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Tree Huggers

Short Story by Omali Jayah


When Gaura Devi reached the Banyan tree, there was already a gathering of around fifty villagers. The Banyan tree stood in front of their ancient temple, with its roots coming down and rooting deep into the earth, grown as bigger and thicker as tree trunks themselves. The golden rays of the descending sun were shining on the sun-burnt dark tan faces of the villagers. On the short brick stage built in front of the trunk, the middle-aged sarpanch was standing with a weary, heavy look on his deeply creased face. The priest was sitting beside him with his snowy white long beard, chewing betel leaves, being less attentive as usual.
Sarpanch looked over the crowd, counted heads, and cleared his throat.

“ So, you all know that I went to Dharampur yesterday to meet the provincial minister. He told me...” he hesitated a bit.
“ that the government finally gave them permission”
The crowd shooed in unison shaking their heads vigorously to express disagreement and disgust.
“ But sarpanch Ji, how?” shouted out Mannu, Gaura Devi’s younger brother-in-law, in anger. 
“ I don’t know” replied the sarpanch.
“ It is a big factory in Delhi, I heard. Who knows, it might be even bigger than our village. They make sports goods - provincial minister told me - import them and bring lots of money to our Bharath. And most importantly they got all big sardaris to support their business. Ministers and other big fish, you know...  It is all about money, after all”
“ But sarpanch ji...” Juggu said,
“ We just cut little trees for our simple needs, but they said No! and sent police wala to torment us. Now they allowed those people to chop off the forest?  How unfair??”
“ Forest is the god who holds the mountains” Priest spoke for the first time spitting a red betel splash through his fingers.
“ If we destroy it, the mountains will fall on us”.
“I know” sarpanch said in an exasperated tone. “ I know, don’t I?  But, there is nothing I can do. Sardaris decided everything and all we are expected to do is to obey the order and be peaceful. Wood cutters will come somewhere in the next week from Dharampur.”
“ And listen!” he looked over his people sternly.
“ They are not just wood cutters. They all work for Dhawan Sahib; goons. They’ll come with their trucks, machines...and guns. Do you understand?”
“ I don’t need any clash with them. We can’t fight them. We are just farmers in the jungle and they are Sardari’s thugs”
He got down from the stage and started to walk out.
“ That’s all I have to say. For god’s sake, I don’t need any involvement with those pigs” his tone sounded tired, disturbed and worried .
Villagers started to dissolve one by one in to the thickening darkness. After having a short chat with Mannu, Gaura Devi started to head back home.

Mannu was obviously angry. He was an emerging young leader in the village who always encouraged young men in farming rather than fleeing away to Dharampur or even a faraway dream city such as Delhi or Bombay, only to wind up with a miserable laborer job. He always had been initiative in little projects in the village, such as encouraging women in weaving cotton threads, repairing and cleaning village’s irrigation system, trying out new seasonal crops, etc. He was married to Sunita, a girl who was just two years younger than him and they were blessed with a baby girl. Mannu’s anger was contagious. While walking back, Gaura Devi felt that her irritation was slowly turning into an outrage. She was the one who couldn’t withstand the unjust. After becoming a widow, she didn’t return to her village despite the request of her three wealthy brothers, because that would be an unjust for her poor old mother-in-law who only had Gaura Devi to assist her. She turned down several proposals those days brought by good handsome men thinking that would be an unjust for her then ten-year-old daughter.

Gaura Devi lived in Seni village, a quaint little village laid on the foot of Himalayas mountain range in Uttrakhand where most of the villagers made their living by farming. The village was a desolated cradle in the deep forest, connecting to Dharampur, its nearest little town and other neighboring villages only via narrow roads just a little bit bigger than foot trails. It was heartily blessed by the nature with such a good earth, that everything thrown away to the ground would emerge with beautiful light green tender leaves after one or two weeks. Gaura Devi was a widow with a fifteen-year old daughter and lived with her mother-in-law, weaving cotton threads using a simple home machine. Her brother-in-law, Mannu, a twenty-year-old boy whom Gaura Devi still considered as a kid, supplied the threads, took them to Dharampur and sold them for her. Her family’s farming field was farmed by another villager charging a portion of the harvest as his fee.


The relationship villagers had with the forest was divine, spiritual and mutual. The forest was their god. In fact,  billions and zillions of gods resided in billions and zillions of magnificent giant trees in the deep forest, they said, that had been there for thousands of years.  They worshipped it and protected it. In return, the forest supplied them light timber and woods for their daily needs; dry woods as cooking fuel, light timber for their simple farming tools, domestic furniture and new roofs after every monsoon. They never cut off those huge, sky-scraping shelters; always chose smaller and thin trees. And moreover, the loss could not be counted at all, as they added as twice as many new trees to the earth. Every mango seed they threw away after eating a mango fruit, every jackfruit seed they threw away after eating a jackfruit, gifted a new life to the flora. This peaceful mutual lifestyle was disturbed sometimes back, when the government suddenly came out with a law to keep them off the forest. Suddenly, cutting any tree for any use, except dry wood for cooking purpose was prohibited. Cops from Dharampur evaded the village to enforce the law. Some villagers who went into woods neglecting the restriction were caught and brutally beaten by the cops. The villagers were as mad as injured wild animals, but they couldn’t do anything. After few incidents, they gave up creeping into jungle in search of timber, because police troops could have appeared at any time.


