September 6, 2020 1:35:01 pm
Written by Aastha Maggu
My mother laid out a long list of strict guidelines that I should follow as I prepared for my train journey as a “lone woman traveler” to Bikaner. “Do not smile too much. Do not befriend random people. You are too trusting, please remember that there are all kinds of people traveling. You can never be too careful. Try not to go to the toilet in the dark. Keep your wallet and mobile phone always close to you.” I tried taking mental notes of all the things. However, my train journey and the commute to our office in Bikaner district went smoothly.
I had undertaken fieldwork as part of my Master’s rural immersion course component. That was three years ago. My hosts had been generous and had ensured that I felt at home. In October 2019, I was embarking on an adventurous journey to rural India for a second time. This time to western Rajasthan. The Thar desert is adorned with beautiful sand dunes and clear skies mark the landscape. However, the region does poorly in human development indicators. The gender and caste gaps in opportunities are stark on this side of the state. Even the first question usually asked when entering a household here is, “what caste do you belong to?”, quickly followed by “are you married?” in the same breath.
After finally settling in, I was excited to go for my first field visit. I had been requested to lead the efforts on a programme aimed at ensuring support services for camel herders of the region. As part of my orientation, I received a similar list of advice that my mother had already enumerated. Male colleagues offered advice that they deemed friendly and well-intended. I was informed that as a young woman who hails from a different region and speaks a different language, I must be mindful of my behaviour. My colleague chimed in, “they’d ask you about your caste and marital status. You could discuss those things. But, try not to get into political debates and stir up any troubles.” So, I added the note to remain reticent on my list.
Camels in this particular region are reared by the Raika community. They have now begun to adopt a sedentary livelihood. The women in the household are chiefly responsible for carrying out the supposedly less arduous duty of tending to small ruminants such as goats, sheep, and cattle. It was only during the visit to our household did I understand that the men usually look after the camel because it is the larger animal.
My first visit to a camel herder’s household in Tanwarwala village was full of warmth, honesty, and acidity (my urban stomach could not handle the spices but definitely preferred acidity over finding ways to politely refuse five cups of tea). I was treated with a scrumptious gatte ki sabzi (added another special note to the list to never refuse home-cooked food during fieldwork). Seamlessly flowing conversations and unlimited supply of chai made it a beautiful afternoon. I was accompanied by four male colleagues from my organisation and we chatted with the men from the household. An hour later, I looked around and realised that I was the only woman present amid this gathering. The women of the family, who had served us the food, were now conspicuously absent. They were all back in the kitchen, away from the discussions.
I decided to go and check if the women would be willing to chat with me. I was wandering in the large courtyard when I saw the women of the household huddled up in a corner, engaged in deep discussion, while chopping vegetables. I was unsure of how to approach them and start a conversation. My quandary was resolved by Luxmi’s offer to me to come inside the kitchen and have freshly prepared gond halwa. The continuous supply of halwa and chai made it easier to strike conversations.
Luxmi had to go attend to her mother-in-law and I immediately turned towards Rani, her young daughter-in-law with my bevy of questions.
“Hey, how old are you?”
“I am 26 years old.”
“Ah. Is that your daughter?”
“Yes, she is the elder one. She is 12 years old. My son is 7 years old.”
Then Rani seemed to get lost in her thoughts. Confusedly, I tried renewing the conversation with a different question and asked her till which grade she had completed her schooling. Ruefully, she replied, “Till class five.” Then added, “The middle school was nearly five kilometres away. My parents thought there was no point in me completing my education before marriage and I did not see any benefit in continuing with it either.”
I did not know what to add further. I just blankly stared at the floor and ate my food. Rani turned around and asked, “My son is seven and I wish to educate him well. Do you think sending him to Bikaner city would be a good idea? Do you think he will ever be as educated as you are?” I looked at her and I was slightly surprised that there was no mention of her daughter’s education. I believe she understood the question I was hinting at and quickly added, “I do think about her education and get worried about it. But I am aware that it is futile to think about it. No one is interested in educating our daughters.” Just then, my colleague came looking for me and said we should try leaving for our campus. I hurriedly said my goodbyes and settled in the car with everyone.
I was still absorbing the conversations, when in the midst of it, a colleague excitedly engaging with everyone in a conversation looked at me and said, “So, Anjali Sharma, are you ready to lead us?”
I thought he had forgotten my name and I looked at him puzzled.
He immediately added, “Have you forgotten our history? Anjali Sharma was one of our finest women cricketers. She led India to many victories. Now we are ready to be led by you.” I was surprised at his burst of warmth. I thought to myself, “Maybe things are not as bad as they seem. Maybe this Anjali Sharma would make a change in this little part of her world.”
Maggu works with a non-profit organisation in Bikaner, Rajasthan. Views are personal
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