Cognition in West Champaran

Research assistants, Rana and Amit, pose at the end of a long day. Pictures with no smile are commonly taken here, making them feel close to classic portraiture.
Coming from Dhaka and New Delhi, village life in West Champaran, Bihar is a figurative and literal breath of fresh air. Flat fields of wheat and mustard stretch on into the smoky distance and the sun rises and sets, giant and deep orange each day.

This is a beauty rivaled only by its poverty and malnutrition, things that are commonplace in such rural areas of India. Life seems heavy with mud caked bamboo huts filled with flies; water buffalo, goats, and dogs mere meters from food stores and beds; plastic wrappers floating in stagnant fluid gutters; and the sun beating one to drink what little clean water is left. The families living here seem happy though, and happy to be receiving foreign guests. Mothers smile as their children smile from the play centered surveys, and men bring fresh, hot chai and proudly watch as it is sipped with dire hesitation – living with unwelcome biotics in ones stomach gets difficult, especially after Cipro scrapes them clean for the fourth time in half a year. Curious children crowd and distract the infants from being tested, and having them disperse is near impossible without the proper use of their language. Typically, the research assistants who speak Hindi are the best at asking them to step back or out of the sight of the infant, but it is hard for them to abandon their surveys for this task when the infant’s focus is crucial yet so easily lost. Without the use of Hindi, the best tools to curb them are universal hand gestures and the ubiquitous ‘shhhh’. The villagers are fine with an outsider coming into their home though and telling them what to do in a foreign language, something that must require tremendous patience and humility.

People living in West Champaran clearly have a lot to put up with, so seeing a group of foreign researchers enter their village feels like an opportunity for some relief. A strained man accosts them with a small group and yells at them in Hindi, waving his arms in the direction of the Anganwadi center. The centers typically do well to distribute and provide healthcare and pre-schooling services to children in the village. His complaints are of one lazy Anganwadi worker though, hoarding supplies for her own interests, and of men who are given operational funds for the centers and keeping them for their own lavish lifestyles. As a group that seems to be an authority in village child care because of their brief affiliation with the Anganwadi, the researchers are held accountable by angry villagers who are looking for well-earned respite. It would not be hard for the researchers to explain the reality of who they are and why it is the government that needs to address their issues, but it is after seeing a father hold up his child and yell for the food, care, and pre-schooling that they are told they will get and so badly need.

About the Author
Saam Batmanghelidj is a writer and photographer from Boston and Atlanta. He currently lives in New Delhi, India volunteering, traveling, and looking for new and interesting stories to tell.

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