(Author: Ki. Rajanarayanan Translation: Radha Soundar & R.S. Saha Editor: Suchitra)
(Original Novel : கோபல்ல கிராமம்)
In that forest they ate the fruits they were able to forage such as palm fruit, tindora, cactus fruit, and ghee tomato.
The weapons they had used to protect themselves from thieves and bandits were now perfect for clearing undergrowth and chopping down trees.
They built many small mud huts before the rainy season arrived. The first thing they built was an Amman temple. They built the roof’s frame with the branches of manjanati, puvarusu, and neem trees tied to palm fibers. They cut tall grasses and dried them before weaving them into the frame to finish the roof.
They struggled with the expanse of cacti. Any cacti they cut and threw elsewhere would take root and grow there instead of drying up. It seemed impossible to make a few clear patches before the rainy season arrived. Their enthusiasm began to wilt. The cacti had to be taken out with their roots and dirt. Huge stones had to be removed as well, leaving behind holes that had to be filled.
When they dug they found tubers and roots they didn’t recognize, making them wonder if any of it was edible. In some spots they found korai tubers that had a thick, earthy smell. There were many varieties of healthy, wild spinach. Along with all that, they had the eggs of wild birds to fry and eat as a side dish.
They saved the grains they had carried with them, hoping to eventually plant it all. Because of that, they ate whatever the forest gave them.
A few cut aloe and washed it to cleanse the bitter taste before eating it.
“This is divine food that can cure any stomach problem,” Grandmother said.
The water was like nectar. Traced with the taste of the soil it came from, it quenched their hunger and gave them energy.
They hunted birds and animals. There were beehives amongst the cacti that they collected many pots of honey from. They roasted the animal meat and spread honey on it to eat.
Sometimes there was leftover meat. It was cut into small pieces, salted, dried, and stored away to be eaten in the rainy season.
They realized, due to many good reasons, that they had to burn the forest.
The rainy season was fast approaching.
They were growing tired from dealing with an unyielding forest.
How long could they handle cacti with their bare hands?
But a few were against this and they had their own reasons.
It was easy to burn a forest down but was it possible to grow a new one if needed?
If the rain was late, they could at least depend on the forest for food. What would they do if they burned it all down?
The wind had to blow steadily or the fire would spread and surround them.
The more they talked, the more overwhelmed they became.
Grandmother came up with an idea that was like a cure-all. “We must make a large, empty gap between the land we want to use and the land we want to burn down.”
She used her forefinger to draw her plan in the dirt. First, she drew a square and said it was the whole forest. She then drew a second square inside it and said it was the land they needed. After drawing out future wide roads in the four corners, she indicated that they would burn the gaps in between.
The elderly Nallaya laughed. “Whatever we remove and place to the side will dry up and get easily caught on fire. What then?”
“Whatever we cut we should toss into the inner square and not on the paths.”
Most thought that they might as well try.
Except for a few who were keeping watch, the rest discussed the idea until they fell asleep.
The children slept immediately after their evening meal which happened at sunset. Their days were spent playing with the wide variety of insects they found in the forest. The older children helped clear the forest. Or they would watch over the children sleeping in cradles against any foxes or wolves.
The night guards who slept through the day woke up. Whenever the fire in the pit grew dim they fed it dry wood to keep it from going out.
Agni, the God of Fire, gave them light when they had no lanterns. It gave them protection against beasts and kept them warm.