#MyGrationSW : Why This Brave Woman Lives Alone In A Forest in Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand?

THE DENSE FORESTS OF ADJOINING villages of Peora, Nolikan and Sonapani in

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Terraced Farm of Kamla ji near Leela Orchards, Sona Pani, Mukteshwar

Mukteshwar look deserted and lonely from a distance. Once you start to see through the dense foliage, you discover it is teaming with life. It is populated with birds, butterflies, reptiles, wild animals and humans who chose to call it home. As I took an evening walk in the forest with Manvendra, who runs the Leela Orchards, Sonapani home-stay in Mukteshwar, he educated me about a brave lady who lives all by herself in the middle of a dense, dark forest. Engrossed in his tales, I kept my eyes and ears alert for any sign of wildlife around the trail. After few minutes, we arrived at a makeshift gate to a lone white building in the distance. The gate was nothing but horizontal wooden logs loosely hooked on to vertical wooden poles. It was not meant to ward off humans but animals. The animals who rob her kitchen garden of fruits and vegetables she so painstakingly grows with help of laborers. This is apparently a big deterrent to most farmers in the Mukteshwar and nearby Ramgarh area. The white house was locked when we entered the lawns. Its architecture was a mix of modern architecture and traditional architecture of the region. In Uttarakhand, ‘Bakuli’ refers to the group of house, mostly of the same family. As the family grows, more addition to the existing building is done generation wise. Cattle are always tied in the ground floor room. This particular house was not a Bakuli since the next generation chose to stay in the glitzy capital of India, New Delhi.

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A Mix of modern and traditional architecture of Uttarakhand, isolated home of Kamlaji near Leela Orchards, Sona Pani, Mukteshwar.

Himalayan Spangle, a beautiful butterfly, clung fiercely to its pupa on a tree in front of the house. Much like the lady we had come to meet. She refuses to leave this place despite all the adversity. I would soon know why she still clings to this house in the middle of nowhere.

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Himalayan Spangle holding on to a pupa. In Front of Kamlaji’s house. Near Leela Orchards, Sona Pani, Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand

जड़ाऊ को अभी भगाया, बंदरो ने भी परेशान कर रखा है…..” (I have just shooed away the Swamp Deers aka Barasingha. The monkeys have been troubling me too.) The meditation of the Himalayan Spangle was disturbed by her coarse voice, unadulterated and unmeasured. Her name is Mrs. Kamla Pandey. She was delighted to see Manvendra, who is also a family friend. Kamlaji and Manvendra are neighbours and co- owned a dog. The dog lived upto an astonishing age of 18 years.

Ever since her husband, Late Shri Narayan Dutt Pandey, former sub inspector in New Delhi police breathed his last, she has resolved to stay all by herself at this isolated house in the middle of a dense forest, rife with wild animals. Danger from wildlife, lack of human interactions, irregular electricity supply and the challenges in keeping the soil of her farm fertile and grow organic vegetables and fruits has not deterred her. She has been living here alone since past 7 years. Sometimes her brother, who lives in a village nearby, pays her a visit.

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Natural Water Spring used for irrigation and daily use of Kamlaji. Near Leela Orchards, Sona Pani, Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand

She cooks food by herself. She has to walk for 3 plus kilometers to catch sporadic public transport to main town near the Sathkol Ashram. She sources grocery supplies from village vendor who sometime visits her and from a shop near the Ashram gate.

बस ऐसे ही बगीचे में घूमना फिरना….मजदूरो को देखना…चाय पानी देना…यहाँ पे बगीचा है….मकान है मेरा….मैं कैसे रहूँ यहाँ…..?” (Just roaming around my garden, checking up on the laborers, giving them tea and snacks…..Here is where is my house, my garden….How can I leave this place?), She replied with a sunshine smile when I asked, “What do you do here all day?”

