"These people are very backward." That was the way Dr. Singh introduced us to the village in northeastern Rajasthan, where, among his many duties with the Center for Development Research and Study, he oversees a small school for girls. We had taken the 3 1/2-hour bus ride through the semiarid landscape of Rajasthan to a remote village in the district of Alwar. "This is one of the most primitive areas of India." His words made me cringe.
The people are known as Meos, and they have lived in this region for 1,000 years. They are proud. They are believed to be descendants of Rajputs--great Hindu warriors of Rajasthan's heyday--and their folklore is rich with stories of battles and victories. In the 12th century, they converted to Islam as a group, and to this day, their culture is an intriguing blend of both faiths. Their language is Mewati, a second cousin to Hindi, once an influential literary tongue in which powerful heroic poetry was written. It's true that the Meos are now listed as one of India's officially designated "backward tribes." But once, they were poets and warriors, and they have never forgotten.
Still, I could not deny that there are problems. The people of Alwar see little reason to send their children to school--especially their girls--and their levels of literacy are among the lowest in India. They are also among the poorest of India's many rural poor. So, as much as Dr. Singh's description rubbed against my sensibilities, I was glad for the small school and the fresh-faced girls who attend it.
One by one the students filed into the courtyard where I and my students sat at a long table. The girls sang for us, put garlands around our necks, and dabbed our foreheads with red--a traditional Indian greeting for an honored guest. Each girl got up and said her name in faltering English, urged on by Dr. Singh.
"The students would love for you to address them in Hindi," Dr. Singh said. I looked at him in terror. I speak Hindi pretty well as long as I'm sitting around a dinner table. I don't speak it at a get-up-in-front-of-people level. Still, I nervously stood and said--or tried to say--something about how happy we were to be visiting the school. Dr. Singh then translated my Hindi into actual Hindi, and everyone applauded.
"The best thing would be for your students to divide into groups, to visit the various classes," said Dr. Singh. My students looked at me in dismay. "Don't worry," he said."The teachers speak English." He turned to the teachers, local girls, none over 20. "You speak English, don't you? You all speak English." The teachers looked at each other anxiously and muttered yes--the kind of answer you give when you're responding not honestly, but the way you're expected to.
While my students went off to classrooms (they later reported that none of the teachers spoke English, that they couldn't understand what was going on, and that the teachers demanded they get up and teach), I was sat down in front of a group of village women who had been gathered together, and who sat looking at me disinterestedly. "You can ask them anything you like," Dr. Singh told me. "Go ahead! Ask!"
I had nothing to ask. I didn't want them to have to report to me about how many children they had or what they ate for dinner, whether their homes had running water or electricity, who they went to when they got sick. I didn't want them to become artifacts to study, objects of my gaze. I tried to think of something to say and found myself feeling blank and paralyzed and colonial in my nice clothes.
Since I no had no questions, Dr. Singh found one for me. "She wants to know why you don't send your girls to school," he said. I hadn't asked that. I would never have asked that. I already knew that the answers are manifold and complex. And, anyway, it was a condemnation, not a question. One of the women muttered something that Dr. Singh did not translate.
Years ago, I spent several months in a village in Eastern India. Every day, I worked and chatted for hours in the women's compound. Day after day, I shared stories and cups of tea, played games, listened to jokes, and helped out with the women's labor in my inept and inexperienced way. I didn't sit on a chair while the women encircled me on the ground, and there was no male authority intermediating, telling the women when to speak, putting words in my mouth.
Giving up on me, Dr. Singh turned to the women. "What would you like to know about American life? Go ahead, you can ask her anything."
The women had nothing to ask, either. A deep, uncomfortable silence fell around us.
"Come on!" Dr. Singh said. He sounded slightly angry, or perhaps simply embarrassed. "Is there nothing you want to know?"
Finally, one of the women raised her hand, as if she were a child in a classroom. "How much milk does a cow in your country produce?" she asked.
I had, of course, not the foggiest notion, but that didn't matter. I don't think she actually wanted to know the answer anyway.
When my students were released from their classroom visits, Dr. Singh went off to make arrangements for our lunch. The children were out of class, and some of the women lingered. We gathered together. We laughed, we chatted, we took photo after photo. My students danced with the children, and taught them games. No one was ordered to ask questions or speak up if we didn't wish. For an hour, we simply enjoyed each other's company.
Causes Jill Jepson Supports
Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Interational Society for the Protection of Burros and Mustangs, National Wildlife Federation,...