A withering man from a forest-dwelling tribe lives in a dying world in which “development” has crushed the lives of his land and his people. Jogi reflects on a once fertile, happy world that has been devastated as he sits in the reservation that his tribe has been crowded into. In this heartbreaking description of a dying Earth, Unni is able to offer her protagonist a few moments of freedom but never lets the reader forget how bad things are. – Shreya, The Bombay Review
The evening sky over Runool’s Kimthi Colony was crimson onto turn purple. After hours of faceoff with the sun, tin-sheet roofs were cooling down and the tin-huts yet again sufferable. Noises of children skipped through and glided to curl around the shanty huts, all in rows of six. Their undue mirth echoed against the skimpy pith of the refugee settlement.
Kimthi colony was the aftermath, a miniscule portion as it may be, of the damming of a river, of the eradication of a valley. The colony was fabricated, with tin-huts and creaky water pumps, on the fringes of the once abundant valley of Runool. Valley of Runool was nestled in the uttermost region of the Indian southeastern ghats, a grand mountain range. Apart from a whole world of bees, bugs, beasts, birds, serpents, trees, flowers, clay, dirt, goats, cows, pigs, chickens, laughter, love, hopes, dreams, words, songs, tales, children, babies, and half a million people, the valley also was a paragon of what the world ought to be. A blameless, peaceful, warless land; where the trees stood for centuries, where the river flowed eternally, an idealistic reality and an improbable truth.
And then it was reversed, remade. The nemesis blew in like a deadly storm to shock, to terrorize, to leave in its wake a morass of devastation. A decision was made, an ultimatum without a negotiation. A river was to be dammed. A forest was to be eliminated. A people were to be extirpated.
Like a mean neighborhood bully, the incorporeal enemy with its infinite forces, snatched away cherished pleasures, loved homes, essential earth, one after the other, then all at once. He sniggered as the bullied howled. He was ruthless, a real threat.
The valley of Runool was inundated by power, by brutality, by the impending submergence by an exorbitant dam. Its forests were felled. Its creatures crushed. A haven was wiped out, a heaven helled.
Kimthi colony was set up for nineteen chosen families from the valley. They were one hundred and nine number of people, indigenous, noble. They were plucked off their roots by grisly fingers of a faceless clout, and discarded into what was imperiously, generally, called rehabilitation settlement.
It lidded a doomed people. It muffled their despairing pulse, stripped their rightful skins and shrouded them in ceaseless contempt. It seemed to crumble and die every night, over and over again. Its inmates corroded.
In the land sitting pretty and unthreatened by the prospect of submergence, the Indian Army had come to roost. To protect, to defend, they said. A stray bullet, from their restless rifles, often caught a tree, or a squirrel, or a bird. Like ripe fruits they fell dead, gutter-classed collateral damage.
People of Kimthi witnessed their homes wrecked, stripped, smashed. They subsisted on jobs that killed them, torturously. Farmers they were, but now scavengers, menial laborers. Their knowledge of the earth, the saps, the seasons, and the skies, ceased to matter. Their cries were muted. They drudged for the ones that wrested their lives away, and quelled their kernel.
That evening as the sky turned purple from crimson, as any other bedeviled day in Kimthi, the women returned as a crew after a tiresome day of grind. They were all clad in sarees of colors tainted with building grime. The men of the colony were still awhile away. They only arrive in the dark, one by one, drunk and deadbeat. In the openings in front of tin-huts, frail oldies crouched and hunched in clusters like troops of chimps.
The colony was ostensibly trite but in its lair, in the hearts of its timid people, dwelled numerous behemoths, hydra-headed. They raged and roamed in the subdued people, a force laid dormant.
One of the behemoths, unseen but berserk was in Jogi, a hoary old man. He was an enduring member of the one hundred and nine (minus fourteen, dead). He had twig-thin legs and arms that suggested bygone wiriness. His saggy skin, shiny black, lay in folds on his gaunt belly, like women’s after birthing. His sunken eyes held in them a slight unaware leer. His lips were partly buried under a royal mustache. His age was revealed everywhere especially his face, which seemed like a sculpture that was melting.
Away from the other elders, the troops of chimps, in solitude Jogi was perched atop a stump. He suffered constipation. He was indisposed. And that evening, his desolation had ratcheted.