She showed me around her sprawling terraced farm which she called bageecha (garden). It was abundant with pink and white flowers. In March the hills of Uttarakhand burst with a riot of colours, thanks to the flowering season.  From Mid May to July, these flowers will give way to abundant fruits like khubani (Apricot), aadu (peach), plum, apple, pear. Nearby a tree was drooping with the weight of tens of jamer. It looked like an Orange, but I was told it is so bitter that its consumption harms teeth. It is used like a lemon, in chutneys and pickles. The apples trees were pruned to encourage new growth which is good for the health of the tree and the fruits. The dark brown, leafless branches of the tree made it look like it is dead. In reality, the tree was just gearing up for the upcoming fruiting season. I uncovered a plastic sheet to see spring water flowing under the ground. This is the natural irrigation source for farming in the area. Some of the beds in the farm were dug up. She told us, she pays laborers to dig up the soil.  It helps in keeping the soil fertile otherwise it becomes hard and unfit for farming.

Kamlaji showed us around with a big smile and vivaciousness which is difficult to match up to. Her enthusiasm for life and positivity belied the challenges that she faces in her routine life. Before shifting here, she lived in Delhi for many years with her husband and kids. Her kids still live in New Delhi and following the footsteps of their father, they serve in police too. Her kids visit her at this place in summer.

“Do you ever miss New Delhi?” I ask

“याद आती है पर क्या करें ? मजबूरी है…यहाँ छोड़ दें तो फिर बर्बादी है न…..क्यूँ? ” (Yes, at times I do miss Mumbai. But if I abandon this land, it will all be destroyed. No?)

Whenever she misses her former life in New Delhi, she visits her children and live with them for around 3 months.

“पर अब अच्छा लगता है यहाँ भी……परदूशन नहीं है …हवा अच्छी है…अक्टूबर में फिर जाउंगी दिल्ली तीन महीने के लिए…..” (Now I like it here…There is no pollution….the air is fresh…In October I will visit New Delhi again for 3 months.)

Note: It is a part of a series which I run on my blog. You can follow the hashtag #MyGrationSW series on my Instagram, Facebook and Twitter too. (Links below). To read other migration stories on my blog, pls see the tab MyGration Story.

The view from my #SoulWindow is BRAVO!

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Kamlaji at her isolated home in a forest. Near Leela Orchards, Sona Pani, Mukteshwar, Uttarakhand

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#MyGration Story: What is this young Delhi girl doing in the remote village of Madhya Pradesh?

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Random meeting with a local Bhagchand Singh ji in roadways buses

The Back Story- I met her way back in September 2012 in the wedding reception of my friend in Modinagar near Delhi. It was a unique reception since my desi Friend Chandni Mittal had recently married an Austrian Abi. You can follow fun updates from Chandni on instagram here. I am friends with Chandni’s mother Punam aunty, a school principal. Young at heart, she is friends with many young people. Sanjana was one of the ‘friends’ and student of Punam aunty who was invited to the reception.

Sanjana was carefree, innocent, happy go lucky and was like any other girl her age. I had not met her in all these years. Circa October 2016. I see a matured girl, poised, balanced, still innocent but not really acting like the girls of her age. A Mohan Bhargav (Swades) like composure and focus characterized her face.

 

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Sanjana educating the local women during SHG (Selh Help Group) meetings.

I am moved by her story and that’s why I decided to extend my Press Trip to Madhya Pradesh and make a detour to the dusty village Sehore. I was jealous of her because I always wanted to do the work she is doing but was afraid to leave my comfort zone (Metro City life) for a long time. It takes guts to do the work she is doing.

 

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Sanjana doing follow up meetings with students in school

Here is why she left her cool life in Modinagar and Delhi to find meaning in torn cots, organic food cooked in earthen ovens and the many underprivileged school kids who run to greet her every time she visits the school.

 1) Tell us something about your background. Where were you raised and what did you study?

I hail from the small town Modinagar, in Ghaziabad District, U.P. My schooling started in a fancy school but later I was shifted to a modest one due to economical reasons. Due to a cash crunch at home, I have missed out on many co-curricular activities at school. Never mind, my parents did their best and never put any pressure on me to chase money. Later, I did BSc from Delhi University but found it meaningless. Disillusioned, I joined NSS (National Social Service Scheme). It gave me the opportunities to volunteer in many organisations. I used to bunk classes to attend the seminars and classes of 3HS (Social Leadership Forum) initiated by my mentor Mr. Gopikrishna Bali Sir in my third year of college. It was then when I realized my true calling in life. I understood that I am not going to continue in Sciences, but I have to start something in social sector. Without any prior experience, Social sector is the toughest sector to get into.

