'What I learned from living as a local in remote Rajasthan villages'

Would you be able to live in a remote village? You may have been to a fair share of rural towns, had conversations with locals, eaten with them, spent a day with them. But what if you had to spend a whole month in a village? Would you be able to do that?

I spoke to 24-year-old Apoorva Bhope, who, as a Gandhi Fellow, got an opportunity to live in four different remote villages in Rajasthan, in a process called village immersion.

By definition, immersion means complete involvement in an activity. Through this process, Gandhi fellows completely involve themselves with a village community. The immersion process requires the Gandhi Fellow to eat, live and work as part of a local family unit in a village, and use that experience to bring awareness and education and hence triggering change. “It is curious how much those two years of immersions became a mirror into my own life and my own family,” says Apoorva. “Perhaps it was in the living with people as a part of their family and not treating them as subjects for study.”

Of course, for a city girl to experience village life cannot be all easy going — “There were many times my patience was tested or I was expected to be tolerant. A lot of emotional turmoil took place,” she said.

Remember, this meant that she would live with one of the village families, not as a guest, but as a family member, while completing some of the tasks needed to be done as part of this exercise. But through it all, this experience taught her invaluable lessons. “I learned a lot about myself, a lot about my conditioning,” says Apoorva.

Here are some of her findings:

“Kya milta hai aapko logon ki madat karke?”

A village elder asked Apoorva this question, immediately after wondering (out loud) why a 22-year-old girl was not married already and tending to the responsibilities of married life. After getting over the initial shock and embarrassment of the question, Apoorva says, “I tried to explain as best as I could with a great deal of struggle trying to make him understand my perception.” But the question that lingered in her mind was, “What is my true purpose?”

Basic Hygiene

“I had to bathe (just wearing an underskirt) in the local pond, and I realised, it was as common as drinking your morning cup of tea,” says Apoorva. “I was often greeted by passersby, who would shout out ‘namaste didi, kaise hai aap?’. Initially, I would awkwardly wave and pray they’d leave pronto. But soon enough, as were with the other ladies in the pond, I would wave back and greet them as well.”

Few would opt to bathe in the open, leave alone a pond. And these are the times to question oneself how open you are to change. “I was horrified; I had to do my morning business in the open, among the ’bushes’, if you know what I mean,” she says. Surely, this is not the place to ask for toilet paper.

That time of the month

Being a woman is completely different ballgame in the village way of life. “I was not allowed to drink water or bathe in the house while I had my periods,” she said.

How shocking, you might think, but this is the reality of most Indian villages. “Initially I felt bad, but just because I was told not to something, didn’t mean it was correct.” (She remembers drinking water from the matka (water pot) when no one was home.)

However, it did give Apoorva an opportunity to understand people’s mindsets about menstruation. She spent a lot of time trying to explain her case, but after a few failed attempts, she realised how ingrained these “customs” are, and that, only consistent education can change mindsets of the people.

What is gourmet?

What can be the best lesson in humility and resourcefulness? A plate of food. “One of my last village immersions was spent with a very poor family. We just had 2 bulbs in the house, most nights there was no electricity and of course there were no toilets. The father wanted all his 3 daughters to study. The twins were in 12th std and the third one was in 4th std. One evening, there was no food at home. I was super hungry and after a tiring day I entered the house announcing, ‘Bhabhi khana me kya hai bahot bhook lagi hai’. That evening I was served roti and a paste of chilli powder, salt and water as accompaniment for dinner.”

Initially and understandably, she was in a state of disbelief and thought to herself, how can someone eat this? “But after a while I realised it was a smart way of using resources. It is fair to say that, necessity is the mother of invention,” she says.

The family could have slept on an empty stomach that night, but they found out a way.

Definition of care

Today, privacy is a highly sought-after thing. But it is interesting to note that village life does not know any privacy. They want to know everything about your life, and that too, genuinely, out of innocent curiosity.

“They would sit by my side to serve me while having dinner, and would not get up until I finished it,” she says. In the beginning she did feel quite important, but considering she is a slow eater, things did get weird with all the expectant staring. That just made her wonder – ‘how far do we go to make our loved ones feel cared for?’

Never, never underestimate children

“I clearly remember this one incident when I told my 5th std kids (whom I was teaching in the village) that RBI is the big daddy of all the other banks and how it provides for their needs, to which one of them asked, ‘why only daddy why not mummy?’,” says Apoorva. “That was a slap on my face and a question mark on my lack of ability to question everything I had learnt, which I expected them to do.”

You never know when you will meet again

“I was living in a village named Sodala with a fairly rich family. They had a 3-storied house and many rooms (but no toilets). Their eldest son had a raddi (scrap) shop somewhere in Mumbai city. As I lived there for a month, I found out that their next-door neighbours also were in the scrap business in Mumbai. Years later, one evening, during a random conversation with our local raddi-wala, I realized that they were from the very same family.”

What a small world indeed.

Apoorva is just one of very many youngsters, who are thinking more and more about community service and rural development. Want to do something for the country? It is time to hit the grassroots. And SO it’s time to ask yourself, would you live in a rural village?

As our conversation ended, I asked her two questions: Would you change anything at all from your experience?
Would you do it again?

Pat comes the reply:
Nothing at all!
Ofcourse, I think I might visit them soon.

After all, you can take the girl out of the village, but you cannot take the village out of a girl.