By Anjoli Bandyopadhyay
December 27, 2003
Up until four months ago, I had no concept of rural life in India. I have lived all my life in Europe and Canada in big cities and one small town. My first glimpses of rural India were rather enchanting as I rolled through the countryside and saw beautiful landscapes and men and women working in fields and wearing bright clothes. I was struck by the number of women I saw working and how this contradicted some preconceived notion I'd had that most women in India lived cloistered lives at home. I was also struck by the sheer variety of vegetation and the overwhelming greenery. I wondered why I had not come to India sooner. The air seemed to be less polluted than in the cities I had visited. But beyond that, I knew nothing of peoples' lives.
My first experience living in a village with a family was in Muschaurem, South Goa in the Western Ghats. Saptu, the head of the household is married to Savitri and they have three daughters and one son. They live in a thatched roof house with one large central room, one small storage room and a small kitchen space at the back. The house is surrounded on two sides by a covered veranda. One side of the veranda protects an old, seventeen year old cow that Savitri brought to the household as her dowry and the cow's two offspring. The other side of the veranda has a game board and chairs for relaxation in the mornings and evenings.
There's a garden in front of the house with roses and small trees and the well is a five minute walk away. There are two dogs and one small cat. Near the cows, there is a large black cauldron for heating water. There are fields surrounding the house and forest land towards the back and a dusty, noisy road a ten minute walk away in front of the house. Large trucks transporting iron ore use this road regularly, breaking the peaceful serenity of the countryside and polluting the air with dust. On the other side of the road are some blue green mountains clothed in mist in the early mornings.
When I first arrived at Saptu's house, we all sat down on the veranda and drank tea. After the initial introductions, Saptu told me that as he has four brothers but no sisters, he was adopting me as a sister. Saptu is lean and dark with a round face and short curly white hair and sparkling eyes. Savitri laughs a lot, unabashedly baring her red betel coloured teeth. I was with a friend who could speak Konkani so I sat back contentedly while everyone chatted. Brother Philip Neri also came to meet us and we were catching up on the peoples' struggle against illegal mining in the area. Mine owners are operating an iron ore mine only three hundred meters away from Saptu's house.
I learned that Timblos had been mining in the area for several years and that this family had noticed severe degradation of their environment and was experiencing losses in their livelihood as a consequence of mining. They used to cultivate rice, millet and sugar cane on their own land and had enough to eat and to sell. But they explained that mining has depleted their water supply as several of their wells have gone dry; last year they were only able to cultivate seven bags of rice as opposed to ten. They have started working on other peoples' land for sustenance.
Saptu added that he used to hunt for wild boar in the forest but is now prohibited from entering the "protected" forest areas. However, mining companies continue to operate on these same lands and deplete the wildlife habitat. Saptu, along with other villagers has been petitioning the government and the forest department to stop illegal mining activities. His seventeen year old daughter Sunita, along with several other village women, physically stopped the water pumps at one illegal mine and effectively shut the mine down. I was drawn to Sunita, an attractive girl, who speaks deftly, understands English, and belongs to a vocal youth group that has participated in a conference in Mumbai.
Suddenly, Savitri stepped back and shrieked and laughed when she discovered a snake among the sweet potatoes. I also uttered some sounds of surprise and horror. My friend, Seby, immediately proceeded to pick the snake up and stroke it gently before wrapping it around his neck. We all watched perplexed until finally one by one we were coaxed into befriending this harmless sand boa and protecting an endangered species. Needless to say, the experience also highlighted the fact that snakes and people are coexisting in an increasingly threatened environment. We all had a good laugh and the cows were milked to make some sweets for us.
Later that afternoon, Sunita, Seby and I went for a trek through the fields to the mine. Sunita led the way and showed us fields where they grow millet and earth that glistens with black iron ore. Sunita was wearing a bright yellow dress that contrasted well with the grasses in the fields so I started photographing her. Initially she was shy. Then we passed by the "markers" that the mining company has placed to indicate that the land is theirs. Some of the stone posts had been uprooted and thrown to the ground; one post was only half uprooted and Sunita finished the job. We laughed hysterically and continued up a mountain slope before reaching the "pit"--a huge black crater with several trucks inside it. I photographed my companions straddling large black rocks at the edge of the crater and then we started back down the mountain.
