Sleepless in Wyanad

The following is an autobiographical extract written by one of the foremost women writers of Malayalam, P Valsala. Valsala is noted for her empathy with the adivasis of Wyanad whose tales she had written in Malayalam to the acclaim of Malayali readers. The short piece bewails the changes in environment and even the climate of Wyanad, a hill station near Kozhikode in Kerala. Written in the lyrical and poetic prose that is Valsala’s own, she mourns the dearth of water, the problems of the fauna in Wyanad and even the sorrow of the chamata flower that has bloomed all through the Brahmagiri valley. The flowers swirl their bloody tongues and curse the wind.

I want to see the mountains drench in the rain. The rain of the month of June! You should see the rain descend from the distant Karimala and walk through the green paddy fields that nestles in the Thirunalli forest. In the cities, the monsoon has become stronger.

Our host, Bharati Varasyar, says that it rains for six months in the forest and that the showers are a boon. I can imagine the rain, like my father, who walks along the paths bordering the fields, draped in a long mundu, its ends flapping in the wind. The gait of a man who had stayed in his place of work for a considerable period of time and who now hurries home to his beloved yet pretends to dawdle.

Then the coolness and the chilly wind! It is heavenly to relax on the verandah of my home in the forest glade, donning a sweater for warmth and face the wind that blows incessantly.

I have now bought a new blanket. It is put in a separate pack and is accompanying us in the journey through the winding, hilly roads. In the bus, which had downed all the rain shutters, we could hear the wail of the rain. We could not see it.

We reached Thirunalli by midday, a five-hour journey from Kozhikode. The sun shone like hot coals. When did we lose the rain? By the time we reached the town of Mananthavady, after climbing the road that wound around the mountains, all the rain shutters had been raised. The heat of the sun is intense in Wyanad.

A town that is set in the midst of a bonfire!

When did edavapathy, the June monsoon, bid adieu to this place? All the way to Wyanad there were dark green tropical forests. It has been five or six years since we came here. On either side of the road were hills denuded of their clothing. The teak trees that the government planted seemed all set to fall down in a faint like school children forced to stand listlessly in the assembly. Like a sexually assaulted virgin, Bavalipuzha swooned, dazed and dirty under the iron bridge that the British had constructed in the Begur village that bordered the forest. Entering the muddy water, the migrant cranes demand:

– Where is our river?

Perched high on the dry twigs of the small trees, the mountain squirrels ask:

– What is there for us to eat?

Among the rows of teak forests, with a raised head, an elephant circles the high mountains. The bamboo groves have been levelled for pulp. Not a shoot has sprouted. The tusker trumpeted as he remembered the sweetness of it. Not once but repeatedly. The heart of the forest trembled. The birds twittered. A dry wind blew. The passengers murmured,

– The Thirunally forests have died. Next we will die.

It is impossible to think of Thirunally village without forests. They recognize and experience the teak forests as unkind foster sons. I looked at the gaping cover containing our blanket and thought of our stupidity.

All along the road, we saw the cemetery of the various streams and rivers that had flowed west from Brahmagiri. Above them, like the guards of cemeteries were culverts. Yet I hoped for rains and coolness in Thirunally.

Thus it was that we descended before Baby Marar’s shop with the packet of blanket that seemed like a weight of insults. The blanket that spelled the pleasure of blessed coolness was transformed to a curse. Marar laughed. We decided to cross Bavalipuzha to enjoy the hospitality of Bharati Varasyar.

– Isn’t the bridge still there?

– There is no need of one, said Marar.

The pebbles that had always meditated in the chilly water of the forest, slippery and hence tricky, sweltered in the sun with shaven heads. It was possible to walk across. Like ancient memory, the water longed to soothe the stones with its cool touch.

Neither a water- fowl nor the colorful dragonflies that reveled in diving in the cool depths were visible. Nor were there, on the top of the rocks the dark toed, yellow beaked, white cranes that hopped on one foot. A harmless water snake hovered unwilling to enter the thick, muddy puddle.

