3 years

middlehood

In Search of the Average Indian

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We set off for what the Survey of India pinpoints as the centre of India, and found him. And her. Wondrously, they happen to be married

We set off for what the Survey of India pinpoints as the centre of India, and found him. And her. Wondrously, they happen to be married

The average Indian is a product of elementary mathematics, a statistical construct, actually. He is between 25 to 27 years of age, about five and a half feet tall, lives with 3.8 other family members under the same roof, can read and write but barely makes the grade, earns about Rs 3,000 a month. By the laws of probability, he speaks Hindi, he is Hindu, an OBC, he is married, works on a farm. And he eats meat. The average Indian woman is almost the same, but younger and shorter. We wondered if such a man and woman as represented by numbers could actually exist. To find out, we travelled to the centre of India, as it were, and found exactly who we sought

The Average Indian Man

The chief public relations officer of the Survey of India had told us that the geographical centre of India was in Chhattisgarh. So we flew to Raipur, the state’s capital, and went to the local Survey of India office. We walked out with two large maps and complicated calculations about latitudes and longitudes. The next day, we drove to Bilaspur, the second most important city in Chhattisgarh, and explained our quest to a few more people, one of whom was wearing white pants and white leather shoes. In all fairness, though, it was this man who suggested we visit a village that was perfect for our specific needs—Dhauramuda.

Dhauramuda and Starbucks are the only two places that specialise in meeting finicky needs. Want a decaf, double tall, non-fat, extra-dry cappuccino? Go to Starbucks. Want a 25-27 year-old, non-tribal, married with kids, farmer who sleeps with his mouth open? Go to Dhauramuda.

Dhauramuda is a couple of hours’ drive from Bilaspur. The smokers among us lit their cigarettes with Aaj Tak matches. Drivers stayed alert chewing Ranger gutka. The car had music. When we reached the village that afternoon, its roads dusty and fields dry, Snoop Dogg was mumbling the concluding notes of Singh is Kinng, rap remix.

We were taken to a field. Women were working. Chairs were arranged under a tree. Tea arrived, while Jauharilal Shukla, deputy ranger of Beltara, a neighbouring village, rounded up as many people as he could who fit our bill.

At the auspicious time of 4.25 pm, our search ended. We found the Average Indian Man and Woman. What’s more, they were married to each other. Thus began our kinship with the young Anil and Panchkunwar Kairvat. A kinship that generated amusement, mystification as well as suspicion among their folk. “What do they want?” Anil’s mother asked many times of many people, as the urban aliens invaded their home. The house was made of mud. It was painted bright blue and had a tiled roof. Metal seals at the entrance bore inscriptions like, ‘Padho likho, aage badho’, ‘Sakshar parivar, sukhi parivar’ and, of course, ‘Hum doh, hamare doh’. There were four rooms, and two more for the animals—two cows, two bulls and some chickens.

Anil is 25. He is a father of two children: fouryear-old Sameer and two-year-old Sandhya. The son was named after a film character played by Aftab Shivdasani. Anil’s parents and sister live in the same house. Anil is about five-and-a-half feet. We measured his height, causing him to gulp self-consciously as Chand Sifarish played on the neighbour’s TV set and chickens ran around. He wore a black shirt with orange embroidery and white jeans. Though he smiles easily, he doesn’t speak much, fiddling with his nails while answering questions. He is light on his feet and in good shape, despite an appendix operation two years ago. He has a small rice farm. The harvest is used to feed his family. He does farming for four months. The other eight, he works as a carpenter. Shavings of wood get lodged in his fingertips. That is why he’s always rubbing his fingers.

The house smells of dry dung, hay and animals. At cooking time, it smells of garlic. The main room of the house is tiny, its air muggy. But there is cable TV, a portable fan and mobile phone. The walls have pictures of deities and family. There is a photograph of Anil and his wife. “It was taken when I was carrying Sameer,” Panchkunwar says. Beside it is a picture of Anil’s best friend, Bahuranlal, who is based in another village. Does Bahuranlal also have a photo of Anil on a wall in his room? “Yes,” Anil says. At night, an additional bed is brought into the room. Anil sleeps with Sameer, his wife with Sandhya. Later, walking around in the woods outside, I ask him what they do when they want to spend time alone. “We come here or go to our field,” he says. He has never used a condom.

We show him some pictures. He does not recognise Barack Obama and thinks Freida Pinto is Rani Mukherji. And thinks AR Rahman is Rohit Sharma. He does not know Slumdog Millionaire. The only person he recognises from our photographs is Lata Mangeshkar.

Anil likes clothes. However, he only has about four shirts and as many pants. He is too young to not care about his appearance, and according to his wife, he often uses her Fair & Lovely cream. He has voted. If he were the prime minister, he would improve conditions in Dhauramuda and declare war on Pakistan. “Pakistan gunha chhupa raha hai (they are hiding their crime),” he says, shaping a block of wood for a door frame he is making. He will earn almost Rs 500 for it.

If he were to make a film, it would be a “suspense” movie. It would have Nana Patekar, Ashutosh Rana and, for comic relief, “that short guy” (Rajpal Yadav). What about the heroine? “What will a heroine do in a suspense film?”

