Around 10:30 in the morning, I finally got off a four and a half hour long state transport journey. The turning on the road was not a significant landmark but the map indicated that it was from where I had to set on foot to undertake my professional assignment. A light post, a “Donated by” board and posters of ‘Vote for’ on the donor names acted as a ‘development’ indicator of the place. At about 100mtrs stood a ‘dilapidated’ mud house – an urban indicator of rurality, the backdrop of which was dominated by Sal trees. A winding path seemed to have recently treaded, passed by the house, indicating the probable direction I would need to embark.
As I passed by the mud structure, a little boy stood on the rear side, against the backdrop of a, not so bad sketch of a Cuban socialist leader. He leaned on the wall with his bare body resting on the face of the sketch. Quickly taking out my camera, I framed him in golden proportion. The boy posed, unmoved till he heard the shutter button. By now it seemed like he had grown accustomed to the ‘urban’ idiosyncrasies – differentiating between who belongs and who is a visitor.
Moving up to him, I checked for directions. I had to wind through and meet development again – the highway. But my route had to be through the unchartered paths. ’Unchartered’- for the likes of us, I realized. The little boy pointed at a given direction and suggested two landmarks. A large pond and a small hill for orientation and started leading the direction himself. I followed. As he walked a few meters in front, I observed. He, barefoot, just a short pant, thin bare body with a twig in his hand. Me, new shoes, sweat free t- shirts and pants, a cap, a bag pack and even a water bottle – all from the same international store. ‘Nothing wrong’, I said to myself, 'I had to come prepared' but a part of me felt more ‘dressed for the occasion’ than being prepared.
Walking an hour into the direction, I finally found myself under the canopy of trees. The tall trees, high above me swayed with the wind, with the sun filtering down intermittently at spots. I kept a keen eye on the watch and even my shoes, that had now started to gather a little dust. The boy in front started humming a song in a language, I was not kind aware of but it kept me going. At a certain point when no longer ‘development’ was visible, the forest visually opened , with dry leaves now forming a carpet under the feet and wild lower tier vegetation. At a distance, a lady in a saree, was offering something to a cluster of trees while one more brought in some water in a little steel vessel from the nearby pond. I stopped at a distance to see what they were doing. The little boy ran and joined in.
Without knowing how to react and presuming I do not know how to communicate with ‘them’, I did what I could do best – take out my camera. From a distance I zoomed in and framed. Two things became clear. The offering was something religious but there was no idol. Second, they were draped in a saree ‘only’. No other attire. I was slightly embarrassed.
Why? I do not quite know. Maybe that is how ‘civilized’ minds react to the ‘uncivilized’ ones. But I was not going to give up my moment of capturing the ‘rustic’, the ‘exotic’, the ‘poor’ and all the other superlatives that we associate with them. So I picked up the lens and as the shutter made a noise, the women hurled at me.
They said something that sounded more ‘exotic’, more than their behavior but realizing the tone, I just put up my hand as an apology. Come to think, I did know how to communicate, only if one wanted to!
The little boy offered a translation, “She said, how would it feel If I entered your home and started intervening in your privacy”. “Yes”, I said to myself, “that would be unfair” but my city bred mind offered an argument – “But where have I entered their home? This is just a forest?”
Little did I come to terms with the fact that for ‘these’ people, the idea of home was not restricted to just four walls.
The very ground that I was treading, the little pond that I walked by, the trees that provided shade and the grove they offered prayers to and the ant hills that I ignored while walking past, were all their ‘home.’ They lived off, worshipped and safeguarded all this along with their built shelter. By the time this realization had started to settle in, it was already afternoon. The little boy had now left me and my only company were little insects, some chirping of birds and the overhead sun.
I settled under a large tree, opened my bag, tore open a plastic wrapper and fed myself some nutrition. The sound of the plastic wrapper never felt so alienated as it did within that forest. I wondered how accustomed we have become to this noise in the city but here it jarred the ears, yet I had spotted them here and there. Some near the waterbody, few by the bark of the tree and some under the dried leaves. And under these Sal trees, they seemed more visible than in a street. As the large tree had started to churn its charms, my eyes started to grow heavy and I soon found myself languishing underneath it, only to be suddenly awakened by rustling noise of footsteps on the ground.
In front of me was another woman. This time in full pants and buttoned shirt. Sleeves rolled up to the elbow with a red scarf partly hidden around her neck and another little cloth tied to her ankle. This time again, I did not know how to react. I just sat there as she slowly walked towards me, bent down, and said ‘Scared?” and then chuckled and enquired “Do I look like a terrorist, as the Government tags us?” The only thing I managed to ask was, “Are you a…?” and before I could finish, she gave me a hand and said, “Come along. Comrade!” In a way, confirming my question.
