Anukrti Upadhyay sets the tone of Turtles with the lines, ‘how do you think the turtles would fare in the river after living in a pail for weeks?’ The story is as much about displacement and being a ‘turtle’ out of water as it is about the harassment small spaces, in this case a village, can cause for those at the fringes of society and for outsiders. Or is it a case of outsiders trying to impose their ways without trying to fully understand the smaller world that they are trying to ‘fix’. Upadhyay does all this without any judgement, as if only in exploration of all these questions, probably drawing from her own experience as a conservationist. The descriptions are poetic but my favourite line? When a character says, ‘Sant Sebastian was so strong he didn’t die when people shot arrows at him.’
— Priyanka Sarkar
The Bombay Literary Magazine
Sebastian was crouching by the pond his father had dug, watching the turtles as they swam slowly. It was a modest pond – small, shallow, edged with rough stones and water-grasses. The idea of having his father dig a pond in our front yard was Sebastian’s. The turtles could easily have lived in a tub or a pail for the short time we had them for. But Aditi and a couple of others had supported Sebastian’s idea. A pond would be a better habitat, Aditi had argued, how do you think the turtles would fare in the river after living in a pail for weeks? Our plan was to release the turtles back into the river that flowed deep inside the forest, amidst great bamboo groves. We had caught glimpses of the gleaming, meandering river among its patches of bamboos on the drive to the village. Sebastian had told us that some of the bamboos had flowered the year before and the entire clan of Baheliyas had temporarily given up their outlawed occupation of trapping and hunting wild animals to collect the seed that fell after the flowering. ‘You won’t know because you live in the city but bamboos flower only once and then they die,’ he had explained patiently, reposing little faith in our degrees in botany and agricultural sciences and years of field-work, ‘when the bamboos were dense, it was difficult to fish or catch turtles but now that they are withered, it is easy to get to the river. My aaji says the flowering bamboos gave us two gifts – bamboo-grain and mach.’ Anyway, what had clinched the argument in favour of the pond was the fact that, for once, Sebastian’s father was sober enough to do some work. And thus the little pond beside which Sebastian was now crouching, his ten-year old back rounded like an old man’s.
We had come across the turtles at the weekly market held in the nearby town. Anup had spotted them amidst wild honey in dried-gourd bottles and mounds of dark, fragrant jaggery , locally grown lentils and black rice and stacks of bamboo baskets. They were in a shallow plastic tub, bound together with a straw rope looped around their tough shells, the water, not enough to submerge their carapaces, brown with the dirt and dust of the market. The man selling them was from Sebastian’s tribe. When approached, he had shaken his head vehemently at us, turning away and muttering he was simply watching the turtles for someone else. Sebastian had to step in and negotiate. ‘He thought you were Range People. From the Department,’ he had wiggled his eyebrows and made an ominous face, ‘it is because of your clothes, you shouldn’t wear these clothes to the market, only Range People wear such clothes,’ he had admonished us. ‘When you asked him, he got scared, he didn’t want to get into trouble over the turtles. This one time, the range people had caught him with some sambar meat and had locked him in the chowki. His brother had to pledge to work for a year so far away,’ he threw an arm out, ‘beyond the big river, to raise money so they’d let him go.’ He was right, our usual work-gear – olive green shirts and camouflage trousers – resembled the uniform of Forest Range officers who rounded up the men of his tribe for questioning, or worse, whenever anything untoward happened in the forest, from missing logs to dead deers.
