As we drive down the forest road at dusk, my co-passengers in the jeep talk of animal sightings and sundowners by a bonfire that await us back home. It is a cool, damp-after-a-thunderstorm evening, with a freshly mixed misty mauve sky. The snow peaks around us glow with an orange hue from the setting sun, as they flirt with massive, fluffy, white clouds. A stillness is settling in as the day winds down in this remote part of the Garhwal Himalayas.
We are driving back to our vacation home , after a walk in a Protected Forest Zone. It had been a walk of many discoveries, with views to make you stop and stand and stare into eternity.
I feel happy at my good fortune to be here, living out my dreams. The word ‘Leopard’ uttered in the flow of the conversation, just then, does not strike me as connoting anything besides another name on the laundry list of sighting possible…until I hear specifics of color, size and shape – and look up to see the front seat passengers excitedly pointing to the edge of the road! It seems they had seen the leopard! It was standing still and staring at the car as it slowly approached him, then jauntily flicked its tail, turned and disappeared down the wild rose laden slopes.
Now, a leopard roaming the hillside, without harming the humans around, is good news really, scary though it seems to some. It means he is able to hunt some wild game there. Which in turn means the wild game had enough greens to eat. Which further means the forest is doing well, despite being literally cheek by jowl to a fair sized human settlement- a Tehsil town no less! Reason enough to feel gratitude, and awe for the work being done by the simple, unsung staff of the forest Range office at Nagnath – Pokhri. Staff that include a young Rekha Negi, the 22 year old lone lady forest guard we had just met.
Rekha Negi had taken us around on a guided walk through ‘her’ range, talking to us about how she joined the force four years ago, just after high school by clearing a competitive exam. About how she studied and worked hard to learn all the botany and zoology and firearms work and legal stuff the job required her to know. And how she now roamed the forest alone at times, on her rounds, armed with her government issued gun, fear and duty lodged firmly in her heart, spurring her on to do her job well. And how she lived on the forest range office premise with the rest of the range staff, in the government quarters and cooked all her meals and ate them alone. About how she and her family were determined she stand on her own feet, earn an independent income and be someone in her own right.
Even if doing so meant she was miles away from home, working on a high risk job, living on campus with men and women she had no previous connection with, and making a definite break with custom and forging a completely new path. Even if, in doing so there were times of extreme sadness, longing and loneliness.
As Rekha spoke and walked us through her work area, I noticed the glow of pride on her face and the ring of accomplishment in her voice. How excited she was when she walked us through the new oak and deodar forest they have planted in a degraded and denuded patch of hillside near their office. How she took us to each young tree like a proud new mother, and described the sorry state of the slope before the new saplings were planted. Before the work they were doing started making a difference to the better health of the local ecology.
The image of Rekha was still playing in my mind when we reached home and walked by a freshly lit bonfire in the yard. I caught a glimpse of our neighbor, getting out of her cowshed and walking into her kitchen to start the evening meal. A lady who was so shy to speak with me just 5 years ago, barely raising her eyes to meet mine, head demurely covered with the pallu of her sari and bowed down. Today she is a changed woman. As the elected ‘Nagar Panchayat Adyakshaa’, the local councillor for a group of 6 villages!
It is a ‘reserved for women’ seat, so she is rubber stamp candidate of sorts, as her husband is the real power behind the throne. And yet, the changes in her are real. As they are around her too. In the better local roads, the public utilities like a new bus stand in the market, and most striking and significant of all, the public toilets for women near the bus stand. It is clear when I meet her now, that she herself is a changed person too, aware of the shifts of power and perception, as is her husband. And it is almost magical, the transformation of their equation.
Where earlier she would not even look at him directly, now she talks freely and loudly in front of him. He speaks to her far more respectfully, and considers her opinion in many matters unlike before.
She walks with her head held high, her clothes worn better, her hair always groomed, her skin and eyes glistening. She talks more confidently, even approaching my father and my husband on her own, in my absence and carrying on a full conversation with them.
Barely literate herself, it is her school and college going kids who help her write and rehearse her official notes and speeches. She now chairs meetings where IAS officers and other govt. bureaucrats share space, ideas and time with her. For which, she tells me, she needs stylish cotton handloom saris from Delhi- Can I get her some the next time I visit, please?
She is aware now how the scales have shifted, how she is now someone with some heft beyond the usual role of the village farmstead housewife.
A tale of two once obscure women in the remote, unexplored part of the country. Treading new paths, making a difference to all those whose lives they touch. Bringing about change. Inspiring others.
Note: This piece was first published on the BizDivas India blog, http://bizdivas.in/road-travelled