Subcontinental Drift: Chapter Eight - Diyatra (The Village People)

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July 12th 2008
Published: July 21st 2008
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The Real Chhalani ResidenceThe Real Chhalani ResidenceThe Real Chhalani Residence

There is no place like home...
The Thar Desert is selective as to what lives or dies and what flourishes or withers. Make no mistake, it has the final word. It is a flat, featureless plain of low, bristly scrub. The Chhalanis and I roll through the Thar in the Chevy hatchback. Conversation among them concerns either business or family. I stare fifteen miles into the distance and no changes in the landscape. I cannot help but fear what would happen if a vehicle broke down and there was no assistance.
The sixty-kilometer ride permits the family to question me. After having explained the writing portion of my journey and where I would like to take the project, Mrs. Chhalani was not getting out of the car without a few bold words for me with respect to how I should write about India. “You know, many foreigners come here and say bad things about India.” I did not ask her to elaborate and kept silent.
Yes, they do. And in many cases, for good reason.
“But India now is a good country. There has been much change. People in India are happy. They love their man and love their culture.” I had no particular issue with the
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Another look...
facts as she saw them. Yes, India is a good country. Yet if allowed to get away with that gross generalization in the positive, one could not get a complete and accurate picture of the country. The problem I have with Mrs. Chhalani is the how convenient her words were given the financial security with which she is surrounded. “In India, you do not need money to be happy. People are OK here. You need to write only the good about India. Too many people come here and only see bad.”
I cannot and will not tell half of the truth. It’s not fair to me and it’s not fair to India.
If she is willing to assert the foreigners’ myopic take on her country, is she at least willing to concede that India and its problems are unlike those of where we come from in the West? Mrs. Chhalani made her arguments in the same firm manner as she made me breakfast, matter-of-factly and without too much room for debate. I let it go. I still like the woman. She is tough, speaks her mind, and knows where she stands. Behind the rough veneer is a lady who has
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The pride of the Chhalani backyard...
selflessly sacrificed much for her husband and children.

Our time in Kolyat couldn’t have lasted twenty minutes. Mr. Chhalani made it a point to stop there and escorted me to the lake where Hindu pilgrims ritually bathe. Three young men call out to me to join them. I call back to say no, but thanks. Pure kindness and sincerity came through in their offer. Bearded sadhus, or holy men, are available along the promenade of the tranquil body of water. The one we passed was fixed in a contorted yoga position. I tried to determine not only how he got himself into that entanglement, but how he would escape. This man is a human model for a Bavarian pretzel. There was very little business on this sultry afternoon. Easily forty years my senior, I cringed to think of the agony I would go through just to lift my foot towards the back of my ear. It wouldn’t move very far.
Kolyat is a peaceful spot. Mr. Chhalani and I arrived at a temple, made an offer, and descended the steps back to the car. On the way, he showed me carvings of Hindu gods and explained their significance. It
Mr. ChhalaniMr. ChhalaniMr. Chhalani

Showing and sharing his home...
took little time for me to conclude what little I had grasped about Hinduism and religion in general in India: It will take enormous chunks of time just to gather the information, and years longer for it to sink in.
Wherever the both of us walked, we were followed by beggars, invalids, and the despondent. Does Mr. Chhalani see them and part of the landscape? When I got into the car, one wretched woman incessantly tapped on the side window for my attention. I rolled it up. “Just look away” one of the family said inside the car. “It is all you can do.”

