Inside Bhajadhari Kushwaha’s home in the village Budher, Singrauli District
"Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one's definition of your life; define yourself."
- Harvey Fierstien
An overwhelming sense of uncertainty prevails amongst the people of the forest, as their fate is yet to be determined. Will they be forced to succumb to the pressures of a seemingly higher, authoritative power or will they eventually win their battle and be free to live as all human beings should?
The men folk remain busy on the field, women are laughing and chattering gaily amongst themselves while working hard through the day, children are running around, climbing trees, playing with rice, stones and enthusiastically pitching in to increase the day's collection of mahua. Their lives are dependent on the fruits of the forest. I step inside their home and witness what occurs during a day in their lives. The stunning beauty of the forest is reflected in the inspiring souls that inhabit the space.
During the mahua collection season, Bhajandhari Kushwaha's home in Budher is buzzing with activity. Close family from surrounding villages arrive to help with the collection of mahua, a portion of their gathering will be taken home once the season is over.
Bhajandhari Kushwaha's wife begins her morning with prayers. Before she begins she tells me, "Never ever does a day go by when I forget to pray, the all mighty above helps us get through each day and assists us with our constant struggle."
Aarti looks after baby Pritam, while Somwati and Kalawati have their lunch.
Anita, Bhajandhari Kushwaha's daughter gets home after collecting mahuas. An extremely active member of the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti, she has travelled to Delhi and Mumbai to speak up about the issues faced by the forest dwellers. She says, "The only way we can get the word out is by communicating with people in other cities and having people experiencing other realities come to our home and witness what we go through each day. Where will we go if our lands are forcefully taken away from us? There is no such option; we will non-violently fight against Essar till our last breath. But, I believe we will find peace."
Jai Prakash, Anita's husband collects water. In a bid to earn a little extra money, he works at the Essar Group power plant from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Post 3 months of working there he still hasn't received his salary. "They promised to provide education, hospitals, training in the form of driving, masonry, sewing lessons for women. But then what happened? Nothing. These are all different techniques of winning us over and taking away our land."
Young girls Pooja and Aarti sit inside Bhajandhari Kushwaha's home drying mahua.
Bhajandhari Kushwaha returns home after collecting mahua and takes a small break in the afternoon, while the girls settle down after helping out with chores and playing in the field.
Rupa, one of the girls living at Bhajandhari Kushwaha's home during the mahua season, washes dishes after lunch.
Swati takes care of baby Pritam while his mother is away collecting mahua in the afternoon.
Women from the Mahan Sangharsh Samiti visit Bhajandhari's home in the village Budher.
Chinamati and her daughters Aarti and Swati come every year to Bhajandhari Kushwaha's home during the mahua collection season. "Our biggest fear lies in the fact that maybe this could be our last season together? The reality of our situation scares me. In a few months we may lose everything, but as a woman, I believe we are strong and we will never give up our lives to those ruthless people (the company)."
The entire group of women who are presently living in Budher in Bhajandhari Kushwaha's home, during the mahua collection season.
Young Lilavati is a prime example of the complexities women not only in rural India but all across the nation face. She tells me after glancing at a picture I took of her, "My sister and my cousin don't think I'm beautiful, they think I'm ugly because of how dark I am. So they do not spend much time playing with me." The obsession with skin colour runs deep and has adversely affected her personality; she's shy in large groups, is reclusive and refuses to open up to most people.
Bhajandhari Kushwaha, along with the children in the house. "What they don't realize is, their idea of 'development' is not our idea of development. We, the forest dwellers, ensure our children are educated, they are taught Math, Science, English and so on. All my life, I've grown up in the jungle and called this home. Aren't these people (the Essar Group company) educated enough to know that the more trees they cut down the less oxygen we have to breathe! And then problems like climate change and global warming will only be accelerated."
An older cousin brushes Rupa's hair after she's dressed.
Images and writing by Shashwati Shankar, a volunteer with Greenpeace India.