Bastar: Dispatch Sixty

An occasional series of dispatches on tribal life in the Abujhmad region of Bastar in Central India, by long-term Dark Mountain contributor Narendra.
Narendra's association with the indigenous communities of the Abujhmad region of Bastar, Central India, goes back over 30 years. His dispatches are published as an occasional series on Dark Mountain.


The greater part of my life happens to have been spent in and about Bastar and its Abujhmad (literally ‘inscrutable land’) region in central India — just looking at life and its affairs there; it is too overwhelming to be not looked at. There I accumulated some field notes, reflections and observations about the region and its people.

For the past 59 months I have written field dispatches on the region — one a month — some of which have been published in past issues of Dark Mountain. They are short, usually three to four pages. Abujhmad’s dialect does not have too many words. People do not say much. Mostly they are a culture of silence. Counting goes up to only five. ‘We don’t need more than that.’.


A village, town or region as much likes or dislikes a person as the person may like or dislike it. Places have personas, dispositions, likes and dislikes. They are alive.

It is not always that one goes to a place. Many a time the place calls one and, when the time comes, sends one off too. When I first went to Bastar in 1979 I had neither heard of it nor knew it on the map — nor who tribal people are. A year later I began staying in Abujhmad which did not have even a map; was unheard of even 50 km away in either direction in Bastar. Soon enough it felt like homecoming. I could not have thought of staying away from it till it finally bid good bye in 2013. Ostensive reasons can be many, and each plausible — bloodshed by the Maoists, administrative ruthlessness, police killings, Bastar becoming somewhat of an out-of-bounds region, a land of distrust, its loss of self, a nowhere region… and endlessly more.

Humans and wilds are not at cross purposes; both live and wander without aim or thought.

The immeasurable darkness of nights is for nocturnal beings to erase human presence outside the tiny village limits and revitalise the powers of the wilds. In the wilds humans endeavour no more than the token and essential. If the endeavour be greater — axing a tree for shifting cultivation or blocking a stream for fishing — spirits, ancestors, gods and goddesses, bushes, vines, and insects cause humans to be feeble, weary and disoriented. Hence humans do not practise shifting cultivation in a big way or hinder streams as such. Bushes, vines, insects, animals, winds, earth, rivers, ancestors, spirits and humans are allies and lend vitalities unto each other.

I went there on a research project of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a Delhi-based institute. Till a year ago I had not known that places, too, call one. Many a time a place also contrives and rids itself of one soon enough. When one goes uninvited it makes living difficult. For about the first six months I roamed and rejected many a village. I had my reasons: ‘wet or watery, of too many flies and pigs, distance from a stream, huts too far from each other, the village much too interior for my daring and endurance, or my own moods and temperament’ etc. I did not know those villages, by thus presenting themselves, were rejecting me as much; nor could I know that Garpa’s nice-looking little plateau was not a piece of topography but an invitation to settle down and partake of its companionship. For reasons that may never be known, we liked each other. There was a felt conviviality, as between instant friends.

In the first six months I had been through many villages. I was becoming somewhat of a familiar face and people were no longer running away to the forest. Garpa was the first one that offered me residence; its chatter and laughter, distant fires of the darkest nights, landscape and contours. The ‘rejected’ or ‘rejecting’ villages had not made an offer. When there is innate — and not of human making — reciprocity, both come alive and pulsate as companions. Both become a place for intimacies in ever pristine infinity. Places, too, wish for allies.

For village congregation

If the vitals do not coincide and one settles down uninvited, they devour one’s spirit. They cause inattention to details and hide much. The contemporary mind, in any case, is much too broken to know what lives in a village or region. It can know only its location, longitudes and latitudes, space of only an apparent kind, and ‘diminished’ lives. The village disguises and reduces itself to cartography. It withholds the province of spaces and skies, gods and ancestors, mysteries and unknowns…

Much like the demons of yore, cities only devour their dwellers — they live off them; soak up their energies and hardly share their own. There is a relentless assault on the senses. Hence the strain, exhaustion, despair, fear, lingering psycho-physical illnesses; the complaints against life and its overwhelming arrangements. The village gives its energies, conviviality and companionship to its dwellers. A person and a village, living well and living fulsomely, seek neither rest nor change, neither progress nor dream; pursuing neither dharma nor adharma.

