Text: R. Venkat Ramanujam
Sketch: Sandeep Sen
R. Venkat Ramanujam is a human geographer, who likes story-telling, and Sandeep Sen is a molecular evolutionary biologist and biogeographer, who sketches as a hobby.
“Jai Ram, Sahib,” said the man walking up the dirt road as he arrived within greeting distance, deferentially drooping his shoulders and folding his hands into a loose namaste. Aghanlal was elder to me, broad-chested and well-built, a quiet and hard-working Gond adivasi farmer in Saraidadar, the village which had started out as the site of ethnographic fieldwork but which, after several months of living in, I had come to call home.
I cringed at being referred to as Sahib. I longed to be treated as one among the people of my village, deserving of no special appellation or hospitality. After all, by now I had spent considerable time with them, eating (and drinking!), making bricks together, celebrating festivals, accompanying my neighbours into the forest, and trying my hand at ploughing and weeding the fields.
“Aghanbhai, meherbani karke mujhe Sahib mat bulao (please do not call me Sahib),” I said with a smile, trying to hide the exasperation within.
Aghanlal looked at me, still deferential. “Ji (Yes), Sahib,” he said. And then added, “Where are you going, Sahib?”
I gave up. “To the millet fields,” I replied, and walked on resignedly. I had tried hard to get everyone to call me Venkatbhai or plain Bhaiyya with a singular lack of success. Gloomily, I reflected on my inability to erase the hierarchy that separated me from the people I lived amongst.
Maghu, Saraidadar’s ever-bedraggled but perceptive kotwar, was one of the people with whom I had remonstrated early on. “All human beings are equal,” I had announced loftily, “None is superior or inferior. The plough you wield is as respectable as my pen.”
“But you are educated,” Maghu reasoned, “You can speak many languages. You can travel to different places with ease. We can’t do that. That’s why you are a Sahib.”
Maghu was referring to the experience of two men in the village, Basorisingh and Amarlal, who had been taken all the way to Tamilnadu by a labour contractor from the plains, and ‘sold’ to a businessman there. The duo was put to work in a stone quarry, subjected to much physical abuse, and suffered grievously from their lack of knowledge of Tamil, the local language. They eventually escaped six months later in an adventure worthy of filling a film-script. When Amarlal narrated his story to me I felt deeply embarrassed, even ashamed, being Tamil myself. In my early days, I also feared reprisal. Instead, however, the duo responded with disarming geniality, periodically trying out their smattering of Tamil on me. Much to my amusement, if we were in a group, one of them would turn to me and say, “Ae Sahib, say something in your language.” I would comply, and leave my little audience, who could not understand a word, completely baffled. Except Basori and Amarlal, that is, who used the opportunity to crow about their travels, Sindbad or Gulliver-style, to a foreign land where everyone spoke a strange-sounding, incomprehensible tongue!
For all the justification that Maghu offered, and the elevation in social status that Basori and Amarlal received, ‘Sahib’ triggered images of the feared colonial official, whose imprint on the Maikal Hills, where Saraidadar lies, runs deep. A recurring theme in discussions of the past was how villagers would flee into the deep forest if they so much as caught a glimpse of a man in full pants, all the more so if he had white skin. One middle-aged Baiga friend of mine went further: in his father’s time, he claimed, the sight of a shoe-print was enough for Baiga men to take flight.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the colonial government of the Central Provinces went about reserving sal and teak dominated forest strands on the one hand, and encouraging clearing of forests for agricultural expansion on the other. The white Sahib’s aims came in conflict with the shifting cultivation practices of the forest-dwelling Baiga. Not only were the Baiga in need of occupational reform, decided the colonial Sahibs, but they also required the white man’s civilizing touch. The government outlawed shifting cultivation, and invited Gond farmers to cultivate up in the hills so that the Baiga could learn from them to use the plough, drive oxen, and settle down as ‘civilized’ agriculturists. The Gond were higher up the civilization scale than the Baiga but only just. A large number of Gond had themselves been shifting cultivators till a decade or two previously. Colonial rule did not survive to see the pyrrhic success of the policy. The Baiga were forced to give up shifting cultivation for settled agriculture, but, in the process, emerged impoverished, and their self-image emasculated by the forced transition. In a reflection of the shifting yardsticks of what it means to be civilized, despite turning into farmers, in the present, the Baiga continue to be arraigned by government officials (and upper caste farmers and traders in the foothills) as ‘backward’, even ‘primitive’, because they grow food not to sell in the market but for their own consumption.
The notion that they are backward (picchde) has permeated deep into the consciousness of people in the Maikal Hills. The adivasis, both Baiga and Gond, are at the bottom of the local social hierarchy, the upper echelons of which are filled with the Hindu caste-folk farming and trading in the foothills. They are supposedly backward on two counts: socially, because of their (low) position in the caste ladder, and economically, because they are poor and their agriculture is ‘primitive.’ This is a message that has been repeatedly sent out by persons wielding power for more than a hundred years, including Sahibs in the government, petty officials, and upper caste traders. Sadly but unsurprisingly, the message has been considerably internalised, and not only informs how the adivasis view themselves but also reflects in a meek disposition towards persons of authority. Even adivasis who secure government jobs often gradually distance themselves from their ‘backward’ relatives. Meanwhile, the social hierarchy is a graded one. So, although both Baiga and Gond are adivasis, the Gond consider themselves relatively socially superior. However, the redeeming feature is that the Baiga and Gond, along with the Panika and Ahir (who comprise the non-adivasi minority in the uplands) form strong friendships among each other without allowing community identities to come in the way. The hierarchy is less rigid in the uplands than in the foothills.
