The Women of Kumaon : Of Soil & Smiles

While making evening tea for the family, Meena aunty casually tells me how her day begins by milking the cows and bringing it down to the house for consumption. There’s one kid perched on the slab where she’s working, one running wild away from her online class, and one staring intently at her waiting for the cup of tea he asked for three minutes ago.

I reached Naini on a breezy afternoon in April, and the first thing I noticed was the sound of Ram Lila rehearsals. My host Meena Adhikari-quiet in demeanour from lack of familiarity-told me that the event took place off-season here as a social rather than religious tradition. It doesn’t matter what festival it falls in line with, but the children prepare with enthusiasm and it only seems normal to use the availability of time to celebrate.

To observe the social palette of a community means getting lost in jargon and routine behaviours. Unless you’re willing to notice the little things, the world just seems like a crowd of people.

In the second week, came Navratras – the time for daily kirtan and social congregation. Nose rings larger than a fist were locked in, heirloom pehnawas donned. Ready, the women of Adhikari family waited for the guests to arrive. Nose rings of Gold are worn as a kind of veil on auspicious occasions in this community. It broadcasts a woman’s virtue and monogamous devotion in the Kumaoni culture, as sindoor is a public display of the married state. Every festival becomes an opportunity for the women to come together and share cultural exchanges and laughter. The rendezvous had been initiated that day, and every day of the week a different woman would host the kirtan.

But along with the social and moral obligations every milieu is replete with, the culture here comes riddled with terraneous complexity. The sylvan beauty visible from every window houses ever so often a stream of women carrying water buckets by their waists or logs to be dried on their heads. Winters call for two months of fodder collection and drying, because food for livestock cannot be collected when the slopes are blanketed in snow. All adornments are shed then, and the people come bare, all alike in their natural state of survival and drive.

A balance seems to lack in the metropolitan culture in contrast. No matter how deep you look, souls are never visible from behind the veils of social reactions. Where would Maslow identify us in the pyramid of hierarchy?

Like every household, the women of Adhikari family give roots to the shoots of young aspirations. While each generation takes a step forward towards growth and change, mothers become the guiding force providing the silent logistical advantage. What makes them and many other women around here special, is the tricky business of acting this tedious role with grace.
Between days of family gatherings, chicken grazing, and watering the farm aunty pointedly makes sure that the little ones are taught and trained well. With the onset of the second wave of the pandemic, juicing out online classes has been even tougher. But nothing deviates her from keeping one eye on ensuring that the kids receive a proper education while her mind charts out tasks that will teach them life skills gifted only by the mountain life.

The fulfilment of every little need is an amplified process in the mountains. It became evident so every time I saw aunty lifting buckets of rain water or her mother-in-law standing in the middle of raging smoke gathering produce from the farm land she had sowed with devotion. Feeding the family means doing everything from growing the grain to cooking it. A day without electricity often means taming kids’ fear of thunderous lightning outside. The mountains are mighty, and the women who inhabit it seem to understand their realities well. They smile brighter, live simpler, and share more generously than anyone I have ever known.

I have tried to list down the reasons why this could be – Have they not know any other way? Is it the silent valleys and soft breeze that permeates into their being? Is it the simple understanding of the basics of living that many others seem to take for granted?
But it only overwhelms me. Maybe the best I can do here is to learn from this life without giving in to my ambitious need for analysis everything. Maybe the biggest factor of this life is not wanting to constantly have something more out of everything.

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