Tuesday, November 30, 2021

There are no Strangers in a Village

We were walking through the village and I had just talked to a woman about the load she was carrying on her back. It was a fairly innocuous exchange, a salutation, a few questions from me and her responses. 

So I couldn't understand when my son (who is a citizen of Singapore and currently a resident of Switzerland) commented that I had treated the woman as a lesser person. Had I? That not my intention. And she certainly hadn't looked unhappy talking to me. So was it something in my tone that he had noticed? 

He said just the fact that I had stopped a total stranger and asked her random questions was an act of superiority. As if I had a right to engage her.  Would I do something like this to a person like myself in a city? He also noted that no villager had stopped me to ask me about my day or life. It was always coming from me. 

I listened to my son's observations deeply, as I always do. He is one of the few people who has challenged my convictions successfully.

His comment stayed with me for a long time. Years actually. Everytime I spoke to village folks, I observed my words and their reaction. I noticed that indeed they never initiated the conversation, but once I did, they were very comfortable and extremely happy to talk. 

Then last month, after having spoken to another woman from a village while out on a walk, I finally brought it up to Sonu. 

She didn't think my initiating conversations was an act of superiority. In fact, quite the opposite. That I have conversations with them, according to her, is a sign of my interest in them as important human beings whose lives I find interesting. That is not an insult, she said, but a compliment. As to why they didn't initiate conversations with me, she said they were wary of city folks who are quite often snobbish.

Not fully satisfied, I asked her "So, you mean, if I didn't look so obviously an outsider, they would engage with me? Is it only because I look different that they hesitate? Do they normally engage with a stranger they meet, provided the stranger looks like one of them?" 

Her response, which took some time coming, had me floored. 

"Puja, there are no strangers in a village!"

Thursday, September 30, 2021

My Kamla

Unlike many people who have written about Kamla in the last few days, I didn't know her for long. I was not connected to her professionally either. I was just an ordinary person she chose to befriend in Rakkar, her second home. 

I first met Kamla in 2013, a few months after I had returned to India and settled in a small town in Himachal. Within a minute of meeting her, it felt as if I had known her my entire life. She heard my life story without interrupting me and declared that I was at once a fool and someone special. "Tu to badi pagal hai!", she said and added "this village is lucky to have you here!". 

This was the start of  friendship like none other. She got to know of my picnics in the mountains and wanted to be part of them. She climbed trees with my friends and daughter. She joined Aloka in her Hula Hoop sessions. She made mom sing Bengali songs. She would have us in splits with her riddles and jokes. She enjoyed my cooking and came over for lunches, oohing and aahing at everything I made. She joined us for our mango eating outings to a friend's orchard, where we all sat around a bucket full of mangoes that would need to be topped up ever so often. She joined us in our expeditions to our khadd to cool down on hot summer days. She became my brand ambassador when I put up a chicken schnitzel stall in the village fair. She was just one of us crazy women. 

She was Kammo for mom. She in turn addressed my mom as didi. She insisted Aloka call her Kamla nani. And she frowned upon me when I called her Kamla-di, something I had heard everyone in Jagori calling her. So she was simply Kamla for me. 

She trained and traveled often in the three months that she was in Himachal, and was free for only about 15-20 days scattered over the months. I made sure I spent at least some time with her on these days. She did too. If there was a meeting with someone interesting nearby, she would take me along. She made me organize mehfils and get-togethers. She introduced me to everyone she thought would be good for me. These summer months were the highlight of our year, thanks to Kamla. 

In our very first meeting, she asked me to teach English to the staff of Jagori. "Tu to acchi Angrezi bolti hai. Tu Angrezi parha sab ko", she had said. Though I had never taught English to anyone in my life, I said yes, because you don't say no to Kamla. That was the beginning of my journey of teaching that has sustained me in all these years by giving me purpose. It has also connected me to the village and the kids and youth. I have received so much love from numerous people because one woman saw something in me that no one else saw, including me. 

She kept seeing in me things neither I nor others saw. When people applauded the dancers in a dance workshop held at my home, they saw me as one of the dancers, just as I did. But she saw me as someone bringing Indian Classical dance to the village and making it accessible to village kids. When people applauded my school students for their performance in an English play, they saw me as a volunteer teacher with whom kids had fun, just as I did. But she saw me as a person transforming the lives of village kids. To be loved is one thing, but to be seen is quite something. 

The more I got to know her, the more I realized that I knew very little about feminism. I attended two days of her gender workshop one time and that's it. The rest I learned by talking to her and reading her books and articles. I had many questions and initially I asked them with diffidence, questions cloaked as observations. Her responses to me were never direct. She left me with oblique half-answers and I believe it was because she expected me to figure out things for myself.  