Few silent days went off, diluting the intense conversations the villagers had regarding the government’s decision. Every evening Mannu and Gaura Devi talked about it; she, rotating the wheel of her weaving machine and he, sitting on the verandah and watching her. Gaura Devi felt the aggressive young blood full of determination and bravery, and she knew that he was not alone.


Everything was fine until they heard a loud bang one early morning, and they knew what it was. Villagers jumped out of their huts and hurried in to woods to find out Mannu and other young village men fighting a group of wood cutters- a gang of dangerous-looking hulky men in dirty clothes-. The goons were waving their guns, rusty swords and steel chains, while boys had knives and heavy wooden batons. Seeing the villagers coming towards them, one goon aimed his gun to sky and fired it once again. Several men from both parties were bleeding; village boys were damaged most. Mannu, with bleeding arms and legs, was still yelling. Villagers screamed in agony and anger and ran towards the wood cutters. One stout black man with scars all over his face along with a thick beard, got on to the top of a truck.
“Stop...!” he roared.
“Don’t move...!!”
“ If any of you morons move a step, we’ll chop you off. We are Dhawan sarkari’s men. See what happened to your kids. I explained them in good way, but they didn’t understand, so we had to make them understood in the bad way” he looked around.
“ You can’t destroy our forest” one of the villagers said. “ If you make those big trees to fall, next monsoon will bring mountains down and kill us.”
“ We don’t know” the goon shouted back in a rough voice. “We got the order from sarkar and we just follow the order. Already some of our men are hurt. If any of you going to make more drama here, I’ll just ask my men to shoot. You will die in the woods like dogs”
He wagged his hands in the air.
“ Like dogs. Right in front of us. You got it? Take your kids and back off, right now!”

The unarmed villagers stopped. There was nothing they could do against the guns. They backed off to the village with their youngsters.

Next two weeks Gaura Devi mostly spent at Mannu’s little hut taking care of him. He got several deep cuts in his arms and thighs. They had to be very careful because the wounds could have been easily infected and he could have got Pneumonia. She was out searching for herbs and collecting them, while Sunita prepared medication blending them all. Gaura Devi was badly hurt looking at her young brother-in-law. Some body was evading their land trying to destroy their sacred spirits, and her brother-in-law attacked the evil force even though he and his friends were not armed enough. She couldn’t help but support his initiative. When they will come again, she thought, we’ll have to face them with more unity and strength; we must have a spirit that can’t be defeated by their swords or guns.
The news seemed to have reached Dharampur. After couple of weeks, the villagers had another meeting under the Banyan tree. Provincial Minister had called all Seni men to Dharampur to discuss about the incident and the whole issue of wood cutting, and probably pay some compensation for their damages.

**

“ Mausi…! Mausi…!!”
Little Soma started to yell as Gaura Devi’s hut appeared. But she never stopped running.
“ Gaura Mausi…!!!”
Putting down the vessels she was washing, Gaura Devi stood up, adjusted her saree a little bit and ran to the front entrance of her hut. Soma reached  breathing heavily to catch her breath, her thin salwar drenched in sweat. She sat on the muddy verandah.
“ What happened Soma?”
Gaura Devi asked in a scared voice hurrying up to fetch some water for Soma.
“ Gaura Mausi, they have come!”
Gaura Devi stopped. Her lips tightened; teeth clenched; facial muscles stiffened for a while creating creases on her forehead and cheeks.
“ Did you see them?”
“ Yea Mausi...! I was out early today to collect some Jasmines for the Puja, then I saw them passing Naren dada’s field and entering the forest”
“ How many of them?”
Soma thought for a while.
“ A big gang this time, I don’ know. There were three big trucks.”
Gaura Devi stood still for a while, took Soma’s hand and stepped outside.
“Let’s go!”
“Where Mausi?” Soma looked utterly confused.
“What can we do? All our men are out in Dharampur.”


Gaura Devi didn’t seem to have heard it. She was walking forward fast, her eyes fixed somewhere in the far away horizon. The morning sun shone beyond the mountains. Gaura Devi headed to the temple. She got on to the brick stage under the Banyan tree, grabbed the rope tied to the giant bronze bell and rang it hard.


Dhaang..! Dhanng…! Dhaaang..!!!
The loud ring of the bell echoed in the mountains.
Dhaang..! Dhaang..!! Dhaaang..!!!


The short story continues here...