, where the heat wave would howl like a banshee in the deserted streets when nothing- man or animal can be seen- as everybody takes refuge inside the houses- shanties and mud structures and sleep, to wait till the heat reduces a bit and people go out to work at about 4.30 in the evening and work till darkness falls. Yet, I never heard anybody complain- they would be so calm- stithaprajna- as we call in Hindi- totally un-nerved.

Caste- Would not let go so easily
Living in the village, I made a point to give only my first name while introducing myself. The villagers would try to probe deeper to find my surname to ascertain which caste I belong to and I would deflect all such questions. They did not give up and some of them found out from my colleagues in PRADAN my surname. Some of them would call me Maharaj which I did not like due to the caste angle attached with it.

I left my home in 1997 just after the schooling for completing my graduation and Post Graduation and have been living in hotels and shared accommodation since then. The kind of camaraderie that we had in hostels negated any chances for having the caste based biases or pride in most of us. Therefore, caste was the last thing in my mind while enjoying my days in PRADAN. However, some villagers, particularly those of the so called higher strata would take me aside and ask me not to stay with Harijans lest I lose my dharma- which I out rightly rubbished, telling them that I am myself a harijan, which they would obviously not believe.

I am called back
I was so immersed in sweet and sour experience of a village stay that I forgot that I was supposed to come back to PRADAN on the 4th day. On the evening of 5th day, a villager who had visited PRADAN office for some work came to me to inform me that I am supposed to comeback the following evening to attend some important meeting. The next day I took lift from a youth of the village on his bicycle and we came paddling all the way to PRADAN office some 10 kilometers away.
(To be continued)