A TRIBUTE To our translator, Gauri Akka: the following story would have been impossible without your skillful translation. Thank you!
Now a twelve-hour train ride north of Jalgaon, the internationals are divided into small groups going to different places, and my group is now in Madya Pradesh. The monsoons have ended, leaving the weeks of rain that come and go at astonishing daily regularity, to usher in the dry winter season arrives. We arrive mid-morning in Chilghat and are met by a boy and perhaps his grandfather. They are just dismounting from their bicycles with their tabla and sticks in hand.
In two vehicles, we slow down as the procession, led by the two percussionists, makes its way down a dirt road through, for me, unnameable tall grasses and grains, towards a colourful clutch of women and children. We are greeted with the beautiful palm-to-palm gestures of Namaste, my fingers then grasped inside their fingers and then sliding over mine, ending with fingers touching the forehead accompanied by a slight bow. So beautiful. Some of the women carry plates heaped with small hillocks of cooked rice and turmeric which is pinched between fingers and applied to the centres of our foreheads.
We are led behind a dung and thatch house where our group of nine (two Canadians, a Kenyan, a Swede, a Georgian, a Trinidadian and three Indian colleagues, Gaury, Santosh and Reshma) settles onto string beds while the villagers gather above us in the trees, behind us, in front of us on a plastic sheet on the ground. The setting is exquisite, the river bend just over there and fields stretching to the hilly horizon. The women gather quickly, settling into place, curiosity matching curiosity. The children giggle amongst themselves, entranced by the strange visitors.
For my part, I am thinking that we are rather dull birds compared to the riot of colour draping the women. Most have their faces uncovered, but some have carefully arranged the pallu of their saris over their foreheads and down to their chins. (As we are to learn, they are likely the daughters-in-law of this community, still getting accustomed to the ways of the out-spoken, activist women of this village!) One woman with a gold flower on the side of her nose and draped in a sari brilliant with orange and blue flowers, begins to speak in response to Gaury’s urging.
‘Well,’ she steamed ahead, in no need of any further encouragement, ‘If I start telling you the story – well, what story do you want me to tell? I could talk until sunset and still have so much to say. We came here and started to cut down the trees. And, of course, the Forestry Authority came and said, “Who gave you permission to do this?”
‘“We took the permission of our hunger.”’ She went on in the face of the stunned Forestry Department officials. ‘Men have water in their bodies; not women. We have blood in our bodies and so you will hear us.’
The police soon arrived to arrest the men of the group. The women followed on foot to the police station. ‘They circled the station and shouted: “We will not leave until you release our men!” They were released, the women too much to cope with.
Once again the Forestry Department came: “Who gave you permission to come here?” “Our hunger,” came the answer once more. They tried another tack. Directing his words at the women, one of the Forestry officials asked, “Who is the leader?”
This woman sitting amongst here in Chilghat recalls her response: ‘We are 500 leaders! Arrest us all! But you will need 52 trucks to take us and all of our animals, including the mice in the fields! Does this field belong to YOUR fathers?
‘There is a bush,’ she continued, ‘called a babur. It is full of thorns and very hard to cut. I think they planted them on purpose to keep landless people away. Even if they took the men to jail again, we told them we women would still clear the land.’ The discomfitted men shifted on their feet, I imagine, feeling their authority slipping away. One by one, they left. ‘It was such hard work. But we did it. We planted mango trees.
‘And this woman here,’ she says, touching the shoulder of a woman whose face is deeply etched with the lines of this community’s story;’ ‘she is the salty one! Oh! How she abused the men at the police station with her language!’
The other woman takes up the story. Gaury, translating brilliantly, tells us that this woman is known as ‘salty’! ‘The way she abused the forestry men – who were very rude, no doubt. She gave them back more of what they dished out to her – every other word [(we might say) an F-bomb!]’
She pulls herself to her feet and stands beside us leaning up against one of the poles that supports the thatch above us. ‘People came to us, saying, We are here to give you title. They were liars! We are not going to receive these titles, I said to them, as dogs in the street! ‘If you have any balls at all… !’ They went away. But then the police came. ‘So we ran. I twisted my sari dhoti-style so I wouldn’t trip.’
The police left but returned a little later with trucks. ‘As they loaded the men into one end of the truck, we yanked them off the other.’ She rallied the neighbourhood to join them and once more they circled the police station, shouting, ‘Why have you stolen our men?’ The spicy words poured out of her mouth.
‘We brought chapatti and demanded that we be allowed to deliver them to our men. A harmless thing to ask!’ she told us. She then sneaked into the police station and overheard the police sergeant complaining to a superior: ‘These women are troubling us, driving us crazy!’
‘She shouted at the policemen, ‘We are not going anywhere! And we’re going to cut off your hands if you don’t let them go!’
She offers a brief aside, assuring us with a mischievous smile, ‘This was part of Ekta Parishad’s non-violence training with us. But, you know, it’s like the snake. We are afraid of the snake’s bite – good for scaring – but, really, it only hisses!’
‘What are the next steps for you?’ someone asks. ‘Pass it on to our youth,’ comes the response. The boys smile shyly; a group of girls breaks out with the Ekta mantra of ‘Jai jagat! Jai jagat!’ We announce victory to the world! Words that point ahead to ambitious plans for a march of a million from Delhi to Geneva in 2020.
‘Since we built our school, our holistic school,’ someone says proudly, ‘the youth will be educated – and there is now work here for them! They will not have to leave the state in search of work or join the migration to the cities.’
Beatrice, reflecting our own sense of wonder and delight, asks for all of us, ‘Where did you get the power to struggle?’ Many voices shout: ‘Right here,’ one pounds her chest. Others shout, ‘Ekta Parishad!’ Both, I am thinking.