So that’s what I did. And what happened at first was: …nothing. I arrived in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, on May 27. Rajesh, one of the JV staff members, picked me up and we drove to the Jagriti Vihara campus 2.5 hours away on May 29. And by the time I left for Bodhgaya on June 7, less than two weeks later, I had interviewed a grand total of maybe 9 people, four of whom were JV staff members and about three of whom qualified as the villagers I was supposed to be talking to.
I came to appreciate that as slowly as things moved in India, they moved five times more slowly in rural India. Things just couldn’t be rushed. There were infinite logistical problems: constant power outages, prowling Naxalites (Communist insurrectionists), roads with potholes so enormous heavy rains reduced them to latticeworks of mud and asphalt above gaping puddles.
But there was also an attitude that made Mert, one of the Americans who had overseen the construction of the hospital building, refer to India as the “tomorrow country.” Workers who promised to report for work on Friday often wouldn’t show until Monday. Power lines that should have been restored in a week remained broken for months. And my plans on May 30 to visit villages near JV didn’t materialize into actual visits until June 15. It truly did feel like most Indians felt they had several lifetimes ahead of them to get things done.
But slowly, gradually, I began to gather data. I sat for long hours talking with the founder of JV, Daduji (his real name is Sri Uphadyaya, but a lot of people call him “Dadu,” which means literally “grandfather”; “ji” is just an honorific you add to the end of a person’s name or title to show respect), about JV’s past, present, and future. (More on the wonderful and one-of-a-kind Daduji later.) I spoke with villagers who came to visit JV’s campus, refining my shot-in-the-dark survey drafted 7000 miles away. I interviewed a nun at a nearby dispensary. I toured the hospital itself, a striking white building with an airy, open courtyard dividing two large infirmaries, a space for a lab, and a reception room.
And finally, in mid-June, after I had returned from Bodhgaya, the endlessly jolly and wonderfully patient Sushil returned from Kolkata and began taking me around to the villages, zipping us along back roads on his motorbike. We visited Dumaro, 5 km away, passing over a bridge that JV helped get built after decades of telling the government that the river in rainy season rose high enough to block villagers from coming and going. We went to Mahuator, where one guy in his mid-20s driving a tractor admitted to being drunk on mahua, the local liquor, around 4:30 in the afternoon. We went to Relia, where most people drink from the river and where one woman took me to her one-room house where all her family’s possessions are stored on a rope around the walls.
With Sushil’s help, I asked people: What are the illnesses in your village? Do you sleep with mosquito netting? Do you know someone in your village who has died from disease? What did they die from? Would you pay 100 rupees to see a doctor at the JV hospital? 150? 200? (100 rupees is equal to $1.67. It also was usually enough to buy us vegetables for an entire week.)
Sometimes I seriously doubted I was doing anything useful. The vast majority of villagers cited malaria and colds as common diseases. Did I really need to fly 7000 miles around the planet to uncover the earth-shattering news that malaria is a problem in rural India?
Some days both Sushil and Dadu were not at JV, or else were too busy to take me on interviews. Those days I tried to come up with projects for myself, like singing the entire soundtrack of Les Mis while washing my laundry, or walking 3 miles each way into “town”– a string of shops along the railway line where trains laden with coal hurtled past every few minutes — to use the internet. Otherwise I felt boredom set in, and then despair, and then longing for things from home, and then guilt for feeling longing, and then anger over the guilt.
One very slow day, I tried to cheer myself up by dancing through the heavy monsoon rains, shouting, “Barsat! Barsat!” (Monsoon! Monsoon!) I thought of how funny it would look to anyone watching — which underscored the fact that no one was watching. It was the saddest and loneliest I felt during the entire trip.
And then a few hours later, I went to eat truffles at Lucy’s house, and they were extremely delicious, and Lucy’s family very kind, and then I actually did cheer up, a lot.
Some days I felt as though I were in a very long dream—as though the place were too different from everything I knew to possibly be real and it was all just an extended drug trip. I lived in a place where I checked for, and sometimes found, scorpions and palm-sized spiders sitting on my door ledge; where ripe mangoes fell at our feet on our walk to breakfast; where chickens and goats sauntered through people’s homes and yards. What amplified this effect was the fact that I actually was, to some degree, stoned: my antimalarial of choice, doxycycline, left me feeling so dopey and spacey at times that when the side effects first happened, I actually worried that I had somehow gotten malaria.
In other ways, it all became normal so quickly that old, familiar things looked endlessly strange when I saw them again. I could not believe how glaringly bright a lightbulb seemed when I saw one after weeks without electricity. And I could not stop staring at the two Dutch men I met in Ranchi at the very end of my Jharkhand adventure: it had been a month since I had seen white people. My brain had accepted what my eyes were telling it: that the color of skin is brown; my skin was weird, strange, absurdly light. I remember once catching a glimpse of my reflection in the sideview mirror of Sushil’s bike as I interviewed a villager and thinking I looked pale as a ghost.