All the Chapters of the Book are now published here.

One can select chapters from the Blog list below.

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

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Chapter 13: Nagbaba, and the forest village

On Sunday, the 30th of December, we left for the village. A couple of days back, I had called Raju Mama. He had traveled on his bike and informed Nagbaba that we would be coming in this week.
I had added a few more works to my trip. If possible, I wanted to figure out who was behind the assault.  I had also planned to call Prakash to Raju Mama’s farm and discuss updates. No one wanted us to go to our project site for now – it was the fear of the unknown.
Shafiq had become an expert in driving the Safari. Since the road was quite narrow till the base of Satpura, driving a large SUV required some comfort with its size. Ironically, the roads widened once we entered the ghats, roughly an hour and a half from Bhopal, The drive became smooth and picturesque but my heartbeat jumped. We were approaching the point where I had left the road on that fateful day. It was very difficult to make out now where we had turned left but I knew within a range of a kilometer where it lay. 
Tilak was curious to know the spot. I could identify an approximate place where we were hit from behind. In the daylight, we could see many small paths like openings, some of them with jeep or tractor marks, going inside the forest. There was no way to identify unless we surveyed each path and went inside. We did not have that much time and I was not inclined to revisit that spot.
We crossed the Narmada, the holiest of rivers and Hoshangabad town.  The bungalow of Mr.Thakur was located on the main highway. On that road, there were many such bungalows together, the senior officers of police, administration and the judiciary – reminding the travelers about the tight governance. Once they were out of sight, the governance was not visible. The first proof of it was a toll post, barely five kilometers away from the bungalows. It was notorious for overcharging. It had many novel tricks – one was that while refunding, it gave some locally manufactured chocolates in lieu of the coins.
Once we left the highway, I started absorbing the scenery around. Last time I had not noticed anything while returning as we were only looking out for the chasing vehicle.
The forest line could be seen from almost five kilometers away. In between, there were lush green fields of wheat and an overflowing canal to our right. Beyond the forests, the mountains rose faraway to the south. They appeared very far but I knew the foothills were not more than twenty kilometers away. In the backdrop of winter blue skies, it was a perfect picture.
Tilak and Shafiq had never been out of the city. They had not imagined such beauty so close to Bhopal. Without any prompting, Tilak said, “Bhaiya how can be people violent here? They have all that God can give.”
Sooraj replied, “Who says they are violent? They are most gentle as long as you don’t trouble them. But Tilak, most men inside the forest have more strength than us though they look thin.”
I joined the discussion, “Tilak, the competition is between outsiders about the resources here. These tribals and village folks don’t even know how to respond to it” I said.
We were getting into the discussion mode, a habit developed due to idle period in hospital and now traveling on roads. Each one of us had a line of thought – I would take it to a higher socio-political level with some logic in it, Tilak would try to break every event to a level where an action had to be done by him and invariably made us alert, while Sooraj would be more circumspect but more emotional. Shafiq was almost always silent and would open his mouth to say yes when asked by Tilak to support his views. Almost every time, the whole thing ended in laughter when Tilak started drawing conclusions and summed everything up with his crooked logic.
Deeply absorbed in discussion, we went inside the forest road. A few vehicles passed by as the tourists returned before nightfall. The forests had become very dense and dark due to a lot of undergrowth. It would grow till summers and then dry up.
We reached the junction where we had to leave the tar road and turn left. I was not very sure if that was the turn but knew that each such road will lead to a collection of houses in a couple of kilometers. We could ask and turn back if required. We didn’t have to. After going for two kilometers, we reached the hut where I had left the car last time.
A few tribal men gathered around us. I could see and recognize one of them coming out of the hut. The remaining had appeared from behind the trees to our right. All of them had wood cutting spades in their hands – a normal tool for them for daily work but unsettling for those who did not know.
The one I knew, Revaram, also recognized me. He smiled and greeted us. He signaled to others to go back. He asked, “Bhaiya, seeing you after a long time? Last time you went with Tulsi and did not return.”
