Tulsi was also ready to work now. She had learnt enough in life and was not going to let them slip away again. She had been more inclined to handle tasks like truck operations or dam work. She was now a tough taskmaster.
All three children had shown rapid improvement in health. The small baby boy had become happier but Muniya was still indifferent. The psychologist thought that she had suffered physical abuse, mostly indiscreet beatings and touches, while her mother was away. She had picked up the foul language of Delhi streets to show her aggression whenever she felt outraged. She still didn’t trust anyone other than Tulsi. She didn’t want to study and did not mix easily with other children.
But look at God’s designs. Of all folks, she trusted Rehan, the violent. And he trusted her. In a brief period of begging together, they had become each other’s comfort.
Her and Rehan’s behavior was a matter of concern for all. We understood that time would heal them, but had no clue what we could do to help. The psychologist gave suggestions that probably worked, but too slowly. There was no visible change.
Then one hot day in May end, the nature dropped the answer, at its great cost. I was also visiting the village then. Two chicks of a rare eagle species were displaced from their nest, and had been hiding around the village. But to their peril, they were on the ground and still could not fly. The eagle had also lost hope on them, and probably left.
Village children spotted them, and after a while, Nagbaba wrested them from the children and took the chicks in his care. While we sat discussing the lucky charm they were and how to feed and protect them, Muniya was also present. She displayed great curiosity about the chicks. I told her, “They are separated from their mother. If we don’t take care and feed them like the eagle mother used to do, they will die.”
That got her going. Others took the cue and got Muniya involved. Nagbaba assigned her the duty of checking the chicks and giving them raw meat every two hours. She also learnt how it was to be done. An expert was contacted and he advised us not to feed any animal that had been injected or had been domesticated. So only wild hare meat was chosen. It was hunted and given every day.
I remained hooked to the village that month. Muniya was de facto made the in-charge. The villagers played their part in this real life drama, asking her the status of the chicks. Muniya was totally involved with the chicks. Within fifteen days, she had become her old self. But, the hard part was now coming as the chicks started flapping their wings, and testing their limits.
Nagbaba prepared her, “It’s time for them to go and fly with their mother.” He would repeat this to her many times. She would have many queries, prominent being, “Will they completely forget us?”
It was a tricky question. To hope that they would not and answer thus would be setting an unrealistic expectation, and to state what we considered the truth would break her heart.
One evening Muniya was in tears, arguing, “They will have to live with us. Please don’t let them go. Once they realize how much I care for them, they won’t leave.”
Different folks would give her varied reasons. One would tell her that the birds were made for flying. Another would explain that love and care cannot be for selfish reasons.
I told her, “Muniya, everyone that comes has to go. We can’t choose the time. But if you worry too much about their going, you will not give proper care to them and do your duty. And then you will feel bad about it.”
Nagbaba would tell her, “They would watch us from a distance and feel grateful. But we should not encourage it, else some they would think all humans are alike. Then some hunter will lure them. For their long life, we have to let go in a manner they don’t feel burdened with our love.”
I listened to these conversations intently and learnt so much from them. All of us were improving as persons. The children envied Muniya; it was beyond them to figure out why she got the coveted prize.
One fine day, one of the chicks gathered enough will power to fly to a high branch. Looking at it, the other also tried hard and made half way up. We observed from the distance. Some water and food was left for them near their cardboard nest, just in case they return. But they did not.
They had flown to get settled in nearby areas, leaving after healing themselves and Muniya.
Nature has its ways of healing trauma. It showcases the struggle and success of life and love against all odds. Participating in this struggle itself is a great healer of souls.
From that month, Muniya participated in her mother's work, and started taking her studies seriously. She had left her demons behind. Like every hut in the village, he also had a few pets - a dog, a cat and a calf and hen, almost a dream team for any child. No one would have been more elated than me.
Rehan was a slower case. Change in Muniya was going to have a good influence on him. He had stopped fighting for food since now that was assured. But that insecurity lurked deep inside; only superficial conditions had changed.
