The monsoons had arrived, a month late than normal, but in full fury. There was a strange excitement in traveling to Nagbaba’s village. I anticipated swelling mountain rivers, and dense growth in forests. All along the scenic route from Bhopal to the temple, the fields were full of green crops. The rivers, particularly Narmada, swelled dangerously with muddy waters. It must have risen by almost 50 feet and broadened to half a kilometer during that period. It looked like a violent manifestation of Durga, out to clean every bit of settlement along its path. This surge would last only for a few days, and then within a couple of months after monsoon, shallow streams of polluted waters would become representative of all rivers. I wondered how good this region had been without so much degradation in nature.
From the temple, the dense forests started. Rains had broken the roads and created potholes. We could somehow reach Revaram’s hut, taking some risks on the way while trying to make our safari cross muddy patches. At one place, it was badly stuck in deep slippery black mud. But by now, we have had some experience in these areas. We quickly cut a lot of small branches and laid them all over the muddy patch, and around the tires. That was sufficient for the grip to be back.
We had started in early morning, but could reach Revaram’s hut only by three in the afternoon. There, Tilak dropped me and went back. By now, he knew how to handle the muddy patches on the way back. I instructed him to call Raju mama and inform him about my stay in Nagbaba’s village; just in case Raju mama wanted to meet me. Then Tilak would leave the go back to Bhopal in the morning and get back to some work. I did not see a further work for him, or anyone remaining around me now, a list that now only had four persons left.
Folks had become accustomed to having a chat or seeing me every other day. They wished that I would find some new business or work and we could continue the journey. But I could not provide them a work that gave a steady income. Raju mama had a small farm; Tilak was used to odd tasks, so they didn’t have existential issues. But Sooraj needed a steady income. For the time being, I managed it somehow, while he looked for an accounting job. He had been getting regular contracts, and stayed away for longer periods. He also had plans of traveling to many places, as the case load had been lifted off his head.
The purpose of my visit was to fulfill my words to Lakshmi, and start the process for Tulsi’s research. I had brought a lot of copies and pen for Lakshmi. I hoped she would have started reading the transcripts by now, and translating individual words.
Revaram accompanied me to Nagbaba’s hut. He took my bag, and gave me a staff and a rope made of tree wines. The path from Revaram’s hut to Nagbaba’s hut was now a narrow lane. Trees along the path had extended the branches, while new grass had grown on either side of the path. It was mostly muddy. Every few hundred meters, I would stop and clear the soles of my shoes. After a couple of stops, I decided to take them off and walk bare feet, like Revaram. It speeded us up. It was dangerous otherwise to walk bare feet, but with Revaram just in front, his tribal senses covered for the risks from insects and snakes.
At two places, the streams were now knee deep. Revaram told me, “Bhaiya, when it rains in the mountains, these will become very deep and surge with great force within a few minutes. One has to immediately get away from this place if the water rises even by a few inches in a short time.”
I asked him, “Would there be wild animals around?” He said, “No, they would have gone into deep forests to higher points. They would come closer to villages by winters, when the females are carrying.”
I asked, “Why?”
He said, probably musing over my total ignorance in worldly matters, “They avoid aggressive males during birth and when they have newborns. Sometimes an odd tigress or a she bear, with newborns choose to closer to village. It protects them from other dangers.”
At that time, it was hard to believe him, but was convinced after many citings in the coming year. Some large wild animals were so familiar with the villagers and vice versa, that villagers even had names for them. An old large wild bear was such a character, now was called kalloo (pronounced kal-lu).
Absorbed in these talks, the long slow walk continued. It took us more than two hours to cover the distance. By the time, we reached his hut, the evening fires were already lit. During this time of the year, there was abundant food, the favorite being small fishes caught from river, measuring about three inches long each. When I reached there, Nagbaba, Lakshmi and many others were sitting around the fire, roasting the fishes. The tribals would directly throw them in the wood fire, without any dressing or oil.