"Kamla, I was treated the same as my brother growing up. There was no discrimination at home" I remember saying to her once. Her response was oblique. "And what was outside of your house? What did you step into when you stepped out of your door", she responded. Once there was an uproar on Facebook when she shared a video of Sadhguru talking about women dressing to please men. I called her and asked why was wearing whatever women felt like not an expression of their freedom? Her response was once again brief. She said "In an ideal world, it would be, of course. But don't forget that we are all operating within the boundaries of patriarchy." When I said I wanted to attend her workshops to learn more from her, she said to me "No one knows everything there is to know, not even I".

Whatever I may have thought of her, she always considered me as her equal, as her friend. I realize now what an honor that is. This foolish girl never considered herself worthy of being a friend to Kamla, but she had no doubts about it. Once, while introducing myself to someone who knew her, I added that Kamla is my mentor. Kamla slapped me lightly on my leg and said "What mentor shentor. We are friends." I felt somehow that I had offended her by calling her my mentor. 

She used to call me once or twice a month for a chit chat. She would often complain that I was always too busy and never called her. If I called her and she was busy, she would always return my call. If I wrote to her, she would be prompt with her response. How could a person who had an abundance of friends accommodate me in her life so easily? How does a heart become so expansive?

This changed only in the last few months of her life. She didn't respond to my message when I wrote expressing my anguish at the diatribe against her on social media (that's an elephant in the room no one's talking about, perhaps because its irrelevance is obvious now). She didn't respond when I wrote to her after her diagnosis. But I didn't give up, messaging and calling till she finally said "Tu aaja". 

I spent a week with her in Delhi in early September, taking care of her jointly with two other friends of hers. I got scolded by her countless number of times that week for not being prompt enough, for not understanding what exactly she wanted me to do, for offering to hold her hand when she walked (I am not that weak!) and what not. I will cherish that scolding all my life. I didn't get to rest or sleep much that week, managing her oxygen and medicines and being on call at night. I will cherish each moment of that whirlwind week all my life. 

She was losing strength fast but not her sense of humor. When I said a couple of times that I am sad that her nephew is leaving, she said "Lo dekh lo Puja ko. Woh Delhi se Indore ja raha hai aur isko itna dukh hai. Yahaan mein duniya chhorh ke ja rahi hun, uska kya?" We laughed together. I cried alone in my room later.

Kamla, my mentor (sorry), my mother, my sister, my dearest friend, I am so honored and so privileged to have you in my life.  The force that you were cannot vanish. The love that you were cannot dissipate. You live in me, in Aloka, and in the thousands of people for whom you had space in your big big heart. 

I am filled with thoughts and memories of you. I am bereft. 

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Our Memories and Their's

In Jan 2017, Rajiv Tyagi  was visiting us and as is my wont, we had taken him for a drive around nearby villages. Two large haystacks in a farm by the roadside caught our attention and we decided to pose for pictures under them. To get to them, we had to walk through someone's front yard. On our way out, the lady of the house gave us the most fragrant desi coriander leaves from her kitchen garden. This is the extent of my memory of that day.

Four years later, today, we stopped by their house again, this time to click a beautiful kainth tree. Once again, we walked by their front yard. On our way out, the family called us to sit with them and have tea. We refused the tea but sat on their parapet wall to rest and talk to them.
The man looked at me carefully and then said "I know you. Your mother was a doctor at Tanda. You used to live in Singapore. You have a young daughter. There was also a man with you." This is the depth of his memory of strangers who stopped by his house four years ago!
We again got a gift of fragrant desi coriander leaves, not to mention the sweetest hospitality and welcome only villagers know how to give.
I left their house very reluctantly. I could have sat on that parapet until the sun set and the moon rose.

A Stranger's Gift!

Saw a video yesterday about the release of oxytocin in our brains when we do something for another person. The same chemical is also released in people witnessing such a kind deed. So hoping this will release oxytocin in everyone reading this post.

This incident happened to my students from Sajhe Sapne last month. As part of their English class, we documented it- first in Hindi and then in English. Most of the words are their own, but I did help correct some mistakes and added some phrases.

A Stranger’s Gift
(Written by Phula, Santoli, Nicky, Indu, Jyoti and Arti)
This happened a few days ago. Eight of us had gone to Nangli restaurant for Shalini didi’s birthday party.
There were many people in the restaurant. The manager joined two tables for us and we sat down. Then we started ordering food, such as dosa, sandwich, golgappa, pao bhaji, alu tikki and some sweets.
We were happily eating together and joking with each other. We were having a great time. Everyone in the restaurant was amused and looking at us with interest. A man sitting at the table behind us kept looking at us. After some time, he asked us where we were from. We introduced ourselves and Sajhe Sapne. He was very happy to hear about us. He then told his family about us.
Shalini didi asked him where he was from. He said “I am from Germany”.
After some time, he came to our table and said “Can I pay for your party?” We were shocked and stared at him speechless. He put Rs. 1000 on our table and went away.
It was such a surprise to receive money from a stranger. We did not know anything about him except that he was German. We realized how good some people are in this world.
But now Shalini didi will have to give a party again. This party was given by a German man!
Some questions to ponder on: What made a total stranger do this deed? What was about the group that inspired him? What would make you do this for someone?