Earlier I had planned to leave by this evening. So the others were ready in anticipation. But I had changed my plan. I told Sooraj, “You three go to Raju Mama’s farm and stay there. Also call my home in the evening, else they will worry. I need to stay here for a day more.” I felt home and even better in Nagbaba’s hut, but was always aware that I was an extra stomach – a burden at any time of the year.
Raju Mama’s farm was further East from the highway towards Pipariya. From this village, one had to travel north, reach the highway and then travel five kilometers east to reach his farm.
Tilak hesitated in leaving me alone. He asked, “Will it be safe here alone?” I told him, “Don’t worry, it’s the safest place I can be in. I have some work for you also.” I gave him a brief on Raja Saheb and asked for his profile search.
Then I turned to Sooraj, “You can pick me up tomorrow. Meanwhile, can you call Prakash to Raju Mama’s farm tomorrow evening? We will meet there for an update.”
Nagbaba called a villager with a cart to take them to the Bichua village. I settled down to rest. I had planned to spend an extra day on purpose. It was not lost on me that villagers had kept distance – a sign of distrust. They suspected that I would protect my interest first even if meant being false with them. Experience had taught them that.
The entire village and the neighboring ones knew that all my friends and the Safari had gone back, leaving me alone. There was enough curiosity around. I was first of a kind. Most outsiders, including forest officials, never stayed alone there at night. They would go to the government guest houses.
My claim to being overall first was not correct, as Nagbaba informed me when we sat around the fire. He said, “First time, a white British man had come and stayed with us in 1920s, as my father told me. He made a map of all the rivers and forest paths. He stayed alone here for very long.”
I was not completely surprised. There were very old churches in Sohagpur, now hardly used. Most of the Satpura ranges were explored by the British and several points had been named after them.
A very old man came to the hut and sat near us. Slowly a few more came; they could not resist their curiosity further. I could not discuss the witness topic as folks were in a different mood. The Mahua was stronger that night. I came to know more about this place and people.
It didn’t matter to the villagers but it was the last night of the year 2007. In Mumbai, I would have gone to a pub, danced and celebrated and brought the roof down. But things here had a feeling of timelessness – the silence, the still cold air and the stars in the sky.
The old man asked me, “Bhaiya, what do you do?” It was a difficult one to explain. I said, “We buy vegetables and sell them in the city.”
He had a surprised tone, “But you don’t grow them. Why will kachhi sell to you? They can directly sell in the city.” (Kacchi was the term used for vegetable growers)
I explained, “Each kachhi has a small quantity of it. To store and transport them, we need a lot more. Hence folks like us buy them and store them to sell far away.”
He was not quite satisfied with this work of mine. Then he asked me if I was married. I told him, “Not yet; in cities we marry late once the career is settled. No girl will marry me till I can earn a lot.”
That one drew a lot of smiles. Nagbaba intervened, “Bhaiya has roamed all over the world.” That opened a lot of questions about how much time it took to go to the other side of earth, how the place looked like and how people behaved.
Almost an hour had passed. Now it was my turn to ask, “Since when have your ancestors lived in this forest?”
The old man replied, “Since before the Ramayana period.”
I asked Nagbaba, “You had mentioned today that there was a tribal king. Where does his descendents live?” Now everyone wanted to listen.
He started the tale, “Now there is no king or his descendent left here. There are tribal princes in other regions. Our last king Vikram and his family were killed by the British almost 150 years ago by treachery. My father used to tell me the stories of our ancestors. It is said that the forests of Satpura were so dense that till Mahabharata period, no outside human had crossed it. The first person to cross it was Lord Krishna who took the assistance of our king. After him, Suryaputra Karna could cross it. The greatest of archers and hunters lived here.”
There was absolute silence as Nagbaba spoke of old times. He talked of a long history, most of the details I would not remember now.
By the time he had finished, most around had been filled with pride, and a sense of loss. The old man stressed, “But no one should think we have no king. He king left the charge to the great grandfather of Nagbaba, and now for us Nagbaba is the incarnation of our kings. He is blessed by the Gods.”
Nagbaba said to the old man, “My father left me with a lot of duties which I have not been able to fulfill. I could not read all that was there and I haven’t traveled outside to seek help. Slowly this place has deteriorated, and cannot provide food for all. Many young boys and girls leave for towns to fend for themselves.”
