I stayed in Sonti and Inder Singh's home for two months that summer. My backpack hung from a nail on a wooden pillar in their home, my two books and diary were kept on a ledge. The toddler in their house would prop himself up by my knees and keep me company. He was always hungry and so was I.
1992 had been declared a drought year in Jhabua district. The rains had failed and the Bhil tribals had not managed to harvest enough jowar and bajra to feed their families. They had little money to buy food, even from the ration shops in the tehsil.
I was teaching the children and teenagers of Khodamba to read and write Hindi and do basic Maths. They were mostly laughing at me. Sometimes they felt sorry and tried to show me a good time. I received no letters from home while I was there. I made notes about cows that ate human feces, waiting patiently for us to finish our business and leave, hoping to get some grain in their diet.
Sonti wondered about the place that I had come from. I seemed helpless like a child. I hungry, dirty, useless and miserable, unable to cook or even get water from the well.
Sonti asked me if I had land to grow food where I came from. No, I didn't. She asked me if I had cows and hen. No, I didn't. She tried to make sense of the situation. Had I come to their village because there was nothing for me back home?
Sonti cooked one big, thick roti for each family member and me twice a day. There was some salt, a very watery lentil soup and that was all there was. She went to the forest to get firewood, she went to her fields to prepare them for sowing corn when the rains would come and walked far to bring back drinking water. The mango trees yielded no fruit that season; the jamun tree dropped wrinkled fruit on the dry earth below. Sonti sang and danced all night when there was a marriage in the village. She went away to mourn and support a couple for 3 days when their child died on the way to the hospital.
One day, she served me a bowl of meat with my makki ki roti. A group collected around me to watch me eat.
"What is this," I asked.
Someone described a small animal like a rabbit; another stretched his arms wide to show a larger creature.
"Is it a cow," I asked.
"No, no!" they protested.
"Is it hairy? Does it have horns? Is it a fox? A goat?"
They giggled and said confusing things but made sure I ate my share of nourishment that day.
When my stomach was full, I appreciated the undulating browns around me, the sun glowing every evening as smoke rose from the kitchens in the distance. I imagined my host family in my city home. No village woman like Sonti, no dehati aurat had ever sat on the sofa in our living room. I shuddered at the thought that once uprooted; Sonti might find herself tapping on closed car doors at traffic lights in Delhi, trying to sell roses, or plastic Santa Claus masks. Her hungry child would be balanced on her hip. Someone like me would turn her face away from the beggar woman and try to regain my mood by changing the music in the car.
Last week, we heard the phrase, 'dehati aurat' being used freely as an abusive epithet. A senior journalist from Pakistan reported (and later retracted) that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had accused Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of behaving like a 'dehati aurat.' A petty village woman who had run to tattle to President Obama instead of solving regional problems at their own level. The Chief Minister of Gujarat and BJP leader Narendra Modi used this account to proclaim that the Indian PM had been humiliated and his authority demeaned.
People reveal themselves and their deep-rooted biases all the time. Keen to damage the public image of their rivals, here are men trying to shame the other by calling him a woman. A rustic woman.
Both my grandmothers were dehati aurats. They were migrants, who crossed borders and rebuilt their homes many times over in their life. They knew how to milk cows and spin the wheel to make thread. They woke up before dawn to start their day, they were creative and resourceful. They were planners and troubleshooters. They enabled their husbands, their sons and daughters to seek their destinies. They were generous, like Sonti, the tribal woman from Jhabua.
Sonti's humanity kept me alive even when there was not enough food for her own children. Her 18 month old son would crawl up to me and hold my breast in the hope of nourishment. His mother still managed to make a place for me in her world.
When I learn to acknowledge the village woman, I learn to connect to the history that has created me. The blood and sweat that has shaped me, the human spirit that has fought to keep the children alive. I learn to express gratitude to the dehati aurat who shares every resource she has to give everyone else a life better than she has lived.
Our leaders would do well to awaken their inner 'village woman' and summon some of her power and wisdom in themselves.