Bhoori had been waiting all year for Holi. Since the season changed and the nights got warmer, Bhoori’s best friend, Butbutia, too conspired with her and started waking up earlier than his usual. The first thing that Butbutia did on waking up and shaking his magnificent neck and tail feathers was to let out the loudest “Kukuru kooo” in all of Jhumri. The other villagers would curse Butbutia and turn over to catch the last hour of sleep before they began their daily toil. But Bhoori had something more important to catch. She would rush outdoors to feed the goats and wait to catch the first rays of the sun appearing over the Palash trees. Over the days, she would watch the tender fuzz covered leaves first change to parrot green and then turn darker. It was after this that one day, almost without warning, all of Jhumri would turn a flaming red with a burst of blooms. That’s when she would be absolutely sure that Holi was around the corner. The forest was not only her friend, it was her calendar too!
Jhumri was a Bhil village surrounded by forests of Sal, Palash, Tendu, Tad, Khajoori and so many more. Bhoori knew them all for the gifts they bore. The residents of Jhumri were tribals; staunch followers of their tradition, and extremely proud of their heritage. Bhoori had heard stories from her mai of how they descended from the great Eklavya. How till today, they showed solidarity and respect for him by not using their thumb when they pulled the bowstring and let loose a deadly arrow. The bow and arrow was an integral part of every Bhil’s life. They used it freely when they went hunting for wild boar. They also used it pretty freely to sort out fights among themselves. Sometimes, this led to another kind of ‘pig’ getting injured and a congregation at the banks of the river Hiran where the supporters of that ‘pig’ took swigs of toddy and vowed to take revenge. But more often than not, it turned out that the toddy was more potent than their vows! Thus, next morning, the supporters would wake up heavy headed and groggy with no clue as to why they were at the banks of the Hiran river!
Bhoori was so named because of her eyes. They were the shade of catechu and twinkled a lighter shade of brown in the sun. She was the prettiest girl in Jhumri, but the other girls her age insisted that she was actually named ‘Bhairi’ or deaf because she was a little hard of hearing. Thankfully for Bhoori, she had never heard this gossip. She did not have time for that anyway. She was special! Mai had told her that she was a ‘pag pahelu’, born with her feet first. She would do something that was going to bring the family either great fame or terrible shame. Since there were very few things that came under the umbrella of shame for these tribals, mai was sure that Bhoori would bring them happiness. Mai had described how she had consulted the ‘Badwa’ or head priest who had suggested they pray to Pithora Baba for the blessing he had bestowed. This was a very solemn occasion. The whole house had to be cleaned and first plastered with cow dung and only then could the family invite the ‘Lekhindra’. The Lekhindra was actually the village writer who wrote out stories from their folk tales by painting them on the walls. Asking for Pithora Baba’s blessings and protection called for his story to be painted on three walls of the house that required his benevolence. Also, as part of the ritual, mai had to take a difficult vow. The ‘Badwa’ had suggested mai take up the vow of abstinence, and mai was left with no choice other than to agree. And a vow being a vow, it could not be broken until the problem that required its taking was solved. It had been 16 years and mai had kept her vow even though it meant her husband had soon left her for another woman and moved to another village. This in turn had made Mai a very bitter woman who seldom smiled, and often wondered if her husband had bribed the Badwa to think up of that vow.
Holi was a special festival among the residents of Jhumri for two reasons. Firstly, because they were farmers and a harvest festival like Holi was of paramount importance. It was celebrated with colour, music, food and plenty of toddy. Secondly, because it was preceded by another festival called Bhagoria, or the festival of elopement! Bhagoria was celebrated with music, dancing, food, match-making, elopement and yes, free-flowing toddy! It was in this festival that young girls and boys could choose their own life partners. The drill was simple. Young Bhil boys and girls desirous of marriage would come dressed in their finest to the Bhagoria mela and look for their partners. Sometimes, they knew each other beforehand and at other times, they relied completely on physical attraction. Once the boy spotted his object of desire, he would offer her a pan. Her acceptance of the pan was a sign that she was ready to elope with him. Her refusal meant he had to keep at his search. This certainly wasn’t the last Bhagoria festival of his life, anyway!
