Exactly What I Needed

July 11:

Sit in the Kaka-mobile to shake and smack along to the Kantaphod district —two hours. Sit to interview SHG women armed with my Moleskin and pen—one hour. Sit to share roti and spicy sabzi from a tiffin box for lunch—half an hour. Sit on the motorbike to navigate the mud-submerged trails to the next village—half an hour. Sit to interview another group of SHG women, recording the same questions I queried that morning—hour and a half. Sit to input data into a spreadsheet heaving into columns past Z—two hours. Sit to entertain myself at the office while drawing faces of the women I remember—one hour. Sit to trudge home in the Kaka-mobile just in time for dinner—hour and a half.

Sleep.

July 12 (Today):

I woke up at 7 am, restlessness taking no more than thirty seconds to tauntingly lodge into my bones. Days filled with routine and sedentary fatigue have begun to gnaw at my mental fibers, the physical elements having already lost their luster. In a sense the 9:30 am to 7:30 pm days are draining, and in another more tangible sense, they fail to use the fidgety energy curdling inside.

In this unkempt, green lusciousness teeming with uninhabited beauty, my eyes have a sense of limitless freedom to feast upon. But I as a moving, breathing human being feel tied to a multitude of posts. I am tied to other SPS workers to go anywhere, whether to the field to conduct interviews or to the market to buy a Limca soda. I am tied to the fixed one-hour window to eat a meal, as the standard sweet lassi, white rice, roti, and sabzi greet me with their usual sheepish smile. I am tied to my scarf and long pants, the first time on my many escapades around India that I have to confront being a nineteen-year old woman. I am no longer an inquisitive girl learning about another realm but a college aged intern, who could easily have a newborn on her hips if she had been born in this world. I am tied to my typed up questionnaire when I chat with the tribal women. How much land do you have what type of soil what do you grow how much do you grow who do you sell to what price did you get do you sell to the Company do they pay on time… next woman. Repeat up to 18 times per meeting.

I am by no means complaining—it is up to me to find the freedom between the lines to nourish my soul and my legs. I treasure the after-questionnaire free space, when I listen to more detailed answers about the benefits and disadvantages of selling crops to the Company. I ask the women about what initiatives out of their own imagination they would like to see implemented to improve their lives as both marginal farmers and rural wage laborers. They share their expertise in farming with me, as I try to pronounce the tens of tools they use to plough, plant, weed, and harvest. I gush how I plan to have my own farm one day in Amrika and they smile lovingly—crazy, romantic American idealizing the backbreaking work we do to make ends meet! Typical. We joke as women in solidarity, laughing about a fight in the home or the need to cover one’s face as soon as an older man wanders in sight. One hand rushes to cast the veil over your face as the other balances a jug of water on your hips, all the while precariously navigating the mud and cow dung strewn path to your house.

They ask about farming in the US. Do you farm your land? I wish, but all I have is a small garden behind my suburban home. Are there farmers like us in Amrika? A few, but most of the landholdings are of hundreds of acres, where farmers used to spray pesticide with small airplanes! Are you scared when you fly on a plane? I was the first time, but now being so far up in the sky is exciting.

Today, after I interviewed twenty-three women from two different SHGs, I came home, my legs itching for action. Restlessness. The days had begun sliding and slipping into each other and I desperately wanted one to stand out. I grabbed my iPod and my navy Penn baseball hat and fled my room. After walking for half an hour along a narrow dirt road behind our campus, the Shins blaring in my ears, I stumbled upon a family of farmers crouched over their fields, weeding their land with caked sickles.

Namaste! Namaste.

I continue on.

Ayyy! Didi!

I turn around, unsure if they are talking to me or not. I yell back, I can’t hear you! They continue to gesture, so I change direction and walk to their field.

What are you doing?

I joke, I am looking for some fresh air. Bored sitting at the computer typing.

I make a typing motion.

The four children of the family giggle.

They ask me where my village is and I tell them I am from Gujarat. It turns out they just visited Gujarat a few months ago to visit the woman’s uncle. We talk about how their language of Nimadi mixes Gujarati and Hindi and they teach me a few words in Nimadi, as the man plays me a traditional tribal song on his cellphone. I ask the kids what they learned in school today. I watch them weed, incredulously asking how they plan on weeding their entire swath of land with just their six pairs of hands.

It’ll take us 8 days didi, but it’ll get done. Don’t worry.

I ask them if I can help. They grin, oh didi you’re clothes will get dirty!

I laugh, tie up my scarf, roll up my jeans, adjust my baseball hat, and tip toe into the field. Wait. Which ones are the bean plants and which are weeds? The fourth grader tells me which plants to pull and the seven of us weed together, chatting about different kinds of crops.

We weed for an hour, alternating between lulls of patient silence and sharing stories—all of us in a broken Hindi and wild gestures. My hands happily bury themselves in the cool, black soil, as I notice a whole new world of teeming life in the centimeter of dirt near my shoe. The father wants to know more about the training I learn from SPS. He even remembered one of the founding members, Rangu, because he had done construction wage labor to build the campus we live on twenty years ago.

As my watch strikes five, I get ready to head back to the campus. The family shyly tells me to come again, and I promise I will be back tomorrow. My nails caked with dirt and sweat glistening my cheeks, I head back onto the mud road, reinvigorated with the spark I’d been longing for the past several days. Maybe this ritual of weeding will become a routine I truly welcome, a post-lunch pre-chai date with Mamtabai’s family I anticipate with restlessness.Image

We casually stopped by at a weekly market in Udainagar, a village-town half an hour away from where we stay. That big thing in the middle is a jackfruit!

Image

I’m learning how to grind corn into atta after I surveyed a group of SHG women. Let me tell you, this is hard work! These women have so much strength!

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The SHG president managing the finances of the group. The principle on loan of 10,000 rupees had just been paid back. So many Gandhis!

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About Aashna

Hi! I'm Aashna from the Class of 2016. I'm in the Huntsman Program for International Studies and Business at Penn, for which my Wharton concentration is Finance and my area of focus is South Asia. I had a fabulous experience interning at Samaj Pragati Sahayog in Madhya Pradesh during the Summer of 2013. Currently, I am interning at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, where I am working on Housing Policy.