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Khushboo Sharma

IWB Blogger

US Author Victoria Lautman Is So In Love With India’s Stepwells That She Finds Going Back Home Difficult

  • IWB Post
  •  January 31, 2018

Sometimes among the dilapidated ruins, we start feeling like them and perhaps that is how history moves us. Thirty years ago, exploring the inexplicable charm of Indian monuments, Victoria Lautman, author of The Vanishing Stepwells of India, stumbled upon a stepwell and thus began an odyssey to the remotest of the stepwells in India which eventually culminated into a book.

Geetanjali Kasliwal, the owner at Anantaya, was kind enough to not only invite me to the launch of their new collection Beeja but was also gracious enough to personally give me a tour through the store and introduce me to the brand new collection that comprised of IRO Outwear, ISAK perfumes, Tribal Artisanal Sunglasses, SOVA Bodycare, Urja Lighting and collection launches by Naushad Ali.

Geetanjali introduced me to Victoria who greeted me with the warmest of smiles that reached her eyes. She was humble enough to tell me that she was really flattered by my interest in her. Victoria not only readily agreed to the interview but even found a quiet and peaceful place for us to sit and chat. She left me wondering if I was actually interviewing a person who has herself interviewed a plethora of significant authors. Here are the excerpts from the interview:

Tell me about your first visit to India and what made you fall in love with India?

It’s almost like I fell in love with India before I came here because I just wanted to come so badly and I didn’t know anything about it. It was like I woke up and told myself “OH I gotta go to India” and when I stepped out of the plane and everything just hit me, the smells, the sound, the people. Every day on that trip when I woke up in the morning I was so excited about what am I gonna see. It was all so new. Every time I thought, ok now I have seen India, I have been here for a month that’s all I need and then I’d go back to the States and six months later I would just wanna come back to India. That just went on for years and I still feel like that, I still cannot get it out of my system! I keep thinking well now it has been 30 years and am I gonna keep feeling like this forever?

Victoria Lautman

Victoria Lautman

How did you discover the stepwells and what did it feel like?

I discovered this whole stepwell thing and it was like finally, everything came together. Because I had to go and find a lot of those by myself. I didn’t travel with anybody except for an Indian driver whom I didn’t know and if I hadn’t been so familiar with India and if I hadn’t been so comfortable at that point travelling by myself I could have never ever have done that. It’s almost like, and I just thought of it, I have never thought of it before this, those 30 years were preparing me for this moment! How about that?

Wow, now that’s really something!

I know! I am getting goosebumps. I’m totally getting goosebumps.

Tell me about one of the stepwells that you think is the most beautiful of them all.

Ok, people ask me that! They don’t necessarily say one or three or five, and I cannot do it and I always say, you are too young for this (pointing at me), but I always say OK how many children do you have two or three or four? Which one do you like the best?

When you began that statement, that’s exactly what struck me. You cannot say which one of your kids is your favourite. 

No, you cannot! And every single stepwell has something about it which is unique and which I respond to. Like Rani Ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat, is so fancy and ornate and a world heritage site. I don’t even bother about them, that’s a beautiful successful person that you really don’t have to worry about. It’s the ones that really are overgrown and nobody pays attention to them like lost dogs and you just want to take it home be nice and feed it. Those are the ones that I actually feel the most for. Coz it’s like something that needs help.

Rani Ki Vav by Victoria Lautman

Rani Ki Vav by Victoria Lautman

You have to love it?

You have to love it! And you just have to clean it up and cut the hair and take off the dirt and then it’s just beautiful again.

That totally resonates with me! So you must have heard a lot of stories of unresolved mysteries and horrors around the stepwells. Please share a few of them with us.

There are a lot of those. There are a couple of things that come up again and again as myth. One of them is that they were built overnight by a witch. There’s like 20 of those. It’s like who built the stepwell? Overnight the stepwell appeared!  The other thing you hear is that there is a tunnel underneath the step-well and they are linked to murders and suicides and sacrifices. There are stories like two people had to sacrifice themselves, and there is always two, in order to make the water calm. All over India When you look for the most haunted places, step wells are always like the big ones. It’s funny. It is because they are really creepy. When you go inside them they can be really creepy. Today I was in one close to Amber and you could literately hear the bats screeching and that can be quite unnerving.

Tell me one ecological lesson that you think everyone should learn from stepwells.

That if you take care of Nature, Nature will take care of you.You are inspiring me to say good things. (Laughs) It was possible to get everything you needed from step-wells once: water to drink, water to irrigate, water for animals because you were taking care of what the water was and you’d clean the place.

Once you stop taking care of Nature, it will fight back. Now there is no more water and we have a crisis because we used too much of it. The step-wells are a pretty good indicator of what is going on in the world. We had these great civilizations and then we took advantage of everything, we used too much of this and too much of that and now everything is falling apart. They are like a great metaphor!

Okay, how about you draw a feminist lesson from the deteriorating condition of the step-wells and teach it to us?

Well, I think of the idea of women being in a collective social setting is very important, sociologically. I think it really enhanced the lives of women back then, to gather together in these places. They were the people and still are who take care of the family. It’s the women who go get the water: then and now! And the fact that women can be treated like something that really isn’t important and that you take for granted and the society takes for granted is just sad. You can’t live without the kind of things women are doing everywhere. We are the ones who are holding it together.

According to you, which three stepwells should everyone visit?

Rani Ki Vav in Gujarat is one because it is a world heritage site. Chand Baori in Rajasthan is another. There is just nothing like that, on Earth. Lolark Kund In Varanasi would be the third one. Varanasi is the oldest continuing city on Earth and the fact that this stepwell has been there since the very beginning just gives me goosebumps.

Lolark Kund by Victoria Lautman

Lolark Kund by Victoria Lautman

What is your vision for their restoration? Who do you think should take responsibility for them now?

Well the Government sounds like an easy answer but it’s the communities that are gonna take care of them. You could spend all the money on Earth trying to make them look better but it is the people who live around them that would have to become the custodians or it will just fall apart.

They should have some reasons. How can we inspire them to preserve the stepwells? 

You are right! There are village and towns that have finally realized that we don’t have enough water and these things used to bring us water. Why can’t we get water of them because it’s silted up and they are clearing it. If you convince them that they could get water it’s one way. If you tell them that they could get money out of it is another way. They can come up with ideas like to offer a dinner in one of the stepwells and charge people for it. That will help. I think there are a lot of ways. There has to be something in it for them. Why else would somebody do it?

What do you think is the major reason behind their deterioration?

They are not being taken care of because they don’t give water anymore. People can get water from other places and it’s much easier to get it from a tap.

How would you connect the calm of stepwells to your busy life in America?

Being in so many stepwells where there are no people and it’s completely quiet, it’s hard to find places like that anywhere. The idea that you can be into something that is ancient and beautiful and quiet and nobody knows about it, that’s just the opposite of everything I know and going back to the United States after that is really hard. You can’t find spaces in America that have that kind of meaning. Maybe people go to church but I don’t do that and there are other people in the church. These are unique in every sense spiritually, physically and historically and they hit on all spheres.

Mahila Baag Jhalra by Victoria Lautman

Mahila Baag Jhalra by Victoria Lautman


Photo Courtesy: Aparna Natha

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