Posted by: lilyhamburger | February 15, 2010

Tribal Titwa and the Gandhi Fair

Ok, now I will try and describe my latest adventure. Basically I was just chillin with my tribal friends that I share my guesthouse here with – Madhu ben and Bupendra bhai, a married couple who work basically to make the world better for tribal people. They are tribal by background but have spent most of their lives out of the village and are more educated and stuff, and they are some of my closest friends where I live – actually they are a pretty big part of my life. On Wednesday Bupa and I drove to meet Madhu in their village, and we stayed overnight and the next day I accompanied Madhu and of her several female friends to a festival celebrating Gandhian lifestyles (more coming on that) where they were running a program on women’s issues. We stayed overnight, then went back to the house, then went home w fun stops along the way….

First, the house: as per tradition the land has been passed from eldest son to eldest son for generations. Today, it’s a cement structure painted blue and home to Bupa’s parents, older brother and fam, and Bupa’s eldest son and wife. And 4 cows, which get a lot of attention 🙂 They farm rice, sugar cane, peas, and a species of egg plants that are GIANT. And grass for the cows. One of my favorite things about the place was the fruit trees surrounding the fields – oranges, limes, star fruit, guava, coconut, sweet brown balls that I don’t think exist in English, and smaller sour balls that I also don’t think exist in English. We had fish – a non-veg treat! – bought from a man down by the riverside who gutted it on the spot for us – and ginger pickle for dinner, sitting around on the kitchen floor. I watched Madhu and Himansu, their son, milk the cows, and then accompanied Himansu to the milk collective office where it was weighed and they got a receipt for what they’d delivered. Bupa showed me the biogas system he’d made himself, which had served the kitchen for 25 years without a single failure! We made an appearance at the neighborhood volleyball court (I sat out they were too good), I slept under the mosquito net with their daughter-in-law, Pinki J I the morning I had tea made from the cows’ milk and a delicious sweet brown tribal mush called “seero“.

Ok so the festival was about Gandhi, who is this great big figure. But he is still more than a memory in India, and I learned that his philosophies about India being self-sufficient and stuff (born from the movement to oust the British) are connected to tribal rights today because celebrating Indian culture means celebrating indigenous tribal culture. (At the fair I saw group after group of kids – some absolutely tiny and adorable – in traditional Gujarati garb doing the “garba,“ the tribal dance of the region which involves clapping and/or hitting two wooden sticks together on the beat.) ALSO being self-sufficient means using the land and natural resources wisely, which are totally applicable to today’s environmental movement and natural resource crunch (thanks to the incredible ability of us Americans to consume consume consume). Land use issues are also tied up with complex histories of propriety that many tribal activists are consumed by in this area – compare to Native American land rights issues in the US. But also add the caste system and British rule for a while… Some of the issues that came up in these women’s speeches (which I understood in Gujarati how cool is THAT?!) touched on familiar issues – organic farming, using cloth bags instead of plastic, and considering the source of your dress material. The Gandhians wear “khadi,” the homespun cotton that the dude used to spend hours spinning daily – and insisted that others do the same. Synthetic polyester and processed cotton uses a lot more water and other resources to produce. But seriously, what they were talking about bore uncanny resemblance to what all the crunchy and khaki Middlebury environmentalists beat their dead horses for, and what is being talked about around middle-class dinner tables across America.

Around the fair people were selling kadhi and locally produced sweets and treats. Ice cream from a dairy coop, cookies made from a millet popular in this area, etc. (I got a sari for my mama.) Ironically, just outside the fair there was another sort of fair which sold only trashy plastic kids toys and all kinds of your typical Indian street food – behl, pani puri, fried spirals of sugary dough, fried balls of this and that, and fruits of every shape, size and color. (To make Gujarati behl in any American home, mix rice krispies cereal with your favorite sauces, diced tomatoes and potatoes, and sprinkle potato chip crumbs and cilantro on top! The sauces are key…choose wisely.)

