What make a place really memorable are not its landmarks or landscape, wealth or history but the dreams of its people. As dreams shape action which chart destinies this could indeed be a faultless gauge on how it should be marked for posterity. ‘Dabanng nagar’ somebody had not scribbled nor sprayed in the hasty haze of a fly-by graffiti but painstakingly stencilled in broad white strokes which stood out against the orange brick of the warehouse wall that loomed over Mohada village.
The proclamation had sounded hollow from what i saw passing through the wooded hamlet the previous evening: nothing. It was only eight o’ clock and there were no lights, no people, no vehicles. Nothing to be feared. Nobody powerful. Nada. A few hours earlier, as dusk drew up with its habitual winter rush, the Maruti Gypsy i was driving inside the Barnawapara wildlife sanctuary had refused to come back to life, sputtering along the fringes of the core zone. I had killed the engine upon spotting a sloth bear not very far. My guide and tracker Khoobchand jumped down from the vehicle gesturing hurriedly at me to open the hood. I waited for the sloth to slouch away before clambering out myself. Some stout shrub we drove over while trailing the black flurry had busted the fuel pipe. We walked around six kilometres to the village road from where Manoj picked me up on his old trusty Splendor.
Manoj Kumar Yadav was officially a guard at the Chhattisgarh state tourism resort inside the sanctuary where i was staying. He was also the waiter, cook, car cleaner and alarm clock – the best one ever – i used to be woken up on frosty mornings with cups of steaming tea, redder than the red bauxite dust flying about the state. Intelligent, curious eyed, rugged in an affable way, Manoj was the shirt-wearing George of the Jungle. He was from Mohada village right next to the resort from where the sanctuary radiated in all directions. Despite the late hour, Manoj insisted with spotless Arcadian pride to show me around his gaav, village. The dogs, seeing a stranger possibly after a long time, were too startled to bark but soon became wag-happy seeing Manoj. The adobe houses around us assumed different sizes and shapes, crept towards us like wary night creatures under the motorcycle lights. The pantiles on the dwellings cast jagged silhouettes against the moonlit sky. The village square looked eerie and surreal in the dark, a prehistoric omphalos, more befitting a Brethren Court than a panchayat sorting everyday issues. I could hear muffled television sounds from two houses; flickering strands of light splintering the dark through half-shut doors. Feeble, febrile life signs.
“All the lights go out by ten in the night.” Manoj told me. “They are solar powered.” That the village depends entirely on solar power for its needs baffled me considering Chhattisgarh is a power-surplus state which sells the additional output to neighbouring states. Electricity supply to Mohada starts at five o’ clock in the evening and goes on for about five hours. This is further shortened during the monsoon months as there isn’t much sun. In another house Annu Kapoor vied with static to pull a mellifluous canopy over the sparse sal trees with Kishore and Rafi eternals. Save for the heartening sounds, the sights were bleak. Or maybe it was just the dark. Just as i told Manoj to turn his motorbike around, i saw the writing on the wall ‘Dabanng nagar.’ An optimistic outpour amidst the otherwise dimness, squalor included. Nevertheless it also said that there was more to what met the eye. The place deserved a second chance.
I returned to Mohada at seven the next morning dragging a groggy Manoj with me soon after he brought me the fiery red cuppas. The village was reluctantly, unconsciously even, going through the motions of starting a day. The men were on their haunches, chins cupped, staring ahead unblinking, engrossed in some intense thinking. Kitchen smoke wafted out osmotically through the mud-and-wood walls. Small boys gurning in silence walked along the village path carrying water in cola bottles before disappearing into adjoining fields; those returning walked listless with empty bottles before brightening up seeing a guest. Those who had returned from their ablutions and gotten over the guest began a game of gully cricket. Jobbed elder youth squatted next to their motorcycles running a careful rag through each cooling fin. Manoj took me to the house of a village elder.
“The bigger problem (than not having electricity) is that the village school has classes only till the fifth standard,” he said. “All our kids are forced to stop studies after the fifth and join us in the fields.” Fishing was also an option but not so in large numbers. There was a lake-size pond that lay between the village and the resort. From the balcony of my room, i used to watch the unmoving water reflect the grey-green of the surrounding foliage and the numerous thermocol marker buoys bobbing on the surface listening to a properly poignant James Blunt. Fishermen on inflated tyre tubes waded about checking the submerged nets for catch. A group of enterprising youngsters from Mohada had bought the fishing rights to the pond for three years at a cost of Rs 50,000. The money went to a common village fund used to jazz up festivals: hiring music bands and generators or arranging good food.
One lad stepped up claiming authorship of ‘Dabanng nagar’ which had brought me back to Mohada that morning. It was not just inspired from the Salman Khan hit, he vouched.
“It is about what we want for all of us and for our village,” he said with a surprising vehemence and articulation that surpassed even that of the village elder. “We have many dreams for our village – higher secondary schools and electrification are only some of them.” Most of the village youth held two jobs working in the fields till noon and then as guides and trackers for tourists who come to the sanctuary. Some of them even rode a bicycle 20 kilometres to a nearby town for spoken English lessons. “Tourism will grow and when foreigners begin to come we want to be ready.”
That evening i returned to the hotel late after visiting the Buddhist excavations at nearby Sirpur. At the restaurant for dinner i spotted some of the faces i saw at Mohada that morning. They were watching Animal Planet marvelling at the wildlife – probably missing a bygone era in their own backyards – and debating the methods of Nigel Marven. The episode was broken by Telebrands advertisements of which one was an ad for an ear cleaning product called Wax Vac, a miniature vacuum cleaner. It showed the product weaving its way into the ear of a smiling woman who was rendered infinitely happier by the little hummer. The audience giggled at first before erupting in back-slapping laughter. They had seen – and saw through – it all.