The sight was quite new to me, and not easily palatable. To make it better for me, Lakshmi sprinkled some salt and squeezed a lemon on my hand. When I tasted one, it was delicious, half burnt half smoked fish. Then there was no stopping; needless to say I was very hungry after a long tiring walk.
Nagbaba asked, “Bhaiya, how is the court case going?”
I asked for some Mahua. It was immediately served. Then I disclosed, “It is over. The judge was not convinced with the police theory. I think the verdict has nailed it sufficiently even if there is an appeal.’
Then I told him about the closure of the insurance claim, and other developments including the killing of Lucky Sardar. He had the news but did not know the exact sequence of events. I just dropped a hint about the danger to Raju mama and he understood something from it.
Then I thanked him and said, “Just a few weeks back, I was here in a broken state of mind. Now things have turned around, and I feel neither the bitterness of old events, nor the joy of these developments. The river of my time flows. I need to set meaningful purposes and use every bit of it.”
He asked, “What is your thought now?” Lakshmi was eagerly listening. She wanted to do something for Nagbaba, without realizing that she was too small and ill equipped to lighten his troubles. I could see that Lakshmi had built a lot of dreams about the importance of our joint project.
Looking at her, I said, “Now, I need to complete the translation project with Lakshmi.” The response made her ecstatic. I added, “Another task in hand is to find whereabouts of Tulsi and bring her back if she wishes to. I may need your help also.”
Nagbaba nodded. Though it was my personal task, I did not know then that chasing a noble cause was like sowing many good seeds.
Slowly I descended into deep sleep. The bead was laid inside the hut as it might have rained anytime.
I got up at seven. Morning was soggy and cold.
I got up to walk around. There was not much dry path other than the narrow path running in the village. Rest was all wet grass or black sticky mud. Most of the villagers were already up, and the women tended to the cows while men always had odd tasks lined up in this season. One man was repairing his fences, while another was fixing the bullock cart. One hut had a collection of bows and arrow. Once they were repaired in monsoon, they could be used for hunting for the rest of year. It was a practice or a way of life that was fast becoming extinct. As the tiger and other predator population had dwindled, there was disproportionate number of deer, rabbits, wild buffaloes and wild boars and many other such species to hunt, but these folks had stopped hunting as it was not allowed. It brought bad name and accusations if any protected species animal was found dead. The campaign to protect tigers, run by well meaning forest officials, was also used by the mining and forest tree mafia groups to limit the tribals from interfering in their activities.
When I came back to the hut, tea was ready. This time I had brought the stock of tea to last for over a month. I discussed with Lakshmi about her progress. She said, “Bhaiya, it is very tough. Once, you need to show me how to translate.”
I said, “Let us start now.”
She took me to a new room constructed just adjacent to Nagbaba’s hut. It had a higher platform, and wall made of thick wood, and mud. The floor and walls were newly coated with cow dung slurry. For the roof, they had enveloped it on top with polythene to prevent any water from going in. Nagbaba had got it constructed on Lakshmi’s insistence for keeping the books and other treasures. It had a wooden rack, a new wooden table made of logs and logs as chairs. They had even procured an old steel almirah to prevent harm from termites. I liked the setting very much. One could sit outside the room on either side – the village side or the forest side.
Lakshmi brought out the translation dictionaries. They were written on paper forms, and mostly used Devanagari script, with odd characters from its earlier forms. Nonetheless, they could have carried older knowledge, passing from one generation to another in verbal forms.
She opened one book. I flipped over the pages of this book. Then she did the same with seven other such manuscript books. They were still quite clear and for most part undamaged. I realized the difficulty of task if handled my Lakshmi or myself. Only an expert in Sanskrit with some knowledge of scripts would have quickly deciphered and translated them. On our own, we would have spent years in reaching the same level of competency. So the problem changed to finding a right person for this job.
Meanwhile, we decided to make photocopies of these books. The task needed careful handling. I told her, “In this week, I will take you to Hoshangabad for the photocopy work.”