As we were walking down, a man called out in English, "Excuse me, excuse me…who are you? What are you doing here? Is that a camera you have with you? What photographs have you taken?" There were two men wearing hardhats and they were following us down the mountain. They wanted us to stop and for me to give them the film in my camera. Seby, who was ahead of us said to keep walking. The men continued to pursue us demanding to know what I had photographed and where I was from and what my name was. Sunita had been holding on to my hand, helping me to negotiate my way down the slope. Her grip tightened as we sped down the mountain. I almost tripped. Seby started answering back: "We are from Saptu's house… come to Saptu's house." The men continued to demand answers and wanted to know who Saptu was. And Seby replied that "Saptu is king."
When we got home, I realized that we were laughing nervously because we were scared. What had started out as an innocent trek through land that had once been beautiful and accessible to this family had become an act of defiance and we had been harassed for it. Philip Neri was there and we continued our discussion about how people are living in Goa. Philip mentioned that his life had been threatened for challenging the mine owners and their activities.
That evening as we relaxed, the whole family, Seby, and I sat down for a dinner which consisted of a heaping plate of rice, some fish curry, some vegetable curry and a nutritious drink made from millet called "Ambil". All leftovers are assembled and given to the dogs and the small cat. The cat was near Saptu's plate and he was giving it small pieces of fish. I noted the difference in how Saptu treated animals and how I'd seen animals kicked aside in big cities.
I was comfortable but exhausted and wondering where I would be sleeping. There are no beds in the house, only straw mats. After we had all finished dinner and gone out to the black cauldron to wash our hands and faces, the mats were laid out and blankets were brought out. Saptu lay down on one side of the main room by the door, Seby and Mohindra went into the storage room and Savitri, the three girls and I lay down side by side on the other side of the main room.
Savitri woke up very early the next morning to get water from the well, milk the cows and make tea, vegetables and millet pancakes for breakfast. People started waking up one by one and going to the well to brush their teeth and have a bath. Sunita's sister Surekha was washing clothes and her other sister Sujata was going to school and writing exams. After my bath at the well, I used hot water to wash my hair. Then, like the other girls, I put coconut oil in my hair before brushing it. Saptu was dipping the pancakes in his sweet tea before eating them and I followed suit. It was delicious! Mohindra had dressed up to go to a job interview for a posting as an accountant so we wished him luck.
Sunita, Seby and I went on a different trek this time. We visited Anil's house and he showed us around his fields. His family had been cultivating rice, cucumber, gourds, chillies, coconuts and other fruit. His family was intent on showing me how the quality of their soil has been affected by mining activities so, after a walk through some wilderness, I watched a boy sink half of a long pole in the earth of a rice paddy. I learned that five years ago, the pole would have been sunk completely due to the soil being very fertile. I was shown medicinal plants and taken to a shrine in the caves. Anil wishes to preserve his way of life and the quality of the soil. When I asked Anil and his relatives whether they knew of any remedies for insomnia or mosquito bites they informed me that they didn't need remedies for either of these ailments. They have remedies for snake bite and intestinal pains. But even these plants are threatened by environmental damage.
I stayed in Muschaurem that evening and attended a village meeting with Saptu, Philip, Sunita and Anil and Seby. People gathered together, talked, and decided to block the trucks transporting iron ore on the roads; they are protesting illegal mining. They've had enough of the silt deposits in their fields, the water shortages, losing their land, and pollution. They started their actions that night and a few days later those mines were closed. I spent a second night at Saptu's house.
I wish to thank Saptu and his family for their remarkable hospitality and I hope to return to Saptu's house for Sunita's wedding, whenever that will take place. Saptu told me that Seby and I were the first "guests" who had stayed in his house; I want to say that Saptu and his family gave me my first opportunity to experience rural life in India. And though the experience was brief, it was educational and inspiring. I'm hoping that people living in rural areas will have the chance and the courage to fight for ways of life that suit them and that are worth fighting for.