A Homestay in a South Indian Village

By Iain Manley Aug 8, 2007

the-fields-in-front-of-the-family-home-2 A cock crowed, and crowed and crowed. I straightened, flopped my legs from the end of our just-bigger-than-single bed, and stood. I picked through a pile beside my bag, found a towel, toothbrush, toothpaste and the plastic tub containing our soap. I left Claire to sleep.

A sun-blackened man had slept in the next room. He was still there, awake, folding a bobbled blue blanket. The man, I gathered, was the family’s elder, the grandfather. He had arrived here, at the family home, occupied by his son, his son’s wife and their daughter, after dark, during our supper. The room he slept in was the room where paying guests, like us, were fed. He had been quietly greeted and, after adjusting his dhoti, had fitted a stiff body between blanket and bed. He had let his head loll sideways and, with weary eyes, had watched us eat.

I plodded past him, to the back of the house, out of the back door, to the bathroom. The bathroom door – unequal, sharp-pointed planks nailed to short, lateral struts – had a neatly uncoiled coat-hanger latch. Dim morning light bubbled through the room, lighting smoke in horizontal stacks. I had brought a torch: the bathroom, like the house, had no electricity, or running water, and below a vast clay urn – the geyser – a slow fire burned.

I lifted the urn’s metal cover, a disused plate, and washed. The house sat amongst south India’s stubby mountains. Winter – now, before the rise of a heavy sun – was just perceptible: jugfuls of lukewarm, smoky water, slooshed from the urn across my body, became quickly cold, and left a trail of rising hairs. The water’s smoke stuck to me, despite my soap, and the smell – a vaguely familiar farm mustiness – returned later that day, to remind me of a less sterile age.

At the front of the house, steps led to the family’s fields: a long basin of tanned stalks, dammed by hills and crowding trees. Dawn had felt her rosy fingers past the trees, the thick trunks and heavy leaves, to touch the fields and illuminate grains of rice, bobbing on the stalks, bent by a morning breeze.

The basin was crisscrossed by tiny watersheds: grassy banks that neatly divided the rectangular fields. In the rectangles to the north, the stalks had been cut to stubble; to the south, they had been bundled into sheaves. It was harvest time: silhouettes moved amongst the bent but standing stalks near to me, then stooped, swung archaic sickles, made and tied the sheaves.

It was not land I’d imagined supporting rice. The ground was sodden, but not soaked – although water did collect at the edges of some rectangles, in channels beside the grassy banks. The fields looked like fields, not like the terraced paddies I thought would resemble swamps. And they were fields: well irrigated, well landscaped fields. A stream ran from south to north through the basin – it was full of tiny fish and tadpoles, and was where our dirty plates were washed – and could be tapped, if necessary, to feed water to the crops.

Two-toned, course haired dogs, not far removed from jackals, moved amongst the stooping people; cows picked at the banks and cropped the stubbly fields. Other landowners from Galibeedu, a village of thirty families, helped our hosts harvest their rice. Tomorrow – maybe, because the work was hard, the day after – the silhouettes would move, to swing sickles and tie sheaves in the next family’s fields.

*

It was because of the harvest – steadily progressing: the rice, still attached to its stalks, had been brought in from the fields – that, at lunch, I found a chicken’s boiled ribs floating in my thin curry sauce. Our hosts had so far fed us only vegetarian food, but were, today, responsible for feeding the neighbours, because they had spent the morning helping harvest our hosts’ crops. The harvest was to be celebrated, and a celebration called for meat. A chicken had been slaughtered, cooked, and sent to swim in my sauce. I hoped it was the rooster.

Claire and I had returned for lunch from a hike to a nearby high point – we had seen the ten or so houses at Galibeedu’s centre through a hot, rising haze – led by Kieran, our guide.

Kieran did not live in Galibeedu. He had brought us to the farm house the day before, left, and – on a bus from Madikeri, the district’s major town – arrived again this morning. The family seemed used to him – he was, at present, happily inspecting their bee hives – and it seemed safe to assume that he accompanied tourists here often.

Kieran had told us, while we walked, that the family planned to have electricity brought to their home. It would cost 30 000 rupees (£375) and require the construction of five pylons. It would quickly alter the landscape I had been so enchanted by that morning.