“Yes, it was a bad journey.” I said. He nodded and then noticed my arm, and asked, “How is it now.”
I said, “It is getting better but I won’t be able to take the bullock cart journey. We have to meet Nagbaba; we had planned to visit him.”
It was decided that we will walk. It was a longer walk now as paths had changed from last time – it was a feature of forest paths was that they changed frequently. Safari was parked behind his hut and behind a line of trees, well hidden.
We left the doors unlocked and I called his two children. They were hesitant but nonetheless very eager to know how a big car was from inside. I told them they can sit inside while we are away but not to touch the handbrake or steering. As a precaution, we placed stones near the front and rear tires.
Revaram put our bags in his cart and went to fetch the bullocks. He took around ten minutes. In the meanwhile his children had settled themselves in the Safari and looked like they won’t get out till the morning. It was a dream comes true for them. 
We stated walking with the cart in front. Revaram instructed us to keep a stick and keep tapping it on the ground while walking. It would keep any snake or scorpion away just in case it had come out on the path to soak the winter sun.
As usual, Tilak had doubts, “What will these sticks do if a Leopard or a Tiger attacks?”
Sooraj replied, “Then nothing would help. Let the tiger decide what it wants and how it wants.”
I asked, “The critical thing to know is who Tiger will choose amongst us. And then protect that fellow.”
Tilak had decided, “Bhaiya, It will choose me only. You and Sooraj are more about brains and computers -it doesn’t need it. Revaram has fixed us up. And Shafiq is the youngest. Only I am left.”
 We debated this logic. I had a question, “But why won’t the tiger eat the youngest?”
Tilak replied, “A tiger is a devout Hindu; it will choose a bigger sinner.”  I asked, “How is tiger a Hindu now?”
“That is why they are only found in our religion and not in Bible or Quran. In some countries they even eat tiger parts, but we do not.” Tilak beamed with his knowledge. I realized that the other four took that as a seriously logical statement.  All I could do was gasp and laugh.
I had to learn a lot about the psychology of these folks; it was hard to realize what could make their compelling logic. It only required a mention of religious books and names and they all accepted it.
Over next few months, I realized that instead of struggling to make a point to be accepted by Tilak or Shafiq or many similar folks, all one had to do was to say that such and such thing was written in Ramayana or Mahabharata or Quran.  There was no doubt in their mind that anyone will dare to misquote these texts and risk going to hell.
Once the argument ended, Revaram spoke, “Bhaiya there are no tigers this side of the river. There are many on the other side in the mountains. There is only one pregnant Leopard that has been seen nearby.”
Before we knew, we had finished our gentle walk to Nagbaba’s village. Whether it was a different path or a different season, everything looked unfamiliar. This time we had not entered the village using the normal path but via a temporary path that cut across fields and went through the compound of one hut.
There was no evening mist; the air was much thinner in the village. The smoke coming out of cooking in the huts had not yet started. There was no adult visible in the village, but we could see children playing under the large banyan tree.   
Revaram parked the cart in Nagbaba’s compound and called for someone inside. His daughter came running.  Revaram asked her, “Where is your father?”
She replied, “He went to the neighboring village inside the forest; will be back before sunset.”
She brought water for us in a round earthen pot.  I asked her name. She said, “Lakshmi,” and ran inside.
By now I knew that the pot had to be used more like a tap with both hands clamped together to help one drink. The villagers many times drank like that directly from the hand pump, and I started enjoying that too over time.
But right now I had a problem. My one hand was not usable. That was sorted out when she brought a bowl from kitchen.
Immediately my insecure mind went towards the morning ablutions. I needed western style toilet seat and not the down ones. I mentioned it to Sooraj; in the morning we needed to come up with something.
Once we settled down, Sooraj brought out a bundle of bidis. He knew tribals loved it and would gather quickly if they knew someone had a supply. He gave a couple to Revaram who stayed back till they were over and then left. But strangely, no villager turned up.
