by Sindhu Rajasekaran
It is said that our river Namida was once a woman. When her husband, the river Sompura, touched her for the first time on their wedding day, the turmeric that covered her body fell to the earth and made the colour of our forest mud yellow.
I rub some wet mud on my cheek, then on my legs. ‘What are you doing?’ Lado’s last words coil around me like a snake, hissing: ‘Stories are lies.’
He is right. The paste is not as soft as turmeric. But this is what I do. I search the forest for stories. Imagine their colours and paint them on our walls.
Our tribe has always respected the painters, because our paintings are messages to the god of our mountain. We weave our prayers into our paintings, hoping the stars will turn in our favour.
But Lado doesn’t believe in the gods and says there is no secret magic in the skies. He and I have known each other all our lives; when did we start to think different?
I thought we were one since the day he gave me a chipna in front of the elders. I wore the hairclip everyday and never did I take a gift from another. I tried to see life through his eyes. Although, untrue to his word, he has strayed away from my arms.
I pull out Lado’s chipna and let my long hair hang loose. Our women aren’t supposed to let their tresses hang this way. It’s only done when there is a reason to mourn, or when evil spirits possess.
‘Mahua!’ I hear Pitti Pusika call my name.
My wicker basket is not even half full. There are some persimmons, but not enough bamboo charcoal. Pitti will be angry with me. ‘We are to start making paint today, and there isn’t much time left before the rains come,’ Pitti will say when she finds me. My fault is not small at a time like this. I have forgotten my duty when every stroke of colour matters.
Pitti is not only my aunt, she is also the elder who teaches me how to paint as my ancestors did and I can’t have her see me like this.
I walk in the direction of Pitti’s voice, toward a jumble of creepers. I will tell her later that the many sounds of the rainforest muffled her calls.
Deep in the forest I sit under a tall sal tree and let soft hill winds whirl about me. My thoughts wander back to the past, to a time when everything glittered like pale gold dust, when Lado said I was his.
Was my love too deep, too much for him to bear that he had to leave me hanging on to tenuous memories?
I can’t allow myself to wither away thinking of him. But the thing is that it’s his cruelty I miss, his stinging words. He said that I held him back; that his future was elsewhere.
Lado is not the only one with dreams. I have mine, to find new meaning in every curve, every colour, ochre, indigo and emerald.
A series of sharp sounds pierce through the thin mountain air, and through my thoughts. I run toward the edge of the hill listening to bulbuls screech in alarm.
They have begun their work for the day.
Over the hill, across the plains, there are big metal machines that cut down trees. They are inching closer towards our mountain god, Bali.
And Lado, he works for them now: the outsiders and their machines. Stories might be lies, but birds always tell the truth. We were both taught as children to listen to the birds. Lado might have forgotten but I still do.
I look to the darkening sky as I listen to metal implements clank in the distance. Hypnotic voices of women sing in celebration.
The asadh rains are here
O how they disappear!
Like his love, do they come only to go?
Pitti Pusika isn’t singing, but is seated outside her hut far away. She will be upset when she finds out I haven’t collected enough charcoal. Our paintings are important, I know, but can they stop those machines?
Maybe Lado is right about stories and our ways. All our songs only speak of things we feel and see, what we believe. We do not understand the world beyond our jungle borders.
Three years ago Lado and I smeared one anothers’ bodies with vermillion during the same festival. We hid among long grasses. As roaring thunderclouds broke in the sky, I gazed into his honey-coloured eyes. He breathed my name as I drew him into me. We were one when the first cold drizzle fell.
But he must be lost now in the other world’s charms.
‘The sky doesn’t look right this year, does it?’ Lutni Majhi asks.
With a shudder I turn to Lutni, the headman’s wife. She has three gold rings on her nose and sacred sandalwood marks on her forehead.
Gathering my messy hair I mutter, ‘I saw those machines today.’
‘You should paint them so our Bali Raja can hear us,’ Lutni whispers, clasping my shoulder tenderly with her thin fingers.
