In Harry Potter, when Harry needs to conjure a Patronus, the charm needed to get rid of Dementors–creatures that bring doom and gloom, he has to think of a happy memory in order to be able to cast the spell. I like to think about that, about the memories I would use to conjure a patronus, if I could. These days, the answer is quite easy: I would draw upon the emotions I felt each summer during my childhood that I spent at my grandparent’s house in Vermont.
There are many reasons I relate these summers to my fellowship experience this year. Most obvious, is that my interest in India began in my grandparents’ house. They were both academics who focused on South Asia and their house was filled with books and artifacts from the subcontinent. My grandmother’s stories were incredible–she’d casually mention the time she and my grandfather motorbiked in the 1950’s from Delhi to Mumbai.
But there are also less obvious reasons, too. The summers I spent at my grandparents were the most liberating periods of my childhood. I was raised in a strict religious environment and having a chance to breathe in a secular, less-ritual and rule-focused environment, was a godsend. My grandparents sent my siblings and me to summer camp and it was there that I met people outside of my insular community for the first time in my life and it was there that I learned that morality is not governed by rule and ritual, it’s defined by kindness. This is a lesson that has stuck with me and that I see day after day in Sawai Madhopur.
And then there are the emotions I associated with that place. I still remember the excitement arriving in Vermont at the beginning of the summer and seeing the hills and the trees. The feeling that anything could happen and that I was going to change this summer. It’s a feeling that for many years, after I finished high school and started college and stopped going to Vermont, lay dormant. But what’s funny is that this year, when I see the hills of Sawai Madhopur, when I haul myself onto a bike, when I walk down a path surrounded by mustard and marigolds (my grandfather’s favorite flower), then the feeling is back.
There are a million things I’m going to miss about Sawai Madhopur. The way the water buffalos plod down the road, patient, dignified, their heads held high. The joy of peeling (and spitting!) sugarcane. The welcome intermission during a rickshaw ride with Yogi, as we stop by his father’s chai stand for a cup of chai. The sight of the hills as we speed down the road to the school on a motorcycle. The sound and sight of children playing at the school–kabbadi, kho kho, football.
I could go on for a while, but I thought instead I’d try to give you a few glimpses into Madhopur. Memories that I want to remember.
We’ve been driving for about an hour now through the wet rains, weaving between puddles and dodging cows on the road. I’m more muddy than I can remember having been for a while, and I’ve forgotten how much fun that is. My project’s just begun–I’m focusing on documenting local culture, so my co-worker Gaurav, the one who’s driving, takes me to see a local shrine up one of the hills. It’s actually not really a hill so much as a small cliff and as we begin to descend on the way back, Gaurav mutters to me “don’t talk to me while I’m driving, I need to concentrate on the brakes.” For a moment, I start to panic, aware that we could go over at any moment. But then I realize that I need to trust that it will be alright, that there’s no advantage to freaking out. This is a realization that in many ways, sets the course for the whole year. We make it back just fine. We always do.
It’s my first night in one of the villages, Maaliyan ki Daani. The family of one of the children from Jaganpura school have invited me to spend the night. After dinner, I sit in the house with Mewa, the family’s mother, and Parmila, who is 18 and the first girl in the village to be attending college. “If you were president of the United States.” Parmila asks me, “what would you do?” I give an answer about education and pose the same question to her: “What would you do if you were Prime Minister of India?” She tells me that she would focus on combatting corruption. We turn to Mewa, “what would you do?” At first Mewa demurs–“I don’t know anything,” she says, “I’m illiterate, I can’t answer that question.” “No, no you do know things, you should answer the question,” we press her. Mewa says, “during the monsoons our roads get muddy and it makes it difficult to leave the village. We need better roads. We also need clean water and access to proper healthcare. I would address those issues if I were prime minister.”
It’s my first or second time in Girirajpura and I’m researching Ayurvedic medicine. As I conduct an interview at Sankri Devi’s house, she hands me a cup of chai. I’m clumsy and I manage to spill the chai all over my hand. Sankri Devi promptly sticks my hand in a bowl of chaas–buttermilk. Thanks to her I experience very little pain and I learn about a local treatment for burns. Sankri Devi teases me about the incident for weeks.
