The deep and distant sound of the pre-dawn (Muslim) Call to Prayer can be heard outside. The constant low whoosh of the fan is nonstop inside. The conversing Tuk-Tuk and auto horns address every passer-by — two-wheeler, four-wheeler, and bi-ped alike. Shopkeepers call out in the Old City. Mand blasts from one room high above the street, while sweet tabla tones comes from an unseen radio. As much as Udaipur, and I imagine India in general, is known for its colorful dress, buildings, flowers, and images, there definitely is no shortage of creative and captivating sounds.
I have waited a day to write up this post in order to let the whole of Friday settle. It is currently Sunday morning, here, and the gentle breeze rolling in through our screen window is encouraging me to write. From what I now understand my Friday was unique in the life of a volunteer at Seva Mandir (SM); it was only my second real day and I was going for a site-visit 100km away— “into the field.” I hopped in the back of the Kherwara block office Jeep at 8:30 and after a quick stopover for chai and some Jain snacks as we picked up the HR Director and his son, dropping off the son at school, picking up another rider’s son somewhere off the side of Highway 8 about 30 minutes later, dropping that son and father off maybe 20 minutes later from that, we then arrived to the office. (SM's initiatives across the state are broken into divisions called blocks.) The small, upstairs office welcomed us with chai, chapati, and bitter yogurt (really, quite a great mid-morning combo). We met with the office director there and then my soon to be day-companion, K. K was to take me to the Bichiwara village 15-20km and we were to spend the day observing the status of the numerous SM projects that had been completed, in place, or stalled. The primary focus of our visit was to see some of the 52 eco-san (Ecological Sanitation) toilets and the village water tank.
|Finally nearing towards the Kherwara SM office.|
K and I have been paired for two immediate reasons, but after our day I am sure there are many more factors that have brought us together. K is the primary office member who attends to Bichiwara, plus my reporting officer, Ms. AB ji thought I didn’t need a separate translator (I agree with her because K’s english is quite good, but I disagree because my Hindi is quite poor for working in the field). He is a civil engineer by trade, so he found it interesting that I studied physics, but now study religion as a full-time focus: “Religion is life.” From K’s hindu point of view, he described to me that Jainism and Buddhism are nice, but ultimately they are really just parts of Hinduism since they come from India. He further broke down a few levels of the caste system as defined by last names while we spelled out his name in Devanagari. It was a new experience to have a practitioner talk with me in real time, instead of the flat pages of the books that have sustained my studies until now. I didn’t push back too much on his statement but wanted to learn more about his thoughts. Over the day K explained to me that he sees the Upanisads, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, (he never mentioned the Vedas) as the original works and thus the original answers. What traditions followed may have claimed other inspiration or interests, but really were rooted in those texts.
|K and I at our first stop.|
The rest of my conversations were rather far from religion, but all the same new and challenging. I got to meet with many families through the day, which consisted of wide-eyed wonderment of young children and active intrigue from older children and adults. It is very hilly where most of the families live in Bichiwara, so our visits seemed far apart and isolated. We all shared many sessions of chai and plenty of slow and broken conversations. K negotiated with the families for them to only speak in Hindi when they see me (THANK GOODNESS), because we are so far south in Rajasthan, the villagers speak a mix of Gujarati and other Rajasthani dialects. The day was beyond most challenges I have known in my life. The long time spent riding with K and hiking across the hills and farm lands was exhilirating, the conversations quickly exhausted my Hindi, the cooler day was more than welcomed, the afternoon Sun was sensational, I had probably my best cup of chai in India to date (the key is all the ginger), but the idea of me immersing into this community until September was both daunting and exciting, mostly daunting. I will be staying at the block office occasionally, possibly visiting the field on my own sometimes, and all the time pushing my Hindi. These prospects are why I waited to write: some big pieces to put in place!
The day stretched and I was happy we stopped at another block site to pick up another group and that volunteer and I jumped in the back of the Jeep. We talked about her travels in India and around Asia for most of the ride. I’m sure I was a little eager in English conversation since all day I had been struggling in Hindi. When we finally got back to SM a group of other volunteers were heading to dinner, so I quickly dropped my things and between two shared autos and a motorcycle, we made it to the Old City and found our way to a lake-side dinner.
Saturday offered me some time to settle my thoughts from Friday. I took to the road to find myself at the Neemach Mata Mandir. The serenity and view provided some humbled thinking.
|The entry steps to the hilltop Neemach Mata Mandir.|
|Udaipur below Neemach Mata Mandir.|
"Jai Mata Di."
The environment of the Kerwara sanitation project overwhelmed my doubts and although the topic matter, desperately vital for the well-being of the village, may not be my first choice of topic, all the other components are absolutely amazing and I am sure I can at least dive in for a few weeks. So, it seems fitting that I should apologize now for the inappropriate coping humor that is sure to come!
Saturday night ended the work week with an incredible dinner on our rooftop, cooked in our kitchen, shared by a small group of volunteers, and taken in the great company of innumerable mosquitos.
|Important words by which to live.|