Although it was Pitti who took me in when my mother died without naming a father, Lutni was the one who sang me to sleep. Lutni was the one who gave me my name, Mahua – the wild flower. She has been a mother to me.
‘I will paint,’ I assure Lutni and look toward Pitti Pusika’s hut.
I must help Pitti make her paint. It’s not like us to silently watch plants coil, curl and char.
Just as I make to leave the clearing, drumbeats stop all of a sudden. Men and women drunken with the wine of palm and mohul flowers stare open mouthed at one another.
‘Why are we here?’ Kumity Majhi hollers.
Dazed, everyone walks toward Kumity, our headmen. His face is covered with a painted mask of bullock hide. Lutni stands behind her husband.
‘We dance at this festival of Raja Parbha to celebrate the rains, the hills. But they have disrespected our ways and our gods. With bulldozers they want to take the rocks from our mountain,’ says Kumity.
He has told me many a tale around the hearth, secrets about our people and the forest. Why leaves wilt and the clouds roll. I listen to Kumity’s words because they are true.
‘It is because of the mountain that the rains come, the winter comes, the winds blow. If they take away the mountain, we’ll all die. We’ll have nothing left to dance and sing for.’
Impatient to get back to the celebrations, many grumble under their breath. But Kumity continues speaking. And I notice Kumity’s nephew, Gada, inching closer to him.
‘We need to fight,’ interrupts Gada, stroking the ends of his short, curly beard.
Why does he always provoke?
‘They want us to sign their papers and give up our forest rights,’ Gada informs us in the loud and knowing tone of a newly recruited red. ‘They won’t take away the city people’s estates or mills, but we tribes are second grade to them. We must fight. Annihilate them!’
Kumity nods his head in approval as Gada further elaborates.
How can Kumity support this? He’s the one who said that life, any life, human, beast or bird, all must be respected, and that every death is sacrifice.
Pitti has told me terrible stories of fights, of children killed in their sleep, of women held captive, of rape. It is hard enough to watch trees fall to the ground, should we put ourselves in front of bulldozers and lose our lives?
‘I know our tribes have fought wars in the past, but should we again?’
My throat dries up even before I finish speaking. Everyone has turned to stare at me now.
‘Whose side are you on, Mahua?’ Gada asks, his bloodshot eyes peering into mine.
Something about the way he looks at me makes the little hairs on my neck stand up. Like worms slinking on me.
‘This is our home, and we will not let them take it away from us. We must fight for our honour,’ Gada addresses the crowd, still gazing into my eyes.
My insides shrink in anger as I think of all the times Gada has sniggered and scorned at me.
Gada thinks he knows me. For he and I, we played together as children. He was witness to things I did back then that still haunt me. Nightmares of shrieking kittens that I stoned, the dragonflies whose wings we cut, the tortures we inflicted on little creatures of the forest, the burden of memories that I suffer.
But I’ve changed. Gada hasn’t been a part of my new life. He probably thinks I’m pretending, that deeds cannot be undone, that I’ll always be the girl who watched squealing kittens die with her eyes wide open, indifferent to death.
The dung-covered wall stands empty.
I draw the outline of a machine with a piece of charcoal. Fill the insides with dots and dashes of sooty black.
By green jungle trees I frantically draw some figures in red, with bows and arrows and ideas.
Then I think of Gada. How could he question my allegiance? What right does he have?
Gada claims to fight for our people, but really he’s only fighting for himself. The eel of power has entered his heart, just as crabby money has settled in Lado’s. Why do these men lust after unreal things?
‘You should be careful of what you say,’ Pitti’s shrill words pierce through my paralyzing rage. ‘An unclaimed woman must watch out for herself.’
I don’t need a man by my side to speak my mind.
I smudge some soot on the red figures oblivious to Pitti watching me.
‘Don’t let shadows fall on your imagination,’ she says and walks up to the side of the hut where I stand. Her dyed fingers point to the figures.
Looking into my eyes, holding my gaze, she whispers, ‘Nothing that breathes is born with a black heart, Mahua.’
