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Updated: Jan 16, 2023

At the beginning of the documentary series Our Planet David Attenborough remarks that the moon landing was the first time humankind was able to look back at the earth. Guriya also wanted to climb to the top of the most coveted mountain that stood in front of her house, with the purpose of looking back at her village.

But the first morning that Guriya woke up after her return from the city, she found no mountain to climb.

It was earlier than the city timings Guriya was used to waking up at. She owed this early rise to the biting mosquitoes and clucking chickens. The silence and absence of light pollution had, however, gifted her a peaceful sleep. When she had moved to the city, there was never complete darkness, not even when she closed her eyes. Behind the close lids, the light pollution would mix the eager darkness to show her the red, but never the black. That night Guriya slept undisturbed as the bats hunted the mosquitoes till morning. She missed the bats in the cities, where the mosquitoes would spike into her skin all night.

Scratching the bumps from her mosquito bites, Guriya walked to open the main wooden door. She could not believe her eyes. She could not see the mountain in front of her house that used to surround the entire village so majestically.

In that flashing moment, several anxieties took her over. Her village was no longer the same. There were several roads being built. Many mountains and hills along the way to the village had already been levelled, presenting a naked landscape. Five years ago, the bus journey of about 150 kilometres from the city of Ranchi to her village in Simdega consumed the entire day. When she arrived in her village the previous day, it was only a six hour journey. Yet, like before, they were only three stops for the passengers to relieve themselves and buy some sweet-sour-spicy snacks. Apart from the one big stop, the others hadn't received any major renovation. When she got down at the first stop, She hoped that the grand renovation of the petrol station would have also improved the lavatory facility. As a child when she travelled with her mother, her mother would guide Guriya to leave themselves in the dense trees behind the facility instead of the crowded, dirty, and unsanitary lavatories. As Guriya and the other female passengers flocked to the lavatory across the road from where the bus had stopped, the approaching stink sunk in the despairing reality that little had changed.

Guriya resorted to her mother's trick of relieving herself in the trees behind the facility. But there was scarce vegetational cover. The trees had been cleared to add new pan-khaini, bidi cigarette and some cold-drink shops. Guriya was saddened that even the little that had changed hadn't changed for good.

Along the route to her village, Guriya saw emptiness in the jungles. The widening of metallic roads had reduced the number of derailed lorries and buses that slowed the bus journeys. The roads to her village gree slimmer and curvier. The buses bumped with music and the music echoed in the valley, acting as a horn to the people, cattle, motorcyclists and other vehicles.

The bus curved around the Hanthi Pahad, Elephant Mountain. As it moved to further into the interior of the village, it appeared as if Guriya and other passengers travelled from the elephant's back, through to its hump and towards its trunk. Prior to the final stop, the bus finally arrived at Guriya's stop, the market. Before setting off on a twenty-minute walk to her home, she decided to buy some sweets. She approached the lady vendor who was selling mudhi-ladho (sweet puffed-rice). The lady vendor recognised Guriya as a city girl from the denim trousers under her kurti. She asked Guriya if she should work in the village after serving as a "dhangar" in Delhi. Young girls were taken from her village to serve as maids (dhangar) in return for an education before they returned to their family. On her way back Guriya was contemplating whether to continue working as a dhangar in the City or to work for a lower wage in the village.

She reached her house before dusk and saw the mountain in its full glory. When Guriya was a girl, she enjoyed encouraging her herds of goats to graze on the leaves of Sal, mahua and chilaunji that grew on the mountain's sides. The high branches were accessible through the rocks along the elevation. She preferred rearing goats to cows as their flexibility allowed them to reach difficult spaces. This trait of theirs assisted her love for exploration. Guriya started rearing cattle at ten years of age. Many remarkable events have marked her rearing trips to the mountains. On one occasion a lightning bolt struck dead five of her goats on the hill top. The entire atmosphere was filled by a blinding whiteness. She lost one of a favourite goats whom she called Muniya. The sound of that thundering day would have second even the bravest heart. The villagers thought that they would never hear such a thing ever again. But a few years later, in the calmness of a spring afternoon, a loud thud was heard by the entire village. They were concerned about hearing such a thundering without seeing any lightning.

Guriya and her friends were returning to the village with their heads laden with tree branches. They walked with quick paces and shouted at all the households and people that the passed, "Bijli nakhe...Bicha bicha! Badka machine jungle bate ped girat rahe," "Its not the thunder-lightning...Pick, pick! There is a big machine that is cutting trees in the forest." This was the early entry of timber companies into her village. It came without a warning. While the companies carried away locks of wood, the people were satisfied with collecting the remaining fallen twigs. They thought that their forest was too deep and dense for a few machines to harm.

It took the villagers a few years to realise that they had underestimated the exploits of the companies. The forest cover was reducing. Guriya could not freely take her herds to graze now, as companies occupied a vast territory within the forest. She saw her forested mountain turning into a tussle site between the companies and government on the other hand, and the guerrilla military rebellion of the villagers on the other.

But neither the companies nor the rebellion discharged Guriya from wandering into the forest with her herd. One evening, she did not return till late in the evening. Her family grew concerned. She could have been taken by jungle admi - as the villagers referred to the rebelling group - to recruit her. Else they feared that the company thekedars (contractors) would have given her over to the police for trespassing into their territory. Her mother was being eaten with worry. She did not even set the hearth fire to cook. Her grandfather assured her mother of Guriya's safety, and asked her cook soon before darkness set, otherwise more danger would come. If cooking is done later on in the evening, then the blazing flame or even hint of light will falsely alert the police of a possible gathering of the jungle admi. The police would be of no help to the family but would only Harass them more, and the jungle admi would be more suspicious of the family if the news of police coming to their house became known.

In the dead silence of sunken hearts, a loud sound of the metallic latch beating against the wooden door was heard. Then followed the growing sound of bleating goats. The mother opened the door and clasped Guriya in her arms. Guriya told her that she was late because she had been searching for Ghumaiya, a goat that would often leisurely Rome away from her.

Her mother told Guirya that she herself was becoming like Ghumaiya. She sat Guriya down and told her, "The village is not safe like before. In our own homes, we feel like outsiders. They are the thieves, but we live like theives: always cautious to not make too much noise, or to not be seen. It will be best for you, beti (daughter) that you go to the city." Within a month, arrangements were made for Guriya to work as a maid in an officer's house in Delhi.

Guriya had now returned after a year.

She has hidden her face in her palms. Balancing two buckets of water, the mother returned from the well. She enquired after the reason for Guriya's morning sadness. Guriya looks at her mother and demands, "Where is the mountain? They stole the Hanthi Pahad overnight!"

The mother chuckled at her daughter's innocence and concern. She simply replied to Guriya, "maiya (little girl), the morning fog has hidden the mountain."

About the Author: Deepti Mary Minj is a graduate in Development and Labor Studies from JNU. She researches and works on the issues of Adivasis, women, development and state policies. She is currently pursuing her Masters at Cambridge University.

This article was first published on The Cavendish Chronicle


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