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.