The flat maroon pebble skims three times across the jheel before sinking. I had managed up to four skips with these as a child, and Malti had managed five at one time.
Malti sits next to me. The dark brown frizzy hair severely pulled back into a topknot instead of the two tight pigtails of our childhood. The companion of my younger days, my almost-sister with her baby pink fair complexion and immense dark black eyes looks only to be a slightly bigger and stronger version of her once little self. I am told I hardly bear any resemblance to the child I once was. What with my crew cut hair and naturally olive skin tanned many shades darker over the years, and my unusually lean and tall frame that make heads turn, I have gone against the ‘natural order’ as Malti puts it.
Lying on the damp soft dub grass, hidden among velvet bloomed reeds, we dreamt of finding lost treasures from the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh under the jheel, once we learnt to dive.
Neither of us has ever managed to get a stone to skip all the way across to the other shore. She does not try to test her skills today. Her gaze is faraway. She does not analyze the smooth throw I have just made, nor admire the shimmering cascade of ripples, which now stir the water of the jheel.
This is the place we both used to come to on long lazy summer afternoons of our childhood, with a load of suckling mangoes in our bags, and myriad secret plans spinning in our heads. Lying on the damp soft dub grass, hidden among velvet bloomed reeds, we dreamt of finding lost treasures from the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh under the jheel, once we learnt to dive. The Shahpur wetland lapped the northern edge of farmlands beyond the little eponymous hamlet we lived in. My parents were doctors who had chosen to live and work away from the city of Shahpur in the rural outskirts, and Malti was the daughter of our estate manager.
I was 12 when we moved to another state. I lost touch with Malti for a long time. And when I returned to Shahpur University to complete a part of my doctoral research, Malti still lived on the same farmhouse. I lived on campus and visited the jheel often for fieldwork. An exciting new movement was building up for reviving the water body and its ecosystem with the help of a local community leader, and my research was concerned with this aspect of ecosystem restoration. Malti had heard of these efforts of Baba Jeewan Singh Ji, but as a confirmed atheist she refused to have anything to do with any Baba of any sort. She spent a lot of her time following the lives of characters on the TV soaps, keeping up with trends on teleshopping broadcasts, and on her newly acquired smart phone. She had dropped out of college and was completing her degree by correspondence. Sometimes she went into town for errands and a few lectures. She didn’t have any friends that I could make out, and she looked a little bloated, and sometimes puffy. She found life at the farm boring, slow, and depressing. She said I was lucky I had left when I did. She wanted to know about the boys I had met and how far I had gone with any of them, and whether there was a marriage proposal in the wings. And whether I earned anything as a research scholar and how much would I earn once I got a job. She wondered what had made me come back to the hopeless hellhole of Shahpur.
Standing by the jheel one summer evening soon after my arrival, I had wondered too. Bulbous tentacles crisscrossed most of the jheel. Vapors of methane and carbon dioxide suffused and stilled everything—the air, water, and my thoughts. A psychedelic pink and green carpet of water hyacinth sprawled over the eutrophied waters, while below the surface life suffocated to death in a zone of depleting oxygen and fading sunlight.
I wondered about Baba Jeewan Ji, out to heal nature using his mass appeal as a Jogi—urging people to come haul out the invasive, over-competitive colonizing water hyacinth; sitting on a hunger strike to demand a heavier discharge of freshwater into the wetland from the feeder canal of the river upstream; going from farm to farm, asking owners to change the practice of monocultures of cotton and wheat and reduce the use of toxic pesticides and excessive fertilizing. Could he succeed? Would land, water, air, and all that lived off it, ever be healthy and fecund again?
Malti harbored no such hopes about the jheel. “This is a rotting place. No one comes here except the ganjdis and amlis. Druggies. No animals anymore, no deer, turtles, dolphins or otters. No fish. All dead or gone. It is not safe. Maybe it wasn’t that much of a great place when we were small. We were kids after all, and kids tolerate such a lot…but now I would not come here even for a secret meeting with someone.”
“So, is there a someone then?” I asked, seeking a thread to connect with her.
“Here, in this back of beyond? There is not a hope… there isn’t even enough for my daaj if we did find someone. You know how things have gone downhill here. It is hardly the sabz baag you somehow remember.”
