Train travel: the next best thing to riding a bike, at least that’s what my biking comrade would say at the beginning of one of his perennial lectures on the monstrosity of petrol. Even the metros in Kolkata and Beijing seem like different, smoother worlds underground. In Japan, glossy subterranean shopping centers link buildings to metro lines and railway stations like impalpable lines of distraction so that no one is ever bored enough to realize that he or she is performing the mundane task of walking from one place to another.
Riding the train in India offers a slower, more cathartic distraction. The slick, hyper-convenient, underworld of advertisement is replaced by above ground rice fields and the inland seas of the Bay of Bengal, the coconut trees fringing the green plains, the golden glare of the Rajasthan dunes, and the tornadoes swirling over the complacent sea.
You sit for a long time just watching. Sometimes, you get up, walk to the open door, and ponder fate’s effectiveness in predicting your actions. You might jump out and roll around in the green carpets, dance with the fairies that make the grass sway. You fancy chatting with the village women in saris fetching well water. You imagine biking on the skinny roads that dart in and out behind the trees following the train tracks like a smart missile.
We are in secret war: the postcard view and the tangible terrain.
The faster I can get to a place, the longer I can stay there and make friends, develop roots, understand the nature and condition of the people. The depth of field advances as the in betweens—the small agricultural villages, the deserts and high rise towns, the varying dialects, the different versions of modernity, the comprehensive view – are pulled tight into a clean line: the shortest distance between two points.
The slower I move, the more I see and touch along the way.
Living in an Indian village has taught me the importance of taking the long way home. I am stopped daily on the way to anywhere and demanded to sit and take tea. If one were to track my daily route, instead of a straight line, you would find a loop, a zig-zag, and a curve.
Still, though I move slowly, I am still moving. Sitting on the slow moving bike that has inevitably taken me across six countries (with the help of a plane to India), I have seen scenery after scenery pass through my grasping finger tips. Mornings have escaped me like a missed opportunity. I linger in place, breath suspended, mouth open, stunned by emptiness.
But now, the ironic predicament of owning a passport with no more visa pages in it, and being from a country too small to have embassies this far away from it, has stopped me in my pedals. I have nowhere to go. I can legally go nowhere else but home at the moment.
So I sit. Or squat in the tiny village of Ullikotai with its unpronounceable, multi-syllable town and surnames.
Life is slow enough to sink here. Women clean houses and fetch water in their moomoo’s, waiting for visitors to share biscuits and hearsay. Men who are not working in the fields sit in tea kiosks with other men, spitting beetle nut, reading the paper, and discussing the latest strike.
Everyone knows everyone and everything. The details of my morning run at 6 to 7am 4km to the West on the road that leads to Mannargudi, yesterday’s milk poisoning, and my whereabouts at all times are kept by the official minute keeper, namely the old man who never wears anything but a white lungi (sheet skirt) next door.
It is not only me that is the subject of interest here. The village is so plebian, so down to the basic nodes of society, that it knows its own problems, its own needs, its struggle against the elusive state government.
If China is a nation of autonomous regions, the US a network of suburbs and interstates, Japan a span of endless cities cut off only by the vastness of the Alps, India is often referred to as a nation of villages. And these villages are flooded with grassroots level NGOs that are as much a part of the village makeup as the local government.
Set up much like the traditional extended family unit: village elders (traditional Panchayats), inherit their positions, and counsel on domestic issues and social conflicts. Elected Panchayats are a recent phenomenon to democratize the local governance. NGO’s build synergy between the two, educate them on development, and help to strengthen the village as a whole. Hence, the village, small and tight-knit, is self-sufficient. It knows what it needs. When it comes to political issues and schemes, the central government is often cut off. Support comes from within. Such grassroots security put people in a position to fight for their needs.
Only in Indian villages do women have 33% reservation in the elected Panchayat, a suggestion that has not been taken up by the central government. The stagnation caused by a central government made up of a coalition of parties from the left and the right does not occur on the grassroots level of a strengthened Panchayat that uses its links to NGO’s, federations, and self-help groups as a support structure.
Only in rural India, at the grassroots level, can you see development lucidly taking place before your eyes, as women leaders, grassroots NGOs, and the local governance1 demand the needs of the people from the district and state level governments.
Still, poverty, lack of exposure, the dearth in governmental resources like hospitals and schools, and the great distance to the nearest big cities (Chennai, 300km to the North, and Coimbatore, 300km to the West) a village’s tight-knit support base can prove to be airtight.
