Kalipeelitaxi in Champawat

Blog by Krutika(Kru), a volunteer at Haijalo.

It’s been a month since I arrived here in the mountains. And obviously like most of us city people would, I came here all ready to ‘make a change’ and leave an impact and break people away from staunch practices and traditions and open their eyes to the freedom of our city ways. But again obviously, like many others before me, I quickly realized that it’s just not that simple. It’s been a journey of learning far more than it has been of giving.

Once while discussing the opening of a sports centre here with Ruth, under whom I’ve been learning, I suggested that there should be a small library section in the centre too because I believe reading is a very important habit for kids to cultivate. Ruth responded with something that really stuck with me. She said that reading is such an important part of our lives in the city because we have such limited means of getting in touch with ourselves. It’s an escape for us. We don’t grow up playing in huge green fields with cows and goats. The kids here don’t need an escape like we do. This was obviously said with the pretext of reading is a great habit nevertheless and a library sounds great.

Getting to know Ruth has been such a funny experience in itself because it’s like seeing a 37 year old version of myself. In more than a few ways, we’re so similar that it’s lowkey creepy. And honestly, it’s very reassuring to see an adult whose brain works the same way yours does. It’s proof that I can survive adulthood.

Vijay (my co-intern and now friend), on the other hand, is as different from me as can be. He fits right into a community village life in a way that I couldn’t even if I tried. He says namaste to pretty much every person he sees, makes sure to personally attend any birthday, anniversary, wedding happening in the area, brings gifts and chocolates for everyone, asks me if i want ice cream every single time we step out, is so much better at getting work done and is one of the best conversationalists i’ve ever met and just actually genuinely cares for everyone. And sometimes it’s so difficult keeping up with him and his ways with my 2 hour long social battery. 

Fun fact, we only have one mirror in this house and it’s the size of my palm.

It did not rain here this year properly. The spring rains that ideally happen in March were delayed and came in May. This also resulted in a lot of forest fires. So we have a habit of saving every bit of water here. Water from washing utensils, washing clothes, taking a bath, everything is collected in buckets and used for watering the fields. We also only take a bath once in two days and tell ourselves that it’s to conserve water. Any bit of leftover food or fruit and vegetable peels go to the cows. The plastic waste is collected separately and Ruth’s year worth of plastic fits in a rucksack.

If I had to name a special talent women here have, it would be climbing trees. In the morning, wherever you look, however long the tree may be, there is a woman on it cutting off the overgrown branches. It is honestly mind blowing. One such 20year old, Sanjana, fell off a tree and is now temporarily paralysed waist down. Sanjana lives in a small remote village on a hill that is inaccessible by road. She was to be married but the other family broke off the engagement after this incident. She was in her first year of B.A. degree and really wanted to continue her studies. When Ruth along with some of our other team members reached her college to talk to the principal and request that a writer be provided to Sanjana at her residence (her hands were not strong enough for her to write a paper), the principal simply refused and said “ ek ladki ke liye itna kit kit kyu kar rahe ho madam, ek semester ki toh baat hai, baadme de degi paper.” This is how seriously education is taken here by educators themselves. When I came here, Ruth told me about her and we went to meet her. At this point, she’s been in bed for over 6 months, with very minimal recovery. She doesn’t get much sleep as she’s in bed all day and often spends all night awake with nothing to occupy her. She doesn’t have a phone, her house, like most other houses here, does not have a television, there aren’t a lot of books to read and she has occupied herself with a general knowledge book. I can tell you right off the bat that I’m not strong enough to have survived this situation. But she is. She said she starts writing positive things in her journal when she starts feeling too lost or hopeless. Meeting her and talking to her felt so turbulent because all of us want to jump in and just fix things, tell her how to go about her education, provide medical help, give her tips on how to spend her time, how to keep her mental health in check; all of us want to be a saviour. But all she really wants at this point is a friend, someone to talk to her and someone she can talk to. And it’s very difficult to keep your saviour complex aside and be that person. And I did quite a below average job the first time to be honest. But for what it’s worth, the next time I went to meet her, I think I was a little better at being a possible friend candidate. 

