The memory came alive as I sat down to transcribe the recordings from the field. All I could hear was “pach-pach” and “sha-sha” behind my own heavy breathing from walking. And then there was a sudden swoosh…the moment I tumbled into the creek, giving myself and the phone a royal mud bath. It is all recorded for posterity, to flaunt my adventures to my children.
My male field guides hesitated in giving me a hand, until I asked them. And then a discussion ensued on how to clean the phone. All its ports were jammed. A twig, a handkerchief and a mangrove leaf were procured in that order and the phone was functional again. Secretly, I was relieved that the discussion had shifted from the fall. It was embarrassing for me as everybody else breezed through the swamp so confidently. I also found myself smiling at the fuss over the phone. On every field trip to a rural area, I am amazed how people adopt your problems and start working on the solution.
The basic premise of journalism is to question everything. The trait bleeds into daily life and the suspicious nature gets ingrained. Sometimes, however, one is compelled to throw doubts to the wind and embrace the course of nature. And as one submits, humanity becomes our ally too, in small but profound ways. A recent field trip to report on mangrove plantations in Gujarat was a lesson in trusting nature and humanity.
In April this year, I travelled to Jambusar, a remote coastal block in the state’s Bharuch district to understand the impact of multi-species mangrove plantations on local people and environment.
Ramesh bhai Kotechia, my field guide met me outside a school in Jambusar and we went to Devjagan Nada, a village about eight kilometres from the coast, where the season’s last plantation was going on before the summer set in. Dry landscape surrounded the road to Devjagan. There were a few salt pans, an occasional shrimp farm and empty fields. “The water in Jambusar is saline so there is very little agriculture. But one gets the best wheat and desi (indigenous variety) cotton here, as it is all rainfed. But a little extra rain and nothing will grow,” Ramesh bhai (in Gujarat, the common way of addressing adult males is bhai, which means brother and females as ben, which means sister) told me.
The four-wheeler could only go till a point in Devjagan from where four people from Ramesh Bhai’s team joined us and we travelled by motorbikes. I rode pillion to Kanti bhai who showed me an old light house made of very thin bricks. “The sea used to be till here back then,” he said. We were still five kilometres from where the sea was now. A little ahead, we crossed an old man on a bicycle with a small pile of “tawar” (mangrove) leaves. Kanti bhai told me when nothing else grows in the sweltering summers, tawar is an important source of green fodder. I wanted to talk to the old man but Kanti bhai said we are late. It was just 10 am and I could not fathom this. “Maybe he doesn’t want me to interact with locals who might reveal the truth about the plantation project,” my suspicious mind set to work…till we reached an embankment.
To reach the plantation site, we had to walk for two kilometres through dense mangroves. Except it was not a walk. Every step was knee-deep, with a crab popping out when the foot went inside. There was no way I could see above the six feet tall mangroves as I walked two-feet below the ground level. Ramesh bhai had brought along a jute rope to tie our footwear and carry them on our shoulders like a backpack. Wearing them in the swamp was not an option as it made lifting the feet more difficult. In middle school biology, we had learned – and forgotten – the function of the gap between our toes. I recalled the lesson when I lost grip, thanks to the mud stuck between toes. The sturdy mangrove stalks became my support now.Along the way, I dropped off the stringed sandals, walking straight was the priority. A few steps further, my bag’s strap gave away. Then, the notebook and after the grand fall, the phone also had to be deposited in Ramesh bhai’s backpack. That explained the muffled recordings later.
It took us an hour to cross the dense mangrove patch and random thoughts pervaded my mind. “Why did I wear white today? The kids would have really enjoyed jumping in the mud. What if the crab bites? How life flourishes happily in this saline mishmash. What if there is quicksand here and I get sucked into it? I am in safe company. I should not have insisted on seeing the plantation site and just satisfied myself with interviews of people I met in the village…focus, focus on walking.”
The forest cleared up and eerie brown tentacles began showing up around two-year-old mangrove plants. As Kanti bhai explained aerial roots to me, I heard someone mention snakes in Gujarati. I insisted on being included in the conversation. They were talking about the dog-faced water snake, locally called pontha. Mildly venomous, it is found in the mangroves. I am usually not scared of snakes but the vision of me stepping on one sent a shiver down the spine.
Just then, along with “sha-sha” and “pach-pach”, comforting human voices filled the scene. We had reached the plantation site on mudflats that were newly created by accretion. Ramesh bhai announced that I had two hours to do my job. My earlier doubt about Kanti bhai not letting me to talk to the old man had melted by now. The tide would return at 2 pm and we had to return before that.
The whole atmosphere was of camaraderie. People hollered at each other. They had a target to meet before the tide inundated the area. The nursery, planted in plastic bags in October last year, was buried by accretion on the coast. Some dug out saplings while others carried them to rows earmarked for planting. Ninteeen-year-old Tejal jumped into the air and landed a foot in the marsh, making a hole deep enough for the sapling. Removing the bag, she would place the sapling in the hole and fixed the mud back with her feet…no tools required.
Imtiaz taught me how to catch the local delicacy lepta, the mudskipper, in two ways – one by casting the net and the other by irritating it out of its hole with a stick. I had to stop Dashrath when he picked up a crab and was proceeding to show me how the legs are broken and what parts to eat. I am not a vegetarian but didn’t want a juvenile crab killed only for demonstration.
Kanti bhai took us to the edge of the sea where there was only sand and no mudflats. Erosion should not always be dismissed as a negative phenomenon, he said. “It creates creeks that reach water to the mangroves far from the sea. The path that we came from would not have had mangroves if there was no creek,” he said.
We proceeded to meet the labour engaged in plantation. Jaya ben, a mother of two, gave me a chewing gum. “It helps one operate easily in such a terrain,” she said. Most of them chewed on tobacco instead of gum though.
Jaya stayed in Dewla, 12 kms from this site, at her parents’ place so that she could work here. Her husband stayed 50 kms away near a port where he works. Out of her two children, one stayed at her mother’s place, another at her in-laws’. “Now that there is some income, one of them goes to school,” she beamed.
Ramila ben donned orange nail paint. Ten years ago, she was a paniharin, a water bearer for the landlords in her village. “It feels good to work here, in the open…and then we get some fish too,” she said.
The Rathod community, to which the women belonged, is considered an outcast community in the villages of Jambusar, Ramesh bhai told me later. Their hutments are outside the village, where the sewer lines fall. There is no electricity, water connection or literacy. While outside, the village treats them as bonded labour, inside, they have to deal with drunk husbands. The relationship between poverty and alcoholism only got reinforced. Here in the swamp, it was obvious that Ramila and Jaya valued the work, not just for money but also for the sense of freedom that came with it.
On the way back, the mudflats had dried up, the cracks poking into bare feet. My white kurta bore evidence to the day’s adventure, a daily task for Ramila, Jaya, Imtiaz and Dashrath.
We returned to the Devjagan temple to clean up and have a lunch of thepla (thin bread), chutney and fruits that Ramesh bhai and others had brought from home. The staff travelled to various plantation sites on their motorbikes at least three times a week from as far as 30-70 kilometres away. Destroying nature is easy, rehabilitating it is not, despite the funds.
What drives me to report from villages? I often ask myself. Field trips like these, where a privileged me is humbled by environment and people, do. The tobacco studded guffaws of Ramila, Jaya and Tejal, persisting despite the unfair circumstances, do. Meeting unsung change-makers like Kotechia and Kanti bhai, does. Seeing the miracle that nature is, does.
(Published under Creative Commons from Mongabay-India. Read the original article here)