Life is a travelogue. From birth, life paves a way to go through so many ups and downs, till the fag end and even beyond that.
For me also it was no different till tenth year of my life. In its literal sense, my life was a travelogue owing to my father's transferable job. My father, being a complete family man, could never stay alone. Hence, along with him me and my mother kept on moving from one place to another. It is better to say from one forest to another since my father is an IFS (Indian Forest Service) officer and we were literally more forest creatures than modern urban humans. Jokes apart, we were used to our forest lives, truncated from the din and bustle of city life.
After completion of ten years of my life, in July 2001, I came across a turning point. Owing to increasing academic pressure in Class V, my parents decided to shift me to a good boarding school for my proper education and over all grooming. Though they were reluctant, they had to take this decision for the sake of my betterment. Initially, I felt sad to stay in a new and unknown place, without my parents. Mother somehow managed to convince me that in a few days time I would be acclimatized to the new environment amongst new friends and activities. My parents had also promised to visit me once every two months, as per the rules and regulations of the school.
Hence, I, Reni Mukherjee, was admitted to Cambrian hall Boarding School in Dehradun. My parents escorted me with all my favorite belongings and necessary things and left back for Nahargaurh Sanctuary in Rajasthan.
First few days were quite dull for me but gradually I was well accustomed to the place. I made a good number of friends and became one of the favorites of my teachers due to my proficiency in studies and fine arts.
After a couple of months there was a fresh shower of blessing for me when I came to know that my father was transferred to Reni Village by the Alakananda River. After a week of their arrival to Reni forest area and settling there, the following weekend my parents came to visit me. They got permission from the Principal to take me home every alternate Fridays and bring me back to the hostel by Sunday night. I was very happy due to this arrangement.
It was an approximate ten hour journey from Dehradun to my father's bungalow at Reni forest of Chamoli district. A picturesque backdrop by the flank of river Alakananda added to the aesthetics of the beautiful forest bungalow of my father. I was very happy to get an opportunity to be with my parents after every fortnight.
"Papa, what a wonderful coincidence is this! The name of this village and my name are same." I giggled at him at the centre table at the verandah.
"Do you know why this is so my sweetheart?" He smiled at me.
"No Papa, I don't, you tell me papa, why?" I was curious.
"Well, ten years back I was posted here in this forest as a junior officer. It was July 04, 1991. You were born here in this village. So, we named you Reni after this village, my dear." Papa disclosed me the mystery of my name.
"So papa, I am a forest, the Reni forest, I feel myself to be so big," I laughed heartily.
"Indeed, this is a big village Reni," mamma intervened. "It is not very big in size but it is big since it was the ground of the non-violent agitation called Chipko movement in 1973. It is best remembered for the collective mobilization of women for the cause of preserving forests. That revolutionary movement brought about a change in attitude regarding their own status in the society."
I gaped at mamma, wide eyed, trying to decipher what she meant.
"Oho Bristi, don't make it so complicated for our little girl," papa asked mamma to explain me in a simpler way.
Mamma smiled, "Oh yes! I forgot, our Reni is not as big as this forest, she is our little girl. Well Reni, I shall tell you the story of Chipko Andolan (movement) at night before you are off to sleep."
Mamma took me to bed by her side at night, comforted me in a quilt and she began: "In the year 1974, the women folks of this village made a movement to stop felling of trees by the illegal hunters. They all came forward and clinged to the trees whoever came forward to chop off the trees. They agitated against down felling of trees as they personified this forest to be their mother. That noble movement finally bore fruits and they got positive results. The leading woman of the group was Gaura Devi."
"Gaura Devi? What a sweet name mamma", I smiled. "Papa, would you please take me to the spot from where their movement commenced?" I pleaded.
"Sure, my dear. Just the weekend before the Diwali holidays, I shall seek permission from your Principal to accompany your friends and join us for a day outing here." Papa assured.
"Oh! That would be fun, Papa," I jumped for joy.
I started to count the days for Diwali holidays. The weekend before the holidays would be a great experience for all of us.
