“Our fields have no fencing around them. In two years, we might not have a home. We will lose our farms, and everything we have ever owned. They want us to move away. But we belong here. In the forest. The soil is fertile. And, we can grow our own food. They don’t understand these things. Everybody wants to save the forest. What about us?” asked Ramaji chewing some tobacco.
She poured a jar of water on the ground where sat old women and young children huddled against the walls. They clicked their tongues and shook their head from side to side. She just stood there looking everywhere. Her eyes gazed at nothing; they were empty. She attracted miffed glances from everyone around her.
Water dripped everywhere.
It amused her.
Not a single grain was procured from these farms this year. Their crops were eaten by wild animals. They wished to leave the forests ten years ago. They didn’t. They weren’t certain if they could survive. So far, the forest department has conducted 50 meetings with the village elders in the past one year. “They make a note of our suggestions, and our names. But nothing has happened so far…”
“It isn’t their fault, you know,” said an old man clearing his throat. His hands had freckles, and his forehead creased with worry.
“We can grow our own food. What about them? They are dying.”
Curious eyes followed us everywhere we looked. An old woman leaned away from the walls in the corner. There was pain in her eyes. Around her cracked sole, were anklets of strung copper and silver beads. Hooked to her bag were tiers of metallic pearls that pooled at the edges.
Some had escaped. Many changed colour.
Some gathered dust over the years.
Bijli zamane se nahin hai, said the old woman picking betel nuts from her bag. She had heard someone say it before. Her buria bobbed against her nose as she swayed back and forth murmuring under her breath. Her granddaughter threw herself on the wooden cot beside the courtyard. In summer, everybody slept outside.
“We have been asking the sahibs for years. But nothing ever happens here. They connected a road from a nearby village to Dharmasagar. Soon after, this area was declared as reserved forest. Now, we aren’t allowed to use the shorter route that connects us to the town. They even laid electric lines and had completed 75% of the construction. Years later, it was decided to give us solar power,” she said shaking her head.
“So many projects. So many promises.”
“They keep coming and going. Nothing happens…”
The roads disappear in the rains. In those months, the forest doesn’t glimmer. It breaks and sighs. In the languid air, one often heard them: their rippling whispers cracking through dawn. There are moments when its creatures fled towards lands beyond the horizon. It set them free; free from the dread of decay.
They never found their way back again. They never returned.
There were no witnesses. But there were remains.
Of their past. Of themselves…
Ambulance drivers refuse to come here, said the villagers in unison. They fear they’d get stuck in the forest. “So, we have no choice but to walk. The nearest hospital is in Kunchavaram. If there’s an emergency at night, then we carry patients on our shoulders. Nobody has a vehicle in the thanda,” said Ramaji.
“We are all stuck here,” said another picking threads off the floor.
He sat at the edge and frowned. His curled his toes as he spoke. “Discrimination doesn’t exist. Not in these forests,” said the young man to the older men seated behind him, “We don’t have a village attached to us. We all belong to the same caste. So, everyone considers each other as family. We don’t have a separate caste or sub-caste within our community. We are all Banjaras. There is no hierarchy. Outside, we are treated differently. They point at our women and laugh.”
“Here it doesn’t exist,” he repeated himself.
But it did. In households where bulbs stayed lit longer than theirs, in rooms where lay vessels larger than theirs, in homes where lasted lives longer than theirs, it lurked everywhere. Even in solitude.
Their population is lower than the other villages, they complained. They couldn’t make themselves heard. “We are just 200 in all including the kids. Even if we fill an entire tempo with our men and go to their offices, nothing will ever happen. If we lived in Dharmasagar, perhaps we would have been able to do something. Ye thande se nahin hoga,” he said.
A young boy and girl sat beside Ramaji as they stared at him intently. He ran away from his parents in Pune, and came back to the thanda on his own. They didn’t know how. He didn’t like it there. Neither of them could read or write. He worked as a coolie. His sister worked in the fields. She never looked up. She licked the corner of her mouth, and turned her head away from the crowd.
