It’s a still, quiet afternoon. As we walk past the village of Bhakrakot near Corbett Tiger Reserve, a strident screech pierces the air. “Is that a wild animal?” asks my daughter nervously. The screech sounds out again. It definitely sounds human. However, save for some children playing pitthoo on the terraced fields lying fallow after the spring harvest, there’s no sign of life. A mango tree rustles, and I realise that a herd of monkeys has descended on it. The screeching stops when the monkeys disappear into the forest. We move on, and about an hour later, when we’re returning from our walk, we see an old lady, back hunched and face cracked like old parchment, under the same mango tree. She hobbles painfully towards us, and lets out an eerily familiar screechy laugh. “I scared you earlier, didn’t I?” she asked. “It was me who was driving the monkeys off from our mango tree.” I asked her how it was that we’d been unable to spot her. “I had climbed up a tree and was hidden in its branches!” she said. Perhaps she noticed my polite incredulity. “I have climbed trees all my life, and can’t afford to let my stick deter me from doing so now that I’m old,” said she. “I’m alone right now and have to look after my farm!”
She wasn’t the only senior looking after the land here, she said, gesturing towards the picturesque hamlet of traditional Kumaoni houses with their traditional mud and brick walls, wood-work and trademark black slate roofs. “It’s the same story in all these homes — the sons migrate to find jobs in the city; years later, their wives and children follow. Its people like us who remain, and we tend to our fields as best we can.”
It sounded like a lonely existence, I commented. She cackled: “It’s not so bad right now!” Of her three sons, one was still living in the village. “But he doesn’t want to till the land and works in a hotel instead,” she said. “Her grandson, who graduated two years ago, helped her with the farming, but only for the time being. “Actually he’s been looking for a job ever since he finished college,” she said. “From an early age, he was one of the rare children who said they didn’t want to leave the village.” Loyalty to his village was proving costly for the family however, for there were few decent jobs available for graduates in the area, especially those who didn’t want to join the hotel industry — the only industry that thrives here. “His parents worry about him,” she says. Apparently, they too have been thinking about moving to a big city to give their son better opportunities.
It was understandable, she said, for farming didn’t bring them much income. “I have told my son and daughter-in-law that they can do whatever they like but I have lived all my life on this land and I hope to die here too,” says she.
The mango trees rustle again; the marauding monkeys are back. The old lady takes off behind them with surprising agility and shoos them off. “It was nice talking to you,” she calls from across the field. “There are hardly any people left to talk to anymore in the village.”