Sanjay and a Hoopoe:
Jhuni is a strange place. A bumblebee flies high up in the skies and believes he will turn into a little bird someday, a turtle dove sits on the topmost branch of an oak tree and gazes down upon the world just like a killer hawk does, and the locals talk about a time when an invisible river of milk flowed from the Kautela mountain.
Sanjay lives in this village in the Ayyar patti, the dark house, so named by his neighbors. His father is in jail, serving a sentence of twelve years. He was born soon after his father’s incarceration. His mother has no money. Nor does his family. Sanjay is the brightest boy in my class. This is the story of Sanjay and a hoopoe that I had given him to draw and write about. But before we come to that story, a little bit about how we all landed up in this story.
We were leaving the village of Khati after four years of continuous teaching work and seeking even more remote villages where the school system was by and large even more ineffective. And besides, Takuliji, our herb specialist and mentor to Leafbird Foundation, was very keen to have us in his village. So off we trudged; Billie, Bela, Medini and I, to teach in the government school of Jhuni for a fortnight.
Takuliji, like all pahadis, was a good liar. He kept telling us rather incessantly, that his village was just a thirty-minute climb. We ended up trekking for nearly four hours through dense, broad-leafed forests. A forest that remained mercifully untouched by the British administration and later by the Indian government and therefore had not been subjected to pine cultivation. He also merrily forgot to tell us that we might encounter a few big cats or even a bear. Some parts of the climb were treacherous and the gurgling Sarayu river below demanded at least one dead body. Death into her seemed inviting enough but, had to be stalled for the moment. The older students of the villages do this trek twice daily to go to college in Supi, at the base. There were stories of strange encounters with wild animals. But that I shall leave for a later date!
Takuliji is a man of an uncertain age somewhere between seventy-five and eighty-five or maybe two hundred. Or maybe even as old as the hills, who knew? His dark skin was burned in the mountain sun and creased with wrinkles left by years of hardship. All the way up he told us about the trees and the herbs that grew in this part of the Himalayas, showing us parts of roots and leaves that cured most of the diseases in his village and flavored their foods or relieved them of their aches and pains.
The villages here, according to Takuliji, were inhabited a few hundred years ago by pastoral groups who perhaps came first from the plains with their herds to pasture in these green hills, but later settled down to farm the land. Today however the migration is towards the city and one will find very few young men in the villages. Those with government jobs or shops or crafts skills survive here. The rest either migrate to Delhi or Nainital. Some do a brisk business of the marijuana trade, others are a part of racket to procure keedajadi, a strange worm looking fungus with a black tail (is it a tail?) that they say fall from the trees onto the soil and fetch a king’s ransom in the markets of the not too distant China border. These are eagerly consumed as an aphrodisiac by the Chinese. What this plunder portends for the Himalayan ecology must best be left to the environmentalists!
The school in Jhuni overlooks a breathtaking view. Below in the valley, one can spot the Sarayu, a thin shiny sliver of a river, in the afternoon sun. The lammergeiers rise from the valley below riding the thermals, flying high up to the mountains and finally disappear into cattle carcasses that have lain in the sun for a few weeks. These are the last of the vultures that will descend upon the remnants of life. A short shale wall divides the school from the fall below. Children from all the surrounding villages come to the Jhuni school, some traveling over many kilometers of the hilly terrain. They all come smiling to the school, eyes full of mirth and expectations, with torn sweaters and pants, held up with safety pins. The girls are much cleaner than our boys here. But that is to be expected!
After almost four years of assisting Billie, I was given my own class to teach birds and art. But Billie was within earshot of my class and perhaps she had finally begun to trust me. The only frightening aspect of this camp was that I was to teach the fourth grade. A class that never seemed to sit in one place or be quiet! How can children be this young and in school, I wondered. Billie was as harried as I was. But we have lived to tell the tale! We both had around twelve to fifteen children. The first week was uneventful except for the fact that on the third day our perfectly fine school came tumbling down at the hands of some roguish looking workers. A change in the contractor, following a change in local political leaders, had landed the school with funds to tear down a perfectly good building, and to build a new one which would, in these parts, have taken a few years. In anger we thought about all the good things that the school could have acquired with the additional money, including a bit more dal on the rice in their midday meal. But the powers that be had other intentions.
So, we sat out in the sheds and took our classes. One day there was a terrible hailstorm and with so much hail coming into the makeshift class, that we were all wet and shivering and the children desperately swept the floor to keep the hail out. No walls meant no class! At least that day. Sanjay swept the hardest keeping the hail off Medini and me. He held Medini’s hand tightly over the slippery slope on the way back home. I marveled at this little kid. Billie knew that I was already quite partial to him and she just did not approve. He never batted his eyelids even once in class nor, did his attention waver. He sat in meditative silence in every class, following keenly every word, move, or thought I had. And he was always the one to answer every question correctly. He remembered the word supercilium quite easily when others in the class merely resorted to pantomime for that particular part of a bird’s body. He even memorized the English names of the birds; Verditer, Flowerpecker, and the Griffon vulture, although Hindi words were also used. You had to hand it to him, he was the most brilliant kid in Jhuni or anywhere else. After a while, I only taught him, blissfully unmindful of the other snot-faced little monsters! Billie looked more and more disapproving, so much so, that her serene face displayed a scowl every time I began with – Sanjay did this today, Sanjay did that today.
