A Heart of Gold

I like to say my journey to India began with my grandmothers, especially my mother’s mother, who had never come to the United States. Much of her life consisted of shuttling between the village she was married into, Moyad, going to the farm and herding the water buffalo. Of what I remember about her, the hardness of her personality yet softness of her embrace almost always stood out. When I returned to India summer after summer, her love enveloped me in kisses all over my face as she held my hands within hers.   

My grandmother, Amba Patel was born in the 1920s in Derol, a village also in the cluster of our family’s Patel samaj, or community. She was the oldest sibling of her three brothers and two sisters, yet by the time she passed away around 95 years old in late summer of 2015, she had outlived all of them besides her youngest brother. At the age of 14, she was married to my grandfather, Mohanbhai Dungarbhai Patel and moved from her paternal village to her marital village, Moyad, which today is 34 kilometers in distance by road. My grandfather, Mohanbhai’s mother died at a young age after his birth, so his father remarried and had two stepsisters and one brother growing up. 

During their marriage and even that of my parent’s the tradition was to take a horse and buggies filled with villagers from the groom’s side to the bride’s side. The villagers from my grandfather's side, Moyad, piled into these decorated buggies and rode the entire way to my grandmother’s village, Derol. The women sang songs and the groom arrived with a dancing entourage and beating drums. Back then, I can only imagine how long it took by dirt road to travel a mere 34 kilometers. 

Prior to her marriage, my grandmother rarely left her village. The journey from my grandmother’s paternal village to ancestral village after wedding must have been like a journey across countries. According to custom, once the bride leaves her paternal village, she will only come back as a guest moving forward. 

After my grandmother’s marriage, my grandfather moved to the city of Ahmedabad, a long journey for that time, but today one which would only take about 45 minutes by car. Mohandada (dada meaning grandfather), was considered to be very intelligent during his time. He knew pieces of English and had even passed the 4th grade, a feat that was uncommon for many young boys and girls in the village at the time. My grandfather became the servant to a wealthy family, often cooking and cleaning for them. 

Roughly around the year of 1948, my uncle or Mama (mother’s brother), Balabhai Mohanbhai Patel, was born and in 1958 (birth years were often estimated as there were no birth certificates recorded for many babies of that time), my mother, Bhikhiben Mohanbhai Patel, was born. 

While my mother was still young, my grandfather returned from Ahmedabad due to his poor health. He had developed corns on his feet, so he did the little farming he could at first. However, he soon stopped and tended to the home while my grandmother tended to the farm and the buffalo. 

Growing up, the gender roles of my grandparents were often reversed as it was my grandfather who, for the most part, taught my mother, Bhikhi, how to cook various dishes and clean the house, and it was my grandmother who earned the livelihood. When my mother was young, she remembers Amba Ba, grandmother, taking the five water buffalo and their babies out to feed on the grass. My mother also remembers her Ba leaving home at 3 AM to walk to the farm, but some nights, even spent the night there so she didn’t have to walk the 3 or 4 kilometers distance early the next morning. 

My grandmother did the plowing work with her own hands and left the rest of the planting to our laborers. Although poor, most families of our caste kept laborers, who were even poorer than we were. The laborers were considered as a family as it was their forefathers who had also worked with us for many generations. 

During my visits to India each summer and even as I spent time in both of my parent’s villages into adulthood, laborers often visited my mom when she came to India. In Moyad, there was always an elderly man in his 80’s who had worked with my father on the farm when he was a child. An elderly woman also almost always visited when my mother came to India as they had worked on the farm together after my mother’s marriage. 

My grandmother was practical, strong, hard-headed, but had a heart as pure as gold. Still with a heart as pure as gold, my grandfather was calm and passive, almost the polar opposite of my grandmother. Land disputes between siblings were common as it was the sons who shared the land and profited from it. When my mother was young, her uncle, my grandmother’s brother, demanded a larger piece of the land. He continued to bother them until finally, my grandmother spoke out. While my grandfather wanted to keep the peace, my grandmother knew it wasn’t right for them to continue harassing them. She was strong and kept the home afloat even through the most difficult challenges.

 


    

The Fortune of Water

My father was the middle sibling of nine siblings, born into a small farming village called Sampad. The village lies 22 kilometers southwest of the nearest town, Himatnagar and about 70 kilometers northeast from the nearest and largest city of Gujarat, Ahmedabad. Growing up, my father often told me my ancestors chose the land our village is on because of the abundant Sabarmati River which once flowed next to our village. Today, in our village, the river still flows in after the rainfall during the monsoon season, but is dry the rest of the year. The Sabarmati River is one of the major west flowing rivers of India, running from the Aravalli mountain range in the Udaipur District of Rajasthan and meets the Gulf of Cambay, a bay bordering Gujarat on the Arabian Sea coast of India. 

