[This is the first in a series – The Rest of My Family – of pieces that Akshatha Shetty will write for Café Dissensus about her experiences of traveling across rural India. The series will feature photographs by Piyush Goswami.]
By Akshatha Shetty
It was a warm winter morning. The melodious chirping of peacocks and parakeets echoed in the village; and the fragrance of spicy tea and khejri flowers wafted in the air.
Our journey into the heart of rural India took us to a small village, Ransisar Jodha, in Rajasthan. Here we experienced a true connection as we shared an intimate bond with people, who never for once considered us strangers. Our joys and sorrows were theirs. And, even before we realized, our lives had intertwined with theirs; no longer did we feel apart or different — we were one — a part of the same cosmic fabric that made us a family.
As the warmth and unconditional love of villagers greet you at every step, the overwhelming sense of belongingness cocoons your soul. There is beauty in the soothing silence here. After a hearty meal, we set forth on a journey to explore the endless fields.
Despite the early onset of winter, the scorching heat of Rajasthan enslaves every soul. Dust rose and settled like smoke from a dragon’s flared nostrils. Far ahead, we heard the familiar chattering of three Rajasthani women clad in vibrant colors. Their hips swayed to the tunes of the earth, while their shoulders bore the burden of poverty. With pots and stacks of hay on their heads, they made their way to the fields for yet another day of harsh labor.
Golden shrubs and skeletons of trees dotted the fields. The entire landscape was wilting away right before our eyes. After walking for about two kilometers, we stumbled upon a house in the midst of khejri trees. A few men were busy cutting down the branches in the distance.
We heard from locals that there was a huge gathering behind us. Apparently, people from the neighboring village had come to meet a prospective groom’s family.
‘Where is the groom?’ we asked them. A frail old man pointed towards a young lad, who was gathering branches nearby.
‘Woh hai dulha. Abhi charcha chal rahi hai dono parivar main. Dekhte hain kya hoga.’ (That’s the groom. Right now, both the families are engaged in a conversation. Let’s see what happens.)
As we sat under the welcoming shade of a tree, we found hordes of Gujjar women settling in to milk goats. A mother adorned in bright orange floral lehenga (skirt) and red ghoonghat (veil) walked towards us. Her skin resembled the sands of the desert; the rubbery texture reminiscent of her abode in the scorching heat of Rajasthan. Cradled in her arms was the two-year-old angel, Krishna.
Photo-credit: Piyush Goswami
Her bright hazel eyes shone in the sun. We mentioned to the mother that her daughter was adorable. To which she replied, ‘Why don’t you take her with you?’ Her playful smile could not hide the despair and grief in her eyes.
Despite the reduction in female infanticide over the years, the joy of having a boy knows no bounds in comparison with having a girl. However, that doesn’t mean that parents are not attached to their daughters. They love them dearly because one day they will get married and leave. They have to come to terms with the grief of abandonment at some point. On one hand, they wished to gift her all the joy in the world; on the other, they secretly hoped that she was a boy.
Even if people have enough money, they still look forward to having a son in order to multiply their reserves. As the financial situations of the families improved over the years, the practices of female infanticide have seen a sharp decline. In rural Rajasthan, the real reason behind this belief and practice is poverty. After all, these people toil hard every day in the fields and their livelihood depends directly on the mercy of weather and crops. They are buried in debt. Therefore, raising and marrying a girl just translates into more debt. A son, they hope and dream, will at least carry their debt forward and pay it off.
We were also informed that because of the earlier practices of female infanticide, its effects are seen even today. Though there are hardly any women left in the lower-income communities, yet they mourn the birth of a girl.
Poverty forces these families to favor a boy more than a girl because, ultimately, the boys will earn a living and take care of their parents when they grow old. ‘One day, the girl will get married and go away. With her, everything goes including the money. Even if she earns, it will be for her family, not us,’ said Krishna’s father with a smile.
Photo-credit: Piyush Goswami
Oblivious to the fact that her parents lamented her destiny, Krishna was engrossed in collecting pebbles, whilst running amidst a herd of cattle with a handful of grass in her hands.
As we parted ways, the faint memories of a haunting conversation we had with Sunny Bhaiya (who we met in Jodhpur) came to our minds. Once a mother-in-law received a message from her relatives: ‘Mataji ek khush khabri hai aur ek buri khabar hai. Buri khabar ye hai ki ladki paida hui. Khush khabri ye hai ki woh paida ho ke marr gayi.’ (Mataji, I have some good news and bad news. The bad news is that a girl was born. The good news is that she died after a short while)
Though the mother’s love for Krishna was obvious, the grim reality of their situation brought tears to one’s eyes. Through Krishna and her mother, we witnessed the present and future of the daughters in Rajasthan: one is innocent about the reality and the other has been hardened by the reality of life.
[‘The Rest of My Family’: The central drive behind our endeavor and our journey is to travel around the country and find the face of modern India, or the multitude of different faces of 21st century India. Primarily, this journey and this series are a reality check on India’s rural side. It is our attempt to show how we all face similar issues that stem from societal norms, selfishness, and greed. The idea is to have a soulful experience and connect with every individual we meet with sincerity and open-mindedness. To not just incessantly travel through places as tourists, but to make a family and a home everywhere we go. Our aim is to re-discover our connection with the rest of our human family through our travels and introduce the people we meet to those members of our family with whom we are already connected.]
Akshatha Shetty: After two years of trying to fit in the corporate world, I realized that I never really belonged there. And that is how my tryst with writing began. Over a period of time, I understood that not only was I fascinated with the art of writing but it had also become my medium of expression. I joined The New Indian Express, Bangalore, as a Sub-Editor/Reporter in 2010. Undoubtedly, this field has provided me with a platform to not only voice my opinions but also to connect with people at a deeper level. I enjoy writing on art and culture primarily because it is one of the most powerful and pure media of communication we have today. I strongly believe that art is essential for our existence. It makes us believe that there is more to life and gives us hope.
Piyush Goswami: In 2010, I decided to dedicate my life to thought/philosophy and to understand the different media of expression. I wanted to try and live a life, where work is life and life is work. This was after having gone through an engineering college and later tasting the bitterness of the corporate world for two years. Soon, I realized that I didn’t belong where I found myself to be. Khalil Gibran very aptly puts it: ‘They deem me mad because I won’t sell my days for gold, and I deem them mad because they think my days are for sale.’ Growing up, I always saw people debating and fighting over what is right and wrong. That stuck with me. Today, comprehending life seems to be at the crux of my being. To live, experience, understand, evolve and express is what I try to do through different media of art and expression.
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