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Archive for April, 2010

It Seems To Have Come A Full Circle !

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 20, 2010

The Indian intelligentsia has somewhat mixed attitudes towards the Indian village. While educated Indians are inclined to think or at least speak well of the village, they do not show much inclination for the company of villagersAndre Béteille (One of the pre-eminent sociologists of India)

The story of my generation is also the story of urbanisation of India. More precisely, it is the beginning of migration of generations of young to urban centers. What started as a glacially slow movement has now assumed avalanche like proportions.  It was not a sudden transition but a gradual irreversible movement. For many of us this opportunity to migrate came as a relief. It freed us from the constraints the places we lived imposed on us. There is an element of ambivalence around the places we came from: On the one hand there was something stifling, isolating and insular but on the other hand these were the same places that in many subtle ways prepared us for the bigger world that was changing rapidly. There were a million independent trajectories that people of my generation have adopted: the direction was more or less the same, the force, angle and the arc varied. Consequently, the landing points also varied. Starting with some roots in a village, we quickly spread into towns during our formative years piggybacking on our parents’ migratory journeys and then leapfrogged into bigger cities all over India and the globe as we went along. Grandparents’ villages, parents’ towns and our cities –  that in a nutshell is our story.  Will it ever come a full circle? I am ambivalent about its value and less hopeful of its occurrence. The journey has come to an end and we have arrived at our destinations. The tents have been pitched and the business of carrying on with our lives is in full swing. In the nights when the fires in the hearth are dying out, when we are resting to get ready for the next day’s grind and eyelids are droopy with onset of sleep, the mind sometimes does turn back to the beginnings of the journey: the grandparents’ village where it all started…….. 

It always was referred to as grandma’s village or grandpa’s village. Never our village. In more forgetful moments it was mother’s village. There was no equivalent on the father’s side. Father came from a town which was smelly at times, between sandy and dusty most of the times and cramped always. Despite this, father’s town was always attributed a superiority which we could not explain to ourselves. The distance between the town and village was not much – they were actually adjoining. Father and mother married in times when most of the marriages took place within the immediate families and expanding the catchment area to search for a bride or a bridegroom was actively discouraged. “I would not want to see my daughter go far away from my house” was the common refrain of all parents. It worked both ways, for the simple truth was that somebody’s wife always had to be somebody’s daughter. The often quoted aphorism that a daughter should be given into a richer household and that a daughter-in-law should be brought in from a poorer household are actually different sides of the same coin and it did not apply to father and mother. Both came from lower middle class families which by definition were not well off

Did I say the distance was a good couple of miles at best? Yet the transformation in the scene from semi urban to rural was quite complete. A tar road divided grandma’s village into two. Approaching from the town, at the beginning of the village and on the left was a small lake. A big pond is a better description than a small lake. It had water for nearly eight months a year barring the middle of summer when it was reduced to a swampy mud pit in which one got to see semi naked fisherman wading through with their triangular nets and wicker baskets to store their catch. The borders of the lake were fortified by a mud bank. The bank actually resembled a small hillock with flat tops to facilitate the passage of ox carts, cycles and occasional motor bike. Tractors were a rarity. One could in early summer evenings see silhouettes of farmers carrying ploughs, ox carts stuffed with hay and seasonal produce or children balancing adroitly and rolling thin tyres with wand like sticks. I have a distinct memory of being able to see these thin sticks even from a distance. I was not sure if I was blessed with a good eye sight or the quality of the setting sun which brought in a sharp contrast even to insignificant objects. The road coming into mother’s village suddenly became wide to accommodate a bunch of shops most of which were cheap eateries, knick-knack shops, a couple of cycle repair shops and surprisingly the only place where the barbers shops for the whole of the village. This place also doubled up as the village bus stand. Beyond this, the road appeared to have disciplined by constricting itself and continued onwards. All we knew was that if we continued on this road for a couple of hours we would have reached another village where some close relatives of father stayed. Barring an occasional visit for a marriage or a death, we never ventured beyond grandma’s village. Geography, in those days was not history yet 

On the right of the road were the houses of the village – not more than four hundred in all. The houses were densely packed and had no sense of layout or plan. There was a definite concentration in the center which waned towards the edges. Beyond the houses were fields and beyond the fields, I was certain that there were more villages. Once in a while we heard names of these villages creeping into the conversations. As to what lay beyond those villages – well we never bothered to exercise our imagination. It could have been the end of the universe for all we cared. Looking back it seems strange that there was no curiosity to explore what was beyond