“Malti, I know what has happened, but you were there with me. You must remember too… plucking ber, the thorns cutting our fingers, hiding in the jamun branches where no one could find us? The trees are gone, but not my memories. There are problems no doubt, but new problems only lead to new solutions. Baba Ji is making a huge difference too. People listen to him, and the government listens to him. That is rare.”
“That is all good for talk, for pictures in the papers and to show on TV. You will get your Ph.D. and find another place to work, get married to a nice educated man, and all that. But what will I do? I can’t wait to leave this dead wasteland. But it isn’t easy. Where will I go?”
From my earliest recollections, the jheel and its surroundings had been the highlight of the landscape of my childhood. We lived in a fertile and lush submontane region at the foot of the Dhauladhar ranges, cut across with three of the five rivers that gave the land its name. Mustard blossomed bright yellow in winter and wheat stalks turned the fields into swaying sheets of gold in summer. In the wilderness of the forests around us we sighted deer and wild boar and partridge and porcupines on many a dusky evening.
I remember how spring brought the feather-soft touch of semal, its smoothness sliding across my bare skin awakening an unknown excitement within me.
Daddy used to drive off road into the jungles with Mummy, Malti and me on his photography expeditions. Sometimes he would take us fishing. I would sit mesmerized by the shapes and colors of the smooth riverside pebbles, imagining their journey from the glacial home of the brook down to these foothills. Malti would wade into the shallow snowmelt and scream as the chill cut into her ankles. But she would stay put in the freezing cold water, determined to catch the smaller fish with her bare hands. I was the lazy one, content to rest on the sand and stones, my thoughts riding the melody of the river.
I remember how spring brought the feather-soft touch of semal, its smoothness sliding across my bare skin awakening an unknown excitement within me. Malti and I collected bags full of these snowy silk-cotton pods. Her mother said it was all going to go into the pillows that would be made for our wedding trousseaus. Malti always managed to hoard much more than I.
Geese and herons dotted the wetland between fields and forest. We made fun of the bagla bhagat, the heron pretending to be a pious yogi standing in austerity on one leg, while focusing its gaze intently under water to catch the unsuspecting fish.
There were no books in Malti’s house and her parents could barely be called literate. But they knew how to read the land, the signs of the seasons and the hum of the trees. We watched in awe as migratory flocks of birds landed each winter exactly as Malti’s Mataji predicted. When the gorgeous, massive Siberian cranes landed on a little sandbar island on the other side of the jheel, we took it for granted as the way it had to be. That had been their roosting spot all winters since the time of the first Guru, and even earlier, said Mataji. When I shared this with my mother, Mummy read out the lines written by Guru Nanak back in the sixteenth century alluding to their flight here from the frozen Arctic.
I had held onto these images. Malti would not reminisce with me about how we roamed the land, played in these waters and climbed the tress, and watched the birds and copied their calls. Times had changed, she said, and she had moved on. So had much else. The cranes had stopped coming a long time ago. I found out from the internet that the migration had stopped because the birds themselves were on the brink of extinction, faced with habitat loss and dire dangers on the migratory routes. And worse, that if they did somehow come now, Shahpur would not be the place that could host them anymore.
But once upon a time it had all been real, those evenings of chucking pebbles into the jheel, the baths in the tubewells, the weaving of ropes out of wild grasses, and playing imaginary royal battles as brave queens in the sarkanda beds. We had known and understood the land and its creatures well, even as children. We knew its dangers, its treasures and its pleasures and had worked at our daily negotiation with it. Fertile, lush, rich in diversity, dangerous, nurturing and threatening…it spoke to us in many hues, offered up many blessings, and filled our senses with wonder. Knowing it as we did, we were at home. We were watchful, and yet we surrendered. We were different strands woven together into a seamless tapestry. Perfectly embedded notes in a collective symphony. Jarring notes might have disrupted the flow in the recent past, but now there were corrective forces afoot.
The call of the lark and cuckoo before monsoon and the dance of the peacock to celebrate rain clouds are all markers of the movement of time and the creator’s presence.
