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Desert dare

Illustration by J.A. Premkumar  

Visit any household in western Rajasthan. After pleasantries, you will be offered tea.

“The Marwaris believe in being good hosts, and they tend to get offended if you refuse tea,” my colleague said. “They would think that you are here only to extract information for your research,” another cautioned.

I was now afraid how my urban stomach would cope with the copious amounts of tea and charted a washroom strategy. I travel to a village 20 km from my place of stay. To go to toilet, it takes 20 minutes to my office by motorcycle or 40 minutes by public transport. I must simply refuse the tea.

Warm welcome

Ganga Bai smiled and happily welcomed us to her home. She had been trained as a community health worker by the non-profit I was associated with. She paused her conversation to attend to this curly-haired woman researcher from Delhi warmly.

Just as anticipated, she immediately offered tea. Giving in after a back and forth for a good two minutes, I agreed.

Ganga was happy that a 25-year-old city girl had come to work with her community. I was happy that Ganga did not mind that I was unmarried and continuing studies.

She took me to the primary healthcare centre where she helped the local auxiliary nurse midwife. On weekends, the midwife went to her home in Bikaner city, and Ganga with no medical training was in charge.

“It is not an ideal situation, but I get to serve my community,” she said. “But what if some mishap were to happen,” I asked. “I have been serving these people for 30 years. Nothing will ever happen to my people under my watch,” she said calmly and offered me snuff.

Past lunchtime, more tea and Bikaneri bhujiya would have forced me to rush to the office. But I sensed that Ganga had grown fonder of me. “Baiji, do you think there would be some leftovers from lunch,” I asked. “Phulo, do we have something that this poor girl can have?”

Phulo, her daughter-in-law, peeked from the kitchen to say there was fresh gond halwa, a local savoury made from edible gum known for its immunity-boosting properties. We found a spot to sit in the kitchen and continue the conversation.

Ganga’s family stayed in a remote dhaani in Bikaner. Her Hindi and my Marwari were rudimentary. Like most women in her region, she was married quite young. She, along with her husband, was attracted by the vision of a founder of a non-profit focused on bridging the service delivery gaps related to primary healthcare and education in the remote desert region. Ganga, a young unlettered mother, got skilled to provide primary healthcare.

Not easy

“Our men were initially reluctant in sending us for training and accepting that we wished to work. Initially, the male village elders used to accompany us. After some time, they realised that we were doing something for our own people,” she said.

Her neighbour, who joined in, added, “If the child would get sick in our absence or would perform poorly in school, then our families quickly declared us bad mothers. We realised that the struggle was harsh, but the need for quality primary healthcare was dire.”

After finishing my halwa, I was prepared to say goodbye to this 60-year-old who had managed to amaze me with her resilience and honesty. Some men and my colleagues were engaged in a deep discussion in the veranda. She quickly covered her face with her sari and commanded Phulo to follow suit, “Goonghat kaado [cover your face].” Sensing the urgency, I nervously asked her, “Should I also cover my face?”

Ganga burst out laughing. “You are supposed to do it only in front of men of your in-law’s family,” she said.

“Does this mean you are interested in getting married to a boy of our village,” she turned naughty.

We were both now not in the mood to say goodbye, and she excitedly offered me tea, and I agreed without a thought.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 2:44:59 PM |

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