Lakshmi arranged one cot in the open verandah while others sat down on ground in the courtyard. We were given thin mattresses made of bamboo, grass and ropes. They were very comfortable and warm in winters and cool in summers.
This time the compound setting had changed. The fences were reinforced with dry sticks. The cows and bullocks had now got a covered shed made of thatched roof.  Lakshmi explained to me that it has been done early this year before onset of summers. I asked why the fences have been rebuilt.
She realized we were absolutely dumb and explained, “See this time of the year; more wild animals come towards the village.” That lead to the uncomfortable thought that we were sleeping in the open.
 We sat there for an hour or so before Nagbaba came back. I had instructed Tilak and Shafiq to remain respectful. I did not want their abrasive manners on display.
Lakshmi had been waiting for Nagbaba to arrive to decide about the dinner. They used to plan for a meal at a time. In most times, there was barely enough provision for the two of them for a day. But this time of the year, it was not a problem as nature was generous.
Once Nagbaba arrived and settled, he quickly went to the field behind the hut and brought some large brinjals. In addition, I asked if we could buy a chicken in the village. Many huts had fully grown ones and a hundred rupees was a good price. Sooraj went with Nagbaba and bought one. Now, Lakshmi was extremely pleased with the guests as it was going to be a feast. She had not had one for a long time.
 The chicken was roasted on the fire ignited in the middle of the courtyard and so were the brinjals. Forgetting about the more serious matters before us, we ate to our heart’s content.
Nagbaba then brought some homemade Mahua (liqueur made from Mahua seeds). These trees were abundant in the forests and Mahua was a daily affair to drink. First time it tasted a bit raw and smelt like a gum but once the taste and texture became familiar, it felt wonderful and light. 
 There was not much discussion that night. It was cold for us and we quickly settled in our comfortable beds. Above, we were looking at the full display of stars. A faint smell of smoke around the village came from cooled kitchen fires. It was only two hours since sunset but in this world, everyone slept much before.
We four also passed out after some discussion about the leopard, finally leaving our fate to the leopard. Nagbaba only smiled at our vivid imagination – not revealing that a few men kept watch around the village with dogs at night.
It was almost nine, three hours since sunrise. I had missed the morning beauty this time. The others were still fast asleep. I think it was the village cold, the fresh air and the effect of Mahua. Also, we were away from tensions that constantly surrounded us in the city.
Morning brought my first worry though. By the time I have had two cups of tea, others were awake. Now they listened and laughed as I struggled to explain to Nagbaba how a western toilet seat looked like. Then Sooraj chipped in and described the medical toilets made on chairs. That made things easy; and helped for all times to come.
In a short time, a similar structure was made using some wooden planks and branches. It was placed in an area earmarked for toilets in the fields, a hundred meters from the house and a deep pit dug up. Now I could stay in the village for as many days as I pleased.
Whether it was the change in environment, or a temporary relief, I had not yet brought up what I had come for. Nagbaba also had not seemed concerned. And so we spent our time in idle talks till the lunchtime. I decided to take a small walk around the village with Nagbaba, before sitting down for lunch. Others joined us impromptu.
As we came out of the gate, I asked, “Nagbaba why did we come by a different path yesterday? This one that leads to your house looks as good as we saw last time.”
He answered, “This one is barricaded by villagers some way down the road. We have also put iron nails and thorns so that jeeps or bullock carts do not pass.”
I asked, “Something wrong?”
He looked ahead as he said, “The same police guy from local chowki and Raja Saheb had been coming often this way. Now they don’t once the barriers have been put up. They know they are not welcome.”
I did not know this Raja Saheb. Since it was due for discussion, we left the topic as we walked.
Last time, I had remembered seeing Tulsi’s hut to the left, ahead of Nagbaba’s hut on the village path. This time I could see a dilapidated structure – the woods and the mud was coming off and the roof had only dried leaves left.