Our project – protecting crops from depredation by wild herbivores – was in full swing. We were trying out various methods to deter and repulse herbivores – planting rows of mustard plants and hot chilli peppers along the boundaries of our field, spraying the crop with poultry waste, installing solar lights. Our show-field had largely been left untouched by the dreaded wild boars who were known to dig up entire fields in a single night, wasting more than they ate. We were gearing up for the next phase of the project – determining which method yielded the best results. Once we figured the best method and demonstrated to the farmers that it worked, we were sure they would adopt it. This village would then serve as a model for others in the district and the state, and perhaps for other states dealing with wild herbivore issues. The results of our study would be presented to our peers in academia, our white paper on the subject will be tabled before the Ministry of Forests and Environment, our conclusions would form the basis of government policy. It would lead to savings in terms of crop yields and crop insurance pay-outs and ultimately an addition to the Gross Domestic Produce. It was all written down in our project plan, one thing following the other logically, sequentially, the presentation at the state secretariat lined up for the winters, paper to be read at academic conferences next spring.
We were just winding up work at the show-field one evening when a group of villagers had accosted us. They seemed angry, belligerent, stepping into the neatly-planted rows and threatening to uproot the plants and level our show-field, brushing aside our attempts to explain that our work was for their benefit. ‘We haven’t had a single raid by wild boars, not even one,’ Vipin had explained, ‘and this is the dry season. You can see for yourself, there are the hoof-marks all around but not a single wild boar entered our field.’ This had only angered the group further. One of them spat on the ground, another raised the long staff he was carrying. We were bewildered. And a bit scared – things were heating up so quickly. Just then, the headman had arrived, Sebastian running ahead of him like a raggedy little mascot, jumping over irrigation ditches.
The headman was a man of middle height but his stature in the village was significant. He had hailed the men and spoken sharply to them, cursing and herding them away. Go home, go home – he had called out to us over his shoulder.
We were baffled by the entire episode. The villagers had never been hostile towards us. In fact, they had always seemed friendly, hospitable, offering us tea when we visited them to talk about our crop-protection measures. The occasions when we entered their thatched houses, squatted on the clay-and-dung-paste covered floors to chat and drink strong sugary tea from steel tumblers that burnt our mouths and addled our stomachs, we felt we were truly connecting with them, living a life close to the earth, working for the community. However, Sebastian had disabused us of this notion. ‘They laugh at you,’ he had informed us, ‘Why do you tell them to plant mustard and flaxseed instead of rice? What will they eat if they don’t plant rice? They say you are fools and hobnob with thieves and scoundrels,’ he had raised his solemn eyes to us, ‘by thieves and scoundrels, they mean my father and me. None of the village folk would let a Baheliya enter their home.’ ‘We don’t care about what they say.’ Vipin had said dismissively but later, when we were by ourselves, he had expressed concern. ‘The villagers consider Baheliyas thieves and troublemakers,’ he had said, ‘employing them might hurt our credibility.’ ‘Talking about crop alternatives is hurting our credibility too,’ Aditi had retorted acidly, ‘should we stop that too?’ Vipin had thrown up his hands. We had all remained silent and the subject was dropped.
‘The men were talking at the theka about coming for you I’d gone there to buy a bottle for my father but when I heard their talk, I ran to the headman’s house to fetch him.’ Sebastian had told us after the group of villagers had departed with the headman. ‘I stood outside his house and yelled till his wife came out. At first, she thought I was begging for food and gave me these polies,’ he held out the dry, stale, rolled-up rotis, ‘but I told her it was the headman I wanted.’ We could picture Sebastian pulling himself to his full four- feet-and-nothing with great dignity, tattered shorts slipping from his meagre waist, demanding that the headman come with him. ‘As soon as the Headman came out, I told him that the men drinking at the theka were planning to bash you up and he rushed here.’ He took a bite of the bread thoughtfully, ‘The headman’s wife did not want me to wait in front of her house as if I’d steal its shadow.’ He chewed on the hard, flavourless morsel for a few moments, ‘Yeshu-Jesus says we are all brothers.’
‘That’s absolutely right.’ Aditi had said, ‘come with us. We are cooking chicken today.’ Sebastian had swallowed the saliva filing his mouth and followed us.
