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A woman sitting in a chair at Hawa Mahal (Palace of Wind) in Jaipur, India. Photo by Eliana Rothwell (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest Finalist).

Digging In

“Are any of you familiar with eutrophication?” Zanskar asked, glancing at each of us for an answer. Just beyond our teacher lay Mesar Kund, a small pond whose placid surface was pierced at several points with boulders and logs. Basanti-ji, a woman from the nearby village of Sarmoli, sat on a stone, staring over the pond’s murky waters. She had just finished summarizing Mesar Kund’s mythology, which Zanskar had translated from Hindi to English before initiating our current conversation. Eutrophication. I squinted my eyes and frowned, rummaging through my mind to find the obscure compartment where memories from freshman year biology class are stored. Scattered thoughts popped into my mind about excess nitrates in a pond and a burst of plant life and then heaps of dead plant matter and a destroyed ecosystem. After shaking a fly off my right big toe, I tentatively raised my hand and proceeded to ineloquently share these words with the group. Zanskar nodded his head slowly before adding that eutrophication also causes ponds to shrink in size. Motioning to the water body behind him, our teacher pointed out swaths of weeds on the surface and wetlands on the opposite side which had once been submerged. He explained how the pond supplied water to a stream which ran through Sarmoli, where we would be staying for the next week with homestay families. I looked across the pond and saw Ziv’s and my homestay mother with a shovel in hand, knee deep in the water and laughing with other women from the village.

“Do you want to get to work now and then talk more about the pond later?” Zanskar asked the group. I looked around at my six comrades and nodded my head, feeling a bit antsy (both figuratively and literally) after sitting on a slanted boulder for twenty minutes. Everyone else nodded, so we began to make our way around the pond’s edge. I walked with Zanskar, asking follow-up questions about the pond’s mythology. The basics of the story were clear to me: Mesar had kidnapped two women from near the pond, spurring outrage from their families. When villagers came to ask for the women back, Mesar returned two skeletons, keeping his hostages’ souls. But then I didn’t understand why Mesar had decided to shrink the pond afterward. Didn’t he have what he wanted? Zanskar replied that the villagers had stopped worshipping him after the kidnapping, so he reduced the pond’s size in retaliation. As Sarmoli’s primary water supply, Mesar Kund continues to be a vital aspect of the village’s surrounding environment, making such an attack very damaging. Zanskar finished up his explanation just as we reached the village women already working in the pond.

After rolling up my sleeves and pant legs, I stepped into the pond next to my homestay mother. She handed me a shovel and pointed down at the opaque water. Dig here. Shin deep in the mud, I dug in, accidentally dipping my shirt into the murky water as I stooped to lift the shovel’s contents. Pulling forcefully upwards, with the shovel pail perpendicular to the ground, I encountered strong suction from the mud. By the time I had yanked my shovel out of the mud and up to the surface, only a fraction of the contents remained. I frowned and was about to try again, assuming that more force was necessary. But as I reached down a second time, my host mother stopped me.

“No. Do it like this.” She took the shovel from my hand and proceeded to drag it perpendicular to the pond floor, collecting mud in a similar manner to a snow plow. She then scooped up the dragged mud and swiftly pulled a full spade of pond muck out of the water, dumping it onto a makeshift plastic bag and stick device used to transport the mud away from the pond. “Now you try.” She handed me back the shovel. After I had successfully removed a few heaps of mud from the water and transferred them onto a plastic bag, she smiled and gave me a thumbs up before turning around and wading away to help with digging elsewhere.

Roughly an hour later, we stopped work. I was sweaty and dirty, my back had aged twenty five years, and the pond looked almost the same as it had when we arrived. I sighed as I reminded myself that for the women of Sarmoli, extracting muck from Mesar Kund was a daily task, not an occasional excursion.

That evening during dinner at Ziv’s and my homestay, I said the only Hindi phrase I knew that was apt for a dinner context: Khana bahut accha hai – “The food is very good.” Beyond this eloquent addition the room’s lively conversation, I didn’t say much. My homestay mother understood a fair amount of English, but I always felt slightly uncomfortable sitting in her kitchen eating food she had cooked while making her also speak a foreign language, so I mainly listened and spoke in English only occasionally.

The next morning, Ziv and I awoke early to help out with household tasks in our homestay. After cups of chai, we were handed plastic bags and told to follow our homestay father up the hill. Unclear of where we were going, we made our way up the hillside behind him, turning around often to gaze at the sunlit Himalayan peaks behind us. After walking uphill for five minutes, we arrived at a small garden by the side of the path. Stepping over the fence, I observed a brown pile of dirt before us. As my homestay father bent down to scoop some of the pile’s contents into his bag, my nose observed that this was no pile of dirt. After he was done, I proceeded to dig my hands into the manure to fill my bag as well. Slinging my bag over my back, I followed my homestay father back down the hill, Ziv following with his own bag behind me. We dumped the manure into a pile on the edge of the family’s garden, just next to the house. When she saw us, our homestay mother came out of the kitchen smiling. “Thank you,” she said, laughing.

Whether carrying manure or shoveling mud during our rural homestay in Sarmoli, I felt that communication with my homestay mother was much more sophisticated through actions than through words. As I slowly progress in my Hindi learning, I have learned that the language of working with hands can often substitute for spoken language. In the United States or in India, one can build relationships simply by showing a willingness to dig in.