Notes From an Indian Cot

In rural Indian villages, the family cot is many things: a table, a pulpit, a seat of honor—an object so ubiquitous its beauty and versatility often goes unnoticed

By / June 2019

Sunita’s bangles chimed. It was 5 a.m. The purple door, plastered with torn religious stickers, cracked open and hazy blue light filtered into the small concrete room. Kneeling on the ground, Sunita murmured prayers. She was still wearing yesterday’s jasmine flowers, now browned and drooping, above her long braid, and the same orange sari wrapped around her sturdy frame. When she stood up, I followed her outside. There were women all around. They swept trash from their yards into the lane. Dust clouds rose as if theatrically revealing a new day in the village of Aartkur.

Sunita’s home, located in the south-central state of Telangana, sits on a narrow lane in a Dalit colony. Formerly known as “Untouchables,” Dalits are the lowest group in India’s caste system and have been oppressed for generations. Sunita and other members of the Dalit community live separately from other parts of the caste-divided village. Her home is surrounded by similar one-and-a-half room houses roofed with corrugated metal, each with its own charpai, a cot made of overlapping ropes stretched across a four-post wooden frame.

Charpais are ubiquitous across much of rural India, especially among low-caste communities. They are often reserved for Dalit fathers, who sleep on verandas outside while the women and children sleep inside on the ground. More than a bed, the charpai serves as a social meeting ground. It’s the natural place to chat with neighbors, weave jasmine garlands, or read the paper. The crisscrossed ribbons accommodate one person or a crowd with their elasticity, whether a fragile grandmother or a heap of squirming children.

Sunita smiles at a neighbor as she sweeps trash out of her yard onto the street.

The cot’s light frame can be breezily hoisted and stowed against a wall. Priyanka Borar, a Bangalore-based artist and researcher, observed the abundance and versatility of the charpai, also called a “khaat,” in her travels across rural Western India. She saw women using it to dry clothes or spread spices and men speaking from it like a community pulpit. “The khaat accommodates people’s presence,” she observed. “It is both minimal and flexible. It removes formality and its structure is ideal for having a conversation.”

For a guest to be asked to sit on a family’s charpai is a sign of respect and affection, I discovered. When I visited Sunita’s house on Sundays, I’d often sit there for hours with Sunita on the tiny stool beside me, peeling vegetables or braiding her daughters’ hair. I remember my first visit soon after I arrived in India, when Sunita welcomed me with a steaming cup of buffalo milk, thick, like half-and-half. Someone had told her I didn’t care for chai. I teetered the hot stainless steel cup on the charpai, stalling so the steaming milk wouldn’t burn my tongue.

Milk is a treat for most rural Dalit families, who live in poverty following generations of “untouchability” and exploitation. The word “Dalit” means “oppressed.” India’s 200 million Dalits, roughly 16.6 percent of the country’s population, are considered the least in India’s caste hierarchy. “We feel cheap,” one of Sunita’s fellow field workers told me. I felt guilty every time I saw Sunita disappear from the yard and return with a plastic package of buffalo milk to boil. Her efforts to make me comfortable contributed to my discomfort.

I was jealous of the charpai beneath my crossed legs, envious of the way it could simply belong wherever placed. I wanted to be inconspicuous, to blend in like a piece of furniture. I like to think I have a knack for being somewhat invisible, which is helpful as a journalist. Along with my average height and less-than-eye-catching wardrobe, I’ve always been aided in my disappearing act by belonging to the racial and cultural majority in the U.S. I managed to emerge from my Texas hometown without a discernible accent or outsize personality. Moving to rural India had rendered my ideal of invisibility impossible, of course. I was the only white person for miles. Even sitting becomes an unworthy performance when the charpai feels like a sort of stage.