When on the road from Bikaner to Jaisalmer, take a left about fifty kilometers into the trip. Divert through a dusty town as we did. Cut through the back roads and cow trails until another paved road appears. Take that for another ten minutes into the far limits of Lost. Once you have reached Lost, turn off the road, again to the left. There you will find Diyatra and the first real clues to figuring out India.
In Bikaner, the Chhalanis reside in a house, a great big house. But it is not their home.
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Not exactly macaroni salad, hot dogs, and chips in the park...
Diyatra is where the real Chhalani home is. The best way to describe the feeling of being with them as we entered the open-air front patio is to go back to my days of weekends and Christmases in Saratoga when I would awaken to Egg Beaters, toast with peanut butter, and a tall glass of orange juice. People walked to where they were going, be it the park, drug store, or to the neighbors. We never did anything noteworthy. Family sat and talked over coffee for hours and were perfectly content. We as children played on the back porch or occupied ourselves outside with oak twigs, acorns, and a garden hose. We had no worries. There was no agenda, no place we had to be. Nothing mattered. Saratoga and Diayatra have a great deal in common.
Mr. Chhalani and I often conversed in a side sitting room where photos of past family hang on the wall. Where the wall meets the ceiling a bookcase has been inserted in which dozens of volumes are stacked, some in English, some in Hindi. One of the servants arrived with a humungous air cooler, something I would expect be manufactured by Pratt & Whitney
I'll Order...I'll Order...I'll Order...

Let's see, I'll have the super value meal...with extra fries and a milkshake. Then again, maybe not...
for Singapore Airlines. That and the ceiling fan did enough to combat the afternoon’s solar assault. Classes have been let out for the day. One in the family is an English teacher. When he sits down to greet me, he stretched out on the mattress like everyone else and makes himself feel right at home. I could not help but make the comment, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Nehru?”
He laughed and that brought his eyes away from the map he was studying of the United States stapled into my notebook.
“No, not really.” He really got a kick out of the comment. Others, even Mr. Chhalani, peered at him to see if there were any common features between the two men. I thought there were despite his very broad, black-rimmed plastic eyeglasses. His dress made him appear just like India’s first prime minister.
We both chuckle at the common frustration we share in bringing a class to order before commencing a lesson. But the differences are far more prominent. “Do you get much respect from your students in America?”
I couldn’t answer quickly enough. “No, absolutely not. I think our students are very disrespectful. Teachers
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I'd like someone to caption this image for me....
do not command the authority you might come to expect.”
He was disappointed, but not surprised. He proudly commented, Here, I am respected all the time. Mind you, they do not give good salaries. But in the village, students greet me, touch me at the ankle. Even when I travel by bus, former students from thirty years ago give me their seat so I do not have to stand. They are always happy to see me. They learned from me. It is hard to learn out here. People do not forget their teachers, ever.”
In my job, the reward comes in a different package. But I was now convinced that the purity of the reward for educating a child in India blows away anything I have had the chance to experience in my classroom. I privately longed for the same sensation he has felt: a simple admiration and acknowledgment that he has changed the lives of others for the better. Where I work, this still remains a distant and rarely realized fantasy. I, the well-to-do, highly educated and successful American, envied this humble man. I wanted to be him for just one day.

