After a sleepless night, I was not looking forward to the day but things improved as soon as we took the detour towards Manglabadi area, veering off the town road into the villages. The town of Jaigaon is noisy, dirty and largely charmless but the villages around it are beautiful. The rains make sure that there is plenty of verdure and the people not only look astonishingly fresh, they also have the open hearts and friendly smiles that village people are known for.
We traveled on rough village roads, which looked strangely white in the sun, past little huts of bamboo and wood, some on stilts; a public bathing place where the women looked up at us unabashedly; fields of maize, orange and gold; and often, the mountains of Bhutan were visible in the distance.
(I realized later the roads are so white because they consist of stones and gravel rather than mud and these are continually washed and eroded whenever it rains. In fact, during heavy rains, many of these village roads cease to be roads and become streams instead.)
One of the first communities we visited was the Khokla settlement (or basti) at Deorali. A quiet lane stretched out next to betelnut plantations; people squatted outside the huts cooking; children played; goat kids grazed. The jeep stopped outside a house and a delicate-featured girl wearing a nightdress jumped in. Her sinuous arms were encircled by armlets. She talked animatedly in the mellifluous Nepalese language. Later, I found out that the women often wear these night dresses while working in the fields; they are cheaper than pants and more comfortable than sarees or salwar kameezes.
As I met more people from the settlement, I was struck by how strong and free the women looked. They told me about the forestation project they are working on; they are growing about two lakh trees on 35 hectares of land. Some of them also work in their own farms and on a dam-building project. These women are strong and used to hard physical labour.
I don’t know what it is about them that fascinated me so much–possibly their free, unselfconscious mannerisms, their apparent contentment, their fresh faces and easy smiles.
I went back to meet them the next day. I had told them that I would be taking photos so some of them had dressed up for the occasion. I spent about two hours with them, chatting about their lives, children, loneliness and living in equality with men.
For this had struck me about them–that many of them live alone (their husbands work in Bhutan or other far-off places) and they seem to share responsibility equally with the men in the community, along with a relationship of easy laughter and camaraderie. I asked them what the secret of their equality was. They thought it was probably because they worked alongside the men in the fields and confidently said that they would not stop working for anything.
They told me why they like living in the villages–because they are close to nature, and to their friends. They laughed and said such friendship is not possible in the city. I agreed with them.
Then they told me they were educating their daughters in the hope that they would work in offices in the city. But you like the village, I pointed out. Yes, but we don’t want them to do hard physical labour like us, they said.
They have a strong sense of dignity. They told me about another reporter who had come to visit them and gone into their houses, asked them how many people lived there, how many rooms there were. They did not appreciate it, naturally. Why should this be hard for journalists to understand? Why do we think it’s okay to barge into the homes of people and make an obtrusive, obnoxious nuisances of ourselves just because they are poorer than us?
Their pride in their work was also evident. They wanted to be photographed in the fields with the saplings they planted last year.
Later, we sat in the fields, in a close circle. They asked me why I didn’t have children yet and nodded understanding when I said I was scared it would curb my freedom and mobility. There were hurried whispers and Leela, one of the younger girls, was sent off. She returned with two glasses and a large kettle from which she poured orange squash for me. I was touched by the hospitality. She had obviously been instructed to run home, make squash and transport it to the fields in whatever vessel she could find.
When I was leaving, they asked if they would see me again and I nodded while thinking to myself that it was unlikely. Unbelievably, I felt a pang. I thought of them long after the car had left them behind waving and smiling.
Is it possible, I wondered, that somehow thousands of miles from home, among these village women, I had found something like friendship? And yet, their world is totally different and I am nothing but an interloper. Perhaps, it is all a question of relative differences. Among women who have grown up in more or less similar circumstances, I expect to discover similarities and notice differences more. Here, where I expected to have nothing in common, I was surprised by the number of ways in which we are the same.