Thursday, August 5, 2010

When we broke the Silence in Valley...

When my friend and I chose Silent Valley National Park as our destination to chill out for two days, we were bombarded by queries about safety of two girls going there without any male company. Though we were put up a brave face, we were a little apprehensive when we finally boarded the bus to Mukkali, the place where the forest station is located, from Mannarkad.
Drizzle on and off failed to dampen our spirits. We reached Mukkali by 2.30 pm on July 26 Monday. The place resembled location of an award-winning Malayalam movie... a dilapidated bus-stand, people in humble village costumes, tea shops from where one could catch up with Akashavani... We took an autorickshaw to the forest inspection bungalow not knowing it was so close by. Also, my friend was reluctant to walk up with her bag which she claimed was ‘too heavy’.We reached the spacious inspection bungalow nestling amid soothing green. We were thrilled to find that a gushing sound that surprised us was that of a river flowing by the side of the bungalow. “We are going to stay here!!!” We screamed with joy.
The security at the bungalow showed us our room — Kunthi — named after a river. Other rooms too were named after rivers. We were the only occupants in the palatial bungalow that day. But once we got in touch with the forest officers and guards, our safety concerns were cast aside. They were so warm and extended all support for our safe stay there. In the evening, we went out for a walk in the drizzle. We first enjoyed the Bhavani river which was gushing after the rain. Then took a walk up the road which had green and only green on either sides. This is a small village, and any outsider is easily spotted. Or else, why should there have been many curious faces peering at us? Soumya, a social worker at Silent Valley, made us feel at home and guided us.
We had informed the restaurant nearby, run by an old couple, that we wanted dinner. Since there are very few clientele, if you don’t inform early, they shut shop and go to sleep by 7.30pm! Had yummy home-like food by 8 pm and had no choice but to go to bed by 8.30! Television is yet to intrude into the cosiness of the forest bungalow. We were up early in the morning, thrilled to set out on the jungle trip by 9. The Eco-Development Committee’s jeep took us into the depths of the green there. Driver-cum-guide Vinod was so friendly that he even picked and threw away leeches from my leg when I screamed for help. Huge trees and lovely mountain streams welcomed us all the way. Vinod showed us the favourite food of lion-tailed macaque, the unique species of Silent Valley National Park. Not-so-smooth ride for 22 km, which takes more than an hour, took us to the entrance of the core area of the Park. One more kilometre inside, we were asked to get down and walk. Forest buildings and information centres were located there. Cloudy sky had almost rendered the place look as if it was 7 pm though it was just 11.30 am! To make it worse, the area was engulfed in thick mist. We headed towards the watch tower which was 100- feet tall. My friend and our guide who were least bothered about my fear for heights forced me to leave it behind and follow them. At the height of 100 feet we shivered in the effect of heavy wind and mist. Though one of the forest guards had told us there was a heard of elephants at the mountain slope just opposite, thick mist blocked the view. Though disappointed at not being able to see any animals, the entire ambience had a thoroughly recharging effect. Later we headed for river Kunthi, which was 1.3 km walk from there. The innumerable leeches that got on to my feet freaked me out. We were armed with a packet of salt to fight them. End of the trek, we were awed by the wild beauty that welcomed us by the side of river Kunthi, untouched by humans. The hanging bridge over it that connects to the other core areas of the park, the wild flowers and deep green all around provided a breath-taking view.
There was just enough time for us to pack our bags and leave the place after the trek and ride back. We were so surprised by the way they take care of the reserve forest area. The entire 23 km we travelled inside the forest, there was not a single plastic paper to distract us from enjoying the beauty of the wild. Praiseworthy team work by the forest department. We clicked pictures at all possible points as proof to make our friends believe that we did go into the wild successfully! We returned with a lot more images which the camera couldn’t hold. Green memories... which promise to be ever-green.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

My maiden tryst with moral police

I was in Wayanad on February 22 for one of my close friend's brother’s wedding. I stayed back for another day too see some places over there. On February 23 evening, as one of our scheduled programmes had to be cancelled due to some reasons, we didn’t have any plan till the time of my bus to Bangalore which was at 11.30 pm. My friend A, who was my junior in college and his classmate (B) were with me. Three of us went to Pazhassi tomb and spend some time when we got a call from C, a friend of A. He and his friend D were going to Valliyoorkavu temple to perform a puja. The temple happened to be the same place where A's brother got married. We also thought of going with them. I was the only girl in the group.

Since we were roaming around in the sun since morning and were not fresh, I decided not to enter the temple. We went in C's car and parked the vehicle outside the temple, which is on a hilly area. Other than the tarred road uphill, there is another way through which you can reach the temple. ‘A’ asked if we can go down through that way and wait for the others on the main road when they return from the temple in the car, just for me to see the place. It was around 7.45 pm then. Since ‘B’ had sprained his back, we asked him not to walk down and come with C and D in the car. He sat on one of the steps while I walked down along with A. C and D had gone inside the temple.

