The outer world is changing with Limca, Gold Flakes and gyms; there are “modern” male aspirations… but what about the world within with its silent women?
The thing about India is that you can be, and often are, a tourist in your own country. I feel somewhat like a voyeuristic Pooja Batra in that 1997 film Virasat, wielding a camera—or at least a smartphone in my case—taking pictures of unfamiliar, “exotic” India. I hate such stereotyping but as a tourist you do see things from quite another lens.
Haryana is quite a prosperous state in India. One of the granaries of the country and that is quite evident as I find my way through mofussil towns and roads with no names to a semi-town called Khedi in the Kaithal district of the state. From there, we drive into villages, past stunningly green fields and fruit orchards spilling over with their produce, canals and pools, all full, this time of the monsoon. There are fertilizer shops, grocers’ stores, village schools, even an engineering college and as I see gangs of boys in their full pants and white shirts and lazily slung school bags, I wonder at what it is they are learning.
Does a poem by Milton, part of the curriculum in many Indian schools, make any sense to them? Does history have any relevance in this land, so close to where the Mahabharat was ostensibly fought? Does geography bother them beyond the obsession with Canada or the US, where so many families from here have settled, living in such different conditions, enjoying benefits of systems that don’t seem to exist in India at all, speaking an accented different language and yet inhabiting the same rural, feudal, small world that is Khedi? In their minds.
It could be idyllic, this part of India. For someone from the big city, it is such a refreshing change to finally breathe in fresh air, enjoy the sense of space and the slow rhythm of life closer to nature. I see farmers on their string cots enjoying the wet monsoon breeze, poorer ones are resting under big trees, enjoying their late morning meal after working hard in the early hours, there is a sense of quiet that you never have in a bustling metro. But be careful, this is not the idyllic world of a Romantic.
The farmer, who is showing us around comes to meet us by a farm in a Tata Indigo car with a large plastic bottle of Limca. It’s a welcome drink, a sign of hospitality and warmth, so evident in smaller-town India, that will bowl us over more than once through the afternoon as we are given fruit and sweets, offered tea and lunch in the homes of people we do not know, just because we are guests on their farms. Through the entire visit, we will pause at least thrice and drink more sickly sweet soda out of plastic glasses; never any lassi or even water. This is modernisation, along with tractors and banks, electricity and water, modern retail that is taking over, changing lives subtly through smart packaging that requires very little thought.
In other ways, mindsets have not changed at all. As a woman reporter, I am entirely a curiosity in this deeply feudal world. As much as a poster of Katrina Kaif in ghagra-choli churning buttermilk that is popular décor in homes here. I see it at a farmer’s house and admire it and he tells me, apologetically that since milk is scarce this time of the year, I could try a similar pose when I visit in winter for a photo op!
There is no woman to be seen in the male outer world, except for ageing matriarchs who sit in public squares, unscared and proud. You need to have left all your feminity behind, become a quasi-masculine figure, given birth to powerful sons, to enjoy such liberties. In another farmer’s house, I see a young wife; she is paraded out to meet me—the visiting dignitary.
Shy, not meeting my eye but touchingly thrilled when I do not say a Namaste to her as I have to her mother in law but a cheerful “bye” with a wave as I leave. With that unthinking gesture, I have endowed her with a special stature—of an equal, not the other, as a woman similar to me who perhaps can understand English and the “English” way of life here! And that pleases her. It may be a common aspiration in these parts of India, where they marry so early and live so cloistered in a world entirely domestic to be us city girls, working, supposedly independent and worldly wise— just as it may be an aspiration for others in the cities to be Hollywood stars or at least models!
In this feudal world, if opportunities and liberties for women have remained painfully slow to come, for men, they have been fast-tracked. The farmers that I meet are very enterprising. They are not content to till the fields unquestioningly. They are negotiating prices aggressively, innovating, and expanding their “businesses”. One of the vegetable farmers owns a mithai-making workshop. Over more Limca and (some Gold Flakes cigarettes), he takes us to the unit where scores of halwais and labourers are handmaking pheni and ghewar, two sweets favoured in the monsoons in northern India. He will load them up in a truck, take them to the big cities, and grow his business.
Others have taken to growing organic veggies and fruit; at least partly because these command a premium in the urban, elite market. Surprisingly there is a big demand for these in the Great Indian Weddings biz—in towns like Ludhiana, not just the gatherings of Delhi. Still others have opened gyms, another modern fascination of the younger Indian men—who may or may not want to work outdoors!
More prosperous homes have gates painted with Om and auspicious signs, a line up of cars inside, and dish TVs on the terrace. It is thanks to the latter that Indian television is booming and serial writers are writing content to sate the hearts and minds of a people who are aspirational only as far the outer badges of “modernity” are concerned: More cars, flashier clothes, English speaking, Limca instead of lassi, restaurants, clubs, five-star weddings, organic food and multi-cuisine feasts… But where inner worlds remains unchanged. And, yes, there is always going to be garbage just outside the homes because no one—not the civic agencies nor the householders think it is any of their business!