Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, India, Spring 1986
Realizing that the weeks left remained few in which to pursue research in India, I hurried through the morning routine. While scrubbing the long white socks, made longer if not whiter with each washing by hand in the bucket, I pondered priorities. Should I ask Professor Josephine more questions about the year-old Mother Teresa University for Indian women? Or take notes from those two resources on village life? Then too, another scan through the library shelves might be even more productive. “What if . . .” recurred. What if a strategic book waited, begging to be discovered. That decision would recur while walking over.
“Good morning,” Saimary.”
“Good morning, Ma.”
“Sorry that I’m in your way here. I’ll get this bucket emptied in a minute. Since yesterday was so cloudy, I had more items to wash today.”
“That’s OK, Ma.”
“Perhaps John could go over the menus for today with you. . . the shopping list, while I finish in this sink.”
I unrolled the sweatshirts and slacks from the towels, picked up sunglasses and a couple dozen clothes pins that inevitably separate and banged through the narrow door noting the ever-more sagging plastic green clothes line. Maybe I should just pattern the Indian way and spread it all on the ground or on the tin, corrugated roof. But what about rust? And who could trust the mangy dogs that roam—let alone Tripod the three-legged one—to trot other than right over it? Hopefully, today’s shower will stall at least until Saimary returns from the bazaar.
After writing a few reminders on the fellows’ dorm blackboard and checking that lights had been turned off, I emptied the waste baskets and gathered items for my shoulder bag: an orange and a Cadbury’s bar; the ever-reliable, pint-sized water bottle first packaged in France and purchased in Hong Kong; manila folder of notes already taken on India women—a focus on dowry increasingly sure; sun visor in case of heat and umbrella in case of downpour; plus camera in case of picturesque view.
“I’m off to the Women’s University again, Saimary. Don’t count on me for lunch.”
“O.K., Ma,” she responded with her ready smile. “It won’t rain today.”
“Sure thing . . . here’s my umbrella. It’s a handy walking stick for coming back up hill, you know.”
With fond memories of her first trek over to the Women’s University with Saimary, who had lived 22 years in this South Indian hill station, showing the way, she left. One way, that is, since there’s always more than one path for getting anywhere and back when going by foot in this terrain.
Saimary had seemed pleased to add the task of being “Ma’s” guide, though admitting later that since “Ma walked so slow,” her return from shopping to make lunch was delayed. Making that comment she giggled, and with characteristic, demure gesture, covered her mouth.
The half hour trek together had been pleasant. When traffic—Public Carrier trucks, Ambassador cars, or other wheeled cycles—collected at a curve or narrower part of the road, she followed in behind her Indian friend and family cook. And when meeting a stream of water or newly dropped cow mound, each angled around or over it without interrupting conversation. Seeing the stream of water, neither a gush nor trickle, I asked if Saimary’s family had a good supply. Even though the bulk of noisy, summer tourists had not yet arrived in the hill town, Saimary reported that the water supply was decreasing. Many local homes had access to it only two or three days a week. Then, if no family member were home to bucket it, the supply was bypassed.
Do you also boil your drinking water, Saimary?”
“Yes, for 20-25 minutes like you do, the lake being so polluted.” Meeting group of women, each one carrying only a piece of cloth, I asked Why? “They’re headed out to forest areas,” she explained. Clustered a half dozen or more, from perhaps the same region of a small village, they walked, usually barefoot Going a considerable distance to gather and stack the load of twenty-foot-long limbs, they knew the day would also be long. Mid-to-late afternoon the caravans of lightly trotting women could be seen headed the reverse direction, one hand raised to help balance the bundled pounds atop her head.
Of what were their necks made, I wondered. With only that cloth, wound round into a six-inch disc, each woman protected her head and bore the burden. At least she bore the burden, a scene hard to accept. I felt shame, helplessness and most of all anger that women like me were so utilized. Even more, that they accepted the role as fate’s demand. The only consolation—a few rupees earned—in order to survive.
“Could you balance a load like they carry?” I asked Saimary.
“I doubt if I could without training. I’m just glad that I don’t need to, that I get to cook for you.
I wondered if headaches were constant or long-since ignored for those women. While some carriers avoided eye contact, others graciously smiled from that fulcrum point. The picture remained of see-saws in succession, kept more-or-less horizontal. Of such was a procession that no passerby dared to tip—one end or the other—to startle the carrier or dislodge the load. Each woman’s eyes told a story, or held one captive behind the lid. Eyes spoke of sadness or eagerness, of pride or pleading.
Colorful too that train of carriers. In saris of solid colors or soiled prints, the women gracefully moved. In spite of loads as long as tall ladders, their hips—scant as they were—swayed rhythmically. And their breasts, also scant, kept their hidden beat. Headed downhill, momentum increased, ankle bracelets gently jingling with each step. Knowing what household chores awaited each on her return, little could they afford to dawdle. Never did I begrudge them occasional rest stops. Loading or unloading, they helped each other, propping their stacks at thirty-five-degree angles against a stone hillside.
Saimary seemed glad to point out her own home—“there . . . across the valley, that little cottage with rows of corn growing nearby.” I wished to meet her parents or more of her eight sisters but right now they needed to hustle on to the “back side” of the main hill, beyond Munjigal bazaar. “Up there on the left is my church,” she said with pride.
“Oh, ya . . . Roman Catholic?”
“Yes, St. Paul’s” which prompted comments about Christianity in India, a minority—fewer than three percent of the population. Although Saimary’s family has had several generations of Christian connection, she recalled accounts of people who chose to change loyalty from one of the more predominate faiths, such decisions usually being complex.