Rarely is a place where it is. It alludes.

By its very disposition Abujhmad cannot be where it is. Like a metaphor it faintly intimates; as though it has come here from some non-here. Its beyondness is innate and of the unknown, yet immediate and tangible. There is nothing that is ‘here’ here. Dense wilds intermingled with vegetation in some indeterminate arrangements mile after mile; people; rivers and hills; animals; still spaces and fairy-like winds; fear and awe — all seem mythical and imaginary. But Abujhmad is not unreal; it is very much there. It sits by itself, in utter restfulness; as though about to gently rise and weave into the non-here. Only the restfuls rise. That is Abujhmad’s deep disposition. Nothing ever happens here. Something about it that is changeless, still, resolute, motionless, irrefutable and incontestable. As though impregnable — and yet most fragile, tender and vulnerable. A people and region that temperamentally seem ever prepared to lose. Such elemental and untroubled restfulness reflects in its sparseness, words and dialect, counting, and an almost stable population of estimated 13,000, imperishable tentativeness of its thatch huts, village layout, stories of no more than four to five lines, one-line songs of varying pitches, very few facial expressions and the absence of details in daily life. All convey dispassion and non-doing.

Though indivisible from his wild yet never claims as his own. He listens to it as one does to the bard; there is much communion. As though it always was like this. Change and variations are the mind’s. Wild remains still and same.

Non-doing revitalises quiet and stillness. Just as the wild overtakes a hill-face shorn for shifting cultivation, its denizens are ever in wait to overtake the towns and cities surrounding it.

I doubt whether it was anywhere easy to penetrate to any great distance through that impenetrable screen of foliage to that mysterious, magical substance.

Wild is always looked upon as wasteland. To look upon Abujhmad with the ‘realism’ of longitudes, latitudes, and the contemporary sensibility — the cartographic worldview — is attributable to both bad judgement and inattention.

Waste is an unavoidable part of a production process — an inheritance of guilt and shame. Bulki (an elderly lady of Garpa) used to say, ‘No sin lives in Abujhmad’. Waste comes of God-forsakenness and infertility. Waste comes only from waste. That of which waste comes — the product — is for the Abujhmadia as much a waste. Abujhmad — and folk societies at large — dissolves conditions of ‘productive living’; it refuses to address contemporary conditions of living sainted by the outside world; neither food, clothing and shelter, nor livelihood or ownership, neither doing nor non-doing, neither knowledge nor ignorance etc. It repudiates the hitherto-held final grounds; and leaves no premise to educate itself into such living. Naked, the Abujhmadias have for generations crisscrossed — mingled and stayed overnight when necessary — the Halba village of Sonepur with its settled agriculture and domesticated cattle, tiled huts and wells, yet have never taken to Sonepur way of life. When grounds dissolve; then there is nothing to do, nothing to know. There is stillness. Knowing or doing become superfluous. The modern world creates conditions — specific conditions — for living; and in turn effects knowing and doing; and aspirations that lie beyond its station. It creates societies, languages, institutions, worldviews, practises and skills — such that reinforce its own productive behaviours. For the Abujhmadia, life and all its conditions come from the non-here, and ought not be produced here. He seems to intuitively know the place and extent beyond which everything, and he, must cease. There is an incommunicability to it beyond verbal shapes and forms. Abujhmad is a space for beyond; a space for dissolving conditions and making productivity infertile. It renders the productive to the unproductive — as that which is insufferable and undesirable.

The Adivasi sentiment and nebulousness towards life has been universally shared across human communities in one way or the other. This is the ‘stranger’ that modern civilisation does not dare itself to face. For it forecloses possibilities of existing in its own situation. It calls for referents other than modernity itself — and modernity may never be willing. It is the ‘stranger’ in whose presence modernity is unable to comprehend how to unfold itself or how to handle its own bypassed questions.

Abujhmad is a metaphor for communion. It continues to teach and live its metaphor. It intuitively lives without changing itself. It is neither striving to acquire the ‘other’, nor afraid of losing itself. In its strange, mystical way it is both the self and the ‘stranger’. Abujhmad comes from an unsullied poise and undisturbed inheritance. It has still not blocked its unknown.

