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The Vocabulary Of The Jungle

Life assumes a different hue when you see it beyond the GDP, as you can hear the poetry of silence and ambivalence that Bastar weaves. Excerpts from award-winning book, 'The Death Script'

The Vocabulary Of The Jungle
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The two terms, ‘adivasi’ and ‘tribe’, are used almost interchangeably to denote the communities that live largely beyond the margins of ‘civilization’. The word ‘adivasi’ refers to the native residents of a land who, thus, also have the first right over all the forest and mineral resources lying therein. Whereas ‘tribe’ is an administrative-legal term to denote those communities that have been granted certain rights under the law. Also, while the word ‘adivasi’ always refers to the communities that live in or come from forests or relatively inaccessible terrains, tribes can also be found in urban or semi-urban areas.

However, none of these terms—adivasi, scheduled tribe or tribe—is a merely social-anthropological category. They have deep political and cultural connotations. Coined during the British rule, the nomenclature ‘tribe’ unjustifiably clubs together many diverse and heterogeneous communities into a monolithic block. Worse, since the contribution to the gross domestic product has become the overarching parameter of evaluating a community, the tribes or the adivasis, having a negligible footprint on production and consumption, are rewarded with obscene adjectives like ‘backward’ and ‘anti-modern’.

Abujhmad in Bastar has many cows and buffaloes wandering about, but the adivasis are not interested in selling milk. They don’t even milk the cows for themselves. The Naxals tried to teach them to use bullocks for farming, but it hasn’t become common. Iron is perhaps the only metal that has a word for it in Gondi.

If anything, modern thinking mandates that one evaluate a community by its intrinsic traits. Imposing one’s concepts on the other is terrible intolerance, backwardness. Life suddenly assumes different hues once the lens of the GDP growth is taken off. One can then hear the poetry of silence and ambivalence that Bastar weaves. A family can pass an entire day with few verbal exchanges. There is little need to communicate even with immediate kin, much less with the outside world. Travelling through the jungle on a motorbike, I’ve often met people who, when asked for directions, readily come along to drop me to my destination. Their unplanned travel doesn’t end there. They stay back in this village, without worrying that their family back home might be waiting or concerned about them, as there is no mode of communication to explain their sudden disappearance. Any home in the village will give them shelter in its courtyard, a little mahua and rice. The visitor will help the host in fetching salfi or hewing wood before making the return journey to their home in a day or two. Bastar is an epic of slowness that worries little about the twin ideals of scientific temper and rationality. I once thought that V.S. Naipaul was right when he termed the adivasis a ‘stunted’ species. My visits to Bastar erased this perception. Abujhmad refuses to surrender before modernity and responds to history with its own mythologies.

A modern state governed by codified laws needs certitudes in its language and operations. It cannot afford to be ambiguous. A large population of India lives an existence that is almost an antithesis to the ideal. From giving directions about a place to making a statement under oath or even writing love letters, people often cherish prevarication. Not necessarily with an intention to mislead or deceive, but because they enjoy answers that don’t bring any closure, but raise new and even confounding questions. It’s the sign of a civilization that refuses finality, cherishes the unfinished, and swears by the contingent and contextual. A modern state and its interlocutors cannot easily appreciate this trait which appears even more entrenched in Bastar.

Writings on Bastar by outsiders, who perhaps cannot but use a modern vocabulary to decode the jungle, thus verge on becoming translated texts whose metaphors and similes may well be against the spirit and language of the wild. They transcribe and interpret Bastar in gestures that it is barely cognizant of. Their narrative eventually speaks to their constituency in the city, from whom they seek to derive legitimacy. The coordinates and referents of their arguments often remain steeped in a lexicon alien to Bastar.

One such oft-used phrase is ‘interior Bastar’ or ‘the interior villages of Bastar’. But very few of Bastar’s residents are conscious of living in an ‘interior’ land. They don’t divide their jungle into ‘accessible’ and ‘remote’—words that denote the hierarchy created by the city for its own purpose and convenience.

If one converses with a community in a language it doesn’t speak, if one remains ignorant about their language and writes about them in an alien tongue, then one’s narrative can never escape the possibility of being incomplete and, at times, distorted. I often felt a formidable linguistic disconnect with the adivasis. For almost every question of mine, they had an answer for a question I had never asked. I repeated the question, paraphrased it, elaborated and explained it, still our conversation often remained tangential. It also reflected the distinct epistemic character of Bastar. The adivasis live in a cosmos that does not require many questions, much less answers. A moment is often complete in itself. Their life is at complete variance with the city—which is founded on questions. During my travels in the adivasi zone, I met a number of people, raised a lot of questions, about personal topics like love and sex, and also about minor issues. But I cannot recall anyone ever asking me even one simple question about my life or work.

***

Mahua and salfi are the national drinks of Bastar. Marriage, love or a fake encounter killing—men and women drown every moment in mahua. It helps them embrace life as well as grief with dignity. Vetti Mandavi lives with his old wife in a deserted village of Balibeda. He was paralysed a few years ago. He looks like a crumpled bundle of cloth, lying on a tattered dusty blanket near a fire that simmers through the day. A loincloth, a lungi and a thin blue shirt. The clothes seem heavier than the man. The smoke emanating from the fire makes him cough repeatedly, but he doesn’t move. A dog ambles about lazily, chickens hop around him. The thatched shed has gathered innumerable layers of soot.

He is in severe pain, but I never hear him complain. Not a single word. The vocabulary of the jungle doesn’t seem to have a word for such pain. Have I ever heard any resident of the interiors of Bastar cry or wail, or even complain? People harassed or tortured by the police do express their pain, but only when they are repeatedly asked about it. I have lived in many villages across Bastar, but cannot recall anyone sharing their sorrow with me. Perhaps they don’t share it with each other either.

I often find people elsewhere creating opportunities to regurgitate their grievances—how unfortunate their life is, how hollow their destiny, how their own people have cheated them. But Bastar has an unassuming embrace of sorrow, separation and death. I earlier wondered whether the impossibility of their lives had muted the emotion associated with loss. Perhaps not. Their embrace of nothingness, an all-encompassing nothingness, is absolute.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "The Melodious Quietude")

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