In the mid-1930s before the Partition between India and Pakistan, a young Army Officer, extremely polished and wearing a freshly pressed cream linen suit, stepped on a train from New Delhi in search of land to purchase. He was heading towards the Punjab, not far from what would later be called Pakistan with the idea in mind that he would buy enough land to set up his son’s and their future families. While the refined and well suited young man was travelling from Delhi, he encountered two businessmen who as chance would happen, were intending to seek a buyer for a number of rather significant landholdings. The deal was fortuitously closed on a northbound train and he became a landowner in a village outside of Hisar. Nestled in a dry basin between the Punjab and Rajasthan the outstretched farmland and thriving village is where the last 5 generations of his family have called home.
The main “house of peace” (as written in Urdu above the entrance) is a living breathing testament to the tranquillity that has protected the house for so many years. When I first went to the open style Haveli with its flat roof adorned in jali, the serenity of the home first cast its charms on me. Its white washed walls flake like wafers under the oppressive heat of summer and invasive dust storms, but it has a rustic charm that would be hard to replicate even if that was your objective. The last few years have seen splashes of colour added to doorways and terraces and now once mud-walled facades are the colour of lapis blue stone and fresh cut papaya.
Life in the village is simple. There is a deep thread of spirituality that connects everyone and the feeling is tangible. It was about village life that I first wrote that there is joy in my feet when I’m in India; when I’m there I want to be barefoot, to feel the energy in my every step, I want to sit with my legs crossed on the grass, feel the heat of the sun on my face and breathe in the majesty of a living history that is so rare. In a developing world and closely encroaching town, the simple pleasures of the village are a last remaining bastion of an uncomplicated life. At three in the morning, the women are up, squatting and crouching around the iron hot plates set into the ground rolling and making chappatis. With their brightly printed dupattas worn loosely over their heads and their palms white with flour, they sit together and sing, the most beautiful sounds of devotion rising and blending with the smoky morning air.
Twice a year the women mix clay mud, hay and cow dung in sweeping circular motions and lay it on the open courtyard so that much of its loamy soil is a dry, earthen surface baked by the sun. It’s this same clay brown that gives the village walls its earthy tone. Simple flat roofed square homes, some in adjoining compounds with enough room for kids to play, cows to sit lopsided on the uneven ground and families to grow up in. Theirs is a simple but hard life, relying on the seasons to fill the fields they farm day in and day out. While there are Combines for wheat harvesting and machines to sow seeds, the options are limited and expensive with the high import tax duties. Even when the Harvester does its work, the remaining process from loading trolleys, making hay, filling and stacking sky high sacks of wheat is all done by hand. The men wear loosely tied turbans on their head to protect them from the searing sun and the women meticulously pick crops of chickpeas, chillies and onions. Coriander is dried in the sun and the seeds beaten by hand against the hard ground to collect in baskets; it’s back-breaking work, but the farms can’t survive without their weather-beaten brows and hardy skilled fingers.
It’s the village kids, particularly that have carved such a deep place within my heart. I already find myself thinking about how they’ll grow up, hoping their parents don’t marry them too young and wishing they find happiness in their jobs, hoping most of all that the girls are allowed to work and that the sons find their own. But until they grow up, they bring the most wonderful warmth and I love the richness of diversity that this gives our own kids of this generation. It creates a village of industry and a spirit of togetherness. Some of our favourite moments are spent sitting around the open stove in winter, fire blazing while we push in the dry twigs from the cotton plants and watch chai bubble in an open pot and the loose black tea leaves mix and jump in the hot frothy milk. As the heavy night sky descends, the crossbow of stars appears and we wrap our shawls tightly around our shoulders. I wonder could there be a better way to spend an evening.
*Jali; perforated stone or latticed screen with an ornamental pattern