We were sitting on a charpoy in the fading evening light. Above our heads, a canopy of bright green fluttering neem leaves. The blazing heat of the day was finally dispersing, leaving in its wake a gentle breeze that carried the musky smell of muddy straw-topped huts. A babble of chatter emerged from the crowd that surrounded us: the crowd that always gathered whenever we entered a village. Many of the children, even adults, had never seen a foreigner. If my skin was white, I feel sure the reaction would have been even more curious. The camera, too, drew inquisitive stares that quickly melted into raptures of delight at the images, which gazed just as inquisitively back at them.
Bitti Devi sat tall and proud. Bedecked in a rather regal bright blue sari that partly covered the deep purple blouse beneath it. A faint grin curled the corners of her mouth revealing a row of straight teeth that sloped attractively inwards, her deep brown eyes alive with zeal.
It wasn’t long before her hearty, rasping laugh billowed outwards, filled with a force that was instantly striking. She had just been asked her age.
Don’t ask me my age! I won’t tell you.
She grinned humorously, looking around as others in the crowd chipped in: “she’s between 35 and 40. Better round it up to 40”, they giggled. Bitti Devi is already a grandmother.
She decided, or perhaps deigned, to tell us a little more.
I was married when I was 14, and my eldest daughter is already married with a son. He’s a year old now, and is starting to walk. I have three other children too; another daughter and two sons. I’ll get my second daughter married soon… and then my son.
The crowd around us laughed as she pointed out her rather small looking children in the crowd.
I asked her whether things had changed much over her lifetime here.
Not much has changed here. Well, maybe a few things. Our houses used to all be made of mud before and the clothes we wear have changed, too. There have been lots of these sort of changes. Some of the houses have been reconstructed since the boys have started earning. Those with God’s blessing have renovated their homes, and the others who are not in a good financial situation are still living in their old houses.
The crowd, quieter now, was paying close attention – chipping in from time to time – as Bitti Devi told us a little about her work.
I have been working on the land all my life. We have our own business here, with two acres on rent. I have no money for labour so I can’t employ anyone on my fields. That means I labour myself, and sometimes I work in other people’s fields, too. I get Rs100-150 a day, and so does my husband. With the rest of my time I look after my children. That’s also work, you know!
She laughed again, and continued.