December – February
I’m sitting in Maaliyan ki Daani with several of the women and children. Kanti asks me “how do you curse in English?” “I can’t tell you,” I say, looking guiltily at the children. “Why not?” someone asks. “Because if I tell you how to curse in English and the children go back to the school and start swearing in English all the teachers will know they learned it from me.” I explain. Several people nod, a few laugh. “How do you curse in Rajasthani?” I ask. Mewa smiles slyly. “Come onto the roof,” she says, “and I’ll teach you.”
There are cows that constantly try to gate crash our office’s luscious green campus. It’s an almost daily ritual for someone to chase them away. One day, as a co-worker is chasing them away, a particularly bold, large gray bull turns around and chases his pursuer right back. My co-worker runs back into the office. “This isn’t my job,” he says, shaking his head. But after that, the bull stops gate crashing. Maybe he figured it wasn’t worth it.
On a late January morning, I find a sick puppy on the side of the road. Maybe it wasn’t a smart decision for me to make, but I call Yogi, the rickshaw wallah I frequently hire, and ask him if he will take me with a puppy to the local vet. We all go to the vet, but the puppy quickly dies after we arrive. My roommate and I don’t know what to do with the body. “You can just throw it wherever,” the vet says. “Give it to me,” Yogi says, “I’ll bury it at my farm.” A few days later, when I ask Yogi to take me to the train station, he refuses payment. “You paid me too much the other day for the vet.” he says. He also gives me a bag of guavas from his farm for the journey.
It’s been a little over a year since my grandmother died and I have an old dupatta of hers that I want to get dry cleaned. I take it to the market, and the man at the dry cleaner examines it. “The stain is very old,” he tells me, “I won’t be able to get it out.” “Are you sure?” I ask him, “it was my grandmothers.” “Hold on,” he says. He takes the dupatta, irons it and folds it carefully, and wraps it in plastic. “Keep it for memories,” he says. I try to pay him but he shakes his head. “I used to have a grandmother, too.”
Winter’s coming to an end and I’m sitting at the chai stand by Jaganpura school. A community leader from Khawa greets me and asks how my project is going. I tell him about the cultural exhibit we’re planning and how we’re focusing on the relationship between people and the forest. “Human-Wildlife conflict is a new issue,” he tells me. “Humans and animals have always lived side-by-side in the forest. That’s our natural state. Development has brought about the conflict between humans and animals.”
It’s harvest season and I’ve got a bad case of pneumonia. Even though they’re extremely busy, Parmila and Mewa come by our flat to visit me and check in on my health.
I’m in Aamli, near Girirajpura, staying with a family for a month while I do research and conduct workshops here. It’s night, and we’ve all laid out our cots to sleep on the roof, since it’s too hot to sleep inside. I’m re-reading The Kite Runner, and fifteen-year-old Rekha, vivacious and loquacious, perches herself on my cot. “Didi, what are you reading?” she asks me. I show her the book. “What’s it about?” she asks me. “It’s about Afghanistan,” I tell her. “Do you know where that is?” She shakes here head. “Here’s India,” I demonstrate with my hand, “then Pakistan, and then Afghanistan.” “Can you read it to me?” she asks. “It’s in English,” I tell her. “Then explain it to me in Hindi,” she requests. I smile, “my Hindi isn’t good enough for that.” “Okay,” she says, “then read it in English.”
We’re back at Sankri Devi’s house, conducting interviews about relocation. The families that live in Girirajpura used to live in the forest, before they were relocated because of Project Tiger–a tiger conservation project. There’s a sign in English hung up at Sankri Devi’s house, “accept change before it is forced upon you.” Sankri Devi speaks frankly about the relocation experience, about seeing her house demolished before her eyes, about living in make-shift shelters for a year before they could build a house in Girirajpura. I’ve known Sankri Devi for seven months, been to her house many times, knew about relocation, but this was the first time I learned about the extent to which the community had to rebuild after relocation.
In the end we hold two exhibits–one at Jaganpura school, one at Girirajpura school. On each morning, the children of each school show up early. They help us set up and they help man the different components of the exhibit. The exhibits only go so smoothly because of their enthusiasm and their help.
As I write this, there’s even more I want to go into. My last days with the community, mostly spent eating golguppas, drinking Bhil shakes, having ice cream together, applying mehndi. I could go on for pages–probably because as I write this, I’m on a train leaving Sawai Madhopur and I’m a bit overwhelmed by the nostalgia. But it’s okay because this isn’t really good bye. I’ll be back.