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  • So many Indias
  • Date: 2013-11-22
  • The outer world is changing with Limca, Gold Flakes and gyms; there are “modern” male aspirations… but what about the world within? We travel to the Indian heartland


    Anoothi Vishal

    The one thing that most of us don’t realize is that you don’t really need to travel great distances to be a true traveller. You can stay within your own city—in fact, it is entirely possible to stay put in your very armchair to undertake some kind of journeys, equally satisfying as external ones— your own region and certainly within a country as vast and diverse as India to enjoy the experience of something totally unique and disparate from the world you inhabit.



    This fact came to me recently in the most unexpected way as I set out for a village in Haryana to see a couple of organic farms that are doing some good and innovative work in the green belt of the country.  The organic story is a different one. This is a travel column and so we will focus on just the journey.  For an urban Indian—and certainly for anyone travelling to India from abroad, the Indian village can involve a peep into some alternate reality.



    Even for an Indian, born and brought up here, it is entirely possible to be a tourist in your own country. I felt 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 an unfamiliar, “exotic” India. I dislike such stereotyping as a rule; to my mind, it reeks of a selective mindset, somewhat condescending, 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 was quite evident as I found 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 drove 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 were fertilizer shops, grocers’ stores, village schools, even an engineering college and as I saw gangs of boys in their full pants and white shirts and lazily slung school bags, I wondered at what it was that they were learning.


    Does a poem by Milton, for instance, 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 saw farmers on their string-cots enjoying the breeze, poorer ones resting under big trees having their late morning meal after working hard in the early hours. There was a sense of quiet that you never have in a bustling metro. But be careful, this was not the idyllic world of a Romantic.



    The farmer, who showed us around came to meet us in a Tata Indigo car with a large plastic bottle of Limca. It was a welcome drink, a sign of hospitality and warmth-- so evident in smaller-town India that can bowl you over more than once. (Through the afternoon we were given fruit and sweets, offered tea and lunch in the homes of people we did not know, just because we were guests on their farms.) But what struck me was the fact that through the entire visit, we paused to drink the aerated drinks out of plastic glasses very frequently --  never any lassi or even water! This is modernization in this countryside--- 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 was 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 saw the poster at a farmer’s house and admired it and he told me, apologetically that since milk is scarce this time of the year, I could try a similar pose when I visit later for a photo op!
    There was no woman to be seen in the male outer world, except for ageing matriarchs who sat 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 saw a young wife; she was paraded out to meet me—the visiting dignitary.


    Shy, not meeting my eye but touchingly thrilled when I did not say a “Namaste” to her as I have to her mother-in-law but a cheerful “bye” with a wave as I left. With that unthinking gesture, I 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 pleased 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 met 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 took us to the unit where scores of halwais and labourers were handmaking pheni and ghewar, two sweets favoured in northern India. He would 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!


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