I asked, “That was Tulsi’s house?” Nagbaba answered, “Yes.”
I could not restrain myself, “Looks like no one lives there. But he had a daughter and wife. Where did they go?”
He hesitated. In the outside world, such women and children were easy preys to be lured. But Nagbaba felt no such risk from me. He said, “They have left the village. There was nothing to do here and food also gets scarcer as summer sets in.”
I wanted more explanation but realized Nagbaba was reluctant to say more in the presence of other men with me. Just one more thing I asked, “Since when have they left?” He answered, “It has been over a month. Our huts get worn off quickly.”
We walked to the river and then turned back. The small village was quiet with only a few people seen working at a distance.  The children were playing in the river unconcerned with our watching them. This time of the year, the water was knee deep and roughly twenty feet wide. It had a gentle flow away from the mountains.
Women were busy fetching water from the river as the cattle needed buckets of water each evening to drink. During this season the cattle were brought home earlier due to wild animals. Other than that, they needed only a little more water for themselves. For a bath, certain downstream spots on the river were marked separately for men and women. The village huts didn’t have private baths. 
Tilak was amused and said, “Bhaiya, in our colony each one gets one bucket for a bath daily. And in summers, you have to fight for it.”
Sooraj quipped, “Then you can come here once in a while in summers and take bath.”
Nagbaba intervened, “This stream will run only till April end. Then it dries. Till ten years back it used to run full even in summers. But now they have cut many trees in the mountains. Now it gets divided into hundreds of streams and each year they change path. Most of them dry up till they reach here.”  It meant that this pretty village was not going to be an easy place in the summers.
We returned to Nagbaba’s hut. A few hens moved about but all other residents of the compound – a few cows, a cat and two dogs were peacefully settled.
It was something new for me – so many different animals living together like a team. I could not resist asking, “How do they live together? They should be fighting and scaring each other.”
The dogs and cat gathered around us to hear the reply. Nagbaba said, “They fight only over food, as long as it is there. Then they forget it and move around as a team. Each one has a role – the cat is there to keep off small snakes and scorpions and even small rats; the dogs alert us against wild animals and strangers and even senses snakes from a distance. They also help in hunting rabbits and other small animals. The hen keep house clean of small insects apart from laying eggs, and you know the uses of the cow.” I nodded and looked around admiringly at the four legged ones.
Nagbaba continued as animals were his favorite topic, “Earlier I used to have many cows and ten guard dogs. But now we can afford only a few. Most of them die young and they are reproducing less too.”
By that time, Lakshmi had laid out the lunch – a heap of thick hand rolled chapattis and salt. It was their daily meal. We all took a couple of chapattis in hand. There was no need for any utensils.
I continued with my curiosity, “Why are they reproducing less and dying young?”
Nagbaba replied, “You will have to live here to understand everything. But many things have happened together. First, as tractors came, the farmer folks did not need out bullocks anymore for tilling, and we could not feed them so much without any use. So their population declined. Then the water shortages started happening and they need a lot to water daily to remain healthy.  How much we can give?  They are weak, die early and reproduce. When the river used to run there was happiness all around. Now we don’t know how the future will be.”
That was our lunch discussion. It was late noon and I wanted to be alone with Nagbaba to discuss what had been in my mind.
I also wanted to know more about him. Till now, he appeared to be a simple but wise tribal but without much say in affairs beyond his village. But many folks like Raju Mama had known about him, and then he had acted like someone with stature in his act of protecting us and sending someone. 
All others relaxed for the afternoon nap, while I went with Nagbaba to the river. He knew a discussion was pending. He also released the cows and they walked ahead of us to drink water. There were lots of large stones in the river where I could sit. We waded across the river to a spot where he could wash the clothes and keep an eye on the cows, and I could sit on a stone with my feet in the river, enjoying the slow flowing water.
