Circus Tricks and Lorax Trees – Majkhali, India

We ambled down the dirt road to the market of Majkhali, passing brown faces staring curiously at us. Small shops offered cases of soda and chocolate, and the barber shop blared Bollywood music. We wandered through picking up a distant beating of drums.

Walking on stilts

A crowd gathered at the end of the shops. Blocking cars a leathered man walked on stilts taller than two of me. He danced effortlessly around cars and stray dogs. In the middle of the street a ring of villagers surrounded these traveling street performers who with the complexion of Southern Indians stood out exotically among the mountain people. The crowd grew as one of the performers beat at a drum draped around his neck. The villagers watched, hypnotized by the long shaggy hair, wild eyes, and gypsy scarves tied around their heads. They pulled cars with their hair, broke rocks with their arms, threw them with their teeth, and spun gas cans around their heads. I was hypnotized too by the presence these men brought. The children of the band walked around with their protruding bellies shaking cans for the crowds rupees.

Spinning gas tanks by his hair as people watch.

I wanted to know more, their whole story of wanderings and stilts and long hair. But I walked back up through the terraces that attacked the hillside haphazardly without any answers. Blooming mustard seed, dill, and cilantro filled the fields. My mind danced wildly from street band reminiscent of gypsies to the homes made from cow dung and shale I walked passed.

Traditional shale roof with a view of the changing village

For so long the people of these hills and the land that holds them danced a beautiful twirl together: from the intricate way they built the old homes, coated in a cow dung mixture that calcified with the sun on the outside and with smoke on the inside, to the living water wells they built facing north so the sun could never turn the water brackish. Huge stones quarried from nearby at the massive dimension of one foot by one foot hung on to each other to make these ancient homes, replaced by flat pancake topped concrete houses with iron rods poking out from the tops like unshaved stubble. Once full of family, only the cows and the gnarled grandmothers and grandfathers live in the old homes.

A living well, one of a few in the village.

The new homes are only the beginning of the changes that rapidly took this mountain village. Power lines now string more reliantly up the hills than water pipes. The whole mountain side lights up like a Christmas tree at night. Every home is crowned by a satellite dish and christened by modernization with a TV.

The TV’s poison this culture, they bring knowledge but most often they bring ideas and values that pitch the careful existence of this culture. The girls think they are ugly with their beautiful dark skin, indoctrinated by shows that white is pretty. Whitening cream flies off the shelves and commercials blanket the market’s walls. Men sexualize women more and more often. Sweets, chips, and sodas fill the village all sold by some Coco Cola company. There are no dentists to fix children’s teeth that rot from the sugar because brushing use to not matter.

Cow sitting in front of a traditionally built home.

The skies hang heavy with pollution as if huge fires raged in the valleys below. There are no fires but the ones in every kitchen. Wrappers and chip bags litter the hillsides and streets as these people struggle to hold on to their dwindling traditions and globalization claws them away. The alcoholism shows in the pile of whiskey bottles next to our bathroom despite liquor being outlawed in Majkhali for the past 20 years. With the recent boom of booze, domestic violence rises as if these women didn’t already face an uphill battle. The young men smoke weed which grows naturally in abundance making them lethargic. A huge separation exists between the way people live and reality causing a stagnation of possibility for them. All of this lies beneath the vibrant saris, golden jewelry, bindi’s, and strong Hindu religion.

The village is beautiful, precious in its colors and traditions, but I could not help but be blown away by the damaging effect modernization has on these small places.

And it didn’t stop at the culture but went deep into the land.

Rhododendrons were one of the few others plants that grew besides pine.

The whole forest changed from its original broadleaf mixed forest into a pine desert. The British planted the pine trees for harvesting and building railroad ties, and slowly with time the pine needles smothered any other native life with their acidic composure. The pine changed the soil so completely that only a few other species of plants cower between the ruins of what must have once been a majestic forest.

Every part of this land shows the marks of the abuse it suffers so entirely. The pine trees no longer fall to carry trains, but they carry a whole mountainside of wood burning cook fires in their fragile arms. The trees all stand barren, top-heavy, stripped bare of any branches in reach of axes or within a sane climb. Under the barely green tops, huge gashes shaped as V’s run down the trunks from turpentine harvesting. No longer protected by bark from fire, the flames crawl easily into the trunk and burn from the inside. Walking into these hills is like walking into an expose of the impossible burden this land holds.

New concrete house with the Himalayas in the back.

Every tree I walked past showed the gouges, the branchless trunk, and a few even held up green tops with charred black trunks swirling up hollowed out by fire. Trash glinted harshly around the paths and streams as if an ode to the flowers that once might have been. I could feel it, the beauty that once graced these hills, but now I could only see the sickness that held it hostage. That small skeleton of a forest supported hundreds and hundreds of wood burning houses. So quickly it will be all used up, and will this village simply tip into oblivion after the forest. How much longer can that land support its people? They already spend months without water.

It cannot last much longer. These people will be forced to move, to carve out a new home in a world with no more space. No longer refuges of human violence but instead of human arrogance. What resources will they find that are not already drawn out and trickling to a stop? Perhaps the greatest human mistake is the way we treated our home.

The courtyard with the fire for dinner in the right. The grandfather would start it every night.

The way we squandered the resources that gave us our lives. Because I believe that when humanity falls into wars between neighbors and friends over water and food, when we draw out our own bloody end with simple inhumanity, that after all the bones have gone and blood has dried, the earth will still be standing and spinning through the blackness around a fiery sun, healing itself long after we and our arrogance are gone.

For now this village keeps growing, keeps burning its wood, and these resilient people keep clawing their way into this hollowing world. I guess I got one answer that day not about gypsies or stilt walkers but about all of us. The sun set orange, hung heavy with pollution, between the power lines as I sat on the concrete roof.

Orange Suns – Majkhali, India

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