Saturday, June 1, 2019

Social Contract (The Caravan)

The Hyundai Santro that picked me up last December at a bus stop at Oon, a small town in the Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh, had a bumper sticker that read, “musli ki kripa”—musli’s benevolence. Unlike the usual references on bumper stickers, musli was not some local deity. It was, in fact, an herb, a cash crop cultivated by farmers of the region, which is widely used for Ayurvedic medicines and sold at a price as high as R1,500 per kilogram. As we drove to the village of Raibidpura, Deepak Verma, who owned the car—he was the sole car owner among the farmers in his village—proudly claimed to have brought this unconventional crop to the village.

It was not musli, however, that had brought me to Raibidpura. I first heard about the village, in 2017, when I learnt about how its residents were excelling at contract bridge—a four-player card game, generally perceived as a game of the urban elite. Located just over twenty kilometres from the district headquarters, Raibidpura was predominantly a village of farmers. Deepak told me that the majority of the farmers in the village, which has a population of around five thousand people, belonged to the Gurjar community, which is classified as Other Backward Classes in Madhya Pradesh.

Raibidpura is not a typical Indian village. The farmers here have experimented with non-traditional crops such as musli. The crime rate is negligible. A significant part of the population consists of schoolteachers. Mass weddings are often held, to help lower expenses. And then, there is the obsession with bridge. The game, which is believed to have arrived in India in 1904, has been an integral part of Raibidpura’s culture for over five decades now.

(Read the remaining text of the piece here!)

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Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Postcard from Mattur (The Indian Quarterly)

We step down from Talguppa Express onto the platform of Shivamogga Town Railway Station at 5am. Still adjusting to the light after a short night’s sleep, I squint at the illuminated minarets of a nearby mosque.

My husband and I hail an autorickshaw to traverse the 10 kilometres to Mattur—popularly known as Sanskrit Gram. It is Eid-e-Milad today. Shivamogga is decorated with strings of tiny green bulbs twined over trees and networks of suspended green prayer-flags which seem to bring crescent moons and stars closer to the earth. The only constant sound is the vroom of our rickshaw. For the last few kilometres to Mattur, the dark road becomes narrower, as if squeezed by the areca nut and coconut plantations on both sides.

Our destination, sans sufficient street lights and signboards, is at a missable turn. We have a room reservation at Sanskrit Bhavan adjoining Sharda Vilas School. We are welcomed by an illuminated statue of the Goddess of Learning, poised and decked-up for our early morning arrival. The Bhavan houses four spartan rooms (named after Sanskrit scholars: Vyasa and Valmiki with attached bathrooms, and hot water facilities, Panini and Chanakya without amenities). The village is otherwise devoid of any hotels or restaurants.

Mattur is a hamlet in Karnataka inhabited by about 350 Brahmins who live in a designated cobblestone square. The Brahmin men wear their traditional white cotton, two-part attire; long tuft of hair on crown of head; three horizontal white lines (tilak) on forehead; and walk mostly barefoot in their quarter.

I sit with one such man—Lakshmi Upadhyay—on the ghat by the river Tunga. Upadhyay is a Kul Purohit (family priest by lineage), invited by people in villages and cities alike to perform rituals for life events such as birth, house-warming, marriage and death. “We are like jokers in a pack of playing cards who are common to all and who can be joined with any item,” he says, referring to how they are prerequisites to various family occasions.

Read the full article in April-June issue of IQ available at your nearest bookstore! The online version is here.

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