The first thing that I was aware of when I entered grandma’s village was the strong smell of cow dung. It came on sudden and became all pervading. All it took was the time we walked from the road to grandma’s place to adjust to this smell. I don’t remember flinching at this aromal invasion. It actually became agreeable after a point in time. Grandpa’s house was almost at the middle of the village. One had to take a sharp right turn from one of the main streets to reach Grandpa’s house. The turn housed a walled temple with a huge pepul tree. Have you ever heard the rustle of the pepul leaves in a breeze? It is unique, gentle, soothing and if you are utterly alone it can get scary. It was especially soothing when we escaped Grandma’s raspy tongue during hot summer afternoons to play under this tree. Even to this day I can’t make up my mind if it was the rustle or the shade that soothed me

Grandma was a devout and busy woman and most of her time went in prayers and cooking. On chilly winter days of January her day started as early as five in the morning. All we could hear from underneath our blankets was the mild noises in the kitchen and her muffled murmurs of prayer chants. There was a lilting quality to that murmur. She performed multiple activities in the kitchen and the courtyard immediately outside it without a respite to the chanting. For a keen listener, the nature of work that she performed was evident from the rise, fall and emphasis on specific notes. One could easily make out that she was cutting vegetables, grinding spices, churning the buttermilk, washing the prayer utensils or making tea in the way she chanted the hymns. In between all this she also made one or two emphatic attempts to wake up grandpa and a couple of my uncles to help her in the household chores which among others involved either milking or feeding the buffaloes or preparing them to handover to the village cowherd who would take them for grazing on the dry plains outside the village. If one had an ariel map of the way the cattle gathered from various small gullies in the village onto the main street and out to the pastures, one would have got a sense of how a river with all its tributaries forms and progresses. In this case it was a river of horns of sojourning cattle in a maze of rising dust

Grandma’s village was one of the numerous villages in the south central plains of India and January in these plains assumes a special characteristic. Harvest of rice, pulses, sesame and coriander was a common sight. There was a brief and temporary abundance of a variety of vegetables like spinach, bitter, bottle, snake and ridge gourds, cucumbers, ash pumpkins, a variety of beans, tomatoes, violet, mottled green and white brinjals. The big, bright yellow coloured pumpkin flowers against the light plattery green leaves growing in the brown and black earth produced an occasional beauty. Green corn, groundnut, berries and sugarcane – a child’s delight and parents worry (for any excessive consumption could result in cough and fever) – added a special touch to the season. The season also brought the festival of harvest, a fleeting surplus, some spending and lots of food. The bushy dried twigs of various pulses were burnt to generate warmth that was essential to awaken the dozing stiff limbs out of winter stupor. It was a sort of early morning bon fire. Grandfather and Grandmother discussed the day’s activities and crop situation while sitting in front of this fire. For the more adventurous kids who were destined to graduate to smoking cigarettes, the thistles of sesame acted as perfectly acceptable substitute. The peaking winter made no difference to Grandma. She was up at five in the morning, set off the stove, completed her ablutions and bath and got ready for her prayer. For almost a month during January she cooked a small meal called “pulgum” as a libation to Gods. Pulgum was always cooked in small portions so it was distributed on a first come first served basis. Given the numerous cousins, maternal uncles and aunts we had, the competition was always intense. The early cousins who braved the chill caught the pulgum. Some cousins clearly preferred an additional hour of dozing to eating pulgum

Mother always wanted to go to her village but as we started to grow older, we acted as the anchors that moored her in the town where we were living and impeded her desired visits to the village. I remember mother getting torn between her love for us and the need to stay back on the one hand and the love for her parents and the comfort of visiting her siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins on the other. Yet I never understood why she liked the village so much. I had a strange sense of discomfort about grandma’s village. Even to this day I cannot place my finger on what this disquiet was about. I did not look forward to going there and as I grew, I resisted going to mother’s village. It has been more than a decade I have been there. Grandparents are no more, uncles and aunts have dispersed and many even have aged enough to have grandchildren of their own. I now seem to have a better understanding of my disquiet and it can be best described in aesthetic terms. Grandma’s village was bereft of any beauty. It was not bleak or ugly or anything like that. It just did not have any beauty. It was plain. There was no excitement about the place at all. The monotony of carrying on with life simply outweighed everything else

As I grew older and my understanding of the world grew, I became sympathetic to Grandma’s village. At times there is immense nostalgia almost bordering on sadness. But the tents we have pitched in the cities cannot be abandoned. The way we impeded our parents’ visits to their villages, our kids are impeding our visits to our towns. As you sow, so you reap. At least in this aspect life seems to have come around a full circle !

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