The interesting part began after the boy-accepts-girl and girl-accepts-boy part was over. The boy and girl would elope to the forest and remain in hiding for 7 days till it was the day of holika dahan*. They needed to survive with whatever the forest provided and also avoid being caught by their relatives who would be chasing them with bows and arrows like they were chasing wild boar! If the couple managed to survive and not get caught, they would have earned the blessings of the elders to marry. If not, well… that is another long and strange story. But the point of this whole exercise perhaps was that if a couple managed to help each other survive in terrible times, they were meant for each other.
Bhoori had reached marriageable age and that is the reason she had ostensibly been waiting for Holi all year. She needed a man in her life. Mai was good company and Bhoori enjoyed her stories, but she now needed to forge one of her own. To top it all, the excitement was going to happen right at her doorstep, as Jhumri was hosting Bhagoria this year. All Bhils within 40 km or more would be arriving 7 days prior to Holi and there would be singing, dancing, flute playing, mate-choosing and of course, toddy!
The Badwa’s wife had decided that Jhumri’s ‘girls of age’ would wear purple chundris that year. Every village chose a colour that was like an identity card letting the suitors know where ‘she’ was from. Mai had bought Bhoori’s chundri from the village haat* and decorated it with the shiny border of her wedding saree. What use was that saree to her anyway? Mai had taken out all her hidden silver jewelry and given them to Bhoori. A fleeting thought had crossed Mai’s mind. If all went well, Bhoori would soon be leaving for her own home. This made her sad. She had to think of something to keep herself happy after Bhoori left.
The D day arrived and in came the droves of girls and boys, some walking, some in bullock carts and some even in buses that dropped them on the main road 20 minutes away. Bhoori dressed up in her purple chundri and silver jewellery with a tiny mirror tucked into her ghagro. She knew she was looking as radiant as the marigolds in her hair. Bhoori took a look at mai, and noticed that she was looking rather beautiful too. Festivals were the only time that mai had any fun, though Bhoori had heard stories of mai being quite a wild one in her days of youth. She smiled, she knew she had inherited mai’s wild streak. They reached the mela grounds and mai noticed that there were at least 30 to 40 eligible boys there, all dressed up and peacocking! They held decorated flutes in their hands and were perhaps playing lilting tunes individually but in toto, it sounded like cacophony – exactly the kind that made melas more fun!
Mai turned to Bhoori and yelled – “Have fun, listen to your heart, and if you do run into the forests, don’t you dare get caught!”
Bhoori laughed and said “Same to you mai!”
She saw mai disappear into a crowd of colourful chundris. Yellow, green, purple, blue, pink! So many colours! So many girls to choose from! Will anybody even like, me, she wondered.
She sighed and started scanning the crowd for a face that would make her heart race. She couldn’t really focus, so she decided to walk around and check out the things that were being sold. That didn’t interest her either, so she glanced at the girls from her village who were huddled together in the center of the ground, giggling away at their private jokes.
“Heap of brinjals” she muttered to herself. “A dime a dozen!”
“I agree” said a voice beside her.
Startled she looked in its direction and found herself staring at a broad chest in a white jhabla*.
Her eyes started an upward journey towards the face that belonged to the chest, and found themselves gazing into a set of piercing green eyes. They were looking down at her half in appreciation and half in amusement.
“You don’t like them much, do you?” he asked.
“I don’t think anyone will pay for mind reading here, but if you can read fortunes, I might!
“Ah, in that I’m gifted, why don’t you give me your hand? I’ll read your future.”
“Ha ha, that’s a fine way of asking for someone’s hand. Do you even have the ‘Dapa’* to pay for a girl like me?”
“And what is the ‘Dapa’ for a girl like you?” asked the boy
But before she could answer, he changed his tone and said
“Aren’t you too eager to marry? I just offered to read your palm.”
