Tales from Piplantri

“A Fable for Today…”

By Vidya Sarveswaran

Way to Piplantri: the road not taken…

We are just beginning to hear the murmurs of a nervous street. The sky above is like handmade parchment. Powder blue with swirls of crimped clouds. The air is heavy with the cloying smell of equally heavy flowers that attract snakes. But they do not worry about snakes here. This is the land of the brave desert warriors. Rajasthan, a state in the northwest of India and the only desert state in the country.

Cow lounging in the marble dust!

Our dusty SUV swerves around to avoid a cow, who looks rather annoyed that we are in her way. We wait for our escort, Champalal: he arrives on his noisy Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike wearing a blood-red turban and an obsequious smile. As we drive through several alleys of this town called Piplantri in the Rajsamand district of Rajasthan, we cannot help but notice the squeaky clean roads, the vibrant signposts and wall graffiti drawn by the children of the village. The houses that pass us are all splendidly bright and wear a medieval look. And suddenly, the motorbike is lost in the raucous voices of villagers and vendors who have all come out to meet us.

We tell them about our pilot shoot that seeks to curate their unique village and the ways in which the villagers have chosen to address two global issues: the environmental crisis and the role played by rural women (a particularly vulnerable group) in “green” community engagement. As we wait for the headman, Mr. Shyam Singh Paliwal, on the terracotta steps, we cannot help but scan the vista before us. The villagers tell us that the last sparrows from the mountains have left because of the marble dust from the mountains across, and the rhythmic explosions from the marble mining industries that rock the very foundations of this little village. Paliwal, dressed in stark white, tells us about the personal loss of his teenage daughter to an illness—and our own vulnerability as individuals on a fragile planet.

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Coming from a part of the world where the girl child is still viewed as a societal stigma, Paliwal’s loss led him to rewrite the story for this village. People in the village plant 111 (an auspicious number according to the villagers) trees every time a girl is born, and the community ensures that the trees attain fruition as the girls grow up. The village has planted a quarter million trees over the last six years! For several years now, Peeplantri village has been protecting the welfare of the girl child and has also contributed significantly to the biodiversity of the region—and vows to bring back sparrows into the bald mountains across.

As we break for lunch, which Paliwal himself cooks for us over the fire wood stove, we are delighted to learn that the menu includes corn bread with Aloe vera curry, and organic lemon grass chai all grown from the mountains around us (and also for sale in the co-op that is run by the women of the village).

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The food and warmth are as refreshing as their story. We realize that the charpoy that we sit on has suddenly become a confluence of voices—we, the local and the global, all merge into a state of unified consciousness that will no longer hide behind the marble dust of the mountains across.

As we say our goodbyes, the silent ceiling lights up with gentle laughter. Like a flock of brown sparrows above the roof where we are sitting…in the middle of a green oasis in the desert.

Our team with Shyam Singh Paliwal and his team.

I wish to thank the RCC Society of Fellows for the Public Outreach Grant, which helped make this pilot shoot possible. The documentary is currently in production.

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