Nonetheless, it is poignant to see how self-perceptions of being backward play out in everyday life. A visible marker is the submissiveness that marks villager interaction with the modern-day brown Sahib, typically a government official, even a forest guard or office chaprasi. The Sahib often sports a paunch, rides a motorcycle, and deliberately speaks in Hindi rather than the local dialect. He is not averse to carrying himself with self-importance, and often speaks to village-folk in a hectoring tone. When his temper is roused his language may betray rich knowledge of incestuous sexual proclivities. Over time, the Sahib has acquired a female counterpart, the Madam, whose tongue, at times, is sharper than the Sahib’s.
I badly wanted to shed the ‘Sahib’ tag.
Manglu Dada, an elderly Baiga farmer, was one of my closest confidants in the village. A friend, philosopher, and guide. We were walking back from his millet field one afternoon when I thought it fit to badger him.
“I’m a lot younger to you. And, as you well know now, I’m only a student. Don’t you think you should call me by name and stop calling me Sahib?”
In his characteristic slow but measured way of speaking, Manglu Dada replied, “From the earliest times, Sahib is how we have always addressed visitors from outside. It is a term of respect. That is why everyone calls you Venkat Sahib.”
I launched into a monologue on how all human beings were supposed to be equal. Did he not think that the Baiga themselves were responsible for upholding the hierarchical relationship with government officials and non-adivasi outsiders because of their overly deferential attitude?
With no trace of annoyance, Manglu Dada patiently reprised his words in response. “In these parts we have always called outsiders Sahib.”
“Okay. Now let’s say there’s an educated Baiga, like our schoolteacher Manish, in shirt and trousers who visits us from a different village. Will you call him Sahib or not?” I asked combatively.
“Of course not,” Manglu Dada looked at me, puzzlement writ large on his face.
“Why not?” I demanded to know.
By now, the gentle Manglu Dada looked bewildered, even scared by my belligerent questioning. Almost pleadingly, he replied, “Because he is only a Baiga…”
A few weeks later, after Durga Pooja had begun, I found myself in the crowded weekly market in Kosampur, the block headquarters. I bumped into Jaymatibai and Sukwariyabai as I rose from my haunches at a vegetable stall. They were both middle-aged women from Saraidadar, given to banter and teasing.
“Ae Sahib, what have you been buying? Any sweets for us?” Jaymati, the more playful among the two, grabbed my bag and began scanning its contents. I was used to the ritual. It happened every time I visited the market, one of the many occasions when I felt like a research specimen under investigation by curious village anthropologists.
As I waited for Jaymati to return the bag to me, Sukwariya spoke up light-heartedly. “Sahib, lend us fifty rupees. We want to go see the Kali pandal in the next village. It is the only pandal of its kind. Everywhere else it is Durgaji. We want to see Kali Mata. She looks like this and everyone says she is really ferocious.” Sukwariya dilated her eyes and stuck her tongue out in mischievous imitation as Jaymati chuckled.
I coolly ignored the request for money, another thing I had become accustomed to, especially on market days. It wasn’t difficult. One pretended that the other person was joking, and cracked another joke in response. We moved off in separate directions.
Twenty minutes later I sighted the duo again. My antennae were on alert, and I tried to hurry away.
I had been spotted though. And, to my pleasant surprise, it was not as “Sahib” that I was hailed.
“Ae bhaiyya, come here,” I could hear Jaymati calling after me and waving her hands. Pleased as punch, I turned and went up to her and Sukwariya.
“Here, have some,” Jaymati held out a piece of jalebi, the trademark market day sweet, which sold at ten rupees for three pieces.
I accepted it in good humour, and began munching. “I’m thrilled you called me Bhaiyya,” I was planning to say.
“Isn’t it nice?” Sukwariya asked. I nodded, my mouth full.
“Bhaiyya, please lend us fifty rupees. We want to go see Kali Mata…”
Minutes later, I walked on wryly, my wallet lightened. But, later, when I reflected on the incident, I could not help smiling to myself. If adivasi women could make strategic use of the Sahib’s weaknesses it was surely cause for minor celebration – in the hope that they would be able to employ similar cleverness in dealing with the more powerful Sahibs who exercised control over their lives.
But the incident was no turning point. People still called me Sahib, Jaymati and Sukwariya including. It was not so much the appellation itself that bothered me as the fact that it stood for an institutionalised lack of egalitarianism, a set of social relations that set up a pecking order partly on the basis of birth in a particular social group. My ‘struggle’ would continue. But would I succeed?
(to be continued)
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