Continued from Chapter 27
It was five in the evening by the time the cart came to Nagbaba's hut. Lakshmi was playing with other children at a distance. She came running on seeing me, and asked, “Bhaiya, after long time? I had been waiting for you.”
I didn't answer her; just asked, “Where is baba?” She answered, “Baba is at the Denva River. He won’t be back till the morning. You can also go there. It is just half an hour walk.” Then she took my bag, went running inside and came out with water. She seemed to be in a hurry not to miss her play as other children called.
I started moving on the path towards Denva River alone. It was dangerous path for a person with less sense for the wild, but I was quite lost that day. As I crossed the village, someone must have noticed my going alone. Soon a man started following me. With him guiding from behind, I did not lose my way in those tall dry bushes. He took me to the place where Nagbaba and others were stationed. It was a place where river was very broad and shallow. Nagbaba and a couple others were at one shore while another group could be seen on the other side.
He greeted me with a wide smile. They were sitting around a small fire place, not yet lit. Even in summers, it would quickly cool off at night. They also needed to keep wild animals away.
Nagbaba didn’t ask anything. He explained what they were doing, “There are not enough forest guards. During summers, we also have to pitch in to protect wild animals from poachers. This place is a prominent water point. We also have to keep an eye on wild fires. They have to be cut off with trench lines at a distance.”
I said, “You are doing free social service.” He did not understand. But anyone could make out that I had a negative streak that day.
I lied down on the ground. A pillow was made using a small stone with a folded gunny bag to cushion against its hard surface. The light was fading – without more talk, I had slept quietly. I slept for almost three hours but it was a disturbed sleep. Whether I had dreamt or heard while asleep, I remember a conversation between Nagbaba and other two.
One of them had asked Nagbaba, “What is Bhaiya doing here at this time? He doesn’t seem in his normal mood.”
Nagbaba replied, “He has been bitten by too many snakes. We need to take the poison out and restore his mind.” The man asked, “What snakes?”
“Ignorance, unreal possessions, fear of loss. They are sucking the soul out of him. I have to try and save his soul. It will be my test as well.” Nagbaba replied.
I had woken up with that little conversation in my mind but passed it off as another dream. It was half past nine. A very clear sky full of stars had come out, and the river also had more water flowing now. The fire had been lit. Nearby, the two men had made a small mud choolah, and were making thick maize rotis. All three of them were drinking Mahua wine.
One man asked me, “Bhaiya, you will have a little?” He meant Mahua. I nodded. There were some groundnuts to go with it, and some rice, and thick maize rotis. That night, for the only time in my life, I had four servings of the Mahua, yet I remained silent, as did everyone else. I sat next to the fire, facing the river. Nagbaba knew about the cold storage fire but had no further knowledge of my many troubles. He did not ask anything.
Completely overcome by Mahua, I let the river flow silently out of my eyes and down the cheeks. I must have blabbered something which I do not recall now.
‘What was I doing here? What was my future? Where had my past dissipated? What bad karma I had done to bring me to this state?’ I kept on thinking.
I smiled and said to myself but others also could hear it, “Maybe I was supposed to be born an illiterate man here, guarding animals and fires at night. God has his ways of making me leave everything and be back to where I should be tonight.”
I felt a hand around my shoulders. Nagbaba said, “Isn’t it possible that you came here as it was the best thing to do. You let your body just follow your subconscious mind, to this place. I will take it as God’s will.”
Then he said, “Look around. Even in this dark, you will feel the elements around called panchatatva. We are also a part of it and will go back to it. Whatever grief and anger you feel is not as real as them.”
I commented, “What is not real? Me, My education, my decision to leave a stable career, my love, my parents, that I am a pauper going to be indebted, the courts, the scum all around. Tell me.” I continued, “How and what do I fight to come out of this?”
Nagbaba asked as he settled across the fire, “What do you want to fight and come out of?”
I gasped as I realized that these monetary concerns, loss of positions and failures had never been part of his existence - a life that was devoid of personal goals or success. I answered, “Nothing.” But he could guess unsaid things.
