Today was our first full day off since arriving, and it was glorious. We drove four hours to join Vandita’s extended family in celebrating the reopening of her brother-in-law’s quarry. He has owned the quarry, which contains an expensive red granite found only three other places in the world, for about ten years but it has been closed for about five due to Naxalite agitation. Naxalites are a political group that subscribes to a Maoist form of communism. They originated in West Bengal, spread south, and are quite active in some areas of Andhra Pradesh. My understanding is that initially they were a good influence on the community, unionizing workers in struggles to gain rights from the local landowners. However, now they seem to be a rogue group of agitators who largely live in guerrilla fashion in the jungles and make trouble for local businesses and government programs. Prime Minister Singh went so far as to label them one of the greatest threats to India’s internal security. I have only heard one side of the story though, so please take it with a grain of salt and I’ll get back to you if I ever meet a Naxalite!
But back to the party . . . near the quarry, there are two areas set up. The first is made of thatched strips of thin wood with a roof of thatched palm leaves and serves as the kitchen. The second has walls and roof made by hanging brightly coloured and beautifully patterned cloths. Underneath are tables, chairs, and all the men. After a round of introductions, one of the men leads me and Liza to the tented area, provides us with a plate of mutton, and offers a choice of beer or whiskey. This will be our first drink since arriving and we opt for a cold beer. Little did we know that our first beer in India would be none other than the American classic, Budweiser!
Meanwhile, the women move around the kitchen, feed the children, and eventually sit in a circle outside the tent. They come in to get some food but don’t touch the alcohol. The brother who owns the quarry takes interested men on a tour but does not invite the women. Well, except Liza and myself. As foreign guests we are allowed the liberty of operating outside the social norms, hence the invitation to sit under the tent, the freedom to drink alcohol, and inclusion in the quarry tour. I am reminded of the post-wedding party I attended in Thailand where Lauranne and I enjoyed beer and cigarettes outside with the men while the women cooked away in the kitchen. The thing is, at least from my outsider’s perspective, the men just seem to have more fun. But, as I savour my cold beer, I realize that if I really want to understand Indian women and their situation, I will have to join them “in the kitchen” next time.