He was still feared by other children as a demon child. But he had started worrying about Tulsi and Muniya and his baby brother. That was a strong ray of hope. With this bonding, now there were two more folks who would heal him.
In next few weeks, many pieces moved on the ground. In the skies above, winds moved to bring first signs of monsoon.
Vedi had been getting restless about the stop dam heights and their placement near the paths. He had done many rounds of the villages and tried to find a solution with us, but bringing heavy machines and breaking stop dam walls was beyond his or Sardars’ strength. The entire population was going to get violent against them if the newly made water sources were harmed, that too in peak summer.
We had postponed the act of denying illegal truck operations. The thinking was that anyways our dam overflows would create a new situation that looked beyond Vedi.
In midst of that tension, one evening a couple of old men came to the village to meet Nagbaba. I had not seen them before. They had rich dresses, and looked of Rajasthani descent from their earrings. Instantly my mind went to Piya. I remained in the Trust compound and asked Piya to remain inside the hut.
Soon, Nagbaba called for me. He said, “Bhaiya, Raja sahib has sent these gentlemen. He requests a meeting in the temple.”
I asked, “Any purpose you know of?”
Their leader said, with haughtiness, “You speak to Raja sahib only.”
Like last time, a meeting was scheduled the next morning at the temple. That evening Piya was restless. She asked, “Who is this Raja sahib?”
I replied, “Do not worry. Last I knew he was connected to Dau. His name is Vikram Singh but is also called Bhanwar Bana.”
She said, “Bhanwar Bana is a title meaning eldest son. The title means his forefathers came from Rajasthan. They have traced me here, and will harm you. You should not go tomorrow.”
I said, “Don’t worry, I know this fellow. He is a characterless drunkard, and has acted on someone’s behalf. He won’t be willing to pay the cost of harming me or anyone.”
But she was adamant. She said, “He may be useless but he may have contacted staunch folks from interior Rajasthan by making up some cause. They still believe in 16th century norms when it comes to girls, and would even kill for it.”
I said, “We will know the reason only tomorrow. You can also come along and remain out of sight.”
Then I went to inform Nagbaba about Piya’s apprehensions. Now we made more elaborate plan for the next day. On some hunch, I sent a messenger for a prominent lawyer to be present there.
In the morning, I, Nagbaba and the lawyer went to the temple premises. Tilak and many others remained waiting in Amma’s premises next to the Temple gate, while Piya and a many folks remained behind the nearest bushes. Two SUVs had arrived and parked outside the premises. Raja Saheb and seven men had come, but they waited for someone. A third vehicle arrived carrying, to our surprise, Mr.Thakur.
All of them entered the Temple premises. Raja greeted us cordially, “How are you folks?”
I said, “Good.” Nagbaba remained silent.
I smiled to greet Mr.Thakur but he seemed rigid like when I had met him for the first time.
Raja sahib introduced two men. These were different from the yesterday visitors. These two had come from Jodhpur. Other men were Raja Sahib’s accomplices.
Then he said, “I have heard that a girl named Piya is being forcefully detained by your group, and lives in Nagbaba’s village. These two men have come from her ancestral village and have come to take her back to her family.”
I smiled, and said, “Yes she is living and working there but out of her own will. She will be here in a while to confirm that. Let’s hope these gentlemen are known to her.”
We sent for her. It took a few minutes while everyone remained silent. I could see the anger in her eyes for these men, as she entered. I signaled to her to calm down.
The lawyer narrated the purpose to her. Then, with Mr.Thakur’s permission, everything was recorded. Then Mr.Thakur said, “You need not be afraid. I am the topmost police officer here. These two men have filed a complaint that you have been detained here. Are you living here on your own free will?”
She replied, “Yes. I don’t know these two men, or this Raja. I would like to make a reverse complaint against these two and this Raja of mental harassment and intimidation, due to which I had to leave everything and find shelter here.”
No one, including us had anticipated her strong reply. She was really angry.