As all four of us settled down after food with remaining Mahua, Nagbaba addressed us and continued, “Do you know why we sleep here tonight, and many nights before this, ever since I remember? It is strange as no one gave us this job yet it’s a part of our being. When I was small, my father, the Nagbaba, had given me a purpose for my life – to work for the well being of this community. He explained to me that the community included the animals, trees and the outside people who were good. Many outside people were saints, some who would come for meditation, some for medicinal plants. They would also teach us new things and tell us about the world. He explained that I needed to judge and strive to maintain a balance if the community harmony was disturbed.”
One tribal man asked, “Baba, how long has this community been here?” They loved listening to their ancient history and kept changing it with different anecdotes.
Nagbaba continued, “No one knows. But it is said that the first person to cross these Satpura Mountains was Lord Krishna. Then also, we used to have a system of Kings and Nagbabas. In ancient days, their task was to protect against the great wild beasts. There were large snakes, which are not found now. We developed ways to handle them and keep them away. Slowly, we became the guardians of the jungle. At times, we were called to help the outside kings and sages, when all else failed. First it was during Mahabharata and then when King Vikramaditya needed us to defeat the evil Huns. During those ages we learnt a lot about medicines, poisons and animals. We were a very small but strong society. But during British times, our strength broke once the king was killed. Since then Nagbaba’s main purpose remained preserving this community and our culture. It lasted till me father’s time. Then and now, things have changed. While bad outsiders with better machines are a problem, our own folks have become greedy. Many have done harmful things or have completely fled. Just like the tigers, the rivers and the large trees, our own culture is ending. But we have to do our duty for as long as we can. We will not break God’s trust in us.”
I silently listened. I had no such duty behind or ahead, that could raise my sense of purpose, and make the troubles look small. But I had no more frown about their work. My worries were intact but my negativity had gone for now.
The other man asked, “Baba, who will go now?” Nagbaba instructed, “You two go for rounds tonight. I will watch from here.”
Before they left, they wiped our floor beds on either side of the fire. I lay watching the stars, listening to the music of river and soft breeze, with some distant sounds of barking adding to the effect. Alongside, Nagbaba was softly singing a hymn in praise of Dhruv (North Star). He took a break to explain to me, “Bhaiya, Dhruv Tara is my favorite deity. He only has the permanent place in all of nature.” Then he narrated the story of Dhruv, as given in Vishnu Purana.
I asked him, looking at stars, “Why do you worship so many deities, from this river to wind and animals to stars above?”
He answered, “All of them have come together to give us life. We worship them to express our gratitude. It also reminds us that even if one of them does not show up, our existence will be over.”
I asked him a surprise question, “Why did you think my feelings were not real?”
He said, “I will not be able to explain that. But for now, I will ask you this – do you think you will live forever?”
I had never given it a thought. I answered, “No.”
He concluded, “Then time given to our conscious body is all we have in this world. Rest all will be gone one day when the time is over.” I didn’t say anything. I went into a deep slumber with the last line in my ears.
It was still dark when Nagbaba woke me up. The two others had come back from night vigil and slept.
For my comfort, Nagbaba served me hot water, a substitute for tea in those circumstances. As I sipped it, he said, “I woke you up to see the dawn. The river will come alive in a few minutes.”
Then he gave me a cloth for wearing around my waist, in case I wanted to come to river with him. He was going for offering prayers in the river. I followed him in the river, almost twenty feet away from the bank. The water was waist high and comfortably cool. It had a gentle flow towards west. Nagbaba closed his eyes, offering prayers to the sun, while I looked around.
As first rays came on the horizon, the place erupted with chirping of birds. Till now there had been sporadic calls only. On the other side of the river, the forest guards had released their elephant and her calf, after a night’s duty. Both had started celebrating the day.
The surroundings were having an effect on my mind. There was no upheaval like yesterday. Last night’s words rung in my head ‘Then time given to our conscious body is all we have in this world. Rest will be gone one day with it.’