Suddenly the proud mood had changed to a gloomy one. But the reason for gloom was not understood by me. I understood that they were poor and there were months when there was a shortage of food. But overall given their simple needs and healthy lifestyle, the distress seemed much less than those of poor in urban centers.
I asked, “Has your population grown fast?”
Nagbaba clarified, “Our population has grown very slowly. And many have migrated. But as I told you, there has been less water in the river. It doesn’t have enough fishes even in winters now. We have reduced the cows. During summer, there is less to hunt as most small animals go deep inside forests where streams still run. Each household has a garden and some open area for crops. If the weather is good, it feeds us. Sometimes, some people are able to also sell chicken, milk and wood in small quantities.”
The old man interrupted, “Most folks who go to cities get employed as labor in road work or construction. There they also get into eating tobacco and drinking heavily.”
I said, “They need to be educated for office jobs.”
Promptly a young man named Sukhdev said, “Education doesn’t help. In my age group, many have studied. I have also done a graduation in political science. But it is useless - we only get hard labor jobs. Looking at our failure, now kids don’t study.”
I asked, “Why did you choose political science?”
Sukhdev answered, “That was the best choice available in Hindi in Sohagpur. I selected it as the admission clerk advised. He told me I won’t be able to complete any other course as I had low marks in all subjects in intermediate.”
I asked, “Why did you get low marks in intermediate? You didn’t get time to study?”
He answered, “Bhaiya, the government school here runs once a week. Rest of the days, the Anganwadi lady comes, marks everyone's attendance and goes.”
I left the topic there. It seemed like a familiar problem of social studies. The discussion came back to history. I asked the old dada, “For an ancient settlement, you must be having old temples and structures.”
Nagbaba answered, “Yes, the area is dotted with those. An hour's walk from here inside dense jungles, there is the main fort, made of rocks. Then there is a Devi's temple which is flooded with devotees around Diwali. They are tribals from these villages; they walk bare foot to the temple for fulfillment of their wishes.”
“Inside the fort, there is a special room that belongs to the Nagbaba. It has storage of a few books and gifts. My father had asked me to keep them safe at any cost. After the king’s death, most of the items of the fort had been taken away by the British. Even now forest guards keep searching if something valuable could be found but they don’t touch my belongings. Many of the guards are tribals and still respect the history.”
He continued, “My father had been unwell for long before he died but he taught me many things. He also asked me to learn to read and follow the books but I could not learn. After the king’s death, there has been no one who could read those. Some of these educated boys have also tried. Bhaiya, these things are not known to many outsiders.”
I told him, “Don’t worry, I am not going to share with anyone. But if you need my help, I can try.”
He was quite excited with the offer and decided to take me there next morning itself.
With that, people gathered around the fire started leaving to sleep. My bed was placed a few feet from the fire. I told them I am not going to wake up if any wild animal comes near. They laughed and told me not to worry.
I was up early next morning. It was going to be a long walk up to the fort and back. This was the start of my new year.
Last night, the villagers had shared the stress the society was undergoing. I got a different perspective of bad times now. I had only seen that some financial or job loss, or loss of a loved one, would lead to a bad phase in life. With challenges on many fronts, the villagers did not know whom to turn to and what to change. In such times, Nagbaba role as a senior became important. Devoid of any solution, he kept himself to keeping the fabric together.
The young ones in the family are the first to seek solutions outside. Similarly, the young tribals first started becoming a sight in Bhopal in mid 80s. They used to come to work as labor. Soon they were also seen in Indore, Nagpur – the nearest major cities in central India.
By the time we were ready to go, first light had spread. Nagbaba took a young man as companion. We walked on the village path, and crossed the river. There was grass beyond it which became taller than us. It was still soft and easily movable. Nagbaba walked ahead, clearing the grass with a stick. I told Nagbaba my arm is too weak, in case any need arises. He said nothing of that sort will be required. Both of them were armed with a hew each and a cutting knife.
Now, three of us walked in a row. Nagbaba was in front, I was in middle and the man behind me. They had planned to bring some medicinal leaves and cut some climbers, to be used as ropes. It was going to take three to four hours to return; hence they were carrying provisions for cooking something at the destination.
We had walked for a couple of minutes when I could see the two separate single storey buildings. Each had two or three rooms and a verandah with asbestos roof. They looked fairly intact though the orange paint had worn off and fern had settled at places. The slogans painted on the wall, asking people to study were intact. The second building also had slogans related to family planning. These were the only concrete structures in the village- the primary school and medical centre.
