Monday, August 15, 2011

Mamachya Gavala Jau Ya . . . After 25 Years

For the benefit of non-Maharashtrians, Mamachya Gavala Jau Ya is a popular Marathi kiddy song about taking a train to visit your Mama (maternal uncle, mom's brother) in his village. The reason for invoking the song in the title was my visit to my Mama's village, also my birthplace, last week. I was visiting after 25 years. I stayed there for a couple of days — time I spent in going all over the village to see how old remembered landmarks have changed (or merely appear different) over time.

Some thoughts and observations from the trip:
  • In some trains, the 3AC compartments are way better and modern than the 2AC ones. A case in point was the 3AC compartment of the Sewagram Express from Mumbai to Nagpur. Having failed to secure 2AC tickets, I boarded the compartment with some trepidation, expecting people squeezed together and was pleasantly surprised. The same train on the return journey, two days later however had older and less swanky compartments.
  • Nothing prepares you for some unexpected changes and additions to a place you are seeing again after 25 years. Sindi (Rly.), the village I was visiting, is still small (you can stroll from one end to the other in about 10 minutes), but it now has concrete roads. Even the smaller "gallis" are concretized.
  • I derived much enjoyment from directing my uncle the way to his home. For kicks, after receiving me at the railway station, he asked me if I remembered the way. Since the journey was in near darkness (the Sewagram Express reaches at 04:40 in the morning) it was also great fun to point out to him and identify barely visible landmarks — "That should be the sawmill . . . those structures over there must be the granaries . . .these buildings are new, but that one tucked in there is the school . . . oh well, this is totally changed, but I suppose this is still the village bus stop. . . " Then seeing my uncle's face I stopped in front of his house but pretended to be confused which was the door to his home. The house had changed so much that the confusion could look genuine.
  • One thing that journey from the railway station to the home taught me — If you are visiting after 25 years, people expect you to be lost and take pleasure in it. For the next two days, I played the "What has happened to the village I knew" role to the full hilt. A point to be noted, 25 years is a long time — time enough for landmarks and things change, but not enough to be completely erased.
  • Some things do change completely. There were no longer any cattle or other livestock on the streets. The streets are now completely taken over by motorized vehicles. Any cows, goats, chickens and other assorted animals I saw either were in the fields or confined to their pens and coops.
  • What is it with villages and early mornings? For the two days I was there, I used to be up, showered, and breakfasted by 08:30 AM. At home on a holiday or even on a Sunday, it would be sacrilege to be out of bed before 09:30 AM. After waking up so early, and having a lot of time on your hands, there was little choice but to accompany my uncle to his daily visit to the village's main temple.
  • The Hanuman mandir of the village is really "very, very old." But no one knows exactly how old — "It was here even before I was a child," said the temple's ancient priest. "When was that?" "Hmm. . . I don't know . . . before Independence . . . I remember going to Gandhiji's ashram in Wardha when he was there." I remembered the path to the temple very well but had surprisingly forgotten it's most distinguishing feature — the temple housed a rare two-headed swaymbhu Hanuman idol.
  • When you are visiting after 25 years, there are a lot of social calls to be made. In a village the size of Sindi, this was usually in the form of my uncle being hailed from a window or a shop as we walked along the "main street." I soon realized that most of the greetings were to satiate the curiosity of finding my uncle with a stranger. And once memories were sufficiently jogged, it always resulted in a cup of tea. Refusal was not on the cards for that always resulted in the standard "you city folk find the tea of our village below acceptable standards" dialogue and other variants of it. I had way too many cups of tea. 
  • One such cup of tea was with an old tailor who hailed my uncle and me from his workshop as we passed by. The tailor later, as we were sipping the tea (and I was somnolently watching the sleepy market place), claimed that he had stitched my clothes when I was little more than a baby. This could be true, for he claimed that back then he was the only tailor in the village.
  • In many ways, the village has changed for the better — concrete roads, a few more schools, and even a college. The village has become a sort of a hub for the neighboring villages. There were of course some things that I would have preferred not to have changed. Many of the old style houses have made way for the ugly brick and concrete boxes that somehow only we seem to design and build. And the small river at one end of the village has now become a weed choked and sewage filled nullah.
  • Farmers are big gamblers (and optimists). Their entire livelihood is a gamble — Indian agriculture and especially farming in Vidharbha is highly dependent on the rains. If that wasn't a big enough deterrent by itself, many farmers (and this is while farmer suicides are still common in Vidharbha) still gamble on cotton. Cotton prices a few years back had sky rocketed to Rs. 6500 a quintal on the back of a global demand due to crop failure elsewhere. Today the typical Vidharbha cotton farmer still gambles on the price reaching the earlier giddy heights (and using the money to wipe off all his debts). These days cotton sells, if at all it sells, at around Rs. 2500 a quintal.

