Text: Venkat Ramanujam
Sketch: Sandeep Sen
It was Diwali soon, and the paddy started to ripen. Before I knew, the harvest season was in full swing. No sooner was the crop harvested than farmers went about preparing the khaniyaar, or threshing circle. A circular patch of ground was cleared, plastered with cow dung, and a threshing pole driven down the centre. A team of bullocks circumambulated the threshing pole patiently, stamping on the harvested crop spread out on the ground. Threshing took a couple of days, sometimes three or even four. Then followed winnowing, the threshed grain was scooped up and gently cascaded down from head-height in the direction of the wind. The chaff flew off and the grain settled on the ground, forming rounded, smooth little hillocks. Each farmer engaged three or four helpers who were paid wages in grain. Once paddy was done, farmers moved to the millet fields and repeated the process all over again.
My daily routine now took me to the threshing circles to track the progress each farmer was making. Sometimes, I stayed overnight in the fields along with farmer and helpers in temporary leaf-shelters, sleeping around a fire along with my companions to keep away animals and the cold.
I did not realise it then but my presence at the khaniyaar gave rise to hospitality-related complications for my farmer hosts. Most people in the village assumed (incorrectly) that I cooked my own food separately. And that being socially ‘superior’ I would not eat food cooked in an adivasi house. But now at the khaniyaar, although I was only doing my own work, it created a predicament for the farmer who was threshing. In the local idiom the situation was one that made it incumbent upon the farmer to offer hospitality to the guest. In other words, the Sahib had to be fed. At least an offer had to be made. But what if the Sahib was offended? After all, there was nothing save the simple meal that was cooked at home and brought to the field. The harvest was yet to come in, and demonetisation had choked the little supply of cash from MGNREGS wages that was used to buy pulses and vegetables.
I remained unaware of the difficult situation I had given rise to.
The ice broke one sunny morning.
“Ae Sahib, khana kha le (come, have a meal),” Kuntabai beckoned to me hesitantly. She was a little older than I, and a mother of two teenage children. She was one of my female ‘friends’ in Saraidadar, quiet but warm-hearted and intelligent. On this day, she had just arrived at the field carrying food in a bamboo basket for her husband and the helpers who were winnowing. The invitation was preceded by internal confabulation to which, intently jotting notes, I paid only fleeting attention.
I blinked first, and as the invitation sank in, became conscious of the pangs of hunger gnawing from within. I had left home early on an empty stomach.
I wanted to say yes with alacrity but modesty decreed polite humming and hawing.
“You will have less to eat were I to eat too!”
“No Sahib, there is enough for everyone.”
“Let the men eat first. They have been hard at work while I’ve only been scribbling.”
“Come, Sahib. They will join you.”
“Are you sure?”
I sat down with two other men on a quilt spread out on straw. The food, rice with a watery gravy of dried mushrooms, was served on sal leaf-plates. A curry of boiled leaves of the Cassius tora plant was served separately on a leaf. The mushrooms and the Cassius tora leaves had been plucked from the forest during the monsoon, and dried.
“This is all that we jungle folk can offer, Sahib…,” said Kuntabai apologetically, the embarrassment palpable in her voice.
“It’s delicious!” I exclaimed. I was on a hungry stomach, and the warm meal was a feast. In any case, it was food that I was used to although my hosts did not know.
“Eat some more,” my companions urged.
I ate my fill.
Partaking of Kuntabai’s home-cooked meal introduced a new, gastronomic chapter to my stay in Saraidadar. Visits to farmers’ khaniyaar were inevitably followed by invitations to stay for a meal. I was only too happy to accept, for the long early morning walks to the fields on an empty stomach rendered me ravenous as the day wore on. Shy and apprehensive, my hosts repeated the apology that Kuntabai had offered. But, gradually, the hesitation faded even as the warmth of hospitality grew.
I worried that my hosts, a Gond family, would be upset about my eating with the Baiga. The Gond considered themselves socially superior and would not eat food cooked by Baiga hands. As a paying guest in a Gond household, I could well be considered to be bound by the same norm. Which meant that a breach could cause embarrassment to my hosts. To my surprise, however, although they took great interest in knowing who I ate with my hosts took no offence whatsoever. It was as if the rules did not apply to me, a Sahib and a foreigner.
