Translated from the Hindi by Priyanka Kotamraju
A call rang out from somewhere deep within the Sansani forest. A distant twitter. Like the sound of a robin disturbed from its meditations.
Mohini looked up from her perch on the chidchida tree. That is what the tendu tree was called in Jokhimpur, because it was so bristly. The harsh summer sun shone softly through the dark, twisty boughs of the tendu. It was not noon yet.
There was the call again. Louder and shriller.
It was growing more frequent now…coo-coo-coo! Mohini slid down the tree quickly. There was no time to collect the heap of firewood she had made over the morning. She flung her axe down and ran towards the call, coo-ing back like a koel in her thin, high voice…coo-coo-coo…I’m coming…a flash of red saree moving swiftly through a green-brown jungle. By now, there was a chorus of cooing and twittering, so many more voices had joined hers to reply to the original coo-er. Someone was in trouble!
The coo-ing originated from somewhere deep in the forest, near the Sarayu River. Phula sat at the foot of the tendu tree, humming a little tune…sarayu nadi ke teere nazariya…I have got my eye on the Sarayu River…tu ru ru tu ru ru. She sent out the call ten minutes ago…where was everyone! Her tendu leaves were tied and stacked in a pile, smaller than usual. The firewood was also bundled up and ready to go, only 50 kilos today, far less than usual. Phula surveyed her day’s work with some worry, but what else could you expect on a day after a shower, she thought.
A downpour in April, an unseasonal hailstorm, not a sweet summer shower to ripen the fruits. Who had even heard of these hailstorms ten years ago, she thought.
Phula wore an old white shirt over her brown saree. Her pink blouse peeked out in places where her shirt was torn. The tips of her fingers were blue and sticky, she had been eating junglee ber fruit. Ten years ago, Phula reminisced, she could have her pick of berries - pink fleshy ones, small, hard red ones, big, juicy black-blue ones, the ones with pits and without, those with the thorns, and even those poisonous ones, which she always ended up eating before realising!
Where had all these fruits gone! What has happened in these past ten years, Phula wondered.
The Sansani hill was the first to disappear in Jokhimpur. Once lush with trees of palash, mahua, bargad, and tendu, it was the abode of wild flowers, fruit and predator, both non-human and human. The Sarayu was perennial then. Firewood was a much-traded commodity, so were mahua and tendu. Phula and Mohini happily planned to send their kids to school, build a pukka home, and till some land near the forest.
Lakshmi dadi, the wise woman of Jokhimpur, swore that tigers roamed the land when she was a little girl. Meera, an intrepid journalist, once wrote about a dangerous encounter with the dreaded dacoit, Dadua, in this very forest. Dadua was a local legend, who resurfaced every time the police claimed to have killed him. Before Dadua, there was Thokiya the dacoit, who never missed a wedding in the town to extort money. Before Thokiya, there was Balkhadiya, whom nobody had ever seen but whose chilling tales everyone had heard. Now, the hill was barren, scrubland had replaced forests of deciduous trees.
Barahmasi (perennial) flowers ceased to bloom all year round. The leopard went eastward, and the tiger went west. Bears, who like Balkhadiya, were rarely seen, began to appear more frequently, in frightening village encounters. Dacoits and mafia hid in plain sight; a village headman here, an elected member of the government there, and the rest in bureaucracy, gradually signing away riverine lands and forests for brown packets of money.
Life did not go exactly as planned for Phula and Mohini. Somehow, it was worse than before. The forest that was both home and livelihood had shrunk. Their daughters were not in school but at work with them. Their homes were still a little bit kuccha. The last few years, Phula thought to herself, everything had gone haywire. Drought was a familiar guest in these parts, but not hailstorm. Still, hailstones as big as fists fell down in great big thuds on their crops, sometimes even twice in a season. Two summers ago, when Jokhimpur was locked down in the epidemic, a locust army arrived from East Africa, three kilometres long, numbering in millions. Farms and homes were totally ravaged. It was terrifying, Phula remembered.
This year there was no fruit. No gooseberry, no mango, no guava, no mahua. With no fruit, there were no pickles. Their daily bread had lost its only companion. Roti and no pickle was the staple meal. Meal, ah, hungry, ah…where is everybody…coo-coo-coo, Phula roared! Mohini was the first to arrive, breathless and worried. Followed by breathless and worried Kanta, Rajkumari, Shanti, Meena and others.“Ei Phula, are you alright? What happened!”