I tried to look inside but Nagbaba stopped me, and said, “These are seldom used structures –there can be animals inside as it is a warm place at night”
I smiled at him, and said, “They would sense you are here. They won’t try anything.”
Once we had crossed the buildings, we turned right, towards South. I guess we were already fifteen kilometers south of the Highway. The path on the red soil went up with a gentle slope. We were walking parallel to the river. We had walked for roughly fifteen minutes when the river turned right and I could see another stream joining it at a distance. We left the path along the river and turned left into the forest. Barely 20 feet from the river, had the dense growth started.
From a distance the forest never looked so dense and menacing. The paths were known to these people and used regularly. We just had to brush aside the low lying branches and watch out for holes, and some thorn bearing plants. It went gently into the forest. Within a minute of the walk from the river, I had lost sense of direction. I tried to look at shadows and make out, but there were none. Above our heads were thick canopies of tall trees fighting for sunlight.
I commented, “This forest will be impenetrable in rains.” Nagbaba said, “Yes. But in summers, one can see much farther. Some trees will shed their leaves and the grass will completely dry up. Sometimes there can be massive fires here.”
I asked, “Are there any animals watching us?”
He replied, “They would be aware but may not be interested in our affairs. There would be hundreds of wild boars sleeping in open holes under dense trees. We can’t see them so easily. The most dangerous one is the wild bear. It attacks without a cause and directly goes for the eyes. The person walking behind has to be alert.”
I was curious, “Then what do you do?” He said, “Keep a match and a dry stick. If you don’t have it, then run. The person behind must keep some barrier so that the bear can’t come close without him knowing.”
I turned behind, almost expecting a bear standing behind the tribal man behind me. I wanted to know what arrangement he had made against the bear that was going to follow him. He had no protection. Then I noticed Nagbaba’s two dogs and one dog belonging to the man, following us. They were not called but had come.
Nagbaba told me, “A dog follows the master whenever one goes inside the forest.” I admired their training.
I started the conversation as it was very silent. I asked, “What all have you learnt from the snakes?”
He said, “Bhaiya, they are God’s creatures like us. The snakes don’t kill with their poison, they kill with their reputation. Besides they are clear headed. Once they decide to run or to attack, they do it without any half measures.”
I asked, “How do they decide whether to attack or to run?”
He answered, “Their first motive is survival. They look at threats from that perspective and decide immediately based on instincts. They know what the intent of the other person is.”
I continued, “But even if someone comes near or touches them without intentions and without knowing, they bite. Then how do you say they know the intent of the person.”
Nagbaba answered, “See they are deadly yet very fragile. A small cut on their skin is a certain death. Hence they interpret any touch or proximity as a danger.”
Our discussion was getting interesting. He understood that I had been linking them to the humans I was worried about. I asked, “Are they evil or good? I mean do they have a sense of right or wrong?”
Nagbaba thought and answered, “They go by what is right for their survival and there is no other confusion in their minds. You see there is no second chance. That is how nature tells them to be.” It was worth reflecting how nature gave more importance to survival than to right or wrong. On the other hand, history told us that survivors had the last say in trumpeting their righteousness.
I further asked, “You mean while one thinks one is negotiating and building a rapport with them, one is only being deceived by their calm?”
He said, “Most likely that is the case. Also remember, the first thing I do to poisonous snakes is to remove their venom. Then keeping them creates awe in others as no one else knows it.”
I thought for sometime about what could be the poison. The most basic poisons that one human could impart to another were fear and greed, one numbing the heart, the other numbing the mind. A powerful poisonous snake would have lots of both to overcome anyone. If I had to learn to face one, I had to overcome its ability to instill fear or greed in me.
I had one more realization –that Nagbaba was smart in his own ways. Once he caught the drift of my mind, he did try to guide me. He was telling me something – not to see a human snake as someone who could see right or wrong or bargain. It could be fatal.
We walked for roughly one hour and twenty minutes till we reached a very rare open space – more than fifty feet wide. In front of us, there was a long wall made of stone. We walked along the wall for around two hundred feet. It had an opening in between. Once upon a time, it must have been a gate, now it had eroded along the edges.
Inside there was a courtyard, almost twenty steps. Long grass had covered it though there was a walking path to an open circular area in middle of the courtyard. There were signs of recently burnt logs there in the middle with logs cut and spread around for sitting.