Sometimes the ideas of freedom, development and a modern life that we carry with us are not just unnecessary in a place like this but also downright harmful. 

Mental health issues are not a very common thing here, and in the rare cases of someone having one, it is almost always caused by a traumatic incident. Unlike Mumbai, or any other city for that matter. Almost every other person I know there is going through something or the other, and you cannot tell me that it has no connection to the lifestyle we live there. We are all stuck in this rat race of things that we don’t need, even the apparently anti-capitalist, smart ones of us who understand that it’s a rat race because we just can’t help it. For example, poverty is not a very common thing here. You need very little to get by. Rent costs next to nothing, most people live with joint families in generational houses, 4 generations often alive and living together. They don’t really go out to eat and ration is affordable, more so if you have a ration card. You grow a lot of your food in your own backyard even if you don’t have a farm. No one has televisions or computers, and there is one smartphone in the entire household. You walk if you have to go somewhere or hitchhike if you find a ride. You buy clothes on rare occasions and keep mending them till they are unusable. Most people I’ve seen here so far keep rotating 2-3 pairs of clothes. You rarely fall sick and even when you do, you are often treated with pretty effective home remedies. Even if a person is struggling, their extended family almost always takes care of them. The only way you fall into poverty here is alcoholism. So yes, while we are out there busy questioning why healthcare and basic nutrition isn’t universally free (as it obviously should be) and how poverty is an act of capitalism, it’s also worth it to take a look at our own priorities and how this capitalism that we talk about is a product of our own making. It’s a very symbiotic relationship. I am not talking about the results of capitalism that we are seeing today in the form of class disparity and wealth accumulation in the hands of a few, I am talking about consumerism, about us constantly consuming products that are not necessary. Probably one of the biggest factors in this disparity is what we call development. Since this is a rural area, people here are not constantly bombarded with advertising and brands or a variety of products. There are very few restaurants which also sell your regular chapati sabzi only, chowmein if you get lucky. Most people get their clothes stitched from a tailor and there are only a handful of ready-made clothing shops. No malls or shopping  complexes. For the third time, no televisions or phones which means you’re not looking at advertisements for things you apparently need all day (clearly I have something against televisions). Ruth once said something in a podcast ( which you should most definitely listen to btw) that really put a lot of things into perspective for me. She said that her friends often keep telling her to get a washing machine and save some time to which she replied, “ If I don’t even have the time to wash my own clothes, then clearly I’m overworked and need to change things in my life.” Now some of you may argue saying that the point of the washing machine isn’t to save time but to save energy and make things convenient, but then some of you obviously did not get the point. And while you’re talking about conserving energy and a convenient lifestyle, let’s not forget that even that is a problem.

This is what an average day in the life of a villager here looks like; you wake up early in the morning, take your cow out for grazing and sit and drink chai in a field while they graze. You go back home, cook and eat breakfast, look after your kids if you have any, prepare lunch, go sit at your shop if you have one, go to your field and do kheti if you have one, carry back bundles of wheat back home on foot, eat lunch, sit in the sun, take a nap, go for an evening walk and get your daily dose of socialising from the other uncles and aunties also out on a walk, do other house chores, have dinner and fall right off to sleep.  If you want to eat something, you make it yourself, if you want to go somewhere, you walk because they don’t have ubers here, and mind you, the nearest market is 45mins away. You do every single thing yourself and there is a sense of accomplishment in it that we just cannot fathom. I cannot explain to you how great having homemade food and drinking chai after farming feels. By the way, I started drinking chai because on my first day here, my neighbour just came and gave me a cup of chai and a full plate of breakfast without me asking or saying anything because that’s just the culture here. You always give whatever you make to your neighbour, and I was more than grateful for something warm to drink in the freezing cold. 