We came down to the main road on the side of which is the Thazhekkavu (the same temple's extension). The one in which our friends went was Melekkavu. There was a huge banyan tree on the temple premises on the side of the road and we decided to sit under that till our friends return. There was a car parked just on the way which we came with some people inside. We didn't bother and were talking, enjoying the fine weather and fresh air which I got to relish after long.

After a while, the car left. Two men who were left there came to us, both in their late 40s or early 50s. They started questioning us as to why we were sitting there at that time. We told them politely our friends were at the temple and were waiting for them. By then it was 8.10 pm or something. He just ignored it sarcastically saying, "Nothing usually happens at the temple this time. We know what time it closes."

We looked at him wondering what he means as he continued: "Many things happen here these days. We want to know why you are here." He again asked where was my friend from to which he replied "I'm from here only." The man , "Here only means, you belong to the temple premises?"

We again told them the same things and asked him to go and check if he has any doubts. We told them: "A red Indica car is parked outside the temple, two of our friends are inside. If you have doubts, one of you can stand here and the other can go up and check."

One of them, who stinks of alcohol even from a distance, took out his phone and called (or pretended to call) somebody in the temple. After that he said with a lewd grin: "Nobody is there. Now tell us why are you two here." He also started asking A, "are you married or are you her brother"! (As if he would have believed if we were really married or we were siblings!)

By then we started losing our patience. I told A, "You come, we will wait on the road." There was a cement bench at the bus stop right in front of the place where we were sitting. The man who was visibly agitated by our move ignoring him, said: "Haaahh.. you can't sit anywhere in this area without answering our questions."

My friend who was annoyed by then, said: "I don't feel it necessary to answer to your queries further." They wanted to call the police. We told we were more than ready to answer policemen than answering them.

Moral police no. 1 (I will refer to him as MP1 and the other one MP2) took out his phone again and called somebody and said: "Hey, ithoru kesukettanennu thonnunnu, ningal ingu pore" (a derogatory way of conveying to the other person that there's something fishy between both of us, along with asking them to come to the spot).

In no time, we were surrounded by some 15-20 men, some of them drunk and of all age groups from the locality, shooting off questions one after another. Still we didn''t budge. All of them were of the opinion that they won't let anything "immoral" which doesn't suit to their "culture" to happen in their locality!

One of them, who appeared to be a gentleman, came and asked politely about our details. My friend didn’t find any trouble in answering him and told him all our details. In fact, all of them who gathered there knew my friend's father who is popular in the area.

Then MP1 screamed, "See, he didn't tell us he is Vijayan's son neither did he tell us where he is from. Then all these would not have happened." This infuriated me. I asked them whether they would have let my friend do anything there if they had known that he was Vijayan's son! Amid discussions and shouts, they decided to solve the issue saying that now things are clear.

My friend and I refused. We insisted that police come and sort it out. We said we wanted to know from police whether they have handed over moral policing rights to the local people. My friend called up his cousin and asked him to call the police by when our other friends had come back from the temple. They were not even allowed to talk to us. Each of them were surrounded by small group of the MP gang.

Within 10 minutes, police from Mananthavady station came and listened to the issue. He blasted the gang asking who had given them the rights to question others and take law in their hands. They put both the men who questioned us in the jeep and asked us to accompany them to the station in our car, to which the locals protested. They wanted us also get into the jeep, to which we readily agreed!

We went to the police station and waited for a few minutes for the sub-inspector to come. In the meantime, they had recorded our statements. I presented the issue before the SI. After listening to both views, he told the two MPs in a harsh tone: “This is a problem with Malayalis all over the world. What is the problem if a girl and a boy talks or does whatever they want? Who are you to question them? When Rahul Gandhi came with his girlfriend to Kumarakom, why didn’t you all go and protest there? What do you all think? Who asked you to take care of the security of entire Valliyoorkavu? If you see any trouble, you better come here and report. The rest we will take care.”

MP1 who was in the forefront shouting at us, didn’t have a word to utter other than, “Sorry sir, we won’t repeat this...” The SI went on: “Last month, some ‘diseased’ men like you went and put up a drama in front of a hotel room where apparently a man and a girl stayed. Finally they turned out to be father and daughter! Aren’t you ashamed? At least show the maturity of your age.”

By the time we got message from our friends that the local men were blocking our friends’ car. MP1 came with an ‘offer’ saying: “Nothing to worry.. I will ask them to release the car...” much to the annoyane of the SI. He said: “I know how to release them. You need not interfere”, and left with his men to the spot where our friends were stuck.

In another few minutes, our friends came back and the two MPs were given a good lesson by the police. They were also asked to go to court and pay a fine on a particular date. We told the police that we had nothing against those men. But we felt that if we (all of us working with the media) don’t respond, who else will! We made it clear that this shouldn’t happen to anyone else who are outsiders. In our case, at least my friend was from the same area and had the identity of his father which he could have used (but he didn’t). What if some other friends were caught by such men and they had no way to escape! Moreover, we didn’t want to give them an impression that we were accepting their accusations by keeping quiet.

With high regard for the policemen who didn’t let moral police defame their locality, let me tell you friends, such incidents may happen anywhere at any time. But please react. We shouldn’t let such self-styled moral police thrive at the cost of our self respect and fundamental rights.