While I was contemplating on how long to keep my hand still Shantaji called the NREGA-in-charge of Kalyanpura and Shreeji ka Kheda. She called to see if he would give the women March 6 off, post 2 pm in order to attend the Women's Day celebrations we were organizing. He agreed.
Was there anyone Shanta Nuwal did not know? Everywhere we went she was greeting with gracious "Ram Ram"s. Many villagers knew her through the Nuwal family's kerosene business. Moreover, a tenant of hers was the person who gave salaries to NREGA workers and pensions to widows. In fact, two of the women on the tempo were coming from Baneda after collecting their NREGA salaries and widow pensions. It was comforting to know that amidst the dreadful corruption there were still some systems that worked.
We decided to visit the nearby village of Kharolia Kheda. Turns out it wasn't so near after all. A woman was heading in that direction. We followed her and ended up spending an hour at her isolated farm. Stepping through deeply creviced dirt and avoiding thorned branches we finally reached her home. The door was a wooden brush of thorns, branches, and wire, fashioned into two thick gates which the woman opened by lifting and dragging the man-made bush.
The woman lived with her two young boys and an older girl. They owned two bigas of land which cultivated a fruitful crop of cotton, methi, jeera, wheat, and brinjal, amongst other things. We roasted a cluster of freshly sickled wheat stalks in a makeshift fire. I helped crush these stalks, rubbing them between the palms of my hands until tiny toasted grains clunked into a steel plate. As a delicious breeze cooled our resting bodies we chewed handfuls of these crunchy treats. "We had a good crop this year," the woman said, "worth Rs 45,000." They were doing well, this woman and her kids. I refer to her as "the woman" because this whole time she didn't tell her name and we didn't ask. It wasn't important.
We left the woman's abode feeling fresh and walked some more. After about forty minutes we reached Kharoliya Kheda. For a while, Shantaji spoke with the master of the local school as he regularly popped his head into the classroom to bark at his chatty class. He had left 40 kids in a room by themselves. Clearly, this man was an outstanding teacher. But I digress.
This village was too far from Shreeji ka Kheda and Kalyanpura. We couldn't expect the women here to walk an hour just to attend a celebration with people they didn't know. Hence, it was decided that we would focus our efforts on SKK and Kalyanpura only.
Back in Baneda Shantaji introduced us as people who had lived abroad and wanted to "fix" a small, neglected village. . The admiration in the listeners' eyes at the mention of "foreign" quickly turned into horror and surprise at the mention of "they will live in that village." It was as if the latter made us more alien than the former. The "why" is harder to explain than I imagined. The concept of forcing oneself into a foreign reality is not easy to grasp.