We crossed the bridgeless, dry stream. Bharati Varasyar and Raghava Varyar were waiting for us in front of their but with a sincere smile.

– Teacher, it has been six years since you came last.

– The robbers of the forests first harvested our livelihood.

The paddy fields that had sprawled in front of the house lay parched and dying. The cool mountain rivulet that wound down through the shady woods in the back yard was silent.

Where was the stream that ran along the canal beyond the kitchen to play in the backyard?

They brought in the kindi, the water pitcher with a long spout, with water for us to wash our faces and our feet. The water does not soothe our heat. Nor does it make us aware that we are alive.

We stowed our luggage away. We were standing by life’s unkind highway. The hill, the dry forest, and the trees we plant – none of this will help you. You will have to reap what you sow!

I waited for the cool breeze of the night as I lay on the couch in the verandah. The forest is just behind me. My ears could not pick up the cackle of the tiny creatures of the yard.

The ignorant glowworms had festooned the sole, surviving, huge thenni tree. Through the pigeonhole in the window shutter, a breeze, devoid of coolness, crept like a rat snake.

The wakefulness ended. The village was asleep. The last vibration of the ethnic drums died when a thirsty, deer cried its distress. The lone leopard roared. But what happened to the owl that sought refuge at midnight in the attic? It may have been disappointed that there wasn’t a suggestion of the gleam of silver that betrayed the presence of fish in the dry streams. It may have flown away in quest of greener pastures.

I waited for some more time. I heard a sound as if something heavy had descended on the roof. The pair of owls had returned once more to seek comfort from the weight of life’s cares. One alighted on the rooftop and the other on the barn. Dry hay crackled. The he-owl asked


Uu-m-Uu-m replied the she-owl.

The cry of the fearful kitten that tried to crawl on to the mud wall through the roof tiles woke me up with a start.

The owl’s sharp and hungry talons fastened on the kitten and it spread its heavy wings in flight. Sleep bade me farewell.

It was past midnight. The forest stretch let loose a fraction of its kindness in the form of a cool breeze. I felt that the kitten was still crying out from the owl’s belly.

One could go into the inner room from the verandah and sleep comfortably. This mud but is neat and sturdy. Spread out bundles of straw comprised the roof. An air conditioned effect. Our host and his wife are already asleep in the verandah on the other side of the house. The kids too are in the verandah. The house proper was for storing household articles.

If we sleep within, behind closed doors, won’t the earth outside be orphaned? That is what these people say. Everything of value is beneath the open sky. The paddy fields are sleeping under the blanket of soft dew. The upper fields have already been harvested. In the threshing floor next to the house are two huge piles. One is the hay for the cattle. The other is the rick made of harvested sheaves of paddy. Harvested, dried sheaves piled up in a circular form, with the top portion set in the form of a round umbrella. It is roughly three heads tall. Its dark shadow stands pointing at the moonlight. The mixed aroma of old hay and new paddy rises up. The heart of the night breeze is overflowing. The breeze is slightly cold.

A cricket, calling the impending rain, unrolls its musical note as if its throat would burst.

Another one follows suit. Still another. A virtual orchestra.

Even if delayed, it will rain. I slept dreaming of the rain. I must have slept soundly. When I woke up hearing a clamour, it was dawn. Our host, his wife and children were talking loudly from the threshing floor.

We got up, relinquishing sleep.

The stream of water that had been sporting energetically in the bamboo conduit between the house and the threshing floor does not sound any more. The flow has been disrupted.

Fortunately, there is plenty of water in the tank.

Washing our faces, we rushed to the yard. The harvested rick was torn to pieces and in a total mess. Nothing has happened to the haystack!

Our host said in a disappointed tone – this has never occurred before, elephants breaking into threshing floors and feeding on the paddy. The promise made between forest elephants and countrymen has digressed from its course. Teak forests and acacia trees cannot be food for elephants. Weren’t we the ones who trespassed into the forest and attacked them first?

