Below is an excerpt from a new feature piece we’ve written, by the same title of this blog post.
The rocketing ascent in the costs—and the comforts—of life were visible everywhere in the village. The homes were solid constructions of concrete, many new enough that the pink and orange paints with which they had first been clad had not had time to crack. They had iron gates at their fronts, the mass-produced fancy kind with lots of superfluous twirls in the iron, and tall sheds were built beside the porches to store the fluffy mountains of this year’s harvest. Inside the homes were gas stoves running off propane bottles, and flat screen TVs that could blare soap operas in Telugu. The wealthier families even had backup batteries, so they could keep their lights and fans running during the half day when the power wasn’t. All these luxuries were largely purchased with the proceeds of cotton, or at least the loans they took out against their land, secured by the power of BT seeds, a few years of good rain, and an exploding global culture of consumption that keeps the looms of China humming.
But the biggest expense, the ones that stretched the citizens of Brahmanapalli to their knees, was their children. Almost none of them lived in the village. King Cotton was trying to put 95% of them through boarding school in Hyderabad. This was really pushing the envelope. Most of the families, with red-ink ledgers that cotton could barely keep down, would bet the farm to put their children through a good degree. Some did bet the farm, every year, and they knew how much it hurt to pray as the pickers went out into the field, knowing that they weren’t really collecting cotton, they were collecting the house, and they never wanted their children to have to know that. Debt was the sacrifice made so that next generation could move up.
There is some sadness to this phenomenon. When the kids are gone, the village quiets, and assumes the dusty routine of completing the circuit between field and house. The air is filled with low-note sounds, sounds of chores and working-chatter and groans of water buffalo, without the harmony of high pitched laughter. Without the kids, the village oozes an undertone of decay. But the kids were there while we were there, back from the schools on two week vacation, and they filled the village with life.
We were a source of tremendous interest, generators of electric excitement, and the boys took it upon themselves to be our entourage. When we say the boys, we mean most of those who were home for vacation; they travelled in a pack. There was one pack, and it seemed that the standard of acceptance was being old enough to swing a cricket bat. The ages varied from 12 to 22. They would wait patiently outside Father Raja’s house for us to come out, and then would crowd around us and invite us to join them in a game of swing the stick at the rubber ball hurtling directly towards your face. On most occasions we denied cricket on grounds of vanity; it’s much harder than it looks. The boys would take us out, then, on the village, a 15-strong band of dragoons that introduced us to anyone we passed.
On the streets we met the girls. The girls stayed with their mothers in the homes, or sat with them on the dusty porches and gossiped, sometimes in groups, sometimes over the walls and across the street with their neighbors. There was much to gossip about. Sound carries far in a quiet village, and the sound of the neighbor’s husband popping the top on a Kingfisher foamer could wake one from a nap. Other people’s family matters, like the Drunkard’s, were a favorite topic of discussion. The other was those queer white journalists that came in on bicycles. Father Raja had told us that the whole village knew what we were having for dinner every night, courtesy of the cook. Someone had even sought confirmation of the menu.
It was no surprise, then, that our passage with an army of escorts would make the streets stop. The women would smile and the men, in a separate group, would just lean back and watch. But everywhere the over-the-wall chatter would turn into a festival of group chatter. The whole street seemed to gather around whichever porch had arrested us. They asked us questions for a while, but nobody over 25 spoke English, so the Telugu jabber-machine would fire up again and they would watch our faces like a movie as they talked.
It was in these groups that the depth of the change in the village became apparent. Our escorts and their parents would seem from different worlds were it not for the relation. The parents wore traditional clothing: sarees for women, loin cloths and a collared shirt for men. They had leather skin from years working out in the sun. But our young escorts wore the trendy uniforms of urban youth — khakis and designer t-shirts, with skin that was soft with a city slicker shine. The girls, a little more conservative, wore bright, long shirts with thin cotton pants. Both looked out of place on the dusty streets of the village. Some of the boys even had smart phones, which they carried in their hand as they patrolled the village like a badge of honor. Others showed off shiny new motorcycles that looked alien next to the ambling buffalo.
When our patrol was over, we retreated back to the church to do some real talking. The boys and the young men that lit up the village with their cries and their cricket games, and the girls and young women who were socially tethered to their porches—these boys and girls had dreams. They were western dreams, white collar dreams, dreams of computer science degrees, dreams with three syllable words like medicine, engineer, IBM and the universal favorite—America! None of them involved cotton. These were kids with whom we could relate, in that we both saw our lives as an opportunity to experience fulfillment, passion, professions that our parents knew little about. These were kids who saw change, and some wanted a piece of it badly, had the fire in their eyes, and thought about careers with good salaries and stability.
They were Up dreams, dreamt in English, in a language their parents did not understand.