Still, Borar is right in saying that the charpai’s structure is the ideal for informal conversation, for each Sunday afternoon I spent on the charpai seemed more relaxed than the one before. I would ask Sunita which fields she had been working in, and whether the cotton, rice, or chili crops need to be planted or harvested. (She has worked in the fields since age ten and now leads a team of Dalit women who do agricultural work for local farmers). She would feed me groundnuts from her garden as I took down her chutney recipe and try to teach me how to thread jasmine buds together, though I never quite got the hang of it.

Sunita’s 14-year-old daughter, Satya, translated for us. The tenth-grader has the same round face as her mother and the two share a stoic expression and wide smile, though Satya’s tone is softer than her mother’s rasping, affectionate voice. We would chat about Satya’s new boarding school, the cafeteria cook who makes the curries too spicy, and the headmistress who forces students out of bed at five o’clock (only mothers have to wake up that early!) to study. Once I told them the story of how a monkey stole my sandal and when I reached the part when a monkey shoved my supervisor from squarely behind, Sunita nearly chuckled herself off the little stool. She stopped massaging her sore hands to wipe tears of laughter from her cheeks. I began to realize that sitting on the charpai is like accepting an invitation into the nucleus of village life.

The door to Sunita’s home. The family belongs to the Dalit community, the lowest group in India’s caste hierarchy.

Sunita and Dinesh eat dinner while a serialized show plays on television.

Of course, sometimes we all sat in silence. At first every silence was the awkward kind, when no one knows quite what to say or feels too shy to say it. Later some silences felt more ordinary, content and unhurried. I came to cherish these sacred, drawn-out silences, when I’d wonder if perhaps we were all thinking the same thing: that this bizarre commune, of a four-member family living in a South Indian village and a 21-year-old American student-journalist, did not feel as strange as it should, or at least as it once did.

Sometimes I asked Sunita questions about the Dalit colony. The homes were constructed through a government loan program started several decades ago, and she and Dinesh, her silver-headed 35-year-old husband, had the house built when they married in 2000, she told me. Her generation grew up in “pukha” houses made of sticks and thatched roofs. Inside, another charpai is stowed sideways in the main, multipurpose room, which also holds a beadwa (wardrobe), television, and shelves stuffed with Dinesh’s lawyering books and the girls’ textbooks. A standing fan occupies a significant footprint, and for good reason: temperatures year-round hover between 95-105 degrees Fahrenheit, soaring up to 120 during summertime and remaining high even during monsoon season. The kitchen is half the size of the other room, but emptier, primarily holding steel dishware.

India is full of colors so bright they nearly burn your eyes. The heat burns as well, and so do the delicious curries. Like the flavors of India, the color is intoxicating, and I realized the gray shadow of the world I must have been living in before. I began to pity life without rainbow tinsel garlands strung across church ceilings, roses and marigolds draping Hindu statues during festival-time (which is to say a good deal of the time), juicy pomegranate rubies, pastel-painted buildings, and endless seas of patterned saris. From here, it seemed that my Midwest college town must have been in a state of hibernation. In India the people are all out, bodies everywhere: men congregating around snack stands, women in the market and the fields, children heading to and from home for rice and pappu during midday mealtime. Every scene seemed saturated with color, noise, and motion. For some foreigners, India is a sensory overload. For others it feels like waking up for the first time.

Sometimes postmodern art renders scenes as they might appear to the foreigner, presenting the everyday as worthy of special attention and selecting ordinary objects as if they were exceptionally beautiful or absurd. The mundane becomes a muse. It seems natural that Borar chose the charpai as the subject for her own art, hoping to render the common ancient daybed more visible after recognizing how “an object working in its own culture and time gradually becomes inconspicuous.” She set up her experimental installation by turning the charpai vertically and positioning a body in front. Using a sensor, Borar rigged the charpai’s ropes to create a molded impression of the body on its surface, as if the person is looking into a woven mirror. Thecot carves out space within it for the body. Despite being so ubiquitous, the charpai has served all kinds of individual purposes and reflects an intrinsic sense of identity, Borar seemed to be saying. It’s as if the India-born artist was playing a foreigner, using strange eyes to appreciate an overlooked object.