Bharati Varasyar pressed both hands against her forehead and stood still, looking at the fruits of a year’s slogging ripped to pieces.

Now what?

As you sow, so shall you reap!

The children cried out – he must be hiding in the forest. Standing there, irate at the dawn for having interrupted his feast midway.

Seeing us, our host said – It is good you did not hear the noise of the elephant. If you had shone the torchlight, he would have rushed straight at it.

No, we didn’t hear a sound. If we had, so much would not have been destroyed! What can we do? Do we have guns to shoot? No. Did we sleep with the kerosene tin by our side? No. Did we keep a torch dipped in kerosene ready to be lit? Even if you are armed with all this, he will eat what he wants. And go back. Now he is vengeful against humans. He has endured the pain of sharp arrows and bullets. Humans and animals are now enemies. How can we survive here, sir Raghava Varyax seemed to say without moving his lips — he suppressed all his sorrow in a single look.

Bharati Varasyar climbed into the forest along the route of the bamboo conduit to restore the broken flow of water. How courageous of her!

There is nothing to be scared of. Once full, he had of his own will gone back into the forest.

Four days passed. The crickets’ song turned futile. The rain never came. The rain clouds stood far above, looking anxiously at the teak and acacia forests on the earth. They sighed and slowly moved towards the east. The dried up cloud chains went to other lands in search of an asylum.

Varasyar said – the stream is drying up. What is to be done?

Nobody answered.

The `chamata’ has bloomed all through the Brahmagiri valley. The flowers swirl their bloody tongues and curse the wind.

Searing heat inside and outside the hut.

The shivering, cold dusks have faded like a dream. Will they be lost from memory forever?

Of course not. Time is cyclic. There is hope that everything will return.

Bharati Varasyar lit the lamp. She kept a lighted wick at the qulasithara’ in the yard. A flame of life burns in her body withered by a lifetime of toil. She is praying:

— may it rain soon!

— before the land becomes barren rock.

—before the monsoon winds disappear having lost their sense of time and direction.

An unknown hand lights another lamp on the mountains in the east. The shrunken hands of the forest trees rub against each other and enter into a debate with the chamata trees. The chamatas, like goddess Raktachamundeswari, go into a ritualistic frenzy.

The forest is on fire:. Mother, come and have a look! The children hollered.

This was the only thing waiting to happen!!

The sound of the dried up forest’s heart breaking is audible even from the courtyard of this house across the forest. The animals in the forest must have begun their escape. The trumpeting of the elephant, the low growling of the leopard, the chattering of the mountain squirrel, the hollow sound of the hornbill, the clamorous cry of numerous birds can all be heard. The crickets alone do not chirp. Would it rain at all now? They must have dropped their heads in dejection at this thought.

The forest fire prophesied the terrible, impending drought. Like a puthali chain, the forest donned the ornament of fire before jumping into the funeral pyre of Death. The cardinal directions held their breath. Trivial creatures as we were, village families, forest beasts, all living things above and below the earth stood helplessly listening to the trumpet call of total destruction, shivering like blades of grass.

Translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Ramakrishnan Nair & Hema Nair R.


P. VALSALA. Is a Malayalam novelist, short story writer, social activist, and a retired Head Mistress from KeralaIndia. She is a recipient of Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for her novel Nizhalurangunna Vazhikal (The Paths where Shadows Sleep). Valsala was the Chairperson of Kerala Sahitya Akademi. She was associated with PuKaSa, a left-leaning cultural movement, but lately she has been supportive of Hindu fascist organisations.

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Is a Malayalam novelist, short story writer, social activist, and a retired Head Mistress from Kerala, India. She is a recipient of Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for her novel Nizhalurangunna Vazhikal (The Paths where Shadows Sleep). Valsala was the Chairperson of Kerala Sahitya Akademi. She was associated with PuKaSa, a left-leaning cultural movement, but lately she has been supportive of Hindu fascist organisations.

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