People kept on telling me over and over: “To get to the adults, go through the kids!”
It seemed like an odd way to go about integrating into my community. I imagined what would happen if I moved to a new city in the U.S., went to the nearest playground, and started hanging out with the seven-year-olds there. “Hey guys, do you want to play tag?” I would say to a gaggle of children as parents sprinted from their benches to shield their kin from the marauding adult desecrating the jungle gym. With the ensuing mass exodus, before long I would wind up in a situation like this: a lone twenty-three-year-old humming to himself on the swings of an empty playground.
But it had been a few months in Khandar and I had still barely moved past the shocked awe stage of my relationship with my adult neighbors, who would without fail drop whatever they were doing and follow me with their eyes for a good 15 meters, whispering something about “…angrez…” (foreigner) as I walked by on my way to work every day.
So when I happened to look over the fence of my office one day in January to find a small boy being smothered with affection from ten baby goats, I figured this was my chance.
I hopped the fence and said hello, introduced myself, and learned his name was Golu. Not wasting any time, Golu picked up a goat (let’s call her Kylie), and tried to put her on my head. Legs ajumble, Kylie tumbled down my body and crashed onto the ground, sending up a cloud of dust and leaving Golu delighted and Kylie completely unfazed. Golu then got on all fours and gestured to his back. I got the cue. I picked up battle-tested Kylie, lifted her high into the air like Simba, and set her down on Golu’s back, where she began to graze on the delicious cotton of the shirt she was standing on. But the shirt’s earthy chew lulled Kylie into a false sense of complacency. She never suspected what was to happen next: Golu sprung to his knees, sending Ky tumbling back down to the trodden ground from whence she came, humbled but unshaken. Meanwhile, Golu and I were fast friends.
Over the next few months, I continued to hang out with Golu. While his parents were initially confused as to why a twenty-three-year-old foreigner was so interested in playing in goat poop-strewn dirt with their son and a tribe of ravenous young goats who would perform any contortion for a nibble of leaf or shoelace, this confusion quickly turned into amusement and kindness. Before long, they were offering me chai and showing me how to use their spinning fodder chopping device, which I ended up helping them out with on a daily basis.
During the Fellowship Midpoint conference in Alwar, Rajasthan, I got an Indian geography puzzle from a site visit to Barefoot College and presented it to Golu’s family as a gift when I returned. The family, other neighborhood kids, my coworkers, and I took turns racing to put India’s states in their correct places, and after a few days we all got so good at it that there was no use keeping track of time anymore. (Not Kylie though – try as we might, by the end of the week she still couldn’t tell Tamil Nadu from Telangana).
From then on, walking by that particular house at least was all smiles from all sides, kids and adults, foreigners and Indians. We may not have been able to communicate as well as we would’ve liked, but my taking an interest in the family, even if it initially happened through a seven-year-old, was all it took for me to transform from “angrez” to “Kieran” in their eyes. And when I left Khandar to move to Delhi a few weeks ago to conclude my project, saying goodbye to Golu’s family was among the sweetest and saddest farewells.
So yes, to get to the adults, go through the kids. But also the kids are pretty fun in themselves. And also don’t forget the goats, even if they are more interested in sampling the springy mouthfeel of the Maharashtra puzzle piece’s cork-board underpinning than learning about where it fits in among the other states of India.