Rural Immersion Program – Engagement by Avnish Gaurav

A trip to the adjacent village with my host uncle

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It was another normal evening in Musmuna, the normal silence being broken by peacocks returning home. Uncle, aunty and I were sitting on a cot discussing how it’s just 5 more days before I leave for Delhi. They ask whether I would be in touch in future, and we share some light moments during the conversation. I tell uncle I have been unable to interact with Jatavs (Dalits) of the village, and he instantly agrees to take me for a visit next morning.
7 a.m. though late from village standards is when we leave for the village. A trip initially planned for 1.5 hours lasted for 4 hours. After a few minutes’ walk through harvested mustard field we reach the village. Many people from Jatav community have left for work; some are busy in marriage related activities. A look at the colony of community gives a very satisfying feeling. People from the same community in many other parts of India live in shanty, temporary houses and congested streets with almost no public facilities. Patta system of land during British rule helped the community get significant land resources. Access to this precious resource in rural area reflects a range of other socio-economic parameters.

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We are asked to sit on a cot, and a group of people seat themselves on the ground. One of them elder to uncle calls him by name, which is a rare phenomenon in rural set up. Seniority is normally determined by position in caste ladder, not age or qualification. Everyone offers bidi (local cigarette – like substance) but not water or tea. I later come to know that the concept of purity and pollution (untouchability) is not valid for dry and purchased things like bidi. I do not remember a single instance in the 20 odd villages we visited where we were not offered water or tea. Thanks to the vestiges of untouchability for giving me this rare but sad experience.
The discussion gradually progresses. Prices of wheat, whether someone has excess quantity, impact of reservation in govt. jobs, political representation of dalits etc. are the topics discussed. They blame upper castes for hindering the benefits of reservation. Political dominance of upper castes is another issue they bring out. These points are contested by upper caste people around. I try to change the topic before the discussion takes a serious turn. Uncle tells me how a few families have been honest and loyal for generations. We are joined by an elderly man who has been unable to see since his birth. He is carrying a child and has perfected the art of moving around without any aid. We move on and see a family in the same colony working with construction workers. The mason belongs to Jatav community. I am not sure if masons and laborers belonging to upper caste work for Jatavs. We are again offered bidi which we politely refuse. I have a brief talk with the mason about how he manages farming and work. Also, whether he finds work on a continuous basis in rural areas. Our next stop is house of an affluent family in the same community. In addition to farming, they trade in hair locks. They exchange small items and edibles for hair locks in villages and sell it off for export to other countries. They explain us how quality of hair differs from one region to another depending on various factors.
We then move on to meet the oldest man in the village. He is a reservoir of knowledge, especially about history of the village. He explains us some local stories like how water from river Yamuna was used to prepare malpua (a sweet) when stock of ghee was over. Also, how a respected person in the village lost his eyesight when he inadvertently ended up saving a murder accused. While we have tea I ask him why in the land of lord Krishna people prefer buffaloes to cows. It is said Krishna used to graze cows in the region and had around 9 lakhs of them. Next destination on our list is the only haveli in the village. It is not just a brick and mortar structure. It has witnessed Yamuna recede 1.5 KMS from the village. It has seen several other villages break away from Musmuna in addition to the ups and downs associated with change of regime. The haveli is now divided into three parts, each belonging to sons of the actual owner. This marvelous structure with earthen pots embedded in the 20-inch wall, underground rooms and built from handmade bricks would otherwise have been a symbol of the village.

We have tea again (3rd since morning) and discuss the deteriorating socio-cultural values of the village. Stolen bikes have been recovered from the village few days back. It has brought a bad name to the village which otherwise enjoys much love and respect in the region. The two uncles seem extremely concerned about it and discuss ways to check such incidents in future. They have been friends since their childhood and this is evident from the blunt and informal nature of their talk. Mercury starts rising and we decide to return to our village. Uncle interacts with some utensil shop owners, potters etc. on our way back. He is so funny with one of them that I am reminded of my college days. I am not sure if people in urban set up are able to have fun at this level. Also, the concomitant impact of such beautiful moments on psychological and psychiatric set up of a person. We return home after 4 hours. Uncle has some visitors to attend to, whereas I keep wondering how uncle is not tired of exchanging Ram-Ramji (the local greetings) during our entire journey. Don’t these non-materialistic things make Indian villages special? People leaving their work to explain route to a passerby, offering water and tea without even seeking introduction, taking pains to provide all possible comfort to a guest are among the many rural traits I wish are not washed away in the wave of so-called-modernization.

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