I saw reason for hope. Baba Jeewan Ji was onto a great initiative, and it was part of my research to monitor the wetland toxicity data before and after his interventions. He was working closely with the University, and for a man following the ancient path of the ascetics he was surprisingly attuned to modern science, and fascinated by the internet, data and laboratory work. I saw something new and better coming to Shahpur. The project for reviving the wetland had been going spectacularly well. People listened to Baba Ji because of his rustic speech and folk references, and he built his program of action on sound scientific facts and methodology. I started spending more time with Baba Ji, and Malti and my childhood memories soon receded from my everyday routine.
The one habit of my childhood that did not fade away was my daily recitation of Gurbani. The Japji Sahib every morning, and the Sukhmani Sahib each evening. And sometimes, I would read the Janm Sakhis, or the Barah Maha, and would be reminded that every season and every life form is part of the same circle of creation. Daddy had introduced me to the Barah Maha verses, which praise nature’s bounty as a celebration of the Supreme in all the seasons. The call of the lark and cuckoo before monsoon and the dance of the peacock to celebrate rain clouds are all markers of the movement of time and the creator’s presence. With every turn of the sphere we live on, nature shifts gears, and the land sheds one ensemble of its bouquet of flowers and fruits, for another. The mango and the aak and the dhatura, the mosquitoes and gnats and the bumblebees and the birds, the water reeds and the soft spring grasses, and the dark dry bare twigs of winter, are all emanations of the same force, rising from and dissolving into the One creator.
The jheel has changed much over a few months. The cover of hyacinth reduced enough to let sunlight reach into the depths. Little tadpoles swarmed in the shallows next to where Malti and I sat on the sandbank. Frogs croaked in the sarkanda cluster behind us. Far ahead on the horizon the Shivalik hills rolled on towards the snows of the Dhauladhar. A couple of days more of monitoring and then I would be done with this part of the research. Follow-up data would be gathered for another year, and then we would have conclusive proof of a reversal. I could feel vitality and new life rising already around me.
In a few years there would again be found on the menu sweet and juicy mulberry, the tangy astringent palate teasing jamun, and the sharp and acidic ber, and not just kiwi and cherry and Alphonso mango imported from miles away. Bahera and lasura would once again be part of the repertoire of pickles made locally. Organic farming of native fruit trees was being received well in the farms in the region. The network of Viraasat Kheti volunteers was growing in numbers and resources. The good work and good word of a few was now rippling across in wider and wider circles. It was better than a return to memories of childhood. It was a step into new beginnings. I had so wanted Malti to be apart of this work. But she would not agree.
The morning Malti met me here, just outside our site office, I had let my hopes rise. “So all is well with your project work? When do you wind up and leave for home?”
“Maybe in two three days. I have not decided.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“I don’t know…depends on the thesis. But I am more or less done with this work. Next are my exams for the lecturship.“
“I have go away from here Raavi. I really have to. Could I come with you?”
“Oh of course, Malti. Mummy and Daddy Ji will also be so happy to see you. Oh, I should have asked you myself.” I hugged Malti and wondered why I had felt that I had not quite rekindled my childhood connection with her. She was still my almost-sister. She was going home with me. I had just not been able to see it sooner.
“Raavi, you need to know something before you take me home.” She hesitated, looking at me with a questioning, assessing gaze.
“Is it money you are worried about? The travel expense? I should be able to manage.”
“No. I have a new job. Or a project you could say. But I need your help.” Her chin shook as she gulped back more words. She sat down near me, on the sandbank and stared out at the wetland.
“Have you signed up with Baba Ji’s team then? Good! Better late than never. You can see the lake is already so much better. It is a great start.”
“No Raavi. The jheel is much better. I had not believed it could change. Baba Ji and you were right. But that’s not what I mean.” She kept staring out across the water.
“So what is this project then? Growing organic vegetables, like some of the farms around here have started?”
She did not turn to look at me. “There is this couple, very nice people, from LA. They are paying me well. But obviously it is a secret, and I need to go away. It is surrogacy, Raavi.”
Words died in my throat. My arms were so leaden I could not lift them to reach out and touch her.
She looked at me, chin up and eyes coldly boring into mine.
“Here everything was banjar. At least I will make good money with this. Just tell me if I can come with you.”
I nodded weakly. We were together in this. Just like in the days of our childhood.