Neighbors

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We drove into our neighboring village and stopped where an ox stood tied in the middle of the narrow lane. On our left was the village-well, next to it a red-brick shed with straw and dung everywhere, and by the corner of the shed a hen with her chicks, tense, unblinking. To the right of where our car stood a lane goes up which is two-shoulders-wide, with tiny tile-roofed houses by its sides. Large black and reddish-brown stones jut out from the lane and appear to challenge the bare-foot villagers; but they are worn so smooth, you can tell they've been laid by fathers of their forefathers. The huts and houses are clean, and their appearance further attests to the age of the village.

A man we know came down the lane and smiled brightly at us, but I was slow to respond and his smile receded somewhat. He has helped recruit people for our construction. We walked up the lane with him, some children behind us. The villagers lost their lands when Government acquired it to create an industry-park. Now most of them own three of four acres, and the richest of them, ten acres. The lands are tidy, and we  paused before a neat patch with a few coconut palms: they grow this and that and that and this, nothing too seriously. They've lost all drive to increase yield or expand possessions, living in expectation of another acquisition, further dispossession.

Very soon we arrived at the edge of the village. The last house there with two coconut trees on a small front-yard belongs to our companion. We walked on with a namaste, and he asked us to stay, to drink coconut-milk from his trees. He was comfortable when we declined, when we pushed it to “next time.” I watched him until he entered his home, the lines on his trousers crisp, his shirt not wrinkled even where it fell over his seat. We went further, beyond the village, to the road which goes a long distance from it. We could see the horizon on all sides; I wondered at the wisdom of granting arable land to industry when our nation suffers a shortage of it. Darkness began to fall, we turned back.

A dark hulk of a man stood waiting for us by the lane, who was not there when we came in. Two scrawny men pressed his shoulders. How is our village? he asked. Very pretty, I said, not stopping, passing him.

What's here? he challenged. How is Bangalore?

Intolerable, that's why we're here.

You wish to make a Bangalore of our village?

People had come out of their homes, women, men, smiling, friendly. A shrunken old man whose wrinkled skin was burnt to ebony got off the ledge of his hut, and asked if we are from the factory. Take care of our village, he asked, and blessed our enterprise. The hulk came up and took charge of the door of my car, opening it wide, too wide. He wouldn't close it after I sat.

You must be the owner of the factory, he said.

Shall we close the door? I asked.

It took repeated maneuvering to turn round.

You're ruining your car, he said to me, speaking into Sujaya's window, his eyes at their corners, voice raised for the village to hear.

They were all smiling, reaching out, the women excitedly, them toward Sujaya—they'd have begun conversation if we had time. I sensed no rancor. It's a village where news from Bangalore arrives fast, but its wealth not at all, not yet. This moment their self-respect is strong, but their hopes have weakened. We waved. They waved back. We raised the glass on our doors and left.

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