There was much commotion in the
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The perfect end to a memorable day...
kitchen. A pot sat over an open fire in the open oven. Tiny flames trickled upward to heat the kitchen tool most would associate with an exhibit at the Mark Twain House. Mr. Chhalani found me. He is never that far off. “Come with me before you wash up for lunch. I want to show you.” We walked alongside of the home to the back and he opened a gate to an animal pen. The Chhalanis raise three or more different species of cattle. He is as proud of them, as he is subtle about everything connected with Diyatra.
“All for dairy?” I asked. This was unquestionably one the most mindless question I had asked since collecting my bags at the airport in Delhi. I regret having posed it to the strict vegetarian Hindu.
He did not take my stupidity as a slight at all. “Yes, very good production!” Together we watched the cattle roam but saw two different things. He saw milk, curd, and ice cream. I saw top sirloin. “Come! Lunch!”
The entire family dines together. There is no kiddie table for the younger ones simply because there is no table. We all took a seat on the
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The sack easily outweighs its porter...
floor cross-legged. In front of me was a bottle of water, a glass, and an empty, steel circular tray into which my meal would be served. My first course was one of two pasty balls of flour and corn meal. Mrs. Chhalani dropped them on my tray. I looked left and right for utensils, but fortunately said nothing. My utensils were projecting outward from the palms of my hand. She took note of my prolonged pause and confused stare at what I was about to eat. I was about to eat the leftovers from a Play Doh set that had the consistency of cookie dough. Down it went - not great, but not bad. The rice, soup, and green chilies that followed were no obstacle. In a short time, the family stares and giggles at me ceased. Silence took over and all concentrated on their repast.
As the last servings of rice and dhal were finished, I suppresed the laugh I so wanted to let burst out. It wasn’t at the family, but in a way with them. I had forgotten about the way Indians express their satisfaction of a well prepared meal. I had heard about it so many times. First it was Mr. Chhalani who burped, then the women in concert, followed by everyone else but me. The family covered most of the notes on the musical scale, including a few flats and sharps. Not a single excuse me, or gesture of embarrassment. They were brash in their gaseous releases. I couldn’t burp. I mean, I could have, but my own upbringing forbade me to belch. Maybe it would have been better if I had downed a liter of club soda; that would have supplied me with the proper fuel. In the end, I thanked them repeatedly for the vegetarian buffet.
As in any proper culture the next activity after a huge lunch on a blistering afternoon is my favorite of the day: the nap. And as with many systems around the world, the men retire to leave the women to pick up after them and chat in another room. Mr. Chhalani opened arched timber doors at level with the mattress in the sitting room. A breeze rushed in. My knees still stung from being locked in place during lunch. With a pillow between their heads and shoulders, the four men who had dragged themselves from the dining area were asleep.

