Along the Betwa – Part 7: Jalalpur to Rirua

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In late 2018, along with our partners Out of Eden Walk, we floated a call for applications to Veditum’s first Moving Upstream fellowship programme focussed on River Betwa. The objective – to walk along stretches of the Betwa and document the river and life around it. Radhika Singh and Shail Joshi were two of the four fellows selected for the program.

They started from Hamirpur, a city in Uttar Pradesh, where the Betwa merges with the Yamuna. Then, they traveled onwards to Bandhouli, close to the confluence of the Betwa and Dhasan rivers. The entire journey, around 130 kilometers, was carried out on foot. Joshi and Singh depended on villages along the way for food and accommodation.

[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3769″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]The clanging of Jalalpur’s village aarti woke us up at four the next morning. It was still dark outside, and the temperature could not have been higher than 5 degrees Celsius. We roused, rubbed the sleep out of our eyes, and filled our bottles with water that looked to be extremely muddy. We were extra generous with our iodine tablets that day. 

Before we left, Sonu asked us for Rs 500, which we gave him. It was the first time anyone had asked us for money. Though it was perfectly reasonable for him to do so, everyone until now had refused our offer to pay them for their hospitality. We had had to resort to hiding notes in various parts of their houses, hoping they would only be found long after we left. It was important to us to make sure that we were not an undue burden on anyone we stayed with, especially financially. 

Jalalpur was a strange place, we thought. We had not been inside someone’s house. We had not met the pradhan, even after requesting multiple times to meet him. We had not eaten with our hosts (they brought us food and left). We had been asked for money. However, the beauty of the temple on the banks burned more brightly in our minds than anything else. 

The roads leading out of Jalalpur were broken beyond belief, even though they had been built fairly recently. The number of trucks that passed through the area had rendered them as useless as dirt paths. Sonu had told us, however, that the roads were closed to trucks during the starting and ending of each school day so students could travel home. The road was not big enough for both the trucks and the students, whether on rickshaws or on foot, to coexist. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3768″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]We continued up the Betwa, which was extremely narrow at this point. Huge sand banks rose in the middle of the river, and it seemed that we could almost walk from one side to the other. The water was frothy in some areas, though we could not tell whether this was natural or the result of fertilizer runoff. 

Halfway through our walk, we encountered the biggest sand mining operation we had seen so far. At least thirty trucks were lined up on the banks to transport sand. A JCB with its massive metal claw stood right in the middle of the river. We hid our cameras and phones after a taking a quick burst of photos, and continued walking along the river. The sand mining on the opposite bank continued unabated. As the sun started to fall, we noticed a boat tied up next to the bank. It hinted at the possibility that the village we were traveling towards, Rirua, was nearby. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3762″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_custom_heading text=”Generosity”][vc_empty_space height=”16px”][vc_column_text]Sonu had given us the contact information of his acquaintance in Rirua – a man called Shiv Nandan. Guided by a few helpful villagers, we landed up in his house. He was away, working on his fields, and his family looked at us curiously, unsure of how to deal with us. Things soon took their regular course, however: we were given chairs and chai, and then made to answer a barrage of questions. 

As usual, only the men spoke. Most of the women who lived in the house peeked out at us from behind doorways to satisfy their curiosity, then went back to work. A bonfire was lit, and the conversation turned to the problems of the area. We had an early night that day, and woke up to early morning sounds: children getting ready for school, women sweeping the house, men readying themselves to go to their fields. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3764″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Soon it was time to leave, and Shiv Nandan and Suddha walked us towards the river. “We feel bad that you are leaving,” said Suddha. “If you die we will not know. Will you keep in touch with us?” Of course, we told her. We exchanged numbers and she waved sadly as we left. After walking a kilometre or so, we got a call from Shiv Nandan. He had found the Rs 500 note that we had left in our room, and wanted to give it back. It is for the children, we told him, but he refused to accept it and came running towards us with the money. “I cannot take it,” he told us. You must, we said. Buy something nice for the children. After a few more minutes of persuasion he finally agreed. 

We left Rirua with full bellies and warmth in our hearts. We could not believe how hospitably we had been treated. In what city could one ever find this level of conviviality? When could we ever turn up at a stranger’s home and count on being so welcomed? Would we treat a stranger this way if someone turned up unexpectedly at our home? [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3767″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_custom_heading text=”Boundaries”][vc_empty_space height=”16px”][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1593353575577{background-color: #f2f2f2 !important;}”]Radhika:

After chai and namkeen (snacks) that morning- our standard breakfast for the last few days- I went upstairs to talk to the women of the house. 

Unlike the peaceful pace of the ground floor, the rooms upstairs were a blur of activity. Children were laughing and playing while their older siblings tried to get them to study. One woman was taking a bath, and another was flitting from one room to another, tidying things up. Sudha, Shiv Nandan’s wife, was busy preparing food in a dim, airless room. A chula (mud stove) was shoved up against one corner, next to a few spice bottles and a pile of wood. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3766″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1593353619309{background-color: #f2f2f2 !important;}”]I settled myself down next to Sudha, who resisted my attempts to help her. I might not even have been able to: she did not use a chopping board to slice up the vegetables, like I was used to; instead, she used an upturned knife, held down with her foot, and brought down the vegetables on the blade. She was making baingan ki subzi (eggplant curry), along with a mound of paper-thin rotis. I was terribly excited. Until now, we had not had anything besides variations of aloo subzi (potato curry). Sudha chattered amicably while she cooked. 

“Everything I am putting in here is pure desi (local) – nothing from outside,” she said proudly. “Everything is grown on our own farms. Except the spices. We buy the spices in the market in Jalalpur and grind them up ourselves. They taste better that way. We do the same for salt. We buy the salt crystals and grind it at home.” I asked her whether these salt crystals were fortified with iodine, knowing that many people in India suffered from iodine deficiency disorders. “No, they are not,” she said. But iodine is good for you, I protested. “It does not taste as good,” she shot back. “We only feed ready- made salt with iodine to the cows”. Why in the world would cows need salt?, I asked. She laughed. “It is to make them drink more water over the summer,” she said. 

“We have a gas stove, but we do not use it. The rotis simply taste better when made on the chula.” Many women would repeat the same thing to us on the journey. Even though stoves were faster, easier to use, and improved the air quality in the house, they were only used for ‘emergencies’: when there were too many guests, for instance, or an unexpected visitor. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”3765″ add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1593353726524{background-color: #f2f2f2 !important;}”]I asked Sudha whether she had ever wanted to work outside the house – on the field, perhaps, alongside the men? She gave me a very emphatic “no”. “We like working at home, inside,” she said. “What would we gain by being on the fields? Only lower-caste women have to work outside- it is a lot more work than just taking care of the house and the children.” Studies conducted in the region reaffirm that most women working in the fields are from lower castes. 

Sudha did seem satisfied with her position in the house: she laughed openly and loudly, expressing herself without reservation, even when Shiv Nandan approached us, leaning against the doorway of the kitchen. He never came in, though. The boundaries within the house were clear. [/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_column_text]This article is part of a series, describing the journey and observations from the walk undertaken by Radhika Singh & Shail Joshi. New parts of the series will be published on www.veditum.org every Wednesday and Sunday. Series editor: Rathnavel Pandian

This series is also available in a book format. Interested readers/book reviewers/publishers may write to contact@veditum.org for access.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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