Friday, October 22, 2010
I lived in a village for three days and two nights!!
A couple of months ago, I had come for an interesting orientation by our HOD ma’am on M.A Public Relations. I hung on to every word ma’am had to say about my next two academic years, I knew I had to bag this course right there and then. I vaguely heard her mentioning the words “village”, “saree”, “interior Tamilnadu” and so on. I figured, that must be a project I would have to do in my last semester of college. I was mistaken. In less than 4 months, here I am, humbled by the generosity of sixty small huts in a village near Pondicherry, called Nadukuppam.
A week before our visit began a shopping frenzy for medicines, dance-props and mosquito repellants. Monday, the 13th of September found all of us in pitch darkness, waiting in college, for our teachers and transport. We were all sleepy and excited. We jumped onto the bus along with our teachers and promptly fell asleep. We woke up, in time for breakfast and went back to sleep again. We reached Nadukuppam by 11 AM. We were greeted by Ms Joe and Ms Parvathy who were going to be our mentors at Nadukuppam.
The first sight that we saw, as soon as we stepped off the bus, was a roadside bus stand with a whole family inside – babies crawling around, women cooking food and water seeping through on all sides, the family was huddled in a small corner of the sheltered bus stand. We gulped in disbelief, wondering what we were getting into.
We were taken to Nadukuppam Government High School by Ms Joe and Ms Parvathy. Our three day stay was going to be in this school. Our bed was the floor; we were sharing it with all its existing residents, namely grasshoppers, scorpions, spiders and other creepy-crawlies. Our next big concern was the toilet. We ran towards them and heaved in relief when we saw four of them one next to the other. Our relief was short-lived, as we soon discovered a huge snake pit with a family of resident snakes, right next to our toilets. We sent up prayers and tackled our toilet business and ran as fast as we could.
We just about settled in to our common hall, when Ms Joe and Ms Parvathy called us for a small brief about the village. They told us, that they were trying to help the children of the village who had failed their classes 10 and 12, by conducting stitching classes for them. They were also instrumental in building the common room, of the school where we were going to sleep during our stay.
Soon after, we set out to our assigned streets, along with our teachers and our survey partners. The mini-van dropped us all off, one by one to our respective streets. My survey partner Evelyn and I, hopped off the bus; bottle of water, umbrella, pens and questionnaires in hand.
Our first household was of a newly married couple. The bride was all of 20 and was busy watching Sun Music, she greeted us with a shy smile as we explained the purpose of our visit. We began our rapid fire session and she answered patiently to all our queries. Before long her husband, who was a petrol pump attendant, joined us and he began participating in our conversation as well. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other, as is expected of all newly married couples. It was a little distracting, as the heat was getting to us and we had a tight target to meet. We thanked them for their time at the end of our thirty odd questions and set out to interview another family. We noticed right in the beginning of our tour of the village, that all the households had television sets and the satellite dishes placed outside their homes. Some looked even bigger than the huts they lived in. We found this quite amusing; we realized that their priorities were a little skewed. We discovered that none of them had a toilet; they all went to the nearby ponds for an early morning job, but entertainment just a click of a button away.
Almost too soon, it was time to go back our base camp for lunch, Evelyn and I had just completed six families in total, while the other teams in our class had done ten families and above. We panicked a little, on discovering these statistics, but kept motivating each other, that we would meet our target as well. After a quick lunch, we got back on field again and continued our survey. We met family after family, who asked us who we were, what we were doing in the village and why we were asking them such probing questions about their caste, incomes and educational qualifications. They swept their porches clean for us and invited us into their homes, without hesitation. They posed eagerly for our photographs along with their cute children. Day 1 of our survey had come to an end. Our target of 20 questionnaires seemed like an impossible dream. I slept fitfully that night, between my friends.
I woke up the next morning thanks to the desperate rumbles of my tummy. I looked around for somebody to wake up. One of my classmates’ finally woke up, in the same dire plight and we took off in the wee hours of the morning, torches in hand. I felt a wave of relief wash over me, as I walked back to our common hall and found more people sitting up straight with messy hair and swollen eyes. Priya, Shruti and I decided to rush to the washrooms before it got too crowded. We discovered that the washroom closest to us was clogged and over-flowing with water.
I almost burst into tears at this point, when Shruti announced, “Priya and Gayatri, stand behind this wall and hand me mugs of water, I’m bathing”. We bathed that morning with six mugs of water each, it was an exciting and a once in a lifetime experience!
Evelyn and I had lots more luck on Day 2, while filling out questionnaires. We met our Day 2 and Day 1 target and we were overjoyed. We had picked up speed from Day 1, learnt from our mistakes and kept motivating each other. My pink umbrella didn’t help us much, as we both got burnt through and through and Evelyn kept muttering “Ouch” under her breath every five minutes, as I kept poking her on the head with my umbrella spokes. We interviewed a few “rich” families on Day 2, we went inside households that looked like mini palaces in the middle of nowhere with crude looking sofas, four walls fully cemented and children speaking to us in English.
The night of Day 2 was special for me, as I heaved a sigh of relief on a job well done. I was so happy to be paired with Evelyn; she was a gem of a person and a wonderful team-player. My friends and I whispered under the sheets, late into the night, until one of us fell asleep.
Day 3 greeted us all with a renewed sense of hope and joy. Our stay here was almost complete, our targets were much smaller for the day and we would finally go back home to our urban lives. I shared my washroom with six ugly looking frogs that morning. I kept eyeing them, worrying about when they would decide to jump on my head.
We set out onto the field without breakfast that morning. Evelyn and I walked through huge fields to get to a street called “Ameri” which was quite a distance from our base camp. Our teachers dropped us off, at the beginning of the field. I felt like a Bollywood actress, walking through green fields, but my bubble was quickly burst as I slipped and fell into some slushy brown water.
I ignored my damp uncomfortable clothes and focused on my small target in hand. We interviewed seven families in Ameri and walked back to our bus. We had a quick breakfast and continued our survey again. Evelyn and I interviewed very interesting people that morning. We met a Candy-seller, who spoke Tamil, Hindi, English and Punjabi. He had left his native town to earn a living in Nadukuppam. We met a college professor who disapproved of my handwriting and informed me proudly that all his children were working and were post graduates.
Our lunch on Day 3 was the happiest. We had all met our targets and kept hugging each other. I kept counting my questionnaires over and over to make sure, that this was all not a dream. Nadukuppam village, has changed me, I will never take for granted the luxuries my parents have showered me with.
(Photograph taken by Evelyn Charles)