The initial throng
We were expecting a crowd of forty, sixty at the most. I was pleasantly surprised to see more than a hundred women packed on thin carpets. Of course, there were the crying infants and hyperactive pre-adolescents. Young men clustered by a railing, curious as to what the hustle was all about. Another group of older men sat in the corner of the Kalyanpura school. The crowd was charged with expectation.
Even though March 8 is International Women's Day we decided to celebrate the event two days earlier with the women of Shreejia ka Kheda and Kalyanpura. The programme was scheduled to start at 2 pm, but a few hiccups delayed it by an hour. For one, two of the special guests hadn't arrived. To make matters worse the microphone wasn't functioning as the power went out at 2. In fact, it goes out daily at 2. Knowing that prior to the event would have been nice.
Finally, the guests arrived: the Sarpanch Ram Singh, the female Pradhan Pushpaji, her husband Gajraj Singh, the Baneda Sarpanch Usha Vyas, and Manju Bidawat, a long time friend and supporter of Taraji. Manjuji too has a story, but we'll save that for another day.
The programme was inaugurated through a ceremonial dia lighting followed by the garlanding of the guests by myself, Nikhil, Savar, and local women. At one point, Taraji called Nikhil and me up front, and we were told to garland each other. That was embarrassing, but the villagers got a kick out of it. I'm pretty sure Taraji thought of it on the spot. Bah.
Once the garlanding and speeches ended it was time for some fun. We directed the women to the school's open groups where they formed a circle. One by one, a few of us pressed red kum-kum on each forehead, symbolic of a bindi. Married women are allowed to wear bindis, widows are not. The kum-kum was a symbol, erasing the status of widowhood.
Nikhil threw a ball to one of the women. What followed was a giggle-saturated game of catch. Some of the older women sat out and smoked beedis. Others cradled infants on one hip and watched. Taraji organized a race in which each contestant held a spoon in her mouth, balancing a sweet batasha on it. As races mostly go, the idea was to walk quickly to one end and run back to the starting line. The younger girls led the way, but the older women weren't far behind. A tug-of-war between the "grandmas" and the "granddaughters" led to similar results; the teenage females were more participatory and displayed a great deal of enthusiasm. A few older women held their end o the rope, but most of their aged peers stood by. Maybe it was shyness. Or maybe their joints ached, I don't know. At "1, 2, 3, Go!" the rope snapped in two. The granddaughters clearly won.
A constant flurry of activity made it challenging to smoothly transition from one activity to another. A group of school boys had joined the party and discovered discarded flower garlands. They proceeded to rip the petals out and throw them high in the air. Someone ran behind the boys, shooing them away. Nearby, volunteers were pushing some women to join the games. Another group of women were chatting amongst themselves. Others were rushing to and from the supply room. It was a busy schoolyard. Slowly, the woman began to leave; about forty remained.
Suddenly, a few of these women burst into song. It was a high-pitched harmony of coarse, cracked voices that beamed of confidence. They sang many songs, one of which was a raunchy number about newlyweds. I was pushed into the circle of singers, their wide grins and swaying hips teasing me in local Mewadi dialect.
The dhol played its crisp rhythms and they danced. It was off-beat and awkward, but it was beautiful. They swayed and swept their arms, twisted and turned their hips, bounced and banged their anklet-jingling feet. The men in the corner of the school cast disapproving glances. One of the older men came up to the women and chastised them. Our women shouldn't dance like this, it's not appropriate. He was duly sent away. Only later we discovered the source of his discomfort.
Before the event came to a close, each woman and child dipped her palm in red or yellow dye, and stamped her hand on a white sheet of cloth. The purpose of this activity was to visually show each citizen's commitment to the betterment of their community. A medley of red and yellow hands filled the fabric. Lastly, each woman was handed a sweet motichoor ladoo.
We packed up and headed out, seeing the school corner men still discussing some matter. Not to be rude, a few of us went toward them. They were grouped around a pile of dead pigeons, about twenty of the birds already swarming with fliers and crawling with ants. The men told us that two men from a different community trapped the pigeons under a net and killed them. Since pigeon meat is extremely "hot" it is fed to victims of paralysis. The men sitting in the school caught the two hunters, who managed to get away. However, they left their rented bicycles at the school. This meant their identities could be figured out. Earlier, the elderly man had been upset at the dancing women due to the death of these animals. It's not right for women to dance during death. Nevertheless, the women weren't responsible for these deaths. They deserved to celebrate the one day in a year dedicated to them. And celebrate they did.