“What happened? What could happen…nothing! Nothing happened…I am very hungry today,” said Phula, looking at her sticky blue fingers. “Why did you send out the call? Drove us out of our minds, you did,” exploded Meena. “We abandoned our work and ran to you thinking you were in trouble, maybe a predator had attacked!”
Phula looked at all of them with just a little bit of mischief in her eyes. “Listen, I have made something very nice today and I couldn’t wait till lunchtime. Let’s go eat!”
After an incredulous pause, the women burst out laughing. Mohini took Phula by the arm and gently scolded her.“This call is for when you are in trouble, not a bell for lunch. If you keep up your tricks, one day you will really be in trouble and no one will come.”
Phula laughed and clasped Mohini’s hand. Then the gaggle of friends made their way to the riverbank to have their repast. This was their daily ritual. Sansani forest was their home, the Sarayu was their adda. They worked for more than two-thirds of a 24-hour day, beginning work at three am and working until night. They worked at home, cooking, cleaning, and feeding human and animal members of their family. At dawn, they set out from their homes in Jokhimpur for the Sansani forest in the Sansani pahad that was eight kilometres by foot - a column of women armed with axes, water bottles, and their lunch potlis.
They collected firewood by climbing and chopping thorny trees until noon. Before climbing, they took off their ornaments, if any, and covered their glass bangles, which they always wore, with white cloth. They tucked the ends of their saris and turned them into pants. They wore old white shirts over their blouses to cover their torsos. For the next few hours, they turned into human woodpeckers – the kathfodwa, tuck-tuck-tucking away at the trees.
This was in summertime. When the air got heavy with rain bearing clouds, women tapped mahua for liquor. They picked mahua fruit off the forest floor, dried them, cracked them, pickled them, and extracted oil. Before monsoon properly arrived, they also picked tendu leaves that went into the production of hand-rolled cigarettes, the beedi. Fresh and dried tendu leaves were both put to use. In wintertime, women picked a variety of fruit berries and chopped more firewood. Berries made for great pickles and marmalades. They picked medicinal herbs - the feni and the murri - that sold in markets at handsome prices. The forest was their home, refuge and sustenance.
A gentle breeze blew over the Sarayu. The friends sat down and breathed deeply. This was a time for fursat, leisure. This was a time to catch up and gossip. This was a time to unburden and seek counsel. Women could unabashedly be themselves, say what was on their mind, and laugh without being shushed. Once upon a time, Jokhimpur’s women sat here and decided on their distress call - koo koo koo. If any of them was in trouble from a predator, all they had to do was let out the call three times and friends would come rushing to help. Just like how Mohini and others rushed today to save Phula… from HUNGER.
“Let me see what is this tasty lunch you’re dying to eat,” said Mohini, snatching Phula’s potli. Everyone tittered. “Aha roasted potato!”
“Oh give me that you wretch! Ei Mohaniya!” “Look, I have been craving for alu bharta but my drunkard husband doesn’t let me eat or cook anything I like. So this morning, when he was passed out senseless, I roasted these potatoes quickly so that we could make the mash here. Let’s put some chatpata masala on it and a little nimbu, aha!”
Not everyone was lucky to have spicy mashed potato for lunch. Most of them could only afford dry roti, a lick of salt and perhaps a chilli. Nobody complained.
Everyone admired Mohini’s new red bangles. Because of the difficult nature of their work, most women wore old clothes and old bangles. Mohini was the only one who dressed up like a heroine every single day. She wore bright red sarees with golden blouses. She wore vermillion in her hair and cherry lipstick. She wore her thick, jet-black hair in two plaits. She turned heads everywhere she went. Jokhimpur’s men made passes at her. They showered lewd comments on her. They said she was a whore.
“Who do you dress up for? Why don’t you come with us and show us a good time?”“There was a man on the train the other day. He stared at me so hard as if I was the most beautiful person in the world,” Mohini told her friends. “Ei be careful Mohaniya, you are beautiful. What if he touched you or tried to take you away?” “Oh but he would not dare. If he tried anything I would snap his fingers into two and throw him overboard. That would be fun indeed!” “A man approached me too, you know,” said Meena, slowly. “He followed me for several days. He told me he would pay for me if I gave up work, selling firewood, and came with him to look after his two kids.” “He kept pestering me and one day I turned around and told him I would come. If he could take my six children, I would be happy to look after his two.” “After that he disappeared in a puff of smoke. Nothing makes a man vanish so fast than the prospect of a little bit of responsibility.”
The women laughed uproariously. Till their stomachs hurt. And tears streamed down their weather-beaten faces. “Men are not the only creatures who come after us,” began Mohini. “Let me tell you a story that will send shivers down your spine. You will be afraid of your own shadow.”
