My true education started when I became a teacher, and I discovered my ignorance. Fortunately I was not assigned the task of teaching a roomful of children their prescribed lessons from a prescribed syllabus. My first job in 1969 was to develop curriculum on India for high school social studies teachers from America. Their knowledge of India was scanty and their textbooks full of stereotypes culled from British books, I was told. It was suggested that we should recommend materials about independent India, for their school libraries, develop curriculum material, teaching aids and audiovisual material for use in high school classrooms.
That was when I faced my challenge as a teacher. What did I know about my country, an urban educated young woman who had done all my schooling in British India? Although my family had roots in our home village, nevertheless I was, and still am, a city person.
“India lives in its villages “said Gandhiji. So an understanding of village India is an important part of social studies curriculum, especially for a western high school. I traveled a lot, improved my Hindi, learned its many dialects, and began to get used to the discomfort of spending several days in the rural countryside. “The greatest learning comes with a feeling of some discomfort,“ a wise teacher once told me. It was not just the physical discomfort, but also the inability to understand and process the difficult questions, and the answers which did not clear the fog of city-bred ignorance. But the learning seeped through bringing with it empathy and understanding of a different India than the one I knew.
American teachers ask many questions, especially about villages and caste. Every visiting group of teachers and students that comes to India on Study Abroad Programs has a lecture session with a university professor, on Caste. Naturally, when a US President comes on a state visit to India a Village Visit is always included in the program. This village is usually carefully chosen for its proximity to Delhi, (or to Jaipur for Rajasthan is so colorful!). When the President arrives there is a wonderful festive air in the village, the freshly scrubbed and painted cluster of homes, the clean lanes. Flower garlands at every step, smiling kids perform in their bright renovated schoolhouse, village women demonstrate their skill on computers in the panchayat ghar, the media cameramen go crazy trying to get that one picture that will tell a story in the next day’s newspaper. Soon people forget the real name of the village; it is now referred to as Carter village.
India lives in its villages, said Gandhiji. The politicians too know that. When elections are due there is an awareness of a rural vote, caste and religious groups are clotted together as “Vote Banks” to be wooed with sops and incentives, money spent lavishly on electioneering. Jobs for the Jobless, laptops and tablets for the educated, and above all reservations for Dalits/Muslims euphemistically called Minorities. Rural Indians vote in large numbers unlike the apathy of the educated cynical city folk. Their innate pragmatism and wisdom makes them unpredictable. Our glib psephologists in TV discussions weave their words into forecasts and exit polls. But the results usually surprise everyone who has been glued to these TV analyses.
What are the real issues in rural India?
I was driving with a group of American teachers not far from Agra, when one of them asked, “Can we stop at a village?” I agreed and we turned off the highway into a narrow unpaved road that led to a village. Haystacks, cowdung cakes slapped on walls, cattle tethered to trees, a small yellow painted temple, a banyan tree under which sat some men on charpoys in desultory conversation. Everybody looked up as our van passed and stopped near the tree. I got down first and greeted the men, introduced the visitors as school teachers and asked, Is there a school here? Within minutes a small crowd had gathered, men and women, the women with their faces covered , and hordes of small children in minimal clothing, curious, jostling to come close and catch their our attention. There were lots of questions from the villagers and the visitors; I was the interpreter. We visited the one room school a distraction for the children seated on the floor chanting their arithmetic tables in a monotone. The male teacher asked one of the children to read from their English reader and encouraged them to speak to the visitors. Their conversation in English was usually limited to the question “What is your name?” followed by suppressed giggles.
We were invited into homes, and in answer to our questions they explained the working of the chulha, the grinding stone, the fodder cutter. We were a group of women so it was the women who asked us questions. It was embarrassing when some of them touched stockinged legs to feel the nylon and wondered why the skin was so smooth and shining! They touched blonde hair and asked if it was natural. Were they married? How many children did they have? If they were unmarried, there was the inevitable question, why have you not been able to find a husband? No question was too personal.
The Americans had their own questions usually about village and agriculture. Where did they get water? What hospital facilities did they have? Didn’t they have toilets?. Where did they go, the women, for privacy?
Then came the inevitable question: what caste are they? What religion? While so many questions were being asked back and forth, one of the Americans repeatedly and persistently nudged me to ask them their caste and their religion. I knew they were all there, Dalits, Muslims, Yadavs, Brahmins. Should I ask, who among you is Dalit, which one a Muslim, etc. ? But I only asked, What caste are you? There was a moment of silence, then an old Muslim woman answered . “In this village we have only one caste. We are all Poor.”