Whereas the question, by sheer power and repressiveness of its discourse, remains ‘legitimate’, the answer, when fetched from another discourse, becomes illicit, laughable, ludicrous and without longevity. The answer has to fetch its legitimacy — a burden not shared by the question or the discourse it comes from. There are no questions in Abujhmad. They belong to the outside and carry a certain conceptual apparatus and infrastructure. The sheer volume of their apparatus and infrastructure is overwhelming. They come with implications and affiliations and thwart the Adivasi.

How can one answer a question when its object, the Adivasi, carries a certain nebulousness, if not obscurity, a certain dimness bereft of the ‘exact’, and a certain indeterminate, inconclusive disposition? Questions are unfair.

How does one evolve a consensual discourse between Abujhmad and the outside? The inability to comprehend as such creates distances which in their essential nature seem un-bridgeable. How does one arrive at consensuality between the ambiguous, obscure and dim on one hand, and the exact and certain on the other? Is such arrival desirable?

It is said the people earlier had a natural power to them. Rao Pen is Bastar’s territorial god and lives at its geographical boundary. He protects and looks over the region. Each village has its Rao Pen. Village boundaries or hut fences do not depict ownership and control. They depict areas wherein well-being is assured for all. According to folklore Rao Pen once prevented the British from crossing the Indravati river… he created a dust storm over the waters once, and a fire on another occasion, forcing the British to turn back. There are stories about how, through his devices, he materialised food and drink for himself and those accompanying him.

Muria Gond

It is often said in primitive societies that the individual does not count, the community is everything. What if it were said that there is neither a notion of the individual nor community! It is plainly an issue of increased vocabulary.

Abujhmad’s wild is a place of ‘static motion’ where the human and the wild converge in a non-secular web of myth, ritual, stories, fear, reverence and worship. It has a way of unsettling the ‘known’ of modern man. Outside the boundaries of society lie the wilds, beyond the periphery of reason and its modes of engaging and understanding. The established goes astray and conventional distinctions collapse. They confuse clear distinctions and certainties, but in that confusion profound learning and ascertainment occurs. That is Abujhmadia wisdom.

Much clarity and certitude for my comfort. I would always want to feel a little ‘lost’; there ought to remain a wilds to life, where the human both remains in and outside human grasp. Some kind of Universe-human interplay where joy leads to pain, and pain to joy. The alternation and their playfulness; when seeming opposites become the same and same seem opposites: life-death, man-woman, animate-inanimate.

Much of the modern/scientific/capitalist/feminist/Marxist impulse is to well define things in (and about) life, and forever remove the wild; the ambiguous, nebulous, the ‘ill-defined’, the uncertain and chaotic; and evolve patterns and settings that can be fixed and determined; foreclosed possibilities in pursuit of ‘orderliness’; primarily an approach to overcoming fear of the wilds within (and without — hence fellings and creation of infrastructures), fear of the uncertain, the innate death-wish and celebration of life: in essence the automation and corporatisation of life’s hitherto unknown (and undiscoverable??) impulse. The above ‘isms’ differ in details; the basic impulse is commonly shared. Hence my distrust, and desire of many years to steer clear and be in hiding. I cannot say with even the remotest certainty whether life entails discovering its ‘truths’. It is a stage to be lived through and may be not to discover the ‘truths’.

Not so much — but still enough — of western science and eastern dogmas are about discernment; sifting the chaff from the wheat, whereafter neither wheat remains wheat nor chaff chaff: as though it is all some human mission. There is some immense, self-invited misery and victimhood.

‘Ko jani?’ (‘Who knows?’) will resonate forever in the ears; faintly touching a core I long for. This could have come only from a people who celebrate their uncertainty and nebulousness. They insist on uncertainty, un-clarity; lest they never dance again.

  1. Thoroughly fascinating and though I found it difficult to understand how to find a sort of nothing and a everything in the frame that is free and open to a non existent yet interdependent connection- I read and found my innate self liking the abstract and construct of this village, it’s nature as to know, like and draw upon the observer, yet again, no detachment.
    This essay found a resonance that has made an invisible ongoingness that leads to nowhere.
    Beautifully holding


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