I’m not saying you need to drop everything, pack your bags and go back to a rural life. All I’m saying is that a lot of the mental health issues we face there are a more systematic problem than you think, and it’s a part of the city life bargain.

So when we talk about developing rural areas, we need to keep in mind that along with development will come a lot of other things which are detrimental to the health and functionality of this place. This is obviously not to say that the place doesn’t need changes. Every place has its own set of problems. 

Social issues here are not like what they have been portrayed to us through media. Women here are not sitting inside their houses feeling oppressed and suffocated like you would imagine them to be. Things are way more subtle and in the background, and they will miss your eye if you aren’t actively looking for them.

One morning, I heard a lot of noises from the house opposite to us and I asked Ruth about it. She said that the woman in that house has been sick for a few months now and she doesn’t seem to be getting better so they are doing a ritual to make the bad spirit leave her body. I don’t know what happened inside that house that day, I just know that the woman screamed and cried a lot.

Recently in the same house, the grandfather was very sick and had stopped eating. Ruth decided to invest in an oximeter since we didn’t have a single one in the entire village and it would be a necessity with the covid situation. She went over to check his oxygen level and it turns out it was 57, and I’m sure all of you know how bad that is. But neither the grandfather nor the family wanted to get him admitted, even after Ruth called up a doctor and he explained that he is critically ill and needs to be hospitalised. Now there are two reasons behind their refusal to get admitted; one being their excessive faith in god, that god will take care of him. The second being their lack of faith in the government facilities here. They believe that if they go to the hospital, he will definitely catch corona and die. Funny that god won’t take care of him in a hospital, but then that’s god for you.

Ruth couldn’t say anything more to convince them to get hospitalized because the way people’s thought process works here is that she will be seen as the harbinger of bad news. For example, it’s wheat harvest season here and we’re having untimely rains which are a huge problem since you need proper sunlight to harvest and dry wheat. So Ruth has been checking the weather forecast everyday and telling our landlord didi the updates so she can plan the harvest accordingly. And didi’s response to that was, “ Ruth tum mujhe kucch bataya mat karo, tum muh kholti ho toh baarish ho jaati hai.”

From the same opposite household, this uncle went to purnagiri, which is a small-scale version of kumbh mela, and instead of quarantining himself after coming back, he roamed around all over the area and went to a lot of homes, including our own. Consequently a lot of people in the village fell sick, and I think now you know why his dad’s oxygen is 57.

Women here practise ‘achoot’ on their periods. They don’t enter the kitchen, don’t touch anyone, often sleep in a separate room outside the house and don’t take a bath for 3 days. While our landlord didi practices this for 4 days, the house opposite does it for 7 . So they don’t take anything from didi’s hand even after her 4 days are over and she has taken a bath because they are ‘purer brahmins’ than didi.

There are separate wells for brahmins and lower caste people. Yes that’s all that needs to be said about that. Ruth says it’s funny because the lower caste well is way cleaner than the other one since two kids here decided to pee in it.

Paliwal daaju ( daaju means bhaiya in pahaadi) who cooks for us has 4 children. 2 sons and 2 daughters. His youngest son who studies in Delhi fell in love with a bengali girl. His family obviously said no to the marriage because she was from a different caste and daaju is a pure brahmin (yes brahmin and pure brahmin are two very different things here). When we asked them why, he just very nonchalantly said “ab aisa hi chalta hai bas.” Not that this is something specific to rural areas in any way. But for what it’s worth, his daughter chipped in and said that this isn’t something that will be followed into the next generation.

