This story is a response to the prompt from Magpie Tales.
Mangala Ratwa walked along the dusty road leading to Tejgadh from his village Gantia beyond the Chilia Ghat. The hills ran on both the sides, the forested land was covered thick with teak, eucalyptus and neem trees. There was crispness in the air, the morning sky was washed peach carrying still the shades of dawn. Mangala pulled his coarse shawl over his head and walked as his breath snaked patterns in the air.
Mangala left his village well before dawn, he carried in a cloth bag teplas and achar that his mother packed for the journey. It would be late morning by the time he reached Tejgadh, he was hopeful that beyond the hills he would get a lift in a jeep.
This was not the first time he was going alone to Tejgadh, he had travelled alone all the way to Baroda when his grandfather went to the Government hospital with a severe stomach pain and did not return home the same day. Mangala’s mother hesitated to send her eleven year old son alone to the city to enquire about the old man. She was helpless, Mangala’s father was away working in a construction site in Baruch and she had to stay back to take care of the fields, cattle and the poultry.
During the winter months when the stream and water holes ran dry and intense farming activities could not be pursued, many men in the village went to cities like Baroda, Baruch, Ahmedabad in search of work, they worked for daily wages on construction sites or in factories. They left the village in the month of October and returned just before Holi, to prepare the land for the next agricultural cycle that began in June soon after the monsoons.
Mangala took a ride in a jeep from his village to Tejgadh, his father’s friend Nagin Ratwa in Tejgadh put him in a bus to Baroda that was 170 kms away. He was told how to reach the hospital from city bus station and meet the District Medical Officer to enquire about his grandfather. He found his grandfather admitted in General Ward for treatment of ulcer, the boy stayed with the old man in the hospital buying him food, medicines and taking walks in the busy streets outside the hospital. On recovery, the old man travelled back with his grandson to Tejgadh where they stayed for the evening in Nagin’s house before leaving for Gantia the next morning.
Nagin Ratwa had a small shop under the famous limda tree at the cross road that lead to the town of Chhota Udepur. Nagin’s shop stocked just about everything that the villagers needed. He kept his shop open till the last bus from Baroda passed the village at about ten o’clock in the night. That evening Mangala sat with Nagin in the shop watching the village wrap itself in silence and darkness. When a bus stopped a few passengers rushed to buy bananas and ripe guavas. A customer or two from the village visited to buy tea leaves and cooking oil.
It was then that Mangala observed the weights that Nagin used. They were stacked in a corner of the coarse wooden counter. One of them looked different. He reached for it to feel how heavy it was. The weight carried a musty smell of dark corners of the shop, it felt greasy, the measure was engraved on the sides in a coarse fashion. It seemed like Nagin seldom used the weight. The other octagonal discs of weight were smooth and shone with use.
Mangala had seen weights used on pan balances and the ones suspended in steel yard balance, when he accompanied his mother to the weekly Haat at Panvad to barter or sell the products that they produced in their farm, like eggs, corns, potatoes. There was a small shop in his village, the shopkeeper did not use such weights, instead he used polished stones picked from the bed of river Orsang. His mother complained that the shopkeeper cheated the villagers; she haggled with him and demanded for more sugar, jaggery and oil. She refused at times to buy provisions at the village shop and would take the long and tiresome journey to Panvad to buy a bottle of cooking oil.
The next morning when Mangala and his grandfather left for Gantia he carried home with him the weight that Nagin Ratwa used rarely. Nagin asked Mangala to travel to Tejgadh once a fortnight, buy commodities like sugar, jaggery, tea leaves, cooking oil, and wheat flour in bulk that his mother could sell in the village for a fair price.
It was the fifth trip Mangala was making to Tejgadh since his mother started a small shop in the village in an enclosure outside their cattle shed. Mangala looked out of the jeep as they drove past fallow fields. The fog that hung heavily on the grass lifted, he felt sudden warmth in the air as though indicating what lay ahead for him. His heart became light, he smiled at the boy sitting next to him and said, “Holi Hai, it is the festival of Holi.”
It was Holi the next day, his father and the other men from his village would return home. Mangala mentally ran through all the extra things that his mother had asked him to buy at the market for Holi. As he chewed the spicy tepla he thought of how his village transformed during the Holi festival. Men brew liquor from the flowers of the mahuda tree, women dressed in resplendent colours and cooked a communal feast, and everyone sang, played on the drums and danced in the large open ground at the entrance of the village.
Holi, the festival of colours saw the end of dry winter, beginning of spring when the tender warmth of the sun enabled the men and women to work for long hours in their fields preparing the soil for the next cycle of sowing, tending and reaping.
(This story takes place among the Ratwa Bhils, a tribal community of people living in the Baroda district of Gujarat. When I was associated with Bhasha, an NGO that works on various initiatives with the Adivasi communities of India, I travelled extensively in this region and interacted with the Ratwa Bhils.
In this story, among other things, I celebrate the independence and courage that Ratwi women display as they manage their lives, family and village activities when the men are away in the city for half the year, toiling hard for a living . The women form cooperatives, Self Help Groups, take loans and start small enterprises.
I salute children like Mangala Ratwa who assume roles of adults while still young. They help in the farm at sunrise, go to school mid morning, run on errands, take cattle for grazing, collect dried sticks for firewood, play under the limda tree, and remain cheerful always.)