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Aam and the woman
A little village in Bihar has zero cases of dowry deaths and female infanticide. Why? Because of mango trees
Katrina Kaif, meet the real Mango Girls. This lot incidentally doesn't aim to eroticise the aam. They're residents of Dharhara in east Bihar, a village where the mango is quite literally the fruit of a woman's labour. For it is here that a decades-old practice is faithfully followed, where at the birth of a girl child her family cultivates ten mango saplings, whose yield through the years finances the child's education and marriage. The legend of Dharhara, and the stories of its women are the subject of a new documentary titled Mango Girls that's about to emerge from an editing studio in Mumbai.
The film is the work of debutant director Kunal Sharma, who learned of the story only after moving away from it. Originally a silk merchant from Bhagalpur district - home to Dharhara - Sharma followed the skein to Mumbai where he hoped to build a business in hand-woven silk. Instead he got involved in filmmaking and publishing. About two years ago he stumbled on a news report of a village in Bihar that laid claim to this model practice of tree planting. "Bihar is often reported to be a backward state, so it felt good to read about Dharhara, " wrote Sharma on email. "The report did not mention the whereabouts of the village, and when I searched for Dharhara I found three villages by the same name. The one I first visited was near the Nepal border;I then travelled to the second one and found that too was not the village I was looking for. Then finally my relative who was a reporter with NDTV directed me to this particular village and it happened to be located right there, 35 km from my native place, Bhagalpur. "
Sharma was justified in jumping at the opportunity to show Bihar in good light. The state is more often in the news for its feudal and violent attitude to women. The National Crime Records Bureau claimed last year that crimes against women had increased 65 per cent between 2009 and 2012, and women and girls accounted for 71 per cent of the total kidnappings in the state. In this context, it's hardly surprising that Bihar's chief minister has himself become a prime campaigner for Dharhara's progressive model - one that invests in the environment for women. Nitish Kumar revisited the village earlier this week (he was here three years ago) to plant a mango tree in honour of a six-monthold girl, and point at the 'Dharhara model' as one that should be followed across Bihar. He cited it as a two-pronged solution to social crimes like female infanticide and dowry-related abuse, as well to environmental degradation. This worthy tradition, the subject of Sharma's documentary, has improved the welfare of the village's women and increased the green cover of Bhagalpur district.
There are now over one million mango and lychee trees in Dharhara and zero dowry deaths or cases of female infanticide. The Rs 2 lakh that is reaped from the year's harvest of 10 trees is partly consigned to a bank account for the future use of the tree's beneficiary.
No one can recall the roots of this custom, but the documentary does speak to the beneficiaries of the scheme, including a woman, Nilam Didi, whose implicit faith in the mango system encouraged her to adopt a girl child abandoned at the local hospital, being confident that the fruit would provide for her upkeep. In the documentary, Kiran Bedi, former police chief and now social activist, hails the scheme as better than the ones floated by state governments that commit a certain amount of money at the birth of a girl as an incentive to keep young girls alive and well. "In government schemes, the money offered is eventually spent, " she says, "but in Dharhara the trees live on for years, adding value to the investment. In addition, the child for whom the tree is planted invariably becomes sensitive to nature. "
With a bounty of over one million trees spread over 200 acres of mango orchard, the girls are nothing if not sensitive to nature. They spend their evenings in the groves, playing kabaddi and hide-andseek. Keenly aware of the debt they owe the trees, their lives are intertwined with them through a series of intimate, and sometimes self-serving rituals. In one such, a young bride-to-be symbolically marries her benefactor tree before her actual betrothal. "It is to draw misfortune away from the girl, " narrates a village. "Should ill luck hover, it will attack the girl's spouse, the tree, causing it to die while leaving the girl unscathed. "
Sharma made the film with his 85-year-old American producer Robert Carr, a former TV producer from San Francisco who wants to "highlight issues of social change". Today in Dharhara, the gender ratio is 957 women for every 1, 000 men compared to the state average of 918. For the women of Dharhara, the mango is in fact the tree of life.
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