Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Footloose in Bundelkhand

Somewhere in Bundelkhand
Her precious jamuns

The grey tarred road stretched endlessly, breaking the monotony of rain washed green that dominated the landscape. We were in Bundelkhand, in central India, driving south from Khajuraho (story here), through the reserve forests, towards Jata Shankar temple. For many kilometers, ours was the only vehicle on the road. We were, once or twice, overtaken by a jeep or a bus, and sometimes we passed sleepy little villages in the forest clearing. These village houses were compact structures built on a single level, with flattened earth tile roof. The side walls of these houses were decorated with dried cow dung patties - fuel for a rainy day.

Caked in mud, herds of water buffalos strolled along the road without a care in the world, their brass bells tinkling as they shook their head or chewed on cud. Often we had to slow down and allow them right of way. In muddy rain created pools, few others lay neck deep, making the most of the spa-like mud bath. Sometimes we passed agricultural lands that stretched on for as far as the eye could see, and whole families worked together on the fields, building stick fences or tending to their produce. We stopped once to have a word, to ask what it was that they cultivated, and heard instead the story of the wandering cattle and the picky fowl that had ruined their hard day’s work. Further down the road, a boy sold jamuns, freshly plucked from those roadside trees growing on no-man’s land - a large packet for Rs 20.

Through the farms
Gowri and I were on a three-day trip to Khajuraho, but after a day of wandering around the temples in the scorching July sun, they all started to look alike. On day two, we wanted to do something else, and having found a friend in the old uncle running the Madras Coffee House, we asked him for suggestions. (Earlier in the day, we had hired an auto-rickshaw for a trip to Pandav falls, but fear got the better of us, and we returned half way. Full text here). For a nominal rate, he rented his white air-conditioned Swift Dezire and just to assure us that all will be well, promised to accompany us.

Though originally from Tamil Nadu, he had lived in these parts for over 65 years and had seen this society change from a feudal class dominated world ruled by kings to a place ripped up by dacoits and then to the more confused and fragmented society of today. He was a good storyteller, and in us, he found two avid listeners. He switched between Hindi and Tamil with ease, much like the characters of his stories – the past Kings of this region, the notorious Pooran Singh, MGR and the Pandava Vanavasam (story from the Mahabharata).

During their exile, the Pandavas are said to have lived in the forests of Bundhelkhand, and the stories of these wandering mendicants are deeply woven into popular folklore. A thirsty Draupadi asked Bhima to get her some water, and instead of looking for a water source, Bhima chose to crack the earth open with his mace, thus creating Bhimkund - a natural water tank, the depth of which is still unknown. 

Deep mysteries of Bhimkund

flight of slippery steps lead to this water body. It’s dark inside the cave, except for the small opening on the roof, where the mace is said to have fallen. The blueness of the skies is reflected in these deep waters, and its said to remain blue throughout the year - never a shade of mossy green or muddy brown. During the 2004 Tsunami, the water is said to have risen 30 meters high, like a wave, though the closest beach is a 1000 kms away.

Onwards to Jata Shankar
Little boys frolicked in the waters, showing of their swimming and diving skills. Few had tried to hold their breath till they hit the bottom of the pool, but none had ever succeeded. Towards the right, where the water is at its deepest, there is a channel, which connects it to a nearby river. Pilgrims pay homage at the small temple on the banks of the pond. I stepped forward to dip my feet, and the water felt extremely cold and was surprisingly clear.

From Bhimkund, we made our way towards Jata Shankar, another Hindu pilgrimage site, tucked away the deep forest. It was Amavasya, the day of the new moon. To a religious Hindu, it is a day of fasting and prayers, and Lord Siva is at the center of things. As we drove towards the temple, I noticed that many pilgrims were walking in the same direction. Men, woman and children walk for as long as 19 or 20 kilometers to offer their prayers at this cave temple, where stalagmite formations rise up to form the Shiva Linga. Makeshift shops decorated the sidewalks leading to the temple, and here we had a light meal of watery dal, rotis and tea. As the main pooja was only later in the night, we decided to head back.

Footloose in Bundelkhand
All through my journey never once did I cross a hospital or a small clinic. Not once did I see the large gates of a school, the kind that you are used to seeing while traveling across India. Public transport is next to nil in these regions and connectivity bad. Even if a bus does come by, there are people hanging from the roof, restricting travel plans. I also noticed, vast expanse of land, some ploughed and farmed, others bare and forsaken. This region has been in the news for all the wrong reasons - infant mortality, lack of education and hygiene and a high number of people falling in the Below Poverty Line category. 

Traveling through this region, it became evident that Bundelkhand has been largely ignored by the state, and their demand for a separate state is justified. But at the same time, in a class dominated society like this one, how much progress and sustainable development will any ruling class be willing to bring?

Back in Khajuraho, a mini mela had sprung up to cater to the Amavasya rush. An old man displayed his wares - glass bangles, kajal, kunkum, combs, clips… another had a collection of colourful wind wheels, balloons and whistles. There was puffed rice, jaggery and sugarcane in another corner – offerings to the Gods. Wearing bright orange, pink and blue glittery saris woman made their way through the crowd towards the peepal tree. They tied a thread around it and circled it 101 times - prayers send out to the universe for a better tomorrow.

Amavasya mela 

Khajuraho’s main income comes from tourism, but during off season, life rewinds into flashback mode. Town folks worship at the ancient Siva shrine, and continue to pledge their loyalty to the Maharajah. He is and has always been their protector. The echoes of the past are at its loudest during off season. Here, myths, folklore and epics converge, diversify and diverge.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Defiance Poetry: yes, i have breasts

Male magnified gaze

Sometimes I get the feeling that I am being looked at through a magnifying glass. A giant convex lens with a thick black frame, and peeping from behind it, many curious, hungry eyes. 