By the second week, we had completed the identification of bird body parts and also our bird watching field trip. Most of the kids had learned how to identify local birds, their habitats, their diet as well as their habits. Two parts of the module remained – drawing the bird of your choice and telling a story of the bird drawn. All the children could choose any bird they liked to draw and color. Billie believed that the only way you really see a bird is when you see it on a paper, learning to size its body parts and picking the right color of its plumage. So, one lovely summer afternoon the children sat out on the meadow and drew their favorite birds. Sanjay had picked a hoopoe. Not just because it was bright orange and the color of the sun, but also that we often saw a pair hover around the massive oak trees in the school. Sanjay would look up at the topmost branch of the tree, wince, smile briefly, and go back to his sketch of a hoopoe on dancing legs.
That week we had two new entrants in the class. Minnie and Mahesh, children of the school inspector, who also happened to be the landlord of the house we were staying in. He had been very concerned about the state of the school and had removed his children from the government school and sent them to a private school in Chandigarh a year ago. They had returned for the summer holidays and so sat along with the other children. In a year they had begun looking quite different from the other kids but were very well mannered so as not to make the others feel the difference. They were given owls to draw, as these were the only ones left out from all other birds. We let the kids explore and as has been my experience, each child brought his own personality to the bird so much so that we could see the bird in the child, or even the child in the bird! Little were we prepared to face the tirade from Minnie and Mahesh’s grandmother when she found out that we had given her grandkids an owl to draw.
She handed us our evening tea and settled on the floor below, hunched and deep in thought, she suddenly stood up and walked up to Billie and me. “Do you mind if I tell you something”, she said. “Why did you give my grandkids an owl to draw?” she asked.
Billie said, “Because it was the last bird left and the kids had accepted it quite happily”
She hissed and sniggered, “You are all like that! The doctors in the hospital made ullu out of us in the city, and even in the school they made ullus out of our children and now you people come from the big city and give my grandkids an owl to draw? You think you can fool us forever?” she thundered.
We had not enquired how the owl could be held in such contempt in the village. We knew about the other superstitions but this one took us completely by surprise. We did not want to ruffle any feathers and so promised her that we would immediately give her grandchildren another bird. I wasn’t too keen on the idea, but Billie said its best we respect local traditions. But canny as she is, she took up this matter with the kids’ mother, Gita. Gita was taken aback and said she said didn’t agree with her mother-in-law’s ideas. She said, “An owl is like any other bird. Why must one differentiate? Just like monkeys and porcupines, they all exist in this world. They only come to our fields to eat because they are hungry. How can you be angry with them?” And this from a woman who worked hard, from early morning to night, in the house, verandah and the farm, and knew full well that the land did not yield enough for her family. She was ready to share what little they had with all the compassion of a mother. Nevertheless, we changed the bird for her kids the next day!
We were just recovering from this nasty encounter when we heard another bit of information. But before that, let me tell you the stories that the kids wrote about the birds. Billie had many reasons for asking the children to write stories about birds. Some she has revealed to me; others I will never know! Billie works in the most mysterious ways. She believes that kids retell ancient stories of their villages and someday will become storytellers in turn. So, the kids wrote some stories. Most of them wrote about how a sly hunter came upon a group of birds to catch them but was outwitted by the birds who flew off to freedom. Some tricked the hunter with their sweet talk, others pretended to be dead, but free they all were from his evil grasp!
It was a great session that day with everyone listening to each other’s stories. I shall keep Sanjay’s story for the end. Some carried their story telling out of the class too. One told me that if a shadow of a griffon vulture fell upon you, then you would fall off the cliff. Billie overheard the story. Both of us had spent some time watching the vultures and perhaps their shadow had fallen on us. Two days later we were to climb down the village. Both wondered which of us would fall off the cliff. Oh! The terror of it all. The little rascal added, but if you waited for a week more, then the curse would wear off. Yeah, yeah, we believed him.
Another came up and said that if a flying vulture spat on you, you would get lots of money. I asked him quite innocently if vultures did spit on humans. Yes, they most definitely did. That’s how some of the villagers got rich so quickly! He chuckled.
The stories were becoming more and more fantastic and to change the subject, Billie asked the kids about their village. She asked what their fathers did for work in the village. They said – Dinesh’s father was the shopkeeper; Inder’s father was the dhami [local priest]. “And you Sanjay, what does your father do?” she asked. He kept quiet and looked away. Ravinder said that he was in jail. I was shocked. I thought this was another of their stories, but he said that he most certainly was.
We did not pursue the matter till evening. Over a drink of the local wine that Takuliji had specially brought for us, we learned the truth. Sanjay’s father had one sunny day, transported another man’s charas, almost 3kgs of it. The man who was otherwise appointed for the task had called in sick that day, so Sanjay’s father volunteered. He was promised two thousand rupees for the task. As he climbed down the mountain, the local police were waiting for him at the base, clearly on the basis of a tip-off. He was asked whether the maal was his. He swore it was his. He went to prison for a period of ten years and an additional two as he could not post bail. That was the story of Sanjay’s father and after having recounted it, Takuliji looked somber in the yellow light of the evening. I concluded that like Sanjay, his father was indeed brave not to have revealed the name of the real owner. Billie thought he was a fool to have gone to prison for another man. We both looked at Takuliji, who retorted, “Oh don’t grieve for him, he is a rascal! He has been running quite a successful operation in prison.” I felt great pity for Sanjay.
None of us did quite understand what Sanjay felt. He was unwilling to speak about it. For once, he had no answers. But perhaps his story might shed some light on his feelings. I have gone over his story many times and now with a heavy heart I recount to you the story of his bird:
There lived a hoopoe family in the village of Jhuni. One day, the baby hoopoes were quarreling and making a lot of noise inside the house, so the mother hoopoe picked up all the children and threw them out onto the street. There they lay crying and hungry all night. In the morning, with the first ray of sunshine, they saw their father climbing up the hill. He saw them on the road, picked all of them up gently, and took them home. He gave them lots of good things to eat and they were all very happy.
Read more from Nivedita here: