But I cannot forget her prophecy because these feet have ,figuratively speaking taken me to some of the most interesting places in this world. Places, which are not part of any tourist map- places which are untouched and pristine pure from the pollution of human exploitation! My work takes me to all these places. No, I am not a photo journalist or a writer or anything glamorous like that. I work for a NGO that reaches to poor and marginalized communities across the country – some of them living in very remote areas. Therefore , like Hiuen Tsang from Harsha’s days, I use my travel as much to enrich my knowledge as to do my work. My organization abounds with people like me – but most of their “Si-yu-ki” is in their minds. Fortunately for me my job description includes documentation which helps in writing down my own version of “Si-yu-ki”
One such visit was in December 2009 to the Kandhamal district of Odisha For many the name may not mean much- for others who are little more aware it may link to communal riots while some others may form the link to Maoists!
We were designing a project – Women in Agriculture. We wanted to understand the real issues on the ground faced by the tribal women. We wanted to hear about their lives, their aspirations from their perspective.
So there we were- myself an my colleague S along with two consultants – retired professors from the agriculture university who got into a jeep and like Hiuen Tsang began that journey of discovery. When we set out from Bhubaneshwar via, Khurda and Ganjam, it seemed like any other journey. However. only when we started going up the hills towards Daringbadi that it began to get interesting. We went through forests- not really thick but somehow with an air of mystery about them. I don’t know why but the impression of people watching me from behind the trees never left me until the end of the journey!
We reached Daringbadi by about 3.00 PM all hungry and exhausted. There was a small local NGO with whom we had made contact. They were to take us to a tribal settlement about 20km away for an interaction. But before that we had to check into a hotel. I was not keen on the hotel idea. I wanted to stay back at the NGO’s training centre where a group of tribal women were being trained on health care practices. But the gentleman running the NGO would not hear of it. He felt that the amenities offered by his training facility would not suit me. “Madam you cannot sleep on a carpet on the floor” he protested. And finally, despite my arguments I was bundled back into the jeep and the driver directed to take me along with the others to a “nice resort” nearby.
The resort was “interesting” in a way that reminded me of the motel in the film “psycho” ! No, I don’t mean the actual location but the air about was a little strange –a cluster of cottages with modern amenities set in the middle of the forest. There were seven cottages in all with the dining hall located about 200 m away. Actually, I did not notice anything much until the evening. I was more busy getting my things together for the village visit.
We reached the village just as the sun was setting. An absolutely amazing sight!! I don’t have any pictures with me so you will have to rely on the words that I am writing.
A small cluster of huts set against the back drop of hills that glowed red from the light of the setting sun. Parts of the hillside were planted with turmeric. People were just returning home from the fields. We settled ourselves down under a tree in the village and waited for them to finish their work and gather for the discussion.
The sun set and the twilight slowly faded out. A settlement of about 50 families with a population of around 300- yet it was surprising how silent everything seemed. There was no sound of any traffic- all that could be heard were the crickets, some children crying and the occasionally some murmurs of voices. I tried to contrast it with the sounds that I have heard from the other villages that I had visited-somehow people here seemed quieter, calmer and less noisy- or was it just a calm that covered the simmering anger below at being left behind on the road to development I wondered…….
We lit a fire and slowly people came around to huddle around it for warmth. I suddenly felt guilty about my warm Mizo Shawl!! Here I was nicely covered up in wool while women and children had only the fire for warmth!
We started the discussions with the help of our friend from the local NGO who acted as the interpreter. It was interesting the way the language translations were happening. My friend S and myself would discuss an issue in English along with the Professors and then they would translate it into Oriya for the benefit of our interpreter who in turn would translate it into the local dialect of the Kondhs!! After the initial hitches we found that we had built a rapport strong enough for the people to directly look at us while they answered questions even though it may have been posed by an interpreter. We gathered a wealth of information- what is grown on the hills- and in which seasons, Who did what in terms of farming practices. What did men do , what did women do. Where did they sell their products?
We never realized how long we were there until suddenly, our NGO friend from the area got up and started instructing us to gather our things. “let us leave” he kept muttering under his breath. I was puzzled to say the least. But when we saw the way he was behaving, we decided to follow his instructions and gathered up our notes and pens. In about fifteen minutes we were out of the village.
“What made you rush us like that “ asked S
“ Sir, you did not notice but there were some Maoists from the village who had joined the group and I found them asking questions about you and the others. You see, they know me but they do not know anyone of you. When, they don’t know someone they are suspicious and that can be dangerous.”
I felt a shiver go down my spine! For the rest of the route we traveled in silence.
I was all the more keen now to stay behind with the trainees at the NGOs office. But I was deposited ceremoniously with the others at the gate of the “resort”in an hour or so.
The “psycho” resemblance was hitting me very hard now. When I got into the room I found that the bed was against the window- something that always makes me uncomfortable because I like to look out of a window to know what is going on outside rather than be observed from behind through a window. So I decided that I would sleep with my head resting towards the foot of the bed and look straight out at the window!!
Just as I was washing up and getting ready to go to the dining hall located a little distance away, I found that my mobile phone did not have any signal! The caretaker assured me that I could use the land line in the dining hall for calls at the usual STD rates. But it was not calls home that I was worried about at the moment. It was the ability to call S or those professors should something sinister happen to me that I was looking for!!
Post dinner, I went back to my room and locked the door dragging a small table against it so that no one could push it open without my knowledge. I was just about to turn the light off when I heard it- the sound of a dozen foxes howling!!!! It was the most eerie sound I have heard since my childhood in the north 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. The foxes used to get into our garden those days and howl their lungs off scaring me no end!! They appeared to be having the same effect now. I checked the window bolt- something that made me more uneasy because when I looked out of the window all I could see was a forest path covered thickly by trees. I decided immediately that I was going to sleep with the light on.
But about two hours or so later when I looked out of the window and the dark forested hillside I realized that by having the light on in my room I was probably drawing attention to my room – which must have been shining like a beacon in the dark hillside.
Though it made be terribly nervous, I decided to switch off the light. I sat up for another couple of hours listening to every sound – crickets buzzing, some night owls flying by and of course the howling foxes! At one point I wonder what would be my colleague S’s reaction if I were to knock on his door and ask if he would permit me to sleep on the sofa next to his bed!!!
But I did not do any of that- I stayed awake until the golden light of dawn began it filter in through my window.
Naturally, I overslept and it was 8 0’ clock when I heard S hammering on my door. A very organized person, my colleague S was all packed up and ready to leave. I quickly collected my things and was more than willing to get ready by 8.30 AM.
As we drove out, I looked at the beauty of the place and I was surprised that it had scared me so much during the night! I looked with longing at the greenery and the hills in the background as we descended down the hillside. I saw some of the adivasis pass us by with head loads – the children smiled and waved at us. The women looked on shyly. “Where are the Maoists ?” I wondered as we passed a local market humming with activity.
It is surprising what kind of games the mind can play with us when we are vulnerable I thought as I settled down on the back seat of the jeep and closed my eyes for a nap.
“ You really like to sleep.. don’t you. You went to bed at 9.30 last night and did not wake up until 8.30 this morning and now you are sleeping again” grumbled S as he gathered his things moving on to the front seat so that I could settle myself more comfortably for my nap.
“Yes, too bad you don’t like people who sleep! Next time you should travel with an insomniac .” I said as I brought my feet up on to the seat gently massaging the left one before shutting my eyes for the much needed sleep!
( This post has been submitted as entry for the Incredible stories contest sponsored by Mahindra and Mahindra on Indiblogger.http://www.mahindraxuv500.com/)
Images from the Internet