The title was an honest description of my experience with the quintessential Gujarati Thali to a friend. It is after all a massive plate with 15 to 20 items of various pulses, vegetables, cereals molded in dishes perennial to Gujarat – the all vegan, non-alcoholic, developed (debatable) and dry western most part of India. Having spent eight months by that time in Assam, I was accustomed to the simple subtlety that is the mark of Assamese cuisine.
However, I romanced the Gujarati Thali with the ever smiling ‘Waiter Bhai‘, refilling my plate like a doe-eyed Bollywood mother from the 70s; ensuring that you not only fall in love with it, but carry the sweet taste with you forever.
The story of how I reached this authentic rich Thali ofcourse begins in September 2013 when I decided to perch Far East Assam for 10 months as part of AIF fellowship program. Little did I know that travelling will become an integral part of my experience during period of ‘Service in India’ and as month after month I packed and unpacked my bags, the time finally came for the Exposure Visit – a mostly (if not fully) funded trip by AIF for work!
I decided at mid-point to visit co-fellow Liv’s work with Utthan (which works on gender and empowerment, conflict transformation and justice and livelihood through natural resources) and juxtaposed it with my desire to see the white desert in Bhuj. I packed up for my first experience of the much talked about state in India, hoping for adventure and adventures I had; but what I returned with was exposure in its truest form… to wonderful people, what they said and how it struck a chord or two.
On my first day in Ahmedabad, I met Nafisa Ben who started Utthan 30 years ago and has been at its helm ever since. When you meet her, you witness an amazing blend of charm, wisdom and what I feel lacking in most people at top of their professional lives – humility. For the introvert in me and as a development sector novice, I knew I could ask her even the vaguest of my queries and I did –
“What do you feel about people working towards ‘development’?”
Nafisa Ben: “I think people who are crazy, who are internally disturbed, and who are in conflict with their emotions – are the only ones who do it.”
She continued “I belonged to a liberal Muslim family yet felt caged in a frame of social dilemma and the constraints faced by those of lower level of income. The dual nature of the world confused me. Though I feel we all feel these disturbances at some point; you need to have another level of craziness to take action”
I got my answer and how.
Next day, Liv and I woke up early morning to take the deluxe bus to Bhavnagar to see on-ground activities run by Utthan. The lack of sleep and excess of heat were all worth it when we reached Utthan’s Bhavnagar office and met the wonderful ladies of ‘Nyaya Samitee’ or the ‘Justice Council’. Formed by a group of three dynamic, rebellious and sensitive women who chose to break barriers of their social cages to help self and extend their learning to their community at large. They liaised with stake holders to drive justice for those women who cannot seek and advocated gender equality and women’s rights. Though it all began via Utthan’s efforts, the efficiency of their system and dedication had earned them an independent office, self respect and offered a ray of hope to many in the interior villages of Bhavnagar.
Each one of their stories inspired me, each of their stories are special enough to be shared. But what I took away was my conversation with one of the ladies named, Baalu Ben,
“Why have you engraved all these tattoos on your body? Didn’t it hurt?”
Baalu Ben: “I did it years ago. If we don’t do it, our forefather’s believed that we will be reborn as camels”
Me (confused but concluding the camel phobia is due to the beasts of burden stature maybe): So men do it too?
Baalu Ben: “Naah. Men don’t need to.” Then after pondering for a while she continued, “Maybe it’s because they are already like camels.”
The courtyard filled with giggles and smiles, which was the constant of my experience for the rest of my stay.
I briefly visited a wonderful organization Shaishav working for child rights since 20 years and host to co-fellow Angela who took me to taste my first ever real sweet, tangy and huge Gujarati Thali. Mind it – you finish the chapatis before eating the rice unless you don’t mind the look of utter disbelief thrown at your way or as in my case being nearly reprimanded.
On the day that we returned from Bhavnagar, while I walked down with Liv towards the shopping complex, I heard a voice behind me seeking assistance to cross the street. I saw a man who seemed in his early eighties, barely able to walk and rushed to him. On crossing the street he asked me to meet him the next day. He said, he wanted to read my palm.
