I entered the room and saw her hiding in a corner from her ferocious drunken son. He kept looking around impatiently. For what? For bashing her again for money, like the last night, and the night before and before. As her son calmed down and was away for a while, she tiptoed out of the room and ran straight to the paddy fields. The way to the forest led through these fields. She felt safer in the wild woods, she felt belonged. It was her domain. Who is this woman?
Kripa Topno, is an elderly Munda tribe woman from the Jharkhand state of India. In her late 60’s, Kripa Topno is a daily wage laborer who earns around Rs.167 (2 Euros, transl.). She lives in a forest fringe village and also collects non-timber forest produce. It is sold in the local market for some quick cash. I will refer to her as didi, meaning elder sister. It's a colloquially used term in rural Jharkhand to address someone with respect.
Kripa didi often said: "My daily wage, which itself is irregular, is snatched by my son to buy alcohol and the forest produce is all I have. The forest always becomes my last resort." Her relation with the forest is not merely economic, but social, and rather more personal. During a village resource mapping exercise in 2018, I strolled the whole forest with Kripa didi which allowed both of us to connect beyond our professional interactions.
The mapping exercise lasted for five days facilitating maximum coverage of the oldest and biggest forest patches. During this time Kripa didi kept pointing at different trees, herbs, shrubs, roots, tubers, flowers, and much more. She described their medicinal, ritualistic, and domestic significance to me. I did not understand most of it as I was much taken aback by the vastness of knowledge possessed by this timid-looking, always bruised, continuously thinning old village woman.
In my awe, I asked her: “Where did you learn all this from?” “From my father," she answered. In continuation, didi shared that she spends considerable time in the forest as she feels accepted and safe there. Whatever expenses she can take care of have been from the forest produce she sold in the local market. Unlike her son, the forest does not disrespect her and expects nothing in return. It listens to her and lets her be. She shares a symbiotic relationship with the forest where they both as two different beings accept each other. Kripa didi not only takes refuge in the forest to save herself from the types of violence she faces but also heals herself by being in it or rather with it.
Kripa didi is the unclaimed medicine woman of the village who is healing many and herself. She does not personify the forest but sees it for what it is. She is the only woman in the village who can identify anything and everything in the forest and transform a mere leaf into medicine. While I spent my days in the village drawing that resource map for five days, Kripa didi kept blowing my mind by being herself. After the completion of our exercise, didi poignantly mentioned that this information has to be preserved and shared with the next generation. She said: "My son beats me for meager money and I know he cannot be entrusted with such vast and precious knowledge, but it has to be preserved anyway. I need the forest for my survival and sanity, everyone else needs it too.”
Kripa didi continues to help villagers with her knowledge of medicine without charging for it. She genuinely values this knowledge and trusts that someday it will be used in a better way. This perhaps is also her hope for life, that it will get better someday. Whatever tomorrow holds, for now, she is not just another village woman, but a healer and a forest dweller of her kind.
It has been two years since I last met her. It was a brief meeting as she was restless again to run into the forest. The only difference this time was that she had a few other women who strongly condemned her son’s actions and escalated the matter to the village bodies. I cannot comment on what happened next, but I do know for a fact that irrespective of all the resolutions provided to her, the forest will remain her secure door away from the worldly claws, which impinges on her freedom. She finds and exercises her liberation in the wild and it continues to be her domain.
Nidhi Trivedi is a PhD-student at the Faculty of Theology and Religious studies. Her research project is an anthropological and archaeobotanical investigation of millet assemblage in Odisha, India. The story emerges from her previous experience of working in the state of Jharkhand where she explored the indigenous knowledge on conservation and management of natural resources and their intellectual property rights. This extends to her current work where she intends on exploring indigenous knowledge, practices, and gendered social relations as a part of the assemblage in the context of millets.