Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Village Visit

Many months ago, Ashley, a fellow ETA, had made an exciting proposal to the rest of us.  Ashley’s husband, Gautam, is from a small village named Utra, close to Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, and she had been to visit her in-laws a number of times.  She explained to us how different the village was from Delhi, or really, any city in India.  She spoke of the lower population density, the reduced access to electricity, cooking over a fire, obtaining milk from the family buffalo, and conservative customs—for example, married women  cover their faces when in the presence of men.  Ashley, Gautam, and the family then extended a very gracious invitation to visit the village, which a sizable number of the Delhi ETAs accepted.  So, just a little over a week after Holi, the seven ETAs (including Ashley) who were able to travel to the village woke up at 5 am, and began our journey in a hired car to Utra.

As the other ETAs had witnessed my carsickness during our Mussoorie days, they graciously offered me the front seat in the car.  I was therefore (mercifully!) able to sleep a little, despite the bumpy ride.  I was fully awake by the time the sun came up though, and was able to watch the landscape change from urban to rural to urban again, as we passed between and through various towns and cities.

The back of the car (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)
Eventually, we reached Aligarh, the closest city to Utra, and the location of Gautam’s University.  There we went to the house of one of Gautam’s professors and took chai and samosas while we waited for Gautam and his brother so we could all make the final leg of the journey to Utra together.  It was a very pleasant break from the road, and we all enjoyed meeting Gautam’s Aligarh friends, drinking the delicious tea expertly made by Ashley, and eating the truly exceptional samosas.

Roadside Scene (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)
The last leg of the journey provided us with an even more dramatic change in landscape.  The hustle and bustle of Aligarh quickly gave way to empty lots, which in turn quickly gave way to fields of wheat, potatoes, and various pulses.  After a lot of bumping and winding, we eventually ended up at the doorstep of Gautam’s family’s house.  We were warmly welcomed, and quickly ushered inside, where we received many plates of sweets and namkeens, and various cold drinks.  Initially, we all sat in the downstairs room, which Ashley explained to us was not usually used as a living space.  In fact, it was where the cows slept in winter!  It was quite comfortable however.

Welcome to Utra! (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)

Relaxing (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)

Soon though, we moved upstairs to a more open terrace like area, where we continued to socialize with each other and with the family.  Jeetu, Ashley and Gautam’s toddler nephew whom we had met twice before in Delhi (once at Christmas, and once at Gautam’s birthday celebration a month before) remained the center of attention.  Various friends and relatives from the village also dropped in to welcome us, and all were very friendly.  Highlights of the day included preparing for lunch (Ashley’s mother-in-law patiently taught us how to shape the stuffed, fried flat breads known as kachoris), eating lunch (it was delicious), and an impromptu Holi session, during which Ashley was turned almost completely green by an ominous looking substance labeled as “universal stainer.”

A visit from Amma (Photo Credit: Ashley Green Gautam)

Making kachoris!  (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)

More kachoris!  (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)
Lunch!  (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)

Eating together (Photo Credit: Ashley Green Gautam)

Holi hijinks (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)

Action shot!  (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)

After the heat of the day had subsided somewhat, Gautam, his father, his sister Pinki, and Jeetu took the whole ETA crew on a walk through the fields.  During the course of this walk, we cooed over a litter of tiny puppies, met the family’s herd of buffalo, saw a number of peacocks nesting in trees, were introduced to a number of different plants along the way, met a teacher from the local school, and viewed the family plot of land.  The walk was very peaceful, and so different from a typical walk in Delhi!
We're not in Delhi anymore!  (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)

Ashley and Stephanie; that's a puppy in Ashley's arms!  (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)

Aileen and her new friend (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)

Jeetu and his Grandfather (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)

That night, dinner consisted of some delicious kadhi chawal (rice with yogurt based curry).  We ate on the roof of the house, and enjoyed the cool night breeze—such a contrast from the heat of the day.  After we finished with dinner, all the ETAs remained on the roof, where we spent the night under the stars. 

We awoke again bright and early the next morning as the sun was rising and Hindu devotionals were being broadcasted by microphone.  It took a little while to get everyone up and moving (and by everyone I mean the ETAs—Gautam’s parents had been up for hours already), but eventually we did all get up, and were soon eating a breakfast of chai and pakodas.
Sleepyheads (Photo Credit: Ashley Green Gautam)

View from the rooftop; the glass is to keep monkeys away (Photo Credit: Ashley Green Gautam)

Soon after breakfast, we headed off to Ashley and Gautam’s Amma’s (grandmother figure’s) house, where we were fed even more chai and pakodas, as well as sweets.  We all had a good time with the members of Amma’s household, and as always, it was nice to discover that spoken language is not always needed for meaningful interaction.

Jo getting "bindi'ed" by Amma (Photo Credit: Ashley Green Gautam)

Kim and some new friends (Photo Credit: Ashley Green Gautam)

Jo and some cow patties, which will eventually be burned for fuel (Photo Credit: Ashley Green Gautam)

After visiting another family friend (and eating even more) we returned to Gautam’s family’s house.  At this point, it was time for us to leave.  We said our goodbyes and thank yous (though no amount of thanks could ever be equal to the hospitality we received), and phir milenges.  After this, we piled into the car again and headed off towards Aligarh, where we made a quick chai stop at Pinki and her husband’s house before heading back to Delhi.

Jeetu and the family's pet rat (Photo Credit: Stephanie Baker)
 Over the past nine months I have grown very accustomed to Delhi, and to India.  Things that once shocked me, for example crowds, pollution, and noise, are now normal, and I am much better able to understand what is going on around me.   The village visit reminded me, however, that India is so much more than its cities, and that I still have a lot to learn about the country as a whole.  In fact according to Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods, in 2001 at least, over 70% of India’s population lived in rural areas.  So arguably, the village is a much better representation of India as a whole than is the city.  I am so grateful to have had the chance to visit Utra, and to get even a small glimpse into village life.  Many thanks to Ashley and Gautam and their family for the wonderful opportunity!


  1. So glad you enjoyed the village visit as much as we enjoyed having you there with us, Abby. However, I'm pretty sure those samosas only tasted so good because we were so hungry! I also learned, after the fact, that the pet rat actually belongs to their landlord; they were only rat-sitting while the landlord was away. Thank goodness, it's not theirs after all!

  2. Aww, I rather liked Ratty ji. And I guess were hungry, but I still believe that those were exceptional samosas! :)

  3. The real comfort is given by small little things not by luxurious things..........Cruise Holidays Packages in India & Village Tours in India