The heart and soul of India

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Flag of India  , Rajasthan,
Friday, July 31, 2009

For centuries the "western" culture tended to romanticize nature as a place of purity, authenticity and harmony - starting from Rousseau's idealized "Noble Savage" to the romanticized view of American Indians. In its modern form this tendency translates into an idealization of life in rural areas in developing countries. When the western eye sees workers on rice fields or a Yak-drawn plough on the Tibetan Plateau, it first and foremost sees the momentary beauty of the scene rather than a monotonous life of back-breaking labor. I'm aware that people around the globe move to urban slums for a reason, but after spending two weeks traveling from village to village in rural Rajasthan I’m right there with the other romanticists. I do feel I took a look behind the modern fašade and got a glimpse of what Gandhi called the “heart and soul of the country”. Rather than my usual thorough investigative analyses, this entry has more random subjective observations.

1.       Chucky, the most popular doll of Rajasthan

As part of our assessment we had a doll on which ASHAs were supposed to demonstrate how they examine babies. Now Chucky looks more like he’s designed in 1930s Germany rather than rural Rajasthan. (Clear case of anemia as ASHAs concluded). He definitely stole the show – and was even kidnapped once. An old lady grabbed him and ran off with him… I don’t know what happened to him, but I swear he looked even paler when they finally found him.   

2.       Atithi Devo Bhav-"The Guest is God” and should be treated like a deity

This Sanskrit verse stemmed from the ancient Indian scriptures that codified the social norms. Every time we came into a new village or made unannounced home visits with the ASHAs, we had people bringing chai and cookies, when we were waiting on the street someone would rush to get a plastic chair, and random people urged us to come to their home and have dinner. Language was definitely a barrier, but a soccer game during a monsoon shower or collectively pushing a car out of a mud hole can be great substitutes for verbal communication.

3.       Political ambitions

I don’t have any. But if I wanted to launch a political career one day, I would go to boot camp in rural India. Chuck Norris may have counted to infinity (twice), but I bet there is no one out there who has held more babies in two weeks time. I ended up with breast milk on my clothes and was peed on more than once, but I think there is nothing more amazing than holding a 3 day old baby. Not sure the babies thought the same judging by the pictures…

4.       Gender issues

Gender inequality is a big problem in rural India. Most women we talked to got married before age 12 and received little education. I got the impression that no matter where you looked, I could only see women working – fetching and carrying water, working on the fields, etc. – while men were busy discussing issues over chai or posing for my camera.

5.       The rough beauty of rural Rajasthan

The LP describes Rahasthan as the “microcosm of Mother India… warm people, glitz and camels, soulful music and glittering saris”. We saw the less glitzy side of the dessert state… the countryside with its dusty plains. It definitely had its own charm… especially during sunrise and sunset, but it’s definitely a rough no-makeup-beauty.   

6.       I saw a monkey pulling a pigs tail… definitely one of the most obscure scenes ever.

7.       Rumors

We were definitely regarded as a novelty and our appearance did cause some agitation. We had two local newspapers writing about us… I never got to read the articles, but I have an inkling they didn’t take the “Norms of Journalistic Conduct” too serious. In one little town all the stores were closed because according to the word of the street we were government officials controlling licenses and more than once we met ASHAs that were literally shaking because they thought their job is on the line. (The word of the street was that this international team plays it all nice and hands out cookies and pencils, but their true agenda is to fire low performing ASHAs).    

We are now back in Jaipur writing up the report that we have to present in Delhi in August. It's pretty exciting... I get to run regressions and found some killer t-values (in case any of you needed proof that I'm a nerd). 
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