Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A day in the (village) life - Bhita

I begin my fourth day in Allahabad with a quick day-trip to an archaeological excavation site, about 25 kms out of town. I had envisioned myself as some sort of Indiana Jones type, digging in the dirt to reveal lost relics and hidden treasures from yesteryear. A hero among the locals and hot property for the associated press. After watching my taxi driver stop every other inch to ask for directions, I told myself I'd be content with just finding the place. Although it's only 25 kms from town, the cab journey here takes over 90 minutes. I'm happy the driver is not a speed demon though, as India has the worst road/traffic fatalities in the world. There only seems to be one rule, 'always use horn.' Mindless...

People say never to judge a place by first impressions, and if ever a point of interest needed that phrase - Bhita was it. We arrive to find a small paddock, with a few piles of bricks descending in size. From a rusty signpost, we learn that this small patch of grass once housed an ancient city from the Gupta period (300 AD), but that some of the other relics found at this site have dated back to 300 BC.

Photo courtesy of: nishitad. Source: flickr
To get a better view of these sad, decaying and uncared for ruins, I climb a small hill nearby and spot some local children engaged in a game of cricket. They soon abandon their game however, and flock to see my camera and catch a glimpse of what I'm recording - their now empty, makeshift cricket pitch.

They invite me to join their game, and hand me a weathered cricket bat. My first two swings are wayward, and the bowler is quick! I don't come close to making contact, yet I survive the onslaught. I manage to escape the whole game with my pride (and wicket) intact, awkwardly ducking under bouncers and utilizing the 'slog-sweep' whenever and wherever possible. After the game is over, a boy named Ramesh introduces himself and invites me back to his family's home for a cup of chai, and gallons of cold water.

It's hot outside, about 38 C (100F), but everyone except me is dressed in long pants. It's part of the culture I'm told, but something I could never subscribe to in such trying conditions. Logic always comes first for me. By the time we reach Ramesh's house, the taxi driver and I have a crowd of people following our every move. People young and old appear from the side streets and alleyways of this charming village, pointing and staring, they whistle onward to their friends and neighbours about my presence. The family's property also houses a temple dating back hundreds of years. It is devoted to Hanuman (monkey God) and towers over their house, much like a barn to a farmhouse.

The inside of the house is quite small, with all 8 members of the family sharing just one room. It is immaculately clean, though unmistakeably bare. There are several sleeping mats in the corner of the room, handmade furniture and an assortment of pots and pans. They rejoice though, at their recent addition of a fan. In this kind of weather, who can blame them? Amidst circulated air, I share their smiles and join them in looking upward in triumph every so often.

A bombardment of chai and sweets later, they ask me if I'd like anything else to eat. I'd have to be mad to pass up the opportunity for a home cooked Indian meal! The amount of food piled on my plate is something special, more than I could ever hope to eat in a full day. I munch on, valiantly, but succumb about halfway through - much to the disappointment of the boy's mother. Her look of anguish, and cries of disappointment that were anything but subtle, continue to haunt me. It seems strange to be the only one eating, especially since I'm in a crowded room, with more than thirty people spilling out of the doors and into the courtyard. These curious locals watch me take each bite, before discussing it thoroughly in Hindi. The 'bite' that gets the most thorough discussion though, is when I choke on a piece of dried mango. My madras-eye (conjunctivitis) is highlighted heavily by the spluttering, not to mention my bright red face.

I'm touched by their kindness, bowled over by their generosity and amused at their curiosity. There was no elaborate dance number (spare the 'mango breakdance'), no wide-eyed spectacle - just the simple act of eating curry and rice. Yet they treated the whole thing as some sort of bizarre incident, nobody even blinked!  No utensils were provided, but this is the norm in India and not something done simply to amplify the entertainment factor. The food was magnificent, whipped up in no time at all.

The staring continues long after the dishes disappear, and I take a few minutes of awkward silence as my cue to leave. My offer of rupees is denied vehemently, so I choose to hide a small bundle underneath one of the larger floor cushions. A difficult task around 30 or so goggle-eyed gawkers =P

On the way back to Allahabad, we stop by the side of the river so I can take some pictures of the impressive 'Yamuna Bridge,' on the outskirts of the holy city (see pic).While I cross the road, both negotiating and navigating my way through chickens, cows and cars, groups of street children appear on either side. As if they appeared out of thin air, but really from behind shrubs, they grab both my hands and tug at my clothes, clearly shocked to see a foreigner. They do all this amidst traffic that slows down for nobody, it's a death defying experience and the children shriek with joy as I make a break for it and run for the taxi.

You're never really alone in India. Everywhere you go, you seem to pull a crowd. It's good to have someone to talk to when you're in a restaurant, drunk at a bar or confused at a temple, but being followed into cyber cafes, just to be grinned at immensely, is something I can do without.

No comments:

Post a Comment