Anil has started working at 9.30 am. He stops at around noon and takes the second of his two or three daily dips in an adjacent lake. This is where he comes to bathe or unwind. “I get worried when note-paani [cash] is low,” he says. “But somehow, when most needed, money comes in and you realise that there is God.”

Soaping himself with Ruchi No 1, he spits periodically and looks for wood splinters in his fingertips. He soaps his hair, too. “I’m married now. I don’t worry about losing my hair,” he says. After the dip, he has a lunch of dal, rice and potatoes and takes a nap for about an hour. He works some more and then stops at around 5 pm. I ask him what he likes the most about his wife. “Her anger. She often scolds me for not getting up early in the morning. But it only makes me laugh,” he says.

They married on 29 September 2001. “My friends were instrumental in getting me married,” says Anil, speaking freely now that we’re in the woods. “I was barely 18 then. I thought it was early. But my parents wanted me to get married and my friends said I should listen to them, and things have turned out alright.”

The Average Indian Woman

Panchkunwar Kairvat is an understated beauty. Always dressed in pastel shades, the 23-year girl’s sari consistently upholds her lean modesty. Her features may not be striking, but one can’t walk away unaffected by her poise. The youngest of seven children, she’s always been her parent’s favourite. Ever since her marriage, her brothers have been calling on her husband’s mobile phone every day. And every few weeks they tell their sister how deserted the  house seems without her. That is a cue for her husband to pack his four-year-old son, two-yearold daughter and wife on a cycle and transport them 12 km from their home in Dhauramuda, to Panchkunwar’s parent’s village Kherkhundi, on the outskirts of Ratanpur some 25 km north of Bilaspur. With time, Panchkunwar has grown to like her new home. “Call it preference or call it compulsion. It’s the same thing in the end.”

Panchkunwar sounds a trifle jaded. When life doesn’t offer you better choices, you learn to like what you’re left with. And resolve to have your children do better. Her dreams include aspirations for her husband and children. She prays for their happiness. In the recurrent nightmare she has, she’s walking alone with her son Sameer. There is a man following them, one who wants to kill them. She knows this because she is terrified. Her husband blames her nightmares on TV.

Panchkunwar’s own aspirations were erased from her dreams the day she got married, at the uncertain age of 15. “In villages,” she explains, “no one looks at your age. They decide to marry you off when your body looks ready for it.” She remembers the exact date of her marriage, 29 September 2001, unlike her husband. She was 15. He was 18. Neither wanted to get married this early. Had textbooks and uniforms been free, Panchkunwar would’ve loved to study beyond the 5th standard, when she was compelled to drop out so her brothers could study further.

Panchkunwar and Anil saw each other for the first time on their wedding day. At that moment, little did they know that she would learn to love the unruly locks of hair falling on his forehead, and he would secretly look forward to her yelling at him a few times each day. “She yells out of love,” he says. Between chopping garlic and tossing it on to the oil pan over a wooden fire, pandering to her daughter’s incessant tantrums and helping her husband saw a door frame, Panchkunwar catches her husband lending his carpentry tools with a side glance and yells in his direction, “If you give everything away, how will we work?” She may yell at her husband, but she will never take his name. He is ‘Ji’.

On the day of her marriage, Panchkunwar had grown to her current height, almost 5 feet that is. She was fairer than most girls in the village. Her appearance has changed, since. She now wears sindoor, bangles and a mangalsutra, with safety pins hanging on for convenience. Her fragile waist is riddled with stretch-marks, bearing witness to two excruciating childbirths at home. The soles of her feet display nascent cracks.

Panchkunwar washes clothes and bathes herself in the village pond. She uses Nirma ‘ghadi chhaap’ detergent. For her hair, it’s Clinic Plus shampoo and Dabur Amla hair oil. Her favourite soap is Neema Sandal. After a good face scrub, she applies Fair & Lovely. She doesn’t consider herself beautiful now that she’s turned few shades darker after her son’s birth, as she says.

The Kairvat family lives in a village that is home to 1,100 other families, 10 TV sets, including their own, five motorcycles and no cars. A tractor yes. Panchkunwar shares her mud-walled home with her family, in-laws, cattle and poultry and the neighbour’s goats. The hens are nurtured and butchered by her mother-in-law.

Panchkunwar Kairvat likes apples. She loves the local Kattha colour, a deep maroon. She likes ordering Thums Up when she goes to the big town of Ratanpur. She can speak Hindi and Chhattisgarhi, a local dialect, the quirks of which have her using female pronouns for her husband and male pronouns for herself. “She wakes up late,” she says of Anil’s rising habits.

Faced with the prize money of Rs 500 for qualifying as the Average Indian Woman, she reacts with usual coyness. She won’t accept the money. But the next day is the weekly microfinance Self Help Group meet. A few months ago, she had taken a loan of Rs 6,000 to set up her husband’s carpentry business. When the weekly collections are counted, the manager is surprised to find a Rs 500 note. “Someone has paid their loan for an entire month in a week!” he exclaims.