It was November 10, 2001. My classmates, accompanied by the Vice Principal of our school, accepted our humble hospitality. Papa arranged for the guest house for their accommodation by the eastern flank of the Alakananda River. Coincidentally, it was adjacent to the spot from where the Chipko movement commenced. I also wanted to be with my friends at the guest house. The ebony starlit night created an aura of silent beauty ornated with all sorts of uncanny stories from the days of yore. We could hardly sleep that night. All of us were very excited for the next day. We planned to carry cooked food from the guest house and eat together sitting by the beautiful Alakananda River.
Next morning we all were there. It was my visit to the place for the second time. First time I was a newborn baby and came to the river side with my parents ten years ago. My mother sprinkled the pure water of the Alakananda on my forehead as a sign of good omen. Getting reunited to my place of birth was a heavenly experience for me.
My friends were also very happy to find such a beautiful picnic spot. We were all in a merrymaking mood, dancing and singing and fluttering around the beautiful Alakananda amidst the lofty Himalayas. I was singing happily "Ye banks and braes". Suddenly my right foot slipped and I tumbled down a rock and rolled down a cliff. I bruised my legs and hands badly. Fortunately, the cliff was not very stiff. Else it could have been more fatal. My friends were very frightened to see me in such plight. In no time, our attendant jumped to the spot to rescue me. He pulled me up and washed my wounds. I was so frightened that I fainted. Later on, I came to know that thereafter he vanished and within a while reappeared with some local leaves, squeezed the juice and applied it on my wounds.
After I gained consciousness the first word I uttered was 'Vandevta' (Jungle God). "I know, 'Vandevta' saved me", I mumbled.
"Who is that? What are you saying Reni?" Miss Collins, our Vice Principal was astonished.
I kept on mumbling, "I know Him, He is 'Vandevta'. He saved me. He had saved me before also when I came to this place after my marriage. Within two years of my marriage my husband died leaving me with my son. From that time onwards He had always protected me, and today also he did it." With these words I went to walk towards the exact spot from where the Chipko Andolan took birth.
"Where are you heading to Reni? Wait!" Miss Collins shouted.
I seemed to be oblivious of everything around me. I went to the spot and hugged the tree, the first one to be hugged by the Reni women folks. I am here, your Gaura, you remember? I questioned the tree. November breeze caressed me and it seemed the huge tree bowed down to me to hug me in return.
By that time my companions surrounded me in awe.
"Gaura? Who is Gaura? You are Reni, Reni Mukherjee." Miss Collins tried to pull me back.
Much to her and everyone's surprise I cried, "Chipak ke rehna hain mujhe, main nahin chhorungi is per ko. Agar tumhe isse kaatne hain to mere laash ke upar se guzarna hoga. Hain dum to aage barho!" (I have to stick to this tree, I won't leave it. If you want to cut it you have to walk over my dead body. If you have guts, come face me!).
I added, "Yeh jungle to main khatm hone nahin dungi, yeh mera maika hain, meri koi bhi saathi tum logon ko yeh kaam karne nahin degi. Hum aurte apni jaan de denge par yeh jungle humari shaan hain, humari maa hai, hum isse koi nuksaan nahin hone denge!" (This forest is my mother's abode, I won't let it be destroyed, neither would my companions do. We, women folks will give our lives but won't let you cause any harm to this forest, out mother).
I continued in my warring tone for about five minutes and finally fainted. The flabbergasted attendant ran to our bungalow to inform all that he saw, to my parents.
In a while they came to the spot with the local doctor. I was taken back to the bungalow. I was not in my senses for an hour or more.
After I woke up I asked my Papa to take me to 'Vandevta', that tree to which I had clinged to a number of times. "Sahab, mera naam Gaura hain. Maloom nahin kyun yeh sab mujhe Reni, Reni kehke pukar raha hain. Aap mujhe yahan kyun laaye ho? Mujhe who deodar per ke niche jo Jhopri hain wahan chhor aayiye na? mera to yahn dum ghut raha hain." (Sir, my name is Gaura, I don't understand why these people are calling me Reni. Why did you bring me here? Take me to the shack located under that deodar tree. I am feeling claustrophobic here).
