I sleep so well in Jhunjhunun and am surprised to find it is already 7:00 AM when I wake. At home I tend to wake at 5:30, and often here in India I wake up earlier thanks to jetlag. I am still the first to wake up. Thirty minutes later everyone else starts to wake. The morning starts with chai and then we go for a walk. Outside the door we meet one of Jerry’s old school friends and together we all walk through the neighbourhood. At the edge of the neighbourhood is a large group of tents. Inside some I can see small fires burning with people making breakfast and starting their day. Jerry tells me that this is where many of the construction workers who build the houses in the neighbourhood live. I ask him if they tend to move around a lot, expecting that people who live in tents would be there for seasonal work. He tells me that no, they’ve been here almost ten years and will likely stay until the government decides to build on that land at which point they’ll be made to leave. For the time being some even have electricity and water there, though. It’s hard to imagine living with the threat of eviction hanging over one’s head. At the same time, if there’s no other choice what can one do?
On the way back Jerry tells about how hard it is to get in to the army. There are several layers of tests both physical and mental and after that, a medical exam. At each step of the way people are eliminated. There are so many people wanting to join but only a few manage to make the cut. Jerry’s friend hopes to be one of them soon though last time he did not pass the running test so he must try again another time. I tell them how different it was back home in the US where my dad was an army recruiter. Yes, there was a test one had to write, and a physical exam people had to take but the majority of people were allowed to join. Once people got in, some didn’t make it through basic training and were discharged but overall, those who wanted to join could.
When we get back it is time for breakfast, again with more food than I could possibly eat. It is all so delicious, though, that I eat far more than I really should, and for quite some time after my stomach is full.
We say goodbye to Bua Ji and head out. Jerry asks me if I’d like to call an autorickshaw to come to us or walk the 1 km or so to the auto stand. At this point I tell him about improv comedy classes I’ve taken. One of the first lessons they teach is to say “Yes” when in a scene. Saying “Yes” when given an offer means that the scene can progress and will get interesting. Saying “No” will result in nothing happening. And so I say, of course we will walk.
We walk to the main road but the railroad crossing is down. A train is coming. Jerry looks and it is clear that the train is stopped and likely won’t be going anywhere for some time. We duck under the crossing arms, and walk across with other pedestrians and get to the main road.
We get to an auto and Jerry talks to the driver. Instead of just getting in like we did last time, there’s a bit of back and forth. They’re speaking too quickly for me to understand. Once we’re in the auto, though, Jerry explains. The driver thought that he was new in town and tried to charge Rs.60 instead of Rs.10 and ($1.20 instead of $0.20) and he had to explain that he knew the going rate.
We arrive at the bus stand again and find our way to the bus. People are already inside, waiting to depart and some of them say hello to Jerry. One of them is a brother of his grandfather’s going back to the same village as us.
Soon we’re ready to leave but it is slow going making our way through the crowds of people and other buses. Horns help but not everyone is listening.
Eventually our bus negotiates the crowds and traffic and we’re on the road again.
When we get to the village we walk back with Jerry’s great-uncle. Jerry translates some of what he’s saying and adds that right now he and his family are recovering from typhoid. I’m surprised as he says this in the same way we talk about someone recovering from the flu. It’s serious but not unusual.
We get back to the house and there is more chai. The chai in the village is especially good, made with ginger and rich buffalo milk. I greedily accept every offer for it and don’t drink any coffee while I’m here. Why would I have coffee when I can have this?
I take my lunch on the roof again, looking out over the fields. I already know I will be remembering this for decades to come. The food, the peace, the beauty. It is a perfect moment among many perfect moments of this trip.
When I’m done Jerry tells me about the trees he has planted on the farm and points out some of them. He can’t point out all of them because, he tells me, sometimes cows just wander over and eat them before they can grow. But the ones are left are beautiful, mango, amla, jamun trees. One jamun tree is just a few years old and aready well over two stories high and gives lots of fruit. In the field he points out sangri trees. I have seen these everywhere and not even known what they are. Many of them were trimmed of all their leaves. Jerry tells me that that’s because they’re really good fodder for goats and sheep. People also eat their beans, often in a dish called ker sangri. This dish uses berries from another local plant, the ker bush that Jerry shows me. They’re a relative of the caper and have a similar texture and are said to be very healthy.
As we’re looking over the fields he points out an older building attached to the one we’re standing on. “I was born in this house here,” he tells me. Fifty years ago, his grandfather, the man I met just days before, made this house. The first house in the area. Up until then others lived in a hut. It took immense work with people digging dirt and clay from the ground to make it. Next to the house is a well, and like most wells in the area, there is a small temple next to it.
We climb off our roof and onto the roof of the old house. Though it’s old, it is structurally sound. This building is going nowhere soon. It will likely outlast everyone in the village and then some.
We go down the steep stairs from the roof and into the front yard. Jerry warns me to watch for rats as there are many of them living here now. Their holes are evident. Soon we are in the courtyard. Then Jerry tells me some of his first memories of here.
When he was born, fifteen people were distributed among the many rooms of the house. Each room opened on to an open courtyard. On hot summer nights everyone, all fifteen of them, would move their beds in to the courtyard to sleep under the stars. In the morning everyone would wake up around the same time, say their good mornings to one another and start their day together.
He takes me to a the front door of his room. The frame is made of wood but the door itself is iron and strong as ever. Next to the door is a design on the side made of buffalo dung and shiny tiles. This was put there 22 years ago to announce that he was born.
His grandmother sees us there and calls out to us. Jerry tells her he’s showing me the house and she calls his grandfather over to tell us more. And so he joins us. He smiles as he tells us about the hard work of digging the clay and sand to make it usuing a pulley system to haul the materials up from the earth. He takes us back to the front door of the Jerry’s room and Jerry asks him if he has the keys to the locks on the doors but they’re long lost. Jerry says he’s disappointed because behind one of the doors is the chakki (grindstone) his family would use to make flour every morning for roti.
Next to the door to Jerry’s room is the place where he tells me the first electric light was hung when he was little. Still, his family would mostly use kerosene lamps for reading at night, cleaning the smoke from the glass chimneys daily so the light was clear and bright.
Pointing above us, Jerry asks me to guess why the entire ceiling was black. I can’t answer so he tells me. Outside each of the five families’ rooms, there was a chulha which they would use for cooking just as they still do in their newer house (but they also have a gas stove for days when the weather isn’t so good). Jerry tells me how he remembered people asking each other to share things as they cooked, roti, ingredients, and so on. And then he remembers always asking his mom to give him a roti to bring with him as he walked to school. “My school was in that direction.” he says, pointing out in to the fields. I imagine him walking across the fields with his school friends, books in hand and smile.
Having Jerry and his grandfather here to tell stories about this place really brings it alive. It also brings it home just how much has changed for this community. Jerry remembers walking to school across fields, sleeping as a family under the stars, and the arrival of the first electric light in his village. And now, here we are with perfect 4G mobile coverage, brought together because that same boy born in that room now has a popular YouTube channel and makes vlogs regularly. The amount of change is mind-boggling.
That night at dinner, in addition to the usual veggies and dal, there is raita. And inside it are some small berries. Jerry’s mom must have heard us talking about ker because in tonight’s dinner the raita has ker in it. That’s ker, pronounced “care” – which seems an appropriate word for the week.