HARYANA, India—In a dusty village somewhere in the northern Indian state of Haryana, children are playing with a photograph in the dirt. Shy of city folks, they’re initially silent when asked whose picture it is. Then one of them murmured, “It’s Dolan Trump’s picture…he’s a big man in America!” Further ahead, a group of women have gathered to discuss the prospects of selling spices they have grown and ground. “Everyone knows us as ‘Trump’s Village’,” 62-year-old Saraswati Devi, a villager, told VICE News as they brainstorm marketing strategies. “Perhaps we can use this to sell our spices.”
This is Marora, a tiny hamlet in Nuh (formerly Mewat) district of Haryana, informally known as “Trump Village”. An estimated 60 per cent men in Marora are truck drivers and the same percentage of women, according to the 2011 census, are illiterate. A cluster of about 150 houses connected by narrow, snaking lanes, Marora is unlike the original Trump Village – a sprawling complex built in the 60s in Brooklyn by Trump’s developer dad Ted – in all ways but one: It boasts of a toilet in every home.
This isn’t the first time an Indian village has been named after an American president. Not far from Marora lies Carterpuri. Originally Chuma Kheragaon, the village was rechristened in 1978 after a visit by the former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.
A chance visit to New York by the founder of a charity that promotes the installation of toilets in India led to Marora’s rebirth. “In early 2016, when I visited New York, Mayor Bill De Blasio dedicated 14 April, 2016 in my name to honour my lifetime achievement in the field of sanitation,” founder of Sulabh International, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, told VICE News. On his return to India, Pathak decided to look for a suitable village to adopt and rechristen for the incumbent president, in a bid to strengthen Indo-American bilateral ties. Marora seemed perfect as it was so underdeveloped. Around 40 per cent of Marora’s population is illiterate and merely 7.14 per cent of its working population reported having work for over six months a year, according to latest census data. In 2018, Indian government’s policy think tank Niti Aayog named Marora’s parent district Nuh as the most underdeveloped among the country’s 739 districts.
Villagers speak nostalgically of the function the toilet charity organised to ‘rename’ the hamlet in June 2017. Marora had never witnessed anything more exciting. “We sang, danced, ate great food and didn’t return to our homes till late at night,” 19-year-old villager named Saroj Prajapati, told VICE News. It boosted the self-confidence of Marora’s women. “Suddenly, big people from cities started visiting us and reporters began finding us worthy of being written about,” a villager named Santosh Devi, told VICE News. The charity promised to install their trademark toilets in every home within the next few months.
Unlike the “Jimmy Carter” village, the charity didn’t get official approval for the renaming and local authorities soon tore down all the signage bearing Trump’s likeness and his trademark sunflower yellow hair.
Still, the name has stuck, says local social worker and member of Pathak’s charity, Fajri Begum. “It may not be the official name of our village, but it has made us stand out among our neighbors,” said she. The prospective spice-sellers gaze at photographs of Trump and struggle to explain what the rebranding of their village has meant to them. Saraswati Devi, a village elder, said she’s a huge fan of the former real estate mogul. “He’s a powerful leader who can, if he chooses, transform our lives,” she said.
A walk around Marora involving sidestepping mounds of dung and pools of stagnant water is a reality check after these cheery stories.
Manisha Prajapati, 18-year-old villager, had hoped that the global attention garnered by her village following its renaming would perhaps at least put it on more public bus routes. It hasn’t. Despite being mere 80 kms (49.7 miles) from the national capital, the distance seems like a lifetime away, thanks to its appalling transport links. “Wait!” exclaimed Manisha. “I’ve something you’d like to see.” She runs to her house and returns triumphantly holding a book published by Pathak’s charity to commemorate the rechristening of Marora. “I often flip through it and look at the photographs,” she said as we come to a halt in front of a blue-painted Sulabh toilet proudly displayed on the street. “How different our lives were before Trump!”
Yet, other than the toilets the charity built in every home after the village’s rechristening, development seems to have stalled here: There is no secondary school and no business activity other than a lone grocery.
Whether another Trump term would improve the villager’s condition is debatable.
