Dispatch 65: Wayfarer Waylaid

Since 2013 Dark Mountain has published Narendra's occasional dispatches from the tribal region of Bastar in Central India. Today we are happy to welcome him back with another account of life among the Abujhmadia people.
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.
They were the monsoon months. It is not even rain as such but a continuous descent of tiny droplets, barely visible to the eye; like a large, soft and misty blanket of wetness wrapping one’s naked body. Like all umbrellas elsewhere one of the Sihadi(1) leaves helps but not much when it is raining without let. After about ten days it stops for a week or so. Soon the sun shines through. Bodies and beings need to dry. After a few days the blanket lowers again. It is good for Penda(2). The loose soil does not run down the hill face nor broadcasted seeds wash away. Fear of being accosted by bears decreases; fastidious at remaining clean, they do not enjoy the wet season. Whereas other animals are usually wary of humans, bears are not. There are now more snakes, scorpions and other creatures.

I waited for a companion to walk with me to Sonepur. Jaggery and matchboxes had to be brought from further off Narayanpur. Jaggery was needed for an occasional sweet tooth, for Abujhmad does not have the sweet, or the salty. Of course there were honey combs and small wild mangos on the trees but they were not as readily forthcoming as the sweet tooth. I could not learn the art of making fire from flint stones and raw silk, the stones ever slipping through my fingers. Though there was almost always a large, dead tree dragged to the ‘middle’ of the village to get the hearth fires from3, I was not a success with that either. Blowing into the ancient hearth to convert the embers gently into a flame is an art not easy to master. Matchbox, dry grass, leaves and split bamboo came in handy. The village felt an unease about the matchbox and continued with the dead tree or flint.

The distance from Garpa, the village of my residence, to Sonepur was about 30 kilometres; from Sonepur to Narayanpur about 40. In the beginning I visited Narayanpur every four months or so for such errands. It was the nearest market; also the nearest road, bus stand, post office, tea shack, jalebi shop and paraphernalia. Of about 70 odd families Sonepur is the only non-Abujhmadia village in the region. Garpa with its seven scattered huts came second. Compared to the three or four huts of an average Abujhmadia village, Sonepur is a city of sorts. Apart from the Halbas it has a Jogi (Hindu mendicant sub-caste) and a Panka family. Pankas are makers of tudbudis (musical drums) and players of the flute during festivals. There is agriculture and milch cattle. Abujhmadias do not know agriculture, nor do they milk cattle.

The rough terrain of hills, large boulders, moss-covered slippery trails, thick and – at places – impenetrable vegetation, wild animals, other creatures, rivers and streams made the journey hard. If there was a strong shower somewhere far away – of which one would not know – the river or stream would rise abruptly. One could be swept away midstream. Nor was it easy then to clutch onto one of the big boulders for they were moss-covered and slippery, too. Usually those on the other bank waiting for the waters to subside would jump in to the rescue. People on the other bank were, however, a chance and rarity. There may never be a bigger deterrent than wild and untamed Nature; nor better defence. Walking alone was forbidden by the wild and its circumstance. Unlike the outside world Abujhmad has not conquered its landscape, nor its distances. Nobody had to caution anybody against walking alone. It was as much a ‘given’ as cautiously crossing a road of busy traffic in a city lest it be fatal. Whereas the walk was hard, finding a companion was harder. People did not visit other places except for fairs and festivals. The practise of visiting friends or relatives  was almost non-existent. Even the notion of ‘friend’ was practically absent. Animals do not have friendships, nor trees or hills. ‘Friendship’ seems to have arisen much later with coming of human societies and complexities in relationships. Just like vocabulary and work, people in Abujhmad did not need many relationships, nor were existing relationships needed much. That need or sensibility to run errands, too, was superfluous. People did not have work in another village; or even their own.

For village congregations

Apart from Sonepur or Narayanpur, there were other travels, too – to Hikunar, Ehnar, Nelnar, Kutul and other villages of the deep interior. Everywhere one needed a companion. In the initial stages, walking was mostly for ethnographic purposes. As time went by and the inner apparatus began waning, wild Abujhmad was gradually beginning to descend on me. All needs as such began wilting too. Wild Nature takes over eventually; just like the shorn Penda patch on a hill face reverts to untamed vegetation when left alone. Eventually both ethnography and travel dropped. Like others in Garpa I began staying put. It was then I realised how much inner apparatus one carries unnecessarily. Ethnography, geography, history, earth, space, memory and vision, wisdom, values and ideals, ideas and concepts, relationships and friendships… much of it worthless. Abujhmad is an altogether different centre of living.