There were subtle variations in the menu that was served. Oftentimes it was pej, a gruel of millet or maize served hot with boiled Cassius tora leaves. On other occasions it was rice served with a water gravy of potatoes, embellished with powdered chilli and coriander. If the farmer was relatively affluent, the meal would contain a thin gravy of mixed vegetables: radish, cauliflower, tomatoes, and seymi (a vegetable resembling the broad bean). No matter who it was, Baiga or Gond, in partaking of their hospitality, I forged new, intimate bonds over the threshing season, the bonhomie further cemented by the wintry nights spent in the fields. There was song, story, anecdote, even a lesson or two in astronomy, before tired limbs turned in on beds of straw. Good friends became ardent friends. There were moments of intimacy when older companions called me “chhot bhai” or plain Venkat.
But they still wouldn’t stop calling me Sahib. Come day-break, and even the evening-time intimates developed wilful amnesia.
Many months since I’d arrived in Saraidadar it began to dawn on me why this might be so.
As an ethnographer I was trying to understand why people thought what they thought, said what they said, and did what they did. It was not so much the literality of their thoughts, words, and actions that piqued the ethnographer’s interest as the contextual and historical factors that lent meaning to them, and, in the process, helped gain insight into people’s minds. It was a slow process. Many things are often so deeply implicit in a particular cultural context that it may be well nigh difficult for people to articulate them to an outsider, making it that much harder to decipher ‘hidden’ meaning.
For a century and more continuing well into the present, the Maikal Hills have remained enfolded by intense hierarchy: social, economic, bureaucratic. In thinking of the Sahib as a social superior, I began to wonder if my fellow villagers derived a sense of prestige and self-worth when their acts of deference, friendliness, and kindness were acknowledged or reciprocated. It seemed to me that this might be so because their own self-image as ‘backward’, ‘poor’, and ‘uneducated’ had at least partly come to be defined in opposition to the generic image of the Sahib, whose attributes, in addition to being an outsider, were education, affluence, and power. Little wonder then that they were pleased when the Sahib (any Sahib, for that matter) accepted their hospitality. Sahibs were usually formal, and, at times, harsh. Hence, being on friendly terms with one boosted ego and morale. Living in the village, something unusual for a Sahib, enhanced the status of the village as a whole. But if the Sahib ceased to be a Sahib, the opportunity to derive such satisfaction would be lost.
The irony was depressing. Here I was, trying hard to be one among them. But, here they were too, resistant to my efforts – and, it appeared to me – insisting on hierarchy with equal, if not greater, enthusiasm. It was almost as if the ideal way in which I could reciprocate the warmth and affection that I received was by maintaining hierarchy rather than effacing it. This was nothing short of a blow. Were this line of reasoning to be true, I could not figure out how I could try to get my neighbours to take greater pride in themselves and their way of life even if I wanted to. I felt bemused, deflated.
As I reflected further, the complexity of the situation opened itself up even more. Was it not the case that my position as student researcher afforded me the luxury of wanting to be treated as an equal? I thought of other ‘friendly’ Sahibs around. A fieldworker from an NGO based in the district headquarters visited the village every once in a while and was well-liked. The newly-posted forest guard was a pleasant young man. They were both Gond adivasis from the foothills, and belonged to villages far from Saraidadar. But their jobs required them to maintain a degree of aloofness in order to command obedience. Underlying their compulsion was the fact that for both state and many NGOs, ‘development’ in practice was less about imparting dignity to people or enhancing their decision-making capacities; it was more about improvement in material status alone. In their patronising view, ‘tribals’ were incapable of thinking for themselves; hence, wise officials – through their field staff – would tell them what to do: build toilets (even if there was no near-enough water source, forget piped water), sow high-yielding crop varieties (even if they sat poorly with local climatic conditions), or plant eucalyptus saplings (even if their desirability was in doubt). As a student and researcher, I did not carry the burden of having to demand people’s compliance in accordance with precepts devised by organizational superiors. But other Sahibs, the real ones, did. For them, hierarchy was essential, desirable.
As my ruminations continued, I realised that my affluence clearly marked me out. I let my clothes wear out, but the expensive gadgets I carried were a giveaway: camera, voice recorder, and hearing aids, and the article that evoked great wonder, a sleeping bag! I had education and affluence on my side. Even if I claimed to be a mere student, in the local imagination power was only a stone’s throw away; all that I had to do was finish writing my ‘book’ before I found a high-paying job in the upper echelons of government, far from the jungle. Needless to say, (my neighbours believed,) I could easily afford to pay the bribe required to secure a government job.
