“tarr tarr, tarr tarr, tarr tarr, tarr tarr“, didi goes, describing the rain that followed the onset of her husband’s diseased death. Drooping skin covers her eyes so that I have to squint my own to look into them.
The sun is scorching but her arms are used to it. She is 60, but her life has known only this stony porch as home.
Kumaoni is a tough language to write. The verbal dialect however is flushed with more emotion than technicality. Every piece of information is acknowledged with a “hoy” of understanding. But when didi shares how her day ends at three in the afternoon, there’s nothing I can think of to express my condolences.
Kafra, a small village in Eastern Uttarakhand, is barely visible on the road to exciting treks we all feel destined for. But it’s where the lives of many women like didi are spun.
All that marks its existence is a basic green signboard about 400 steps below its inhabitants – nothing to give away the solidity of the homes built from scratch on desolate fire-prone grounds. The cluster of small houses is built with simple craftsmanship – found warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
I visited this local labyrinth as a volunteer for Mahila Umang Producers Company – a collective of Self Help Groups (SHGs) and producer members providing sustainable livelihood opportunities to thousands of women in the Himalayas.
Women’s days here are spent making their family’s life better, except when the samuh needs attention. This group of ten women sits together then, radiating power that transforms Kafra from a village into a communion. So eyes are dried off, and didi walks in to find a perch on the ground.
Amidst the flurry of calculations and complaints at the annual audit session, she loses her sense of loss for a moment. A bowl of bhujia is passed around and her thoughts drift towards enjoying the bite of the day (quite literally).
In a land where livelihoods are bare minimum and ambition is based on happiness rather than achievement, women find joining hands a sacred way to get by. Dearth is ample, but contentment flows in rivers.
Self Help Groups like those run by Umang Himalaya then become a great channel to imbibe values, yes, but also to make life a little more comfortable by knowing that they’re not alone. There is accountability, but also trust.
This savings and credit system runs in groups of 10-20 women. Each woman saves a fixed monthly amount into the group’s joint bank account.
The interest helps them get by in times of dire need, and monthly meetings to account for the transactions build solidarity among women that are struggling with common issues of daily survival.
The bookkeeper is currently taking account of the loan taken by didi to sustain the cost of her husband’s passing. With no fixed income and the Coronavirus pandemic letting misery hit the ceiling last year, didi’s family took a loan from the same to get by. In such a scenario, each woman willing to act as a guarantor loan her share of savings to the one in need.
This builds a sense of trust in dire straits and a safety net is woven for each other to rely upon. The borrowed money has been paid back to the joint account in instalments.
The women of Kumaon, like many unacknowledged parts of the world, are no different from you and me – with their fair share of gossip and longing to share a load.
But along with the social and moral obligations every milieu is replete with, the culture here comes riddled with terraneous complexity. Lack of employment, low accessibility, and difficulty in fulfilment of basic needs outline the contours of daily living. What seems to set them apart against this backdrop is the bareness of their soul.
All adornments are shed in times of need, and the people come together, all alike in their natural state of survival and drive. From a heap of hassles rises their Sun each day, but they seem to worship it with a smile on their face.
A balance seems to be lacking in the metropolitan culture in contrast. No matter how deep you look, souls are never visible from behind the veils of social reactions. Striving for higher luxuries and meticulous personal goals, the urban lifestyle seems devoid of such basic camaraderie, belongingness, and general fulfilment. Where would Maslow identify us in the pyramid of hierarchy?