India, as we all know, is like an onion, peel away each layer and you cry a little more at the beauty, horror, splendour and deprivation.
Yesterday Jamie and I watched the sun set over the Taj Mahal from the warm banks of the Yamuna River. The dome glinted and faded as it floated silently in the milky dusk. Today, when we arrive before sunrise, there is a chill in the air. After the usual elaborate charade involving tickets, security checks and more than one queue, we are allowed into the complex. I shepherd Jamie past slow-moving tour groups, towards the main attraction, and for twenty precious minutes we have the tranquil mausoleum to ourselves.
In Jodhpur a boy wakes up early, after another night punctured with screams from his parents’ bedroom. In the courtyard, his handsome father is sitting at the breakfast table drinking sweet, milky tea. Through the kitchen door, Govind watches his mother quietly instructing the maids in their daily duties. Her eyes are swollen. As his father chats about the day ahead the boy’s anxiety ebbs, and the soundtrack of the previous night becomes a distant murmur.
In the desert village of Setrawa, nine year old Rachna gets up. Her mother is already outside, preparing breakfast on a kerosene stove. The girl’s brothers are asleep in their corner of the shack and she can hear the gentle rise and fall of her father’s snores. Rachna sweeps the floor and smooths down the dirt in front of the open doorway, then she picks up the water container and sets off on a three kilometre walk to the well. Half-remembered images and sounds spring into her head: her father creeping out at night with a small bundle of cloth, her mother sobbing, the bundle crying. If only her baby sister had lived, she would have had someone to share the chores with by now. She buries the shards of memory deep in her heart and makes her way along the familiar cool path.
We peer through the intricate lattice-work of the alabaster jali screens and inhale the lingering misty air. The creamy walls disappear above us into the shimmering roof, and a chanting choir of birdsong echoes around the bejewelled chamber. Outside, in the warmth of an orange morning, we pad barefoot on the cool, marble plinth.
Now aged fourteen, the boy is nearly a man. When his father’s drinking becomes especially heavy, Govind sleeps under his parents’ bed, ready to jump to his mother’s aid should his father turn violent.
“He was like a lion, so strong and charming during the day, but at night the devil came in the form of a bottle,” Govind tells me later. “Despite his affliction, we loved him.”
Then one night everything changes. At the age of 40, Govind’s father dies in his sleep and the family is left without its head.
We continue our homemade culture tour with a visit to magnificent Fatehpur Sikri, Emperor Akbar’s short-lived “City of Victory”.
Born a Muslim, Akbar was an early believer in religious and racial tolerance; he took Hindu and Christian wives, and appointed non-Muslims to his council. Using science as his yardstick, he was an enlightened man long before The Age of Reason hit Europe.
Like her mother and grandmother, Rachna has worked every day of her life. She accepts her role and, even amid the relentless drudge, has found reasons to laugh. She and her mother eat what her brothers and father leave, but none of them is ever hungry, and the food is fresh.
At thirteen she is given in marriage to the son of one of her father’s friends and taken to her new home in Jodhpur. Never having ventured further from her village than the well, Rachna has no idea that she lives in the state of Rajasthan and that she comes from India. She’s didn’t go to school and she can’t read or write. Alone with her husband in the frightening city, there is no-one to stop him from repeatedly brutalising her.
Made from blood-red sandstone, Fatehpur Sikri sits solidly on a rocky plateau, an imposing reminder of Akbar’s power and strength. Its monumental gateway, standing 54m high, leads directly to the giant mosque of Jama Masjid (second only in size to its namesake in Delhi). Further within the complex, the enigmatic Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Private Audience), royal palaces and startling array of buildings are well-preserved and pleasingly free of litter. There are few tourists and, unusually for India, it is quiet. Jamie photographs every nook, and I peer into every elaborate cranny; it is as supremely masculine as the Taj Mahal is gracefully feminine. I watch a turtle swimming in the murky depths of the ornamental pond, both of us stupefied by the midday heat.
In the afternoon we visit tranquil Itimad-ud-Daulah. Nicknamed the Baby Taj, the tomb is almost as serenely beautiful as its big sister. We watch stoical buffalo bathing in the shallow Yamuna River below us, while filthy children play in the mud. There is a small settlement nearby where piles of cow pats are laid out to dry, the dung collected by Dalits and used as fuel.
We ask the rickshaw driver to take us to the village. At first he can’t find the entrance, then says it is dangerous. He runs out of excuses and swings onto a dirt road. Weather-worn men sit outside their shacks, eyeing us with dead expressions, and some of the women crane their necks from behind dark windows. Children run alongside, shaking our hands and screaming when Jamie pulls faces at them. The driver kicks them away. We stop at the end of the track in front of the piles of drying cow pats, and Jamie jumps out. Like a latter day Pied Piper, he mesmerises the children with his camera, and somehow through the chaos, persuades them to stand still for a few seconds while he photographs them.
