Mansukh Chaudhary, who lives in Surat district’s Mandvi taluka in Gujarat, fell in love with Sanjana from a village named Dhamodla in the neighbouring Tapi district about 30 kilometres away. The couple wanted to get married, but a minor issue snowballed into a major stumbling block.
Chaudhary belongs to a village named ‘Chudel’ (witch) and Sanjana’s parents were steadfastly against the match fearing ridicule and possible ostracisation that awaited their daughter, and indirectly their family.
Mansukh and Sanjana eventually got married in 2011 with her parents’ reluctant blessings. Now, Sanjana is the sarpanch of the Chudel gram panchayat, and the couple is on a mission to change the village’s name.
“It took me a year to convince [the in-laws] that the village and its people have nothing to do with its unfortunate name. Their daughter will be well taken care of,” Mansukh, 32, said. “And I am not the only one. Many have suffered because people don’t want to marry their daughters into our village.”
Villages, cities and districts in India have been known to demand a name change mainly to wipe out historical references to Mughal and colonial rulers. But in Chudel, it’s a different story.
Residents of this small hamlet, which lies next to a stone quarry with a population of 951 as per the 2011 Census, residents have faced mockery. Villagers say the women are especially scoffed at when they go to other places for education or work and men like Mansukh find it difficult to get married.
Tired of it all, the local gram panchayat passed a resolution in October to change the name of the village to Chandanpur.
“The proposal is currently with the Collector’s office,” Mansukh said.
A land where spirits roamed
No one from the village seems to know exactly how the hamlet came to be known as Chudel. One theory that reverberates through the chaupals or lazy afternoon discussions is that the ground on which the village stands was once haunted.
“Our village elders tell us stories of how 100-150 years ago, this was the land where spirits roamed freely, even during the day,” said 27-year-old Ajay Chaudhary, who works at the stone quarry.
“Our grandparents talk about knowing someone who had seen ghosts and spirits. The young generation thinks it’s all hogwash. We are educated and do not believe in all that,” he added.
But, irrespective of the veracity of the story, Ajay wants the village name to be changed.
“Youths who go out to study in places like Surat or Bharuch have a major problem. They are endlessly ragged,” Ajay said.
Whenever someone asks him for his address, Ajay says he prefers saying Mandvi taluka without going into details.
Nickname while growing up – Chudel
As she cuddles her three-year-old on a staid charpoy, 24-year-old Bhavika Prajapati is almost thankful that her daughter’s address says Vankla, Mandvi taluka, and not Chudel.
Prajapati has lived in Chudel since birth and moved to Vankla after marriage.
“Till the eighth standard, I went to the local village school. But from Class 8 to 12, I had to go to another school in the taluka. There, my nickname was ‘Chudel’. Everyone got so used to calling me Chudel that it struck beyond simple, good-humoured teasing. My friends said ‘Ae Chudel’ to just call out to me, or ask me something,” Prajapati said.
“I would get irritated earlier, but gradually I became used to it,” she says.
Twenty-year-old Khushi Chaudhari is going through exactly what Prajapati underwent just a few years ago. A science undergraduate student in Mandvi, Khushi’s friends frequently call her ‘Chudel.’
“On my first day in college, the teacher was asking all of us which village we come from. When I said Chudel, the teacher initially thought I was insulting her, then she got confused and asked me two more times,” Khushi said. “In disbelief, she said, aisa bhi koi naam hota hai?” Can there ever be a name like that?
Khushi’s mother is the administrator of the kitchen in Chudel village’s local school. “Every time she goes for zonal meetings at the tehsil office, they say, ‘dekho Chudel aa gayi (look, the witch is here),” Khushi said with a slight laugh.
Whenever they travel in buses, Prajapati, Khushi and others never buy a ticket for ‘Chudel.’ They give the name of a nearby village to avoid unwarranted attention and questions.
Chudel to Chandanpur
In 1988, the sarpanch had initiated the idea of changing the village’s name and decided to call it Chandanpur, Mansukh said. “But for some reason or the other, it fizzled out. Probably because the procedure is long and time-consuming,” he adds.
To officially change a village’s name, the gram panchayat has to first pass a resolution, and then the proposal is discussed at a tehsil-level meeting. Once approved, the proposal then goes to the Collector’s office and finally to the state government.
Before Sanjana became the village head, Mansukh was the sarpanch since 2017. He gathered paperwork and information about the procedure for name change around the end of 2018.
As part of the official name change, all revenue records will have to be updated to reflect Chudel village’s new name. Every person’s Aadhaar card, ration card, and voter identity card among other documents will also be updated. The residents of Chudel think it is worth all the trouble.
“The gram panchayat will help everyone with the paperwork. It won’t take us more than two months to wrap it all up,” Mansukh said.
But people from nearby villages are accustomed to calling the hamlet Chudel. Will it be possible to change old habits?
“Why not?” Mansukh said. “The next time a woman from our village goes out to work or study, she can hold her head high and confidently say where she comes from.”
(Edited by Ratan Priya)