There are two schools here, Shishu mandir and Mount Carmel. As most of you have already guessed, Mount Carmel is the fancy english medium school which most people here can’t afford. And Shishu mandir is an RSS run school, where kids are brainwashed from a very young age. Neither of these schools have a child friendly and education oriented curriculum, instead it’s a very grades hungry system where kids are only trained to score well. This gives them a very big disadvantage when they have to compete with kids from cities who have had the access to so much more exposure. And this is not something that the kids or parents here question. Curiosity is not a value that is inculcated in children, in fact questioning things is considered disrespectful and discouraged by both schools and parents, in true bharatiya sanskriti nature. This is something that sticks with them and you see it in the adults all around you. No one asks why the condition of the public hospital is so poor that you are scared to go to the hospital even when your oxygen is 57, or why is something not being done about the very rampant forest fires. People don’t question anything. They just accept that this is the way things are and move on.

In Mumbai, our trash goes into the dustbin, from there it goes to the building or area dustbin and then it’s carried off in the BMC garbage truck to a dumping ground somewhere. Here, people don’t have dustbins. You just throw things away wherever you are. And when you do have a dustbin, no one’s coming to take your trash away. And in the extremely unlikely case that you go put your trash in the area bin, it’s just taken from there and thrown off the side of a mountain. So you’re not really much better off even if you have a dustbin. Consequently, you will find plastic trash pretty much everywhere you go. There is no waste management system in place. When the trash starts smelling too bad or becomes a breeding site for pests, it is burned off, and I don’t need to tell you why that’s a bad idea. People here are just not bothered by this.  In Ruth’s words, people here don’t understand the value of the place they live in. This access to nature that they have is not seen as a blessing. Instead it’s a very transactional relationship of ‘what can we extract from our surroundings.’ No one is concerned with giving back.

These are some issues that I’ve come across and observed here so far. And a lot of these things feel so stubborn, it’s like breaking your head on stone. But like daaju’s daughter said, the next generation does leave a lot of room for hope. Despite all their circumstances, the kids here are actually very open to learning and changing old ways. And hopefully with our project Rukhthokko, we will be able to give some of these kids the exposure that they need to start asking questions and changing the way of things and holding authorities responsible.

Being and Nothingness

I’ve been in a sort of existential crisis since I arrived here. You see, for the past year I’ve been questioning what we really are, as pretentious as that sounds. I see people around me and everyone seems to be just things they like and do. If every externally acquired trait was to be stripped away from your personality, what would be left of you? The answer is nothing, in case you were wondering. Everything we are is an act all of us are constantly putting up, and this would make way more sense if you read Simone De Beauvoir. And I don’t mean this in a tumblr post “what’s left of you when the mask comes off” kind of way. I don’t see this act as pretense or betrayal or catfish. It’s not something most of us are doing consciously. From the minute we are born, we are flooded with a stream of information that does not stop till we die, unless we are going into some kind of a worldly renunciation. So we can’t really avoid having this external personality. But I really wanted to feel like there was something more than just nothingness. I wanted to believe that my connection to pahaad was not just an external trait of mine but something that was truly a part of me. It’s who I was and where I belonged. Unfortunately, once you go down this rabbit hole, that’s just not possible. A few days before coming here, I wrote an email to my partner talking about how I feel like I’m finally in touch with being nothing. I feel like I’m experiencing everything happening in my life as an outsider, as a viewer, and I just don’t feel anything first hand anymore. Like I’m floating through my own life. But feeling like this was fine when I was back in Mumbai. I just didn’t expect to carry this feeling with me to the mountains, and more importantly the work I came here to do. This work was supposed to give me purpose, it’s something I’ve wanted to do all my life, quite literally. Living on a mountain and making a change in people’s lives is all I have wanted to do. I’ve never had any other goals or motivation in my entire life. But I have come to realize that what I’ve been holding on to for years now wasn’t a connection to pahaad, but rather a yearning for it, and now that that has been fulfilled, I no longer have anything to hold on to and a whole lot of empty space inside me. So yes, as you can imagine, that can be a bit of a struggle.