‘The reds want to kill.’
‘Only to survive.’
Pitti usually never looks people in the eye when she talks. I have her eyes, I realize. Like glimmering black beads, always searching, flitting about. Maybe I’d end up like her. Alone.
‘Even our Namida loses her temper sometimes,’ says Pitti.
When Lado left, I did nothing. I didn’t curse or blame. I only cried. Would it trouble Pitti if she knows I’m not as strong as her?
Does she know that my thoughts still meander towards Lado, that everything reflects a trace of him? The machines. Bali Raja. The jungle. The sky.
She is time.
Like the river she flows
Drifting, then raging
Till she disappears – in numbing cold
I sit by the river, listening, humming.
After the rain stops, the robins sing a strange sad song. It has been three moons since the celebrations.
Many have changed their minds after Sana Sikaka, our representative, visited us. They have chosen not to fight and are to sign those papers giving up their forest rights. Sikaka has promised them a new life in the resettlement.
Why would Sikaka want cruel things to happen to his people, I ask myself. After all, we chose him to represent us.
But to whom is he representing us? Even Bali Raja hears our thoughts directly. We ask for rains, for honey, for life, and he gives it to us.
The outsiders cannot play god.
Lado’d say the outsiders could teach us how to take charge of our lives and not depend on the moods of the earth goddess and Bali Raja, or the winds or the rains.
Still, I did not agree to sign.
Gada and the reds were not around to see it.
Vermillion reds. They shout and shoot just like the soldiers of their enemy’s army. But they’re fighting, after all, to save our people and our jungle.
I see that persuasion cannot stop the outsiders from devastating our mountain. Neither can my paintings. Pitti always said that where there’s land, there’s war. There is truth in that.
Perhaps it is Gada that’s really my problem, not the reds. I do not trust him to lead our people. Only I know Gada’s wilful nature. He can bring out the worst in people. He can make them revel in it.
It is true that as children we gathered roots, kissed and hugged one another and counted silver stars in the night sky. But as we got older, we moved apart instinctively. We saw something sinister in each other’s souls. All of a sudden, the sweetness of friendship turned into cloying hatred, threatening to betray at any time.
The tribes have taken Gada’s side, swayed by promises. But little do they know they’re being deceived; the outsiders are too powerful to defeat.
All their efforts are doomed.
Raindrops sparkle mistily on the leaves above, yet I’m thinking of horrible things. What am I to do now? Where are the guardian spirits of the forest? Have they been bulldozed, too?
In that moment that I shut my eyes, ‘Mahua,’ I hear my name. I know that deep, sonorous voice.
I can smell him, that scent which singes me, that of garlic. But I do not turn around. I won’t.
Lado stands in front of me now, his proud frame inching towards me.
I have so many hurting words to say, they all rush to my head at once, but nothing leaves my lips. Only hot tears fall from my eyes.
‘I had to see you.’
As I listen to him say the words I’d wished he’d say for so long, I slowly look at him. My silence smothers me till I spill like a fallen jar of beads and speak the two syllables of his name, ‘La do,’ sounds that stir everything in me, everything between my thighs.
For a moment I see his honey-coloured eyes darken, and I know he’s still mine.
‘What do you want?’
He was never good at saying feelings, but he tries: ‘We can heal our wounds. Mahua, I…’
New tears well up in my eyes, I slap him and push his dark body to the ground. Too much time has passed, and I have collected plenty of pain. He can’t make it go away.
‘Why didn’t you come see me?’
‘Gada and Kumity think I am their enemy,’ Lado replies as he gets up, dusting his city clothes.
‘So do I. Gada says you inform the police.’
‘Inform?’ he asks, and without answering my question he sneaks away with his words: ‘You always saw what I saw. You always understood.’
I did, all those afternoons when we breathed each other’s breath. But not after he broke my trust, not after he started to harm our gods.
I get up and start to walk away. But he follows me into the thicket.
Lado never had patience.
He rushes ahead of me and pulls me to him.
I let him hold me. An old urge pushes me to press myself closer to the familiar groves of his body.