The Chhalani home faces an open area, almost like a plaza in Spain. It is one of the first solid dwellings that form part of Diyatra proper and one of the first to be seen when entering the village. Homes here are by no means earthquake proof; cracks and crumbling exteriors threaten them. But compared to a city, the edifices are sturdier, in better and condition, and even cared for. One on the far side of the square is a split-level domicile of pastel mosaics and Brady Bunch square tiles. Red and white ceramic hearts decorate the space between two sky blue front doors. Anywhere else on the planet the home would be an eyesore. Yet somehow it fits in perfectly here.
I was the first of the four to awaken and sit up. A solitary cow disappeared around a corner. I decided to follow it. The bovine brought me straight into the village center. Actually Diyatra, like most Indian communities, has no true center. But this is where the rest of the village was recharging following their afternoon rest. As I approached Diyatra’s shops, I took in the different styles of homes. Many were of cement or concrete, solid, and shone in the sun with a recent coat of paint. Others were cubed in shape, tan, and entirely constructed of cow dung. Some homeowners had even taken the time to carve in diagonal and triangular lines into the hardened and odorless dry manure walls for esthetics. Shops were open and carried the daily consumer goods villagers require. There might not be a Super Stop & Shop nearby, but nothing was truly lacking. When stopping at each shop or stand, I could ignore the dozens of pairs of eyes that had honed in on me. A handful stopped at the sight of me, a pale man in khaki shorts, stylish sunglasses, and a t-shirt that informs the masses that America Runs on Dunkin’. Some of the villagers froze as soon as they saw me. Many more approached me, disregarded my personal space, called out, “Hey, Mister…Hello!”, and grabbed my hand to shake it before I could open my fingers to receive them.
I took shelter at the local Chemist shop. The chemist’s shelves were completely disorganized. The medicines did not make sense. Packages had been opened and seals broken all over ripped and scattered cardboard boxes. Without speaking, he motioned me in to take a rest and pulled out a plastic chair. He made sure it was directly under the ceiling fan. More men gathered behind the counter, but I was assured the best spot. I told all of them as much as I could about me through one man whose English was sufficient enough. His boy came running to the counter from across the powdery street with a frigid Pepsi, opened it, found my eyes with is. I stood up. With much effort, he succinctly said, “This is for you.”
I took it from him and said thank you. None of the others had anything to drink. I had already learned not to even bother trying to pay for it. A Pepsi goes for fifty cents in India, a good amount of change for these folks. Humbled and completely aware of the selflessness of these people whose generosity far exceeds their means, I drank the icy soda and savored it. It was the best I had enjoyed since I cannot recall.
More children came and went. Tens of them, even scores of them ran up to say hello or peep at the outsider. I captured the chemist’s attention and wondered about the selection of pharmaceuticals he had on hand. “Do you have morphine?”
“Yes, a little.” Interesting.
“Ciproflaxcin?”, God’s gift to travelers with Delhi belly.
I ran off five or six other drugs, exhausting my knowledge of the science. He had them all. Not only that, he knew precisely where they were although I was sure a tornado had come through the shop an hour ago. Better yet, the prices were cheap. People could afford to buy what they needed to relieve themselves of pain, inflammation, and other types of discomfort.
Cattle passed as did several unbound camels. A man in an orange turban herded one docile spotted cow past a water pump with a short twig. Boys played by the local well; it gushed with life-giving water, always on the minds of Diyatra’s residents. Its flow drives the village’s vigor and personality. In the broiling serenity of the village, a greater warmth is derived from its populace. There is no trace of tension or stress anywhere.
The Chhalanis own about fifty hectares of arable land. They farm groundnut and peanuts. With much pride did Mr. Chhalani show me the kitchen of the meager farm house. Nowadays, it would hardly suffice for livestock. “This is where my father used to cook for me. And this”, he beamed, “is our land. Rows of peanut sprouts shot up from the surface. I confirmed with Mr. Chhalani that the land produced more than one harvest a year. Winter does not shut down growth. Crops keep surging upward.
A team of farm hands manually walked up a wooden plank onto the truck bed. Each man carries on his back over two hundred pounds of groundnut in each sack. The load is so massive that the diminutive men vanish under its burden. I am amazed at their endurance. None grunt or whimper. All keep up the pace. Some smile at me while I film them. Though hard to believe, I get the sense they enjoy their work. They exude a cheerfulness that I could not. They seemed happy to be there. I have never seen perky and glad farm workers tending crops in the States. I worked on a tobacco farm for a summer and it was depressing. There is absolutely nothing gloomy about this farm. The first one who I captured on video insisted I send him the video; he wanted to show his family.
I walked off alone into the field of peanuts and watched the sun dip between the clouds and the horizon. I leaned against a thirty-year-old tractor and the concept of freedom entered my brain. Who is more free, me or them? They worry about little and are delighted with what they have. They smile infinitely more often than I do. No one from outside Diyatra tells these people what to do on a daily basis. Very little of the world has intruded into the lives of these people. The same could never be said for life in Connecticut. Though penniless but never poor, people in Diyatra flourish in a freedom that no Constitution can deliver or guarantee: the freedom of peace of mind and caring about others.
The farm manager insisted on driving me back to the entrance gate on the antique tractor. The sun was gone and the ride through the Rajasthani farm with barking dogs in chase was delightful.

Indians identify themselves via their village. Without having come to one, you have not seen the nation’s heart or its genesis. Ask any Indian about their village and they say that is where they go to go home. Life might be more uncomfortable there, but it is far sweeter and much more wholesome. The village, in essence, is where life makes sense in India.
Foregoing the village is akin to a man who has amassed all earthly material possessions, but has no one with whom to share them. It is an empty feeling. India is incomplete without a fair amount of time to absorb the rhythm of village life. The time I spent in Diyatra was much too short, but it did make me realize it is the key to opening the door of the puzzle of India. It does not, however, bring me any closer to solving it.

Flashes of lightning lit up the desert floor on the way back. Some of them held on for more than two full seconds before ending. The five of us in the hatchback were tired and thinking about getting back to Bikaner. Mr. Chhalani asked from the back seat to me in the front, “Do you like your time in India so far, Richard?”
“Yes” I replied honestly.
“You have seen much.”
“Delhi, Agra, Jodhpur…all good?”
“Yes, sure. But there is one thing.” I immediately recalled the words Ganpat professed. He was right. I had no idea at the time to what degree.
“And that is?”
“Today was my first day in India.”


23rd July 2008

Welcome to the real India :-)

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