With cups of hot tea in our hands, three of us sat on a charpai with silly grins on our faces as Gulabi bai joked about how no one would marry us if we didn’t even know our ‘gotra’. It was only a while when we were exploring the corn fields that we’d bumped into her and ended up being invited into her humble abode. This is Iswal – a place where people confidently welcome strangers into their homes, with a kind of faith that I’ve found only in villages.
Located about 17 kms from Udaipur, seemingly broken only in topography by the Udaipur-Ahmedabad highway that cuts through it, Iswal exuded a unique charm. The first image of this village that comes to my mind is of a single narrow lane lined by luscious greenery, and a middle-aged woman sitting at a distance, dressed in a black ghagra-choli, chewing gutka (tobacco). She was from Abu Road in Rajasthan and was here to attend a relative’s ‘terahvi’ (a Hindu death ritual on the 13th day of demise). We politely refused the gutka she offered us and continued to go further into the village.
Houses – big and small peeked through the foliage on either side. The hills stood silently in the backdrop. The lane then got divided into two, and we decided to take the smaller trail on the right side. With the descent, emerged a different landscape – cornfields on the left and half-built houses on the right. A family was engaged in holding up the entrance gate with ropes to begin the construction of their boundary wall.
Interestingly, a lot of cacti and dry branches formed the boundaries of fields as well as houses along the way. The trail opened up to the highway. On the other side, lay the lowlands and plains of Iswal, and in the middle was Gulabi bai’s home.
Dressed in bright pink, she opened the unlocked door and ushered us in. The house that looked tiny on the outside opened into a veranda where a calf awaited her. After quickly laying down a charpai for us, she washed her muddy hands and seated herself on the floor, eager for a conversation that otherwise rarely came along. She spoke Marwari (the regional language) which was difficult to understand, but eventually, we started to make sense of the tone and expressions involved, along with our hand movements receiving a nod of comprehension – a dumb charade of sorts.
She told us about how she had been living alone since her husband’s demise, sustaining herself and maintaining the entire household on her own. Her days began at 3 AM. She would wake up, clean the house, bathe and then milk the cows. Keeping a small amount of milk that she needed for herself, she’d travel about 15 km by bus every day to sell the rest of it at the nearby town of Badgaon. The fields, too, needed her attention. Post the milk sale; she’d return to plough the fields and pull out weeds in the hope that her crops survive this monsoon. After a few rigorous hours of backbreaking work, she’d have lunch. Before preparing herself a quick meal, the size of which depended on the energy that remained, she’d clean the entire house.
During our conversation with her, she briefly paused to pick up a tiny container kept on a broad shelf lining the wall in front of the entrance. Its contents were difficult to decipher, and while I tried to make sense of the rusty powder, she dipped her finger into it, padded it into her nostrils and took a deep, satisfying breath.
She repeated this four times before noticing the mild surprise on our faces when she decided to offer us some, but again, we politely refused. Then came the questions about where we’re from and if people did any form of ‘nasha’ back there. I think our collective ‘yes’ prodded her to speak further about her addiction to powdered tobacco.
We got to know that it’s a common practice here, for both men and women alike, to sniff powdered tobacco. The nicotine rush produces a feeling of pleasure and gives temporary relief from stress and fatigue, which is why many people become dependent on it, one of them was Gulabi bai. For her, staying awake and energetic to work round the clock, alone, every single day, was only possible through this.
Placing the lid back on her vital dose, she got up to make some ‘chaas’ (buttermilk) for all of us, with the assurance that it won’t taste of tobacco and walked away laughing to wash her powdered fingers. Chaas, in her language, turned out to be tea, and also Gulabi bai’s lunch. We slowly sipped, accompanied by stories of a proud mother telling us how both her daughters are married into families in Udaipur, living a good life; and then showed concern of an elder as to how we’d never get married with our limited knowledge of ‘gotras’ (Hindu family clans).
Gulabi bai was unique – open to conversations, humouring herself, sharing her problems, and most importantly, hosting absolute strangers with a big smile and a bigger heart. Fine lines contoured her face, looking remarkable under a sweaty sheen; her thin frame reflecting years of difficult yet self-made, minimal living; eyes that shone at the prospect of sharing her story with someone new.
The day triggered a different kind of nostalgia. This seemingly simple place, nestled amidst beautiful hills, left me with a multitude of thoughts. Thoughts, binding together new stories with the old ones, to be carried from the home I found here, to my search for another.
*Name changed to protect identity.
About the author: Arunima Pande, is an India fellow, working with SEWA Bharat in Munger, Bihar as a part of her fellowship. She is supporting the teams with financial inclusion and capacity building of Credit Cooperatives.