Were all this to be true, aspiring to plebeian status was nothing short of sheer indulgence. And yet, I could not reconcile myself to being called Sahib. It remained a sore point, a prick that I had to live with.
“Who is he?” asked the visitor, curiosity combined with a tinge of suspicion.
It was late morning as we sat quietly in the verandah of Sukwariyabai’s house. The same Sukwariya who had wanted to see Kali Mata. She was now stunned into shock, having lost her son in a motorcycle accident, an event that caught Saraidadar off-guard and enveloped us in grief. Today was the tijra, the third day after the funeral, an occasion when additional rites would be performed. We were waiting for more people to join us before the ceremony could commence. A few visitors, who had received the news, arrived on foot from nearby villages.
One of the visitors was a saffron-clad middle-aged baba, an adivasi man who had taken to ascetic life and worshiped Bholenath. Hindu gods mingled freely with adivasi ones in these parts, where peripatetic Hindu pilgrims walking along the Narmada river partook of hospitality in adivasi villages. The baba, with fakir-like beard and matted locks piled up unevenly over his turban, counted Sukwariya’s husband, a man with a religious bent of mind, among his fervent devotees. His arrival caused a minor flutter. An empty jute sack was fetched and respectfully spread out on the verandah for him to sit upon.
“Sahib, please take his photograph,” said Aghanlal, “this is a rare occasion for us.”
I had come to accept my role as unofficial village photographer. It was a way through which I thought I could reciprocate the kindness and regard that I received, even if only in small measure. With the help of a friend, I had found a studio in Bhopal where I could get quality pictures printed out at reasonable rates every once in a couple of months. But the job also meant being summoned to take pictures at unexpected times. Today was a sombre occasion, and I wasn’t carrying my camera. Luckily, the smartphone came in handy.
His attention drawn to me, a foreigner, the baba wanted to know who I was.
Aghanlal took it upon himself to respond.
“This Sahib is from Bengloor. He lives with us, and eats with us. He wants to know how we celebrate festivals, how we conduct weddings, how we do kheti-badi (farming). He takes photos of everything and gives them back to us. He will get you the photo that he has just taken. But he is hard of hearing so you must speak a little loudly.”
The baba nodded, not fully understanding, clearly bewildered.
I showed him the picture I had taken.
The baba broke into a smile. “Will I really get this photo?” he asked eagerly.
“Yes, of course. I will hand the copy over to the people of this house. You will get it from them.”
“Please do so. Many people take pictures of me and go away but never send a copy across.”
“Don’t worry. I will print this one out for you.”
Some days later, I was sitting with men gathered at kotwar Maghu’s house, writing notes while the men enjoyed a smoke from a pipe being passed around.
“You will become a very big Sahib after you have finished your studies, won’t you, Sahib?” Basori asked, as he gazed at the words in blue ink filling my sheets. I looked up at him embarrassedly. My thoughts rewound darkly to a newspaper article I had read a few months earlier: several hundreds of thousand candidates had applied to 300-odd vacancies for the post of government peon in Uttar Pradesh. Including about 250 PhDs. “Future tense,” went my self-prognosis. How was I to explain to Basori?
But, perhaps thankfully, without waiting for a reply he went on, “Don’t forget us, Sahib. No matter where you are you must visit us every year.”
“I will, Basoribhai,” I replied, trying to think of something more to say but finding myself tongue-tied.
A visitor arrived. It turned out to be Maghu’s brother-in-law. He was from the same village as the baba, but it did not strike me immediately. Basori’s attention was diverted, and I resumed writing.
Some minutes later, I took a break, and stretched my fingers. As if he had been waiting, Maghu leaned over.
“Remember the baba who visited us last week? He is asking after you. He has sent a message across. ‘“Please remember to bring my photo,” say this to the Sahib of Saraidadar.’”
(This is a dramatised account based on experiences in the field. The names of the characters are pseudonyms, as is that of the village, Saraidadar, which, following local naming conventions, means ‘table-top hill of sal trees.’ I acknowledge valuable feedback from Krishnapriya Tamma, Arshiya Bose, and Vena Kapoor; critique and criticism, however, may be directed to me alone.)