The soft afternoon light gilds the tilled fields as a gigantic buffalo sways by and three goats tethered in a mud shed placidly look on. Selling buffalo, cow and goats’ milk gives village women a meagre income. The villagers’ poverty makes the women’s act of sending rakhis (handmade gold and red thread bracelets) to the man after whom their village was named especially poignant.
Every August, the Hindu festival of Raksha bandhan celebrates the bond between brothers and sisters. By tying a rakhi around the brother’s wrist, the sister asks for his love and protection. “We sent rackhis and a video to Trump in the hope that he’d see how difficult it is for women to be independent and secure here,” an 18-year-old villager named Priyanka Prajapati told VICE News. “We wanted to establish a sibling bond with the most powerful brother in the world.” While their gift elicited no response from POTUS, a myth soon sprang up that an Indian American visited the village shortly after the women sent the bracelets and video to the White House, had been sent on Trump’s behest.
Some villagers now believe that the few good things – new tailoring classes, toilets and city visitors – that have arrived in their village in the last three years are due to the mystical influence of Trump. In addition to installing 120 toilets on World Toilet Day (2017), the charity constructed a gigantic replica of an Indian-style commode at the edge of the village: “It was just like [Trump’s] personality – grand and larger than life.” Saraswati Devi recalled, adding that the more conventionally apportioned toilets transformed the village women’s lives.
Before the arrival of the village’s loos, people would defecate in the open. Women would go to the fields in groups. To avoid harassment, girls were instructed never to venture out alone. “All of us used to be petrified of the male gaze while we were vulnerable in the fields,” said a 17-year-old villager named Pooja Prajapati.
Try to draw most villagers on Trump’s chances of re-election on November 3 and they’re as hazy about the populist’s president’s prospects as they are about his presidential qualities. Most of them are blissfully unaware of his well-documented views on Muslims (an estimated 80 per cent Marora’s population is Muslim). “While the younger girls go to school, none of us older women are literate enough to read about him in newspapers or on the internet,” said Saraswati Devi. “To be honest, none of us had any idea about the election in the U.S.”
Mohammad Taufeeq Umar, a former village head, is an exception. “I know what Trump thinks of Muslims as a community and that he recently called India ‘filthy’,” he told Vice News. While the U.S. elections are a distant reality here, Umar believes that if Trump loses, perhaps it would put brakes on the growing Islamophobia across the globe. “But even if that happens,” he said, “my sense is that the outcome of the U.S. election will not make an iota of difference to the people of Marora.”
Being renamed for the leader of the free world has also led to inevitable ridicule from neighboring villages. Detractors point to Marora’s low literacy rates and lack of basic services such as higher education facilities and good hospitals, despite the attention that’s been heaped on it in recent years. Locals, many of whom are subsistence farmers, struggle with high levels of salinity in the water. Groundwater availability is low in this rocky, arid region and income levels remain abysmally low. Priyanka Prajapati was forced to drop out of school after completing class ten when her laborer father unexpectedly died. Now she earns INR 4000 (54.2 USD) a month as a seamstress following the tailoring classes introduced by the sanitation charity. Her mother receives INR 1800 (24.4USD)in the form of a government pension for indigent widows. “It is not enough for our family of five to live on,” Priyanka told VICE News. “I would love a better job but look around.There are none to be found here.” To add to their economic woes, Marora, and its parent district, Nuh, is a COVID-19 hotspot, with 1000 cases a day reported during mid-September.
“To be honest, when we witnessed the hysteria about renaming this village after Trump, all we could do was laugh,” Salamuddin Meo, who runs a local development charity and lives about 30 kms (18.6 miles) from the village, told VICE News. Shiny banners came up on the highway just before the rechristening event to which people from all neighboring villages were invited. “After the dust from all the visitors’ cars had settled, we watched Marora also return to its original state, relatively unchanged,” said Meo. “All we could do was wonder why it had happened at all.”
Despite the patchy benefits brought to this pastoral nook by their association with the divisive U.S. politician, villagers aren’t bitter. “We tolerate everything with a smile,” Meo said about the laid-back locals’ take on life. Saraswati Devi and her friends, for their part, still dream of the day Trump will visit the Haryana village named in his honour. “Actually, maybe it will be better if he invited us to visit him -- we understand that as the president of America, he’s a very busy man,” she said.
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This story was commissioned through India Story Agency.