All the Chapters of the Book are now published here.

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For Chapters 2 to 6, and 28, please see the August, 2016 section below. Rest of the Chapters are in May, 2020 section below.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Chapter 2. Morning in a tribal village

Remembering that day, i.e. the next day, is difficult for me. It is one of those days when one's life gets fragmented - it takes a blind turn from where past road is not visible. Such turns are sharp and difficult to recall. One can only focus on what’s ahead. What complicates the matters is that it was only one of those turns. 
That day can be broken in three parts - a tribal morning, a tense day and then an evening that didn’t happen.
We were dead tired when we slept but I still got up at six in the morning. Being early winter, the forests and hilly region located just at the base of Satpura Mountains, it was quite cold.  I really wanted to get up early and see the early morning in the tribal village. The chirping of birds, and alarms by a few hen were enough to wake me up.
The hosts were already up, and they knew I wanted a tea. So a tea came, full of milk and sugar. Villagers take these two ingredients in tea as if there is no better thing on earth, more the better.
Next to me, Revaram was also having tea. He had a saucer in which the tea was poured, and then it was taken in, with a peculiar sound that comes with each sip.  I tried aping him and realized that I could like the tea more by following his style; I liked the act and the sound more than the tea.
Then we went for a walk - I requested him to show me around. Most villagers, in some twenty homes, were still asleep. This was contrary to the image that I had of folks rising before dawn. But the animals - mostly cows, buffaloes, dogs, cats, and poultry were up and trying to wake others in the house. We walked on a narrow path just wide enough for one bullock cart to pass and made of mud and stones. On either side there were huts but fairly away from the path. Each family had a small hut with one central room and other rooms sharing one wall with the central room but open on the outside.
Revaram was taking me around as if he had got some medal. We met a couple of old tribals and they stood and bowed. Revaram boasted that he had brought me to Baba. I smiled and moved on. Barely a quarter kilometer and the village ended. The path went on; it steeply went down to a river and came out on the other side. The river had knee deep flowing water and thick bushes around.
There were several small paths originating near the river and going towards forests and hills. I asked Revaram about the destination of the main path. He replied, “Babuji, there are two more villages ahead, and then it ends.”
I asked, “You mean no one lives beyond those villages?’'
He said, “No, there are about fifty tribal villages, inside the forest, located every five to ten kilometers. The bullock cart path ends here but there are paths to walk. The forest extends for over 1000 kilometers; much beyond the Satpuras (actually it was around 300 kilometers). The forest tribals come out sometimes but on foot. I haven't gone there for very long.”
We continued our walk back on another path. I came to know many things- about the livelihood of folks in that village, their passion for Mahua (a local wine made from Mahua fruit), and the relaxed society when it came to marriages and other customs. Many things had changed in last few years since they had more access to television and went outside regularly. Many folks worked in cities, and came back for three months each year.
When we returned to the Nagbaba’s hut, he was not there. He had gone in the forest to get wood and also to get fresh water from river. Normally women folk go and bring water but today he had gone.
It was 9 am when I woke up Sooraj, and prepared to leave. I waited for the Nagbaba to return as we had some questions to ask and wanted to thank him. It was a tense night before we had arrived here, and we had been relaxed.
He came back and also brought some wild fruits and some raw chana (gram) to eat. We had milk and fruits and gram as breakfast. Then, I thanked him softly and said I will be back when time permitted. I told him about our work. He just listened with a mild smile; I noticed that his face that got more wrinkled when he smiled.
Before I could ask about his last night's comment that took us by surprise, he asked me to wait here till noon. He said, “Babuji, I will know by then if and where that Scorpio is waiting for you to come out of forests; my guess is where the road joins the highway and turns left for Bhopal.” 
I asked, “How do you know if they are still pursuing?”
“Because folks at Bichua village saw them when they came after you. They were four men with bad breadth. And they were not innocent like you because they turned back, and dreaded entering our boundary. They won't come this far if they didn't have a purpose and they won’t turn back if they didn't have anything to fear.”' He explained.
“Hmmm....then let’s wait till noon. Anyways this place is so beautiful.” I said. Now Sooraj also got involved, adding, “But I don't think they are after us or there might be some misunderstanding; that should get cleared in daylight when they see us and realize it.”