  • Cotton, even otherwise, is a labor-intensive and an investment-intensive crop. It needs regular weeding and care, frequent doses of insecticide, pesticide, fertilizer, pruning, etc, etc. To top it all, if it rains once the cotton balls are ready to be picked . . . A great many farmers have switched to other alternatives — tur dal (yellow pigeon peas), onions, soya bean (soya bean apparently is largely a "sow and forget" kind of a crop, requiring one dose of fertilizer and one spraying of insecticide).
  • Farming too is highly politicized. Going by my uncle and the few other farmers I met, the local "native" farmhands are the laziest of the lot but have a lot of political backing due to the born again "sons of the soil" movement. The best workers are the migratory ones from the south and north of India (and now some even from West Bengal in the east) who work twice as hard and are cheaper. But a preponderance of "other" workers in your field can be "damaging" for your crops. This actually is one big reason why many farmers are moving away from labor-intensive cotton. The Vidharbha cotton farming problem, I feel, will eventually be solved not by writing-off the farmers' loans, but by banning farmhands from other states completely.

  • Sindi railway station has a couple of platforms that are at the level of the railway tracks. You basically climb-up into the train or climb-down out of it — something I had realized after having to stumble down the train's steps on reaching there early morning. The platforms are also short in length. From most of the train compartments, you climb down to the tracks and then pick your way in the darkness towards the lights of the platform. But it was on my way back, I realized just how small and laid back the village and its railway station is even today. Six trains halt at Sindi daily of which only two will bring you from and to Mumbai. After darkness, only the lights in the main station building are switched on. If you have a train to take, you inform the station master, who then switches on all the lights along the platform a few minutes before the train arrives. The same person will also courteously come over and tell you that the train is expected in the next few minutes. I boarded the Sewagram Express on my way back again. I was the only person to board the train at the station. 

  • I think I have had my fill of village life for the time being in spite of all the fresh food, green farms, etc. I would find the village in some ways claustrophobic if I were on an extended stay. Life is centered on too few things — and these days the one biggest thing is television. Even when you meet other people, television and local politics are the main topics of discussion. Time weighs heavy in your hands — an hour, feels twice as long and I realized I am not as laid back as my friends make me out to be. I also realized I am too much of an Internet addict to stay in any village for an extended time — well at least not till it can guarantee me a good broadband connection. Till then a couple of days every now and then is good enough for me.

  • Pictures from the trip: Photoset | Slideshow

    1 comment:

    Susan Alexander said...

    Mandy, this is a lovely post! Struck a chord with me as my dad also came from similar roots (the village is now a town thanks to a famous church in the area that was built on land donated by my great great grand dad). But though I used to go regularly as a child for visits, I now have few links with the place and have not been back for several years.
    Yes, I'm also too much of a city person to appreciate village/town life in that sense (though the scenic beauty of the place is quite high, being situated on an island). But the place does boast an internet cafe, a few small hotels, etc and all this is only because it is situated right on one of the main highways which brings in a lot of traffic from outer areas. And of course, the houses there are beautiful mansions/independant bungalows because of all the Gulf-returned money.
    You should come down South and see this as well as the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu.
    Gosh, time to plan another trip after reading all this. Wonder where I'll go to next!