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The Day Amrita Stood Against the Axmen

  • The Day Amrita Stood Against the Axmen

     

    I’ve found the only cool spot on the knoll under a copse of khejri acacias. Bandhu, our huge black and tan shepherd, pants and watches the goats. He lets me lean against him for a pillow. The nannies chew their cuds while the kids play butty games. The dry heat seems nothing to them as they crash their skulls and tiny nubs of horns together.

    All around our village of Jehnad, I can see the fields of wheat and barley. Ash-gourds, rock-melons and brinjal, saijan patta greens, anise, coriander, cumin and onions struggle to grow in the pale ochre dirt. Small but ancient khejris line the edges of the fields. They draw damp from the deep to the surface. They bind and protect the earth against the winds, and make the loam more fertile. In droughts we can feed a portion of the leaves to the goats and cows to keep their milk flowing. In the khejri shade, the crops grow bigger and greener. We cook the beans as vegetables or dry them with fruit to make a tasty ker sangri.
    I can see Mama in the distance. She pulls the tiny weeds before they can set seeds in our new chick-pea crop, tosses the weeds back on the loam to return their goodness to the earth. Our field, out along the road, is the furthest. All the way from the village well, my older sisters, Asu, Ratni and Bhagu, carry terracotta pots of water on cloth rings on their heads. The full vessels must be as heavy as me but their heads seem to float above their shoulders while their hips sway with each long, fluid step. They scoop a cup of water onto each chick-pea seedling.

    I lie on my back, chew wild cumin seeds plucked from an umbral nearby, and look up. I see the fierce, bright blue shine through the acacia’s beautiful lime-green feather-leaves, but I long for the dark slate blue of the monsoons. If the khejri thorns could prick the sky, would it rain?

    “Rough!” says Bandhu. His hackles spike up. I look where he looks.

    Mama, Asu, Ratni and Bhagu, look up, stop their work, pull their shawls over their hair and move close together. Other villagers do the same, but their plots are much further away from the group of strange men approaching along the road.

    The one in front rides a piebald stallion. He has a silver beard down to his waist, wears a silver kara on his wrist, a curved steel sword, and his salwar chemise is pure indigo silk. Indigo and silk! He must know that’s blasphemy to us!

    The others are on foot or riding camels. They have huge muscles and black beards. They wear plain cotton and they carry axes.

    I signal Bandhu. We move the goats behind the knoll. They know to keep quiet. I sit half behind a khejri’s slender trunk and make myself small. Bandhu flops beside me.

    I hear the man on the horse announce, “I am Giridhar Bhandari, a minister of Abhai Singh, the new Maharaja in Marwar. He has commanded wood to be burnt to make lime mortar for the construction of his new palace and he has put me in charge of the supply. We are here to fell the khejri trees.”

    Mama squeals and puts her hands to her mouth. I’ve never seen her do that before.

    Then she gathers herself and says, “Sir, I am Amrita Devi of the Bishnoi. Please understand. To fell the khejri is against our religion. From our village priest and the Rig-veda, we know these trees are the sacred gift of Vishnu.

    “I tell you what,” says Bhandari, “pay me the value of your last year’s harvest and I’ll spare your trees and go elsewhere.”

    Mama moves to stand in front of a khejri. “Sir, it would insult Vishnu and my faith. Better I die to save the trees than live with dishonour.”

    Asu, Ratni and Bhagu follow Mama’s example. Each chooses a tree and hugs close to the smooth, round trunk.

    “It’s true,” says Asu. “These trees are life itself. They have grown here for centuries. See how old they are. Nothing is more precious to us.”

    “Then we shall soon see how serious you are,” says Bhandari, and he commands his men to chop down the trees. The men spread out, each one to a tree.

    I see them raise their axes and take aim.

    “Stay!” I whisper to Bandhu. I grab his collar, bury my eyes in his fur. There is no scream. There is only the sound of wood-strike and bone-crack. I piss and crap myself. In loss and fear and shame my tears spill. Bandhu whimpers and licks my face.

    We wait for the men to finish their killing of the trees. They have to bind the trunks and branches with ropes and fix them to the harnesses for the camels to drag. I hear them curse as the thorns pierce their hands. May their hands become infected. As the sun drops low they finally go.

    I must tell the priest. Bandhu runs with me and the goats follow. I shut them in the stone yard just outside the village. I make sure they have water from the well. I draw a small vessel of water and hide in the shadows of a wall to wash the filth and shame from my skirts and skin. I cry. I can’t stop.

    I cannot enter the temple, but I call out and the priest comes. He has already heard. While I was tending the goats, the men had carried the bodies of my mother and sisters home. 

    The priest sends his young disciple around Jehnad with a message. The men must spread the word to all the villages tonight to summon every Bishnoi to a meeting. 

    Then the priest and his wife gather incense and vegetarian food. They walk me and Bandhu home through a blood-like glow of sunset.

    Papa wants to know every detail. It hurts to tell him. Somehow it makes the nightmare more real. Granma keens and keens and cuts off her long hair. Granpa swears at Vishnu but the priest forgives him. Nothing can console us. A long time later, we eat some of the food and only then do the priest and his wife go home. I still feel lost. How will it be without Mama, without my older sisters? I curl up with Bandhu on a thin cotton mattress on the floor. I hug him and feel grateful for his breathing and warmth as the night cools.

    A huge crowd gathers at dawn in the temple of Jehnad. I’m not allowed to be there but I hear about it. They decide to follow my mother’s example, but only volunteers. Tens of scores of elders choose to walk out to the fields. Each finds and hugs one of the largest and best trees. Surely if enough people show how serious we are, the woodcutters will go away. I am at home but I can hear the screams, the wails and ululations of the witnesses, and the sound of the axes and the trees as they crash to the ground. Bandhu and all the dogs in the village howl.

    A message comes back. The minister, Bhandari, claims that we Bishnois only send the ones no longer useful to us. So now all the young men and women and we children choose to walk out to the field to embrace the remaining trees. I shut Bandhu in our hut and go with them. I go to my favourite tree out on the boundary of our family field. We hug the trees and I close my eyes. I expect that, like the others, my death will be quick.
    I hear the screams, the sounds of bones cracking. It seems to go on forever. But nothing happens to me. The sound of the axes has stopped. The silence stretches uneasy in the heat. 
    “Pack up,” says Bhandari. “This is too much. I must consult with the Maharajah."

    The tree-cutters load their wood behind the camels. They ignore the corpses.

    The young men and women sort through the bits of our 363 dead, trying to keep the parts of each person's body together. Shawls are converted to shrouds to wrap and carry them back to their homes.

    The next day we receive word that the Maharaja of Marwar, Abhai Singh, has said that no more khejri will be cut.
    In mourning after the funeral pyres and rites, we abandon the name of Jehnad; now we call our village Khejarli.

    I keep wishing I could cuddle with my mother, that my sisters could brush my hair, that I could hear them laugh again, even hear them quarrel again. There's a heavy, hollow feeling in my chest that will not go away.

    A half-light cuts the day as black-purple clouds roll in from the south-west. Sheet lightning flashes with thunder. Blesséd rain pours on the dust. It washes the blood into the earth of the fields. With the other children and Bandhu, I go out to collect the seed pods of the khejri and plant them in little pots. It will take a thousand years for the acacias to mature like the ones that died, but we will bring back the trees.
    ~ ~ ~

    Footnote: Today, the once sacred khejri acacias are an endangered species. Because they played a critical role in the maintenance of the water table, Rajasthan's inland is now desert.

    ©Manna Hart, 20th Aug 2019