Sitting in the shade of the portia tree, I wiped the sweat off my brow, as I watched my husband and his gang of friends do something that did not come very naturally to them – manual labour.
Three of them had formed a relay chain, and were passing bricks. One of them was arranging the bricks on top of a half-built wall, while others were busy grouting it with red clay, the 40-degree sun notwithstanding, and water-breaks aplenty. Working alongside them, were the future owners of the house – Hirabai and Haribhau. They were mildly amused at the city folk in their white hard hats, but also there was a flicker of something else in Hira and Hari’s eyes – hope.
Life in a tiny hamlet, off Chaphewadi, Karjat, is not easy. The inhabitants dream of things we city dwellers take for granted. Hirabai has to walk over eight km each day to fetch potable water for her family. Haribhau has to figure out how to keep his family fed during the lean months. They have a small patch of land, that they till and sow rice in. But that happens once a year. The monsoon is their best friend, and unseasonal rains, (the kind that damages crops) their worst enemy.
They and their neighbours lead a life most extraordinary – as it seems to ivory-tower born-and-bred people like me, at least.
The families raise their first-born daughter as a “water girl” – her entire life is devoted to the practice of balancing heavy pots on her head, and fetching water from a borewell miles away. “Water girls” are sought after, with many families seeking their hand in marriage for their eligible sons. The reason? So that the newly minted mothers-in-law can pass on those duties. Many of the children do go to pre-primary schools as they are accessible. Fourth grade onwards, only the brave send their boys to schools that are over six km away. Education comes to a jarring halt for the girls.
I have always questioned why farmers don’t educate their daughters, blaming it on our history of gender discrimination. For the first time, I wondered if I would have allowed my pre-teen daughters to wander through the wilderness to reach school – to gain an education that did not guarantee a job. There are no buses (I assume) since there were no bus stops. There were no tempo-rickshaws. No tractors. For all practical purposes, their hamlet was disconnected from what we call the civilised world. Don’t forget, Mumbai, a megapolis, is a mere 4 hours away.
It was evident to me that Haribhau and Hirabai needed help. Their communities need help. While the government is offering subsidies on rice and lentils, there is so much more we can do!
We were lucky enough to have philanthropist friends who took us along. They had teamed up with Habitat for Humanity – a grassroots level non-profit organisation with a global footprint. Habitat for Humanity assists low-income families in building houses and sanitation units. They welcome volunteers. For city-dwellers, it is an experience of a lifetime.
I am grateful for friends who carry us forward with them, and thankful to organisations such as Habitat for Humanity, who allow us to play a role in bringing about a change in our country’s future.
Habitat for Humanity follows three programs in India: affordable housing for the marginalised sections of our country, sanitation and disaster response. They have a vibrant volunteer program. Thousands of people sign up to volunteer as part of a corporate team or individually. It is easy to sign up, you just have to log on to habitatindia.org/volunteering-program/
The team hand holds you through the task at hand, lunch and refreshments are served on site. The HfH team has trained local volunteers to cater for the build teams, thus generating more jobs locally. We chose to stay overnight in a hotel of our choice, and were back with a smile for the second day of constructing.
I am glad I took my five year old son along to observe. I was worried it would be hot and dusty. It was! But my son thrived! He and his friends were happy to rake the mud with sticks, collect pebbles and twigs, and “build” their own miniature house. He noticed how spartan village life can be, and came away wiser from it. He asked a dozen questions, and came up with just as many solutions – from attaching pipes to lakes, to putting tubs on roofs to collect water, to adding solar panels on tractors. He recalled all those instructions incessantly given to him at home on why he shouldn’t waste water, and confessed that he finally understood.
And as for us adults? The weekend ended with us weary in body, but healed in the mind. Each brick laid down managed to restore a little bit of our soul.
And each brush stroke was a like a therapeutic salve. My group of friends will definitely jump at an opportunity like this again, and are already discussing when to “build” next.
(Ex-CEO at Ariston Capital Services Pvt Ltd. Currently, a Stay At Home Mum.)