Bina Raiqual, Kamala Bisht and Munni Bisht are just three of the hundreds of women at Simayal, Reetha and Myoda villages in Kumaon who are independent and whose lives have changed drastically through education, empowerment – and simply because of the absense of menfolk in her household. CHIRAG, the NGO that works in these villages, hosted 19 of us in the villages. Naturally, we were excited and nervous, as a village homestay was a first for many of us.
Small, cosy and comfortable beds, tables, sofas (and if you are lucky, even a television) is what awaited us. The view outside the room was exceptional. Each house was surrounded by rows of plum, apricot and peach trees. The air was clean and pure, the water clear as crystal.
Carrying a head load of manure and cabbage saplings, Bina Raiqual of Simayal village walks to her neatly raked field. She adds gobar manure to the soil, and plants the sapling firmly into the ground. Her touch is soft and she encourages us to get our hands dirty. We try to imitate her perfect touch. We use a wedge hoe to pull potatoes from the soil. “That would be our dinner”, she says. She sells her fruits from her orchard and in return get rice and wheat. A fair deal.
Joint families may have disappeared from urban india; in villages however there is a sense of togetherness only if all the members of the family are present. Bina Raiqual had her whole family staying with her, including her sons and their wives with their kids, six in all. I was particularly attached to the youngest one, Yukti, who would run to me with a glow in her face, hug me and fondly call me ‘didi’. Taking hold of our hands with her tiny fingers she led me to the tip of the hill. So comfortable with the terrain at such a young age.
The kitchen of Munni Bisht of Myoda village had a low ceiling and was made of mud. The temperature was warm and the smell of fresh hot rotis were being made on the firewood stove. A small slab on the side separated the area where dishes were to be washed.
Our food was served on steel plates with an authentic chutney made with the perfect blend of spices.
Finishing off the meal with curd and sugar we breathed the cool fresh air and just listened to the quiet but interesting sounds of crickets, the rustling leaves and a stream in the distance.
The next day, we were determined to find this stream. After being disappointed by the tedious path and our inability to reach it we got to see the next best thing – the village tank. On the way we plucked ripe, juicy apricots and peaches off the trees and munched them during our two-kilometre downhill trek. Two village boys helped us get there, and once they saw the water, off went their clothes and they jumped in splashing water in all directions. The boys spoke to us about their school and the subjects taught there as we dipped our feet in the cold, refreshing water.
Grassroots, an organisation which promotes sustainable, self-reliant development at the village level arranged for us to stay in three villages near Ranikhet. We had to trek across a stream and a bridge to reach the village of Talla. The family with whom we stayed had a double-storied home and a bathroom in the yard. The owner’s son, a medical representative based in Haldwani, was visiting with his family for the holidays.
He had a son and a daughter who studied in an English medium school in the city. He said his daughter hated visiting the village for the holidays while his son loved to. This is what happens when you get pampered by the comfortable urban life, he points out.
Stories of straying leopards were definitely the highlight in all three villages of Talla, Malla and Bargala, told by the young and old alike. We were told people often heard them in the early hours of some mornings. These leopards have mauled many cows and dogs in the village.
Dhal (Bhatta) and rice is supplemented by a mint chutney to bring out sweet and sour flavours and can be eaten with just about anything. The kitchens in these houses are mostly outside, and we eat dinner on the front porch sitting on the floor with our legs folded. Our delicious meal is finished off with hand-picked mangoes.
Our day starts at 5.30 am. After bathing in cold water with a screen as the door, we were up and ready to start a new day. Little Shivangi the house owner’s niece, brings the cows to the farm in front of the house. Nearby is a vermi-composting pit; all houses in this region seem to compost.
For us urbanites the environment is a word, a concept outside of our daily lived experience, quite unlike our hosts in these villages, for whom nature and environment is an everyday affair, something they negotiate with each day.