TRANSLATED FROM THE HINDI BY RITUPARNA MUKHERJEE
Anita leaves her sheep to graze on reaching the Balmi Hill and sits next to a large rock amidst the mound of rocks. There was a hail storm last night and harsh, cold winds have been blowing since morning. But where does Anita have the comfort of a warm shawl? She sleeps with two bedclothes at night and in the morning wraps herself with them to keep warm. She is wearing two torn shirts underneath the bedspread. The shirts belong to her farmer brothers living next to her. Her poor mother can only extend this limited help to her widowed and fatherless daughter.
She looks all around her. Everything is wet- the leaves, the bushes, the branches and the grass. She will not be able to light a fire. She looks at the red, glowing, bulb-like sun at a distance as if by merely staring at it her cold and damp muscles would get a semblance of warmth.
She calls out to her seven-year-old daughter, walking in a school uniform, in the direction of the rising sun-
‘Did you keep the flatbreads in your box?’
‘Not a box Amma, its tiffin.’
‘Ah, yes, that. Don’t forget to pray to the God Madiya on your way.’
Her daughter moves ahead. Anita returns to the stones with habitual worry on her face. It is not a very safe time for girls- she thinks, scared, looking at the empty road ahead of her. But the world has always been bad for the girls! Thinking this, she says to herself-
‘Amma never allowed me to go to the school in the village at the foot of the hills. If I had some education, I would have been able to at least open a grocery shop or sell something going door to door. Every form of job requires some education and education only comes from school.’
‘What are you mumbling by yourself?’
Jamuniya leaves her three sheep next to Anita’s, rubs both her hands and sits next to Anita.
‘It’s really cold today”- she covers half her face with her torn shawl.
‘Let the day progress some more, the winds will quell and we will be able to light a fire’ – Anita collects some twigs and branches and keeps them on the stone.
‘And even if the winds don’t stop, we will have to pass the day somehow!’
Sitting on the rocks, Jamuniya stares at the sheep. Anita’s sheep is of a slightly better breed and is grazing with her three lambs. It is pregnant.
‘Will your sheep give birth by the full moon?’
‘Hopefully. May the God Madiya protect her.’
Anita considers the small stack of bricks, Madiya, formed in the forest next to the hillside village, her protector. She calls out to her God quietly in her mind- ‘Lord! Protect this treasure of life- my school-going daughter and my precious sheep grazing in front.’
‘Only you have a sheep of such good breed in the entire village.’
‘I have only been able to get her selling my silver necklet, Bhabhi. It was my last piece of jewelry.’
‘When you have sold your silver, don’t worry, you will soon see better days. Mark my words- within a year you mother and daughter will have better clothes on your back and your household will have wheat and lentils.’
Jamuniya Bhabhi says such good words! That is why Anita always shares everything with her.
‘I am going to sell the lambs that she births in the market at Bhopal on Eid. Then I will keep a male sheep. I just hope this year passes by somehow for us mother and daughter.’
‘Your brothers have been really unkind to you. Between the two of them they own ten bigha s of your ancestral farmland. But they didn’t even give one bigha land to you, their widowed sister! And your mother! She is an enemy of her own daughter!’
‘No Bhabhi, at least I have been able to put up a makeshift cottage next to their house because of Amma. She sometimes brings a handful of grains or sugar hiding from my sisters-in-law. I ask her not to do that.’
‘Well, what else can the poor, old widow do? She herself suffers from a lack of food under the lordship of her two daughters-in-law. A woman is only worth something in presence of her husband.’
Anita recalls her own husband. Her in-law’s family was large and farming wasn’t enough to sustain all of them. So, her husband had gone to work for a stone crasher. Working with stones regularly for three-four years had damaged his lungs, they were full of stone remnants. She got neither support nor financial help from her in-laws for her husband’s treatment. She spent three months at a government hospital looking after her ill husband. It was a hellish life there, especially with her young daughter. She couldn’t get a bed for her husband in the hospital. She lay her husband in the general ward spreading a bedcover in one corner. Sometimes the doctor would come. She would get the medicines at times, and would be refused other times. She had survived there with much difficulty amidst the rebuke of the nurses and the ill-intentioned cleaners so that her breadwinner could survive. But alas God Madiya! His death was her life’s most unfortunate memory. The district hospital had not even provided her an ambulance to take her husband’s corpse home. Anita had carried her husband’s corpse on her shoulders alone and clutching her daughter’s wrist firmly, she had walked fifteen kilometres to her husband’s home. She was kicked out of that house on the thirteenth day of her husband’s death. What place did a widow’s daughter have in their property?