Months ago, since the period the valley of Runool with its forests and river and creatures were in totality closed off and razor wire fenced, Jogi’s functioning, his equanimity, eluded him. His biological clock crashed. His bowels eschewed movement. And, it was not in the least a mode of protest.
The trouble was that, for all his life he defecated in the open, in bucolic surroundings of the valley of Runool. It was a mundane bit of life, as it should be; he hardly considered it blessedness. While he had it, he was unsuspecting of its fragility. It never occurred to him that it was plausible to be wrenched off of that plain, primitive routine. Never in his wildest of nightmares did he apprehend it becoming a harbinger of death. Until the doomed day when he was forced to attempt shitting indoors, he was utterly oblivious of the sacramental bond his bowels, the nexus of his core, shared with the earth.
In retrospection he continually relived the act he had feebly come to so dearly miss, the intrinsic freedom it bore. To strip, to be still, to be close to the earth, the blades of grass and their shades of green, to watch the enchanting scurrying bugs, to twiddle dead leaves, to crunch red ants, to sniff the smell of their unjust death, to spot spider webs, to count their strands, to choose a leaf for a wipe when done, to listen to the birds, the toads, the crickets, the thoughts. And like a wild animal, to be intimate for a while with one’s land.
Perched on the stump under the crimson sky turning purple, Jogi stared over the faraway barbed wire that he could only faintly see. The distance diminished its menace; it looked like a work of weaved threads, each quadrangle a motif of downfall.
He ached for the felled forests, the choked river, and its raped lush. He felt a throe as he recalled the once verdure land, the variety of food they had, and the skies that upheld essential promises of rain and sun.
He was purblind towards the emerging engineering, the patrolling soldiers, and the exterminated old world. He failed to understand the language they, the powered, spoke, the papers they showed. They were strapping men, in clean clothes that smelled like crushed flowers. They made chicanery promises for the benighted. They had force and they wielded it. They bought valleys and rivers with fishes in it. They had a purpose and the audacity to carry it.
At a time when Runool was an outlying valley, it was intact and sheltered by Chittal, Goromat, Lethi and Aachim, all mountains and remarkable. No road was laid, no visitor probed, mainland was only a notion. Food grew on the banks of the river, beloved Yaami, one of eternal flow. Large groups of wild gaur roamed, muscular beasts that traversed the terrain, they invoked myths of forest and man. Up in the mountains so did the big cats, tigers, leopards. Vultures were aplenty; at the scent of death they shot to the spot like arrows from ether. Dead cattle vanished as soon as they died. Dead people too, if they were out in the forests. People were few, clans of tribes. There were brawls but no wars. Jogi remembered from his youth, long nights of celebrations for full moons and espousals, of dancing and singing, drinking and feasting.
Men didn’t cower as they did now, they walked light, they sweat, and they laughed. Women were inviolable unlike now, they were unabashed, and they were proud. Children that survived were hearty and they were green. Elders had their voice, they didn’t waste away in corners of grime, stooped and omitted, hanging wretchedly for death. Wisdom was real.
The trees had the right to their leaves, their twigs, and their fruits. The river had the right to its lull, its rage. The sky had the right to its sun, its blue. The earth had the right to its seeds and its roots. Animals lived as people lived, and people lived as gods did. None owned another, inconceivable thoughts for the now.
Freedom was costless. Justice too.
The sky over Kimthi had turned purple. Jogi heard faint water sounds; the women were washing themselves in the toilets. The toilets in Kimthi were government-initiated, pursuant to one of its sinuous spawns, Mission Clean. Missions were many, but Jogi knew, had learnt the hardest way, that their blows were all the same. Nobody escaped, some perished.
They, the show masters, combed through forests and valleys and villages, tidied their contents, the trees, the rivers, the cattle, the people, and their beliefs and vestiges of dreams. They collected the treasures, discarded the surplus. They tiled over the grass. Built over the hills. The poor were brushed aside like dust, they lay in a pile waiting to be scooped up and dismembered. But during the wait, the ones in Kimthi had the toilets and the tin huts, a refuse-lump universe.
Before the river was forbidden to its people, the women used to flock to the river to bathe, they took the children too. There they sang between laughs, there they reveled in gossip, and spent hours together. And back home they came radiant, robust at heart.
Jogi slowly stepped off the stump; he had stiffened from the sitting. He floundered along the rows of tin-huts. Some women were hunched out, cooking. Evening smells of meager meals permeated the air. Boiled lentils, rice.