Having spread the word amongst our large village of seven huts, I would wait for someone. After a few days or weeks even if someone did come along the ‘problem’ remained still. For, after reaching Sonepur I had to wait for another companion to Narayanpur – in the same ‘timeless’ frame. Walking was in stages, interspersed by days and weeks – all for such elementary needs as matchboxes and jaggery. At either place the wait was an average of 10-15 days. It could be much longer during monsoon for none wanted to risk with the rivers, thick undergrowth and  slippery climbs. A journey of three days could take anywhere from 20-30, or even more. The baggage of my sense of time and its needs made life hard. Eventually both jaggery and matchbox were given up. Waiting endlessly to do something, not knowing when and with whom it would be done, is always hard. When there is nothing to do or nowhere to go, waiting, impatience, anxiety, companion or friends do not come into play. Mercifully, like match boxes and jaggery, ethnography and research weaned too. I felt better.

Many a time it was Masiya who accompanied me to Sonepur – more out of pity than purpose. At Sonepur I was usually put up by the Panka family. Or, if the taste buds longed for chicken curry, it could be had only at Verma guru ji’s in the 4,000 square kilometres of the region. I then stayed with Verma guru ji, who lived alone and was versed in the ways of the outside world and chicken curry, including free procurement of chickens from frequently unsuspecting parents. Sonepur had Abujhmad’s only school and guru ji was the headmaster. He was a friend and the only one with whom I could speak in Hindi (he came from northern Madhya Pradesh). He stored cooking oil, onions and some elementary dry spices. Though the luxury of a suitable chicken was most appealing to the buds, staying with the ‘musical’ family was to my heart. They looked after me as their own, for such is human warmth everywhere. But that also meant cutting firewood in the forest for the family and getting the head-loads home, herding the goats into their enclosure before sunset and releasing them early in the morning lest they bring the heavens down – which they often did. An occasional breach in the household bamboo fence called for mending. Frequently, animal bones had to be powdered on a rock and mixed with crushed tobacco for the family to chew; or learning the art of trapping bird, going with others to catch fish and crabs and ‘earn’ my share. A nap in the afternoon was an invariable must. Much time was spent gossiping, joking or playing with children. Then came the dinner and all – humans, dogs, cats, poultry and an occasional goat –  sat around the family fire; humans with tobacco in mouth and spit in flames. Animals huddled for warmth; humans for warmth and the old man’s tales – tales of rains, insects, animals, gods, spirits, ancestors, streams and vegetation, of the misconducts of gods and spirits, and the punishments they received; of myths, rites and symbols. Halba stories are longer than the Abujhmadia’s and do not end so abruptly. Nothing had changed over the long years since the storyteller’s childhood, not even the pitch or intonations, or the verve and enthusiasm to huddle together each night for tales. Almost each family had this indulgence. As the tales unfolded, someone or other would roll to the ground, followed by someone else, then someone else, till the old man called it a day. Then babies and elders all slept with their backs to the fire for warmth and to keep the evil spirits, snakes and scorpions away. Someone snored, someone muttered, someone flailed a leg or two; others slept noiselessly. None complained. Youngsters in the rest of Abujhmad live in the village Ghotul(3) at night, at Sonepur they sleep at home. Halbas do not have Ghotuls.


 This went on day after day and night after night. A companion was still hard to find but awaited nevertheless. When the time came we would trudge together to far away Narayanpur. About ten kilometres beyond Bengur river the terrain began easing up as gradually the outside world emerged. Lesser vegetation, lesser waters, lesser silence and lesser mysteries – it surely is a different world. It was time for the other to turn and hurry back before the sun went down. He would not be permitted to stay with me at the PWD Rest House or that of the Forest Department. As is the practice in other villages in India, none would ask me to bring back some provision – turmeric, spice, oil, shirt etc – from the town. It was not worth having.

Sonepur does not have many preoccupations related to work. It has many social ones though. Abujhmad does not have them. ‘Human affairs’ are as invisible and as still as Nature. Not much happens in its villages of three or four scattered huts. In this respect it is yet to be a human society. Sonepur is surrounded on all sides by Abujhmad. Abujhmadias come to Sonepur now and then for fairs, festivals and other occasions. Yet they do not take to its ways. Their sensitivities maintain a quiet and desolate distance.

Looking back at my journeys, I find the wayfarer has been waylaid.

Giant leaves of a vine; used as umbrella
2 Shifting cultivation
3 A semi-circular structure of thatch and bamboo in the village for unmarried youngsters. Once married, one can never re-enter a Ghotul.



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