The sun is brighter now. Jamuniya and Anita have gathered twigs and dried leaves and made a fire.
‘Your daughter has started going to the school as soon as she came here. You have also built your cottage. Are you being able to manage things well?’
‘I had a heavy copper water container and a pair of small anklets. I also had a brass platter. I sold them all the day before yesterday and purchased grocery from the village market. We have food provisions for a few days. I hope I get some payment for labour work by that time.’
‘What kind of labour work?’
‘Why are you joking Bhabhi? The two of us had worked together for the Panchayat drainage work. Did you get your payment? When I went yesterday the Sarpanch told me that the government does not have money at present and asked me to come three days later when the government would send him some money.’
‘You must have come to graze sheep while it was still dark. Everyone in the village knows about this as soon as the day broke. Don’t you know what has happened?’
‘Both the Sarpanch and his secretary have fled.’
‘Yes, they took money from the government to construct toilets in every mud house and concrete house in the village and kept it for themselves. We heard that the police were supposed to arrest them today, which is why they fled while it was still dark.’
‘What about our payment now?’- Anita’s eyes fill with tears.
Jamuniya thinks of asking Anita to forget about the money but she cannot bring herself to say it.
Anita opens a piece of cloth while warming herself in the fire. She had brought one of last night’s stale flatbread with her and kept two for her daughter- one that she would have eaten in the morning and the other taken to school.
Warmed by the fire, Anita eats her flatbread in silence. Jamuniya hands over a slice of onion and some pickle to Anita from her lunch box. Anita eats that quietly.
‘Anita, dear, would you mind the sheep for a while? I will come back shortly after finishing some chores.’
Jamuniya leaves. Anita knows that she wouldn’t return until late afternoon. People collect the value of even a slice of onion and some pickle!
The sheep are grazing. There is no one around. Anita gets up on the peepul tree near her and starts collecting leaves. No one should see her. Why can’t women climb trees? At least women like her should be free of these restrictions because their sheep feel hungry at night. Anita collects leaves quickly and starts throwing them on the sheet spread underneath. She will collect her sheep’s fodder for the night and keep them tied in the sheet before any shepherd comes this way. As soon as she gets some money, she will buy a sickle so that she won’t have to climb the peepul. She will be able to cut branches from the babul and berry bushes and bring them home.
Anita is lost in her thoughts of peepul leaves and sickle and she is unaware of the warnings that the environment gives when a predator is around.
Suddenly the air around her is suffused with the noise of the bleating sheep. She can’t hear her own sheep’s scream from among them. When she looks down from the tree, she sees a leopard already grabbing hold of her sheep’s neck.
Anita jumps down from the tree in half a moment- ‘Oh my sheep!’
She pulls the leopard by its waist and with all her strength throws it to one side. It falls on the stones.
Anita hugged her sheep. No! The wounds are not deep. She will live!
While she is inspecting the wounds, the leopard comes and grabs hold of her sheep’s rear side in its paws. Its claws dig into the sheep’s pregnant stomach and it screams in a death-like voice.
‘You animal!’ Anita grabs the leopard by its neck with one of her hands and pushes it away with her other hand. In trying to get away, the sheep slips and falls. Anita shields it and stands in front of the leopard- she had both her life and her life’s investment on line.
The hungry leopard jumps at them again- but now its prey was not the sheep but the shepherdess.
Anita falls with the impact. The leopard grabs hold of her shirt collar. Its claws and teeth could not reach her skin properly through the two layers of shirt and Anita again pushed it away with all her might. The leopard has torn bits of the shirt in its mouth. Its prey’s neck is now fully open for it to sink its teeth. Anita throws a stone at the animal that hits its jaw but the leopard neither flinches nor does it remove its eyes from her.
The leopard lunges at Anita with its final assault. While the animal tries its best to sink its claws and teeth in her neck, she kicks and punches it with all her might. …And at a distance, in the school, her daughter is studying, her daughter who has no one in this world other than Anita.
Two…four…seven… the leopard falls to one side with the eighth punch. Its face bleeds profusely. And before the hunter can regain its senses, the prey gets a hold of herself. Anita picks up a burning branch that she had used a while back to light a fire.
The other shepherds are running towards her.
The wounded sheep stumbles and then manages to stand upright.
The bleeding leopard runs towards the forest, and Anita runs after it brandishing the burning branch in her hand.