Mangoes, cucumbers, bottle guards, tomatoes, potatoes, fish no more. They too were combed away, uprooted, erased.
Jogi moved towards what he had grown to dread.
They were stodgy concrete structures shaped like ugly boxes, four feet long, five feet wide. For the nineteen families of Kimthi, there were four such boxes. They had drains but no taps. On days when the water pump squeaked without water, (an irony, as it was on the peripheries of the dam, which plighted more water, not less), the boxes stank with swimming shit and bubbling urine. Their sources of light were narrow vents, four slits like squeezed giant eyes. Strips of light pierced them in the day and at night, only absolute darkness.
Jogi entered one of the toilet-boxes, in the dark, he was as good as blind but his nose flagged up to the reek. He breathed through his mouth, stripped and squatted. Over the months of his blocked bowel syndrome, his stomach had hardened as a rock. He was desperate to loosen it – to retrieve his appetite for food, to sleep, and to breathe easier. It was his very own version of Mission Clean. It was not out to kill.
He grunted with the effort of trying, of pushing. It brought him recollections of Prabata years ago, his wife, pushing out their son. She had grunted and wailed for hours before his birth.
He had been grunting for months, a wail was brimming too. Somebody was banging on the door, he called out to wait and the banging stopped.
And Jogi tried again. Nothing.
Runool was first infiltrated with roads. It was years of ordeal, to mutate the terrain in ways that nobody prior it had thought possible. They sliced, carved and bent familiar acreage. Through the sliced up gaps, like molten lava, in seeped the mainland and its tumult. Language altered, demeanor too. Money came in, biases too. Greed was tapped, woken up and tested, proved.
The careen towards ruination of Runool and its people, for a long time was kept under the guise of reform. It dazzled, people believed, really believed. Until it seared and then it was quite too late.
Lethi and Aachim were quarried and finished. Goromat, the tallest, was touristic. After years of ransack, Chittal was a declared reserve, and its kosher foresters expelled. Jogi’s behemoth, Runool’s people’s behemoths took roots and sieged their hearts, first as fury, then fear, and as dying men’s vehemence.
Jogi settled in front of his hut. Lilly, his son’s wife was stirring a pot of Kanji, rice gruel. Even after the wash, her cracked heels retained the dirt. Her hair was wet, and dwindled. She had borne two, both girls. They were running about, both were still young, seven or eight or nine. Like the other young men, his son would appear drunk in a while. Some nights he beat his wife. Some nights he didn’t. Jogi never raised a word; he presumed it not his place to meddle.
Soon after the toilets were built, even before the valley was altogether barred off, the women began their use of the toilets. In the valley unlike before, lurking dangers hid behind bushes. They pounced on women, and they devoured girls. Women were no more inviolable; they harbored fear.
The aroma of Kanji was making him sick again. A shooting pain cut through his innards. He clutched his gut and sat still for it to pass.
Beside the hut, and before the adjacent hut, Lilly’s black dog, Kaki Kaki, spun around and round. His four feet spry and tail stilled. Like two dense mountains, his ears stood tall. Golden marble eyes rapt and mouth clasped shut, he whined. His brown-back a convex; on the earth he snuffled holes. His cold dark nose trembled. After about a dozen spins, he froze. Legs apart, posed like a squirrel, he pooped. There was climactic exultation. He buried his deposit with sand in a few swift hind-leg kicks. He bounded about like a hare. Then he jogged away.
Freedom was still costless for some.
Lilly offered Jogi a bowl of gruel, which he declined. She muttered something. She was always vexed. The girls ate, Lilly waited for her man to arrive. Jogi unclutched his gut, the pain had passed, and the urge was back again.
He walked back to the box as fast as he could. It was not very fast. Not fast enough. Inside, in the dark, he was back at it. He trembled with chagrin.
From the reek he stepped out. For a moment he was pacific, but soon sheer impulse overran him. His desolation had summited. He moved like a reigned horse, an old lurching horse. His berserk behemoth was the jockey.
It was a reckless resolve, not steely, doltish. Nonetheless, the resolve was set. Jogi was going to trespass. He was going home. To the dammed, cemented and raped river valley. He was going to walk the land, and to rest on the soft earth.
