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  • We were headed to one of the last villages still settled deep in the confines of the national reserve forest. Other villages had been relocated, these were the last few standing. The conservationists hoped that with the ousting of the last of the villages, the jungle would have a chance to grow back in the coming monsoons. The tigers might venture out of the core area into the newly reclaimed land and find their way to the neighboring wildlife sanctuary. In time, maybe a safe corridor could be created from one reserve to another.

    My friend Gunjan hung on to the back of the jeep making sure the equipment was safe, as we hurtled through the jungle tracks. I thought I might as well do a dry run with him about what we could aim at capturing today in our cameras. We had a very short window in. I ploughed into the briefing, 'We need to get the basic structure of the space, the watering holes, the anatomy of the houses, basic identification of the tribe. Look out for tools for food,.. the wheat pounders, sieves, then on to the cattle, the fodder hay stacks. And the tree.. the tree at the centre, the one everything started from..' As my voice trailed off at the thought and the words I'd chosen, I saw Gunjan grinning at me from the back.

    The first thing we saw when we reached was the tree. Gunjan and I stood staring for awhile at the huge green neem tree standing with its broad chest spread in the centre of the village. In the middle of the dry, deciduous forest, this was the greenest and most generous tree I had seen around yet. We both had different stories to tell about this day, maybe he will tell you his version soon.

    Gunjan went his way with the forest guards, I started edging away in search of the women. The women in this part of the country, are known to live in a stringent patriarchal system, meaning they keep their faces veiled in front of the men, stick to the cooking, the cleaning, and take little part in matters of the village as a system. Never vocally, in any case. I caught sight of a couple of goat kids skipping giddily off a cot, then an upturned bucket, and down a path which connected most of the settlements. I go where goats go, I thought, and followed them in.

    I got adopted into the fold almost immediately by a young woman and her child. Her name was Auganti. She smiled as I took a picture of her sulking baby, and before I knew it I was surrounded by six to seven other women, most with children. Copper skinned women, with hair broken into streaks of blonde by the harsh sun.

    Auganti asked me to show them my pictures of her child, and soon, the women started lining up in front of me to have their pictures taken, all of them taking off their covering shirts to be standing finally in front of my lens with only tiny inner blouses on. A round protruding stomach turned out to be agreeable for the women. I found the opinion absolutely refreshing, and tried my best to bring out the roundness of tummies in my pictures. They giggled and pinched each other like teenage girls as I showed them the images. The one with the biggest stomach was nudged into removing her shirt to show us all her tummy again.

    As the day wore on, they brought there house work out to the bed I was sitting on. A couple of them were embroidering patchwork blankets for the winter, layers of old pants, shirts and saris sewn in layers of five between two enveloping sheets of thin cotton. The meandering needle, pinned all the pieces inside together firmly. I got a go at the steel needle too,.. I punched it in through the layers and managed to pull off a couple of winding stitches, I had to use my teeth to get the needle back up every time. They clapped their hands, and got into a discussion amongst themselves about how I could manage to stitch without any training because I'd been educated in a school. I shook my head, and said it had nothing to do with my education, and took the chance to ask them if they had ever been to school, or whether their children did. They hadn't, the little girls didn't either, and my heart sank like it usually does when I find people in the far reaches who haven't still been pushed into schools. I believe it's the only chance they have to be able to stand a chance against the object-ridden urban masses of plenty. They saw my face, and one of them reached out for my hand. I smiled and looked at her palm in mine, I turned it over. I looked harder. She had no fingerprints. I looked up at her, and she smiled,.. she'd lost it to the earth she said.

    I looked away, and sat up straighter.. I could hear the sound of breaking walls in the background, the forest guards were pushing down the walls of village huts which had been abandoned by villagers who had taken the resettlement money, and agreed to relocate to urban areas. Basically I was sitting in the half of the village, which was still alive.

    Do you know when a village is demolished in these areas, the forest grows back almost immediately? Because the villagers use hardly any metal, no silica in their building, just wood and earth. They carry what little electronics they have, mostly TVs and phones and solar lamps, with them into the city. A zero carbon print on movement.

    I thought of the chain then,
    A lack of empathy for nature,
    leads to the lack of empathy for an animal like the tiger, the animal right on top of the wild nature pyramid,
    This leads to the creation of natural reserve forests which now have become islands of animals in the middle of the urban machinery,
    which in turn has led to the need for more space for the animals,
    which has led to the need for the poorest to move from the only thing they have: their land,
    which has led to them moving to the fringes of urban cities, where they stare in wide abandon at the objects,.. mountains of objects they had never even imagined, seas of objects with people with more objects hanging from their persons,
    leading to legions of displaced people trying to mimic the urbane who have forgotten 'the point of nature', and are in fact left with no 'point of view' at all,
    leading to them craving for the mob, and safety in numbers, and I see this last eventuality happen to both the urban and the rural.

    Lack of compassion breeding a worsening lack of compassion.

    I imagined Auganti shutting her mouth tight in a city, her veil down. She'd never get to the point where she'd be able to share what 'the point of nature was' to anyone within hearing range. All she'd have would be her hands to stare at in the quiet moments. Hands whose prints the earth had taken away.

    Auganti, if you're interested, means She who rises, because the Auganti I know, was born at daybreak.

    Before leaving, I took that final picture of the children of the village standing under their tree, the one around which the village grew.

    Women stories. Take IV.
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