Sitting in the dark, in the field, on the mat, surrounded by tendu leaves left to dry, blanketed by a calm starry night sky, and a sudden flash light on my face breaking my serene moment. "Pehchana? Aafreen hai!" And right then everything was pleasant again. They remembered me! Not just by my face, but my name too.
Only once had we met some months back, when they had all come after a two-days hectic and risky journey to a city with a culture so alien to them. They had so much on their mind, had so much to do, so much to learn, and had met so many new people, but they still remembered one of the many volunteers who had come to join their struggle and the fact that they remembered me proves that yes, I Am Mahan! One of them, their friend, their family and their representative.
After travelling for two days, I was looking forward to a slow day. But after we reached Amelia, the intense travel seemed worth it. Kripanath ji spots our vehicle and comes running like a young kid with hope and vigour. He comes and greets us with one loud and clear Zindabad! Joins us and takes us to the field.
There we meet a few more villagers who were drying their tendu leaves, and one of them runs and gets a mat, a glass and a bucket full of cool water from their earthen pots I suppose because when they offered the first glass they said, "pee ke dekho, fridge jaisa thanda hai". They have been fighting for years but every time they see us, the volunteers and their beloved Priya didi it seems like they have seen a new solution. When I informed about the love and hope they treat us with to a friend back in Mumbai, he said, "This propels me, this makes me sit up and work," and that is exactly how I felt when I looked in these hope filled eyes too, LADENGE! JEETENGE!
We all started finding things to do, some sat in one place waiting for people to come and sign petitions, some went walking around informing about the petition they must go sign, some were capturing the moments on their camera. Phizzy and I started helping the villagers in placing their bundles of leaves to dry. They made blocks of 10 rows and 10 columns. 50 leaves made a bundle, which was sold for a rupee. It was a fun activity in the start, trying to do it as fast as I can, but then the back ache started, the calves started giving up after completion of just 7 blocks and I realised how it is not very fun, especially when you have to do it day after day, from 4 pm in the heat till 9-10 pm when you need torches to see anything.
These are hard working people, fighting for what is rightfully theirs and singing their reassuring slogans -
"Kamane wala khaega
Lootne wala jaega
Naya zamana aayega
Naya zamana kaun laayega
So my energy came down after the 8th block and I went and sat on the stones with some village kids. One of these kids had a plaster on his hand, when enquired his friends told me he keeps falling and breaking his hand every now and then, must be one naughty child, he was sitting silently around me, but something about him was giving away that he is surely not this calm normally and must be creating a hell lot of ruckus.
Then my attention shifted to this cute little infant in her green and yellow frock. Rangeela, the chomi girl. I asked them to pass her to me, I made her sit on my lap and all she would keep saying were random words that sounded like chomi, I asked the kids what it meant, and they just repeated the word and started laughing, so now this was one of those moments when you are sitting amongst a group of people who speak a different language.
Then later I got to know it meant nothing even in their language and they were just messing with me. But chomi was a catchy word so Rangeela and I, two bored souls, were just calling each other chomi. Then we tried saying em-ma and puj-ja.
I met Deepchand ji, he is one powerful activist, even a casual talk with him is like listening to a moving speech, we spoke about how the company is coming up with new cheap tactics, but they are fighting back strongly and will not let their land be mined. Then we came to a lighter topic, I asked him how many bundles of leaves he has collected, he told me around thousand. We spoke a little more then I started walking towards the team again, spoke to few more people on my way.
One told me how the company sent their CSR lady day before, the women told her they want to work and she is disturbing them but she went on about why are they killing themselves in the heat where as the company can give them compensation, when one lady got irritated and said don't be a hindrance in their work time, then the CSR lady curtly replied mind your own business, I am not talking to you. The audacity of that woman to say something like that to these people on their land is infuriating to me, but these villagers are better than me, they didnt let it affect them, they are too humble to care about her snide comment.
I walked further and saw my Rangeela playing with puj-ja. I joined them, Pooja left to get some work done, so I had Rangeela all for myself, she walked towards me and I took her in my arms, where she rested her head on my shoulder and literally within a minute, she was fast asleep. I rocked her, patted her back and was walking and talking to people untill I got tired and sat on the mat and made my tiny love sleep on the lap. I was fanning the flies away with my dupatta and watching her sleep, she looked oh so precious to me.
I was sitting and watching people come and give their thumb print for the petition, one came running, did the loudest zindabad of the day, he said that he feels sorry he can't attend many MSS (Mahan Sangarsh Samiti) meetings off late, because his wife passed a month back, and the three kids back home are taking up most of his time, he added that he makes sure that if not him, then at least his elder son attends the meetings. He gave his thumb print and rushed back and everyone sat in silence for a while.
It had gotten dark now, and I was worried about who to give Rangeela to, and right when I put my worry to words out loud, I got to know her mother's sister's daughter was sitting behind me and waiting when will I hand over the sleeping chomi.
We left after some 45 minutes, everyone came to say bye, by which I mean Zindabad. Till the end there were people coming to sign petitions so we had to wait inside the car while others signed on the bonnet of it. Till the moment car did not move, few villagers kept talking to us and were reciting slogans and we would join them. We bid farewell and said that we will meet again. The car moved, and everyone who recognised our vehicle kept shouting Zindabad till the village was left far behind to even spot in the rear view mirror, but all is fine till the time they are vivid in my mind and my heart.
Aafreen is a volunteer with Greenpeace India.