What makes a woman choose to live in a mud hut in the Sundarbans if she could be in a luxury apartment in Vienna? The capital city of Austria has been nominated “the most liveable city in the world” for the tenth time in a row. The village Purba Chintamonipur, in contrast, confronts its inhabitants with a number of vital problems and hardships.
What is luxury? We need to look at this question in detail. My concept of luxury has changed in the past years of intensified introspection and through journeys to India. For me, luxury is that what improves my life while not being obvious or available to everyone. When purified from self-worth issues (social status, competition, envy, anger, frustration etc.) luxury could be the freedom to care about my essential human needs which includes clean water, fresh air, a peaceful environment and loving relationships.
Only through my experience in Purba Chintamonipur (and other villages in Bengal) could I understand the luxury Vienna offers with water so clean that you can drink it while showering, flowing out of taps day and night - warm at any time.
In the village, I need to get drinking water from the deep tube pump (five minute walk) and for all other purposes, water runs only three times a day from central points in the village. Waiting in line becomes a social meet and greet. Water often contains impurities which the village women filter with their sari. A family’s pond is a unique feature, a living bathroom and a source of fish. Maintaining the ecological balance, however, is difficult in certain seasons.
Electricity is supposed to support human development. But it has its dark sides. Light pollution is an issue in cities where we live in isolation from natural cycles and no longer respect our body’s natural rhythm. Standing under a moonlit sky to brush my teeth, hearing crickets and frogs and not a single car is luxury offered to me in the village.
Along with electricity, TVs enter homes in the village and, as far as I perceive it, they cause more damage than bliss. Small children sit next to their mothers in front of crime scenes, publicity pollutes the mind and passive entertainment replaces communal sharing and creative solutions to the village problems. Well, we city dwellers are offering bad examples! We spend hours and days staring at all sorts of screens.
Comfort has a spiritual, a holistic dimension to me. Using the air conditioner to cool my room while heating the air outside is offensive. Riding single in a taxi while increasing traffic jams and exhaust fumes is offensive. The air which I pollute is, in the long run, is the air that I and my children will breathe. I need to carefully respect my needs as well as those of others. I am no martyr or role model. I am trying to live up to my own standard. Therefore I will take the ‘trouble’ to segregate garbage. I want to live in a clean city and I cannot accept ‘lower class’ people sorting my waste if I am talking of human equality. Segregation and safe treatment of garbage is normal in Vienna.
Each place on Earth offers specific qualities for inner growth. Instead of asking, “Which place has a higher quality of living?” I ask myself, “What do I still need to learn in order to improve as a human?” and “Which experience can help me discover new ways of leading my life?”
A life in luxury is a life in which I allow myself to develop into my genuine individual liveliness. In that sense, all amenities and inconveniences of a place work towards the same goal: To lead me into the heart of my existence.
I will conclude with a few keywords from my experience in Purba Chintamonipur where I arrived for the first time in November 2018. I was doing a course on agroecology at the University of Calcutta at that time. I fell in love with the village immediately and entirely. There was beauty, friendliness and hospitality at every corner. The air was fresh, birds were singing and children laughing, the food served came from organic farming. My heart opened, my breath deepened and my mind became still.
Purba Chintamonipur Chetana Sangha adopted me like a sister. They call me ‘Didi’. When they heard that I was ready to leave Kolkata behind, they welcomed me and offered to build a place for me to stay. More importantly, they kept their word and the material for the roof of my mud hut was delivered within two weeks. The mud hut to me means simplicity - a lifestyle that honours the present, breathing walls and nature and me in a loving, caring relationship.
Purba Chintamonipur made animals a part of my daily life - cows, goats, dogs howling, birds singing. Animals as pets, animal sounds, animal danger - learning about snakes, spiders and mosquitoes and learning to control imagination and fear and developing a healthy tolerant attitude. The village was about living with babies and children - of humans, cows and goats.
There are no cars in the village. Tuctucs or battery powered vans roll along the brick lanes. And there are students on cycles, friends on cycles and a boy carrying his mother on cycle. There is always time for a ‘kemon acho’ (how are you)? There is time to slow down and stare or smile, time to wait. The vibration is slower than in a city, the sounds in the air are human voices.
There is also pollution in the village as it exists in each human. Garbage and ignorance towards its treatment. Batteries may land in a pond, plastic is burnt and nasty fumes inhaled. Mental pollution, personal stress, conflict and social disintegration. Emotional pollution from unresolved issues. Sound pollution is what ultimately gets me crazy in the village. Music from loudspeakers ranging from sweet tunes to hard core disco beat spilling over everyone, mostly full blast, often beginning at dawn or going on until after midnight.
I notice that people are under great tension and don’t have a centre or a village structure that offers time to peacefully share and care. Instead, they continue and repeat, increase the noise, increase pressure on children, increase rubbish. This is the greatest pain I feel in the village.
And when you come to think of it, you might notice that this trend does not apply to the villagers only. On the contrary, I ask myself whether they aren’t copying bad habits of the lifestyle practiced in cities. The confusion of our mind, futile struggles in the wrong direction, loss of dignity and compassion... isn’t it a human problem.
Returning to nature, remembering our true nature, leading a natural life style, honouring and protecting nature and the caretakers of nature - our farmers is the only way I see to get rid of our madness.
By the way, my best friend in the village is a girl they call mad because her brain was damaged at birth. This girl’s eyes sparkle in joy when she feels accepted. Her heart embraces everyone, even those who send her away. She is able to learn when offered a safe and loving connection. This ‘mad’ girl showed me a lot about who and what is truly mad in this age.