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by Katy Sundararajan
Last week we went to the village where my mother-in-law grew up. Many India villages, including this one, do not meet the standard American perception of remote, rural, and minutely populated peasant villages as described in fairy tales. Rather, Indian villages design fairy tales of a whole new caliber with all manner of vibrant, almost garishly painted homes piling up all over one another and around narrow, twisting streets. The congested roads are littered with tea stalls and chicken vendors (feathers, beaks, and breath still attached), tire repair places, and plenty of Hindu temples of varying size and structure. The shops and the stoops are brimming with people, and are scented with jasmine flowers and the tempting aroma of griddle fried, coiled and pressed breads called parathas. This is pure India, pure like only a single country can resemble its own self. And yet, it is more. It is village style India, where the cocks still crow and the scooters are 20 years old. Here it seems that things have been done only this way for all eternity. I thrill to village life, where slick style and rapid progress take a back seat and people get on with living life the way they always have.
When we pulled up to Ava’s house, that is my husband’s grandmother’s house and the home where my mother-in-law grew up, there was a man standing on the street outside the neighbor’s home. He was ironing clothes on his door-to-door push cart, using his coal-heated iron. Earlier in the morning, I had witnessed a knife sharpener making his way around town, sharpening knives where needed. Village homes still have a skinny ramp up through the center of the front steps so that scooters and motorcycles can be easily parked indoors. The peaceful, daily feel of laundry hanging to dry alongside the freshly swept and washed streets feels like a deep breath of village India to my bustling, busy soul.
I don’t know exactly what goes on when we are not in the village, but I am quite aware of the routine when we are there for a visit. I can guarantee that, upon arrival, we will sit in stackable plastic chairs in a dim, warm room. They will switch on a rotating stand fan, and they will serve milky chai or coffee in stainless steel cups. There will be an onslaught of tasty, local goodies that can only be gotten in or around this particular area. Everyone will have heard that we are coming and so the most curious and bold, along with closer friends and family will stop by to check on how the visit is going and to see how we are faring. I know that beyond the immediate uncles and aunts and cousins, we’ll definitely see “Chicken Mama” (Chicken Uncle,) obviously called this because he once sold chicken. I know we’ll see the cousin who owns the match making factory, a fascinating cottage industry that we got to tour a few years back. To peek into these homes and the small, industrious businesses of our relatives, and to visit the state-funded school where Aunt Esther is a principal is nothing but a gift. To see and experience a life so different from mine has always been a fascination and a pleasure, but to be welcomed in so generously as one of them, as part of the family, is a treat beyond measure.
If we sit down to eat a meal, we will line up cross-legged on the floor with a banana leaf before us, the most eco-friendly disposable plate I’ve ever seen. We will be expected to wash the leaf off with a sprinkle of water, and then watch as the mounds of rice and vegetables, and chicken curry fill the space. The more we eat, the happier everyone will be. It is a special wonder to see my 8 year-old daughter and her cousin bending intently over their banana leaves, eating the rice and curry with their small fingers and delightful appetites. Each adult in the room nods in approval, and some gleefully giggle at the sight. They let us come in and participate in the age-old practices of life with them like this, and somehow they love us for it.
When we finish eating, and while the adults chat, the children go to the front room, an almost porch-like space, the one where the front door stands open, just off the cobbled street. My children and their cousins will rest on the day-beds, or make every possible attempt to climb the rafters and get into some kind of mischief. My husband points out that this is exactly the way things happened when he was a child. Even if you bring a white lady to town, it doesn’t force change.
I have a distinct memory from quite a few years ago now, of sitting by myself on the floor in the middle room of Ava’s house, one that is back by the kitchen and has only a small, high-up window to let in a slant of afternoon light. I was nursing one of my babies. It was quiet in that room except for the sweaty struggle of a baby sucking while mama wears an Indian top and sits on the floor, and there was the hushed din of conversation two rooms down. I wondered then, and I wonder now, about the history I’ve entered into. I’m not the first woman to nurse a baby here, or eat off a banana leaf, or wipe the brow of a rosy-cheeked child. Time and progress impact the village differently. Still, nothing can stay the same forever. For now, it sure feels good to my racing, neck-stretched toward an ever-changing finish line pace to sit in a village home with my family, and do things the way they’ve always been done.
Katy Sundararajan is the Th.M. Program Administrator and International Student Advisor at Western Theological Seminary.