LATUR AND WAIGAON
Without fear of offending our hallowed hosts in India, it would be fair to say that the city of Latur, in the southeast corner of Maharashtra state, is nobody’s idea of a dream destination. Thickly congested, ferociously hot and lacking many of the ancient cultural draws that characterize even the roughest of Indian cities, Latur represented a bit of a disaster for executive producer Keith Famie and associate producer Ben Logan, both of whom came down with a bout of food poisoning as the recipient of one too many generously proffered home cooked meals. Indians may have built up a certain resistance to food borne illnesses over their lifetimes, but Famie—a meticulously clean chef—has not. Ben, barely twenty-five years old, simply succumbed to a sort of youthful resistance to cuisine that didn’t originate in a Michigan kitchen. Adding to their woes was Anjni Hotel which—though well-regarded by Laturians—lacked air conditioning during the day, and amid an unseasonable heat wave where the temperature hovered well into the three digits, the twenty-four hours that the illness kept Keith and Ben in bed were, for them, the trip’s lowest point.
Which ultimately, was an ideal, if hard-won prequel to Waigaon, the birthplace of Avinash Rachmale—the village where his mother, now eighty-five, still lives. Though a thousand times more rural than Latur, Waigaon is a thousand times more inviting; it represents what can be called as the ‘real’ India, the India that has existed for thousands of years. The road leading into Waigaon was steeped in traditions dating to the first settled inhabitants, unchanged—long smoking ovens where handmade bricks were baking, farmers drawing up cattle stock beneath babul trees, women in saris walking with great loads on their heads and bundles of sticks beneath their arms.
If ever there was a metaphor for ‘local boy makes good’ it is Avinash Rachmale, CEO of a Detroit company which last year showed revenue of one hundred fifty million dollars. His home village is minute, about a thousand inhabitants, most of whom make their living raising sugar cane, mangoes and cotton. That’s the background that Avinash came from—his father, Narson Rao, was a farmer, tending land still lovingly managed by his brother Dinanath, and where Narson himself is buried. The other brothers—Papu and Govinath, and his elder sister Sulochna—all pursued medical careers, driven to academic excellence by a family tradition of self-improvement. Remarkably, only Avinash chose to come to the United States, and although his mother Prayag could certainly be spirited to Bloomfield Hills to live in luxury with her youngest son, she chooses to remain in Waigaon. Granted, the house the family has built her is spectacular by local standards, it is still in the heart of a village where clothing is washed by hand and cooking is done over fires frequently started with dried dung. It is this closeness to the land, not seen by the Hindu tradition as demeaning in any sense, but rather, a communing with the essential oneness of nature, that allows Avinash his uniquely Indian dichotomy in spirit.
The entire village of Waigaon turned out for his arrival; the streets packed with shiny happy people. These were not people looking for a handout, nor even a nod of acknowledgment—though many were given—but merely to bask in the homecoming of one of Waigaon’s most celebrated sons. As friends and colleagues of Avinash, we were afforded a traditional Hindu welcome, each of us dressed in turbans and dhoti by an individual sponsor, and of course, presented with a complex meal prepared by half a dozen eager cooks. The tour of Waigaon, winding up and down dirt roads, past wells, cattle stalls, huts in whose doorways many generations watched the procession with joy and anticipation, was a cultural wonder. We wound up in the house where Avinash was born, and with his family, spend many minutes reminiscing about childhood, which, though poor by Western standards, was so rich in love and inspiration that all things not only seemed possible, but for the Rachmale siblings, came to pass.