I could try telling myself that this work isn’t about me, it’s bigger than that and I should just focus on my work. But I’ve just never functioned like that. Very early on I realised that humans are a selfish species and everything we do is driven by personal motives. Even the things we seemingly do for other people, for the people we love, our most unselfish and unconditional acts, are still done because they make us feel like a good person. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is like the big ugly truth of humankind in any way. It’s basic human nature that we can’t help and if anything, I find it beautiful that despite this basic nature, we all still want to feel like a good person and do things to accomplish that. It does not matter what the motivation behind the act was, if you did something good, that’s all that matters and you deserve to feel like a good person for that. Get that serotonin and what not. Anyway, quite an off- topic stray but the point is, I can’t tell myself that it does not matter what I feel and the work is more important because I simply don’t believe that. I am aware that I do everything I do because I want to be associated with that act, and coming back to where we started, finding that motivation can be difficult when you don’t feel associated with anything whatsoever. A small disclaimer here, this doesn’t mean that I’m not doing my work or don’t want to work, this is just an insight into what I have been struggling with on a personal level.

Like everything else in the world right now, this pandemic is a huge factor in my situation too. We had to halt all our projects because gathering people right now is not a good idea, so we’re back to working on our laptops, which often causes my motivation to dwindle because I came here excited to actually work with people on ground, and I hate working online.

My partner responded to my mail by saying that it does not matter if we are nothing apart from everything we have acquired from our experiences because that nothingness is such a hypothetical situation. No one who’s ever been born has avoided these external factors, so whatever this “external personality” of yours is, that’s you, that’s all you are.

And I completely agree with him. Like I said, it’s something that’s not in our control. We’re not being inauthentic in any way. But my problem isn’t us being nothing as a species, my problem is me feeling like nothing as a person. It’s not even a problem necessarily, most days I’m absolutely okay with the nothingness and  floating feeling. It’s just the other days when there’s a lot of turbulence going on in the back of my head.

Contrary to what my above rant might come across as, my month hasn’t been a sad struggle. It’s actually been a beautiful month of so much learning and so many warm fulfilling happy days, and moments where Vijay would say that my body is incapable of holding in my happiness and joy. I’ve danced in the rains and and I’ve lost some brain cells from excitement on seeing the Himalayas when the sky cleared up after a rainy day, I’ve visited a house in the literal middle of nowhere and lived out my Highway fantasy and envisioned a future for myself, living in a similar house somewhere, I have chased goats very unsuccessfully but very joyfully nonetheless. I have eaten hailstones and I swear if you were to see me in that moment, you would have thought I’d lost it. I’ve gone for a drive with the women here and looked at the beautiful sky and huge mountains with the sun setting behind them while these women were singing pahadi songs and I think I met god that day, and I don’t even believe in god. I lie on the floor in golden sunlight every chance I get and I’ve been listening to so much music and I start my day everyday by going out, sitting under a tree and reading my book. I’m learning a little bit of farming and it gives me so much satisfaction when I make a wheat bundle successfully and using a sickle makes me feel so powerful and it just feels right to hold.  So yes, it’s been a heavenly month with more joy than I would ever get in my life in Mumbai. There are good days and bad days, just like there should be. And while I feel lost and confused about what I really want to do on bad days, on good days I have enough clarity to remember that it’s okay if I feel like nothing and don’t know what I want to do, because it will always be an active choice that I have to keep making throughout my life. You do good things because you want to feel like a good person. You decide who you want to be, and sometimes I am a different person every single day. I am not the same person here that I am in Mumbai. In Mumbai I am a responsible, mature, overly careful mom, getting work done by hook or crook individual. Here I am a clumsy teenager who hates bajre ki roti, whose biggest problem in life is washing utensils, is slowly transforming into a peacock  and is addicted to potato biscuits (you would be too if you had them). And I’ve just been learning to make my peace with that. And I’ve been learning to be alone, and learning to be happy even when no one’s there to witness it, and learning how to live life here because everything said and done, this does feel right and the one thing this month has made me sure about is that I know I want to eventually end up on a pahaad like this.

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