Sebastian took his religion seriously. He carried a small, colourful picture of Christ stretched on the cross in the only intact pocket of his shorts and sang hymns as he went about his tasks. His family had converted to Christianity along with some others of their clan when the missionaries had first arrived in these parts and had held camps for distributing food, soaps, hymn books. This was years ago, before he was born. Later he had lived at the mission in the nearby town with his family, till it had become difficult for the church authorities to ignore his father’s drinking. The padre had finally asked them to leave after his father’s stash of local moonshine was discovered in the church cupboard, stored alongside hymnals and votive candles. Our city-contact, who had recommended Sebastian’s father to us as our local guide and man-of-all-trades, had said he was very knowledgeable about the area. Baheliyas don’t usually interact with outsiders, he had said, but he is different. He had omitted to mention the drinking, the sudden disappearances. the demands for advances and loans. By the time we had found out, Sebastian had already taken us firmly under his wing.
He had first appeared on the long veranda of the old, dilapidated Forest Department bungalow that was going to be our home for the duration of the project, accompanying his father. While we discussed the terms of engagement with his father, he had inspected our living arrangements and offered us useful advice. ‘The water channel behind the kitchen is broken, there are mosquito eggs where the water is collecting in the backyard. My father can repair it,’ he had declared, ‘also, you must dry your clothing in front of the house or else one day you’ll find all your clothes gone and what will you do then?’ He had also told us about the gap in the boundary wall, large enough for goats to wander in and graze on the cabbages and spinach we had planted. ‘If you can’t protect your baadi from the villagers’ goats, how will you protect the crops from the dukkar?’ He had asked, his large eyes scanning our faces. From then on, though we seldom saw his father, Sebastian arrived punctually at our door every morning with milk from the village in a lidded pot. He helped us in numerous ways – in collecting waste from our hen coop, preparing crop-spray and loading it into metal cylinders. He took charge of our solar lamps and found the sunniest spots for them in the compound and was ever willing to run to the village at any time, for anything. And he did all this cheerfully, singing at the top of his voice of the coming of Jesus and summoning the sinners to the path of the lord.
It was the padre at the Mission who had given Sebastian his name. ‘Sant Sebastian was so strong he didn’t die when people shot arrows at him.’ Sebastian had told us with pride.
‘What were you called before the Father decided to rename you?’ Vipin had asked, glancing at us, ‘all this re-naming and erosion of local culture, you know…’
‘People called me filth or scoundrel, or sometimes, boy. The village folk still do.’ Sebastian had replied gravely.
‘People are ignorant, you mustn’t pay attention…’ Vipin had muttered.
‘Yesterday too, a man called me a dirty thief. I had found a new kite and he snatched it from me and called me a low caste and thief. He told me – run away or I’ll burst your ass, you thief. So, I ran away but when I reached the corner of the street, I shouted to him that my name is Sebastian.’
Aditi had looked at Sebastian, her eyes very bright, ‘That man was wrong, the person who finds a kite, gets to keep it, that’s the rule. Show me the man the next time I am in the village and I will speak to him.’
‘That’s ok,’ Sebastian had consoled her, ‘I don’t mind losing the kite. The older kids would have taken it from me anyway.’
‘I don’t understand why they are mad at us.’ Vipin had grumbled on our way back after the perplexing encounter with the villagers.
‘Because the wild boar skipped your field last night and got into theirs. He caused so much damage to their crops.’ Sebastian answered from the rear, still eating his poli.
We were incredulous. ‘How do you know?’
‘Everyone knows. That field, the one you have planted, that one was never cultivated. Only poor-quality seeds or leftovers from sowing were thrown there. Didn’t you see when you began planting? It was filled with wild garlic and red spinach and other weeds. Animals from the forest got into it every summer. When the headman gave you that field, he didn’t think wild boars would leave your crops alone and destroy other fields.’
‘You should have told us all this before we began working on the show-field. We could have looked for a field in another village.’
Sebastian had opened his eyes wide. ‘How would you have managed there without me? Who would have helped you?’