I also explained to Lakshmi about scanning and digitizing them but it didn’t make much sense to her. She had seen the early mobile phones and even desktops, but was not familiar with much usage.
While we were in our work meeting, a few folks had gathered out of curiosity. Lakshmi told me, with a wide smile, “Bhaiya, there are lots of rumors going around in the villages about this library.”
I asked, “Like what?”
She said, “Some think the books carry instructions to a treasure. Some think that they are words of wisdom left by our ancestors. Some are fearful about these being removed from the forest fort.”
One of the woman interfered, “Bhaiya, what is written in these books?”
I said, “I can’t make out. We will need an expert.”
She said, “Bhaiya, you are not telling us. Something must be there.”
I said, “I don’t think they tell anything that you do not know. But they are remnants of your ancestors and proof of an old culture, all tribals should be proud of.”
She did not seem impressed but the men were. One of them added, “Bhaiya, we have lived here from times before Ramayana. Our ancestors were much more advanced than us. They could write all these books while we don’t even know how to read.”
I nodded as everyone swelled with pride. Imaginary past is the easiest way of making humans proud. It can blindfold them and lead them astray, but it can also make them rise from a dire situation. It was a little conversation but gave me enough food for thought, and action.
The assembled group went away. Then I asked Lakshmi to take special care of my drinking water –it had to be boiled during monsoons. Otherwise, it was not a common practice.
I came to the other side of the compound, in front of the entrance where Nagbaba was sitting. He had laid out different types of healing plants, roots and leaves. I could recognize a few - aloe Vera, turmeric, and aswagandha. I asked him, “What will you do with these?”
He answered, “Getting ready for the season. There have been some insect bites and a few snake bites in this season, and the wounds need more care in monsoons.” Monsoon was a risky time in forest villages. There would be many animal casualties and a few human ones too due to wounds and bites.
I sat next to him. I said, “Baba, one of my unfinished tasks is to find Tulsi.”
He could not see the reason why I was bothered. The tribals lived in the moment. He did not attribute her husband’s death to me or her running away to any event or person. So he asked me to let go.
But I had other worries which Nagbaba had no experience or clue about. I told him, “See, I don’t want to persuade her to come back if she has settled into some life. But you do not understand how tough and brutal it can be for single young woman and even more brutal for a small girl child out there.”
Nagbaba had no clue how lost children were victimized, and how small helpless girls treated in the urban and rural areas of India. But I had been living outside and had not been blind to many evils.
I continued, “Just like you, she is not aware of the existence of these evils and how they trap gullible people. If nothing else, we should at least be in touch with her.”
He understood the point, but again was at a loss in trying to figure out how. He said, “Bhaiya, so many cities are there with so many humans. If she doesn’t contact us, there is no way we can find out.”
Nagbaba was neither familiar with internet, nor with the potential of cell phones. But I had more optimism. I said, “If I can get one lead, even a faint one, then pulling the whole thread will be an easy task. I need your help in two ways. One, someone from this village needs to make a police complaint regarding the missing persons. It may be required. Second, send out a message to all nearby villages that you need to contact Tulsi. Many young ones go out to various cities and come back regularly. It is quite likely that someone might have come in contact with her. In particular, those who have been to Nagpur for work should be contacted, as Tulsi seems to have gone there.”
He got up to arrange men for these tasks, while I sat idle in the serenity of the village.
I could make out it was an awkward experience for Nagbaba to organize things. These folks hardly planned anything, even during marriage ceremonies. They had tasks according to weather, and expertise. If there was some occasional need like scaring a tiger away, the first villager would just start impromptu and others would get the hint and join. In last five hundred years or more, during the predominance of Mughal and then British rule, their interaction with other cultures diminished and so did the learning process. The simplicity of their tactics made it easy for the British to overcome them, wherever they interfered with the coal transport.
