Here is my shantaram moment...
Rajesh was one of the younger potters probably of 22/23 years old, who worked at the industrial estate, where potters were employed on a government job. Me and my friend had enlisted on a government programme, where we had to work along with traditional potters learning their crafts and at same time had to teach them of new modern designs, for which the government paid us a small stipend. It also meant they we had to stay with these potters live in their homes/huts eat their food and sleep on their damp floors. The food was basic watery rice dish called kanji, a small piece of fish and a leafy vegetable mostly picked from their backyard. Food was so insipid that I had lost oodles of weight in very first month of my stay. Sleeping on the damp floors would make my body cold and painful giving me feverish feel all day long. The task was very hard as potters had utter disdain for women artisan and that too bred in a city. Gaining confidence of older master potters was another daunting task for us.
Rajesh was more sympathetic towards us as he watched us everyday go through the humiliation meted by senior potters. On one hand he appreciated our determination and grit to go through this project on the other he argued that as city bred girls we would never understand the pains of a poor potter. So our efforts for him were kind of superficial attempt to understand their lives. Nevertheless he found our urban lifestyle more attractive and challenging because he himself wanted to get out of that orthodox life of a potter. He even tried to converse with us in broken English only to prove that he was more sophisticated and urban than others.
My friend did not like his ways and warned me to watch out." I think the guy is hitting on you" she said. "Me? No way! he says all nasty things to me. C'mmon girl you know how these potters hate us for being here. They want us out of their lives because they see us as threat. Love is last thing they have for us" I said dismissing her doubt. I believed Rajesh's admiration for us was a longing for the modern world. He wanted to step in to that modern world that had eluded him for being a potter. And we were that window to that world.
One day as my friend had taken ill, I was working alone with the master potters at the shed. ( They called industrial estate as shed) Rajesh seized this opportunity to talk with me. In a very challenging tone he said " In spite of all your big talks you will still hesitate to eat with a potter" "what do you mean Rajesh? " I retorted in a little irritable tone. I knew that he knew I shared the hut with his neighbors two blocks away, and ate the food they served me. " I challenge you, you will never have lunch with me because you will not like to be seen having lunch with a potter because that is below your dignity. You city people are always two faced" he said with air of righteousness. I was taken back by his accusations but I did not want to make this conversation in a bitter argument so I said in mocking tone" are you asking me for a date?" " Date? what is a date" he asked me confused. "when you invite a woman for a meal it is called a date according to European manners, I explained him thinking he would retreat back by such proposition.
I knew that in a remote village like this, inviting a young woman for a lunch in a hotel was asking for trouble from elders. I was certain Rajesh would not like to take such a chance.
Rajesh thought for a while and said " if it is called date than yes. I am asking you to come for lunch with me". I didn't expect this answer and did not know how to get out this situation. "Yes Rajesh we will go out for lunch one day" I said very patronizingly trying to shake off the topic and thinking that at later time when my friend is around we can negotiate the situation much better way. "Now" he said "Now?" I asked in a genuine shock and fear which was very palpable in my voice. "yes why? are you scarred?" He asked noticing my pale face." No. why should I be scarred ? " - I faltered as I uttered these words realizing it was too late to get out this situation. "Lets go then" he said. I cursed myself for putting myself in the situation slowly walking out of the shed.
On the way I was trying to put a brave face making conversation to suggest as if everything is normal. In five minutes we reached his home, which was like any other hut in the town. Mud walls, dry palm leaves thatched roof, and a small courtyard outside . The room inside was dark, dingy and damp. He called his mother moment we entered his home. He announced he has brought a guest with him for lunch. His mom walked out to see me. She was certainly not happy to see a young city girl brought by his son. But she nodded without smiling.
We sat on the floor for lunch. Rajesh laid some newspapers to make me more comfortable. His mom served us watery rice kanji and some fish in a clay plate . There was no vegetable. Rajesh was unusually animated. He was talking constantly, his work at the shed etc. he was trying to impress me by talking how much he knows about the world outside that small potters village. But I could not concentrate on his words. I was more aware of his mother who was standing in corner watching us two eat..She wore worried looks. Was she worried about the food that would get over for feeding an unexpected guest, or was she worried that the unexpected guest was a city woman that her son had taken a liking.
I looked into her dark eyes and then turned to listen to Rajesh. "Food is not that tasty no? Rajesh was asking me " I will get a papad to make it tasty" he said. He dug some coins from his shirt and called a boy who was hiding behind the wall and peeping at us from inside room. " Run, get one papad quickly. He ordered " You like papad too . Get one for you" His mother intervened. "No I don't need it today" Rajesh said . I knew he just had 50p in his pocket and only one papad could be bought by that money.
I looked into Rajesh's eyes. He was looking at me . He was very happy . He was having his first date. He had finally had tryst with modernity.
I took a bite of the papad that his mother had fried and put it in my plate. And I could not hold back my tears... I said " This food is too hot my taste." "See. I told you" Rajesh said triumphantly" you city girls will never know what potter's life is...blablablabla" His voice faded.
"you are right" I nodded