I sat cross-legged on a mud floor looking around a room, taking in the little trinkets sitting on shelves and the colorful array of posters covering the walls. Beside me sat Sarika, my supervisor and translator at Chirag. She talked to two young boys sitting on the bed. She did not translate word-for-word what all they discussed, but, relying on my minimal knowledge of Hindi and simple observation, I got the gist of what was going on. Most obviously, the kids were excited to have guests, smiling shyly as Sarika asked them about school. We were at this house conducting one of twenty interviews that formed the heart and soul of my summer project (more on this in upcoming blogs).
The children were not the only ones who wanted to participate in an interview that took around an hour to complete and entailed asking about nearly every aspect of the interviewee’s life. Just a few minutes into the interview, with the boys still sitting on the bed, an old man wearing a pale blue shirt covered in holes poked his head into the room. Sarika told me that this was the interviewee’s father as he lumbered in and joined the group on the floor. With him, he brought a large metal plate of green apples. I picked one up and bit into it while the two men and Sarika talked and joked openly. The conversation went on for several minutes, and it became increasingly difficult to figure out what they were speaking about. Finally Sarika turned to me and, in English, told me the variety of apples the older man brought in was called Green Sweet because—you guessed it—they were green and sweet. I told her they were delicious and smiled in the direction of the interviewee and his father. Sarika then asked me how much Honeycrisp apples cost. I gave a figure, which she then translated. Honeycrisps are expensive by any standard, but in the Kumaon region, where fruit is abundant and most always free, the idea of paying over 200 rupees for a pound of apples seems a bit absurd.
I immediately became hyperaware of how the people around me must have perceived me—as an American girl who speaks in English and thinks in terms of U.S. dollars. I smiled awkwardly and hoped to get on the interview, but the old man was intent on sharing something completely unrelated to the list of questions I had in front of me. He spoke to Sarika, and Sarika passed the message along to me: “He says he will never be able to afford to go to America, so he is so grateful to have an American in his home.” At a loss as to how to respond to this unbelievable kind statement, I blushed and tried to somehow convey how truly honored I was to be in their home. The old man grinned, left the room, and came back a couple minutes later with two plates of potatoes and curd. These two particular food items were standard fare at nearly every house we visited, to the extent that sometimes I felt like my project was actually to research which family in the village of Buribuna cooked the best potatoes. If this were the case, the household I was in now would win hands down. After taking one bite, Sarika (a tough critic, I might add), looked at me with a smile of satisfaction on her face. The interviewees’ father had ground the masala himself just moments earlier. This was food that was made with love.
Eventually, we finished the interview and said our farewells. As I stepped through the doorway, I felt happy. Here I was, a complete stranger, who these people could have very well rejected from their home, saying they were too busy or the questionnaire was too invasive. But instead they welcomed me with open arms, showered me with food, and turned an interview into a truly interesting conversation. And beyond this, they were the ones thanking me, the girl who came barging into their house in the middle of the day. This is the Kumoan region.
As Sarika and I turned around to wave goodbye one last time, she clearly was thinking about the old man’s earlier comment about having an American in his home. “That would have never happened in America,” she said matter-of-factly before heading up a windy dirt path and on to the next home.