Bond that guards

Against all Odds

Manichandra, Bensi and Rubaiya. Hindu, Christian, Muslim. Best friends from childhood who spend most of their waking hours in each others company. Wives and mothers who pray that nothing will ever part them.

But that’s just part of the story. Manichandra, Bensi and Rubaiyya are also forest guards who wrench smuggled liquor bottles from macho revellers, prevent desperate couples from committing suicide and stop would be rapists and murderers in their tracks.

I met these three women one hot summer day in the middle of the forest on the path leading to the picturesque Soochipara falls in Wayanad district of Kerala. The noon sun was scorching and there was not a single other tourist in sight. The group of forest guards at the entrance had told me it was safe for me to walk alone because there were women guards inside the forest.

Women forest guards? Would they make a difference I wondered as I walked along the path? The secluded walk winding through the tree canopy had not always been safe. Could it really have changed? The forest was absolutely still and silent except for the sound of insects and of my own footfalls.

I looked around apprehensively wondering what I would do if there were any drunken picnickers or thugs lurking around. Would the women guards be able to protect me? Would they be armed? Would they be dressed in battle fatigues?

Rubaiyya, Bensi and Manichandra appeared silently and suddenly from inside the forest and started walking beside me as I struggled down the steep winding forest path. They were dressed in every day clothes... Rubaiyya and Bensi in salwar kameez, Manichandra in a sari. Rubaiyya had her head and body covered in traditional Muslim style and the other two women wore coats. Bensi held a small stick in her hand but otherwise they were totally unarmed.

“Living in the city makes you soft,” Manichandra remarked almost philosophically as she gave me her hand and helped me down a particularly difficult patch. “I am a grandmother,” I gasped as my foot slid on the pebbles. “So am I,” she replied. “But don’t worry. I have lived here all my life. I am used to these paths. You stay here a few days and you could get used to it too.”

Stay there a few days? In those sylvan surroundings? It certainly looked idyllic, but I knew it could hardly be so. “Take a rest,” Bensi told me pointing to a boulder. “Rubaiyya will stay with you. Chandra Chechi and I have to take care of something.”
“They are looking for a couple.” Rubaiyya explained as she settled herself on a rock next to me. “We saw them going in about two hours ago, but we did not see them coming out.”

“Why? What do you think could have happened to them?” I asked. “There are no wild animals in this forest. In fact, I don’t even see any people.”

“Today there are not many tourists and on such quiet days anything can happen,” Rubaiyya replied. “Last year, a man and woman came here. They looked like a very loving couple. But when he left he went alone. We did not notice this. Next day we found her body in the bushes. Also there are lovers who come to commit suicide at the falls. Like in the movies.” Bensi and Chandra were waiting for us further down the path. They still had not found the lost couple.
As we walked down, the three women told me how they had become forest guards. Sometime ago the panchayat had decided to take over the administration of the surrounding forest. Local men and women who knew the terrain well were recruited to patrol the two km area and to keep a watch near the falls. “We have lived here all our lives,” Rubaiyya said cheerfully. “We are used to walking up and down the path. Also we know this area well and we are not afraid.”

I asked them how they could be guards when they were so totally unarmed. Bensi pointed out that there were about a dozen of them spread out over the area. They could call out to each other for help. Besides there were also some local people who had set up small snack stalls along the forest path. They too could rush to the rescue.
The panchayat committee wanted to make it safe for ordinary tourists which meant the picnickers with liquor bottles had to be tackled. “Even now we haven’t fully solved the problem,” Bensi said with a laugh. “Somehow they try to smuggle bottles hidden under their clothing. We don’t hesitate to wrench it away from them.”

“Look at this,” Manichandra said picking up a discarded bit of clothing with a stick. “They go and bathe under the falls and they shed their old dirty clothes here. They have no sense.”  A young male forest guard came up the slope. “We found them,” he said. “They are there still near the waterfalls. They are sitting behind a rock.” The three women looked relieved.

And so, as we walked along, they shared their stories with me. They had to account for every tourist who entered the forest. They told me of the couple who had left a packet of temple prasad with the guards at the forest entrance and forgotten to take it back. At the end of the day when everyone had gone and the packet was still there, there was panic. Had the couple come out? Could they have committed suicide after visiting a temple? Luckily one woman guard remembered seeing them leave.  Anyway for safe measure, they scoured the forest before they went home that night.

The three women loved their work. They did not mind walking up and down dozens of time a day. They felt safer inside their forest than they ever would inside a big city. And when they went home to their families they were proud of the money they had earned.
Finally, I stood under a tree enjoying the tranquil beauty of the Soochipara falls. My      cked under the water. Some couples sat on the rocks. I spotted some more women guards near the falls. Everything was safe and comfortable at Soochipara and women like Manichandra, Bensi and Rubaiyya had helped to make it so.

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