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Early mornings for Sanjana be like this. From her ODF follow up sessions in Pipalner village.

2) Tell us about the work you are doing in Sehore. What is your routine?

I joined the NGO Samarthan as a ‘fellow’ from ‘India Fellow Social Leadership Programme’. I work in a project which is “School Education and Sanitation”. This project has components like Health, Sanitation and Education. I work here with the child cabinet and SHGs (Self Help Groups) in 10 villages. Strengthening of the bodies like child cabinet and SMC (School Management Committee) is to ensure the other activities in the school development activities apart from the school annual curriculum. I live in one of my field area named “Uljhawan” in Sehore District.  It is located around 7 kms away from the highway to bigger cities. It is 20-25 kms away from Bhopal in MP.

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SHG (Self Help Group) meetings headed by Sanjana.

I usually get up in the morning by 6 am. Daily chores keep me busy and by 7:30 – 8 am. Then I go for the ‘morning follow up’ where team Samarthan educates the locals why they should not defecate in the open fields. It is one of the missions of Samarthan to make Sehore an ODF, viz. Open Defecation Free zone.

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Some times SHG (Self Help Group) meetings have to be held in night because women are busy in household chores and fields all day.

Then, I go out in the village to conduct some meetings with the SHGs (as women will be available at that time or in the evenings after 6pm). After that I visit the government school to monitor the activities done by my students in child cabinet along with the other students in village. Frequently we organized awareness rally and various other activities like training and completions with the child cabinet. The objectives is to make each child cabinet self sufficient and capable of running various activities for their school development and make them an independent body. Child Cabinet is an interesting concept where a team of school kids is formed and individual child is assigned a cabinet such as Health/Sports/Sanitation. It is much like the national cabinets. This concept in rural areas of India helps kids gain confidence and a civic sense.

3) Why did you decide to leave your comfortable life and move to a village? Did you have any doubts before doing it?

What defines comfort? I had a comfortable material world but my mind was not settled. I was doing things which I never wanted to do. Here I am comfortable because that’s what I like to do. Here I travel the roads less travelled, meet the people who are unseen and are unknown to the mainstream world.  I get the chance to understand my country India on a deeper level. Working at the grass roots level has helped me understand the real problems of India. Before coming here I was mentally prepared about the work I will have to do here. It was tough in the initial days to adjust to a village life but I love this life now. The life of an engineer is uncomfortable for me, as I can’t sit throughout a day in front of computers for coding. Never mind, to each his/her own. I chose this life and I stand by my decision.

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Sanjana addressing school kids. That’s how you make real change at grass roots level.

5) What are the personal and professional challenges that you faced while working in Sehore?

Personally you have to be positive in every aspect of the field. Ignoring small obstacles will help you reach your final goal. Blame the lack of human resource in this sector, one ends up multi tasking. Laziness is not even an option here. One needs to keep a tabs on many activities at a time.

Focus is really important, if you don’t understand the concept clearly, I would recommend you not to poke your nose in it. It will only cause more trouble to the community. Proper mentorship is a must before you get into this field. This message is especially for those urban people who have romantic delusions about rural life. It’s not hunky dory here. One needs to be ready to face the challenges of a village life.

 

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Child Cabinet Training sessions.

6) Tell us some interesting anecdotes from your experience in Sehore. Maybe, something related to your relationship with school kids.

The great bond I share with the students of the schools, is like one of my dreams turning into reality. Every single time, I arrive at the school, students run to me and greet me with a hug. There are many students who share a personal bond with me, they always stay around me. There is a girl named Swati Vishwakarma, who makes lemon tea for me every time I visit her. I casually told her once that I like to drink lemon tea and I don’t get it anywhere in village. She learnt it from somewhere and now religiously makes it for me. Then there is the unconditional love I receive from the people of the village. I celebrated Diwali with a local in her hut.

