Writing about the last 9 months of my life living in rural India is by far one of the harder things I have had to do. For some, the act of creative writing comes easily, words flowing out like another language but for me, a researcher by trade, technical writing has always fit best. The other reality, is that I don’t really know how to explain my life here. Living in Rapar, a small town in the Kutch District of Gujarat has been a number of different things: challenging, exhilarating, essential and educational. To try and convey all of these words and stories into a blog post just won’t do justice to my time here. I know what my time here is and how important it is to me professionally, personally, and culturally. And I’m sure that one day I’ll be able to explain to people through words and stories just what this experience means to me. But I’m not there yet. So instead I am going to try and answer a question that may show a glimpse of my life in Rapar. The question that is asked to me over and over again by my friends and family a world away is how I can stand to live in a place like Rapar; a place completely opposite in every way from my home in the New York City suburbs. In order to answer this question, I am going to do it the only real way I know; by telling you a bit about some of the women I meet here and work with every day. For it is truly because of them, and others like them, that is the reason why I do what I do and am where I am today.
Dksha Ben is a 21 year old woman who lives in the town of Rapar, in the district of Kutch, within the state of Gujarat. She is young, educated, and understands a decent amount of English, which in Rapar is a rarity. Dksha Ben seems to be like any other girl upon first meeting her but without realizing it, she is building the path for the life of a modern Kutch woman. While the majority of the woman in Rapar do not feel the need to continue education past 10th standard, she has decided to continue her education through university; while most women begin preparing for marriage at 18, she decided to wait until she finished her education and was fully ready to marry. It is in this way that she is paving a new path for the women of Rapar.
Living in the village of Adhoi, is a women named Rita Ben. She is 38 years old and very active in the community. A community which she has been living in for 23 years. Within the village of Adhoi she is known for being the mother of five very successful daughters. She is also a member of the School Management Committee (SMC) which focuses on the governing and maintenance of the village school. For all intents and purposes she is a normal person living a normal life in rural India. However, what sets her apart from others is her strength and passion to be a pioneer of girls’ education in a land still questioning whether such education is even important.
Mandi Ben is a 40 year old woman who lives in the village of Ghanithar. Ghanithar is a small interior village, approximately 4 KM from the main highway that runs across Kutch. It is a village made up primarily of the Darbar community, which was historically considered a ruling caste. It is here, in this remote desert community, that Mandi Ben has become the first female Sarpanch in the area. Originally from the village of Bhimasar in the Adesar cluster of Rapar, Mandi Ben was married at the age of 22 and moved to Ghanithar upon her marriage. Mandi Ben belongs to the Harijan community, one which is commonly known as Dalit or untouchable. When I ask her about her childhood and educational background she says that she grew up extremely poor and was only educated to the 3rd standard. It is against all social odds that she has become a female political activist in Kutch.
In the village of Bhutakiya, lives a young woman by the name of Pabi Ben. She is 26 years old and belongs to the Rabari community. Upon meeting her, she looks like any other young lady living in Rural India; home alone taking care of neighboring children, quietly embroidering on the floor, and dressed in traditional Rabari Garb. However, in truth there is nothing ordinary about this young woman. For she has defied the odds and traditions of her people and made her story in every way unique. Pabi Ben was born and raised till the age of 10 in Bhutakiya and then moved to Radhanpur in the district of Patan with her parents, two sisters, and a brother, it was there that she completed 10th standard. Pabi is the only girl in her family to complete school and the first woman from her community in Bhutakiya to clear 12th standard. In this way you can see just how inspiring of a person she is.
These woman are just a few among many that I have had the opportunity to meet throughout my work here. While these are only tidbits from personal case studies, it is evident to see just how inspiring each one is. I am humbled by these woman every day, for I am not sure, that if our lives were reversed, I would be as brave and strong as they have been. It’s true that living here in Rapar for the past 9 months has been challenging and in no way have I survived without complaining and feeling the world caving in on me at times. But when I think about all the lives I come across and have the opportunity to meet and help, I am reminded of why I am here and how I would not want to be anywhere else; and I hope now you know why too.