I saw my mother in silent tears. Quite confused, my father asked the local attendant if there were any shack adjacent to any deodar tree. But the attendant nodded in the negative. Next morning my friends had to go back to the boarding along with Miss Collins. I had to stay back owing to the weird condition I was going through.
Some old villagers were summoned to our place that morning. After talking to them my parents gathered the information that about ten years back, Gaura Devi, the main female protagonist of Chipko movement lived in a shack at the northern flank of the village, just adjacent to the woods. That was her place of stay since she came to Reni village with her husband. She died on July 4, 1991.
July 4, 1991! Mamma screamed. That was the day our Reni was born and the year is also the same. But this is so uncanny! She is our Reni. How could she claim that the shack where Gaura Devi was her residence? And why was she talking about those protests. Who is 'Vandevta?' Mamma began to ponder.
"Biwi jee (madam), if you don't mind may I say something?" A local elderly village folk intervened. "Aap log shaher ke log ho. Aap shayaad yeh sab baton ko nahin maante. Par hum logon ko to yehi lag raha hain ki yeh bachchi Gaura Devi ki dusri roop hain. Gaura Devi ka punr Janam hua hain." (You urban folks might not believe in these thing but we believe that this child is a reincarnate of Gaura Devi. She has taken rebirth as Gaura Devi).
"What!" my papa mocked. "Punr Janam (rebirth)? You mean reincarnate? This is absurd. She is our Reni. Probably due to some stress and excitement she has witnessed a nervous breakdown. She needs rest."
After consultation with the local doctor my father summoned for a psychiatrist from Dehradun. I was under his observation for a week. He also detected some unnatural behaviour in me and could relate it to past life regression.
Though Papa did not want to believe, psychiatrist Dr. Gupta finally managed to convince my parents that I was reincarnate of Gaura Devi.
Those days, most of the time I was found near the deodar tree, under supervision of a local attendant and my mother. Village folks came to meet me. At night I was taken back to the Bungalow.
"You should feel proud Mr. Mukherjee, that your daughter has past life connection with such a great woman. But unfortunately, Except for the people in Uttarakhand, who have ensured that the tale of the woman revered as modern-day 'Jhansi Ki Rani' (Queen of Jhansi) gets passed on from one generation to the other, Gaura Devi and her acts of bravery and selflessness became forgotten to the rest of the world. At the age of 66, she died an uneventful death in Reni, forgotten and unsung. Now, if your daughter is a reincarnate of that woman just imagine what indelible mark she could create on our modern society when sustainability is the cry of the hour. Her ideologies and views from her past life could be recorded in written documents and used for better approach to practise sustainable development in contemporary world." Dr. Gupta tried to explain.
"No, no! I don't want my daughter to be used. I want my daughter back, I want her to survive!" mamma screamed.
Suddenly I intervened, "Chipak ke raho, chhorna mat! Sapna ho ya haqeeqat, hum hamesha in peron ke saath hi rahenge." (Stick to it, don't leave it. In illusion or in reality, we shall always be with these trees).
* * *
"Reni, Reni, what's wrong with you?" my husband Siddharth Bose was awestruck at my hysteric behaviour on our bed. "Get up Reni, you must have seen a nightmare!" My caring husband, the posted as the forest officer in Reni forests of Chamoli district in 2021 shook me up from my hallucination.
I sprang up on the bed, stupefied, trying to recollect what had happened to me through out that cold November night. I took some time to gather myself. I went to washroom, freshened myself and finally, could make out that I was dreaming about Gaura Devi.
I shared my experience with my husband. He laughed at me.
"You're making fun of me, Sid. But you see, Sid, if I could really be the reincarnate of Gaura Devi, probably I could make some changes and development for our degrading environment and could gift a better world to ourselves and the next generation." I sighed at Siddharth.
"Reni, thank God! It's a dream. I couldn't afford to lose you for any Gaura Devi, my beloved wife. And no more hallucination please! You need to take care of yourself and the little one who is growing inside you, our future generation. And beware Reni; we are not going to name our new born after any Garhwali or any other well known figure. Let he or she be a simple human being doing good works for humanity." Siddharth caressed me.
With moist eyes I looked out of the window. The soft rays of November chill kissed my womb. It was a ray of blessing from Gaura Devi.
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