Saturday, July 23, 2011

Disjointed Thoughts About Rajasthan

I spent three weeks in different villages in Rajasthan, and have wanted to write about that time for the three weeks that I’ve been back. However, a combination of laziness and other work led to this post being composed only now. Another reason why I’ve been hesitant to write about my observations, and why I now have five Word documents named “Rajasthan” on my laptop, each only a paragraph or two long, is that it’s fiendishly difficult to compose anything resembling a coherent article about the villages. The best I’ve been able to come up with a list, sort of, of unrelated thoughts and observations.

  1. Rajasthan is definitely one of the hottest places I’ve been to. Or maybe it just seemed that way to me because I was actually outdoors all day in the scorching June heat, going from house to house in the villages, whereas the same time in Delhi would have been spend indoors in a comfortably air-conditioned room. But whether or not Rajasthan was hotter than Delhi during that time, the heat was enough to leave us panting and gratefully gulping down matkas of waters at every house we visited. And, as I’ve become fond of telling friends, though we drank water all day long, neither I nor my friends felt the need to pee at all during the day. I would pee just twice – once in the morning after waking up, and once at night before falling asleep when the ridiculous consumption of water would finally catch up with my bladder instead of being sweated out in litres and litres.

  2. Since I’m on the subject of peeing– us “going to the bathroom” was a constant source of amusement and much discussion in the villages. Lacking running water or built-in bathrooms, all villages evolve their own fairly efficient systems for doing their business. And we city-kids just didn’t cut it. Our behaviour regarding toilet functions were weird and laughable – “sham ko khet jaa raha hai!” (“he’s going to the field in the evening!”) was always said with awe every time one of us needed to use the fields at anytime other than 5am in the morning. And it amused them that we had no idea where to pee during the day (if we ever needed to), since though the shit-locations were well-defined, pee-locations were not. We tried hiding the fact that we were going to pee, but our newly developed concept of “ninja pees” never seemed to work very well – everyone in the village was always aware of our exact whereabouts, and any deviation from the plan would incite numerous questions.

  3. Each trip to the “bathroom” was a source of great stories for us city-kids too. A quick pee under the comforting cover of darkness in a clearing outside our host’s house led to a funny story about out hostess graciously switching on the outside light to enable us to see our way, but succeeding only in putting us in the bright spotlight for everyone in the house to see. And in every village, there was always at least one creepy black dog which would stand at a distance and freak me out by just staring at us while we peed, behaving as if he were just waiting for a signal of some kind before attacking.

  4. Village life was, of course, very very different from city life, but there were constantly some pockets of familiarity which would always take me by surprise. For example, after hours of talking to villagers about the ration shops and their entitlements, NREGA, the corruption of the Sachiv, and bias of the Sarpanch, we spent an hour at a widow’s house who had invited us for dinner. We ate the roti with the Rajasthani pyaaz ki subzi, and while we talked to her sister-in-law and her, I was constantly aware of a feeling of surprise at how normal the conversation was. We oohed and aahed over the two toddlers in the house and encouraged the proud mother to tell us tales of their naughtiness. The sister-in-law joked and complained about her husband (not present during the dinner), and poked fun at him when he arrived later. I’d overheard the same small talk and dinner conversation countless times between my parents and their dinner guests, but only this time, my friend and I were the “adults”, participating in the conversation to the best of our ability, instead of just listening in curiously to see what it is that grown-ups talk about.

  5. I also came across the weirdest squirrels I’ve ever seen. They were normal grey-and-white squirrels, scampering and chasing each other around in the trees, but as soon as they got onto the ground, they would lie flat on their bellies. Completely flat. I’ve never before seen a squirrel actually lie down – they always crouch, poised for flight, every movement sudden and quick. These squirrels appeared defeated by the heat, and would lie flat, all four tiny legs splayed out on their sides. When I saw the first such squirrel, I actually thought it was dead, and was rudely shocked when it promptly scurried away at my approach. I didn’t manage to click a good enough picture, since they would always scurry away as I got within photo-taking distance, but this one that I pulled off a Google search is pretty much what I’m trying to describe.

More disjointed thoughts later.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Venice, the Metro Station

Barely two days of travelling on non-airconditioned, Rajasthan Roadways buses reminded me of how privileged I really am. The only other time I’ve travelled in sleeper class in a train was five years ago, when I went for a summer camp. And that, too, was not by choice – sleeper class was what the camp had booked for us.

Now, I’ve spent three weeks living and travelling among villages in Rajasthan. I’ve travelled in sleeper class, both with and without confirmed bookings, taken four different government provided Rajasthan Roadways buses to get from one village to another, hitched rides on everything from an overstuffed auto to overloaded tractors. And though I wasn’t so okay with the situation at the time, I do appreciate the experience and understanding afforded to me by the travels.

Sitting in an unusually undercrowded bus, enjoying the luxury of personal space (having just finished a seven hour journey in a sweltering bus carrying at least twice the number of people as there were seats), I was oddly reminded of a guy I met in metro station in Washington DC. I’d been using my debit card to buy a ticket at the machine when a guy of around my age, carrying a guitar and a bag, approached me. “I’m trying to get to Venice, ma’am”, he started, which immediately confused me. It took me a minute to realise that he was talking about a stop on the metro line, not the city in Italy. “Could you buy me a ticket?” he asked simply.

I didn’t immediately understand his request – I still hadn’t figured out that Venice was a metro station. When my mind cleared, I pointed out that the fare was more than $6, more than double of what I was paying for my own ticket. He responded by saying that that was the fare for the peak hour, but he just wanted me to buy him a reduce fare ticket. “Let me worry about getting out of the station at Venice,” he said.
By now, I was even more confused. I’d used the metro system in DC just once, I didn’t understand that I could buy him a reduced fare ticket for $2, and he could wait at the Venice station for the “reduced fare hour” before exiting.

I refused to buy him the ticket. That one decision has bothered me several times since that day, mainly because the reason I refused was that the whole situation was very awkward for me. I didn’t immediately understand him, and it took me a while to see what he meant when he asked for the reduced fare ticket. Rather than prolong an already awkward meeting, I politely asked him to ask someone else. He thanked me before turning back to his original position, observing the other metro riders.

It was a stupid decision, not just because I turned down a civil request from a guy to whom the request was clearly costing a lot of pride, but because the reasoning behind the denial was so utterly stupid. Out of all the times I’ve refused a request for money, out of all the times I’ve shaken my head at beggar children knocking on my car window, all the times I’ve waved away the one-legged man or the young girl clutching an infant on the road, this one incident is one of the few denials I vividly remember and regret.

All I can say is, I hope the man and his guitar made it safely to Venice.