In historical account, there was not much mention of the tribals coming out of forests for any territorial wars. Wherever it was mentioned, it was on the behalf or call for help from the outsiders, the first account coming from Mahabharata times. Most recent and common account of their rising was during 12th century AD, when they came out in large numbers at the call of one Vikramaditya VI, a Parmar king, to defeat the Huns and not allow them further advance into India. According to tribal folklore, this act changed the course of history of the entire country; had they failed, the region would have gravitated to an Islamic cultural predominance.
Most interpretations of the past are based on a pride, and it’s difficult to ascertain the truth. I also didn’t bother about it, since it was neither relevant nor helpful. But many historical accounts did concur with their views about the perilous weaknesses of Hindu or other native cultures around that time.
More relevant to me, these tribals still carried a mistrust of Muslims. The same antipathy applied to British but they were no longer around. Every time Shafiq was around, I could sense a mutual silence. It did not help that Shafiq was anyhow a very silent and cold boy.
Lakshmi interrupted my thoughts. She said, “Bhaiya, chai (tea). I have also put ginger in it.”
I smiled at the thought of ginger tea. Then I asked her, “Lets finish the photocopy work today. If the weather stays clear, we can reach Hoshangabad by noon and return back by night.” She was instantly ready at the prospect of seeing a photocopy work. I told her, “Ask Baba for someone to be sent along with us.”
It normally took an hour for a bullock cart to leave us further ahead from temple, on the highway where hourly buses plied. Then it took an hour for the bus to reach Hoshangabad.
Before any further action, I could see Tilak, Revaram and Raju Mama walking down the path.
As they came near, Raju Mama waived and started walking fast. He was smiling, and with folded hands, he said, “Bhaiya, I wanted to be with you here as soon as I came to know. But Tilak wanted to come here in morning.”
I asked him, “How are you?” and signaled to Lakshmi for more tea.
Tilak answered, smiling and pulling his leg, “Raju Mama stays holed up indoors now a days. He was not even coming out last night when I reached his place.”
I realized that Raju Mama had turned completely fearful. He would have asked Tilak to drop him here rather than coming alone on his bike.
On seeing the newcomers, Nagbaba also came to the front side. He greeted Raju Mama. Nagbaba had brought another two fellows with him. He said introducing them, “He is Bajrang and he is Parte. They will go with you for the police report. Bajrang is also a cousin of Tulsi but stays in another village. Bhaiya, you get the report prepared, these two will put their thumb impressions where you tell them”
Both of them appeared to be the true tribals like the ones depicted in their art forms, with smooth dark flawless skins, and sculpted bodies that could evoke fear in wild animals. They had a white cloth draped around their waist. Bajrang was a bit shorter, around five feet, but much more muscular. Even a large animal would avoid a direct tussle with him. I asked him, “Do you go to some gymnasium?” He smiled shyly; he had been asked this before by his road contractors. He was a shy, gentle soul, just like the other one
Raju mama answered, “These are made by lifting and breaking rocks.”
Bajrang had been working as daily wage labor on tasks where hard labor was required, and machines could not reach there. Folks like him were often called by mining groups, clearing forests for road and pulling heavy machinery.
Parte said, “Let us get ready and come.”
It was a difficult task to submit a police report without a jack. They had an unofficial copy also where they would record the complaints but it would not be part of the official list. It allowed out of system settlement of most complaints, and would also keep the record of the police station cleaner.
The Inspectors would get an award for low rate of crimes. In quite a few cases, especially trivial ones, it was a helpful system. Once a case reached the court, it would be a long process that would tire the complainants. But in case of serious crimes, this arrangement acted against the complainant. The local policemen would sit over complaints till some pressure was generated. It would kill precious time and evidences and affect investigations.
While they were away, I had a chat with Raju Mama. I wondered that Dau would be uneasy if Raju mama stays away from his eyes for a long gap. But he did not want to think about it. He was glad to be away from his farm and constant fear.
Raju Mama said, “Bhaiya, if three months pass without any news on Lucky’s case investigation, then there will be nothing to worry about. It will be forgotten by all.”
