Saturday, October 15, 2011

Of catapults and a wildlife week

Roshni Subhash

We (Nimesh and I) were based out of Saiha in Mizoram, India in October 2010 when the opportunity of being a part of the Wildlife Week activities in the neighbouring district of Lawngtlai came our way. PuTlana the then Divisional Forest Officer at Lawngtlai and Nimesh who was working in Saiha on conservation had planned interactions in villages around the Blue Mountain National Park. I accompanied them offering my services as the odd jobs woman and trip photographer for whatever that was worth!
Mornings found us walking in the light drizzle exchanging smiles with the residents as they made their way to the jhum fields. This was followed by my favourite part of the wildlife week celebrations - interactions with schools. Films like Kalyan Verma’s A Hunters Tale and Shekar Dattatri’s Point Calimere were screened to help facilitate (animated) discussions on the forests surrounding these villages.
I was unfamiliar with their language, and this offered me the luxury of being an observer of reactions and images which still linger even after the trip – young ones in mute contemplation, vigorous nods indicating recognition of some birds and animals in the films, children doubling over with laughter at the movements of a dung beetle in Point Calimere. The films were paused periodically for discussion and queries, post which PuTlana also spoke with the groups on their contribution in conserving the forests around them.
Somewhere at this point in the discussion at a school in Lungpher, little hands shot up in the air, some children stood up and still others followed. Hmmm…some kind of volunteering I gathered and continued to watch.
It was not until the evening while we were sipping hot cups of tea at our host’s home that I fully understood what the volunteering was for. I heard the all too familiar thuds of children's footsteps. They paused at the door, hesitated for a bit, trickled into the room in twos and threes, plonked their catapults on the table, hesitated, giggled and ...poof ....vanished. Some shook hands with those around and lingered. The elders duly patted their backs in appreciation while they squirmed – proud of the acknowledgement and made conscious by all the attention. By the time our tea was done with, we had enough catapults to put in the hearth and prepare our next round of tea!
Hunting is a socially accepted and widespread practice in the region and the marksmanship required for it is acquired at an early age. Catapults are prized possessions of young boys as they move about the village and fields looking for birds, geckos and the likes. For some, taking aim at these smaller animals and birds is a sport or a game for children. Others use their skill to bring something home for the pot.
What in their discussion with PuTlana caused them to come by and surrender their catapults? I did not ask. Instead I found myself wondering about the number of times as a child I had consciously decided to give up a pastime/sport/recreation just because I attended a discussion at school? I could not remember a single instance.
Nimesh and I felt the need to talk to some of these boys in whatever limited (is it really? I wonder now) conversation was possible. So while clicking images of the catapults or what would have been catapults (some of them were still in the assembling stages, that is, we got fresh sculpted pieces of wood and the strips of fresh unused rubber intended for it), we chatted. They shared how mud pellets/bullets were made. One of them seemed to be an expert in making these while the other seemed to be quite a shot. They generously provided their assessment of the catapults surrendered while going through them, and marked, “Good…. Not good…. aaaaaaaaah a baby's catapult!” While frowning at Nimesh's attempts to take aim, the marksman picked one up said "that" and before we knew it, he hit the electricity pole over 50 feet away. Bullseye!
He left behind a bewildered twosome and his catapult, as he grinned and walked away.

For more journeys in the region
Nimesh’s Blog -
Roshni’s Blog -

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