My situation seemed small in that context, yet there was nothing unreal about my situation. It also seemed small in the context of this world around which was busy celebrating a new day, yet my mind bore a heavy burden.
Nagbaba finished his prayers to the sun. I asked him, “How will the sun or the river reciprocate to your prayers?”
He answered, “Why should I care? My feelings towards them are mine, and not linked to how they reciprocate. If I start expecting, my emotions will create bondage.”
I asked again, “Then are you scared of bondages?” He said, “Yes, only freedom brings happiness. Such bondages will start dictating how you feel and what you want. But do not confuse bondage with a duty. A duty gives us immense strength and happiness.”
He went for a long dip. I pondered over it. A lot of grief in my mind was about how I was being treated by people, and even fate, and how I expected it to be. It was also affecting my view of many other things in the world.
Once he got back, he shouted, “Bhaiya, one more thing my father told me about the sun.”
I was listening. He said, “My father said that you will get the chance to pray to the rising sun only twenty thousand times, in your life. By the time you will realize it, only ten thousand will be left. Never trade those times for anything, then you will make good choices in life.”
I smiled. It was a tribal father’s way of advising his son on making decisions when faced with choices. It meant many things simultaneously. But for me, it meant two things- one to make choices that protect one’s freedom, and two- that time was more precious than all other worldly possessions. Both of these were not to be traded for anything.
Another passing thought came to me, “How people like Agarwal and Dau were able to buy poor folks’ freedom with very small amounts? If only these folks realized.”
Nagbaba had swum across the river, and was now playing with the elephant calf. The river was wide but not deep. I also swam across to their side. The mother and the calf became alert seeing a stranger but calmed down once their caretaker Mahout assured them. I also had a chance to wet them and let them reciprocate. Then we came back to our shore.
Nagbaba said, “If this water was not flowing, it would create diseases and smell. Similarly, we should not hold time in our mind. Once it has flown past, only images remain. Reality is only this moment.”
I argued, “But isn’t life about creating knowledge with time? Else what is the difference between living and non living?”
He replied, “Yes, creating knowledge and awareness with time is the essence of life. But it is not creating emotions and their possessions.”
Thus, a long discussion started that continued all day. We walked back to his hut, and then went for more walks till the evening.
Nagbaba used all his knowledge and wisdom to show to me how negative emotions created greed and fear, which in turn led to loss of freedom. Over the evening tea, he explained why Goddess Lakshmi (Wealth), Saraswati (Wisdom or knowledge) and Lord Ganesha (Signifying Benevolence, Compassion and Goodwill) were meant to be found together, and any separation was only temporary. He invoked many other mythological stories to make his many points.
By the end of the day, I was calm; all grief had evaporated. I understood that my situation was temporary and inconsequential. I wanted to learn and relearn a lot more. I felt certain strength inside that now on, circumstances and its players were not going to affect me. Yet my search for a new purpose was on.
At dusk, we started the walk to the Denva river. This time there was more supply of Mahua and we also carried two large Brinjals for roasting. We settled in the familiar positions around fire. The two men were busy preparing the meal. One was roasting the brinjals on fire, while the other one prepared the balls of wheat flour, called baatis, in local dialect.
I asked Nagbaba, “If you accept that creating greater knowledge is the purpose of life, then are you doing that?”
He had not expected this one. Yet, it seemed he used to think about it. He answered, “May be we are not creating anything useful, as the world has changed so much and I do not know what can we offer. Still, I believe, we are trying to prevent some good knowledge from being lost. This nature which gave us life and happiness from times unknown must be holding a lot of knowledge that will vanish with it.”
I brooded over that. It was not a business question but my mind inevitably saw a spark. It was left there to slowly burn.
I moved to more pressing discussion. I asked, “How folks like Agarwal, Dau or Sardars, or many politicians like Raja, are able to suppress and exploit, and buy allegiance of all kinds of people?”