Once we settled, I asked, “Where have Tulsi’s wife and child gone? You were reluctant to tell.”
Nagbaba replied, “I didn’t want your friends to know. She is a vulnerable woman alone in the city now. A few weeks after Tulsi’s death, she had problems of livelihood. The villagers helped for some weeks. Then she got work as a laborer in nearby road work. But in the rural side, such news as her husband’s murder travels with twisted reasons. So she decided to go to Bhopal and works as a labor in some big project there. Many folks from nearby areas also work in that project; she has been accommodated there. She had never stepped out of village before.”
I reflected how life changes in a flash- from a comfort of a home and family to a struggle as a labor in an unknown place and more uncertainty in future. My condition was so much better. My thoughts went to the child and said, “She must have dropped the plan to send the daughter to school. I had made a promise before Tulsi died to look after them.”
Then I turned to Nagbaba, and said, “I will need their whereabouts in Bhopal. Let me see what best can be done.”
Nagbaba said, “Lakshmi has written it somewhere. I will ask her for it. But, don’t do any favor that will hurt them all their life. If you let them struggle, they will eventually learn and stabilize.”  I did not fully understand his request – I now look back and realize that those days my only mission was to destroy everyone’s happiness while trying for good.
Then I moved to his problems. I told him, “I need to understand why the police and Raja Saheb have been trying to reach you after this accident.”
He said, “The tension between Raja Saheb and us goes a long way back. It has nothing to do with your accident and Tulsi’s murder, though he thinks it can be used in some way. The police constables are just playing middlemen for Raja who comes here without any official authority.”
“One week after Tulsi’s death, two policemen from the nearest chowki came here to investigate why Tulsi was sent with you. They wanted us to sign on some statements which we refused to, not able to read what was written.”
“Raja Saheb had never tried to come close to us since the bitter feud thirty years back. This time he came here like a friend and representative of a political party and sought to hear why Tulsi had died. He said the police suspects that the tribals here must have sent Tulsi with a purpose of looting you and we had sent one more vehicle behind you. He also said that you had told so to the police. I knew he was lying but many in the village had starting having doubts. There are enough folks here who think you might blame us for a consideration or due to a threat.  Raja said he can manage the police but we will have to relocate from this land. He revealed his intentions but I anyways knew it. He is acting on someone’s behalf to either control mining or logging operations.”
“To avoid all these people we laid tree barks on the usual path and spread nails. It told them that they are not welcome. Since then no one has come this side.”
Now I understood why the villagers had kept their distance from us this time, unlike last time when they were friendly to the strangers. They thought we bring trouble. I told Nagbaba about mine and Sooraj’s written statements given to the police.
It was four pm, still very sunny but had started getting very cold. I continued this topic, “What was that feud thirty years back, you mentioned? I understand that the Raja wants the lands for some purpose but that purpose would have changed in last 30 years.”
Nagbaba smiled and said, “We are used to slow changes around us. When I was small, this area was dense forest, and not easily reachable. We used to live like a closed community not influenced by changes in the outside world, though we were quite aware of outside world and the country and the laws.  When my father died, I was just fifteen. My father made me the custodian of our world, and left many responsibilities to me.  But he had told me not to trust the Nawabs and Jamindars as they had treacherously led our last King to the British and got him killed. Only Nagbabas were left to guide and fend for the forest people. Even in those days, we did not trust the then Raja Saheb, who was the father of this one.”
“In 80s, suddenly there were rumors that the lands which belonged to The Elder Raja Saheb would have to be taken away by the government. Before that happens, he was distributing lands to his folks and other rightful owners. The Elder Raja Saheb also came here and magnanimously told us he wanted to donate these lands to us. Then he made an elaborate list about each land record and its future name. He took a promise from us that when required he would take it back. We did not understand how he was the owner of these lands but the documents dating a century back showed these lands as belonging to the Gwalior State and then given the Elder Raja’s father.  So we were thankful to him and trusted him with that word.”