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Sanjana celebrated Diwali with this family in their hut. One of her best Diwali, she said.

It was one of my best Diwali celebrated with simplicity and love. When not working, I also love to cook with the local girls. I share a deep bond with the elderly women of the village. They are fondly called bau by the locals. In my free time, I spend hours chatting with them sipping tea in their huts. They also make delicious food for me. At other times, I decorate my room, roam around in fields with the kids and attend keertan and sangeet (Devotional music) events of village. I know I am changing as a person!

7) What do you miss about the city life?

One thing I miss about Delhi specifically is the accessibility to the lively places like Connaught Place in night. Sometimes, I miss the night life of Delhi in the sleepy villages. The day ends here by 8 pm and you can’t even sit with the girls in village just to chit chat because that is not a part of the culture.

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Sanjana’s simple austere room in Uljhawan Village where she lives currently.

8) How do you focus on your work when you know all your friends are busy partying and pubbing in city? Do you feel like quitting?

No I never felt like quitting, I am very positive and excited about what I am doing! I know I am not earning that much money which my friends will start earning once they will complete their masters. I am not against partying but my happiness is focused on the work I have dedicated my life to. I find my work to be more meaningful and satisfying than partying. For me the idea of wasting an evening in a pub is less exciting. The satisfaction I get here is something which I will cherish throughout my life and that will change me as a human being. The positive changes within me have already started.

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Sanjana grinding dal (lentil) along with a local girl. What she does in leisure!

9) What are your future plans? What next after this?

I will continue working in this field, enriching myself with more experience. Eventually, I would like to gravitate towards the field of Education. My aim is to impart my knowledge to the future generation and help build a better India and a better world. My ultimate goal is to expose the youth of India to different career options at the school level. I want to help the young minds to find the true calling of their life and make informed choices. They should not be bound to lead a life which they are not meant for.

 

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Global hand washing day in rural Sehore, the village I visited.

10) Any message to the youth of your age?

I have a simple message: “Don’t let yourself down under any circumstance of life and follow you heart. Despite the initial struggles, if you persevere through the odds, it will give you the happiness you always chased. It will take time but the results will be the ones which you will always cherish. All the pain and efforts you made to achieve that happiness will one day be worth it.

 

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SHG training with Krishna SHG in Uljhawan

Sanjana has indeed grown faster than her contemporaries. I am proud to visit her and know about her experiences. It was a humbling experience. Rural India needs the brains from Urban India for sustainable development. I wish I could do the work she is doing but I am still not mentally prepared to live in a village for long term. Hopefully, one day I will muster the courage. A sequel to this blog will be up soon. In those blogs I will write about how Samarthan is helping in making clean toilets in Sehore, how it is affecting the attendance in village schools and how the locals of Sehore won my heart in the few hours I spent there.

All the pictures are by Sanjana and Samarthan.

She posts about her journey online. You can follow her heart warming stories on social media here- Twitter  Facebook , Instagram , Blog 

YOU CAN DONATE TO HER CAUSE- CLICK HERE IF YOU WANT TO CONTRIBUTE TO HELP HER LEARN DESIGN THINKING SKILLS AT A TRAVEL WORKSHOP IN LADAKH.

It is a part of a series which I run on my blog. You can follow the hashtag #MyGration story on my Instagram, Facebook and Twitter too. (Links below). To read other migration stories on my blog, pls see the tab MyGration Story.

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Do you have it in you to make changes at grass roots level? Sanjana sure has it!

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Got any question/comments, ask in the comment section below so that it can benefit other readers.

Email me for collaboration : abhinav21@yahoo.com

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Friends of Sanjana: She loves spending time with them when she is free.

Be a part of my journey on social media. The travel content I create there is different from this blog.

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WARNING : COPYRIGHT TO ALL THE IMAGES AND TEXT HERE REMAINS WITH ME. YOU CAN NOT JUST LIFT THE CONTENT AND USE IT WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. STRICT LEGAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN IF CONTENT IS STOLEN. YES, I AM SERIOUS.

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Night Chaupal (Village meetings): Can you spot Sanjana.