Mr.Thakur said, “You will need to come to Police station and file an FIR.” Somehow I felt he was trying to intimidate her. I said, “Let’s go now to file it.”
Raja immediately intervened. He said, “Bhaiya, the confusion has been cleared. There is no need to stretch the matter. We will leave now.”
I said, “No, we are still confused who these men are and what is your role in leading them to this place?”
Raja now became aggressive. He shouted, “Okay, go file an FIR. Nothing will happen. These men and Mr.Thakur are all on this side. This girl has broken the village tradition and fled from marriage. It doesn’t happen in our community. She will have to return.”
I said, “What she does is her concern? And Mr.Thakur is a custodian of law, not of your ancient practices.”
Mr.Thakur asked everyone to calm down, and close the matter here. He asked the lawyer to submit an affidavit from Piya. Then he ordered Raja to move away with his men.
Once they left, he sat with us and asked, “Why do you want this trouble?”
I asked, “Which trouble?”
He said, “Tomorrow if she marries you, they won’t accept it, and create problems.”
It was a huge disappointment to hear Mr.Thakur say such a thing. Mr.Thakur was as educated as me, and served a prestigious service. Probably, it was quite hard for him to let go of his caste roots.
I asked him, “Sir, have you read the famous story ‘Namak ka Daroga’?”
He said, “Yes.”
That sufficed. I didn’t say more. The reference to the story meant ‘You have to be true to whom you serve. If you don’t believe in the law, then leave this service and be like them.’ I attributed my stand to the reading habit – the forcefulness came from Gandhi’s and Ambedkar’s views and many such writings.
Mr.Thakur had left the higher moral ground by not registering our complaint that day, and letting them off. I knew he was aware of it.
Then I told him before leaving, “I strongly suspect that Dau has triggered this puppet.”
I had reasons to believe it. I explained it to him. Once Dau would have realized that direct confrontation could misfire, he was using indirect methods including issues that could emotionally upset a community. A girl being detained or having fled her home was a potential issue that could even affect the tribal villagers. In such cases, rumors rather than facts move. It could also lead to separation between me and tribal villagers. That would serve Dau’s purpose.
But for Mr.Thakur, it was a triangular tension. In one direction, his duty and morals lay, in another his ego and insult, and in third his upbringing and deeply ingrained social system.
My take was that he would go with his duty and morals, simply because he had chosen a career in public service. He had the burden of that salt. Had he been an ordinary person, he would have gone with his ego and insult, and had he been a politician kind, he would have gone with the ingrained social system.
He acted as I predicted. Next afternoon, when I went with Piya to file the affidavit, he met us. He looked relaxed, having mulled over the contradictions in his mind.
He said to Piya, “You are free to live anywhere or marry anyone but be cautious of these folks. They hide behind the garb of tradition and community but in reality they are feudal in nature and are trying to protect their vested interests. The poor villagers get overcome by their logic and emotions.”
I asked him, as he served tea, “So which side did you choose?”
He said, “I will be with the law. That’s my love. But not every official will have that clarity unless faced with the situation to make such choices.”
I smiled and replied, “At least you have a clarity; I am not even trying to figure out.”
He said, “It’s about time you found a new career and moved on. Else one or the other thing will keep happening here. These guys will always remain backward.”
I said, “The time will come soon, but not for the reason you suggest. Things happen here the way they do because they get triggered somewhere else in Mumbai or Delhi or abroad. There would be no illegal mining trucks or log felling or sand thefts if some big corporate somewhere is not trying to cut costs or making profits. Someone would be consuming it and some analyst would be manipulating the stock price based on insider information. So wherever I find a career, the pyramid or chain is not going away, only my place in it will change. All I am trying to figure out is how to keep maximum value here. The problem is I have an asinine rigidity against making deals with likes of Dau or Agarwal or Sardars. And folks like these form a kind on layer that has to be crossed. Then there will be new layers.’
He said, “Quite interesting,” as Piya looked on with Child like amazement.
Then I vented, “In that process of discovery, I am pursuing a Doctorate in how to survival and grow in India. Without this degree, rest of the education has a limited value.”
He asked, “When can we expect your education to be over?”
I laughed and said, “At this rate, I will get over before achieving this doctorate.”
We came out of the premises, and returned to the village. That evening itself, Amma quarreled with both of us. Her contention was that we should get married. Both of us were unsure fearing what fate it would bring to the other. Nagbaba also supported Amma, saying, “Fate cannot be larger than the Life, and it has brought you two here.”
With that gentle banter, we decided in favor of it. I decided not to call anyone from outside. Without giving details of any expected problem, I informed everyone about the planned ritual, including my parents, Tara, and many others, and they all were pleased about it.
So next week, in a small tribal set up made in the Trust premises, in the simplest of clothes and without a Brahmin priest, we got married. So began our married life, with a lot of worries and care, and a bare hut. Meanwhile, using the available wood and other resources and Piya’s imagination, a home unit was created that had kitchen, drawing furniture and other urban features. The home became a matter of great fancy for others. That temporary structure, over which we had no property rights, became our paradise. It made us settle down for a while.
Before long, the news reached outside world, particularly Raja Sahib. Now he had more ammunition to fire people’s imagination. He got a lot more elders from his community camping at his palatial house. Their errand was to annul the marriage and bring the girl back home. Since the law was not on their side, and the social norms in this region were much more equal towards women, he again spread the rumor that Piya was forcibly made to marry.
This time no police complaint was made but many influential villagers from various communities were approached privately, and fed the information.
Then he sent a messenger to Nagbaba to come to the temple and hand over the girl, citing consensus from all the villages in the area adjoining the forests, and beyond Sohagpur. Nagbaba was adamant of not listening to him but I thought otherwise.
I said, “Let us accept what he is saying. Not responding or avoiding him will only help his cause. The cover over his lies has to be taken off; in front of everyone he is quoting. We will call everyone to witness the handover, and then it is up to Piya.” She was expected to give a statement loudly to all assembled.
A couple of days later, we assembled at the temple. Similar security arrangements were made like last time. About two hundred folks assembled from nearby villages, some called by us and some by Raja. Another crowd of hundred curious tribals also gathered. They were all seated in the open grass adjacent to the temple compound. The compound was used like a stage, so that everyone could see and hear. About five men appearing from Rajasthan were seated in the front row. Then the show started.
Raja gave a long speech, first about his ancestors, reminding about his jamindari days. Then he talked about the wrong that would happen if women were forcefully detained, and his role in taking everyone on the right path. Somewhere he praised Nagbaba for playing a fatherly role and upholding his request.
I looked on from the sides, along with Piya and Nagbaba. A lot of curious eyes kept staring at us from the crowd.
Then he called Piya to come to Stage, and Nagbaba to hand her over. It was like a staged drama. I noticed that normally bent old figure of Nagbaba, was straight and tense. As it was, he had a long held antipathy towards Raja, and now he had another cause. It appeared to me that he would strike Raja with all the force his forest bred hands had, and finish the antipathy today.
Before that, Piya reached the place where Raja stood. Then, everyone heard a loud slap, and then he received a punch. Raja tried to harm her but Nagbaba twisted his arm from behind and pushed him to a fall from the podium. Some tribal men lifted him and took him aside for further treatment.
No one had said anything to assembled villagers, but the truth was now apparent. They became hostile to the visitors from Rajasthan but the tribals escorted them to where we stood. They had genuinely come from ancestral village of Piya. Raja had done all the research and found the place and called them.
Tilak asked them, “What is your issue now?”
One old man, unafraid, said, “We have no relation with this girl, but if she breaks our tradition, more girls in the villages will try to be independent. Tell us, how can we allow that?”
Piya shouted at them, crying, “Why do you even marry women and give birth to girls?”
He still pleaded, “We are not criminals or cruel. We won’t harm her.”
I told him, “That may be true that you are not violent folks. But by law and by our social norms here, you will be acting like a criminal.”
