From Expectation to Reality: A Journey to Kumaon

“Namaste! Kesi ho aap?”
“Namaste! How are you?”
“Namaste! Aapka kamra tayyar hai! Agar aap ko kisi or chiz ki zarurat ho to mujhe bata dena.”
“Namaste! Your room is ready! Let me know if you need anything else.”
 
On September 9th, I reached my homestay family together with a Co-Fellow in the evening. A woman wearing a salwar kameez with a bright smile welcomed us in her home. She showed us the way to our room. The room was well-furnished with two comfy beds, a sofa set, and a wooden table. There were beautiful paintings and wall-hangings in the room. I was so eager to know more about life in the mountains. So I went to the kitchen where she was preparing tea for us.
 
“Kya kar Rahi ho didi?”
“Sister! What are you doing?”
 
“Chai bana rahi hoon. Aap konsi chai pina pasand karogi?”
“I am preparing tea. Which tea would you like to drink?”
 
“Jo Bhi ap ko pasand ho.”
“Whichever you like”
 
She offered me chai in the specific Pahari style by adding some particular Indian spices. At first, she hesitated and was a bit reluctant to talk to me, but our love for Pahari chai linked us up on the common ground. Our conversation started with her life and family, then reached its pinnacle to discuss life in the mountains, the people and their problems, the dialect, the tradition, and the culture. She later introduced me to her family, friends, and neighbors. She had two school-going kids named Mayank (9 years old) and Paras (14 years old). Both were keen learners to adopt Western style, be it language, attire, or food habits. Mayank showed me every corner of the house. From their beautiful garden to the temple where his grandmother prays every day. He then asked me to play with him.
 
“Didi! humare sath khelogi?”
Sister! Would you play with us?
 
“Pathari Fod ya Gulli Danda? Thik hai! Mein khelugi.”
“Seven stone or Tipcat? Okay! I’ll play.”
 
“Nahi! Yeh to purana khel hai. Mere pas bohut sare naye khiloney hein. Mein aapko dikhata hoon.”
“No! This is an outdated game. I have a lot of new toys. Let me show you.”
 
He then put his electric piano, carom, Uno, playing cards, robot cars, and toy guns on view for me. We played with some children in the vicinity, but I was yearning to play folk games of Kumaon like Pathari-Fod or Gulli Danda. Besides, we did painting and other craftwork.
Playing with these kids was an immense pleasure for me to learn in-depth about this region. These kids were fond of aping their foreigner visitors who stay at their homes. They liked everything about them, whether it is their language or their lifestyle. When I said “ya mere Khuda,” they immediately asked me to say “Oh my god” instead of what I said. Then I asked with curiosity:
“Kumaoni mein baat Kyun Nahi karte ho?”
“Why don’t you speak in Kumaoni?’ 
 
“Humein pasand nahi or samajh mein bhi nahi ati!”
“Neither we like it nor we understand it.”
 
Their elders in the family know Kumaoni very well, but they do not speak with their kids. The grandmother of my homestay family told me that there are immeasurable and unnoticed changes happening in the lives of the mountains. Be it related to the environment or the culture of the mountains. Everything is changing with time, modern communication technology and development. When I’d seen a wedding video of her niece, everybody dressed in colorful gowns and sarees. And dancing on famous Bollywood songs. They do not wear their traditional attire which is ‘Ghagra-Choli’ and ‘Oorni’. With a big nose ring called ‘Natth’ and ‘Hansuli’ in their neck at weddings. Even their folk songs do not fascinate them to enjoy on weddings or other occasions. Now what they are fond of is the latest Bollywood music. So their kids are unaware of their culture. 
Now I realised that if our intimacy with culture and nature is high, then it lowers the level of material civilization. So, cultural creativity and social cohesion will also strengthen. I have drawn my appreciation for the significance of cultural values from my readings and exposure to diverse communities. India is a multi-cultural and multi-lingual country where we can find cultural diversity every few kilometers. If I witness my last glimpse of reading about pre-commercial culture in the Kumaon region, it is very isolated from the commercial impact which I could observe today in Kumaon. It seems that people are letting go of their cultural values and traditions, which is their identity as Pahari
Their cultural heritage is in transition due to development and modern communication technology. But this is also resulting in cultural disintegration. As a result of this, the new generation in these culturally rich places is distracting away from their traditional and cultural fabric. I am not condemning the developmental changes that are emerging in these communities. But I give my preferentiality to that development which brings transformation whilst retaining to the cultural fabric of that community
My journey of Kumaon started with a bit of anticipation, curiosity, and second-hand information from reading books and articles, internet, films, people, and my prior experiences to rural sites of Uttar Pradesh. This gave rise to an image of Kumaon in my head and I began to expect this region to be like what I thought. But at this moment, I am trying to imprint the images from those three days in my head: the warm welcome by the homestay family; sipping hot chai in Pahari style after every other hour; playing carom, badminton, electric piano, Uno, cards, and dholak with children. They taught me to make chapatis on chulah, their special kind of chai and spicy mountain salt. I am delighted that this community immersion has so much for me to reminiscence my learning journey of the AIF Clinton Fellowship and feel contentment after 10 months.
But at the end of this blog, I question you all: “Isn’t it possible for us to develop whilst retaining our cultural roots?”

Mantasha is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with SAFA in Hyderabad, Telangana. For her Fellowship project, she is designing a communication strategy for engaging illiterate and semi-literate women and children at skills training centers and for publicizing program impact externally. Born and raised in a small district in western Uttar Pradesh, Mantasha pursued her education from Aligarh Muslim University. She graduated in English Literature in 2015, pursued a post-graduate diploma in Journalism and Mass Communication in 2016, and completed her Master’s in Social Work in 2018. All through her academic pursuits, Mantasha weaved a dream of playing a part in the development sector. She began her career in Buildyourself Sewa Sanstha as project coordinator to work on skill development of youth and handicraft artisans in Moradabad. During her graduation, she spent a year to work as block coordinator in Nirbal Samaj Kalyan Parishad in Aligarh, focusing on education, health, and family welfare. She interned with Digital Empowerment Foundation in New Delhi, offering digital literacy to children in slum areas. Mantasha strongly believes in the power of storytelling and the capacity of a person to share their own to bring change and also draw inspiration from the stories of others. Owing to this belief, she particularly gets pleasure from creative works like composing poetry, writing quotes and short stories, painting and sketching, and art and craft works in her leisure time. She also enjoys learning new skills through virtual courses. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Mantasha is tremendously excited to foster her experience and knowledge in the development sector. For her, this Fellowship would act as an incubator where she can implement her ideas and expand her learning.

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