Raju's Ancestral Village
My driver is a Brahmin, born into the hereditary class of Indian priests. He gently coaxes our small white sedan through an enormous mud puddle and sounds his horn at a doe-eyed cow sauntering lazily through the middle of the road. We've been bumping and weaving for nearly four hours on our way to visit his village. The road narrows and the vegetation thins with every mile that clouds up in the dust behind us. Raju's smile sparkles as he looks at me in the rear view mirror. "We are very close now. You will meet my grandfather soon."
Soon, I think to myself, can mean a lot of things in India. Raju hasn't been to see his grandfather in over two years, so next week would still be "soon" for him, but the road can't get much smaller and still be passable. The car's air conditioner keeps the heat at bay, but the glass is hot underneath my fingers. The sun, high and bright in a washed out sky, pulls the color out of the land, leaving it a dusty brown. Thin trees stand as far apart as they can from each other, tentatively clinging to tiny leaves at the end of their bony branches.
"That woman is gathering firewood for her kitchen," Raju explains helpfully as he nods towards a wispy figure on our left. She is barefoot, veiled in a bright pink and yellow sari which strains to hold the bundle of sticks she carries under her skinny, dark arm. She pauses to stand motionless, alone in the distance, watching us as we pass. As we work our way over the last few miles to the village, I try to calculate how long she's been out there, and how long it will take her to make her way back.
Eventually, a few small mud brick structures rise from the side of the road. First, low walls surrounding empty, dry fields, then higher walls with tiny, dark, glassless windows and doors made of found wood and lashed together with grass. Raju squeezes the sedan between the houses, inches away from either side. He follows a boy and a goat through the narrow canyon with equal parts patience and persistence.
Through a break in the walls, Raju points to a cluster of dark skinned women and children in bright saris and whispers, "they are the Dalit. Next time we will visit them." Untouchables. "They are very poor."
The road widens into a small plaza near the center of the village and we pull to a stop in front of a white windowless wall. "We have arrived. This is my house," Raju announces, beaming with pride. The coolness of the car clings to my skin for a few seconds as we emerge, but it quickly dissipates into the thick, super-heated air. Tiny pearls of dew well up on my skin as Raju knocks on the door and we wait for it to open.
It doesn't take long for a crowd to form around us, Raju chattering away to everyone and wagging his head in that mysterious side to side wobble, unique, apparently, to the Indian subcontinent. He seems to be saying, "Yes, no problem. Whatever, it's out of my control, as it will happen. Don't worry," all it once. A quick survey of the growing crowd turns up only warm smiles, all eyes on me.
Across the plaza, a group of 5 thin men, all dressed in white, sit cross legged facing each other and playing cards on a veranda just large enough to hold them. One of them rises reluctantly, grasping a stone pillar as he straightens and begins to slowly shuffle towards us.
By the time he reaches us, the crowd is about 20 strong. "This is my grandfather, the village priest," Raju says by way of introduction. The man is smiling warmly, eyes sparkling. He unlocks the door and we step through into an open courtyard, followed by the rest of the crowd.
To the left, two rooms open directly into the courtyard. On the opposite side, two goats rest in the shade of a narrow roof of thatch. At the far end of the yard is a covered archway, just deep enough to shelter a wooden-framed rope bed and beyond that, another open courtyard. Just visible through the arch, a scraggly sacred Tulsi plant grows, watching the sky for signs of rain.
We step through the quiet chatter, weeds, grasses, broken bricks, posts and worn patches of dirt. A door, frozen now and no longer attached to the exposed hinges that once held it, guards a room at the far end of the small yard underneath a crumbling roof. "This is where I was born," Raju informs me with his ever present smile and strikes a pose so I can take his picture. "Carefully, carefully," he warns, still smiling, arm stretched towards me as I make my way just a little closer.
After many offers of tea, we begin our tour of the village, starting with the tiny temple that the grandfather cares for. One day, Raju tells me, when his grandfather and father are no more, he will return to this village with his family, give up his worldly goods and continue to care for this tiny temple himself until he, also, is no more and returns to the dust of the village.
Just across the street, we pass through the gates of what turns out to be the abandoned quarters of the local Maharaja, the royal prince of the village. Like the majority of the village, the stone walls are crumbling. Major portions of the roof have collapsed. We climb narrow stone steps to the second floor, gingerly testing each foothold as we go.
"I always like to think that when I was coming to earth from the heavens, I was aiming for this place so that I could be a prince, but I over-shot by just a little bit and so was born as a poor man instead." We all laugh.
A little further down the street, we pass an open door and just inside, two men and a woman sit surrounding a third man, who is screaming in pain. One man is pulling his outstretched arm while the other two hold his head and shoulders, all of them rocking back and forth. Nobody in our crowd seems to take much notice, but a few steps later, Raju explains that this is the doctor's office and that someone has broken his arm and the doctor is setting it.
Eventually, we find our way back to the car and drive it a short distance to a school on the other side of the village. From the trunk, we collect the pens and notebooks we've brought and carry them through a gate and into a courtyard where we find about 100 uniformed students sitting in neat rows on the ground, girls on one side, boys on the other, under the shade of an enormous tree. Before them is a delegation of teachers, school officials and local news reporters who welcome us with garlands of marigolds, short speeches and sporadic applause. I can't make out exactly how they knew we were coming or who they think we are, but clearly, we are regarded as honored guests.
One by one, each row of students rises, steps to the front and each greets us, receives a pen and notebook. Most of them respond by reaching down to touch our feet with their fingertips, then quickly touching their heart and then their forehead. In this way, I am told, they ask for our blessing and having received it, they return to their seats on the ground. Almost to a child, they smile at us, without a trace of cynicism or coolness and I am struck by how beautiful they all are.
As small as this village is, hundreds of children walk for miles from the surrounding countryside to attend the schools here. They are neatly dressed in clean blue uniforms with dark pants or skirts and white pressed shirts. Most of them have never been to a movie theater. It's been two years since the village received electricity for the first time, but we saw only 3 or 4 radios and not a single television.
Raju's goodbyes unfold slowly among tears, hugs and chatter. Eventually we find ourselves making our way slowly out of the village, through the tight winding canyons of houses, past the homes of the Dalits, through the thin forests of trees, past the checkpoints and small shacks and finally on to the concrete highways, filling with trucks as night starts to fall. My hotel is still several hours away. Raju is quiet. Maybe he is thinking about the day he'll return home for good.