I continued, “See what happens in your homes and villages in none of our business. And once you are out of that place, your will won’t work. You go back to your homes and tell whatever story you want to. If you stay for long here, this Raja will only bring harm to you.”
I, in my naivety was leaving them like that. But Nagbaba intervened. He said, “Bhaiya is soft towards you but our history is full of treachery. You guys will come with us. If you want to leave this area, make a promise that none of you or anyone from your clan is going to trouble her again.”
They were reluctant but saw no reason to continue this episode, and were ready to pledge. But one old man was not ready. I asked him, “Why are you stuck?”
He said, “I can’t make a promise on others’ behalf.”
I said, “Okay, just make it on your behalf.”
He said, “I intend no more trouble to her or to you.” He continued, “Times have changed. Someone stopping us on this matter was unthinkable twenty years back. Even police helped us.”
He seemed a nice gentleman. I said, “I feel sad for you but traditions based on fear or force have to go one day. They held when you guys were rich. Now the world order has been changing fast. Either you dictate its direction or soon your views would have no place in it.”
That little discussion allowed the bitterness to evaporate. Then those guys left. Since they were now our guests, some gifts like fruits were given to them and sent away.
Raja and his men were held back till the dark. We didn’t know what to do with them, so Bajrang and his team made them work in the field around the temple all day. Then gave them a parting treatment and left them.
On our way back, I asked Nagbaba if these men would keep their promise. He said, “They are good folks, without any guile or corruption. They never break their promises, even if given without anyone knowing about it. Even their next generation will be bound by their word given to us.”
He continued, “You gave them an escape route to go back and tell whatever comes to their mind. But these folks don’t even lie to anyone. They will narrate things without twisting facts. I have seen them from childhood.”
Piya agreed with him. She said, “You should not have asked these folks to lie. They will see you in bad light back in Rajasthan.” I said, “Agreed. I thought they would happily accept the given exit. I have to unlearn a lot of things.”
It was a six mile walk through the forests and we preferred walking to a bullock cart ride. The monsoon clouds that were in the distant horizon in the morning had now enveloped the skies. In the forests, it appeared a lot darker than it was in open spaces. The sight was frightening with lightening falling at a distance. But we walked unconcerned, rejoicing over the outcome. Nagbaba walked in front with a few others, and some folks followed us. He instructed us to keep away from Mahua trees and we would be safe from lightening strike.
For the first time, I witnessed so much activity in the jungle. Odd blue bull pairs ran across, as did some wild hare. A young black buck even followed our trail for a while before disappearing. Hordes of Ants, monkeys, everyone was busy; unconcerned about the others. They all prepared before downpour started.
By the time we reached the village river, first large drops started coming down. The river was already gaining flow and depth; it had rained in the mountains. Quickly, some large bamboos were collected, and ropes were made of wines. A rope bridge was laid with the help of folks on the other side. We crossed the 100 feet bridge, one person at a time. By the time all crossed, the downpour had become heavy, and the river almost touched the rope.
Completely, drenched and with muddy feet, we reached the hut home in the Trust premises. There also, we got limited respite as the hut leaked at many places. There were many dry spots but there was a fight for possession going on between various types of insects, and even newborn snakes. I wondered how folks lived here in monsoons. But Nagbaba sent a solution with a man – three hen with young ones, and one cat. I was delighted but Piya made a puking face, “They will get to eat in plenty and immediately leave the droppings all over the place.” She had forgotten about the original problem.
I laughed aloud, “They will also sleep in our beds and make sure no snake creeps in.” Now she was more upset at this scenario than all the insects around.
The three hen and team got down to their work happily. They won’t be able to roam around freely for days or weeks now while it rained and remained muddy. So this was a great opportunity. The cat patiently lay down in a warm corner, waiting for some eggs to come out. It could not afford to directly take the eggs and upset the hen as their harmony and mutual trust would be disturbed. We had to collect the eggs and give some to the cat. That’s how many financial systems worked.