As a woman walking on the streets I feel threatened. At restaurants, because I eat alone, I feel the male gaze. At bus stops, the wolf-whistles grows louder. I react. Sometimes with a stern look, a lifted finger, a curt word. 

More often I react through defiance. This once, through poetry. 

i have breasts
but i will not apologise        
not to you, who on the streets, think it fair to guess sizes loud
not to you, who on the bus, fix greedy eyes on my perky twins
not to you, concerned friend, subtle hints won't work with me

i have breasts but i won’t gift wrap
first a dupatta and then a shielding bag
nor will i, head meekly down, shrink into self
or curb my curious wandering eyes

you teach me young to disown my body
to hide ashamed beneath shapeless layers
i for one want to flaunt it all
hour-glass, apple, banana or pear

what then, if i have 'em breasts
they ain't no reason to apologise

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Turtle Walk to Remember

Walking to Life

Isn't it strange how sometimes you forget about certain life changing experiences until something happens and stirs up that Pensieve? (You guessed it, I love Potter books). While I was in Trissur last week, I paid a visit to my husband’s ancestral home. In its current state of abandon, the house and its grounds are overrun with weeds. We made our way through the thickest, my father-in-law and I, searching for fallen coconuts. The grounds are notoriously dangerous, especially after the rains, and our search took us towards the unused pond. There, on its sandy banks my father-in-law spotted something that looked like a dry coconut husk. It was the shell of a tortoise – hard, grey and empty. I wondered how the animal had died. Did someone kill it for its meat or did it die a natural death at a ripe old age. I know they live to be a 100, sometimes even more. 

Way back in 2008, when I was still living in Chennai, I had gone on a Turtle Walk with some of my colleagues and a bunch of conservationists. I remember the date clearly; it was after 10  pm on February 29th, the leap year day. And it was something that I had wanted to do for a long time, ever since my college buddy Koshy described his walk experience.

Team dinner, group meet and turtles
I was with my team mates Bijoy Bharathan and Jonathan and the three member business reporting gang, Anandan sir, Sangeetha and Chirathan. 

The office cab dropped us off at Neelankarai, where we met Arun, from the Students' Sea Turtle Conservation Network - a voluntary group, working along the beaches of Chennai, trying to conserve and create awareness about Olive Ridley sea turtles. From stray dogs that feed on them, to greedy fisher folks looking for free omelet eggs, to propellers that mow down the swimming turtles; for these yearly visitors looking for a safe place to lay eggs, enemies were aplenty. The group was making great progress with locals in these areas, but even then they had ahead of them a challenging job. 

At about 11 pm, the group was fully formed - scouts or trained turtle spotters, regular walkers and a few first timers like us. Arun briefed us about what the night might have in store. We were to walk along the coast from Neelankarai beach to Besant Nagar (6.5 km stretch) and the journey was to be completed by 5 am the next morning. We were warned against using harsh lights or taking too loudly, as these might scare away the nesting turtle. “I cannot guarantee that you will see any turtles,” Arun said, making my heart sink.

Soon we set off in groups of six, with flashlights and the faint moon guiding us on. I remember thinking that sea was at its loudest and quickly realizing that this is probable because it was past midnight, and the streets were silent. Soon someone spotted something and we quickened our pace. 

Nesting time
A turtle had come to nest. Sand flew from under her hind legs as she laboriously worked the soil away, digging a pit deep and just right enough for her eggs. We gathered around, but the mother seemed oblivious to the attention that she was getting or she probably just wanted to lay those eggs. Her digging complete, she quickly moved on to the task in hand. We saw the eggs drop, one at a time, in rapid succession. Around 70 of them, I counted. 

While a camera managed to capture most of the action on night mode, the turtle, relived at last, started its next task. Once again sand flew all around, as she used her hind legs to cover up the pit and then used the weight of her body to pat down the sand and camouflage her nesting site. The sound of the waves guided her back to the sea, and in less than an hours, she had come, laid her eggs and vanished into the night. 

The team from the conservation network got down to business. They had to collect the eggs and also check the temperature and depth of the pit to rebuilt a similar one in the hatchery. There the eggs would stay, protected till the day they would hatch. On the way to the hatchery, the scouts spotted another turtle nesting site. The same process was repeated and more eggs bagged. 

Further down the beach, we spotted two dead turtles and a dolphin. I remember thinking that this was my first dolphin sighting as well. The feasting stray dogs stood silent and still until we passed the carcass.

Marching to the sea
Dawn was slowly breaking. I could see the sun as a faint orange line in a distance. We were approaching the fag end of our long walk and I was trailing behind. The magic of day break keeping me away from the walkers. What an exciting night it had turned out to be... but it wasn't over just yet, because the scouts ahead were waving once again. 

A set of eggs in the safe house was hatching. The little ones were crawling out of their egg shells and taking baby steps towards the ocean. The tide, the waves and the magnetic field were all guiding them on, and like troupes returning home from battle, they stomped towards the finish line. I picked one up and like a new born baby she wriggled (and was probably crying loud too). I was afraid that I’d drop her or hurt her, so I gently put her down near the sea, and she paddled away, riding high on the morning waves… a blob in a distance that soon vanished. 

For travelers heading to Chennai, looking for adventures that's outside the guide books, the Students' Sea Turtle Conservation Network could be a good start. In one single night I had witnessed birth, survival and death. For planning that adventure I have Jonathan to thank. And the dead turtle from last week, for reminding me again about the Circle of Life, that moves us all.