But that night I had a train for Bhuj! My many adventures in Kutch (Bhuj) will be shared in another blog post – it deserves it. Hence, I will fast forward to the day I was leaving Bhuj and got the opportunity to meet two remarkable people in their own respect.
For that afternoon, Bhuj fellow, Coco helped me to fix a meeting with Ms. Sushma Iyengar, the woman behind Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, a network of NGOs which has given life to hundreds of artisans and helped to preserve the art and heritage culture of Kutch. Sushma runs on a busy schedule and is often sought after for interviews, opinions and meetings by various big and small enterprises. The fact that she agreed to meet an AIF fellow on short notice with no clear agenda for conversation, was yet another example of humility I had experienced since the beginning of my trip.
Eloquent and charming, Sushma listened to all my raw questions and dilemmas and explained them to me in simple sentences. Be it the “centrifugal force that needs to come in focus to ensure corporates and grass roots work in tandem to give a meaning to the CSR bill passed in India” or her efforts to justify that my vague ideas regarding “skewed funding by foundations and lack of understanding by grassroots were not entirely vague.”
I wished to pick her brains to widen my understanding of the development sector but what I returned with was self-realization of my needs, wants and aspirations regarding the work I am doing. Months later I read an article which said – “you do development work cause it interests you, not to change the world” and I realized the underlying sense of our conversation that day.
After my meeting, I boarded a taxi fit to accommodate six people all by myself and headed for Kala Dungar (the highest point in Kutch) and then the White Desert for sunset. My driver Akhil Bhai, a seasoned driver of Kutch, did not just drive me around but told me wonderful stories, was my guide and a photographer on call. He had stories of how Bollywood actress Nandita Das demanded that only he could drive her in Kutch or how he did rush to meet Amitabh Bachchan in crowd when he could have driven him.
Kala Dungar was a pleasurable uphill drive. It was tough to believe the Indus flowed freely there once upon a time but beautiful to imagine. Then we got to the White Desert and it was almost sunset; filled with silence and nothingness but white expanse. I took some time off and let the silence and solitude soak in – after all how many times do you get opportunity in real life to be disconnected from the mobile phone, sounds of people, vehicles and the general buzz of life. Standing on the salt desert made me conscious of my life – a sensation that they say you can achieve during complete state of meditation.
As we drove back, Akhil Bhai could not resist asking me the question that is a must-ask to all girls looking in the mid twenties in India.
“So where does your husband stay?”
Me: “I don’t have a husband”
Akhil Bhai (in a sad voice) “Is he dead?”
I just laughed and tried to explain him, in my own myopic view of the world, of how it is not of utmost importance for me and many girls now in our country to marry.
He was silent for a while and then said thoughtfully; trying to justify his intrusion into what ‘we’ think as personal space –
“In our village, most girls have to get married by 22-23 years of age. That’s what they are meant to do – maybe its lack of education here.”
I did not have answer.
Next day as I returned to Ahmedabad, I walked down the shop I had dropped the elderly man few days back only to know he ‘works’ somewhere else and might not return till 4 PM. With a train at 5.45 PM back to Delhi; it seemed impossible to keep up with the appointment so I left my number and trooped down to Sabarmati Ashram, the abode of Mahatma Gandhi.
At 2 PM I got a call from a certain ‘Bhatt Saheb’ who introduced himself as the elderly man from the road. He told me he worked in an office and generally came down by 5 PM to the shop but he will try to make it by 4 PM to meet me. I decided to walk down with my suitcase and waited for him. I helped him out of the auto rickshaw and we sat down outside the shop to read my palm – I had exactly 20 minutes on me.
He spoke of many past details and future predictions as indicated by my crooked palm lines and yet again I was questioned “Is your husband dead?” Sigh!
But Bhatt Saheb charmed me with his consideration, sincere advises on how I can make my luck better and above all his zest for life. Before leaving I complimented how his cap looked really good on him.
He replied – “Ofcourse it does. I am a Chartered Accountant. What do you think?”
What do I think?
As I sit in Assam, nearly after two months of my fellowship ‘Exposure Visit’, a mild smile returns to my face remembering the people I met. There are few more I would like to mention and there are some instances which I cannot explain but I can safely add that now the sweet-tanginess of the Thali transcends across Gujarat – the all vegan, non-alcoholic, dry, western most part of India and me.