I realized Nagbaba was referring to the Land Ceiling Act distribution, under which Land owners who had more land that a prescribed limit had to give it away to the government. To keep their assets, land owners tried to gift it on paper to their servants or folks loyal to them and yet kept the land with themselves.
Nagbaba continued, “But then we realized he was allocating lands to only the weakest amongst us who were in his influence and to his servants, but not to those who were living here. His motive was not clear to us. These lands were still dense teak forests in 80s, with precious wood and animals. We continued to live as if nothing had happened. But one day, many men came and started cutting teak and other large trees here. They said they have Raja’s permission to cut and sell them.  But what they were doing was nothing less than killing of the forests, and destroying our habitat and way of life. We loved these forests and were not prepared for a life without them. So we protested. The angry tribals gathered in numbers and told these men to go away, and they fled promptly. That was the start of feud.”
“This Raja was very hot headed and young then. One cold night in the winter of 1981, either frustrated by our stand or emboldened by some other chieftain, he sent many men armed with guns to my village to settle issues with us. The village dogs warned us of many people coming. Folks from several villages quickly gathered – even children, with whatever tool we had.”
“In this forest, we know each turn and tree; those men were no match for our axes and bow and arrows. The noises we created made them lose the sense of direction. They panicked and fired some shots wildly. Then some of us panicked as most of us had never heard gunshots, but had fear of guns. My son who was six also ran away after hearing them. He fell badly as his one foot was caught in a large hole and he injured his leg.”  
“Out of fear, we stuck hard with bows and arrows. We could see in dark unlike them and the lights they were carrying made it easy. Many were injured, and rest fled directionless in the forest. There was a police report filed that many men were killed by us but no dead body was found. Police came to the villages to know what had happened. But we did not say anything. No one in the villages uttered a word.  Those men must have been hired ones. Even if anyone had disappeared, Raja must have paid off to their families.  That year ended the fear and respect for young and old Raja. Ever since then, Raja has been on Dau’s support and is his puppet; else his many enemies would have finished him long ago.”
“We don’t exactly know why he becomes interested now again; but there is ample wood growing on the lands in his people’s names. It can now fetch a lot of amount, and he is always looking for money. The truck path to the mines passes through this area. It is also eyed by Dau.  So they might believe he can get us entangled in this case and break the will of our folks.”
I asked, “Then who has the mining contracts?”
Nagbaba said, “As far as we know, Lucky Sardar runs the mining operations. They also have permit for felling of trees. Every summer, hundreds of truck loads of teak go out of the forest. The paths were made by us only on government contract.”
I interrupted, “They must have lured the officials and politicians into this. For each truck load permitted, one extra one would be illegally going out. And no one can notice what is going on?”
Nagbaba said, “But it does not concern us. Sardars have never tried to unsettle us or take away anything.”
I said, “I can’t agree. May be your rivers are drying up due to that. They may not be replanting as per the mining rules or they may not be cutting in a manner that it re-grows. It is leaving long term damage to your way of life. I think even if he wished, the Raja is so unorganized that he could not have done this much damage to your wellbeing.”  That remark sent Nagbaba into a thinking mode.
I had another question, “Baba, what about your son? Where is he?”
Nagbaba narrated in the same tone.  He said, “He died after sometime. His foot was very swollen and he could not get up. The tribal vaidya and the Bengali doctors (the jholachaps) gave many medicines but his conditioned did not improve. He became thin and weak lying on the bed and then passed away after a year. He was the only one who died due to that night.”
I was aghast and thought, ‘He just had a bad fracture. All he needed was an X-ray and rod and plates to fix him’. In those days, the nearest X-ray was in Bhopal and it was not well known inside these jungles.  It was common that people died of fractures at the dawn of the twentieth century but this was horrible. It was a proof that our country lived across many ages.’
It was getting very cold at the river, though it was still an hour before it would get dark. We got back to the hut, along with the cows. 

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