As a graduate of the University of Michigan, August 2009 Fellow Mansi Goyal reflects on one of many bus rides that prompted her to think about everyday life in a new way. Based in Sakad, Mansi is partnered with Adharshila Learning Centre and focuses on teaching math and science through active learning methods.
I race with my bags to the big red bus parked outside of the hotel in front of a few general stores, only to see that it is empty. As I disembark, a tall, skinny, high cheekboned, young fellow runs my way – it’s the “bus-wala” (a colloquial term for a bus conductor) – probably alerted that a certain madam was looking for his bus.
“What time does the bus leave?” I ask.
“At 1 pm,” he says.
It is only 11am. I decide to go around town and then return. The small town, Bulwadi, is peppered with many different shops. 12 o’clock rolls around and I return to the bus. The bus-wala tells me I should grab a seat before it fills. I sit in the front-most left seat, closest to the door. Slowly people fill in – young girls in bright frocks, a boy stuffing all his pockets with ice-cream bars, women with babies, grandfathers, their grandchildren, and goats. We wait for what seems like the lifetime of all the people on the bus combined. The bus is full – we ought to go – the time is half past one, but we wait more. Around 2pm, the driver starts the engine, and like a knee-jerk response – a new crowd of people appear at the steps of the bus, all hoping to get a space. The bus-wala returns – although he doesn’t smile, I notice he is friendlier than most I’ve encountered. The bus is now packed from roof to tires and we begin to make our way. The bus-wala hangs outside of the bus, packed against 3-4 others who also protrude on the outside. After every stop, he signals the driver with the call of “Chale Ando” (let’s go)! He jokes with the others around him how this job is all about yelling.
The first leg of the journey was smooth, although the bus-wala, still hanging outside the bus, had to continuously duck the close lying tree branches along the way. As we went along, he kept a steady watch on the front and the back. He was captain and navigator, having a fierce gaze hardened by familiarity with the particular route. The bus stopped in front a huge crowd of women waiting to get on. They carried sacks of wheat, plastic jugs of kerosene, and small drums of oil. I watched the bus-wala help the women drag the sacks of wheat onto the bus. The bus was abuzz with excitement. I was handed a jug full of kerosene which I placed in my lap. The bus-wala yells and yells at the passengers to move in closer, so that everyone can get on, and then the call of “Chale Ando” propels the bus ahead.
The bus-wala reminds me of the older students at the school I teach at in Western Madhya Pradesh. What village is he from? Does his family farm, do they migrate for work? How did he get into the bus business? I try not to stare at random people and turn them into anthropology subjects, but the bus-wala struck me as familiar; he reminded me of the students that I interact with on a daily basis. I couldn’t help but think about his life. He is a part of a generation of Adivasi (first people) undergoing a shift from rural-based work to city-based work. The bus-wala’s job is neither completely city or rural, but whatever it is, it is work outside of the farm. This young man and the many others I know from Adharshila represent a shift away from the farm. But the face of the farm is also changing.
Once large and vast, farms used to be cultivated with the knowledge of crop rotations, natural fertilizers, and weather cycles. Now, it feels as though farming is a cheapened entity, land is divided between brothers, cash crops such as cotton and soyabean are favored over vegetables for healthy consumption, chemical fertilizers are overused and misunderstood, and the weather patterns are changing. Farmers are categorized as ‘unskilled labor’ and thus do not get adequate value for their crops. Go to any Subji Mundi (Wholesale Vegetable Market) and you will understand.
What is the cause of the changes in the farm? Cash crops can be explained by the demand from urban and foreign industries, looking to find cheap raw materials to turn a profit. The use of chemical fertilizers is well-known to be born out of the Green Revolution, whereby foreign chemicals seen to yield robust crops were marketed and caused the rise of the agro-business industry at the cost of depleting the soil of nutrients and bonding farmers to the chemicals. But for this generation of youth, whose mothers and fathers find themselves struggling with farming and rural based work, isn’t it inevitable that they will have to make decisions about where their future lies? What will happen to Adivasi identity as the youth take it into the cities, where it is a foreign and de-rated identity? Will there be fear and embarrassment? How can the confidence of this generation in transition be kept alive?
As I gain insight into the lives of Adivasi youth, I feel the similarities to my own migration-based transition from my parents’ generation, who immigrated to the United States from India and must have encountered some of the very same questions and fears the Adivasi youths face. In the new societies that we enter, will there be more opportunities, inclusivity, and common grounds for understanding? The language, clothes, and work may change – but if there exists confidence in the ones undergoing change, perhaps the creation of a new self will not result in forgetting or embarrassment. The bus-wala reminded me of this, as he embraced his role with strength, care, and confidence with all of the people on the bus.