It led to an animated discussion around the teachings of Bhagvad Gita, and the three types of forces inside each soul, and how they interplayed. Agarwal, Dau, Raja were predominantly Rajsik in nature, and were able to dominate the Tamsik ones.
At the end of it, we concluded that even with all their personal faults, folks like Dau were astute judges of other humans' motives and strengths and weaknesses. But if they came across someone without fear and greed and yet driven by great purpose (Satvik person), they lost to such a person in their mind. With others, they would deal in fear or greed and gain some material benefits as a result.
Nagbaba cautioned me to keep Sardars out of this analysis. He felt that he did not understand them. This lack of understanding was partly responsible for keeping distance from their affairs, even when they operated in the forests.
I also had this feeling earlier. The Sardars' representative in this region was a crude, half logical guy who seemed to have no personal goals, and even lower hygiene. He would drink, womanize and terrorize official machinery. He was most incapable of running the mining and wood smuggling operations. Yet he was not touched by officials or the rivals. Perhaps it was dangerous or futile.
Our discussion continued as the dinner and Mahua was served. I had never before tasted such delicious brinjals, and they were without any salt or spices or oil.
I asked, “I fail to understand why they dealt so strictly with me?”
Nagbaba tried to reason, and said, “After the attack, when I met you in the hospital, I thought about it. There are a few things about you that would alarm folks like them. You use your own yardstick while dealing with them, and you try to think and outsmart them, not accepting yourself as under them. Then you seem to know more. So you have your own mind and their methods of greed and fear did not work on you as they thought. It is a tricky proposition for them dealing with such a person.”
I asked, “But why deal at all with me? I mean they are so big and entrenched in the system. I was nothing even if I had been successful in my measure.” Then I tried answering, “It may be a lingering suspicion that I am a pawn of some other backing. But that doubt should be over now.”
Nagbaba said, “When a tiger cub, even if alone and separated, roams in an area, it creates great doubt in the minds of all animals. They know that if it lives and remains there, one day it will become bigger. Many of them would want to eliminate it. But they are not sure if there is a tigress watching somewhere and waiting to pounce. Some of the weaker ones try to befriend and protect it for future, but are always wary of how it would behave. But if the larger animals become sure that there is no tigress around, how do you think they will behave and how should the cub behave?”
I completed his sentence, “The cub should hide while it grows, or run to safety. Any other scenario is bleak.”
By the time we finished our discussion, it was early morning.
I had a clearer picture of many players and their networks. While most of them including Dau, Raja Saheb were remnants of the erstwhile Jamindari systems and had clear alignments and personal interests, the creature called Sardar was still a puzzle. It was plundering the maximum amongst the players, it had no visible network or team, yet it had an invisible system working with it from officials to politicians and religious groups to press reporters. All of the occupants were adept at quickly aligning and re-aligning loyalties based on their business interests.
They were all taking the small lot of Nagbaba’s tribals to their ruin, and were greatly helped by a massive demand for ores and wood and land by the industries and mushrooming cities. These ten thousand odd remaining forest dwellers stood no chance of preserving their habitat or livelihoods.
Whatever little chance was there was gone as more important species like tigers were also in stress and needed space and natural resources. Already, there were migrations to cities as the fragile ecosystem created food shortages and health problems. Without assets and unskilled, the migrant families went as low end labor. But they were prone to financial frauds and never were able to rise above low end jobs.
It had been one sleepless night well spent. Nagbaba's problem seemed much larger than mine now. Along with their community, even the heritage of their ancient existence and their knowledge was going to disintegrate.
In the morning, we again spent time in the river. Then we picked our stuff and stared walking back to the village, on the single person path cutting across dry tall bamboo grass. In those ten minutes, Nagbaba narrated and then interpreted a passage from Ramayana beautifully.
It was about the two sides of the time. At night, when Lord Rama went to sleep in his palace, there were celebrations everywhere as he was going to be the King next day. But before the dawn, his destiny changed and he had to leave for fourteen year solitude in forest. The change in fortune could not bring any unhappiness in Him.