Much like the nearest city of Ahmedabad, Sampad and the surrounding villages were established on the banks of the Sabarmati River. In Hindu scripture, the Bhagavata Purana, Rishi (Sage) Dadhichi was the son of sage Atharvan and Chiti. His father, Atharvan is said to be the author of Atharaveda, one of the four Vedas. The ancient story tells us Rishi Dadhichi sacrificed his life and his bones for the kind of Dieties and Bhagwan Vishnu to defeat the demon Vritrasura. From his bones, a spear was created to defeat the demon. 

Indra once killed a rishi called Vishwarupa. News of this murder reached Vishwarupa’s father, Tvastha, who performed a yagna, invoked an asura called Vritra, and ordered him to annihilate Indra’s armies. The only weapon with which Vritra could be killed was one made of the bones of Dadhichi, a hermit whose bones had been energized by tapasya. On India’s request to sage Dadhichi abandoned his body and let the devas fashion a weapon with his bones with which Indra killed Vritra. - Indian Mythology, Devdutt Pattanik

From his life, Rishi Dhadhichi symbolizes sacrifice and it is said one of the sites of his ashram was along the Sabarmati River, very close to the present day Sabarmati Ashram, established by Mahatma Gandhi. His ashram was created between the jail and the crematorium along the banks of the Sabarmati River on the site which is where Rishi Dadhichi’s ashram was based. Gandhi believed there was no better place to serve as the basis for his independence movement, making Ahmedabad the center of the Indian independence movement. 

The Sabarmati River legend is that Shiva brought the Goddess Ganga to Gujarat, which created the Sabarmati River (also known as Bhogwa). With rich soil and water close by, this is where our ancestors had established our homes and land to farm. During my summers back to India, I often wondered how our ancestors had come to the land we are in now. Some family members told me our ancestors had walked from Patan, which in present day, is a city in northeastern Gujarat. Others told me we came from the north and settled as servants for a King who was ruling the land at the time. Slowly, as servants, we began accumulating land. Last names during the time were given based on your profession. Patel, from the surname Patidar, literally meaning piece of land. 

The town of Himatnagar was founded by King Ahmed Shah I. He named Ahmednagar (home of Ahmed) after himself, which renamed Himatnagar after prince Himmat Singh by Is Pratap Singh, the Maharaja or kind of Idar. It is during the 1400’s, during the time King Ahmed established Ahmednagar, that it is believed my ancestors came to settle on the land we now call Sampad. 

Much of our history has been lost through time, but stories are still preseved as they are passed down from generation to generation. The history of my father and mother’s lineage had once been recorded by Barots, who were known as the historians of the community. Like Brahmins (include what the system of the Brahmins had looked like and what slowly began to happen) in the community, who traditionally passed down spiritual knowledge, the Barot’s role was to move from home to home, village to village, maintaining track of the lineage of one’s family. Through time, they sustained themselves, much like the Brahmins, from payment of grains and other currencies as they went home to home. During a certain period in the last 100 years, it is believed the Barots stopped coming to our villages. In the mid 1900’s when family members began traveling to local towns and cities to work as servants or factory workers, villagers stopped contributing to Barots. The story goes that the Barots were so fed up with not being valued and paid, they threw all of my family’s books down a well. 

Throughout my father’s childhood, in times of drought, relatives from neighboring villages or goat herders passed through Sampad. Relatives came from neighboring villages like Saibapur and Derol. The relatives from these villages were nestled in the middle of large valleys where water would go down, but never come back up. It became hot and they were unable to provide water to their buffalo. They used this opportunity to walk or come with their buffalo carts, also called ghadoos. Family used the dry season, or the summer, as a time to visit relatives in neighboring villages. They ate and slept in the homes of the relatives and when the winter came, they went back to their homes and tended to their lands. 

Relatives weren’t the only ones to come through or to the village. Herders or nomads from  the state of Rajasthan, north of Gujarat, came through the village. They crossed the Sabarmati River and continued on through to the southwest where it wasn’t as dry and they could find water for the herds. After 4 or 5 months, they would go back to their villages in Rajasthan. 

As the herders from Rajasthan passed through Sampad, they were given grass to feed their cattle. Sometimes the villagers would trade with them. The herders would stay in the farm for 2 nights, tend to it, and their cattle would leave their excrements as fertilizer to help nourish the crops. In exchange, the farmers would give the herders grain and grass to feed their herds.