Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Dethali and The Vidyapith

Tuesday was a very special day for all of us because we finally got out into the countryside, to experience the village life Gandhi championed. Our destination was the village of Dethali, in the distract of Kheda, and to a school run on Gandhian principles, the Gujarat Vidyapith Rural Service Centre. As is often the case, the journey was nearly as exciting as the destination. The bus ride from the hotel took us through some of the busiest streets of old Ahmedabad, and busy here is way, way busier than it is in Chicago, New York City, or anywhere else. Three wheel auto rickshaws share the road with pedestrians, cars, buses, flat bed trucks, commercial trucks, bicyclists, camels, and elephants. The commercial activity along the sides of the road, which I’ve described before, is mind-bogglingly complex, run out of ramshackle shacks, push carts, stalls, and more conventional spaces like stores we’re used to back home. Many of these are make-shift repair shops, for everything here gets recycled, but these shops are interspersed with food, fruit, and spice vendors, clothing outlets, and tobacco shops. Every once in a while side streets run from the main road back to slums where people are scratching out an existence as best the can in shacks put together from discarded materials. I’ve taken to shooting pictures out of the bus windows with my camera set on the “sport” mode to freeze the movement, and it works surprisingly well. The shot of the three elephants in traffic I’m linking to this post, for example, was taken with my zoom lens from about 75 yards as we whizzed by at 35 mph.

It took a good hour-and-a-half to reach the turnout to Dethali, and after turning off the main highway we drove for quite awhile along a narrow road with rice paddies and small villages on both sides. Women in colorful saris were working the rice paddy fields or washing clothes in streams, along with a few men. Occasionally we passed camels, donkeys, and white spider monkeys, either in the fields on the road. We nearly reached the town when we found out the road ahead of us was blocked or out for some reason, so we had to turn around, drive all the way back to the highway, head up the highway to the next small turnoff, and start all over again. Nobody cared. We were enjoying the ride too much and could have gone on all day. Please click here for pictures of the drive.

Soon, however, we pulled slowly into the village of Dethali. This was the first real village we had seen the whole trip, and it presented us with a rural India magically different from the busy, kinetic ruckus of Delhi and Ahmedabad. People are poor here, the dwellings humble (mud or concrete) and the shops make-shift affairs like those we’d seen by the side of the road, but the pace of things was a world away from that of the city. More about the village later, for we drove right through and into the Vidyapith Institute where our guide had arranged for a tour. Some students from the village attend, but many are sent by their parents from all over India to get a “Ghandian” education, that is, one oriented toward hands-on practice with spinning cotton and growing organic vegetables and rice as well as courses in the traditional academic disciplines. We toured the facilities, met the director, and interacted with students in a number of classrooms. They were a joy to be with, so open and curious, waving, smiling, gawking at us in curiosity. In one room a bunch of kindergarteners began to cry when we overwhelmed their classroom. Some had never seen white people before, and it was too much. Not even Barbara’s balloons would placate them. We finally left them in peace so they could calm down. Another class, full of 9 or 10 year-olds, was giddy at seeing us and they couldn’t get enough of waving and staring. They sang us a wonderful song about the virtues of village life. It was marvelous. Later some of us gathered in the Director’s home to visit and hear one family member play the harmonium. At one point he offered Ted a chance to play, and he did a more than credible performance, with the young man accompanying him on tables. I shot a video of it and will post it some day when I can find the time (videos have been skimpy because they take a long time to upload). Please click here for pictures of the institute.

The school was an inspiring place to visit and it was exciting to see how they put Gandhi’s philosophy into practice. But I really wanted to get back to that village, and finally I decided I would head off on my own and ask the guide to just pick me up when the bus drove out. He agreed, and I headed off, joined by Adam, a great young guy who teaches history at Evanston Township High School and shares my passion for photography. We walked down the driveway to the school, out the gate, across the street, and down into a small field with a path that took us into the village. We passed a woman tending a water buffalo, saw kids with umbrellas playing on a bridge in the distance, and ended up where the road spills into town. It didn’t take long for us to be mobbed by kids and adults alike. You would have thought Brad Pitt and Matt Damon had come to the village. We chatted as best we could, exchanged names, and shared our curiosity about one another. We’ve discovered people love having their pictures taken and seeing the image on the LCD screen, so we did a lot of that. We were invited to stroll up streets and visit with shopkeepers, and at one point it began to rain pretty hard and we ran to the closest shelter along with about 20 other people. This turned out to be a Hindu shrine, tended by a garrulous man who spoke some English. He was eager to have us look in the temple and even blessed us by doting our foreheads with red powder. We chatted with him and the kids who were tagging along with us until the rain stopped, and then we headed down a road adjacent to a beautiful open field with grazing water buffalo in the distance and a huge flock of what looked like white heron nesting in a tree. Please click here for pictures of the village.

Its easy, and of course dangerous, to romanticize or sentimentalize this village and its people. Judged by the standards of modernity we bring to the village they live in economic and material poverty and seem to be scraping out a subsistence living in dwellings that seemed solid but in disrepair, with little in the way of what we think of as amenities, let alone paved streets, sewers, sanitation facilities, etc. Their happiness during the moments we were with them was clearly connected in part to the fun they were having with these curious white strangers (one of whom is 5’ 4” and the other well over 6’—Indians are quite short). Still, life here was to my mind preferable to life in Delhi (certainly in its slums) or in Ahmedabad. I’d choose Dethali without giving it a second thought. The natural beauty of the place, and the relative quiet, is striking, and people here are taking care of their basic needs with dignity. Visiting there was a highlight of the trip.

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