Awaiting her turn, a woman's long wait for her home
The crunch of dry leaves under my feet and the distant sound of birds fluttering between the majestic trees were the only sounds disturbing the eerie quiet of the forest I was walking into. My guide though a self proclaimed expert in navigating the forests of Wayanad, India, wasn’t putting my racing heart at ease. He coolly mentioned as a disclaimer, that the chances of us spotting a tiger are high, and in such a situation- run! “ Don’t worry, just follow me out of the jungle, you will be fine -as long as you can keep up with me, I’m quite fast!” I smile nervously at him, contemplating how serious he could be about potentially leaving me behind as a snack for the big cat.
Failing to memorise my way through the maze of thicket, I ask to stop at the cluster of concrete houses, an oddity amidst the lush greenery of the forest. The tribal settlement boasts of only one mud house (mannu veedu), outside which a woman sits idly undoing the knots in her thick, black tresses with her fingers.
Standing up, she asks in her native tongue of Malayalam “who are you?”, as she quickly ties her hair into a messy bun. “I’m Mary Ann, I’ve been wandering around your forest today” I reply.
She breaks into a big smile, “I love wandering through the forest, I know it like the back of my hand”.
Her round eyes crinkle on her ebony face, and the tinkling of her bracelets make for a background score, as she animatedly sets the scene like a child in a school play, for a tale of a tiger that wandered into their settlement.
By the end of the hair raising story we have earned ourselves an invite for tea!
“Why is your house different from the others?” I wonder out loud. “ Ha!” she scoffs, as she blows into the the wood fire stove to boil water for our tea. “Last election season our representative promised to build us all new houses-in exchange for our votes of course.”
Eyes watering, and coughing, she continues, “After- he won, we struggled for the funding, and when we finally received it, there wasn’t enough for all of us.” The tinkling from the silver hugging her vigorously shaking right ankle gets louder now, more persistent.
“My thatched roof was destroyed in the recent rains, but I couldn’t afford to replace it, so I’ve used asbestos sheets as roofing instead.” The cracks on her feet are masked with earth, like unruly branches hiding behind its leaves.
A traditional adivasi (tribal) home, is made with mud and bamboo for structure and support, while reeds and straw make the thatched roof. The home remains warm or cool responding to the climate outside.
“What will you do now”, I ask, sipping on my black tea. “I’ll wait. He will be back with his promises- at least there is only one house to fund now, so it shouldn’t be difficult right?” she asks, as she digs a small hole in the earth with her unpainted toes.
I muster a quivering smile, and say nothing, as I notice the hole in her walls revealing the bamboo, and the al fresco, makeshift bathroom, of weaved coconut leaves.
The silence is broken by a woodpecker’s knocking on a nearby tree. When I ask her for a picture, she giggles, looking down, holding her chin, her index finger curved on her lips. She quickly neatens her hair, straightens her dress with her hands, and covers her shoulders and chest with a white towel she found in haste.
The shades of sepia in the sky were going unnoticed until we hear a bird’s call- “the racket tail drongo imitates the calls of other birds” she says. Jolted, I say goodbye, packing up in a hurry-the fear of encountering a big cat has creeped back in to my mind.
As I scurry down the mud path, she says goodbye in a fit of laughter, “ Go fast, you can’t trust him to take care of you!”
The next round of elections have concluded. I wonder if she has got her new home. I hope she has.