I couldn’t begrudge rural India’s acquisition of modern amenities. It would, I knew, be a foolish, very Western hypocrisy. Instead, I allowed myself a kind of reluctant sentimentality: the scene I had thought so close to primeval that morning would now be interrupted by power lines; the urn would be displaced; activity in the kitchen would not make smoke drift through the house, and nobody would read by candlelight, as I had done before bed the previous evening. The distinction between day and night would become less important and the connection with the land would, in some ways, be lost.

The family, Kieran said, was one of Galibeedu’s wealthiest. It owned the village’s only hotel – the grandfather, content to sleep in a dining room, had returned from this hotel the previous evening – and a home large and comfortable enough to accommodate foreign tourists.

The granddaughter, a six year old I let scrawl in my notebook, had been sent to an English medium primary school. The school – private, probably expensive – was in Madikeri; this village girl, her hair cut short and completely straight, trimmed, perhaps, by placing on her head one of her mother’s shiny metal bowls, made the hour long journey to and from the town on a crowded local bus.

No other member of the family could speak English – guides translated our and other tourists’ requests – and the granddaughter filled a few pages of my notebook with Kannada, her mother tongue, repeating the words “Kannada writing” as she did.

The girl saw her grandfather – old and male, the patriarch in a patriarchal society – moved from his bed by tourists, speaking English. At a big school in a big town, teachers made her complete English exercises in English workbooks; taught her an unfamiliar language alongside an unfamiliar respect. Her eyes were large and enquiring; innocent, but not entirely the eyes of a child. I thought her “Kannada writing” a request: the girl wanted me to acknowledge Kannada, to acknowledge the only language her family spoke, and to acknowledge, perhaps, that she might also have something to teach.

India has 18 official languages; most are older than English. Kannada is the language of Karnataka, a south Indian state. The state has a population of 52 million – larger than South Africa’s 45, near the United Kingdom’s 60 – and its language is whole: Kannada has a unique script and a unique literature. The same can be said about most of India’s other 17 official languages, although a few share the Perso-Arabic script.

Parents barely able to afford private education send their children to English medium schools; schools that might, if the parents do not speak English, isolate fathers and, more often, mothers from what the child learns. Every class but one – swift instruction on the mother tongue – is taught in English. The students are bewildered, made to understand new concepts at the same time as a new vocabulary, and are always catching up, always left behind.

Kieran had a bachelor’s degree. He had studied English and History, but, near the shade of a wood that morning, said “look this, look this plant,” knelt, and cleared soil from the stem of a touch-me-not. It was a small plant, almost a grass, but had the comb-like leaves of a fern. Kieran had touched one of these leaves; it closed like a trap, comb tooth between comb tooth. “It does like this to protect itself from cows, deers and this kind of animals,” Kieran had said.

I looked through the granddaughter’s Year One Environmental Studies workbook and found a poem:

Wait for your turn,
Follow the queue and enter the bus.
Do no run or push and rush.
Obey the rules and wait in a line,
This is the way to be happy and fine.

The language, the queues and the electricity: all were imported; brought to India by the British, only arriving in Galibeedu now. It seemed difficult for people to pick the package apart, to separate a man’s language from his technology, discard one and adopt the other. In Bangalore, Karnataka’s capital city, at the headquarters of Infosys – a vast Indian owned IT company, a company that does the jobs outsourced by the West – English is mandatory: spoken, because no other language is permitted, by chairman, techie and driver.

*

The harvest continued. Ready sheaves were thrashed two or three at a time against hard-packed earth. The rustle, thump, rustle, thump separated rice from its stalks; the grains fell in a widening circle, until rice covered the area of a large room. The stalks were stacked beside a cowshed, and the stack grew; it was, eventually, taller than the men thrashing sheaves in front of it, and longer than the cowshed beside it.

At seven that evening, the sun set. A gas lamp was carried outside. An hour later, the rice was swept carefully swept into baskets the size of car tyres. The baskets, once full, were balanced on the perfectly still heads of the three people still working – three people I had seen working at dawn and all through the day – and moved through the house to a pantry. Basket after basket moved through the house. I imagined the procession to be a kind of relay race, and wanted to participate; but I was too wary of dropping a basket and, with it, perhaps a weeks worth of rice. An enormous pile accumulated in the scullery – enough, I assumed, to feed the family and their many guests for another year – and the harvest was complete.

Supper was served immediately afterwards: two curries, one thick, the other watery, both vegetarian; poppadums; an omelette; coconut chutney; and rice. The rice was short-grained and stuck together in clumps. Near the centre of every grain was a pink stripe, a vein. It was unpolished rice, from the fields outside, and it had been served with every meal: with the chicken curry at lunch, and with near identical curries and sides at supper the previous evening. At breakfast, it had been ground into flour and steamed, to make a sort-of rice bun, called an idli.