There was an utter lack of plan. The soldiers might deem him an infiltrator, an insurgent. They may shoot to kill. He may die. He was willing to die, he realized as he walked. He had lived a long life, a pathetic one for the most part. Death was welcome.
Behind the tin-huts, it was a swamp, and piles of rubbish lay in heaps. In the dark, he walked over strange textures. Soggy, squeaky, supple, sharp, he was barefoot. Few feet away a street lamp was lit, it was over the fence. The barbed wire looked as uncompromising as ever. The gut-cramp returned and tightened.
Exhaustion swept over him and he waded like he was under water. It was after an unreasonably long plod that Jogi found a passage. He could hear voices of men. Soldier men. Leader men. Men who smelled of crushed flowers.
Over the fence, in forbidden territory, in the wrenched homeland, he sought darkness. He slinked as he could, away from the risen buildings and voices of missioned men, from the lampposts with lamps lit, from felled trees that left gaping stumps, from alien-like transformers, from thrumming current generators, from smells of fumes. Jogi was steered to the heart of the valley. Fading, moribund spaces of Runool’s core, where the moonbeam was bright, and owls watched over. Where the fireflies romanced, the bats too.
Jogi knew, his bowels too. He was home. Altered, broken, perhaps dying, but home after all. And that was monumental.
Beneath a silver oak that crooned to the night sky, Jogi stripped, squatted and stilled. The crickets grew loud; their social ousted all other noise, all vibrations of babel. The blades of grass had dew on them, little beads; each cradled a moon. A ladybug was spotted, and another. The lovers in polka dots, they scurried along over their earth.
And it happened, the much-awaited milestone.
Jogi’s bowels moved. His heart raced. It was sudden, the long suspension of months, the indisposition, simply vamoosed. He waited for more. There was more.
Then there was climactic exultation.
Privately, intimately and fervidly, freedom was briefly won.
A Bakula leaved wipe, and sand burial later, Jogi walked further into the night. He was elated. It felt right to be home.
He glided towards the sound of water. His feet pressed against little stones and waned leaves. He had found a slender stick, smooth, primed by the wind. He swung it as he walked to clear the cobwebs in the path, to tenderly stroke the tall grass. His body capered to the familiar rhythm, to the ingrained melody.
Way before he caught a glimpse of the water, the mammoth engineering loomed over him. The massive dam was higher than what Jogi could perceive. It barred the moon’s shine. He walked and walked until the water surfaced. It was inaccessible, walled, barred.
Jogi lingered, he was pleased to be near it, trammeled as it might be. It was not Yaami, he was certain, but its morphed avatar. The dam was a macabre tomb of a once worshipped river.
He wondered if the water was cold. He wondered if the water was still brisk. Jogi lay back on the soft, wet, weeping land. The sky above was cloudless, clear, stars were scattered. The sound of water against concrete felt thick to his ears. No crystal clear pebble rocking was heard.
After months, he was hungry. He craved for millet roti and spicy onion chutney, for fish; fried Pearl Spot or curried Tilapia. Some rice beer and few long drags of smooth chillum. Some banter, some laughter, and a promise for a new day, full of sun and happy sweat. His youth. His valley.
Then inevitably cleaved in the thoughts of the tin-hut, of the rice gruel. His son must have arrived. He may have thrashed his wife. Jogi closed his sunken eyes; they fluttered under the lids, two shaky globes.
They were demolished people, Jogi knew, he and his children. Their minds were in disarray. Inside out. Upside down. Ulta-pulta. Life was going backwards. The world was imploding. Turning vacuous. Men were infantile. Children were greying. Rivers were entombed.
The night was still young. A jungle fowl cried.
Jogi wouldn’t go back to the tin-hut, to the refuse-lump universe. He would breathe through the night, dance to the rhythm of his ephemeral freedom, sing to the trees, and fondle the breeze, wander, wonder, fly, and away.
As long as he breathed, he would be free. As long as he breathed, he would be human. And then he would become a bug, or a pebble, or a fish, or a cloud. He would become an improbable truth.
Jogi’s behemoth roared.
Anagha holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Communication and a Diploma in Screen and Media Studies from Sydney Film School, where she won the Best Screenplay Award for her work titled Maya, which later she directed as a short film.
Anagha is a documentary filmmaker who currently lives in Kerala, India. She is a writer by night and hopes to work her way to becoming a writer by the day.