“Cut the crap, I can see that paan in your hand.” retorted Bhoori
“I was planning to give it to the girl in the centre of that brinjal heap.”
“Okay, then go ahead!”
With that Bhoori turned around in a huff, but before she could move away, she felt a hand pull hers and place a paan there.
She looked at him. His eyes twinkled like twin stars looking at the Earth. She looked at his arms; they looked like they had the strength of an ox but could also hold someone with love. She looked at his face; it was young and charming without any signs of deceit. Her heart started pounding. Was this it? Was it this simple?
“I am Bhoori” she said.
“I know” said he.
“I saw you with your mother at our village haat the first time. I have been keeping an eye on you.”
“I am Kunwa.”
“So, do you accept my pan? Cause if you don’t, I’ll just have to eat it myself. I came here just for you.”
Bhoori smiled, took the paan and stuffed it in her mouth.
“Now?” She managed to ask with a mouth full of pan.
“Now you chew it and spit.”
She narrowed her eyes and gave him a mock dirty stare.
“Ooo now!! Now, let’s run away and show them how it’s done.” Said Kunwa
They looked around to check if anyone was spying on them. Once satisfied, Bhoori slunk away first followed by Kunwa. They would meet at the southern corner of the forest where it was the densest and required extreme confidence in one’s knowledge of the forest.
The jungles of Jhumri housed wolves. But Bhoori knew that they wouldn’t bother her if she stayed out of their way. The true wolves were the wolves in men’s clothing like her maternal uncles and their no good friends. They had left the village a few years ago and returned with supposedly new fangled ideas of how a woman should behave. She was worried that they looked at Bhagoria like a sport; a sport that gave them license to bring a woman to her knees. She had seen mama’s friends lurking around their home, being up to no good. Thankfully for Kunwa, his relatives would be in the chase only for name’s sake. They knew of his interest in Bhoori and approved.
Bhoori believed in being prepared. She had hidden her bow and arrow in the jungle along with a tumba* water carrier. They set off first to retrieve those.
“What did you find in me” asked Bhoori
“You’re not like the other girls.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Well, I don’t think I know another girl who has full-fledged conversations with her rooster.” Kunwa laughed
“You’ve been spying on me! For how long?”
Kunwa just grinned guiltily.
“And I don’t know anything about you!”
“Well, as per tradition, my father will gift me my share of land once I get married. We could make our own house and live by the produce of the farm. It’s a simple life.
“I do simple too.” said Bhoori.
“Shhh..” said Kunwa. Did you hear that?
Bhoori and Kunwa braced themselves and hid behind a giant tree trunk. They heard muffled voices.
Bhoori peeped out from behind the tree. That’s when she saw them.
Mai and a man! Tied to a tree by her mamas and their goons! They were brandishing sticks in the air and threatening mai.
Pieces of a jigsaw puzzle started finding their place in Bhoori’s mind.
Mai had dressed up… she had intended to find someone she liked…
Mai deserved love of that kind too.
Who were those wolves to dictate how mai should live her life!
Mai was a free Bhilni and so was she. Bhoori just had to remind those goons of this fact.
Kunwa looked at her with surprise, admiration, and newfound respect, as she drew the bowstring with expertise and released a slew of arrows one after the other with lightning speed.
They both ran down the slope yelling at the top of their voice like hunters. Four drunk men lay on the ground with arrows sticking out from their knees.
“No! You won’t change the order of things here. I won’t let you!” Bhoori yelled angrily.
“All of Jhumri knows whose arrows those are!”
Author’s note: This is a work of fiction though it borrows from some tribal traditions and folklore. There is no intention on part of the author to show any tribe or group in a poor light. In fact, the author wishes to showcase the free and natural way of life of our indigenous Indian tribes that need to be preserved.
Holika Dahan: On the eve of Holi, typically at or after sunset, a pyre is lit, signifying the burning of the asura Holika. The ritual symbolizes the victory of good over evil.
Haat: A rural weekly market
Dapa: Bride price or reverse dowry that is practiced in some Indian tribes.
Tumba: dried gourd
Connect with Penmancy:
Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!