“Where is Ratna?” I asked Shakila, who sat on the top step of the small cement staircase outside of Ravi’s house. She peered at me questioning, so I asked again.
“Aparna?” She suggested, and I remembered that I needed to roll my “r” slightly to correctly pronounce the name. I tried again. Shakila’s face broke into a smile, and I felt satisfied that I could finally find the woman I was supposed to be meeting.
“No, I don’t know.”
Well, at least my pronunciation of Marathi names was getting better.
Annalise and I wandered around CRHP’s campus, waiting for Ratna to come out of one of the many buildings to meet us. We had decided to meet at four o’clock, but each time this had happened before, one or the other of us was at least five minutes late. “Indian time,” Ratna would say, with her smile (I just spent a while looking up adjectives which might reflect the quality of her smile, which is somehow both empathetic and loving, but also full of laughter. The laughter within her smile often seems to be in enjoyment of a situation in which I completely misinterpret something she says, or I make a blundering faux pas).
We stood in the Training Center main room, listening to the voices of village health worker women as they spoke, the sounds winding up, bouncing off of the tile and rising, into the golden hour of the Jamkhed evening. Mundubai walked over, her open grin beckoning and a cup of steaming chai in her palms. She pressed the tea into my hands, and I said, “Shukriya, shukriya,” and she echoed me, laughing. Amol, a young man learning to be part of the mobile health team, chuckled. He leaned against a tall blue pillar, sipping his own small pink mug of tea. “You?” Amol asked, pointing at Annalise. I sipped my tea too quickly and spluttered as the violent heat of scalding water hit my tongue; Annalise, watching me with eyebrows raised, said, “No, thanks.” Her decision was timely, as just then, Ratna walked into the room in a royal purple saree. I quickly blew on my tea, pushing the steam off its surface to make room for more as I attempted to quickly cool the tea. I gulped it down, and Annalise and I followed Ratna out onto the dirt-and-stone path toward Jamkhed town.
Our walking was slow, as Ratna’s footsteps led us windingly toward the center of town. “I’ve never walked this far,” she told us, her purple sari moving in the brisk wind. A driver was on his way to pick us up, sent by our soon-to-be host, Ajay. We stopped every few yards so that Ratna could answer her ringing phone, her fingers pushing the green answer button up and holding the phone to her ear. We waited for the driver next to an Amul ice cream shop and I saw a small puppy walking tipsily around the tires of a parked tractor.
A white car pulled into the dirt driveway outside the ice cream shop, and after conferring with the young driver, Ratna ushered us into its interior. The car smelled like newness, and I saw an air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror. We moved haltingly through Jamkhed, past a festival to celebrate a local Dhalit leader, to Vijay’s, a three-storied fabric shop. I stepped out of the car and walked up the steps to the store, waving at Ajay as I passed the entrance. He pointed upstairs, and I followed Ratna as she walked, one step at a time, her right hand trailing up the well-worn metal handrail.
Upstairs, I said hello to two women I’d met many times when I’d shopped for kurtas, scarves, or blankets at Vijay’s. “Friendship?” One woman said, as she always did. We don’t know each other’s names, although we remind each other every time we meet. I laughed and we shook hands.
Ratna pointed to a bright pink kurta, and the woman held it up to my frame. “Oh, I don’t need another one,” I explained, saying that I’d be leaving in just a few days. “No, no,” Ratna laughed. “Are you buying one?” Ratna shook her head, laughing, eyebrows raised. Our driver, whose name I later learned to be Sanjit, arrived with a tray of steaming milky chai and we all filed into the small corner office.
The tea tasted like ginger boiled down to its sweetest essence. The evening light played with Ratna’s hair, the gold dusting the black, as we spoke and were silent in that office room.
When all that was left of our tea was dregs, Ajay drove us to his farm, a short fifteen minutes down a dirt path surrounded by the greenest of landscapes. We arrived at a large metal gate, which Ajay stepped out to pull, creaking, open far enough so that the car could move past. We stepped out again and Ajay scratched the head of a large brown dog. We settled in off-white plastic chairs and Ajay pulled wat-a-po wrapped in newspaper from a bag he’d been carrying.
We each quietly ate our biscuit filled with spicy fried potato, and I looked around. The light arced through the trees and rested gently on two cows, one white and one brown, chewing alfalfa nearby. Seeing my interest, Ajay stood to lead me around his farm, pointing out different crops.
We ended the day driving home with the gold just turning to the purply hues of dusk. Ratna sat to my right, Annalise in front of me in the passenger seat. I opened my window and breathed in the green, the colorful evening, the dust and the last of my time in Jamkhed.