“How can we think of leaving the village, Sirji? The gods of Jonkpur do not walk. So we have to stay where they live!” I shrug my shoulder and say nothing. The man who is talking to me does not mean this as a joke. I can see from the frown lines on his face that he is dead serious.
Somewhere in the corners of my mind, Kamini’s words descend like spittlebugs, “They are all going to drown like rats in that pokey little gutter pond! Just mark my words! The day is not very far off!” There was a showdown the last time when she came over in a final attempt to woo me back to Chennai.I understand the fierce love that expresses itself in the dark penumbra of her rants. During such times I talk to her as I would to a child who needs to be told how to understand the complex big picture using a simple string of words.“Kuttu, Who will write petitions to the government about what these poor people are made to suffer? Who will speak for them?
Kamini’s large eyes fill with tears and she hugs me tight to her saying, “When you say this good idealistic stuff in your booming, sunflower voice, I want to believe it with all my heart and soul. You can sit on the banks of that damned river all through the year and shout slogans till your throat goes dry. Nobody is going to hear you! Got it? The babus have given you guys the ultimatum. Once they finish the last bit of work and up the height, it is going to be ground zero! Got it?” I gently reason with her that the least I can do for the fifty odd families in this tiny village is to persuade them to relocate to the government allotted lands a good seventy kilometers away. Kamini dried her tears and packed her bags saying, “Ok! Have fun in your waterworld! Coming to think of it, jala samadhi is such a cool idea!”
It is not that as though Kamini doesn’t have a social conscience. She works as a journalist in one of the top national dailies. The dam brought us together. She spent a good four months with me in this place understanding its complex dynamics before she turned cynical. Perhaps she was right. The omens were all over the place. The local MLA came with his family to offer prayers at the dam site where the dark Kalarathri and the frothy Kanchanamekhala meet noisily. The waters rushing out of the sluice gates rang with promises about the thirsty stretch of thirty lakh hectares that was going to turn into a golden land, with the dam churning out more than one thousand mega watts of power. The college kids who had arrived from the city were doing their sit-ins on the boulders lining the river were ceremoniously lifted off their seats and offered laddus by the priests who were performing a special puja on the occasion.
The man is still hanging around as though he expected me to pronounce a verdict on the whole situation. I smile at him not knowing quite what to say. His name is rather unusual – Pi Chawa, abbreviated to Pichwa by the villagers.
“You have an unusual name, Pichwaji!” I was struck by his exotic Thai name when I heard it for the first time. He smiled at me and said, “Sirji, it is a name my father chose for me. It means a reed pipe or flute!” I was struck by his accurate translation of the word. Pi Chawa was one of the few people in the village who knew who to read and write. He was considered rather special by the others because he would disappear for days into the dense forest scaffolding the village and it was believed that he could communicate with the gods of the forest. I came to know that his father had worked as a trainer in Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai and that Pi Chawa was born there.
“The situation is getting serous Pichwaji!” I tell him with all the urgency that I can muster in my voice. “Please ask your people to relocate. We have lost all our battles with the government!” Pi Chawa looked unperturbed. He traced a pattern on the red laterite soil with his big toe for some time and told me, “Sirji, you are a young man. But with my experience of fifty plus years I can tell you that it takes ages to own land, build a house and fill it with people. Besides our gods who live in our forest will forget us if we move away from them. How do I make you understand this?” I can feel my blood pressure shooting up. The man was mouthing sentimental nonsense as usual. He was dangerous because the local community considered him to be some kind of a shaman and looked up to him for advice on nearly all aspects of their life. It was time to turn harsh. “Look Pichwaji, at a height of 509 metres, the dam swept away six villages. The height will soon be increased to 515 metres. This village is within a radius of fifty kilometers from the dam. So what do you think will happen to all of you?”
Pi Chawa contemplated my words for sometime and then replied: “The deer-footed god, who roams about in the forest of Himmapan outside our village, guarding all the plants and animals, will take care of us!” I sharply retort, “Himmapan? There you go again. Another Thai name! Pichwaji, it is time to get serous! Your gods may not know how to fight with this modern monster, who is all cement grout and dental concrete. By the way, according to mythology the Himmapan forests are said to be somewhere in the snow-clad Himalayas, not in this hot tropical area!”
Pi Chawa retrieved a tobacco strip from his pyjama pocket and offered it to me. Seeing the reaction this gesture elicited, he put it back into his pocket and observed silence for a few seconds. Then he began speaking: “Sirji, the forest that wraps its arm around our village like an elder clansman is as old as the earth. The trees there have sees many yugas come and go. Many trees in the forest have turned to stone so that the gods can reside there. When my respected father returned for good from Thailand, he brought with him a Buddhist holy man named Luang Pu Nararatana – the direct disciple of the famous teacher, Ajahn Sao, who went into the forest wilderness and got enlightenment. The old monk took one look at the forest and declared, “This is the forest of Himmapan, the in-between space between heaven and earth. Heaven lies not far from here. Tread on her ground with reverence because gods and magical beings have made it their dwelling place. So heed her well.”