Nagbaba said, “The odds are heavily against a misunderstanding. If there is one, then it’s too rare and too costly in such cases. Besides, you are not a onetime tourist - you have a project going on in a nearby area; the odds of a misunderstanding are reduced further. You are most educated at this moment in this area, are straight and you think progress.”
Nagbaba's tone was straight without any emotions. He was looking away at the cows while speaking, and quickly stared at me, “I think there are no odds of any misunderstanding. They are looking for you.”
With that, he closed that thought in our mind. Though he had an old frail body, he had a tantric's eyes and one needed to be truthful to hold that stare.
Suddenly, a shadow of concern swept across mine and Sooraj's face. All this while, we had done whatever to avoid them or go on instincts but never believed with certainty that a trouble was chasing us.
I no longer had the mind to ask him about his last night's comment. I had an insight by now that the information network of tribals in forests was good, and Nagbaba's reading of events was sharp.
A small thing troubling me was that the cell phone battery had completely drained. Someone in village had an arrangement to charge it using auto-battery and invertors, and that problem was fixed. Leaving it charging, I was back to Nagbaba. In a village gathering point under a banyan tree, there were now about ten men sitting and chatting with him.
We still had an hour to go before noon and I had a few more questions bothering me. I asked him, “Why did the tribal in Madai send me to this place? These folks must be having great faith in you.”
Sooraj also added, “What if those men had come here and had weapons?”
Before Nagbaba could speak, one of the younger folks with eager blood intervened and said, “Ten years back; a jamindar had sent his men here to move us from our lands. No one returned - all dead bodies were given to jaraks.” Hyena was called ‘Jarak’ in their dialect. 
Nagbaba said, “They know we don't want any trouble here. We have enough of our own hunger and worries of survival. They won’t come here. Why you were sent here? These tribals know of very few places to trust. More than the outside world, they believe in me for no reason. A faith based on a reason would have long back eroded.”
Now, I had started listening to Nagbaba. Far removed from his demeanor, poverty and half naked body, he was turning out to be witty and profound. 
Our arrival had been some event for the tribal villagers. Each had his version of the reason. And they loved discussing it, even in our presence, as me, Sooraj and Nagbaba looked on. Some had doubts that we were here to check on cut woods and frame charges of wood cutting on them, a threat used by forest officials to extort money; some had doubts that we wanted to buy land.
But they were good enough to ask directly in a good natured manner.  In all this, I didn’t get time to talk and know more about Nagbaba but made up my mind to come back.
Soon it was post noon and some men arrived to meet Nagbaba. They had a private discussion. Then Baba called me to his hut, and said, “See these men have returned from the road. The men who seek you are resting in a dhaba, two kilometers on the highway towards Bhopal, once you turn left on the highway. One of them must be watching for you. Or maybe there are more informers on the road. Your journey is not safe.”
Sooraj said, “All we need is to make a call the moment we get a network.”
Tulsi, another man who had just joined our discussion, said, “Whom can you call - police, family, friends? The folks out there are not good, and they have a dire reason and plan. Police is most likely already a party paid in the deal - else they won’t wait so calmly. Your family and friends are of no use – if they try to reach you and come across these folks and become an obstacle, their heads would be separated from body, if that is what is required to reach you.”
I said, “Then I feel like going. Once at home, I will be able to think about it with my friend network.”
Nagbaba thought deeply for a few seconds, and advised, “If you have to go, then going now makes more sense. You can enter the city limits before dark. Remember the every word of advice I give now and act on it.  If you call anyone in Police or otherwise, they have to be absolutely trustworthy and those who will act immediately.  Do not stop anywhere for anything. Drive till you reach Bhopal. In the city, you are safe for a reason, but only for a few days till they figure out a way.”
He continued, “You should be safe in broad daylight till you drive for next sixty kilometers on plains. Then hills and mountains start for forty kilometers. Do not drive rashly there, and be on alert. If your car breaks down, or you have to abandon it for any reason, run into the forest. If you cross this patch, then the journey will be safer as the nearer to the city, the traffic will be heavier. Do not forget or doubt my advice.
I am sending this one man, Tulsi, with you. He doesn’t look so but he is much stronger than four of those big men, just like a small wild animal is much stronger than men. But he doesn’t think too much, he works more on instincts. In danger, just do what he does - when pushed to fight, he will fight like a mad man but on a slight chance he will flee. You can drop him when you feel safe. He can walk back to this place.”