I asked, ‘But, won’t his bosses press police to investigate? It’s a big loss of face for them.”
Raju Mama said, “No, no. One Mr.Vedi has already taken his place. People say he is a nice gentleman, unlike that Lucky Sardar.”
“But Vedi is not a Sardar, he is a Brahmin. It’s a strange replacement,” I commented.
Raju mama was at a loss to explain it. Nagbaba, who had been listening to our talk, sitting away in his verandah, said, “This year, the trucks are plying even now.” The mining or deforestation in deep forests was never allowed in monsoons.
I replied, “Hmm, either this Vedi is a novice and will force officials to act against him, or he is quite good and has got all equations covered.”
During the summer months, taking away ten trucks material while having license for five was one matter. But plying trucks in monsoons when it was completely banned was a different scale of theft and easily noticeable one.
Further, it was going to significantly increase the rate of damage to forests. It was a bad omen for forest dwellers.
Bajrang and Parte were back in ten minutes. Both were clad now in blue jeans and a t-shirt. Lakshmi was also ready with the books. I told Raju Mama, “We will be back by evening. You can stay here for the night.” He nodded, and then out of curiosity he asked, “Where are you taking Lakshmi and all these books?"
I still thank him for that question. It was none of his business, but I chose not to withhold the reason. I said, “These are ancient literatures which are their heritage. I need some person who can translate these. He should be well versed in Sanskrit, the rest he can make out. For now, we are going to make photocopies.”
He thought for a second and then asked, “Your quest is over. I know the best person for your work.”
With that he put on his rubber shoes, and was set to come along. Had I been my old self, I would have been skeptic of Raju Mama's claim. But now I believed anything was possible. I looked at Lakshmi; she did not have an iota of doubt.
So Raju Mama also joined the troop. Then we all moved on foot to Revaram’s hut, where Tilak had parked the vehicle. With Bajrang in front and Parte at back, we formed a line and took a route through forest. It was a bit longer but dry and not muddy. We could swiftly walk and cover the distance in just over an hour.
First we went to file the missing person report in Sohagpur Thana. Outside the Thana in charge’s room, an old man had the register. There was no one else around.
Raju Mama saluted him, “Choudhury ji, namaste.” In response, the old man just nodded.
He kept writing something but I interrupted, “These two tribals are from Mahuakheda village, inside the forest. They have to file a missing person report.”
The old man asked, “Who are you?”
I gave him my Voter card. He curiously looked at the Bhopal address. Before he could make an insulting remark, I said, “I have informed Mr.Thakur before coming to report here. You can speak to him; I can connect to his office.”
It was a bluff but the old man had no further red tapes. Senior officers, Mr.Thakur in particular, were very offended at the news of lower police refusing to record complaints. It did not change things on the ground, but helped folks with their number to get these small tasks done.
The old man took a description of Tulsi and Muniya, their last location and other details. Then he made a comment, “You know Thakur Sahab, so I am writing this. But I think she must have gone somewhere to work or has eloped. There is no point in chasing such persons.”
While he was saying it, I took a hundred rupee note and handed it to him, as parting bakshish. The old man continued but his tone changed in the same breadth. “Sir, I will send out alerts to other stations today itself,” he said.
I said, “Thank you very much.” And we quickly moved out with the complaint receipt.
Bajrang said, “Bhaiya, these guys cannot do much.”
I nodded in agreement, and said, “But with this receipt, at least no one will question if we try to find out about her.”
We all sat in the safari, to go to Hoshangabad. Raju Mama interrupted, “Bhaiya lets meet Master ji first. He will be free right now.” This Master ji was the person Raju Mama had wanted us to meet.
I said, “Okay. But Raju Mama, don’t waste too much time in gossip if he is not of our use.”
We drove to the college campus, right next to the Sohagpur railway station. It was an old rustic and dilapidated building meant for about five hundred students. It was the only degree college in that area, run by the government for poor students. It had only two courses- a B.A in literature and LLB, and two professors.
