It's only been two days, but I feel like I have been here for a week. There's something about staying busy which makes time whiz by. Combined with participating in a flurry of activities, the day ends with the mind in a state of chaos. This is my feeble attempt to organize that chaos.
I woke up at 7 something thanks to the persistent honking of what sounded like Amrit's schoolbus. Surprisingly, the noise didn't upset my impatient self. Instead, it gave me time to laze around in bed until the instrumental version of "Dard-e-Disco" blared on my cell phone at 8 o'clock sharp.
I walked up the stairs to wish Taraji a good morning. She had a look of urgency in her eyes. Pragya, she said, I need your help. Come with me. I was a bit worried. We went downstairs and stopped in front of the P.C. Please help me understand how to work with computers. So I did. Today's brief lesson included how to:
- turn on the computer
- open a web browser
- log into G-mail
- delete and spam messages
As soon as a phone call prompted our lesson to end, she hurriedly asked me to type an email for her. I still made her 'Compose' and 'Send'. The teacher inside me lives. We've scheduled another mini-lesson for tomorrow.
We left for Shreeji ka Kheda at 9 am and picked up two people on the way. Kusum is a social worker who has been with Taraji for the past few months. Amitabh is a freelancing journalist cum documentary maker cum a doer of what makes him tick. Taraji had mentioned him a few times before. Manju was a widow from Sultangarh. He [Amitabh] was a journalist without a secure future and he was past the marriageable age. I arranged their marriage. Amitabh claims it was love. Based on how he talks about his wife, I believe him.
The hour plus drive to Kalyanji (another name for Shreeji ka Kheda) was stunning, a vision of nature's enormity and harmony. The land was parched, the golden-brown dirt covered in a garden of foliage-less trees. Their leafless branches creeped out like the gnarled fingers of an arthritic woman. In the distance, tall rounded hills completed the picture-perfect sillhouette on either side of the asphalt road. It was magnificent.
On our way, we were met with many a skeptical glance. Purdah-ed women carrying bundles of dry brush, turbaned men tending to their herd of goats, children with matted hair and crusted snot...their suspicious eyes followed our imposing Maruti. When we reached Kalyanji, we were greeted by silence. Not a person was in sight. After a few minutes of looking about, we saw a woman cracking open her wooden door. She informed us that there had been a death in the village. One less husband. One more widow. One more victory for TB. We had barely arrived and already Death was rearing its head.
Slowly, a group clustered around us. Men on one side, women on the other. I was counting the children. Maybe 6-7 in all. Mostly boys. When some of the volunteers asked about the village, people started speaking at once. There was only one hand pump for water and it was half a kilometer away. No anganwadi existed for the women and children. The nearest hospital was in Baneda, 8 km away. Every month, 1-2 men still died from tuberculosis. There was so much to say, I could hear the need in their voices. Sadly, I couldn't follow their rushed words. Taraji began to speak. Everyone listened.
When you separate the thin sticks of a broom they will be carried away by the wind. Then, their future is not in their hands. But when you tie all those sticks together the broom doesn't move. It is one and all the parts work together. All of us will work to develop your village. We must be like that broom. Many heads nodded in eager agreement.
Nikhil and I were introduced as members of Taraji's grassroots movement. She explained our desire to stay in the village. Was there a room for us? We saw two potential places. Both had a small room as a living area and a large open space in front. Nikhil and I didn't say much. In fact, I remember saying only two sentences in that hour under the searing sun. I spoke in reply to an elderly woman's question. I think she was asking if we needed curtains.
Since most people were working during the day, we scheduled to come back some other evening when everyone would be present. On our way back, we stopped in Baneda where we met a long-time associate and trained saathin of Taraji's. Her name is Shanta Nuwal and she is going to help us in Kalyanji through her twenty-five year experience in rural community work.
When we finally returned to Taraji's place, the smell of dinner tickled my gurgling stomach. I stuffed myself while chewing slowly, relishing each bite. Taraji added a few drops of lime and some sugar granules into her daal. Upon tasting this concoction, I found it to be a tasty addition so I followed suit. For the next two hours we discussed the role Shantaji could play in Kalyanji. For working with Nikhil and I for, say, three times a week she woud definitely need remuneration. Should we write up a proposal? Do we approach AID? After a while, I thought of reaching out to my personal network of family and friends to collect funds. The more we discussed the idea, the more it grew on us. This could work.
If you've managed to read this far, you seem interested in the journey I've embarked on. This is our opportunity to change the face of Shreeji ka Kheda. All the girls will go to school, there will be handpumps in the village, the widows will be self-reliant by earning a living through their skills, personal hygeine will minimize sickness...most importantly, the community will acheive this by working with a sense of togetherness. Interested in being part of this community? What better way to support the work Nikhil and I want to do than by supporting the people involved? Think about it.