He may have forgiven himself for what he did to us, but have I?
Informers lurk among us.
Watch what you say.
Nobody knows I dreamed Lado’s dreams last night.
Digging my toes in slushy mud, I stand holding the banner I made. We’ve stood here on the hill road since daylight shouting slogans.
Kumity walks up to me in a hurry, his nose swollen like a wild boar. I panic. Even before I choose an appropriate expression, ‘We need you, Mahua,’ he says and walks away.
He hasn’t talked much to me in weeks. Why now, why this?
Kumity then goes to the front to Lutni who stands facing the police.
Our people haven’t brought any weapons: no knives or axes.
This protest is meant to be a final warning to the outsiders to leave us alone.
The slogans get louder as a white vehicle swerves in the curve of the hill road. It stops in front of us. The short Sana Sikaka gets off it, smiling, waving.
I clutch my banner tighter, and bend my head to a side.
Lutni is the first to speak: ‘Baligiri amaro atman. If you take these rocks, we’ll die. We’ll lose our soul.’
‘This is for our development,’ Sikaka persuades her calmly.
Taking off his black glasses, Sikaka questions Kumity: ‘Why are you making trouble? Is it because you think you have the reds’ support?’
‘You can take my life but I won’t leave our mountain, I will fight,’ Kumity declares, his nostrils inflated with meaning.
‘You fool. You don’t understand the world,’ Sikaka admonishes Kumity, and turns to the rest of us and warns: ‘If you listen to this madman and the reds, you’ll end up rotting in the jungle. If you sign, I’ll see to it that your future is secure. I have the authority,’ but he stops as someone throws a stone at his foot.
‘Who was that?’ growls Sana Sikaka, ‘Show your face if you are a man.’
Sikaka’s men raise their guns and trample the mud around us with their hard leather boots. I shudder as they point their guns at us. I’ve heard that gunshots are like arrows at lightening speed.
Kumity has chosen to trust the reds. Must I?
‘You better listen to me you haramzade, or you’ll see what I am capable of,’ Sikaka grumbles in the city people’s language and leaves in his noisy vehicle.
‘Nothing is yours till you sign your name on it,’ says Lado, as he hands me some blank sheets of paper.
‘Why must anything be mine, it’s all ours, all our stories start with… when man and beasts and stones and birds spoke as one,’ I remind Lado, and wade through the water to the other side of the stream.
‘Mahua, we have been ignorant. Things must change,’ Lado tells me.
How many times have I heard that word: change. As though the kadamba bud opening its petals isn’t change. The city people say that our clothes are torn, that our food is not good for our bodies, and they want us to change. The reds want revolutionary change. Lado speaks of other such, of building in the city, of creating large structures.
Lado. Lado, I pronounce his name.
There’s no magic. Only some flickers of feeling, the last embers of a dying fire.
‘You can do so many things in the city, watch movies, take photos…’
‘These trees and waters are our home. My home,’ I utter, as I imagine living far away in a busy city with Lado. Seeing new places. Hearing strange stories. Painting on paper.
Why is it that I only think of strokes on a wall, when I could sign my paintings and call them my own? Perhaps Lado is right. We have been ignorant.
Although, right now, what bothers me is that Lado was the first to sign his name and sell his share of the forest. He is going away to the city. Many of the tribes are. He is asking me to do the same.
‘Lado, you have betrayed our people, our ways.’
‘Mahua, this is not your fight.’
‘It is. They are trying to take away what is ours by birth,’ I cry.
‘What is ours by birth is each other.’
How can I trust Lado’s words? His head is full of crawling, devious vines.
I know that all those who choose to stay must sacrifice, but I will stay. It’s the right thing to do.
‘Gada and Kumity have poisoned your mind. You owe nothing to Kumity, he is not your father,’ he yells.
Kumity and Lutni cared for me as though I was their own. Kumity might be wrong about the reds, but his intentions are good.
‘The machines have poisoned your heart, Lado,’ I say, looking away.
A quiet cloaks us both as we realize that we’ve always been on opposite sides.
