Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How to manage your husband Pahari-woman style (and other life tips)

This time around, I travelled alone in the hills. This not only meant that I did not need to share my bed with my colleague, but also gave me admission into the world that the women had carved out for themselves. I needed to seek it out, of course. Perhaps because I was travelling alone for work, I was treated in a masculine manner and told to sit in the parlour, kept away from women, etc. A little dodging around and wistfully peering into the kitchen enabled me to break that barrier.

And I am glad I did. The women of the household are mere shadows when in the company of their men, but among themselves, they blossom out into fun and laughing spirits. The kitchens are small, basic, warm, and cheerful. They sit together all- mothers, daughters, and daughters-in-law- to cook and chatter. They can not eat till after all the household has eaten, but no matter. They roast corn on the hearth and munch on that (without sharing with the men, of course). They trade recipes and excitedly gossip with this stranger in their midst. For most of them Dehradun (a six hour journey by bus) is impossibly far and exotic. After I told them of my life and of the city, they would ask me, "Who looks after your crops and your cattle when you travel?"

I called my Mian one night and told him that I'd caused a dozen women to fall in love with him.
'And what exactly did you tell them?', he asked cautiously.
'You don't want to know', I laughed.
 It wasn't much, actually. I was describing our evenings to them. How Mian and I cook together in the kitchen, how we then sit and eat together, how he makes my favourite treats for me. They were astounded at my naivete in gadding about alone and leaving such a prize catch unsupervised. And then they gave me tips too..'Do like we do and keep a lathi hidden in your pallu. Your Mian looks at another woman, use it on them both!' I just hope they meant it figuratively.

Unlike the men who were always full of complaints, the women were downright gleeful. And that is strange, because their troubles were far more than those of the men.

Though that might only have been my urban point of view. They were sorry for me because I do not adorn myself. The simple two strand mangalsutra around my neck does not count, they insisted. And so one afternoon, Samota Devi and her daughter and her daughter in law all dressed me up. They painted my nails, loaded (and I mean loaded) my arms with bangles, placed a bindi on my forehead and were out to pierce my nose when I managed to escape. I will string the bangles as lightcatchers now..a reminder of a most generous woman.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A man I met.

I heard a story last night of a couple who fell in love in Banethi Taluka in Sirmaur, Himachal Pradesh. She was a young bride of a scheduled caste in a remote village in Himachal, he was a travelling seller of shawls from Uttar Pradesh. I only heard the bare bones of the story, but it is easy to flesh it out. A young girl with no real choices before her, newly become a wife to a man she had never met before. She probably discovered that marriage meant the end of whatever little freedoms and joys she was allowed at her old home. Having spent the first one-and-a-half or two decades of her life in one village, she would now spend the next five in one house. And then a man came along, carrying warmth and softness on his back, with his tales of all the lands he had seen; she was enchanted. When he offered to take her with him, can we really blame her for accepting? Apparently, the good people of Himachal can. They hunted down the couple, beat the man to within an inch of his life, and returned the woman to a life now even more fettered and harsh.

I was told this story by T as we sat and talked on the roof of his house. As we looked over the valley, he also spoke of the forests he had lived his life in. When I asked him if he earned any money by selling pine resin, he told me that is a sinful way to earn money. 'It hurts us so much even when we are pricked by a thorn. Can you imagine cutting into a living tree? What agonies it must feel!' T is a handsome man belonging to one of the Thakur families of himachal, and only saved from pomposity by being the younger brother. Instead, he is full of the graceful courtesy that only hillmen seem to possess. He made up a bed for me to lie down in when he saw me flagging. He looked hard and long for a meswak tree when I said I had not seen one before. On my expressing an interest in butterbeans, he picked them for my dinner. Together, we picked over and prepped the beans on his roof by the light of a full moon.

T was also part of the group that beat up the seller of shawls. When asked about the number of children he has, he says two, meaning only the two sons. His first born, his daughter, is not worthy of being counted. He prefers women not to be tej (sharp/fierce/assertive).  As he saw me safely on my bus, he placed a small bundle of beans in my bag.

This is a sad and complex world.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Scented Forest

I am no forest-wallah, so please do take all that I say with a pinch of salt.

Now that the disclaimer is over with, I can start theorizing.

The pine trees in Uttarakhand confuse me to no end. The very first time I traveled in the mountains, I gasped in delight as I saw the pine forests. And they ARE beautiful. The forest floor is covered with needles that form a smooth red carpet. From this carpet rise the straight trunks- also red and with markings resembling those on a giraffe. The tree then forms a neat head of long deep green needles that glow silver in the sun. 'There are few things more beautiful.' I enthused. I was censoriously harumphed at by my colleague. 'There is nothing more terrible' he corrected me.

And that largely sums it up. All the villagers and development workers I have spoken to have informed me that Pine is a ruthless invader, first brought by the Britishers and then propagated by the Forest department. It ignites and burns their land, takes over productive oak forests, covers the soil with an impenetrable cloak of needles, and adds nothing to the local economy whatsoever. The only use they admit to is for firewood, and needles for bedding cattle. It would be hard for them to deny the lopping for firewood, because it is difficult to find a pine tree that has not been pruned till it resembles a mangy paintbrush but they will not admit to any other use. Pine forests are now the battlefield between the Govt and the villages. Google 'chir pine' though, and the first sentence informs you that chir pine (pinus roxburghii) is 'one of the most useful trees in the region'.

I dont know which story is true. Perhaps they both are. One thing though is that pine trees are exploited to within an inch of their lives. In addition to the  lopping I mentioned earlier, they are also tapped for resin. Each tree is scarified and  fixed with a little pot to collect the aromatic sap. 

Over time and with repeated harvestings, the tree becomes a mass of scars
I understand that forests need to be used, and that this can be done sustainably. I also understand that communities depend on natural resources for their survival and that this harvesting of resin generates revenue which enables the protection of forests. I do believe that fortress conservation is a Bad Thing.  But there is also something called carrying capacity. And I fear that we have long ago exceeded that.

And leaving conservation-speak aside, the child in me still believes in dryads and living trees. Those wounds must be painful.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Wanting more.

He is here, my Mian is.

Travelling to Delhi despite jetlag just because I needed to go and we weren't prepared to be separated again. Gravely agreeing with me that the mould on the walls does add a certain decorative something. Good humouredly jumping headlong into the Great Game of stalking and appropriating our newspaper before the landlords 'borrow' it. Sharing with me the wonderful joy of a morning coffee while watching the world wake up. Eating a hastily made dahi-rice as if it was the most splendid thing ever.

And instead of wholeheartedly enjoying this, I am grumpy because he leaves in a fortnight. Somewhere inside me is the ability to be thankful for the now, to not let tomorrow spoil today. I need to find it, that's all.