Nagbaba kept his hew down and asked me to sit on the logs while he roamed around to collect some shrubs from the forest. I assumed they were some kind of tribal medicinal herbs.
I sat facing the gate. Behind me was a stone structure. There were many large teak trees near it and had creepers growing everywhere on the wall. The other man continued walking and went inside the structure. The dogs were well trained. They didn’t need any instruction to split themselves in three, one each with one person.
As I looked around in that silence, something struck me. I felt one with everything around. For the first time I was inside such a dense forest and had not imagined how beautiful it was.
Both men soon returned. The man started making fire and setup a mud choolah. He was going to cook something while I was going inside the stone building with Nagbaba.
It was the old tribal fort, the seat of power that had governed this land for ages. It was an ancient structure, though it had not eroded as much. It was made of heavy stones. The roofs were made of teak. The ones used here must have been cut out of huge trees. One could see it still intact as if it had been installed a few years back. That was the specialty of native teak- years had no impact on it.
Once inside, Nagbaba showed me around and explained the structure. It was a U shaped structure with the centre being open meeting ground. There were a few halls and rooms halls along the U shaped corridor. Each room had been allocated for a different purposes- one for the king’s meeting, one for keeping weapons, one for keeping arts and one for literature. There were no rooms for living there; even the king lived in the village. The furniture, arts, crafts, old weapons and books had been removed from the place, first by the British and then by locals.
He took me to a small room at the end. It was locked but he had the key. I could see this room had been painted with limestone and neatly kept. The floor had been swept with cow dung. The roof also had been reinforced with teak. Inside the room, in one corner, there was an iron almirah. It must have been brought from nearby town as these were termite proof. It had “Nagbaba Bhairav, Mahuakheda” painted on it alerting anyone that it was his property. He opened the lock and the panes. It had four shelves. The top one had many idols- made of brass and wood and stones, and neatly wrapped in kosa. The second shelf had a snake gourd, painted and much silver and brass jewelry, mostly thick bracelets for hands and legs. The bottom two shelves had books, wrapped in Kosa.
Nagbaba started showing one by one. First he took out a stone sculpture, and said, “This is Lord Siva and Parvati.” It was a most beautiful idol sculpture I had seen. The ornaments, the various elements of a Siva and Parvati picture were sculpted in detail. The stone had eroded at places but still looked very beautiful. There had been many very ancient such sculptures found around Sohagpur and installed in temples, the most famous being the one next to the Highway. This was smaller but in great detail. It looked very ancient.
Next he took out a brass idol, and explained, “This is Sri Krishna. It is said that this idol was made when he visited Satpura.” It was a long thin brass statue, as most tribal arts were. It had every detail of Krishna’s attire.
Then he showed me wooden idols for different Gods. I listened as he elaborated the mythology behind each idol.
Then he showed me the Snake Gourd, and a large tiger nail. They had been passed on to him from his father, and had been running for generations. The Snake gourd was the symbol of his Position, and his burden. Nagbaba said, “My father had told me that if I needed help and felt compelled, all I had to do was to show this to the world and help would come from unknown quarters.”
Next he took out many books. They were in fragile state. All of them were written in familiar Devanagari script but in different languages – from Sanskrit to Maithili to Awadhi. I could read some of the script but struggled with the meaning. Some books were familiar in Sanskrit and were printed – like Ramayana, Geeta, and Vedas. Most did not have any title, and many out of them were hand written. They did not seem familiar texts. Of most curiosity were many hand written books. It looked like someone had kept a diary of records.
This was the treasure he wanted to understand, and had brought me here for. I assured him of helping in translation and reading them to him. I sat down and made a list of the books and their language. I thought that many of these printed ones may be available in common Hindi also in Bhopal.
Then we locked both the doors and came out. The food was ready – thick wheat rotis and salt and green chilies. It tasted like heaven.
As we started the walk back, I asked, “No outsider comes here?”
Nagbaba replied, “The forest guards do come occasionally, especially if a Tiger is around. Most of the tigers have collars. During summers, we keep a vigil if a fire has started. Fires are mostly extinguished by us as lots of men are required to make trench lines.”
I asked, “How many tigers are here? They don’t attack village cattle.”
He answered, “Around forty adult tigers. We are tribals and have lived here for ages and understand them. Not a single tiger has been poached in these vast jungles. In fact, when a tigress has cubs, or female bear ahs young ones, it is quite common that they settle in a place around our village. The males do not come close to our settlement; hence they feel more safety for cubs. They don’t attack us or our cattle. We are not their natural choice of food. Only in distress they will harm us.”
