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Portrait of bindaas girl as sarpanch

At first glance she might appear straight out of a fashion mag or may even remind you of a certain Geeta Rao from Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi.

On closer look, the stunning Chhavi Rajawat is a firebrand who breaks many stereotypes as the current sarpanch of the Soda village in Rajasthan. “Yes, Soda. Just the way you pronounce what you drink,” she says with a broad smile. This horse-riding, denim-clad MBA is far removed from the archetypal turbaned, mustachioed old village headman in a dhoti.

No wonder she found it hard to ward off the shutterbugs despite putting on a smile and her hands together to gesture ‘time-up’ as everyone went click-click before Chhavi could address the Infocom gathering on Saturday morning. “I’m a villager and I’m proud to be one. But that does not mean we’re backward or we want to be backward. We have a right to respect and dignity. I’m here to be a facilitator and blur the divide between the outside world and the village, mobilise villagers and understand what their issues are,” she declared at a session on empowering rural India.

A Rajput from Rajasthan, Chhavi was like any other girl from an urban middle class family. Her father is a manufacturer of leather goods and her mother runs a hotel in Jaipur. She grew up in a boarding school in Andhra Pradesh, graduated in English literature from Delhi, did an MBA from Pune and then set aside her corporate role to take on the responsibility of her ancestral village where she has been “happily” rooted since 2010 when she was elected sarpanch with a record margin.

“I had moved back to Jaipur in 2005 after many years to pursue my career in sales and marketing,” says Chhavi, her face lighting up as she dwells on her love for outdoor sports, “especially horse riding!” She picked up her horse-riding skills at Maharani Gayatri Devi’s stables. “A friend and I set up a horse riding academy in Jaipur where polo is very popular,” says Chhavi, who would train the amateurs herself.

And then it all changed.

When 50-odd villagers from Soda — “the same people who had carried me on their shoulders and pampered me as a child” — arrived at her doorstep one day.

“My vacations were spent in Soda because my grandfather, a brigadier with a Maha Vir Chakra, became the sarpanch after his retirement. I would hop from one house to another, play in the fields, ride a tractor. I was totally bindaas. The village was already my family,” recalls Chhavi.

“What touched my heart was the hope and expectations in their eyes. Things in the village had gone from bad to worse and how could I as a daughter of the village not come forward to help?” And so she decided to become the “bridging agent” between her people and the government.

The biggest challenge that came Chhavi’s way right after she became sarpanch, was “a problem as basic as safe drinking water” when their district was declared drought-hit. Apart from finding solutions to the water crisis, Chhavi has helped raise funds for the village, set up computer labs, started a youth club, farmer club, girls’ club, neighbourhood family clubs, started career guidance programmes, brought in technical expertise to better agricultural produce. All this while steering clear of any political affiliation.

If going from hard-core urban bred to rural village head was quite the challenge, being a beautiful young woman has turned out to be another. Chhavi doesn’t want to disclose her age when asked. Not out of vanity but because she gets flooded with “proposals” from a string of suitors! “They call and say all kinds of random things… I want to marry you, I want to be ‘fraands’ with you!” laughs Chhavi.

The paradigm shift in her life is “neither extraordinary nor exceptional”, Chhavi insists. “All of us hail from some village or the other. I just want to motivate others to come forward and voice issues of the grassroots collectively. Not too many people want to come and get their hands dirty in a village but it’s not difficult to be in that space. There is life there despite its challenges and a sense of happiness.”

Sarpanch Baisa to the village of 7,000, a day for Chhavi begins at 6am as men and women pour into her house with their problems.

Although Chhavi had to wind up her horse-riding academy in Jaipur last year, she has managed to bring sports into Soda. “I think sports is important to build a community and team spirit. So I play with the children and involve the girls. We play everything from cricket and dodge ball to kho-kho and kabaddi. It’s fun!”

But the reddish-brown drink she’s been sipping on all morning doesn’t look like much fun. “It’s a mix of lemon, maple syrup and cayenne pepper. I’m on a 12-day Ayurvedic detox and it’s only day five. But I feel energised,” she smiles.

Mohua Das

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