Domesticity and progress in the Himalayas
by Becca Gasperoni
Atop a hill in the rural northeastern Indian village of Sarmoli, Uttarakhand lies a home quite unlike the modest mud houses of the community below. When I first approach Malika Virdi at her perch on her sun-bathed balcony, the contrasts are hard to ignore. Sitting barefoot in a wicker chair, her thick graying hair tied in a long braid that trails down her back, Malika’s fingers move effortlessly as she frees rajma beans from their shells. Sarmoli women are scattered on the balcony behind her, weaving rugs on a loom or knitting furiously as they giggle and speak in hurried Hindi, their gold bangles clanging as they work.
I’ve come to speak with Malika about the state of women’s rights in rural India. I’m sitting beside her on her balcony with a small blue notebook in my lap, my skin flushed pink from sunburn and my palms blistered from hammering rocks into stone jelly with my host mother this morning.
“Are you getting used to the food?” Malika asks, her kohl-lined dark brown eyes shifting their gaze toward me.
“It’s delicious. Still a little hard on my stomach, but it’s so good,” I answer, feeling my breakfast of spicy cumin-roasted pumpkin and roti still fresh in my stomach. I’ve been sick since I first moved in with my host family, but I’ve been trying hard to ignore the constant nausea. The easy solution would be to stop eating the food that my host mother prepares using untreated water, but I’m too afraid to offend her.
Malika oversees the homestay program in the village. She is a progressive figure in the movement of gender equality in the Himalayas, spearheading an effort to increase women’s involvement in local politics and to address the issues and struggles of everyday life as a mountain woman. Malika founded the Maati Women’s Collective in 2000, a grassroots organization in which the women of Sarmoli stand as a collective group against the struggles they face as Indian women on a daily basis. The women of Maati welcome travelers and students into their homes for the small price of 500 rupees, or around eight US dollars, a night, as well as help with housework. I want to learn more about this grassroots effort, so I’ve sat down with Malika to ask about the work she does with Maati. I want to know why she founded the collective and how it fits into the Sarmoli community.
“Individualism is important,” she says as she strokes the soft fur of her leopard-spotted housecat. “But the safety net provided by the collaborative use of group merit and collective achievement is so powerful.”
Her British Indian accent gives her speech a refined and intellectual quality that is both soothing and confident. She is the only woman in the collective who speaks fluent English, and she is by far the most educated, having moved to Sarmoli from Delhi 23 years earlier. She serves as a representative to the Sarmoli Village Forest Council and was part of a group called the 1,000 Women that was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Unlike the other women, her forehead is free of a bindi, and her wrists lack the usual presence of stacked golden bangles. Missing, too, is the streak of red paint normally found on a married Hindu woman’s hairline.
Each morning, I hike my way up the root covered and tortuously steep wooded path that climbs to the top of the hill where Malika lives with her husband, Theo, in a beautiful and spacious house with incredible views of the snow capped peaks of the Indian Himalayas.
When I first met the members of the Maati Collective, it was clear that Malika is somewhat of a figurehead in Sarmoli. The village women look to her for guidance and as a source of livelihood. Each morning, the women of the collective make the same trek up the hill to pick rajma beans in Malika’s garden and knit or weave on her balcony. They sell these products for a profit in order to gain some semblance of economic independence from their husbands.
In a society in which women’s independence and rights are diminished by patriarchy and the predominance of arranged marriages, Malika’s background and efforts with the Maati collective have established her as an influential member of the community. The non-governmental organization focuses on opposing the liquor lobby and the lack of female independence and abolishing domestic violence from the lives of village women. Malika is the epitome of urban Indian intellectualism, standing in stark contrast to the mostly uneducated rural women with whom she works.
“I lived in cities till my early thirties, all the while moving away from the culture of the large metropolis of Delhi to first the margins of the city itself populated by migrants from rural India, to smaller towns, and then to rural Rajasthan and then finally to Sarmoli,” Malika says. “In hindsight, what I was looking for was a sense of place, a rootedness, a connection with the land and the communities it supports and the spirit it engenders. I needed to live close to the land, with the seasons, with a community that weathered the seasons together.”
I can understand Malika’s draw to rural India. The state of Uttarakhand is far from the influence of major cities. Delhi is a ten-hour drive by bus or car along winding roads that carve into the hillsides. In Sarmoli, similar to the other rural villages in the state, the nearest road is in the nearby town of Munsari. Some villages in this state are even further removed, with no roads nearby for at least a day’s trek. Sarmoli is set on a hillside, and you can see women cutting grass on the cliff sides above, bundles of grass strapped to their backs with twine. Terrace farming is popular here, and the green levels of farmland look like steps into the sides of the mountains. Fields of millet color the land with splashes of red and yellow. The air is fresh and there aren’t many lights. At night the stars come out in bright clusters and the moon’s light is brighter than anywhere I’ve seen at home.
Sarmoli is a small village with a seemingly tight-knit community. Everyone knows everyone by name and you can’t walk the dirt path that connects the village without seeing someone. As I sit with Malika, she is physically elevated from her perch on her wicker chair as her fellow collective members sit with crossed legs on rugs on the ground. Her face is adorned with a soft and regal smile, and the mountain wind rustles her hair slightly as she gazes out towards the hills.