Another part of the experience was seeing Madhuben in action – overseeing payments to women from a micro-banking program she runs, and running into co-activists and friends, and women who she’s helped through her community organizing work. (Her phone rings non-stop because she works with so many women in various villages, setting up income-generating activities, saving schemes, and helping solve local problems of child care, electricity, husband issues, etc.) We stayed overnight with one woman who’s name sounded like “Baby” to me – which means we called her Baby Ben! Hahahaha! She lived in an apartment and made us a delicious meal which we ate at a table (NOT customary – obviously just because of me) while she watched us….she slept in her gorgeous sari on the floor with her daughter while Madhuben and I slept on the beds-that-double-as-sofas, and then men in the family slept in the other room. She was super nice to me and I loved her house because it had a bathroom and soap, which I’d gone all day without…In the morning we left around 7:30 and had tea by the side of the road with another tribal activist while we waited for the bus. In broken Gujarati or translating through Madhu’s fragments of English I asked lots of questions and thought about how rad my life was as the day unfolded on that street corner…barber shops, washing store fronts, tea stalls, camels and bullock carts heading to the fields, vegetables heading for markets, trucks heading back to the highways…

We were soon seated on a bus – gloriously uncrowded, a rarity in these parts – with a sunny breezy window seat. We watched fields and rivers and villages roll by, and comparing crops in America and Gujarat…soon I pulled out of Madhu ben this incredible tragedy of her childhood: she is the eldest girl and second child in a family of 8. Her mother died when she was 14, and the youngest sibling was just 2 months old. They left the farm and moved to the city, but her father soon remarried a woman who refused to care for his children, which left Madhu in charge. One year she didn’t attend school because she had to take care of the baby, but she stayed enrolled, studied from home and passed her exams anyway. With help from sympathetic neighbors who helped out, all the children in the family went to school, stayed clothed and fed (most of the time) and worked in other people’s homes (cleaning , etc) to make money.

Attach that beginning to a picture of a woman who now must be close to 60 who has raised 2 sons who are fully educated (one of whom also works at an NGO teaching computers to tribal students) and who works tirelessly to help hundreds of women solve their problems and teach them about collective action through “SHGs” – self help groups. Respect, Madhuben, respect. And those were the only words I found for her as she wiped away the seeds of tears and we opened our bag of banana chips and a newspaper roll of cashews.

As if things hadn’t been intellectually and emotionally intense enough already, I learned more back at Bupa’s family home. I sat on the porch swing with his niece and him and heard the family history as bullock cart drivers descended from their towers of sugar cane to drink from the well in the yard – their water is notoriously sweet. Somehow we got to talking about philosophies of rural development in a tangled Gujarati and English mix, a conversation that lasted late into the night. We discussed the materialism of America, the threat of capitalism to indigenous cultures worldwide, and what “good” development looks like. (Bupa believes in communalism but not socialism, and he thinks the best education comes from outside the classroom. He hates school.) Madhuben gave me a kadhi bag from the fair that had a list of save-the-earth practices, which I practiced reading in Gujarati.

Side-adventures on the way home included visits to another NGO, a natural hot springs, outdoor kitchen appliance market, visit to distant relative where I was peer-pressured into drinking lemonade made from unfiltered water (no diarrhea! I’m officially Indian!), and the most delicious roadside snack stand.

In general, I am constantly becoming more comfortable in my oh-so-obviously-temporary Indian life, and constantly deepening and shaping relationships with people around me. Living here can be challenging, awkward, and sometimes uncomfortable, especially with the language barrier, but mostly I am incredibly truly happy. As the initial shock of landing myself in a place so different from the reality I formerly knew, I am seeing the commonality in all humanity in spite of all the different ways we have found to live our lives. India is showing me the incredible duality of simplicity and complexity: within Gujarat alone (itself alone the size of France) there are so many layers of wealth, education, language, religion, family structures, geography, etc. that it makes my head spin. I am SO lucky that I have the freedom to choose where and how I live my life, and I picked up some important lifestyle ideas this week. Making mango chutney straight from the tree while you’re still in your pijamas and singing ain’t a bad addition either.

pictures are going on picasa – but here are a few to give you a taste:


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