#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 Series : Of studying under tree, the bell bottom era and small town stories of 60s and 70s!

This is the first in the series of  Instagram series called #MyGration stories where I talk to people and chronicle the circumstances that led to their migration from one place to another. And other emotional nothings! My instagram link given at the end. I share longer version here. Starting the series with my father Mr. Aniruddha Singh, a retired officer from U.P. Electricity Board.

Featured pic : Not a smoker, my dad dressed up like this perhaps under influence of Hippie culture! Its one of my favourite picture.It was shot on 21st march, 1974

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My dad at Shanti Van, New Delhi. 11th November, 1980

My dad was born in Baansgaon, a village known for its Shrinet Rajpoots near Gorakhpur. I thought he lived here for a better part but during the interview I was surprised to discover that he hardly ever lived here. My grandfather (since he already had a job in Basti) moved to Basti soon after my dad was born. He is youngest of all three brothers. He fondly remembers studying under a tree in a school near Kateshwar Park for at least 2 years. Later, the makeshift school got a tin shade to fight nature’s elements till at least for the next 3 years. Gradually, they got a permanent building till 6th to 8th standard, albeit with an unplastered floor. He and his friends often used to sleep on the mud floor of the school waiting for a Guruji (teacher) who used to take their extra classes for free from 9p.m. to 10:30 p.m.

Surprised, I asked, “Why free?”

“So that we could perform better.”

Some lesson here, for our money hungry coaching institutes. My dad even gave up a scholarship voluntarily for a lesser privileged child.

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Me (in lap), my dad, brother and my mother in Baansgaon

Mats made up of ‘taat’ torn rags, ‘sutli’ (rope) etc was used to sit. Some students even brought their own quilt and blanket during the winters. For high school, around the year 1966, he moved to a bigger building, Government Inter College.

He chuckles when I ask, “Did you sleep on mat here too.”

“Haha, No, It was a grand building! A proper one! ”

Later in the fashionable 70s, the family moved to Gorakhpur and he started wearing Bell Bottom pants. He did his B.E. (Electrical) from Madan Mohan Malviya University Of Technology from Gorakhpur. On a 10 month training he moved between Roorkie, Saharanpur and Dehradoon. Then job took him to Varanasi (I was born here), Lucknow, Kanpur, Allahabad, Kayamganj, Kannauj, (back to) Lucknow, Sitapur and Mainpuri. He and my mother are now settled in Lucknow. The job spanned 33 years, 1 month (he insists). June 1978 to July 2011, the figures are on his fingertips, no ‘ummm’ here.

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Me, my mother, elder brother and bell bottoms.

Today, when he looks back, he finds most connected to Basti although it has been decades that he has visited the small town. He yearns to go back to Basti and see his home, meet old neighbours, visit his school and maybe even give a special class. This tops his list of ‘to do’, now that he is retired. After doing this interview, I am planning one such trip in winters this year. With Baansgaon, he has had no real connection as such. This surprised me as I always thought otherwise. He hardly lived there. Thus he is more emotionally attached to Basti, where he spent 15 years during growing up. Our family belongs to Shrinet Rajpoots (aka Kshatriya /Thakur). I was shocked to learn that originally I am a ‘pahadi’ (people from mountains). Our ancestors belonged to Srinagar, Pauri Garhwal, Uttarakhand (formerly Uttar Pradesh). The entire clan migrated to Baansgaon after a social upheaval. Today Baansgaon is known for its Srinet Rajpoot. There were total of 6 places (called Cheh gawaan), the clan migrated to, including Deoria. The grand migration was led by Shri Madan Maniyaar Singh You can find many schools and colleges after his name in Baansgaon and Gorakhpur.

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Shanti Van. 11th January, 1980

Today, in his comfortable home in Lucknow, he misses his time in Basti. Those were his most carefree days. “I used to return to home only to eat and then vanish again to play outdoors with other kids” Though, his dream place remains Lucknow. He doesn’t want to migrate to any other city now.

“Don’t you want to come to Noida and stay with us?”, I ask

“That would be a forced migration. I love my life in Lucknow!”

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Me in Benaras

This is based on a telephonic interview with my father. The interview gave me some perspective. It also helped me understand who I am and where I really belong to. It also humbled me and made me grateful for the privileges I have had ever since I was born.

It left me wondering what would have become of me, had my family stayed back in the mountains of Uttarakhand or say, Baansgaon,  a dusty nondescript village.

 Don’t you think you should be asking your father the same questions?

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Me in Lucknow

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The family looks like this now. (L to R) My Elder brother, father, Nephew, Mother, Sister in law and me, my pet dog. My niece is missing in the picture. Also another pet.

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.