The past weekend, our entire program traveled to Kausani to visit Laxmi Ashram. The ashram is a culturally specific development initiative focused on the education of women and girls in Uttarakhand and follows a Gandhian model of education. In preparation for our visit to the ashram, we had been reading up on both Gandhian educational philosophy and some of anthropologist Rebecca Klenk’s fantastic research in the area. Heading up to Kausani, I think we all assumed that we’d be interacting with a troupe of little Gandhian children in the contemplative, quiet and internally-peaceful sense of the concept. Our first day at the ashram definitely shattered most of those assumptions. Though I was ill and unable to head up to visit the girls, I was told that the little ladies were rowdy, inquisitive and acted very much their age. Members of our groups were able to go along with the girls as they conducted their morning chores, which were anything from fodder collection in the hills above the ashram to peeling potatoes for lunch on the steps of the kitchen. One of my friends helped two ten year old girls cut down a small tree and carry it back from the forest. Visiting with the girls and being able to go out with them as they engaged in reproductive labor at the ashram helped reframe many of the topics we’ve been reading about in our classes – from gendered spaces of labor to the dangers of fodder collection to the peaceful nature of spinning khadi (handmade cotton thread used for cloth). After lunch, we had a lazy afternoon as the monsoon rains poured outside of our guesthouse.
We rose very early on our second day in Kausani and set out with Basanti-Ji, the current head of Laxmi Ashram, to check out some of the natural resource management (NRM) projects the ashram has been working on in the Kosi River Valley. We drove down into the valley and visited with Basanti-Ji, David-Bhai and Maya-Ji, one of the women working on NRM projects in the valley. It was a really pleasant way to spend the morning. We spoke with Maya-Ji and Basanti-Ji about the work that they had done in the community and the ways in which that work is continuing today. Maya-Ji and her daughter brought us chai, spicy potatoes, and other delicious treats. After eating our treats, we set out on a village walk in the valley. Basanti-Ji and David-Bhai explained the different rice farms, schools and temples that we saw along the way. Once we returned to Maya-Ji’s, we ate lunch and then took a quick tour of the experimental rice paddies in the fields down from her house. In the middle of looking at the fields, the monsoon rains began to pour and we retreated to our guesthouse and warm cups of chai.
On the third day and final day, we all hiked up to the ashram to do morning chores with the girls. My friend Joelle and I peeled potatoes and eggplants with two little girls who giggled every time we tried to speak Hindi. We coaxed them out of their shells by singing excerpts of pop songs in a rather shaky harmony. After finishing our task, we went into the kitchen to help make roti but we were quickly shooed out by the ladies working in there. Apparently our roti rolling skills simply were not up to par. Our entire groups preformed a few songs for the girls before lunch but the singing and dancing that the ladies pulled out put us all the shame. After lunch and a short rest at our hotel, during which time we saw the Himalaya in a cloud break for the first time in their entirety, we returned to the ashram for the afternoon. We sat in the old ashram house with both Basanti-Ji and Neema-Ji, a former ashram student currently getting her PhD., and spoke a bit about the evolution and history of the ashram. We also spoke about the ways in which the ashram functions as a safe space for girls and women within the community. Being in conversation with these two amazing women was such a gift and I’m looking forward to reflecting on what they shared, as well as the impact of the rest of my time in Kausani, for the weeks to come.