At noon in mid-October, despite the sunrays filtering through the cloud-strewn mountain-top forest at Hmuifang, Mizoram, it remains cool and dark under the dense canopy of evergreen trees. A serene silence pervades the forest – the only sounds are birdsong and the rhythmic thwack thwack of a wood-gatherer at work.
She is bent over, absorbed in her task, a small stack of firewood already arrayed around her. Lalzuiliani, or Zuiliani as she is called, 65 years old, is busy gathering wood for her home in nearby Hmuifang village. At her feet lies the maul. Its wedge-shaped heavy blade is fitted at the end of a long wooden handle worn smooth with use. With it, she had swiftly split the logs of the batlangken tree (Croton lissophyllus) into 3- to 4-and-a-half foot lengths. The gathered wood, not fully dry yet, weighs nearly 30 kilograms.
As she prepares the wood to carry back home, the dao (machete) in her hand blurs in efficient and fluid movements, in a seeming effortlessness that only comes from long years of daily use.
The dense forests of Hmuifang at 1,600 metres on the Lushai hills in Aizawl district of Mizoram, about 50 kilometres south of Aizawl city (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)
Bent over her work, dao (machete) in hand, Zuiliani, 65, shaves off the coat of moss and lichens on the split lengths to clean the firewood (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)
Zuiliani flings the wood onto the growing stack. Behind her lies the cane basket on which she has tossed her pink floral garment (Photo: David Vanlalfakawma)
Her face framed by the firewood, Zuiliani squats beside her cane basket propped on the slope. She carefully arranges the load she will have to carry uphill on the mountain slope back to her home a kilometre away (Photo: David Vanlalfakawma)
Firewood in hand, Zuiliani looks up for a brief moment from her work. Her forehead and eyelids are marked with the wrinkles of her six-plus decades. Her t-shirt is green like the forest behind her (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)
Zuiliani checks her load of firewood in the basket, still propped by a single piece of wood on the sloping ground. “We cannot afford to buy LPG and the supply of gas cylinders does not meet the demand here,” she says (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)
Zuiliani checks her basket – well arranged, well balanced, nearly as tall as herself – before strapping it on. Using a stout rope with a flat strap of woven cane (locally called a ‘hnam’) as the tumpline, she sits with her back to the basket, readying to take the load with the tumpline on her head (Photo: David Vanlalfakawma)
With practiced ease and grace, Zuiliani rises on her feet with the heavy firewood basket strapped on and prepares a small cushion of cloth to place behind her head (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)
With a forenoon’s work of gathered firewood in her cane basket, Zuiliani sets off back home on the forest trail (Photo: T. R. Shankar Raman)