A short visit to another India

first_imgA few days ago, I did something I don’t do very often – I visited India. By which I mean I made arrangements for some kind strangers to host me in a village for two nights and a full day, and I went. Though it was only for a day, it provided me with the light shock every cityzombie needs from time to time. I won’t talk about my hosts except to say that these are people who have carried on a struggle to better the lives of ordinary, (read poor), rural Indians for over two decades; most of them are from villages themselves, a few from small towns and one or two are nominally PLM – people like me – that is, educated partly abroad, with a good command of English and an urban middle-class upbringing.MudSo, I drove down one of beautiful new highways, often hitting a speed around 120 kmph without either the car or myself breaking into a sweat and, by night time, found myself riding up and down smooth slopes of road that wound itself through dry jungle. The road was first-class and I could easily have kept driving, slept in some roadside motel-type hostelry and covered a distance of 900 kilometers between two of our major cities in less than two days (or say fourteen hours) of driving.Instead, I pulled off the highway at a pre-arranged place and was escorted to where my hosts have a small cluster of huts for their organisation. Suddenly, within the space of a few metres, I transferred from the semi-First-World into a something that belonged deep in what we used to call the Third World.advertisementMy hosts were very friendly but what they were welcoming me into was their daily reality, which is as close as can be to the lives of the people they work with – among the poorest of India’s poor. There were luxuries: the water came daily in a tanker and you could fill up a whole bucket from the storage and take it to a proper toilet in an enclosed hut; there were blankets aplenty to fight the record cold wave; there were a few lights, both solar powered and drawing current from the erratic electric supply; the food was simple, each meal consisting of either roti and daal or another India roti and sabzi, but it was piping hot and tasted very good and fresh; tea came with both milk and sugar; some mobile phones worked and it was possible to connect to the net through a dongle, albeit at a slow speed.Other than this, it was rough for a city-softy like myself.The thing that got to me most was the business of shoes. I had neglected to carry any kind of chappal and the getting in and out of stiff, heavy sneakers every time you entered or left a room was a major drag. When it warmed up the next morning, I walked around barefoot, which was fine on the smooth mud of the chaukat just outside the huts but I had to be careful to avoid the thorns and pebbles on the way to the toilet.It was the ground underfoot that sent me back to my late teenage days and the time I first went out of the city to a village in Bengal. I suddenly remembered the deep discomfort of the mud under my soles, sometimes dry and prickly, sometimes wet and slimy but always alien. I re-lived how foreign and awkward my body felt while squatting or sitting crosslegged on the ground for long periods of time. It had felt as if I had not been designed for this environment, as if I was some ineffective joke of a sports- car trying to drive over boulders.CityNow, my reasonably fancy running shoes felt like an encumbrance and my body, now thirtyodd years older, protested at being put into unfamilar positions.When I forced myself to sit down and be still (on a charpai where my knees could handle the sitting) I realised it was not just the physical discomfort that was getting to me, but – like that first time on the other side of the country – it was also the sense of time that was deeply unsettling, that was at the centre of this low fever of outsider- ness.At that time, in 1978, I’d spent a night and most of a day in a village not two hours from Calcutta.The night was okay, filled as it was with ganja, rum and wonderful Baul songs, but the next day had been pure torture.advertisementI’d wanted to run back to the city, to my flat with it’s clean tiled floors and running water in the bathrooms. Every loving offer of tea or food from the people we were visiting, every urging that we stay longer, stay another night, seemed like a trap, an obstacle to my escape home.Now, in this village in Western India, I wasn’t that desperate to leave, I was anxious about being able to re-connect with this reality which was not mine but which I needed to engage with as a citizen and a human.I am and probably always will be an urban animal, with my life bracketed by the modernities of the second half of the 20th century and the first half of the 21st.I am and probably always will be someone whose labours primarily involve nothing more than his arms, hands and fingertips.As a person, I am defined not by any commitment to social action but by an urge to see, understand and record as truthfully and insightfully the life I find around me. Why then did I need to put myself into this version of poverty, or activism – tourism? I don’t have any really good answer except to say that even though we know the world is round we often forget that when focusing closely on the flat earth around us and it’s crucial to remind ourselves of where are and who we are.DistanceIn that sense, if I myself am any kind of ‘Indian’ or ‘South Asian’ then it’s important never to forget that I am equidistant from Ratan Tata, Sania Mirza and Shah Rukh Khan at one end and the farmer trying to figure out his next meal at the other. It may seem like I’m closer to the rich and famous, the so-called ‘Faces of India’ but that’s perhaps an illusion.The evening before I left, a group of young people from an administrative institute arrived at the huts for their own version of activism-inspection. As they gathered around my hosts and listened to them, I looked at their faces.Some of them might have been from a rural background but most of them were clearly from cities or sizeable towns.The difference between them and me was that many of this bunch would be obliged to work in India’s rural areas for some part of their careers. They seemed happy enough to be there and alert and curious but I really couldn’t be sure they didn’t share my alienation or discomfort As I dropped my gaze from their faces I noticed their shoes. Like me, most of these twenty-somethings were wearing branded trainers. On my way south on the spanking new highway the next morning, I found myself wondering how many of them had brought along rubber chappals and whether any of them was happy walking barefoot on the mud for a while.advertisementThe writer is the author of The Last Jet- engine Laughlast_img

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