Simple ways of life

Simple ways of life


Simple ways of life

It was almost three decades ago and I have only very hazy memories of the trip. We, a batch of university students, accompanied our Anthropology professor to a remote tribal village in northern Maharashtra, to study the impact of the controversial construction of giant dams being built on the Narmada river.

We crossed the Narmada on a round-bottomed boat, the boatman deftly avoiding the enormous whirlpools in the swollen river. Then, several  hours later, after a long trek into the forested mountains, we arrived at a hamlet, which was to be our home for the next fortnight. The village headman arranged for us to be accommodated in a hut, a modest, one-roomed structure made of mud and straw.

There were no beds, and we had to sleep on the floor. ‘Development’ was still ages away, and there was no electricity or running water. At night, we used oil lamps, and in the mornings we trekked to a bubbling brook nearby to bathe.

Life in the hamlet, home to a small number of families of the Bhil tribe, was simple. There were then no roads in the area, and communication with the world outside was strictly limited.

The jungles and mountains acted as a barrier to the infiltration of outside influences, which meant that the denizens of the hamlet lived much as their ancestors must have. Bhil men donned just a small loin cloth, woven at home, and the women left their torsos uncovered. There were no shops in the area, indicating that the Bhil villages were largely self-sufficient.

By urban standards, the Bhils were poor but not impoverished. Very few Bhils worked outside their villages, and most of them seemed to be content with how they were. They grew whatever they required, and their methods of cultivation were simple: they scattered the seeds on the slopes of the hills and let them grow naturally. The forests around were rich in fruits, vegetables and herbs, which were collected.

Few outsiders ever bothered to come to the Bhil areas. And that was all for the good because it meant that the Bhils could carry on with their lives much as they had for centuries. There were hardly any schools in the area, for what need, I thought, was there to study books in an alien tongue which would inevitably alienate them from their own culture?

And of course, thankfully, there was no TV, which has played such havoc with local cultures and has triggered off uncontrollable consumerism even in isolated communities. After a tiring day’s work in the fields, men and women would gather in a communal hut, where youngsters would sing and dance together to the throbbing of drums. Others would prepare a drink made of the mahua flower, served in leaf cups. Yet others would sit around and smoke mahua flowers mixed with tobacco in giant pipes.

The Bhils of the area practiced their own unique religion, a form of animism and ancestor worship with a heavy dose of magic. But it was clear even at that time that their ancient religious tradition would soon disappear: many Bhils in the area had become devotees of wandering Hindu sadhus and Christian missionaries. Soon, their religious tradition would be looked down by others as ‘primitive’.   

It wasn’t easy communicating with our hosts, because we didn’t know each other’s language. But, still, we managed to get our way, mostly by using sign language. I can’t remember much of what we talked about. The village folk were, naturally, opposed to it, mocking the authorities’ claim that it would usher in a period of unparalleled ‘development’. They knew that the dam would soon drown dozens of Bhil villages. They had no faith in the promises of the government of being suitably rehabilitated. In any case, money probably didn’t count much for them.

At the same time, the inhabitants of the hamlet probably suspected that their opposition to the dam was futile and must have known that, like thousands of other tribals displaced in the name of ‘development’, they might soon have to flee their homes once the dam came up.

And for all I know, with the dam now firmly in place, their village might now have been completely wiped off the map of the world, sunk deep in the swirling waters of the Narmada, its denizens being reduced to manual labourers in some dusty, nondescript Indian town.