Read an excerpt from Devashish Makhija's Oonga: 'There are places in this forest where the sunlight cannot reach'

The story is set deep within the conflict of the adivasis, naxalites, the CRPF, and a mining company.

Devashish Makhija February 23, 2021 14:09:04 IST
Read an excerpt from Devashish Makhija's Oonga: 'There are places in this forest where the sunlight cannot reach'

Filmmaker Devashish Makhija transitions his film Oonga into a novel of the same name, which sits deep within the conflict of the adivasis, naxalites, the CRPF, and a mining company. The book is being launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival on 28 February at 1 pm.

The following excerpt is reproduced here with due permission from Tulika Publishers.

***

There are places in this forest where the sunlight cannot reach. Where the trees close their green fingers tight and hold their wooden arms out to shield the ground from sight. The wind doesn’t venture into these parts. The air hangs about silently, crouched like a beast of prey, ready to pounce on any strange whisper and carry it noiselessly to the ears of the guardians of this forest.

The softest creak of Hemla’s pedalling echoes off the treetops, skims off the surface of the stream, and slithers into the dark belly of the jungle. Hemla knows it. She passes through this place often, on her way to the anganwadi where some tense, troubled adivasi always awaits her help. Hemla pedals faster. Nothing scares her. Least of all this deep dark jungle. She too was born of the same earth these trees grew from. She is a part of them. And they, an extension of her. But she doesn’t like delays. There is so much for her to do, in so many villages. She’s always short on time. If there’s one thing that annoys her a little about her brothers and sisters, it is that they have no regard for Time. The adivasis move slowly. But the cityfolk move at express speed. And it always troubles Hemla that it is this difference in speed that might become the adivasis’ undoing. It’s not their fault, but when the world is changing this fast what can one do but try and keep pace with it, or fear being crushed under those giant giddy wheels.

Hemla doesn’t like to pressure her people to change their ways, but deep down in her heart she knows that to survive one must adapt. Even the wild beasts do it. In Hemla’s book, adaptation and justice are two different things. She will not fight that creature the cityfolk call ‘development’, not entirely at least. Some things development brings could be empowering. But in bringing these things, the adivasis’ legal rights cannot be compromised. That’s where Hemla draws the line. But on some days another thought haunts her. What rights do these trees have, if the cityfolk make all the laws? And if all these laws are of humans, by humans and for humans, what chance does a tree have? Is it fair to force a tree to make way for a road? A railway line? A building? Who fights for the trees?

It is when this thought grows inside her like a slithering vine that Hemla feels fear. Fear for the loss of goodness. Fear for the loss of kindness. Fear for the loss of green. Fear for the loss of life itself. Fear for all the things the trees give. For all the things the trees are. She fears for them. In turn she fears for her adivasi people. And for herself.

The trees know she feels this way. And they encircle her protectively.

But in doing so, they shut the sunlight out.

And the jungle becomes dark.

As Hemla turns a sharp bend she squeezes her brakes hard! Her path is blocked by a grim teenaged boy in a dusty bottlegreen uniform, a transistor radio slung across one shoulder, and a large automatic rifle across the other. From below the rust-red bandana around his forehead a large old burn mark travels down the side of his face, over his neck, and disappears 50 ] into the collar of his shirt. This burn mark has excavated the flesh along one side of him. It seems to have healed, although the fury it birthed has not.

The boy reaches for Hemla’s cycle with his hand to reveal that his hand is burnt too. Beneath his shirt then must be a burn that travels all the way down his side. The pain that it wrought must be unimaginable. The anger that it left behind must be unimaginable too. Hemla, though, is unperturbed. She recognises Linga. She lets him grab the handlebar from her. He takes the cycle to one side, drops it into some foliage, out of sight.

When he turns he sees Hemla hasn’t moved yet. He says in a low, almost emotionless voice, “Amma wants to talk to you.”

Hemla is statue-still. She doesn’t like unnecessary delays. “About what now?” she asks, revealing some of her exasperation.

Linga doesn’t enjoy dialogue too much. He just points the gun at her, and watches her, waiting for her to start walking.

And, taking a deep breath, she does.

*

Hemla walks ahead without hesitation. She knows the way. Having crossed the stream, she turns left to climb the bank, when Linga stops her with his rifle. He points in the opposite direction. At first Hemla looks puzzled. And then she understands. The jungle-lok don’t stay in one place for long. They need to keep changing their coordinates. That makes it difficult to hunt them, even for the most experienced foe.

The slender forest path cuts away from the stream, and without warning cuts back towards it, where Hemla walks past a silent figure scrubbing a green uniform in the water. The figure pauses to watch Hemla pass. Her hair comes undone. It is 51 ] long and lush. And falls like a stream down her shoulders and back. She would have been a beautiful sight, if the large blood stain on her green uniform was not there to puncture the beauty. She goes back to her washing.

A pair of wrinkled eyes silently watches Hemla walk past. They look like the eyes of the past. So wise and cold and fearsome they look. They belong to an old woman, noiselessly peeling potatoes in the dark behind a tree.

Turning up the bank, Hemla spies a very young girl stitching a tear in another green uniform. The uniform must be her own because her legs are unclothed. Her legs are skinny but dark and muscled and strong. She snaps a thread with her teeth as she watches Hemla walk past. There is a vacant familiarity in the look they give one another, but the familiarity stays unacknowledged.

In an orderly pile below a tree are stacked several rifles like the one Linga bears. A young boy, no older than Oonga, pours oil into the barrel of one of the rifles and proceeds to clean it with a long reed stalk. His hands are too small to bear the weight of the rifle easily. So his brows are knit, his focus unwavering. He concentrates on his chore so hard it makes Hemla’s heart break a little. She betrays some recognition of this boy too.

Hemla can hear a low chanting now, “1… 2… 3… 4…” and she sees about half a dozen children with heavy rifles in their little hands practising to
1 Load
2 Cock
3 Aim
and 4 Fire
their unloaded rifles. On ‘4’ they all pull the trigger with an empty but frightening CHHUK.

Hemla knows these little ones. She remembers a time not too long ago when those little fingers used to be covered in chalk dust, not rifle grease.

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