Pi Chawa stopped his animated narration as if to gauge my reaction to the story. I saw the moment as a great moment to browbeat Pi Chawa into something I had always longed to do. “I am listening very carefully to you Pichwaji,” I said trying to sound interested. “Why don’t you allow me to accompany you into the Himmapan forest one of these days? Whatever you are saying sounds fascinating and I want to spot a god or two if possible!” Pi Chawa folded his palms and bowed in the direction of the forest. “Sirji, I haven’t finished telling you everything about the forest. There are trees which eat human flesh, trees which walk from place to place, trees that grant every human wish if you are lucky enough to stand under their shade at a particular time of the days, trees that have turned to stone, holding in their belly a rainbow of many colours.” I cut him short and ask with great determination, “All this description is very fine, Pichwaji. However I would like it better if I can see these magical trees with my own eyes. Please take me into the forests. I would like to document the richness of these forests before they are totally swallowed by the deluge!”
Pi Chawa says nothing. I know how to interpret this silence. It is the same old answer. Outsiders are not allowed to enter the forest. I had in the past months begged the Panchayat Council to allow me a day in the forest so that I could capture its wonders on my SLR and send the pictures to influential environmental protection organisations in the world. If only a case for the petrified trees could be made, then perhaps the dam work would be stalled! I repeat my argument wearily: “Let us place ourselves on the map of the world by this simple act! Don’t allow your beliefs and superstitions to lay everything here to waste! The outer world sees your Himmapan forest as a thicket of Sal trees and bamboo. Prove it is otherwise to me if you think you have an obligation towards your community and land!” Pi Chawa scratched his head and said, “The gods have to agree! I have no role to play in this!” “Well, get them to agree, Pichwaji!” was the only response that I could think of.
It started raining that evening. The rain pounded on the tin roof of my ramshackle house with iron fists. It made a red slush in the four streets of the village and tore down the gulmohar tree in front of the house. It steadily gathered strength and fell down in thick sheets draping everything around like a white shroud. A stout black umbrella bobbed uncertainly at a distance. It was headed in the direction of my house. Sure enough it was Pi Chawa. He got to the point straightaway without his customary digressions.“Sirji, get ready! I have come to take you to the Himmapan forest!” “Pichwaji!” I protested, “We just cannot do the trek in this weather!” He replied with the same persistence, “Sirji, it is either today or never! Please make up your mind! Our gods do not give a second chance!”
I suspected that this was some ruse to fob me off. The man’s face was inscrutable as usual. “How did you manage to get permission from your gods, Pichwaji? I am perhaps the first outsider to be allowed inside. Any idea about why this is happening?” Pi Chawa coughed nervously and said, “The gods told me that the village will be saved. They also indicated that deliverance would come through you!” I was intrigued and decided to pump the man for more information. “I am flattered to hear this Pichwaji! But why today of all the days? I may not be able to get good pictures in this slashing rain!” Pi Chawa raised his eyes towards the rumbling skies and said, “It is the eight day of the month of Sravana. The star of hope, Rohini, has risen in the sky bringing rain and dark clouds. Can we find a more auspicious day in the year?” I put on my raincoat, grabbed a torch and set out with him with the SLR strapped closed to my chest.
As Pi Chawa and I walked through the curtain of water balancing our steps like stiff marionettes, people come out of their mud houses to watch us. The word must have gotten around that I am going into their sacred forest. They regard me with a solemn eye and say nothing. I find this rather unusual. An old woman hobbled out of her hut holding a string of bright marigold flowers and threw it around my neck. The men cheer and the women set up a kulavai and ululate for a full five minutes, their trilling voices drowning the voice of the rain.
I interpret this as a sign of acceptance. The first one that I have got in all the six months that I have been here multitasking as an elementary school teacher, a social worker and environmental activist. The two hundred odd people in this quaint village in Chattisgarh where a town bus stops occasionally is not really on the map of the country. Surprisingly it finds mention in the Lonely Planet Guide for the delicious pedas made by the taciturn guy who owns the solitary sweet shop in this village. Surprisingly there are no references to the petrified forest or the liminal gods who were believed to wander around in shapes half-human and half-animal. Pi Chawa had once told me that he and a couple of friends who could speak broken English had refused to entertain a conversation with the white travelogue writer who visited the village a couple of years ago. “We didn’t trust him Sirji! He had the eyes of a dacoit! How could we share the secrets of our land with him?” I found this intriguing because theft was literally unknown in the village. It was the usual practice to leave houses open during the day since the villagers believed that the saturnine god with a flaming mane who dwelt in the forest of Himmapan provided a twenty-four-seven surveillance! There were quite a few things that I didn’t understand about these people. For instance, they were not unduly scared of death since they believed that they lived in the antechamber of heaven. This was the biggest obstacle that I came up against while trying to convince them to leave their land.