I told her about the Hindu procession that I had seen the day before in the bazaar. It had a relatively small following compared to festival occasions, but plenty of candles, drums, greens, and chanting. Such events added color to an ordinary village, to anyone’s day. Merchants and shoppers paused in their transactions to watch. Drivers, if they did not move on first hearing the drums beat, waited. Even bicycle bells remained silent. And buses, overloaded with people and produce, accepted that limit to their kingship on the road.
Passing squatted sellers of vegetables, sweets, cloth, and more, we came to the back side of the hill and continued our descent. At one “Y” point, Saimary stopped to inquire about directions with a merchant dispensing sacks of flour. At dinner that evening, she asked whether my late return had been due to her missing a turn, there being more than one path more than once. “No, the library books were just too exciting.”
Now, as I left the apartment and school gate at “Seven Corners, I decided which route to take. Confident that intriguing activities or scenes would present themselves, I chose the main bazaar this time. I stopped to take a picture of the friendly, yet shy, workers in the Cottage Craft shop then paused to permit a lazy cow to cross the street diagonally. I exchanged greetings with the Kashmir rug dealer, bringing my hands together toward slightly tipped head: Namaste. And I absorbed the loudspeaker music spewing from tea shops.
Both squalor and splendor marched by or posed. Having learned to blend observing without staring, I never met another westerner on that side of the hill and felt more like a guest within peoples’ lives, among their distinct habits. A few women clustered against hillside “seats,” with umbrellas propped to shade the sun, pounded larger stones into small ones for near-by construction. School children on vacation kicked and dodged a dented ball on a make-shift field. They shouted and no doubt adjusted rules as situations shifted, impromptu. Buffalo or cattle munched grass or plodded along, destination unknowable to those with two legs. Long-snouted boars scavenged ditches while another hog hid half its torso in a mud hole left from yesterday’s shower.
Further on, women engaged with water. One filled a large brass pot at the neighborhood tap before hoisting the first one atop her head while the other angled on a hip for her walk home. Waiting their turn and conserving the water supply, sari-clad women bent to wash clothes, their motions rigorous. Whirling a wet piece in circles or slapping it several times against a flat stone, no other agitator needed. Each piece, spread out on the open meadow, painted the picture anew.
Some workers stopped to look at the westerner with suspicion. Others came to recognize me from previous trips taken that way. Still others beamed, hearing a young Tamil child eagerly practice his limited English. Shouting “Hel-lo! Hel-lo!” from a front door or up the ridge, the wiry chap was spurred on when I showed enjoyment and responded in kind.
Not to go unnoticed on this half-hour hike was the broader view. The altitude of 7,500 feel gave me a mountain range constant yet ever-appearing to change. Coming around a major bend in the road, my eyes wanted to take in both the near-at-hand and the distant—all at once. Torn by that impulse, I either stopped to consciously choose a focus or found my attention drawn. Drawn by the jingle of an approaching donkey’s necklace or the caw of a swooping crow or attracted to the streaks of sunlight across the next valley. To follow the line of shadows met another invitation. To observe that phenomenon from one location at different times of a given day offered truth about mountain moods. And, to scan or accompany a bulky shadow to its source brought clouds into view, clouds that would shift—then linger or disperse.
With so much to occupy my mind, I was surprised to realize that the University buildings had already arrived. Again, impressed with the friendly librarians, their quick recall of my stack of books left on reserve, I had never felt more welcome to utilize resources. Never would I have expected the quantity and quality of books on Indian women to be at my doorstep. To be a part of the rigorous research by women of women with women was like a dream. From the richness of culture and surroundings en route, I became equally absorbed in the wealth of India’s customs via the written page. Little did it matter that the books were not fully catalogued. Students and professors, graced in colorful saris, received me in mundane slacks. Educated, they spell a future for Hindustan that will be different, yet ever-profoundly influenced by an ancient past.
Only the surprise of overhead lights brought me out of concentrated study; a glance out the window explained. If I were to make the half-hour uphill trek before the storm, I’d better move. With regret and gratitude, I left. Before long, I was not alone. Walking beside me and occasionally tapping my leg with the same arm that then stretched up to beg was a little fellow, maybe a five-year-old.
“Sir, sir,” came the address. “Sir, sir. One rupee; one rupee.” A little amused that the guy didn’t realize that I was not a sir, I glanced at him when he looked elsewhere. Then again, “Sir, sir. “But you don’t look as if you’re not fed, I thought. Sizing him up, I decided that a lot of little ones around were worse off. His clothes were neat, both shirt and shorts. Not skinny, nor with that bloated middle either.
“One rupee. One rupee, sir,” he pled. “I don’t have one rupee,” I said. He looked at me with disbelief. True enough, I didn’t have a rupee note. Several higher-numbered ones, but I wasn’t about to offer one of them. “Sir, sir. No money; no food. No money; no food.” This chap is persistent. What more might he have to do? Contrary to earlier, I began to wish the clouds would start to burst. Hitting me harder and shoving his hand up toward me, only the three messages rained on: “Sir, sir. One rupee; one rupee. No money; no food.”
Now this action is getting ridiculous. Of course, I had more money than he. I a westerner who could pay for a plane ticket to India but resisted giving the little urchin twelve cents. Rather humiliating, to think of it that way. “One rupee, Sir. One rupee.” He spoke more softly when others were nearby on the path. Maybe he’ll give up when we get to the Munjigal bazaar section. “Sir, sir. No money; no food.” But look fellow, I thought, while becoming a bit irritated. If I give to you today, others like you will hound me the next time that I come over here. Such word travels jet-like. I hoped that dread of dealing with a beggar child would not spoil future walks into this region, a region rich in the visual but economically dire.
Then, about as unbeknown as he had entered my day, he left it. But not his words. Even when I crawled into bed that night, diverse experience having intervened, his eyes and voice remained. Their intensity and message recurred to humor and haunt. Of such are memories made. “Jai Hind!”