This Master ji, Professor Kahaar, sat in his small room. The classes were over by morning but they were more of a formality as registered students did not come regularly, though the attendance was marked for all.
"Tell me Raju, what brings you here?” He said as Raju mama asked for his permission to enter. Raju Mama went to touch his feet. Even the two tribals did the same. I also followed the custom.
Their respect for a teacher was wonderful, only seen in such small places.
Raju Mama said, “Master ji, he is my nephew. He is very educated, and wanted to meet you.”
Master ji said with folded hands, “I am really grateful. Tell me what I can do for you.”
I said, opening a page of one book, “Master ji, these are books written mostly in Sanskrit and some parts are written in other Devanagari script languages. I am looking for some who can translate them to Hindi or English.”
Master ji took the book, and then turned page after page for many pages. Then he took other books one by one and turned their pages, quite absorbed in turning pages.
Then he looked up and said, pointing to one book, “This diary seems to have an interesting account of persons and places. It seems between two to four hundred years old. The others are also written in that period, but seem to be reproduction of famous texts. But where did you get them?”
I narrated where they were kept. I also told him about our hope of finding something about tribal heritage in those books.
He nodded in disagreement, “You will find very little of their heritage in writing, but mostly in crafts in various ages.”
I said, “But we still need translation. Can you make out these scripts?”
I pricked the old man's pride with that question. He said, “Raju, can I read these is what your nephew asks?”
Raju mama quickly answered, “Bhaiya, Master ji is the most learned Sanskrit scholar in the whole state. Even famous astrologers and pundits come to him when they are stuck.”
I said, taking the cue, “Apologies Master ji, I didn’t mean that. I wanted to ask if you would do the translation.”
I had firm belief now from his vibes that Master ji was a capable person. He had grown old teaching literature here, but was a person of deep and scholarly knowledge. His ability to nail the age by looking at the scripts was an indicator of his depth.
But he seemed disinclined to take up the task. He had been serving the last few months before retirement.
Raju Mama knew how to persuade. He said, “Master ji, we won’t give the work to you if you won’t decide and accept the gurudakshina.”
That broke the ice. Master ji said, “Give whatever you please.”
Raju Mama said, “Two thousand and one rupee.” Master ji seemed mighty pleased with the amount. But I was aghast - just that much for translating seven books. I took Raju Mama aside and said, “Only that much, it is not fair.”
Raju mama said, “Master ji is quite happy with that figure. No one gives him anything otherwise.”
I protested, “Let me pay him ten thousand. Ask him to finish it fast, and not to share his work with anyone else. That promise he has to give.”
Master ji looked at us anxiously as we turned back to him.
Raju Mama said, “Master ji, Bhaiya is so impressed with you that he doesn’t want to give anything less than ten thousand rupees. But he needs the work fast, and not to be shared with anyone else.”
He was ecstatic, “You won’t find a flaw in my translation. And no one will know about this work.”
I asked, “How long will it take?” He replied, “Four to five months if I don’t find standard texts. If my guess is correct, at least three of the books seem familiar verses. They can be finished fast.” I promised to send him the photocopies of the books, next day. Then we all started towards Hoshangabad.
I profusely thanked Raju Mama on the way. Tilak joined the praise, “Raju Mama is a gem rotting in these villages. He can do anything.” I smiled with a knowledge no one else had.
In my many years in that area, I came across many people like Master ji who were very learned, and had chosen a life in Sohagpur out of sheer joy of life. Another special person whom I came across was doctor Yadav. He had retired from a well known medical college as a dean, and was now living with his buffaloes on his farm. One night a local friend hosted a dinner party at doctor's farm. Doctor himself cooked chapattis and chicken as we sat around his earthen choolah. Over Mahua glasses, doctor's full identity was revealed. He still had patients visiting him from afar. He had a thorough knowledge of combining allopathic, homeopathy and ayurvedic treatments, something which was rare.