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“This is what we should do tomorrow,”  said Girish with enthusiasm,  “Leave early morning before all the other groups get up, take the river route and go visit the farms next to the riverbed. We can chat with the farmer’s family, probably milk their buffaloes, try our hand at the milk-churning equipment and Swappy and I can try ploughing the fields too..”

“And we can get fresh, amazing chai early morning!” I butted in.

“And the womenfolk won’t be bothered by anyone.” Sayantan said.  Meha and Priyanka nodded in agreement.

‘Anyone’ were the teachers who accompanied us for the trip. Not that they bothered the village women, the women simply ran indoors whenever any of the ‘masterjees’ turned up to inspect if we were really working on our assignments. Insensitive behaviour from both sides in different contexts.

Environmental Perception (EP) is a two-week course in the foundation year of NID in which we visit a small village to study how it functions in micro and macro ‘systems design’ context. I was a bit of a dunce at that time to understand what this meant, but now I know what I should have actually done there other than drinking fresh buffalo milk herbal village tea and have khatta meetha churan from the toothless ancient shop-woman, with a few terrible sketches of goats, camels, cactii and handpumps thrown in here and there. I guess most of us considered it a week-long picnic before it started. A week later, after bathing in ice-cold water in the middle of february, living in a tribal village school where rats ran amok our dusty mattresses and refraining from much of normal behavioural tidbits (teachers called it PDA) we take for granted, I realized it was no picnic (specially after one girl woke the entire girls’ room at three a.m. one night when a rat ran on her blanketed self), but nevertheless a fun-filled (the rat returned a few more times) learning experience.

I have lived in my paternal aunt’s village for entire summers in the middle of water-thirsty Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Obviously, comparisons happened in my head and churned out some prejudices and pre-conceptions about Virampur*, the village we were to study.  Some of them did turn out true; the place was water-starved, we rarely saw women’s faces during our stay, there were more goats than people and also thatch-roof  huts with mud walls: a quintessential Indian village. Though most of our assignments involved making maps, studying the culture and local ‘design’ (in a very layered sense),  they all involved direct interaction with the residents, be it the surly ‘thakur’ who sat at the entrance of his home (I was quite kicked to see that this fellow closely resembled the ones we see in films) the kids who chased chicks (Gallus Domesticus, not Homo sapiens sapiens), or the Ayurvedic doctor who had actually won a President’s award for his expertise.

What I couldn’t help ignore was the concept of a ‘nation,’  as we understand it from our ten years of NCERT textbooks spanning different subjects, did not seem to exist in the minds of most of the residents there.  This might be a common fact in a lot of places in the world, but I had not come across it face-to-face before.  In some of the rural places I have earlier visited,  most people at least remotely referred to ‘India’ in some way or the other. In conversations (government this,  government that..), in trying out ‘dishes’ like those South ‘Indians’,  in (sadly) cracking jokes about Punjabis, and so on. They did display awareness of belonging to a certain-land-with-certain-customs. They seemed to know that a lot of people like them with different cultures exist around but who all come under on big umbrella of a common country. I think in reality, it doesn’t matter to anyone much beyond a point as long as their basic needs are taken care of, irrespective of whether they have a sense of belonging towards a country, state or culture. I guess generalization is a bad idea, but I still wonder.

Virampur people,  particularly women, didn’t seem to be aware of the concept much.  For instance, they referred to me as ‘Marathan,’ Sagarika Sundaram as ‘Madrasan’ and Priyanka Patel as ‘Gujratan’, but they thought that Marathis and Madrasis (a lot of north Indians still refer to anyone from the south of India as ‘Madrasis’, be they from any of the four states) are from two different countries.  I first thought by ‘different countries’ they probably meant different states. I thought it was simply a use of different terminology, but they kept referring to Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu as ‘tumhara desh’ and Banaskatha district* as ‘hamara desh.’  We asked them about what all they knew about Bhaarat. They asked us whether Bhaarat was north or south of Virampur.  They wondered if Bhaarat was Sayantan’s country.  We tried the same question with ‘India’ and ‘Hindustan.’ All we got were indifferent shrugs.

All this while, ‘Bengali’ Sayantan sketched their many buffaloes merrily, probably wondering why his group mates were asking stupid questions to the village folk.

* a district in Gujarat neighbouring Rajasthan where Virampur is.