India is the home of almost 1/6th of the world population; 1.13 billion people and around 80% of this population lives in rural areas.
Last weekend I spent a long weekend in a small, rural village on the outskirts of Varanasi of which I’ve visited and fostered some lovely friendships over the course of the last six months. Our students each lived with different families in the village and we gave them a set of questions (constituting a sort of, “anthropological survey”). We, as well, lived with one of the families and spent a day gathering answers to the same survey questions. The following are excerpts from the information gathered…
(I start off by addressing my questions to our 14-year daughter of the primary family occupying the house.)
Me: So this is the only Brahmin (highest caste) family in the village?
Daughter: Brahmin? What is this? I don’t know.
Me: You know, the caste system?
Daughter: No. I don’t know what that is.
Me: Do you know where the women of the village give birth?
Daughter: Now? Now, babies are born in the hospital. Before they were born in the house. But now, in the hospital.
Me: When do you worship and or make puja (prayer)?
Daughter: Sometimes we go to the ashram. And we make puja also in the house. The whole family participates. But mostly my grandfather does it. Which god we pray to depends on the day of the week and/or the festival.
Me: Do the kids in the village go to school?
Daughter: Yes. All the kids in the village go to school from 8am – 3pm, Monday through Saturday. I go to a special school because the teacher at the village school is very lazy – always sleeping. Many girls here study to class 8, and then they usually make marriage.
Me: Do you know who is the prime minister of India?
Daughter: Oh… I can’t remember his name.
Me: Do you know who is the president of the United States?
Daughter: Ummm. One of my friends is telling jokes about someone called, George Bush. And there was a big bomb blast in America in 2001, no? One of my friends is also calling me, Bin Laden. (She is particularly famous in the village for being a fireball with a temper who is ever eager to instigate brawls and fighting with, even, village boys.)
Me: Can you help me draw out your family tree?
(We draw out a tree of the 43 persons she knows to be in her family. After finishing, we take a chai break and move downstairs, where her uncle is sitting. I turn my next questions to him…)
Me: She told me that she doesn’t know what, “Brahmin” or the “caste system” is…
(The uncle calls his niece into the room and says,)
Uncle: What “janti” do you belong to?
Uncle: Pandey is your (last) name. You are Brahmin, na?
Daughter: (She bobs her head in hesitant agreement.)
Uncle (addressing me): Did you know her grandfather (who lives here) was a freedom fighter for the movement with Gandhi?
Me: Really? The man whose feet I touched in the fields? That’s amazing.
Me: So here’s the family tree she and I drew together…
Uncle: (He looks at it for a minute and then asks me for a piece of paper. He then draws out the complete family tree of 64 persons.)
(The uncle leaves and the father of the house returns from working in the fields. His English is limited so I enlist the help of his 20-year old nephew to help me with the rest of the questions…)
Me: So what is your family business/trade?
Father & Nephew: Having land. Other families have shops and sell buffalo milk. We have land.
Me: And in addition to your family, you employ people to work on your fields? How much do you pay them?
House Father & Nephew: Those that work in our fields are paid in rupees, rice paddies (or land), food and jaggery. How many rupees? About 80 rupees per day. The government pays its field workers a rate of 110 rupees per day. But we also provide, each year, a plot of land to each worker. Then, they get 5 kilos of food from the fields they work on each day. And spices and essentials, like jaggery (sugar cane sweetener). We also make meals for them every day. What do we serve them? You know, because you eat the same thing. We all eat the same food. The same meals you are eating here for breakfast, lunch and dinner, are the same that they eat. Are they happy? Yes. They are happy because they have their own land and can do what they want with it; grow what they want on it.
Me: What about the caste system? How does it work here?
Nephew: If you’re in another caste, there is no thinking that another can’t come into your house or anything. We are always wanting and looking forward to nice things happening to all people. Many times I have gone to the “untouchable” part of the village and helped students to do these interviews there. I go into their houses too and we talk.
Me: Who is in charge of the village?
House Father & Nephew: The government leaders are in charge. But ours is a bad drunkard. He is a milker – because in our village, this is an important caste. He is still here, but he only likes to drink and lay around. He uses all the money that the government gives to the village for bad things. So now two others of the village have taken over managing the village. My uncle is one of them.
Me: And what happens when there are conflicts in the village?
House Father & Nephew: If there is a problem in the village, there is a panchayat (a committee of five elders chosen for their life experience and wisdom, to proceed over community disputes). The problem is taken to the panchayat to help. People can also choose their panchayat, if they want. If both people are not happy with the resolution of the panchayat, then they will go to the police.
Me: What happens in cases where people steal, or in the case of a woman who is raped?
Nephew: It’s never happened in my village that I’ve seen.
House Father: There is so much work for the women in the village. Hard work. They work till 12 at night; with the baby,
in the fields, cleaning, cooking…
Me: And the men work hard too?