Less-familiar places often seem more beautiful than home. Once I asked Sunita about her favorite object in her house. Knowing Sunita’s particular love for saris, I expected her to point to her favorite green silk sari, or perhaps the religious artwork on the wall. She shrugged her shoulders and shook her head, murmuring in Telugu. “There is nothing beautiful in this house,” Satya translated. I turned to Satya. “What do you like?” She shrugged her shoulders, looking more like her mother than ever. Comparing the home to the colorful Telugu Baptist church down the street, local temples, or even the house next door with its ornate pink exterior and tiled front porch, I began to have my rosy foreigner’s vision gradually replaced as I saw the home for what it was to the family: dingy, pallid (even if it was colorful according to my culture’s standards), and unremarkably decorated. There may be benefit in bringing fresh vision to a place and appreciating overlooked beauty. Still, it’s essential to become familiar enough to recognize our own naivete, to see through charming appearances to often darker realities.

Sunita prepares batter for the next day’s idly, a South Indian breakfast of rice and lentils ground to form fluffy cakes.

Reality became clearer as the sun descended. After many weeks in India, eventually I got used to the fact that most Indian families eat dinner after dark, as late as nine or nine thirty. After serving her husband and children, then sitting down to eat herself, Sunita collected the dishes and set them outside. A neighbor helped her make the batter for tomorrow’s idly, a popular South Indian breakfast of rice-and-lentil cakes, by grinding the lentils and mixing the grainy, glue-like white paste by hand. I sat across from them as the cooler evening air ushered in a stillness I had only experienced in morning time. “It’s very quiet now,” Satya pointed out, suggesting we stroll outside the yard. Sunita and the neighbor followed us as we walked several meters down. The night was black, and indeed the street had become mostly silent. We could hear a couple arguing loudly in a house across the street. The husband had no doubt been drinking toddy, moonshine made from the sap of palm trees. (According to Dinesh, all the men in the colony drink, except himself).

We had walked only three or four houses down when an auto rickshaw swerved around the corner and screeched to a halt. A man stumbled out, obviously intoxicated from another evening of drinking. We shrank back into the shadows, but he followed our movements, the streetlight reflecting in his eye as a terrifying yellow glint as he came at us. He made a move at Rami, while I instinctively slinked behind a nearby bench. “Go on,” Satya urged me. “But…” my voice trailed off. I started moving and looked back as the man grabbed Satya’s arm tightly, and she gritted her teeth in pain. Sunita pried her daughter free and Satya escaped his grip. We headed for the yard. Her face still stoic and her breathing steady, Satya walked calmly back. We returned inside without another word and began to get ready for bed. Just as colorful landscapes and jasmine flowers are woven into everyday village life, I was learning that so are violence and abuse.

I never asked why the family gave me a different kind of cot, made of hard plywood, instead of a charpai when I slept over that night. I knew they must have considered the bed superior; after all, it was obviously wider than the charpai, upon which both Sunita and Dinesh managed to sleep that evening. I tried to insist Satya join me on the bed, but she sweetly shook her head no. If the charpai seemed an invitation into village life, to be given a different place accentuated the privilege I wanted to escape. I wanted to be flexible and inconspicuous, like the charpai, but the traditional Indian bed was deemed unfit for a foreigner, who apparently deserved something larger, sturdier, and, it seemed to me, far less comfortable.

Since returning to the U.S. after six months in India, sometimes I think about Sunita’s house. I can see the whole scene. We’re sitting around on the veranda, fan churning the hot air overhead, as neighbors chat in Telugu and Sunita braids her younger daughter’s hair. Satya is sitting at the small school desk, working on homework. Neighbor kids scamper in and out of the frame. I always look for the charpai in the center of the porch. Then I squint to see its woven fibers more clearly, hoping I might see some part of myself reflected in them.

 

Sarah Holcomb is a writer in Arlington, Virginia. This is her first piece for EthnoTraveler. The names of the people in this story have been changed.

 

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