Though I had read it before and had different learning, Nagbaba gave another interpretation. He said, “See, the wheel of fortune has no meaning for someone who does not carry a material yardstick; the one who knows the purpose of life. For Lord Rama, it did not matter whether it was a palace or a hut, all were beautiful. In such a state of mind, the turbulence of fate has no meaning.”
His words left a long lasting impression on me. As I thought over it, any anguish that I might have had about events, people in my life, losses, and despair got washed away.
I had morning tea in Nagbaba's hut and then wanted to sleep all day. Before that, I wanted to inform my parents. It had been two nights and two days since I had left them without informing about my whereabouts. Despite all differences of understanding and gaps of time and distance, there is a thread that binds a parent and the child. I had not understood why it is so; it was going to take some more learning. I asked Nagbaba to send someone to call them. Nagbaba smiled and said, “One day, you will believe in God.” By now, we didn’t need to speak everything but many paragraphs were exchanged by a single sentence.
I asked him smiling, “When is it likely?” He said, “When you take some of His burden, maybe as a caretaker or guide of a needy one or even parent to a child.”
I said, “Will see. But for now, why doesn’t God help your cause. You are doing everything he would have loved. Yet there is no help while each day all you care for passes into oblivion.”
He calmly replied, “That is not correct. The help is always being sent. I take your visit also as a great help and learning.”
With any other person, I would have passed it as a meaningless statement to soothe me. But in case of Nagbaba, I knew he was not saying it without something he had learnt. Surprised, I asked smilingly, “What have you learnt from my queries? It is quite hard to believe. I am afraid if you learnt all wrong things.”
He said, “That one must not stop searching for answers, and go wherever the questions take one. We have sat here pondering over our situation for years but had never gone out and searched in the outside world if there were answers to our questions. I think we stopped asking questions. Right from the day I have seen the children cured of blurred vision, I have thought over it. But now I have understood that even in your distress, your mind searched for questions and answers. Our whole tribe is different; very few of us ask questions and search for answers beyond our reach. It has been that way for generations as things changed too slowly. We lived with a lot of old knowledge and but did not delve deep into it.”
That was a genuine compliment. It was no wonder that I always felt welcomed here even if I overstayed and was a draw on their poor grain resources.
Continuing my stay, I arranged to get some books from Bhopal. These were books of wisdom like Ramayana and Gita and others that I had not understood properly before. I also read the accounts of human history in the region. With Lakshmi, I discussed how to translate some of the Nagbaba’s books to Hindi. Once first few paragraphs were done, I left her to the job. Even the first pass was going to take months but she was not going to stop now.
The nights were spent in guarding near the river. A couple of times, I went for a patrol with the forest guards. These men, posted away from their families and doing a meager job, were no match in the patrol work to Nagbaba’s men. Yet, everyone liked them as their hearts were in the right place.
During those days, my dressing sense also had undergone a change. From T-shirts and jeans, I had graduated to rough cotton half sleeves kurta and pyjamas- they were hand stitched by Lakshmi. They had crude shapes since tribals didn’t wear such clothes but they were very light and much more comfortable. Whenever they got dirty, they would be washed and dried in a short time and worn again.
I stayed in that area till the end of the month. It was time to handle the court case. I had grown inside compared to when I had taken the cart ride. I still searched for a direction but felt an inner strength to undergo whatever trials future would bring.
While I was planning to leave the village and go to Bhopal, Raju mama visited me in the village one morning in early hours. He had come on a bicycle. It was unusual, as he always used a motorcycle. He seemed distressed and needed to talk to me alone.
He said, “Bhaiya, I have to get back soon to my farm.” I told him I was going back to my home in Bhopal. He asked me to hear him out while we walked together to Revaram’s hut. There, Tilak was going to come to drive me back.
Nagbaba, Lakshmi and a few others came out to see me off. I had stayed for so long and bonded with so much depth; it was inevitable that they didn’t want me to go. I told Lakshmi to keep working on the books. I promised to return soon with better news.
Then I went with Raju Mama.
(End of Chapter 29)