“So, you stay in the forest with these poor people?”, I thought of starting a conversation. “Poor? How do you define that? These tribes are rich, both in knowledge and tradition and importantly in resources as well”, she replied while leading my path confidently.
The word ‘poor’ suddenly seemed so limited to me for the moment. “Why else do you think the government is after these people?”, this time she enquired. I remained silent, for in my mind, the question was more “We are told that the Naxalites are threat to tribes and the Government is after Naxalites? When did this narrative alter?”
“You know young man, this ground that you are walking on, that is what the government is after. This is the root for million and billion and trillion dollar companies. This the heartland for raw materials – bauxite, iron ores, manganese. If no one has access to this , the rich cannot get richer”, she said.
“But the government also does things for them. They have set up a highway, they are providing electricity, running schemes, conducting elections, is that not true?”
“Yes, also displacing, killing and taking away their rights! The Government merely transacts!” and pointed at a certain area in the forest and said, “Do you see that?”. Her finger pointed at a distance where small little undulations marked the ground. Much different from the rest of the forest. The land served as a burial ground, no one quite knows how many were there, but it was apparent that no age, no gender was spared. The official records only state the death of ‘terrorists’, not the others who are injured and left to die and decay.
“Some of them are one of us but most are the villagers. They come to get us but they fire whoever is in line. This blood is endless!”, the lady remarked.
“You all taking shelter is a threat to the people here. Why do you put them in danger? And if the government transacts then what are they to you? Tools for revolution?”, I enquired with some courage.
This time the lady did not meet the eyes. Her silence was enough to say that may be their methods of retaliation against a forest hungry, development frenzy establishment has not always been correct. As much as the other side is responsible for the bloodbath, so are they. Her silence justified one more thing – the revolution is required, but the method, still questionable. The gun against gun did not do any good, and eventually the one who got most affected are the ones who could not afford one, nor trained to use one.
Keeping with the silence of the late afternoon, I followed the lady into a hamlet set along the fringes of the forest. Development was still far and had not yet reached there. But what had reached was the aftereffects of it. The hamlet was habituated with the kind of people I encountered in the morning – thin and bare body. Only a closer look revealed that the ‘thin’ was not a physique but a sign of malnutrition. A place where guns, bullets and fire had reached but not the healthcare and medication. What had also reached was dust and air pollution from the nearby mining area - a land snatched away from ‘them’ and given to ‘them’ to build the nation.
As everyone gathered, addressing her as ‘Didi’, I walked around the hamlet enclosed by dense trees and the hill in the background. The hamlet, while echoing of the traditions of the people there which was evident through little motifs, the house typologies, their language and their clothing also bore signs of ‘destruction’. A slight burnt smell of a recent ambush, few dilapidated structures, bandaged hands, a few injured cattle and charred trees. ‘Didi’, I realized, was here to fill in the supplies and assist them to get back on their feet. Also, I learnt the word ‘Didi’ was not simply because of her age but because she served as a ‘schoolteacher’ – school - the structure of which now hardly remains. Education had not truly reached here through the state, yet what had, was ‘exploitation’.
As I bid farewell, I took a final look at ‘Didi’. She appeared ‘normal’ unlike the tags given to the likes of them. I wondered if for the likes of us, staying distant from these forests, are being fed an alternate narrative about ‘them’ to meet our development agendas. With that thought, I finally reached ‘development’ - the black tarred surface bisecting the forest.
Waiting for a ride, this time I read the signboard clearly under the light post. Donated by ‘Wadani Group’. The same ‘them’ who were mining next door. The same who provide the pollution and set up a ‘hospital’ alongside for ‘cure’. A CSR initiative. Why? But obvious. Some face lift generosity to access the ‘wealth’ lying underground. And of course it was clear, the road was also built by them. It just aided in transportation of raw material more than providing access to people.
With the sun setting in the background, I took a deep look at the forest that spread in front of me. Under the backdrop of birds returning to their nest, a smoke appeared from deep within. I wondered, 'was it another hamlet burning or the trees being chopped or an industry in action?’ Anyways it was the ‘home’ of those who safeguard is being affected one way or the other. I shook my head and looked down. This time I did not see dirt on my shoes but it bore strains that appeared red. What red was it? The richness of soil in the forest, a reflection of the revolution, the remains of the dead or was it the fate of the forest in the times to come?! The sky too, by now had adorned a red blanket over the forest, revealing its true appearance. Less scenic and more somber.