It’s too late to cross.
I sink, quickly,
To the bottom – he let go.
O frantic elephant of the forest
Come, march on the lotus pools of my grief, my fate.
A barrage of policemen and their friends, men in marijuana green uniforms who call themselves soldiers, have taken over. They are here to ask us questions. They want to know who killed Sana Sikaka’s men.
I heard that Gada planned it, that spineless leech did to them what we did to dragonflies as children. He trapped and burned Sikaka’s men alive.
A true warrior fights fair, looking the enemy in the eye. What does one call this terror? But Kumity has long left us to stay in secrecy with the reds, fight on their side, and abandoned all persuasive methods.
One of the policemen is standing on silky grass at the edge of the mango grove. He is staring at my breasts.
With gritted teeth I stare back at him. His fat swelling out of his tight clothes, there are puddles of sweat in his armpits.
‘Tsk,’ he clicks his tongue and scratches his crotch with his gun saying, ‘We don’t get such items like you in the city.’
I clench my hands and wait for this to be over.
‘I know you will be the one to tell me everything,’ his beetle-stained lips mouth slowly as he bends closer to me.
The stale stench of his sweat sears the air, and I pray for the sky to fall on his head. Bali Raja, listen to me.
‘Who did it?’
When I say that I know nothing, he bashes my face with his gun. It tears the skin on my cheek and leaves my jaw throbbing. I look around for a known face through my twitching eyes. They are beating everyone up.
I won’t inform on anyone.
Another blow. A kick.
‘Ask the reds. Leave us alone,’ I moan.
Unconvinced, he whacks me once again.
The air is thick with invisible rain and my heart is heavy with unfelt ache. It’s suffocating.
Lado wasn’t there when I coiled up on the ground alone, hurting. I suppose he owes me nothing. Love evaporates, that’s its nature.
I lightly touch the bruise on my face. Everyone turned away from me after the police left, untrusting, even Lutni. Some stared at me with threatening eyes. Only Pitti, my aunt, came running to me and applied turmeric on my wound to keep away the pain.
‘Ask the reds,’ I’d said.
Apparently we are all reds now, all of us who chose to stay back in the jungle.
Days and nights whir in and out.
Explosions rage through the woods. The army is in search of reds in the jungle. And everyday we cremate dead bodies, of reds, of old friends. There is no honour in death of this kind, none.
There have been no gunshots this morning. I can vaguely hear the babble of mountain streams far away, and such times don’t come often anymore.
I get out of my hut to breathe some wild air.
There is an eerie silence in the jungle. No sounds of chirping crickets or croaking frogs, only the rivers flowing outside their boundaries. Where are the tiny tailorbirds?
Shadows form in the skies. A sharp twinge in my heart tells me I must panic.
The sound of ruffling leaves. Leather boots.
Gada barges in front of me. I shudder.
‘You listen to me,’ he snarls, twisting my arm.
‘You bastard! Let me go,’ I scream, try hard to wriggle out of his grip, kick at him and fall.
‘Dare tell the police a word about us, then see what I do to you.’
‘Which us?’ I ask, to spite.
‘Your people, you ungrateful bitch,’ he says, pinning me down among burned ferns with his bullock body.
Blood rushes through me like venom, it singes all my senses.
I think of the stones I threw at the little sleeping kittens and their shrieks. Gada pushed me to do it. To test how far I could go.
‘Who are you to tell me what to do?’
He slaps me across my face with his hard hand, and spits on me, mocking me. I know he remembers the cold interest on my face while I stood watching the kittens die.
‘Hijde,’ I sneer in the city people’s language, ‘You are no man at all.’
There are no men left, they’re all cowards. But then, I’m a coward too, unable to reconcile even though I’ve already chosen a side. I despise Lado and Gada for their misplaced certainty. I don’t belong to either of them or their ideologies.
Maybe I should’ve left with the others who signed their names, with Lado.
Every time the police come, they question me alone for long hours. With their guns pointed to my head, they softly touch my open wounds saying, ‘You poor girl, why don’t you come away with me?’