A Belgian family had arrived, escorted by a different guide, and we shared the meal. Our hosts stood a few step away, hands clasped, watching. The Belgians, a mother, father and three very blonde children, were near the end of three months in India. The father was a civil servant. He got six weeks of leave each year and took two years allowance at once, dividing it neatly over New Year. He did this every second year. The mother was self-employed. Their children were young: nine, seven and five; two girls and a boy.

“It’s going to be difficult to convince them that knives and forks are important,” I said, because the children were eating the Indian meal – with their hands, the Indian way – more easily than me.
“We say that we will have to start again,” said the mother. The adults had Flemish accents; they ‘brayed’, a soft unrolling of the ‘r’ familiar to me because it is done in some Afrikaans speaking parts of South Africa. The children did not speak English.

The family travelled on a budget. It had only been a problem once, on an overnight train. No sleeper class tickets were available. The classes above sleeper were too expensive, so the parents had spent an entire night standing on a second class – the lowest – carriage. The children had slept on luggage racks, almost as precious as the hard wooden benches below, but only because other passengers had moved.

I thought the parents very brave, and said so. Getting myself across a road in India was difficult; escorting three young children would be near impossible. And there was the spicy food, and it’s reputation for making people sick. But the children, the mother said, liked the food, and loved India; they didn’t want to leave. The only real annoyance was Indian children, because they had never seen blonde hair before and liked to pull it.

The couple had travelled through India twelve years ago, before having the children. “It must have been easier then,” I said. It came out like a question. I didn’t really expect an answer.
“In some ways,” said the mother.
The father continued. “But people are much more helpful now,” he said, “because they see us as a family. And the family is so important in India.”

They seemed like responsible parents. The mother was rubbing mosquito repellent onto her son’s thighs, muttering that she didn’t do it often enough. The children had missed almost two months of school, but had spent some of the afternoon – after their own long hike – doing work that the parents would take back to teachers in Belgium.

I was absorbed. It was polite to eat with only one hand (the right hand). I could turn to face the couple, across the table to my left. The scooping of each handful pushed my plate closer and closer to the table’s edge; I didn’t notice it move until, mid-sentence, the plate dropped, flipped, distributed its contents unevenly, and clanged against the concrete floor. I had been saving my omelette; it was lost. A puddle of rice, chopped vegetables and oily sauce collected near my bare feet.

Our hosts – still clasping hands, still watching – looked appalled. I battled to meet so many eyes. I was embarrassed, heating up, talking fast, frantically. I stood up, asked for a cloth. Rice was squelching below my toes and I thought I might be hopping. Our hosts hadn’t eaten. Did they wait to see what was left? The father had worked from dawn that day. He would be ravenous, maybe angry.

The grandfather’s wrinkled face folded. He started to laugh. The mother came forward with a cloth. I wasn’t allowed to use it. She bent, scraped the food from the floor, and, smiling, brought me another plate. I served myself another portion and, more carefully this time, ate.

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4 Responses to “A Homestay in a South Indian Village”

  1. Heather says:

    This thought-provoking article eventually left me with no thoughts, just an hilarious image of the maybe hopping you and the spilled plate. A great description.

  2. Amanda Hamilton says:

    Hi Iain – I stumbled across your Goa blog and it took me back to when I stayed in Bhakti Kutir – a jungle based series of upside down baskets called guest rooms with no locking doors or windows and holes in the ground, all be it clean, for "you know what" — I went with my now ex husband and our 9 month old baby boy and it was a NIGHTMARE!

    I am sure that had I gone alone, it would have been fine – everyone around me was tripped out of their heads, effectively wanting me to care for my baby the way they would (leave him in a hammock thing screaming while I got drunk – um – NO!) – we all got so ill with the food etc .. oh GOD!

    I did meet some lovely people though, and the scenery was very pretty, but it was a huge mistake to go with a very small English skinned child … !

  3. Jeet says:

    Village home stay is supported by the government of Karnataka. It is a good thing as people from outside can get a test of authentic culture of Karnataka and food. Also, the family can earn some money.

  4. Heather on her trave says:

    English is imprortant now in Rural India – that little girl will have much better job prospects if she can speak English – I hopw the sacrifices will be worth it as with so many regional languages English is also the way that people from different parts of India communicate. I loved hearing you write about the family

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