Pi Chawa is walking ahead with a steady pace totally unmindful of the rain. I lag behind after stubbing my toe against a huge stone, which the pelting rain and the red earth had camouflaged. Pi Chawa slows down a little and narrates a local creation myth to help me forget my bleeding toe. The rain adds its own rhythm to his singsong voice: “At the end of time, the earth was overpopulated by avaricious men and women who tore away the entrails of the Mother earth so much so that she cried out in pain for help. The gods decided to punish man and took the form of a shattering flood, which rose above the mountains, swallowing trees and all the other life forms that were there. Whenever a river swelled or the rain fell, the gods multiplied and man perished. The earth, which had once groaned under the weight of man, now became a light twirling sphere and began to regain her youth. A time came when not more than two hundred human beings remained on earth and they lived in our village, Sirji. They were relatively good people who had not cast stones at Mother Earth. So the High God took pity and requested the water gods to stop their sport. The gods who were now accustomed to feeding on human flesh did not relish the command. They protested by swallowing more land. Sensing their turbulence, the High God called for a council meeting. “The species does not deserve to live!” thundered the Ocean God who had been choked with rubbish and all kinds of poisonous substances by the humans. “Show me one selfless man who can atone for the sins of his brothers and perhaps we will stop doling out punishments!” cried the River Goddess whose limbs had been twisted and tortured by monstrous contraptions built by the humans. The High God realised that the water gods were not going to relent so he came to our village and spoke to the village elder by inducing a trance in him. “Ask if someone from your village is willing to give up his life?” Every nerve in the elder’s body was stretched taut when he asked this dreaded question. No one answered. The silence hovered around like a firefighter trying to keep the High God’s anger at bay! After what seemed like an eternity, a voice declared, “I am willing!” The people looked on in amazement at the young man who said these words. He was an absolute stranger in those parts and they simply could not understand why he wanted to give up his life to save them…”
The rain’s voice drowned the rest of the story and besides I was distracted by a host of worries. We were entering the mouth of the forest where sentinel-like mahogany trees blocked out the evening light. Pi Chawa made several ritual prostrations to a giant tree muttering something in a low voice. “We will have to move quickly Sirji! It is a good one-hour walk and we will have to get there before night! Please remove your chappals! Remember that this is holy ground!” I held on to Pi Chawa’s shoulder like a blind man while he glided effortlessly through the thick clumps of bamboos and reeds. There were trees, trees and more trees. The rain lifted her veil occasionally to give me a glimpse of a scurrying animal or canopying tree. Strange fragrances filled the air. The forest had many voices, muted and loud, which Pi Chawa did not seem willing to explain. He ignored my questions and hurried along in a horribly linear fashion. I decide to make light of the situation. “Look Pichwaji, I can’t see a thing in your Himmapan forest. Please ask a kinnari or rajnaga to appear so that I can take pictures with my new digital SLR.” Pi Chawa grunted and said, “We are almost there!”
The rain had stopped attacking us with scorpion whips. However this was not of much help since a total darkness had taken over. Pi Chawa let go of me and began rummaging in the huge cloth bag perched on his shoulder. In a few minutes he fixed the kerosene lamp that he had lugged along. Its steady orange glow gave me a sense of place. I found myself surrounded by what initially looked like logs piled one on top of another. “Step back Sirji! Let me hold the light in front of you so that you can see the abodes of our gods!”
I followed Pi Chawa’s comment and expectantly pulled out my SLR. I was not disappointed. The flame revealed gorgeous pink and blue streaks on never-ending stone. As my camera hungrily devoured the picture, I hurriedly composed the text for the photos on my Blackberry. I have to send the stuff to Kamini as early as possible so that it can be in the papers tomorrow. “Amazing Pichwaji! How many of these can one find in the forest?” Pi Chawa’s face is immobile and his reply is almost terse
“Almost five acres or even more Sirji! Our gods are many in number and they all need shrines!” I send the best shots from my camera to Kamini with an accompanying note: “Acres of petrified forests probably from the Triassic age in shades of pink and blue. I can see an amazing crazy quilt of colours even in this poor light. While alive the trees must have absorbed liberal quantities of manganese, copper and cobalt. Flash this news to the Ministry of Environment right away. Will get back to you tomorrow morning with better shots of the forest.”