I know they’d shoot me if I resist, so I bite the insides of my lips till it bleeds instead. Shameful. I cower in the hands of vile beings, when every nerve in my body tells me to bash their faces with a rough-edged rock.
The reds are right to fight. Nobody wants to sit by and get humiliated. But when is it right to kill?
‘Mahua,’ Lutni speaks my name that she gave.
There are no marigolds in her hair today.
‘Be careful of whom you love and what you say,’ she whispers, her milky white eyes looking straight into mine, ‘The war has begun, Mahua. Be smart. Be afraid.’
Tears stream down from my swollen eyes. She must think that my heart still beats for Lado, that I’d do anything to protect him.
But what difference does it make whose side I’m on anyway? The reds and the police and the machines, they all destroy the forest.
Lado did nothing wrong. He only told the outsiders things they already knew. But he killed me inside, that’s his crime. He is a murderer, but then, so are Kumity and Gada, and I.
I look to the sky, and pray, then scold myself. The sky has no secret magic. We are all alone.
As I burn in the pyre
The beginning of the end
Your love and my death
At nights, the skies roar with the distant sounds of guns. Reborn sounds of childhood nightmares, cats mewing, wails of dying men and women fill the air. I stay awake through the darkest hours, watching explosions in the sky, tiny stars falling over the sal treetops.
Everyone has decided to help the reds, even Lutni, even Pitti. There is nothing, nobody left here that understands me. Maybe I should have left when I had the chance.
‘You need to choose a side to fight,’ says Pitti.
This is not my fight.
I lay huddled in my dark hut, like a rabbit in its hole.
A sudden noise at the door jolts me. Is it the police or the reds that have entered my home? My heart pounds as I strain my eyes to adjust to the dark.
‘Mahua,’ he hisses.
‘What are you doing here?’
I know it’s him only because of his bloodshot eyes.
‘Saali,’ he curses in the city people’s language.
I try to scream, but Gada cups my mouth with his hard hands.
His heavy body against mine, his fingers strangle my neck.
He says, ‘Come to me you wild flower. You whore. I’ll show you I’m a man.’
A lone tear falls down my cheek. There’s a rush in my head, there’s a knife under my pillow.
I try to push him away using all the strength I can gather. But he slaps me till my face goes sore and removes his clothes.
‘You called me a hijde?’
Smells of earthworms creep into my nostrils. My head is heavy with anger and fright. I cannot move.
When I see him charge towards me, with his hairy balls hanging, there is an explosion inside my head. My hands grasp the knife under my pillow, quickly, softly. I hold on to it, tight.
He smashes into the knife. His eyes flicker.
In a flash I stab him again, and again.
Blood oozes out of his bare chest. He totters and falls to the floor.
I crawl close to him, tuck some strands of my loose hair behind my ear and with eyes wide open I watch his features draw together in pain.
He jolts, and my fingers instinctively grasp the knife sticking out of his chest, and turn it, to cut more.
He provoked me, that stubborn creature.
I dip my cold hands in a pool of his grimy blood and walk to the walls. Paintings of machines and gods whisper to each other. I smother streaks of red on every message to our mountain god, Bali Raja.
The time has come for me to go, to run.
I feel no flow of misery as I cross the borders of everything I know, into a chaos of blinding lights and sounds, holding his gun, ready to shoot, to fight. Who?
The god flew.
The revolutionary flew.
Change meant nothing.
Sindhu Rajasekaran is an Indian writer and filmmaker. Her debut novel Kaleidoscopic Reflections was longlisted for the Vodafone Crossword Book Award in 2010. Sindhu’s short stories have appeared in the Asia Literary Review and Elsewhere Lit, and her poetry has been anthologised and published in literary magazines. After earning a master’s in creative writing from the University of Edinburgh, she wrote for the stage and the screen. She recently co-founded Camphor Cinema and produced an Indo-British feature film Ramanujan. It was screened at various international film festivals including Norway’s NTFF, where it won an award for best production.