In Shimla on Christmas Eve, I am witness to an animated discussion. A journalist, an academic and an activist are talking about gender issues, privatization and politics. The mood swings from pessimism to optimism. Many anecdotes are brought up. I am told that women have started using the political space and are more comfortable with authority as the men have taken to alcohol completely.
The women have started brewing alcohol at home. A drunkard at home is better than a drunkard outside.
So that explains why women are such vigorous participants in an agriculture rally.
I am now in a village. This is a discussion between the villagers and a few activists, largely pertaining to the problem of wild animals which destroy all crop. The previous day, the activists had organized the farmers into a rally, which was fairly successful at least in terms of media coverage. An old man is vehement about the relatively small turn out and how the villagers are not ready to do anything about their problems. Vikram is a former youth leader and ready with answers. The activists have recently tasted blood while winning a separate case against a powerful lobby in a very short span of time.
The old man gets to the point. “The next time, get us a bus to come to the rally spot. And make arrangements for food.”
We are interrupted by the flourishing entry of the Pradhan (village head) and his entourage.
There is quiet a crowd now and the Pradhan begins to play to the gallery. He is radicalist and demands that the monkeys be completely removed. The activists struggle to explain ecology and conservation. During the rather short visit, I have seen them struggle with both the administration and now the villagers, whose case they are fighting.
The meeting ends positively though; the universal conclusion being that their unity is the most important.
I can’t help but think of the night when I am traveling to Shimla. There is a minor war for tickets because the holiday weekend is starting. My neighbour is a friendly young sardarji, made somewhat intimate by the common struggle for tickets. As the other neighbour takes out her laptop and watches an animation film, the sardarji makes polite enquiries about the purpose of my trip. I do look conspicuous- I am traveling alone and have no reservation in a hotel. I explain that there is a farmer rally. I immediately get the first visible signs of boredom. I decide to push my luck and see how far I can stretch this conversation. I start explaining the entire story. A yawn and bored look follow.
I give up soon, and decide to worry about place to stay for the next few days. For towns such as Shimla, long weekends mean tourist and that means business. And that dwarfs life and all such sundries.
The bus speeds to Shimla, the town all geared up for gaiety. A tourist family passes by the rally and the kid is overwhelmed by the activity. “Some union”, explains the father and whisks the child away to where the pastry shops are.
It is somehow both humorous and embarrassing to be begged by elderly women. But their livelihood is at stake and they think you can help.
In the villages, when the women are told that I am from Delhi, they take me to be from the government and soon start pleading because their lives have been put at stake by wild animals. In the hills, it is the women who manage fields, homes, children, kitchens. And it is them who are the most affected, because the monkeys know their victims.
When the sun begins to set, they have to hurry home. “The politicians keep coming back for votes. And after elections, they refuse to so much as acknowledge us. Let them come this time, we are not going to vote”, they sign off, barely able to control rage.
I don’t know what to feel.
Shimla is cold. That doesn’t deter tourists. This is winters, so the residents are not being deprived of water. My host tells me of hotels that have functional swimming pools in summers; this is done on the sly because water from residential areas is diverted to them. Big business means big money and that means big power. Power to divert water indeed!
I start sweating when I am with the officials.
That’s because I am dressed for the cold weather outside of their plush offices.
Here is trivia from one of the village meetings. The activists circulate a piece of paper for villagers to write their names and sign. There are 16 signatures at this spot, 11 done in English, 5 in Hindi; 12 men and 4 women. One woman does not write her name herself and the signature is shaky too. I am not sure if that is because of an injury or if she is not too sure of the signature itself.
In the space for phone numbers, 6 leave it blank, 6 give a landline, 3 give out mobile numbers and one labels “nil”.