|Stories of Bastar Travel||.|
Bastar Travel: Abujamara
Previously: I engaged a local carpenter Sukhdev Rajamestry to accompany me to remote tribal areas.
Abujamara: Interview with a wise man
Adapted from: The Timeless Theater CD-ROM
While walking on our way to Abujamara, I slipped and fell into a ditch. My guide Sukhdev Rajamestry pulled me out and said "Didn't I warn you to be careful Sir? The adivasis (aboriginal dwellers) don't like visitors. That's why they build ditches, place traps and poison the water." I was annoyed by his prejudiced remarks. He continued, "Babuji, you are an educated man; how come you do not have a Jeep? The police would have loaned you one with a driver...." He then proceeded to assess my political connections. I told him that I had several jeeps at home (!), but since I was here to study the tribals in the most unobtrusive way possible, I was seeking his help as a guide. He seemed happy to hear this, and said that I was the most adventurous man he'd ever met.
I inquired about several wooden posts erected by the trail. "The Marias bury their dead here" he said. " Do you know how backward they are? They even bury the dead person's clothes, money, and armor. They believe that otherwise the ghost of the dead will harass them." When I asked him to elaborate, he appeared confused and delivered a fabricated story.
Sukhdev took me to the village headman's (the Patel or the Manji) house. The Patel's son spread a carpet and ran to the forest to get his father. As I waited, several people around me busied themselves in their tasks, but nobody uttered a word for half an hour. The landlady occupied herself with sewing leaves together to form plates and bowls. A youth stood in the main room, making arrows out of leather. Two men in the yard were engaged in cutting each other's hair; surely a good arrangement in a town without barbers. Another man (the Kotwaal, a deputy) returned from the forest carrying wood, wiped his sweat, and eyed me suspiciously. He evidently didn't believe that I was there to study them. He was used to the constant exploitation and harassment from the government officials, and I understood his feelings. However, the silence was unbearable.
I pulled out the camera, and there was sudden excitement. Soon a crowd gathered around me. The old man jumped at the flash, much to everyone's amusement. A youngster asked me how I stored the lightening in my black box. I tried to explain to him that it was an enhanced flint, and let him discharge the flash. Everybody was pleased with this, but also wanted their opportunity to discharge the flash. They served me water in a leaf bowl which I spilt on my clothes, giving them another opportunity to laugh.
While enjoying some sweet tea, I asked with concern "When the government provides so many facilities for the tribals, why do you have to lead such a hard life?" The old man replied "Babu, we are children of the forest. We have lived with nature for centuries. A fish cannot live without water. Even if I'm given the palace of Jagadalpur, I cannot quit my home. When my younger son was born, we were camping in the forest of Chotedongar, which had roads; as a result, cars and jeeps often appeared. There was much harassment from government officials. So I had to move to this remote place. At first I was afraid that you too were from the government. In accordance with the law, we manage to pay taxes once a year, but how can we provide deer skins, honey, buffalo horns, and ivory every week for the officials? We are very poor, Babu...." His eyes were full of tears.
"You can cultivate the land that you have now," I suggested. "Babuji, for that we need more cows, but once we have cows, it's an invitation to the tigers. Then we end up moving somewhere else." He gave his final judgment.
I further provoked him, "Okay, so forget about agriculture. You can surely accept the education and health care provided by the government. What's wrong with that?" His response was profound, "For children, there is no better teacher than the parents; we teach the young to hunt, fish, and build houses... we teach them Peanda (forest agriculture), how to play musical instruments... we teach them brewing, dancing, and ... basically everything. They may not go to school, but they work hard to earn a living. We have our own medicine for small wounds, and we leave the cure of major ailments to God. To help us out, there is a village magician (medicine-man) and for entertainment there are Ghotuls (primitive socio-educational institutions)"
"We do not have inequality in our society; everybody works hard and everybody gets an equal share. We hunt, celebrate festivals and move habitat in groups. We do not have racism or a difference of opinion among us. Youngsters with hot blood in their veins sometimes do fight, but they accept the ruling of their elders. We do not need lawyers who make truth out of falsehood or judges to say one is innocent." The old man laughed with contentment. Thanks to his long passionate monologue, he started coughing. A youngster rolled a leaf with tobacco in it, lit it, and offered it to the old man. The old man after a couple of puffs passed it to another. This practice of community cigarette smoking was certainly interesting.
"So you don't have suicides or murders, right?" I probed further.
"How can I say so? When men and women follow immoral standards, it does happen. And whenever it happens, somehow the police learn about it; they arrive after two days. By that time, the whole town acquires a stench. If we don't wait for them, they harass us. The last time someone committed suicide, disease broke out in the town, and the shaman told us the goddess was angry because the body was not cremated quickly. Then we had to take loans to propitiate the goddess. The money lenders ripped us off. It takes ten years for us to repay a loan of one hundred Rupees (about $10.00 in 1975). On many occasions the grandchildren have to pay for their grandfather's loans. The money-lender keeps threatening us that he'll have us arrested by the police if we do not repay the loan. We are not afraid of the tiger or bear, but the thought of landlords and moneylenders gives us nightmares."
The discussion had grown graver by the minute, and everybody was morose as a result of it. To enliven the gathering, I joked. "Sir, my wife is getting old. With your permission I wish to marry a girl from your village." Everybody laughed, and a girl – as if I had referred to her specifically – pretended to run away. A young man chased her and carried her back, and offered her to me, "Babu, take this one. She's crazy for city life!" I told the girl that we had a cinema, cars, ceiling fans, and shopping complexes in my town. She asked me if we had ghotuls, and said she didn't want to go any place that didn't have them. (see Ghotuls)
We left after I paid for the drinks. The girl seemed disappointed that my marriage proposal had been only in jest. The debate with the old man had left me with the stirring question of "What constitutes a happy life?". The adivasis do not have any modern equipment, but nature provides everything they need. Had we lived by the money-less ideas of tribal life rather than following the west-inspired quest for money, would many of our modern problems have arisen? – I wondered on the stunningly beautiful natural trail.
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