Then Nagbaba posed one to me, “Why do you think we have been getting less resourceful? Are outsiders like Raja scheming and plotting it over years.”
He looked with expectation as I paused.
I said, “You all have been becoming poorer and are sinking in poverty deeper every day. That is causing the distress and unhappiness.”
I continued, “Let us leave Raja and others aside for now. They are hyenas who come when the prey is half dead. They are not the major cause of your distress but only small and temporary beneficiaries.”
I thought of asking him some questions to enlighten myself, “Tell me – you have seen your village for last sixty plus years. Can you say men and women would have worked as labor on roads, thirty years back even if they were offered decent wages?” I asked.
He said, “No. We had lots to do within village- from cattle to fishing to poultry. We had festivals every month and village competitions. We could do more skilled work from bows, arrows to wood carvings, pottery and artifacts and jute work.”
I interrupted him, “Now many of you are willing to do lower skilled physical work, even far away from home. See it is not about money. You had better and free food some thirty years back, and even more fifty years back. You had cleaner, flowing water and fewer diseases and more cattle and more for hunting. The forest cannot share more free gifts- it is stressed. Also, though none were educated then, the folks had some skills that could be sold in outside markets. Now some of your younger population is educated and can even speak broken English but they have no skill left. Whatever little they save in the city is spent on medical costs or rentals or exploitation. I saw last night that the villages are not only becoming poorer but also older with young folks migrating. Though they come back once or twice in a year but it is just a ritual that does not do any good to the village in the long run or to them. It is the lack of faith in future here that is driving people in all directions. Your distress scenario is slipping like a runaway train now.””
Nagbaba said, and he looked calm, “We know already what you said. Each woman and child know that though we can’t express it in your manner. We thought that once water flow becomes normal then things will be as earlier but it has been thirty years in that hope and it only became worse.”
Now the other man gave his views, “Bhaiya it is something in God’s hand.”
I could not offend him by not giving God the blame for this. So I asked him, “Tell me didn’t God give you this forest, and the animals and the rivers. He gave them all together to look after each other and all were happy- isn’t it?”
He said, “Yes.”
Then I asked, “Then when one part breaks down, say trees near the river path fall, how will river remain normal and how will animals remain normal. What has not happened in thousands of years has happened in thirty years – how can such ferocity leave God happy?”
The man nodded and then kept silent.
We got up to return. My conversation with Nagbaba continued. He said, “We don’t cut trees. We just cut branches. The forests grow so rapidly in rains that if we don’t cut for two years, the trees will be right next to our huts. But that is nothing compared to the Government’s felling. If they stop it, things would turn around but it is beyond us.”
I did not know what the local government and Sardars were doing. I replied, “See governments are nothing but a loose collection of different individual interests. Currently, the requirement for wood and many other things like sand, mines is very high in urban areas. So the Government chooses to look the other way even if they harm the forests. Even Sardars cut because there is a market out there.”
I continued, “Still I agree both of them seem irresponsible.”
He said, “Then there is no way out” It was said half questioningly, half concluding.
I replied, “There will be many ways. We have to think of possibilities. I need time to think. I am too inexperienced in this matter.”
We still had to go some distance. So we could discuss the case status and testimony of tribals.
Nagbaba said, “That evening when Tulsi died, the police took his dead body. The tribal villagers who had carried you to the road sent messengers to our village early next morning. That is how we came to know about the event. I knew those tribals well, and they will only help us.”
It was a good sign. I said, “Then you will have to contact them and make sure they don’t face any pressure. I don’t think there will be any since they are in a group as witness.”
I told Nagbaba that whenever required, he would have to come to Bhopal with other witnesses. I promised him that I was not going to frame him or anyone and hence he should ignore what the Raja said or the police constables said.
We walked for almost an hour and a half and were back to the hut. And that brought me back to my world and situation which I had completely forgotten about.
The other man said, “Bhaiya, I will bring some hare for dinner. Then I want to know more.”
I told him, “I may have to leave by evening, once the Safari comes back. Besides, I don’t know that much.” But he was not convinced.
He went away but then he did something I did not expect. He told many folks that I had explained to him how God created forests, and many other things. He told the villagers that I was a very knowledgeable person. It brought me some recognition.