“I am glad I found my calling as a farmer, and I now live and work with mountain communities on issues of daily concern and our common dreams,” Malika says when I ask her if she is happy with her move to Sarmoli.
Having lived here for 23 years, she seems comfortable in the community. Her education and experience living in urban India set her apart from the other citizens of the village, seemingly giving her an advantage.
“I feel privileged to have found my place in a rural community, as a farmer, a rural primary producer, an elected representative and a woman,” she explains. “The quality of life depends as much or even more on the social reality than on each individual. And as I aspire to live a fulfilled life personally, I work towards creating an enabling environment. I grew up with the Indian women’s movement that swept through the cities of India in the 1970s and was empowered by it. Now I pass on the support and sensibility that came my way.”
Malika speaks about her place in the community with certain arrogance. I suppose it’s hard to avoid this attitude given her high level of education and her experience living in cities. Compared to the other women in Sarmoli, Malika has more freedoms and opportunities. She travels frequently with her husband, Theo, and conducts her own research on sustainability in the Himalayas. She wears pants and modern-looking blouses. After observing the conservative skirts and traditional tasks of the other village women, I am desperate to learn about the status of women in this rural area and how their lives compare to my own in the United States.
“The balance between men and women has a great deal to do with the negotiation of space,” Malika explains in her accented English. “Many women appear outwardly traditional to avoid rocking the boat while, inwardly, they live freely in order to set an example for their daughters.”
To avoid conflict in their homes, it seems that these women need a venue in which to live freely, as Malika puts it. Upon arriving in Sarmoli, Malika realized that rural life posed unique issues for Indian women. Traditional and conservative lifestyles in the villages are growing increasingly different from the modern and western culture of India’s large cities. These urban areas are pockets of modern society, and women typically enjoy social freedoms associated with Western culture. In rural villages, however, traditions such as social hierarchies and patriarchy limit a woman’s independence.
“With deep caste and class divides and family allegiances, it’s hard for women to step out and take a collective stand,” Malika explains. “Cities are a mix of castes and people, so it’s easy to break barriers.”
When asked about the main goals of the Maati Collective, Malika gives a well-rehearsed answer that puts her work in the context of bettering the community from her place as a community member.
“Maati is a collective of mountain women committed to working together on everyday issues and struggles: striving for a life free from violence, food sovereignty and livelihood security, and a strong empowered and informed voice in our democratic self governance, and forging alliances with other such communities locally and globally,” she says slowly and deliberately.
As for the status of marital relationships in Sarmoli, I soon learn that four of the seven women in the Maati collective are in arranged marriages. Their relationships with their husbands are not equal in any sense; the women stay at home and perform domestic tasks while the men work and are respected as the heads of the household.
“Traditionally, women do not choose their own partners, so there is no closeness between husband and wife,” she says. In rural villages, husbands are typically older than their wives by 10 years or more. Upon marriage, the wife isuprooted from her family and moves to the home of her husband’s family and parents. For this reason, it seems that the women’s collective is a way of creating bonds in an otherwise predetermined life. The women spend every day together while their children are at school, gathering at Malika’s home to make products or discuss prominent issues in the community. Domestic violence has been their main focus for the past few years.
“There was a lot of violence that was happening against women, and I said look, we can’t keep quiet,” Malika explains. “Once I started talking and saying that it wasn’t right, the response was so real and so immediate. Sometimes you just need a catalyst.”
The Maati Collective attempted to rectify a specific situation in which a husband returned home late one night after binge drinking for several hours. In a drunken rage, he threw a bucket of kerosene on his wife and then struck a match, setting her ablaze. His mother and his small son came downstairs when they heard his wife’s screams, witnessing the woman burning to death while her husband watched. The mother and son poured water on the woman and went to get help. She was brought to a hospital in nearby Munsiari, alive but on the verge of death.
When the authorities learned what had happened, they sought to protect the husband. They went to visit the woman at the hospital and presented her with a document to sign that declared the incident purely accidental, virtually absolving the husband of any charges. The authorities told the injured woman that if she died and her husband went to jail, her son would be left an orphan. If she signed the document, her son could live with her husband after she passed away. Defeated and saddened, the woman signed the document.
When Malika and the Maati Collective learned about this horrific incident, they decided to get involved. “We went to visit the woman and tried to convince her to rescind her signature,” Malika explains.
If Malika is indeed a catalyst for change in Sarmoli, it is hard not to wonder how a woman who has experienced a life so different from that of a rural woman can relate to the issues the Maati Collective strives to rectify. Malika is not a villager who arose as a leader from a state of oppression, but rather an outsider who has entered this village society quite seamlessly and has emerged as a source of societal influence.
Her relationship with her husband makes her even more of an outlier among the Maati women. Having met at university in Delhi, Malika is six months older than Theo and is his intellectual equal. A slender man with a graying beard and thickly rimmed glasses, Theo is soft-spoken and subdued, seemingly overpowered by his opinionated and ambitious wife. While Malika has inserted herself into the lives of the Sarmoli villagers, Theo focuses instead on his independent work on the sustainability of the Himalayan ecosystem. Their relationship seems to offer a model of a modern partnership.
“Maati is a place where women come, meet and organize, and share our joys and hopes,” Malika says proudly, smiling softly and glancing at the women of the collective who are seated behind her. Far from the lights and smog of the city, the Himalayan peaks stretch tall in front of her as she adds, “Maati is really a collective of strength.”