“Another thanda will never lend us their support since they have their own problems. Even if they do, the officers will recognise members from a different thanda and inform them that they already have all the facilities,” he said with spite.
In summer, they don’t have enough water to drink. Women walk great distances to fill water in pots and utensils. “Our kids don’t have a school to go to. The master comes once in a few weeks, fills his tiffin box with food and heads home. He hasn’t taken a class in years. The children wander in the jungle all day. I fought with the teacher once. This was a long time ago. He then asked me if I had any kids going to school. If not, then it is none of my concern,” he said frowning.
He grimaced and rubbed his temples. The others remained silent.
For a few years, a young woman walked through the forests every day to teach children here. Every boy and girl went to school back then. No child would leave the classroom no matter who visited the thanda. She was re-assigned. “We need someone who loves their job and considers it their primary duty to teach children. We get teachers who are incapable of fulfilling their duties. And, that’s a problem,” said the young man walking us to our car that evening.
“Dalits aren’t served tea in cups. The upper caste treat them poorly,” said Thukappa staring at the foliage outside as we drove through the forests at twilight. “So do the Lambanis,” he whispered with a smile. “Yes, they treat them poorly. They aren’t allowed to enter their homes.”
His father passed away when he was young. His family struggled to make ends meet. They had nothing. A teacher would visit his village every day. One afternoon, he convinced Thukappa’s mother to send him away. Let him come with me, he said. He’ll live in a big town. Let me look after him. I’ll send him to a better school.”
He did their household chores for them day in and day out so that he could go to school. “I don’t eat out or drink a drop of water when I am away from home,” he said to our surprise when we offered him some biscuits, “I took this deeksha 20 years ago. I was given two meals a day. And, I am used to that. I can’t eat or drink any more or less. I struggled in my life. I am aware of that. My face has turned dark since I don’t drink enough water.”
“I am stubborn that way,” he said turning away. “I had never seen my father before. But after my deeksha, I have seen his face several times.”
We crossed Dharmasagar when the bill collector we had crossed paths with hours ago asked us if we would like to have some tea before we headed back to Kunchavaram. We stopped near a tree. A large group of men gathered around us.
“Our situation is horrible as you may have already observed,” said Gopal Jadhav, the Zilla Panchayat President. Ever since Anil Kumble decided to declare the area as reserved forest, we have been miserable. Can you please ask them to cancel the order? We do not need a forest here. Our fields are dying and we can’t even go to fill water regularly since the normal routes have been shut by the government. Our women have to walk 10 km to gather firewood. Jaanwar se battar hai humari zindagi. We are not even allowed to gather wood. There are several restrictions imposed in these regions. We don’t have gas stoves and have to completely rely on wood for fire,” he added.
Cancel karao ye forest ko. Humein nahin chahiye forest, said a young man mimicking Gopal’s solictious reply.
At Kunchavaram, the familiar bustle of a market greeted us as hawkers sold fruits, vegetables and coconuts. The air was heavy with the fragrance of flowers and incense sticks. We parked the car outside the gram panchayat office. Thukappa arranged for some lunch. We were served jowar rotis, rice, beans, sambar and some curd.
As we drove back through the endless fields, Thukappa confided in us that it was important that the forest laws were upheld. “If we don’t have any rules protecting the forest cover, then we will destroy them completely. We will kill all the birds and animals and cut down the trees to protect our selfish interests. It is human nature, after all. Yes, some of their issues are genuine and need to be addressed. However, I don’t oppose the forest protection regulations that the government has put in place. They have declared a few areas as wildlife protection zones. Soon, they will start looking after the forest too. Measures are already in place to revive its green cover. However, much like any of the government initiatives, this too would be a slow process. Lets hope the forest doesn’t deteriorate any further,” he said.
In an hour, we saw those clusters again where lived no one, where in their streets wandered no children, where animals did not exist. Their walls had faded, and roofs trembled in the winds. “All these houses were built by the government,” he said pointing at a tiny settlement. It was abandoned. “These people have been permanent residents of the thandas since 1947. They never moved. Earlier, they were nomads. Zameen jahan hai, waheen unka thikana…”
(to be continued…)
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