Monday, October 04, 2010


Jaya stands at her kitchen doorway in her home in Chandawal.
We visited Chandawal, a tiny village an hour's train ride from Beawar, because it's where Prati's father grew up, and he donated a lot of money there throughout his life. In Beawar, I can't speak much to anyone other than Prati, and I was apprehensive about spending a day in an even smaller place which, when we jumped from the train, looked like a couple dirt roads traversed by toothless old folks.
But I ended up loving the visit, because there were at least three residents who spoke fluent English, and I didn't have to guess at the meaning of vague hand motions and Hindi repeated as though, the fourth time, maybe I'll suddenly understand it.

One of those three residents was Jaya, our hostess for the afternoon, a 43-year-old mother of two who had been raised and schooled in Mumbai. I was drawn to a woman I could talk to and she was curious about her foreign visitor, and we instantly connected and began an easy, joshing cameraderie, though I was distracted by her deferential habit of draping her sari over her head every time a man older than her husband entered her view. How, I asked her as she crushed ginger and cardamom pods with a pestle in her darkened kitchen, did she end up living a traditional life, with its saris and mannerisms, in Chandawal, a 14-hour drive from her childhood home and a million miles from its urban cosmopolitanism?

Jaya looked into my eyes with what I read as sadness and sketched a line across her forehead with an index finger, just above her eyebrows. I nodded as though that cleared things up, though I hadn't a clue what she meant. Prati later clarified; the gesture means kismet. Destiny.

Kismet was at work for her that day, because Prati accidentally left her cell phone in the village. Jaya traveled to Beawar to return it to her the following afternoon and lingered here, running errands with us at the market and eating roadside panipuri. She stayed long enough that it grew dark, and her husband told her to stay overnight.

I used the bonus time with Jaya to try and further understand a life so far removed from mine. She is unhappy living in a teensy village, telling me that she wears western clothing when she visits her parents and doesn't take good care of herself because she wants to die as soon as possible. If my American self ended up in Jaya's life, I wouldn't think twice before divorcing and starting my own life. Where I come from, women are independent and we have the resources and the options to make our own decisions. But for Jaya, who has never left India (I told her about how the leaves change color during New England's autumn, and I'm not sure she believed me) tradition dictates that marriage is forever, and she has no idea how she would survive without her husband acting as family breadwinner, just as it would never occur to her to keep her head uncovered before an elder man.

She said she rebels within her limits, not covering her face as she drapes her head, despite her husband wishing she would. And Prati noted that Jaya's cholis, the shirts worn beneath a sari, have cheekily skimpy backs on them. Still, as we chatted about trivial things--Tom and Jerry, winter weather--I could intellectually understand that people do what they can with what they have, know and believe. But emotionally, I wanted to shake her until she understood that living a life outside of tradition's strictures is an option.

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