House Father: Yes. But the women work harder.
Me: Is this fair?
House Father & Nephew: No.
Me: What is the water system here?
Nephew: Rain, when there is rain. But we haven’t had rain for four years. When is the rain season? July. No. September. Hum. I don’t remember, it’s been so long since we’ve had a rain season. The village had to make wells. The government didn’t make them, but my uncle, he had a contact with someone who makes wells for the government and so this family put two wells in: one inside our house for our family, and one outside the house for the village to use. These wells are 350-420 feet deep. This is very deep, and each year we have to go deeper. The government made a water tank two years ago. Six months ago, it started working. It costs 18 rupees per month to use, but it also costs 800 rupees for the connection. That well comes from the earth, 345 to 400 ft. There are maybe 10-12 wells in the village, but only six of them still work.
Me: Does the village have electricity?
House Father & Nephew: Yes. We have electricity. When? From about 11pm to 5pm. But we don’t really know the times because it changes every day. For example, since you are coming, we haven’t had light. The electricity is most important because we need it to pump the water in the fields. 75% of the village has electricity. Normally it costs 70- 80 rupees per month, but most people are using the lines without paying for it by just taking it.
Me: What forms of fuel do you use here?
House Father & Nephew: We use dung from the animals for cooking. And some wood. One time, each year, we go up to the mountain and take wood from the forest. We take 2-3 bushels and use 1-2 small pieces per day. Are we running out? No. We only go a few times a year. There is so much wood. And we use diesel for the tractors.
Me: What kinds of electronics do you use here?
House Father & Nephew: We have TV’s. But ours is in the closet. There used to be only two or three TVs in the village, but now everyone has one. Not everyone uses them; sometimes we use to watch cricket matches, political news and serial pictures which the government plays for free on weekends. We use FM (radio) too – to hear the news. We have three cell towers here, and 30% of people in the village have cell phones. CD players too. Chinese players are so cheap on the black-market in Varanasi.
Me: What is the possession that you treasure most in the house?
House Father & Nephew: Our family.
Me: Where does the food that you cook the meals with come from?
House Father & Nephew: Mostly from the fields. Sometimes we get some vegetables from the market (in surrounding villages). Right now we grow (and are eating) carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, lentils, green peas, chick peas, zucchini, garlic, onion, potatoes, mustard seed (and oil), cabbage, cauliflower, spinach, ginger, bitter gourd, different leafy vegetables, sugar cane (and jaggery), and chili peppers. Soon we will begin to plant and harvest our summer foods: watermelon, cucumber, mangos, pumpkin, and rice when the rain season comes. Normally, we sell our surplus of these things in the city, but because we haven’t had a rain season for four years, we have just enough food for our own family.
Me: And the animals, what is your relationship to them?
Newphew: Do you know the Hindi word for animal? It is, “janvar.” This word means, “he who will kill himself for you.” Our animals take care of us. When my aunt died, we left our house empty (to attend to her death rites), and our dog watched over the house. We only have dogs and water buffalo here. We are Brahmin. So we do not eat any meat. If a Brahmin eats meat, another will say, “Don’t sit on my bed. Sit over there.”
Me: In the case of medical emergencies, what happens?
House Father & Nephew: Here, there are some doctors, but they are not very learned. For fevers and critical cases, people go to the hospital in the city. But it’s hard to get there; some people die on the way.
Me: Do you have any preventative health treatments, natural medicines?
Nephew: Yes. We pick natural medicines from the mountains. We use trees, grasses… I don’t know. My grandfather makes all the ayurveda medicine for our family. He still does it. What happens when he dies? It is so bad for the family. Because no one knows how to make the medicines. No one has the time to learn these things. But he will teach it, if anyone wants to learn.
Me: So when and for what do you go to the city?
House Father & Nephew: For some weddings, government work and to buy electronics. But, everything in the city – milk, vegetables, chick peas, rice, spices – comes from the villages.
Me: Interesting. So really, if there were a major disaster in the world that cut you off…
House Father & Nephew: We’d be fine.
Me: What are the things your family fears most?
House Father & Nephew: Separation of family.
Me: You mean physical separation? Like people moving away, to the city or other countries?
House Father & Nephew: No. I mean, if we don’t have nice relations with each other.
Me: Is there anything else your family is afraid of?
House Father & Nephew: Yes. Also drought and terrorists. Naxilites walked by our village once, two or three years ago. They just walked by. But there is a fear that they will come again and begin to kidnap persons.
Nephew: My uncle wants to know what you think of our village?
Me: I think it all works very well together. The community and family are such a strong and functional foundation to the village. And I think this emphasis is so important. I also see that while there are less material things here, there seems to be more peace and general happiness. Tell him that I think his village is beautiful.