I thanked him, promised to return and felt relieved to take my destiny back into my hands. But for some reason, both I and Sooraj felt sad at parting. While we had our problem to occupy us, our hearts could feel that the whole area and folks there had a bigger problem. In all their conversations and lovely smiles and hospitality, there was no talk of tomorrow, there was a deep sense of insecurity and for some reason there was no optimism. I felt guilty for my well being and selfishness in life.

Revaram's cart was ready to take us back. The return journey was faster- it only took half the time spent at night. And the scenery around was rather pleasant, unlike the image we had in mind in the dark. There were grass fields in view and one odd hut at a distance. In the cart, I joked that we didn’t see any snakes with Nagbaba. Revaram defended saying there are many and many visit him also, including some ‘ichhadharis’ (those who can take human form when they desire) and ‘amrit nags’  (those who inject divine panacea instead of venom). I and Sooraj laughed but Revaram was dead serious about this belief.

Back to the car, the three of us settled down. We came out of forest in half an hour and waited as we drove towards the Highway crossing with some anxiety. Taking a left turn towards Bhopal at around half past three pm, I started speeding. By five p.m., we had relaxed - there was no sign of any chase.
While driving, I called my parents but did not tell them about any problem. I also called a close relative, Mr.Lal, who was a junior level police officer. We didn’t have time to discuss details but his immediate response was, “I am calling the nearest police station in your range and giving your cell number. They will call you and send someone along if required. Drive peacefully and if you find a police vehicle, make them talk to me.”
I had not ignored Nagbaba’s advice - I had called a trusted fellow. But was it a blunder? I will never know. All I know is that Mr.Lal felt guilty inside for that small damage, and has tried to make good. But it was my naivety – Mr.Lal did the best he could.
We had crossed the Narmada and were approaching a Dhaba just before the Ghats (mountain roads) start. It’s a place where we used to have tea. We were in two minds- whether to stop as our practice was, now that we were relaxed or to go on without stop, as was advised. I saw a police jeep there at dhaba. And we decided to have a quick tea and also talk to them.
The police sub inspector there was returning from a work. When my relative Mr.Lal spoke to him, he seemed rattled and quickly told him everything seems fine. I felt he already had some message about us. I noted his name, and moved on quickly.
Mr.Lal also had a good nose. He called up and asked me to move quickly, not to trust the police and not to stop. He was sending a car in our direction but till then we were on our own and had to cover as much distance as we can. I felt my spine as I spoke to him on cell.
As we were starting, I instructed, “Sooraj, sit behind. Tulsi, put on the seatbelt. In case of an accident, it will help.”  They acted according to my instructions.
Can brain foresee? I don’t know but I interchanged fate that moment.
Till that day, I never had faced a situation where I had to physically fight with someone for survival. Same was the case with Sooraj. We had not even killed a bird or an animal. Most I remember doing is childish fights at home and then throwing small stones at stray dogs, when I was small. There was never a thought in mind that someone could mortally injure us, those kinds of things were for others.
It was different with Tulsi. He had never killed a man, but he had been a part of more physical fights. He had killed wild animals from deer to boar, and cut domestic animals. I had been against taking lives of innocent animals, but today we were at the mercy of a person whom we would have otherwise detested. He had unselfishly sided with us in this hour, and more importantly sided believing he was on the right side.

Now I believe that if we had met him without these circumstances, we would have not liked him without knowing him fully, and he would have liked us still as he was devoid of opinion

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These posts are fiction. Good fiction cannot exist without real experiences. Also, fiction is easier to relate to.

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