I hardly thought I would be saying this. Having lived and worked in New Delhi for several years, I have struggled to make it to early morning meetings. Usually, I would have been in the office till late the preceding night, wolfed down some dinner, and then gone to bed late. The next morning, negotiating morning rush-hour traffic, the commute made it difficult to get excited about the daily journey. Getting to work an hour before work actually starts, was unthinkable!
Things are different now. As an AIF Clinton Fellow, I am about a 100 km (62 miles) away from the nearest city, Vadodara. My host organization, Bhasha Research and Publication Centre, has an office in Vadodara, but I am based in their Adivasi Academy at Tejgadh in Gujarat’s Chhota Udaipur District. Chhota Udaipur, bordered by the states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, has a majority tribal population. The Adivasi Academy is a 15-minute walk from the village which is where I live. While work only begins at 10 am, I am usually out of the house by 8:45 am so that I can walk at a leisurely pace.
What I see every day here is at a stark contrast to what I’ve experienced in Delhi. Many friends and former colleagues ask me how I’m coping with transitioning from life in a metropolitan city like Delhi to a very rural place like Tejgadh. How is it getting to work? What is my office environment like? Do I have internet connectivity? Let me answer some of these questions here.
First of all, the morning and evening walks are enlightening to me. My walk always takes me past the village’s main market, Limdi bazaar, which is named in reference to a neem tree which stood there till a few years ago. Limdi bazaar comes to life early, and also is nearly closed by the time I get back every evening. What do I find here? It is a mix of shops and handcarts. Many of the shops sell what every other shop seems to sell: snacks and toiletries. These are not necessarily different or cheaper than products available in Delhi, but shops I didn’t commonly come across in Indian cities are a fertilizer shop and a blacksmith’s shop. It is Limdi bazaar’s handcarts, however, that intrigue me the most whenever I pass by. They’re usually heaped with brinjals, tomatoes, various pulses, beans, and interesting looking gourds. A few carts sell fruit, usually apples and bananas; but I am told that I should soon expect to see some famous custard apples and toddy fruit as the seasons change (Ratnagar 2010, p. 47-49). Instead of a crowded metro or stuck in a traffic jam by car, my way to work here involves walking a few minutes along the highway. A few cars whiz past and buses stop unannounced, noisily dropping and picking up passengers. The few minutes spent walking along the highway are sufficient to appreciate the relative serenity of the road leading to the Adivasi Academy.
With fields and some forests on either side as I walk to the Academy, I often pass school-going children and villagers on their way to the bazaar or the fields. Sometimes hushed whispers can be heard saying “Bhasha Kendra,” which settles speculation as to where I am headed to. Who I am still remains a mystery to most people here. I speak no Gujarati, although I understand it when spoken to. I speak Hindi and tell people that I am from Maharashtra, although I arrived in Tejgadh with two German interns working with a different program at the Adivasi Academy. It doesn’t help that I often wear kurtas to work, as someone told me that “only foreigners wear that”! The speculation is well-intentioned. At least I am happy that it delights two tiny tots whom I often see along the way, when they call out possibly the only English word they know: “Inglis”!
The road to the Academy is mostly free of vehicular traffic save the occasional auto rickshaw, truck or motorcycle going past. This lets me walk at a leisurely pace, seeing and listening to the a wide variety of birds, which I take delight in. I would never have gotten this opportunity in an Indian city. So far I have seen kingfishers, Indian crow-pheasants (bharadwaj), woodpeckers, hopooes, swifts, bee-eaters, water hens, lapwings and partridges to name a few (Ali 1941, p. 213, 182, 169, 218, 206, 298, 328, 286 for each bird respectively). I have even seen a few mongooses cross my path and heard many peacocks. Both these are tell-tale signs of snakes, which I have not yet seen, but I am told are quite common. (Just as I finished writing this, having reached early, there was commotion as a snake was spotted at the Adivasi Academy.) The vegetation is unfamiliar though wonderful to me – a welcome change from Delhi. From well-ordered maize and millet fields to elegant trees and unruly vines. They sometimes burst into an unreasonable number of flowers – big, small, and in different shapes, colours and textures. I hope I get to know the plants more intimately over the next few months. The walk is short but a refreshing change from honking horns and traffic jams of Delhi.
Morning constitutional done, I arrive in time for breakfast. On days that are not too warm, there is sometimes still some dew on the grass. The food served is simple, nutritious, and mostly locally sourced. I would usually have varied company during breakfast, which is an excellent opportunity to get to know others. The Adivasi Academy sees many visitors: primary school teachers across the district, students from colleges and universities across Gujarat, and tribal elders from nearby areas. Occasionally, artists and scholars from India and abroad also visit. This is a great time to get to know them a little better and to learn about the things that are on their minds. Now that children from the Vasantshala at the Adivasi Academy, aged between 7 and 12 years, have generally gotten over their initial shyness, some of them will join in while having breakfast. (Former AIF Clinton Fellow Lina Khan blogged about her work with the school.) Some children just observe me while bolder ones will try and strike up conversations. When they found out that I do not speak Gujarati, one boy told me in Hindi, “Hamare saath raho, hum sikhaaenge!” (Stick around with us and we will teach you). On the rare occasions that there is nobody there, it is a good time to catch up on the news. It helps that where breakfast is served, is one of the few places I get internet connectivity here.
After this, I go to the library, which is where my Fellowship project places me. The library houses more 45,000 books in many different languages (English, Gujarati, Hindi and also some tribal languages). It covers over 35 disciplines from anthropology and literature to music and ethno-medicine. It serves the local community as well as researchers from across India and abroad.
The first order of business is to open the library’s many windows and let the cool morning air in. It also helps to drive out mosquitoes and other creepy-crawlies who may have sneaked in the previous evening. The work day in the library is yet to begin and it is still 15 minutes to 10 am! More about this in my next blog…
- Ratnagar, Shereen. Being Tribal. Delhi: Primus Books, 2010.
- Ali, Salim. The Book of Indian Birds. Bombay: Bombay Natural History Society, 1941.