Field Notes: In A Maharashtra Forest, A Village Wakes Up To The Light


Mumbai: Neither the leeches on my feet nor the ankle-deep slush pits that I failed to spot as my city-bred eyes tried, and failed, to adjust to the pitch black of dusk in a forest prepared me for a night in the village of Deur. 

Located 280 km south of Mumbai inside Koyna wildlife sanctuary in western Maharashtra’s Satara district, nobody had ever flicked a switch for a bulb or tubelight in Deur until the summer of 2023 when electrification finally made its way to the hamlet.  Through solar panels, the homes finally got solar tubelights, pedestal fans and mobile charging points.     

“There is simply nothing to do,” said my 18-year-old roommate for the night, right after starting up a wood-fired hearth, cooking chapatis on a griddle for a group of 10 hungry guests, sweeping the kitchen floor that would be our bedroom tonight and washing a large pile of utensils at the outdoor water post as a chilly monsoon mist drifted in.  

I listened as I sat by the now mellow stove, her tone warm, trusting. 

She grew up in Navi Mumbai, finished her Class XII and ended up being dispatched to Deur as care-giver for an unwell grandparent. The early days of adjustment in a village that only recently got four street lights were difficult. She had never blown air through a pipe to keep a kitchen fire going, she had never inhaled so much smoke, she had never earlier been kept awake at night by frogs croaking outside the mud wall.    

Ennui extended the hours after her chores, and she yearned for a WhatsApp message or a YouTube video. Her friends in Navi Mumbai were all in college; she worried that she’d lost her social network. 

There was nobody her age in the 20-odd houses of Deur; they were all away in Mumbai, Pune or Satara, working or studying. Her education stalled, she feared she’d end up being married off early.

I slept fitfully. 

The home had its livestock, milch buffaloes, tethered in a section of the house, a common practice to ward off night-time attacks by wild animals. Buffaloes empty their bladders through the night, it turns out, and a cat hiding in the roof rafters seeks out the warmth of the hearth in the darkness. Also, roosters don’t wait for daybreak, a good thing really because we womenfolk could step out to “go” under cover of darkness, clutching pails of water and a shared torchlight.

What does electricity mean for you, I asked my young new friend a couple of hours later. The mud stove was eye-wateringly busy again, and she was allowing a large vessel of fresh milk to thicken on the fire before she boiled a rich, sweet tea. She had made poha while I visited neighbours, asking my intrusive questions about their homes, families, livelihoods and electricity.  

“Back home,” she said, referring to the flat her parents lived in, in Navi Mumbai, “electricity means television, entertainment, elevators, cinema halls, local trains.”  It was simpler here in Deur,  where electricity simply meant the reassurance of a street lamp while hurrying home, or no longer needing to trek 10 km to charge a cellphone in Thoseghar.     

When it’s still dark at 5 am and she’s fishing about for her hoodie before it’s time to step out, she  can switch on a tubelight now, glance in a mirror and braid her hair. “It’s easier now,” she said, “it’s so  great to awaken to light.” 

Read Kavitha Iyer's full story here.

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