Dipali, a spirited Shiksharth employee, took me on my first ride around Sukma’s villages. She took me to another Shiksharth volunteer, Pramila’s house in Pakela. Apparently, Pramila had gotten engaged the night before, and the out-of-towners’ relatives were still having an after-party. Some work hard and prepare for the feast for out-of-town travellers, and some of them were continuing the celebration. It felt like I was back in college with my hungover friends at different stages of revelry. One guest was snoring away despite the noise, and the others were singing and dancing. I loved every ‘off-note’ coming out of their mouths because I could sense their joy. It was infectious and inclusive. They looked at me curiously but did not question the intrusion. I was an uninvited guest, you see. “I should have brought something,” I told Dipali. The instinct came from the understanding that I was literally gate-crashing their event. There are some social rules that one follows as an adult. But not once was I made to feel the discomfort I was putting myself in. It was very easy for me to then relax and find a place to rest.
I curiously watched the women stitch the leaves (mahua and tendua) and make doppa-the makeshift bowl that was used to drink Landa (rice beer), Mahua (a spirit made of sun-dried, nectar-rich flowers of Mahua trees). With an alcohol content of 30-40%, Mahua is still considered beneficial for the heart, skin, and eyes, and Chinn Rass or Salphi beer (it doesn’t need hour-long brewing and is collected from the sap of the Salfi tree). The women were very chatty, cracking jokes and singing, in the festive spirit. I started talking to them about their life in Sukma. “My daughter looks exactly like you. You are a little plump than she is though.”, said one woman who was drinking out of the doppa. I was not offended by her statement because she was stating a fact. In the simplicity of her delivery was the honesty in her statement. “May I click a few pictures of you all?”, I asked. “If we say no, will you not?”, an elderly woman asked. “Of course not. I am uninvited and I will not push my luck”, I answered. They all laughed and enthusiastically posed for me. I helped the women send their pictures to the family members who were active on Whatsapp. Just when I was about to leave to conduct an MHM (menstrual hygiene management) discussion with the adolescent girls of the surrounding neighbourhood, Dipali asked me to step inside the house. Curiously, I went in. Despite the heat of the sun, the inside of the house was cool without even a fan in place. Dipali said, “They have asked me to serve you lunch. They are saying one cannot work on an empty stomach and you are their guest.” I was touched by the words and profound wisdom they carried. If you are thinking about the next morsel of food, you will not be able to think about the lessons you need to learn in school. One of the major reasons why thousands of villagers send their children to residential schools where they are provided facilities other than education.
The lunch was sumptuous. I have to admit that it has to be one of the best meals I have had. The chicken was mildly spiced and well-cooked. People in Sukma raise their own poultry. Store-bought poultry is coined as “Jungli Chicken” and there is a clear difference in the taste. I was also offered a sip of each drink (Chinn ras, Mahua and Landa) with my lunch, which I graciously accepted. After the lunch, I was asked to sit with the family and their friends. I could sense their comfort around me with every passing minute. This time, with no requests, they sang songs of the wedding for me. The uncle of the bride started to sing a Bollywood song for me, “I love to sing some of them”, he said with a wide smile and shy eyes.
From feeling like an uninvited guest, I felt like a part of their space and celebration. It was not just an insight into their culture but also an understanding of their warmth. I thanked Dipali for bringing me to this house. As I was riding back in the scooter I received a Whatsapp message from one of the numbers I had sent a photograph to. “Thank you!”, it said.