Monday, December 18, 1995

USA, Gujarat

We first met Blandine in Paris, and she was very kind to us. Two young girls travelling across the continent, unescorted and ill-equipped with funds, was something of a rarity in those days. She extended her hearth, and heart, to us; giving us our first exposure to things exotic, educating us (as far as we were capable of receiving such education) on French art, history and cuisine. We, on the other hand, Amita and I that is, were simple and innocent; gauche, even, and I can remember refusing to try the wine for fear of what might happen next.
But Blandine took all this in her stride and went as far as to make us welcome at her sister’s in Monte Carlo and her mother’s in Lille, revealing a strain of Indianness in her nature that eventually overcame her and she married a Coorgi tea planter by the name of Ravi Aiyappa, and they now live happily ever after in Paris.
Back then, Blandine was a great traveller and, like many of her country folk, revelled in the East. On her first trip to India after we returned, it was of course our bounden duty to reciprocate and we sent her off to spend a few days with Amita’s parents who had recently returned from a lifetime in various locations around the globe to the ancestral village in Gujarat. The idea was to acquaint her with The Real India, the India of the villages. And Blandine went, duly equipped with mosquito repellent for herself and imported chocolate for the village kids. And returned with a perspective on Indian village life that entranced us.
Now these villages of Gujarat were never told of by Kipling, and, well, tales are crying to be told of them. Tradition has enjoined their sons and daughters, over the generations, to export themselves across the seas and set up shop in more congenial corners of the globe. Every family has at least one such prodigal on its rolls. In strange lands – distant in space, and time, and manner – they replicate their village lifestyle with no more than a cursory concession to attached bathrooms, toilet paper, frozen food, central locking systems and the like. Food processors churn out dough for dosas and dhoklas as obligingly as for pancakes. Or paincakes, as local dialect would have it.
Through it all, their hearts remain in the hot, dry and dusty villages of their birth. And the exiles recharge batteries with periodic trips back home.
They come laden with gifts – the fruit of their toil in the unfriendly faraway lands. And it is these that Blandine saw, and marvelled at, driven to poetry by the incongruity they threw up. The dusty village houses were equipped with the latest in electronic gadgetry, but they couldn’t use it – the electricity, when present, was given to wild fluctuations. Cupboards were overflowing with synthetic fabric – but the weather was not conducive. Sores, rashes and conjunctivitis – these were the lot of their children, marvelled at for their strange accents and exotic manner; and diarrhoea – with no Best Before date to use as a guide, and cowpats to substitute for playdough.
At bath time, Blandine was equipped with soap and shampoo and hair-conditioner, all of differing nationalities, and headed to a bathroom fitted out in splendid matching tiles, basin, commode, and towel rail. Unable to resist, perhaps from force of habit, she turned on a tap but not a drop dripped out. Gushing water, after all, was only a phenomenon of the monsoon skies. And Blandine, reasonably versed in the art of bucket-bath, made use of one filled with water drawn from the well.
first appeared as a Times of India Middle on 18 Dec 1995