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Published: July 15th 2008
A veritable mini-mansion...
Mr. Chhalani and his son were there to meet me on the platform as promised. The father speaks in spurts. If you haven’t gotten to know him well enough, you’d think he has a crabby disposition. His deceptive irritability conceals an unconditional, yet forceful kindness. Hanging out with the entire Chhalani clan is an exercise in tag-team hospitality. Once one of them is done strangling you with generosity and consideration, he runs to the corner of the ring and slaps the hand of a brother or the lady of the house; on comes the next to smother you with more. In the end with the Chhalanis, resistance is futile.
Their newly built, custom-designed mini mansion is indicative of the name they have made for themselves in Bikaner. Yellowing newsprint still sticks to walls above doorways where trim work needs to be finished. A decorative pool out front has yet to be filled. Nearby, the Chhalanis have parked two motorcycles on which they cruise around town. In a surprising act of modesty, their main vehicle is a Chevrolet hatchback, new and a perfect fit for the harshness of Bikaner’s streets, with their dips and potholes. Through the front French doors is a
Just Outside the Gate
Home and street are different universes...
spiral staircase leading to three spacious rooms upstairs. Each room has a balcony the size of a back porch for the average suburban home in Connecticut. Everything looks and smells new. By nature they do not show off; their house does it for them. Four steps outside the gate is an open sewer ditch and a cow searching out a meal. A harmless, smoky, yet intentionally set fire of trash of diminishing flames smolders quietly.
Two family businesses have assisted in bringing the family to where they are today: tea and wool. Those involved in tea travel between Bikaner to the far end of India in the state of Assam. Tea is harvested, dried, and packaged on site, then shipped to Rajasthan for distribution. “So,” Mr. Chhalani insists upon handing a sample of packages of tea set to go to a wholesaler, “now you will come to Assam with us and see the tea fields and the mountains.” His tone is one that calls for compliance and little debate. “It is easy: We go to Delhi, flight to Assam, then we travel ways by car. You come with us, yes?” I’d be lying if I didn’t seriously consider the offer.
Deep into wool in the summertime...
A few things are holding me back. I look for a way to change the topic because I know he is serious. Madhukar and Kiran have sent me here to meet the Chhalanis, and now I know why. It is not because of their wealth or means, rather it is they all are genuinely good people willing to share what they have with others.
Mr. Chhalani and I walk inside together and to the left on a wide cushioned platform sofa is seated a tiny woman of very advanced age. Her name is Jethi, Mr. Challani’s mother. I ask her her age, but her grandson tells me that is not a proper question. My slight was not offensive because many women in India are not insulted to reveal thier age. It is just that no one has a precise number to offer. The going guess is that she is about ninety-five. Born well before Partition, no system of record keeping can be referred to. It’s anyone’s guess.
Her family has always been there for her. It’s how families do things in Rajasthan. Happy in her silence, her children see to her comforts and needs. Her frail, bony body has few
Mr. Chhalani surveys operations...
demands. She rarely speaks. When she does, her full set of striking teeth shines against her pecan-colored, wrinkled skin. To send her off to a convalescent home would be unfathomable. Family sticks together in Rajasthan. They do not forsake each other.
Mr. Chhalani offers me a seat on the platform sofa. “You see, my Mom has a daughter, then she daughter, and then…” he went on to list the family progeny until he talked about a little girl of five years. I retraced his words back to Jethi. I called her out by name. I got a smile from her, the kind which is infinitely more satisfying than words.
“Wait a minute, that makes,” and I counted: one, two, three, “how many generations? Four?”
“No, Richard. That is five.”
I recalculate. “Wait that makes the little girl Jethi’s…”
Wow. I pause and process. I cannot ever recall meeting a great-GREAT grandmother. Better yet, this woman is alert, has all her faculties, and can carry on a conversation with me, even if through an interpreter. I looked at Jethi’s frame, all seventy-five pounds of it. Amazing, I think to myself. Mr. Chhalani observed how exceptional this is to me.
Sadhu in shade, but few wish to consult him today...
“Richard, some Rajasthani families have six generations alive.”
Many years a widow, Jethi was married for seventy years. Seventy! Her arranged marriage at the age of eight made this astounding statistic possible. I turned to her admirably. “Seventy years married?” I told her. A family member interpreted. The shriveled assembly of bones and bulging eyes focused on my face and let out another infectious smile.
That is beyond me. It is may as well be going back to the days of Lincoln. I turn to Mr. Challani, “Do you have a photo of all the ladies together?”
He cannot answer positively. “I do not know. Perhaps this would be a good idea.”
My mouth fell open. “Uh, yeah.”
The second business in the family is yarn, woolen yarn. Mr. Challani took me out to visit his brother who runs the Packworth factory. The operation is simple, and evidently profitable. Raw wool comes to the Port of Bombay from all points, though primarily Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and China. It is cleaned, sorted, stretched, and finished into long strands of yarn. The final product is sold throughout India and made into carpets. From start to finish, the raw
Jethi...looking and feeling as good as ever
wool is converted into carpet yarn in four days for an output of twenty metric tonnes a month. The yarn is not dyed, rather shipped in white or a natural cream color. In operation for twenty years, Packworth employs forty full-time workers who perform menial tasks I’d hope by now machinery could handle. Either that is not the case or it is more efficient for the men and women to do everything manually. The work is steady, for which they are grateful. It is also grueling. Rajasthan in July is not ideal on the body. Women sit on the ground immersed in unrefined wool chest deep and sort the itchy fibers with their fingers. Even in the shade it is near one hundred degrees. Can anyone come up with a more undesirable task than to pull apart wool in the Indian desert during the summer months? And don’t be silly enough to ask if there is air-conditioning for anyone. A young toddler waddles round near her mother busy on the job. The atmosphere is stifling, dusty, terribly repetitive, and the factory naturally smells like a sheep farm. Intellectual stimulation does not enter into the equation.
I arrived unannounced and many of the workers were unaware I was there until I stepped around them from room to room. None were miserable. Many smiled at me. Some waved. I asked them to run the monstrous machinery for me to demonstrate each task. They did so willingly and without complaint.
It is easy to presume that conditions in far away countries are inferior to ours and I can buy into that statement. We throw around the word sweatshop so often the impact of its meaning has been lost. But Packworth’s employees are not suffering. They are not unhappy. When I asked them if they liked their job out of the sight of their Chhalani superiors, all replied in the positive. I got no inkling that there was any strife. Would the U.S. Department of Labor shut this factory down if it were in Oregon? In a heartbeat. But it was I who did far more of the sweating and showed far more discomfort than any of the workers.
Mr. Chhalani suggested we head back to the car. “We go home. We have lunch and then we go to the village. Come.” We scrunched into the hatchback. From the moment I arrived, the Chhalanis interjected the word village in much of what we discussed. Little did I know how the link between village and family in India is eternally inseparable.
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