Contributor : Vandita Dubey
It had barely been a couple of weeks since we had moved from Gurgaon to our new home in the Kumaon Himalayas. Boxes piled up, unopened. Fitting a four bedroom bungalow worth of stuff into a small two bedroom place seemed like an impossible task. In the midst of this chaos, I also needed to get some writing done for a book deadline that loomed. One morning as I sat down in the verandah converted into a drawing room-cum-study hoping to get some words down as the kids were at school, a most unusual thing happened. The glass door of our house was suddenly pushed open by Aama (old lady/grandmother in Kumaoni) who lives next door. She walked in confidently, though leaning heavily on her wooden stick, and sat down on one of the chairs. She said not a word.
So, I had a visitor in the house who did not feel like a visitor: I did not know what to do. Many years of social training finally kicked in and I stood up, offered an uncertain “Namaste.” She non-chalantly accepted my greeting and in the same breath told me to continue my work, adding that she would just sit there. Social interactions in the city don’t follow this script and so I felt at a loss about what I should do. Was I actually supposed to carry on with my work? Or, was I supposed to set it aside and pay attention to the visitor? I turned back to my writing as instructed, but my brain wouldn’t work. So, I shut the computer and turned my attention to the lady. “Would you like some tea?” She readily agreed. Cups of tea were made, she wanted to know where we had come from, what I do, etc: Usual getting to know the new neighbour questions. Tea over and some curiosity satisfied, she went on her way. I still did not know what to make of this social interaction.
There is a common perception that Indians do not have as much of a concept of personal space as North Americans or Europeans do. I always thought it was because we are all so tightly packed – such a huge population and such little space, especially in all urban areas, even towns and most villages. But many villages in Kumaon, including the one where we live, have houses set far apart. I have heard that at one time, before city folks started buying second homes and urbanizing this area, people used to actively welcome a family that moved close by. It meant that there would now be more people extending help in case there was an emergency or natural calamity. Aama is someone from that time. She has virtually adopted us and we are grateful for all the help that she and her family have extended to us in the past two years . But quite remarkably they have been able to maintain the fine balance between offering help and interfering or taking over our lives.
We urban folks tend to worry about our privacy and erect tall fences, lock our doors and install door bells. Even in areas where safety is not an issue. Here, village folk regularly walk through each other’s backyards and nobody raises a heckle about trespassing. While people of various nationalities have made this area truly home by integrating themselves in different ways with the local community, others have failed miserably. The most recent incident involved a French & Israeli couple who rented a house and rumours are, wanted to grow marijuana. Now, marijuana is a grass that grows in most people’s backyards and does not catch any attention. This couple, however, erected tall fences around their house, effectively blocking direct access to the houses below. The residents of those houses were forced to walk a long way around, up the hill, to access the road. Soon enough, the villagers made a complaint to the DM about the marijuana crop. The house was raided and the couple arrested.
There is much unlearning we have done since our move here, fortunately without getting arrested. As they say, when in Rome do as Romans do: In Kumaon that may mean changing your definitions of privacy.
About the contributor: Dr. Vandita Dubey is a US licensed Psychologist and a permanent Uncity resident. She continues her conselling practice from her village home on phone and skype. The book referred to in this post has since been published by Rupa, and is titled “Parenting in the age of Sexposure : raising the precocious generation. ” She also co-hosts the Himalayan Writing Retreats. You can learn more about her at www.vanditadubey.com .