Back at the bungalow we had called our project director. ‘This is serious.’ He had sounded worried, ‘I must say I was surprised when they agreed so readily to allocate a field for the project. I didn’t want to impact your autonomy so I let it pass and did not look too closely into it. Let me see what I can do, let me pull some strings. In the meantime, lie low. Don’t go to the field, let your local men work there, you guys stay away.’
‘It is difficult to look into anything closely from two thousand kilometres away,’ Aditi had commented after the call, ‘he hasn’t been to the site even once but the published paper of course will have his name as lead investigator.’
Since there was nothing much to be done now that we were temporarily banished from the show-field and the village, the next day we had decided to visit the weekly market in the nearby tehsil. Taking Sebastian along was Aditi’s idea. He loved riding in the back of our jeep through the dry deciduous forests of Teak, Sal and Mahua trees, laughing at every bump in the unpaved road. All through the journey he chattered on, telling us the local names of trees and insects, pointing out sights he thought we would find interesting. ‘People in this village worship bats. They have a cave-temple and during the dark fortnight before rains, everyone prays there and offers wild figs and things.’
‘How do you know all this, Sebastian?’ Anup asked.
‘I have been there once. They wouldn’t let me enter the temple so I climbed up a tree and watched.’ He sniffed. ‘Bats smell like rotting carcasses and they pray to them but won’t let me enter their temple.’
The day after Sebastian’s father dug the pond, our project director called. ‘Guys, I have taken a quick look at the data you have collected so far and it looks very good. In fact, I think it is sufficient for our work. We can use statistical models for the second phase.’
We looked at each other. ‘You are discontinuing the project?’ Vipin asked carefully. ‘No, no, not at all. The project is fully-funded and we must keep the commitments made to our donors. Let’s just say that I have reassessed the requirement for further field-work. You understand?’ A brief pause followed. ‘Look, guys, the situation is rather delicate and this is the best solution all around. Panchayat elections are around the corner and the headman says he will lose if he lets us carry on with the fieldwork.’
We were all packed and ready to leave. Vipin had paid the village tradesmen their dues. Only Sebastian’s father hadn’t shown up. ‘You’ll have to remind your father to release the turtles in the river.’ Vipin had said handing Sebastian the wages his father had been too drunk to earn , ‘and all the hens are yours. Your father can take the wood and the wire netting of the coop too.’ Sebastian had nodded and, carefully wrapping the money in a bit of paper, had slipped it into his pocket next to the picture of Christ.
Now, his right hand covering the pocket protectively, he crouched by the pond, his eyes following the turtles. ‘Come, we’ll help you with the hens,’ Aditi called to him, ‘Let’s catch them and put them in the back of the jeep. Anup can drive you to your dera.’ He straightened up. ‘I wish I were a turtle.’ He said quietly. ‘I could live in water if I were one.’
The pond brimmed. The turtles swam in its placid shallowness, slipping under the surface of water glinting with sunlight.
Anukrti Upadhyay (author & translator)
Anukrti has post-graduate degrees in Management and Literature, and a graduate degree in Law. She has written a doctoral thesis on human relationships in Hindi short stories of post 1960s. She writes fiction and poetry in both English and Hindi. Her English works, twin novellas Daura and Bhaunri and novel Kintsugi have been published by 4th Estate imprint of Harpercollins in India and have been nominated for awards. She has been awarded the Sushila Devi Award for the best work of fiction written by a woman author in 2020 for Kintsugi. Her latest work, a short story collection titled The Blue Women has recently been released by HarperCollins. Hindi works, a short story collection, Japani Sarai, and novel Neena Aunty, have been published by Rajpal and Sons. Her writings have appeared in Scroll.in, Kitaab.sg, The Bombay Review, The Bangalore Review, The Bilingual Window and several Hindi publications. She has worked for global investment banks, Goldman Sachs and UBS, in senior positions and now works with Wildlife Conservation Trust. She divides her time between Mumbai and the rest of the world and when not counting trees and birds, she can be found ingratiating herself with every cat and dog in the vicinity.