Later, we find a local rooftop bar where we drink cold beer and watered-down Indian whisky. We eat delicious paneer kebabs, cooked on an open flame. Silent men huddle round their glasses at the tables next to us.
Rachna’s life as a married woman is tougher than her life as a daughter and sister. She cooks and cleans, all the while silently enduring furious attacks from her husband. She has made a few friends – girls from the desert – but they won’t come to her house for fear of her husband. She can’t talk to anyone outside her community because she only speaks her village language: she has never heard Hindi or English before. She considers suicide, but a small knot of defiance stops her every time she picks up the bottle of bleach.
In Jaipur, Rajasthan’s noble capital, Jamie and I stay at the comfortable Arya Niwas, a converted “haveli” (nobleman’s mansion). Each sunny morning we breakfast on the lawn, our plates catching the blossom floating down from the surrounding trees. Today The Times of India reports on a Dalit girl in Fatehpur district who tried to defend herself against a rape attack and had her nose, ears and limbs cut off.
After the Pink City, we take a train to Rajasthan’s Blue City. Surrounded by desert, and dominated from a hill by the Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur is a smaller, less-crowded version of Jaipur.
Its colour and dreaminess quickly make it our favourite city in India. Having arrived late at Durag Niwas, our family homestay, we are warmly greeted by the owner’s brother, who rustles up some soup and shows us to our room. The next day we join other guests in the courtyard and meet Govind Rathore, the twenty-seven year old charismatic owner.
When his father died, Govind’s mother took him out of school to assume his duty as head of the household. At fourteen, he became responsible for the lives of his brother, mother and grandmother.
Married off at 11, Govind’s grandmother had given birth to four children before she was nineteen. Her husband, twenty years her senior, worked away for much of their married life, leaving her to fend for herself in the village. Alone and vulnerable, she fought for respect from her new family and neighbours, so she persuaded her husband to buy her a cow. With hard work, she increased the herd to 50, gaining honour and the nickname ‘Memsahib’ from her village contemporaries. Then her husband sold the cows and moved his family to Durag Niwas in Jodhpur. When he died she was left alone in an alien city.
“In this patriarchal society widows have no status, no respect and no rights.” Govind tells me.
His mother was 15 when she married her brother’s best friend. It didn’t take long for her husband’s love of alcohol, and his liaisons with other women, to sour the relationship.
“By insisting on a ‘love match’, instead of settling for an arranged marriage, she felt her unhappy situation was some kind of retribution for upsetting the two families. She bore her humiliation without complaint.”
When her husband died, she was shunned by former friends and ignored by traders. Refusing to become invisible, she and her mother-in-law joined forces to keep the household together.
“What they lacked in education and worldliness they made up for in forcefulness and determination.”
When he was twenty Govind married Mukta.
“We had to have a woman to be the ‘face’ of the household. Neither mum nor grandma were regarded as legitimate female heads because they were both widows – they were not allowed to be part of the community, could not attend marriages or join in auspicious ceremonies.”
With his family settled, Govind’s sadness at society’s treatment of his mother and grandmother prompted him to look closer at the plight of women in his community.
“I realised ignorance is the great enemy”
Knowing that many of them hadn’t the means to improve their situation, he felt compelled to do something to help, so he persuaded his Dalit maid to bring her three daughters to Durag Niwas. He would teach them to read and write. The next day his maid brought 18 girls with her. At twenty-four he set up the Sambhali Trust, an NGO aimed at empowering women.
“It is more than my passion, it is my dedication.”
I watch guests and volunteers light up as he talks to them. Govind has inherited his father’s charm, and like a celebrity A-lister all eyes are on him when he’s in the room.
Each day at Durag Niwas, girls come for lessons in everything from Hindi and English, to health, AIDS, the planet, maths, religion and handicrafts. Govind encourages his guests to join the lessons. The classrooms are covered in charts, maps and paintings. Although there are chairs and tables, the girls prefer to sit cosily cross-legged on a rug. During one of the English lessons, Jamie and I stand red-faced at the front of the class, getting the words and hand movements wrong to “heads, shoulders, knees and toes”, as the girls fall about laughing.
“Women are still set on fire for dowry deaths, beaten, and sexually abused,” Govind reminds us.
One evening, after a six hour hike round Jodhpur taking in the sights, we sit knocking back beers with Govind in the cool courtyard. A girl walks in. She is small, pretty and watchful. Chatting animatedly with her friends, she says something which makes them all laugh, the epitome of an empowered woman.
“Meet Rachna,” says Govind, “one of our successes.”
10th Glass Woman Prize Annual Literary Competition 2011 – Finalist
‘While your story “A Rajput Gentleman” didn’t win one of the money prizes, it was one of the ten top contenders. Out of 960 entries, that’s quite an accomplishment and I hope it means something to you… congratulations on a beautiful story full of hope.’ Beate Sigriddaughter, by email
For more blogs, images and podcasts from Liz and Jamie have a look at followtheboat