Pi Chawa puts down the lamp and spreads out a towel on the damp soil.
“Sit down Sirji! Make yourself comfortable. The gods have asked me to be hospitable to you.” He hands me a small earthen jug filled with a frothy liquid. “The soma paan of our forest, Sirji! Only the very fortunate are allowed to drink it.” I do not want to displease him and empty the contents into my throat in one gulp. I retch almost immediately because it tastes like raw sewage. As I throw up, a fear grips me. It is an ancient fear and I recognize it right away! Pi Chawa voice guides me through the haze in my brain. “Sirji, don’t be afraid. You are not being poisoned. The drink will clear all your faculties. After the bout of vomiting is over, there will be a ‘vision’, a great clearing of all your faculties. It will produce a slow numbness in your body and thereafter a great tranquility. The soma will reveal its celebrated wisdom in this encounter if you are lucky!”
I stopped retching after sometime. The world around me is a revolving mosaic of pink and blue. I feel strangely detached from everything. It is as though as my senses have been rolled into one center from where I lay watching. My cyclop eye synthesizes the different layers of the dancing forest and when Pi Chawa swims into my ken of vision, I see his true form. He has the torso and arms of a muscular man and the antlers and lower body of a deer. He holds a reed pipe to his lips and whenever he blows into it, the Himmapan forest is drenched in a river of sound. Every stone-log in the petrified forest exhales deeply emitting a deep ‘ha’ sound. A luminescent gandhaar emanates from a frog croaking in the vicinity. The crickets pitch in contributing the ni note. Everything around responds to the flute player’s soft gaze. The music from his reed is deeply nourishing. I can see the secret roots of giant trees drinking deeply from the music. Every little stone, plant and animal is sending out a similar prayer, “Please look at me!” The flute player hears them and he is all grace.
As the notes multiply and flow, his body takes on a different hue. It becomes as blue as the manganese specks in the stone-tree. “Look at me!” I cry out silently and finally after what seems like an eternity, he comes towards me with very deliberate, slow steps. As his eyes lock into mine, I hear the reed pipe’s honeyed voice telling me, “Go beyond the forest of Himmapan. The time is ripe!”
A thousand fireflies glimmer in the forest of Himmapan, in the liquid amethyst darkness seeping into trees. They weave a golden cloak of light for the beautiful creature, which slides out of me riding a dolphin-alpha wave into the great sea that stretches beyond.
Post Script: New Delhi: August 29, 2011. Construction work towards increasing the height of the Kalarathri dam site has been stopped by the Government due to the discovery of a two million old petrified forest in the vicinity by Kannan Senthilnathan, a young social activist from Chennai who negotiated with the local community and acquired consent to explore this inaccessible, sacred forest. Senthilnathan sent photographic evidence to the Ministry of Environment during his last moments in the forest before he suffered a fatal cardiac arrest. UNESCO has declared this forest to be a world heritage site and the government hopes to preserve the rich indigenous history of the place by working with the local knowledges of the people living in the surrounding villages.
Babu: term of respect for any respected elder or man; also used in many parts of India to mean “Sir.”
Chappal: Hindi word for footwear.
Gandhaar: the third note of the Indian musical scale.
Jala Samadhi: demise in water or sacred-drowning.
Kinnari: A half-bird, half-woman in Southeast Asian mythology. One of the many creatures who inhabits the mythical forests of Himmapan.
Kulavai: high-pitched ululation sound produced by women during temple rituals, festivities and celebrations.
Kuttu: Tamil term of endearment which literally means ‘little one.’
Laddu: a ball-shaped sweet made of flour and sugar.
Ni: Or nishada , the seventh note of the Indian musical scale.
Peda: a traditional sweet from the Indian subcontinent made of sugar and dried whole milk.
Rajnaga: A serpent deity in Hindu and Buddhist mythology.
Rohini: One of the twenty seven stars listed according to traditional Hindu astronomy.
Sirji: Respected Sir. Ji is a term of respect used as a suffix in Hindi and Urdu.
Soma paan: The elixir-like drink of the gods in Hindu mythology.
Sravana: An auspicious month according to the Hindu calendar which falls in the English calendar monhs of mid-August to mid-September.
Yuga: An age of the world according to Hindu mythology.
About the author:
Swarnalatha Rangarajan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras, India. She was a Fulbright visiting scholar at Harvard University where she took a course in advanced fiction writing. Her short fiction has appeared in Zubaan’s 21 under 40, Penguin’s First Proof, South Asian Review, India Currents and Asia Writes. She is passionate about the environment and is the founding editor of the academic peer-reviewed journal, The Indian Journal of Ecocriticism and has guest edited issues on Indian ecosophy for the Canadian Journal of Deep Ecology, The Trumpeter. She has completed her first novel.