Our minds have the ability to almost instantly visualize the words we read. Pictures are recalled from memories that have been built with experience and knowledge. ‘Clear blue ocean’ might remind of you a beach you once visited, or a wallpaper.
So when I first heard about having to go for a two-week rural immersion stint, you can imagine the kind of pictures my mind generated. Chickens running amok from one hut to another with in a landscape predominantly brown, with both human and animal feces chilling out in the open. This rather grotesque image is drawn not from experience but from television and the internet. And this was without incorporating the fact that the stint would be in Madurai, a place I knew nothing of.
The flight landed close to pastures too brown for my liking, and I just thought of it as the first of many sighs to come. Thirty kilometers later, we went from one outskirt to another through the city, and arrived at our accommodation. It was almost two kilometers inwards from the main road, and was adjacent to a village.
It was basically a hostel without television, internet and air conditioning. Not something urban folk are used to; not for two weeks straight. Of course, I don’t imply this to be some form of heroic act of sacrifice to save the world. But change is change, especially one that is enforced.
The compound was actually quite scenic. Though at first the lack of urban amenities might induce sighs, this also meant an unobstructed view of nature. Other than the greenery and the hills that surrounded the compound, my favorite part was a rocky hillock close by to our hostel. The weather was our friend for almost the entire two weeks, with manageable humidity, cloud cover and breeziness.
The geographical term would just be a rock. This was a rock the size of a four-storey building. There were stairs carved into it for visitors to climb. It is undoubtedly one of the most serene spots I’ve had the fortune of experiencing. Of course, it is one of fifteen zillion sunset points. But the reason I loved it was because it allowed you to feel complete solitude. To be one with nature. Picture this.
There you are, atop an oddly shaped rock, just the right amount of high – neither too safe, or too dangerous. Neither too quiet, or too loud. All you can feel is a gentle breeze caressing your hair, your face, your soul. Spin around, and you will see a panorama of hills and farms with the sun gracefully setting; much like those paintings you drew as a kid in school. Lie down, and you can see the stars through pollution-free air, as they were meant to be seen. You realize as you gaze into infinity, and your eyes defocus, that the sense of time is all but lost, and a sense of wonder begins to engulf you like a warm blanket.
The first time I entered the village was with an understandably nervous state of mind, thanks to a lack of experience and hyperbolic expectations. As we all walked on the trenched road so characteristic to villages, the ‘vanakkam’ was obvious. But the sheer humility in the eyes of those who met our delegation caught me off guard. Such was the manner of their clasped hands, and the tiny lamp they’d lit to welcome us auspiciously.
God is a great leveler. Whether you’re agnostic or an atheist, when you see someone mark the beginning of your rural stint with prayer, or your first steps in your village with a tilak on the forehead, you cannot help but feeling humbled. Though you won’t see the point while taking off your footwear before entering any place, the fact that everyone does makes the difference. In that moment, there are no distinctions among anyone. The national anthem gives me the same feeling. And that is why respecting the sanctity of these rituals is so important. They remind us who we are as a species.
Their hospitality extended to offering us snacks and tea, and once even to getting us coconuts and guavas fresh from their plantation. At all times we communicated through a translator as they only knew Tamil. The villages we visited were not doing as bad as one might think. All of them have cellphones (some even two), a TV and a two-wheeler. Proximity to proper medical care is the one thing they could all use.
One disappointing thing about this stint was that I doubt the villagers knew our true purpose – which was simply to learn. Seeing a bunch of guys come, talk and take notes might’ve very well made them hope we’re the harbinger of some good to their lives. Well, our intentions weren’t wrong but come on. For most of us this was probably the first and last visit to a village. Do I want to eradicate poverty? Sure. But am I going to dedicate my life to it? Probably not.
Barring a couple of times, meals were not something I looked forward to, because sambhar. Considering our rural setting other cuisines weren’t available readily, so sambhar. So we were basically caught between a rock and sambhar. (By sambhar I mean all generic south Indian dishes that were part of most meals)
Remember the predominantly brown picture in my head? I could not have been more wrong. Green sparkled proudly in every direction I looked, especially during the village visits. Every step you take is one into the unknown, so when you are welcomed with hilly landscapes and flourishing groves, it seems to have been conjured out of nowhere. You didn’t expect that mangrove to make you feel like it did. Or that line of coconut trees. Or the sugarcane plantation. How could you, you’ve never seen them, smelled them, touched them.
All in all, my image of rural India and that of Tamil Nadu has changed forever. Things are not as bad as I thought, but there is always room for better. The work done by DHAN foundation to facilitate microfinance and the ease of taking loans via self-help groups for such a vast population, is just immense. It’s disappointing how little urban India has heard about them, as inane news keeps on vociferously trending.
Of course, I left in complete excitement about the return to urban life, but I am ever so grateful to the people of Madurai, and my employers for arranging this visit. I came to rural India rich, and left richer.