Last Sunday, when the weather cleared after a spell of gloomy skies, I headed at night to Gurra village in the Shivalik foothills behind Chandigarh's Post-Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER). I wanted to experience first-hand the arduous lives of peasants who spend most of their adult lives guarding fields from wild animals. This was not one of my usual explorations in wildlife conservation.
It was three days after a full moon and as the orb climbed over us, I could not but help admiring the mosaic of twinkling stars that we city-dwellers do not get to see. I imagined the spectacle as a celestial Diwali, where only lights sparkle and there is no noise or cracker pollution. My host for the night in a 'machaan' was Premchand, who slid into his pile of quilts even as I was wonder struck by the galaxial fireworks. Two shots rang out from the fields just beyond us like rifle-fire. Premchand said these were peasants bursting crackers kept over from Diwali to scare sambars and wild boars. Just after midnight, three sambars slipped in 50 yards away. As we shone our flashlights at them, their eyes lit up like beautiful lamps. For me, the Diwali metaphor was complete.
Sambars were habituated to gobbling wheat shoots, and Premchand had to drive them away shouting Punjabi profanities. The government asks peasants like Premchand to protect wildlife but does not offer any viable relief from the animals' destruction. I asked him how he viewed a full moon night. "If a full moon is visible, it means the skies are clear and nights are extremely cold and windy. If the night is cloudy and we can't see the moon, we get some relief from the weather. However, a full moon allows us better spotting when animals infiltrate," he said. He sure was on the horns of a dilemma. I asked him how he perceived the twinkle of stars? "Stars are like faint 'diyas' overwhelmed by darkness. We, too, are like them," was Premchand's reply.
His father had died when he was young, so being the eldest sibling he took to guarding the fields at night. He sleeps four hours a night: two hours when he comes to the fields in the early night and two hours just after dawn. During the day, he toils on his six acres. He blushes when I ask him how much money he makes from this marginalised farming.
Our conversation lulls as the night deepens. Premchand's voice breaks the silence. It is his turn to ask me a question: "Why do you ask about the beauty in our daily lives? Of green hills, lush forests, peacocks, sambars and the full moon? Our's is a dog's life. We have built homes with a 'pucca' roof but are not destined to sleep in them. In this smelly quilt, I will pass my life, and in death I will bequeath it to my son to sleep in."