Any attempt to explain that I cycled from Beijing and plan for Paris gets an audience of blank stares like a silhouetted crowd. People simply have no concept of where those places are in the world. Some don’t even know that Darjeeling or Jaipur are cities in India. Many have never been to Chennai, and think in terms of the nearest town 10km north, Mannargudi (also a block consisting of several panchayats consisting of several hamlets) of Thiruvarur district, of Tamil Nadu state.
The world-view here is small, like an ant looking through a glass at a ferocious eyeball. The world looks like a big magical kingdom with magical reasons for unusual problems. People think that mental illness, a social issue here, is a curse. They go to the temples of Shiva and Mari Amman, painting their foreheads with white powder, and facing north, they pray away evil spirits.
I am told to turn on all the lights at night to ward off bad spirits just as the farmers in Cambodia came and reignited our campfire in the rice field.
In telling their stories, magical realism authors like Gabriel Marquez create magical villages like Maconda with traveling gypsies and grandfather ghosts tied to trees, and the reader who wants to decode the meaning, has to suspend his or her disbelief.
Kundera, in The Curtain, argued that small countries often see themselves as subjects, rather than objects of history. But in a country as big as India, especially in ultra proud Tamil Nadu where people refuse to speak Hindi as the national language, and laud only Tamil movies and Tamil music, snubbing there noses at North India’s Bollywood, the villages have made themselves subjects with a capital S.
If I were to question any of the quirks like why coffee is unavailable after lunch, or why breakfast and dinner are just snacks, or why riding a bike for 6km is ok, but 8km is out of the way, the overarching explanation is simply, “In Tamil, madam, we do it this way.” They have taken advantage of the absence the central government and clutched their own identity tightly in their fists.
Talking to women here who will face the inevitable cultural event of an arranged marriage, I pick their brains for evidence of hesitation, fear, a need to be more liberated like me and my hedonistic girlfriends.
But I, like a reader of magical realism have to suspend my disbelief. For again and again, women say that they were afraid only on the honeymoon night then submitted wholeheartedly to a fulfilling life of housewifery and loyalty to their husbands. They say that their hobbies are cooking and sweeping and sowing. Was it a coincidence that the movie Mona Lisa Smiles, about a college professor challenging the image of the 1950’s dutiful housewife, was playing at the house of a friend cooking dinner for me?
These villages are old. Their patents well-tested and proven. A mistake we make often in the West is judging the beliefs and the structures of the developing world by our own recently developed standards. But for most of human history, this “developing” world had higher standards of living and more technical and scientific inventions way before the Spanish mistook the Caribbean or West Indies for India, or pilgrims sailed the Atlantic looking for land.
Writers like Alejo Carpenter and Gabriel Marquez write with the authority of an oral tradition of story telling passed onto them by their grandmothers. Many of the monotheist religions as we know them were established first through oral history among early followers, then later written down by the scribes. While the scribes were merely recording history as they heard it, magical realism writers highlight and challenge the cultural and political paradigms of a country through kaleidoscope caricature of its vices.
We have to give up our right to reason, our right to judge or speak, our subjectivity, our authorship and simply go along with the story as it is told from the point of view of the author.
Often, this is the only way to fully sink in. Only then, can we understand a country’s needs and how we can assist.
This is not to say that we must romanticize over the backwardness of a village. Indeed, this would defeat the purpose of my NGO hiring me, seeking a way to streamline its organization to international standards.
It would also defeat the purpose of travel. Instead of truthfully witnessing the world, we would be manufacturing our own guidebook versions of the real thing.
But perhaps, we could stay long enough to see the lenses of the people, ride slow enough to rest at the pace of the villagers.
 Local Governance, and not government, is the term used to describe the local group that governs the villages in rural India. The term is used because there are so many support networks besides the government– grassroots, national, and international NGOs, Self Help Groups (rights based empowerment and savings groups for marginalized sectors, ie disabled, women, etc), federations (clusters of SHGs), traditional and elected Panchayats – that work together to promote integrated development.
•••Nakia Pearson has always found it easier to articulate on the page. She has worked as a freelance journalist for Nassau papers, and produces articles for expat magazines in Japan and China. Her latest travel adventure – a bike ride from Beijing to Paris – is recorded on www.fueledbyrice.org.