“Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true.”
Truer words were never spoken about India. Unity in Diversity is, beyond doubt, the hallmark of our great nation. We are a nation of diverse cultures, communities, languages, religions, ethnicities, climatic zones, food habits, traditions and rituals. Lately, I have discovered yet another form of this myriad diversity – the Diversity of Experience and Lifestyle.
As the new year is about to knock on our doorstep, I have been reflecting on all the new things that I have learnt over the past three months of living in rural India. Till September, I was a frontline officer in a bank branch located in a mid-sized town specializing in SME (Small and Medium Enterprises) services. My day used to be filled with words like cash flow statement, Dollar Rate, forex markets, inward and outward remittances, and exports and imports. The computer screen took up better part of every working day, and weekends, such as they were, used to be spent in supermarkets and malls. Now I am living and working in a school in rural India. To say that life is radically different here is a huge understatement.
Being in rural India gives one a firsthand look at a lifestyle that cannot even be thought of in cities. Here I have no television – you read it right, no TV, no refrigerator, no laptop, no personal vehicle. The only air-conditioning I have is natural. Internet connection is erratic; please do not trust advertisements promising 4G connectivity in the remotest of remote areas. This place is not so remote and you may get 3G if you’re lucky. Even BSNL cannot assure proper mobile connectivity at all times. There are certain spots where you get just enough signal to make a call or two. Calls drop if the breeze blows too strongly. The nearest landline telephone may be five kilometers away. The road – which happens to be a state highway, I’m told – is in a state of perpetual disrepair. The nearest bank branch is ten kilometers away; the nearest ATM, seven. Only one bus connects this village to the nearest town, fifteen kilometers away. This bus makes only one trip per day. Dependence on the largesse of those owning two-wheelers is extraordinary. Failing that, you just have to keep postponing your trip and making do without whatever it was that you needed urgently enough to make a trip.
In cities, we continue to live our lives, blissfully unaware even of our neighbours, let alone unknown communities thousands of kilometers away. In rural India, people are close knit in a way unfathomable to us city-bred persons. This close-knit nature shows itself in an ever-present geographic context: people see one another every day, multiple times. If I am not around for even a day, the bhabhi (sister / relation) across the street will ask if I was all right and if I needed anything, and I have to give her the full rundown of what I have been up to since she saw me last.
Cities are all about noise and traffic. Commuting takes up to four hours per day, mostly with nothing but headphones for company. Countdown to the green light at traffic signals causes as much breathless anticipation as the last over of a particularly close T20 game. But here in the village, traffic, if any, if ever, is caused by herds of cows and buffaloes meandering from one point to another. My commutes now involve leisurely walks within a kilometer-radius. Long walks are reserved for when the weather is right for it. Travel by vehicle, any vehicle, is rare. Usually, days and weeks go by without my setting foot outside a set path in circumambulation, touching the places I go to on most days.
It’s never really quiet in a city. No matter the time of day or night, there is always some ambient noise – traffic in the distance, late-night TV, people talking, fans whirring – all sounds that are so intrinsic to city life that we don’t even realize they are there until they are not. Night falls quickly in a village. The day comes to an end when the sun goes down, which is rather early this time of the year. By seven in the evening, sleep is ready to take over. In cities, I would not even have left office by that time. At night, every little sound is magnified. Every barking dog seems to be right outside your door. Every drop of water dripping from a faulty tap two houses away seems to be indicative of a leak inside your house. Train horns become audible even though the nearest railway station is 20 kilometers away.
Here, everything and everyone is familiar. The sights, sounds, smells – the daily routine of village life is known and predictable. Sudden changes are infrequent and rarely voluntary. For someone used to the fast-paced rigors of city life, where one has to keep running just to stay in the same place, this new pace is intimidating, difficult to adjust to. Suddenly there seems to be too much free time and no idea what to do with it. I have begun to see how fluidity and uncertainty, so embedded in the urban landscape, can be daunting for someone who has lived all their life this way.
Comfort has a very different meaning as well. In cities, we take ‘comfort’ to mean modes of relaxation, such as malls, movie theatres, restaurants and amusement parks; taking for granted the essentials of life. Cities are spoilt for choice. Here, in villages, it is not so. Having access to potable water all round the year is a significant luxury. Electricity and power back-up is another such treat. Access to good quality education, at school as well as college levels, remains difficult. People learn to make do with little, and anything extra is a comfort.
Having said that, and without attempting to romanticize the rustic quality of life in rural India, I have to say that life really is beautiful here. Flowers and butterflies abound all around me, and the starry night sky is an absolute delight. There is very little pollution. We do not want much, and learn to accept and enjoy what we do have. I feel connected with people, with the community at large. The sense of disconnect which is a major cause of stress in city life is not present here. People are readily accepting of someone from another part of the country who does not know their language or culture and is living and working amongst them. In the few months that I have spent here, I have become part of the landscape. I feel privileged, and grateful.