She had everyone’s attention now.“I was fifteen years of age at the time of this incident. I used to come to work in the forest with my mother and her sisters. It was summer. I was standing at the foot of a tendu tree, with my back to the forest, when I felt two hands creep up on my shoulders. My body went limp with panic. My heart stopped beating. The palms of their hands were soft, almost velvety. But I could feel their sharp nails. My worst fears had come true. Was it a predator who had me in his grip? I dare not turn and look around. But when I slowly did, I felt as if the ground beneath my feet had disappeared. I was face to face with a giant black bear. I screamed but no sound came out of my mouth. The bear attacked and I don’t know what came over me but I put my back up against the tendu tree and put my hands out. Somehow, the bear and I were locked, hand to hand, pushing each other. I was no match for the bhalu but I held on to its hands for all I was worth. Suddenly my voice came back to me.”
KU KU KUUUUUKU KU KUUUUU
“I sent out the distress signal. For a moment the bear was confused. But then it growled loudly and bared its teeth. I was paralysed with fear. I was fervently hoping that my mother had heard me. To this day I don’t know where the strength came from, but I stood my ground and pushed the bear with my tiny human hands. I could hear people arriving, I could hear the thud of lathis and axes, I could hear my mother. Enraged, the bear sunk its claws in my forehead and tore through it. My forehead burst into three bloody gashes and I fainted.”
“When I woke up, what felt like days later, I had twenty stitches on my forehead. The doctor told me I was incredibly brave that I survived a bear attack. My mother was there too. She told me that they managed to drive the bear away after I fainted. One of the women tied me onto her back and they all came down the Sansani hill and marched eight kilometres to the district hospital. The stitches were removed later and I was left with three ugly scars.”
Mohini’s tale of bravery reached everyone in Jokhimpur but she could not stop worrying over her scars. Her mother told her they would fade away with time but Mohini was convinced that she would never be beautiful again. Since then, she always wore the loudest colours, brightest jewels on her person and flowers adorned her hair. She painted her nails, toes, and lips. And she wore matching bangles, by the dozen like a new bride.
“But you are beautiful,” Phula said to Mohini, as if she had read her friend’s mind. Just then the skies opened up and lightning and thunder rolled over the Sansani hill. Silence and darkness fell over the forest at once. “We must get going quickly now if we have to catch the train,” grumbled Meena. “Why did you have to tell us this bear story now Mohaniya! Don’t you know, a bear was sighted less than a month ago and it mauled that husband and wife in Shankargarh!”“These bears are everywhere now!”
Soon, a caravan of women came out of the Sansani forest and descended the Sansani hill. They carried bundles of firewood on their heads, each weighing at least 50 kilos. They marched to the railway station, which was five kilometres away, where they would catch local passenger trains to sell firewood in different villages and towns.
A passenger train was due at any minute now, but it won’t stop for long at the Jokhimpur station. They all had very little time to board and no one else was going to help them. They travelled ticketless most of the time, the trick was simply not to get caught. Phula was the last one to load her bundle, but it was too late. A policeman had seen her.
“Ei kolin (Kol-Chamar). Put your bundle down! Don’t try to act smart, I will haul your ass to jail.” “Saheb, please don’t do that. This is my livelihood. Let me board. I have four small children to feed.” “What is that to me? Am I now responsible for your children?” “Saheb, we are very poor, we will go hungry. Please let me board, the train is about to leave!”
“Alright, give me 50 rupees and you can board.” “Saheb, I only have 20 rupees.” “Alright, give me that for now. Next time I see you trying to catch a train, I will thrash you.”
Phula got on the train. The compartment was full, as usual. She sat on her bundle of firewood near the door, shaking. She had 50 kilos of firewood to sell before nightfall. She had to buy groceries with that money, get back home, cook, clean and feed her kids and husband. It would be midnight before she could go to bed. Her body would feel tight and tired, as if someone had beaten her mercilessly with a lathi. Someone nearly did. Just as her eyes would start to feel heavy, the clock would strike three. Time to wake up. The workday will begin all over again.
Phula looked over and saw Mohini. “You know, even though they are so scary, I prefer bears to men,” she whispered.
Meera Jatav is a feminist journalist from Bundelkhand and the founder-editor of the pathbreaking Khabar Lahariya. She currently heads the Chitrakoot Collective; she is also a Navayana Dalit-History fellow (2021).
Priyanka Kotamraju is a doctoral candidate in the department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge.