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Mahua tales: Chawal baba zindabad

Hard work pays off in the future. Laziness pays off now. Steven Wright (wit, writer, actor)

A mat was placed and the lady, tall, dark and easy on the eyes, motioned me to sit. I looked around the small courtyard, trellised out of view from the neighbouring huts and sat close to the opening – a clump of bristly branches held together with hemp working which required laborious joggling. The livestock in the corral peered at me through moist eyes, eerily calm and unblinking. Probably quietly relishing the services of the oxpecker gallivanting about its flanks. A rooster crowed somewhere and I thought about Surguja chicken curry – someone had told me its authentic preparation needed wild fowl. Maybe I could procure one from the village? Or convince my hostess to whip up some? Or maybe I was being too ambitious for someone who had come seeking fresh mahua in a central Indian hinterland village at seven in the morning.

Though only a few kilometres away from the touristy Chitrakote Waterfalls, the village bred its own brand of silence – exalted by the absence of television and motor vehicle noises. The sound of my borrowed 100 cc motorcycle echoed like thunderclaps as I rode in with a friend. Except for the women pottering about in the backyards of their adobe huts nothing else moved. No men were in sight. Maybe they were already in the forests foraging, fields or the waterfalls eking out a living ferrying tourists. I felt a tad uneasy about my privileged station in life which afforded me a tipple so early in the day; tried to console myself saying it was part of the job. To write about something you had to experience it first-hand, anything for a work well done, and all that. Alcohol has a very fail-safe way of convincing us we are right. Getting off the motorcycle I walked into the time warp.

The body reacts sympathetically to different temporal stimulations – I who can elbow my way to the very front of the queue at Rajiv Chowk during rush hour found myself dawdling here. Inbuilt urban commands like ‘get going’ and ‘reach’ which infest our lives weakened their hold. Agrarian settings are potent in that way. For a moment I even thought I’d give up my quest and just drink in the atmosphere. I sat on a low slate wall and lighted a cigarette. Eva Hoffman in her seminal essay on time talks about how the experience of time varies from one culture to another and within the same culture from one period to another. I felt here time went by without much ado. Nobody cared where it came from or what it took with it when it went away. ‘Clock time’ and ‘lived time’ were one and the same. In the back of my mind I had already decided that Barsoor – an hour through thick, Maoist-held forests – could wait despite local advisory to pass through as early in the day as possible. Some kids who were playing came and stood around, staring at me with intense curiosity. I studied them back. One in a grotty tee led me to the hut where I now sat waiting for the floral ferment.

Beware of what you desire, for you shall always get it. Bedouin proverb

Travelling through these same regions some years earlier a development worker told me a story. They were in the process of setting up a skilling centre with CSR funding when they passed by some villagers squatting outside their huts. They stopped their vehicle and decided to undertake some impromptu social mapping.

“Why are you just sitting around, wasting your time?” The zealous state coordinator of the project asked.

“We are enjoying our life.” One replied and went back to peering at the ground keenly from between his knees. They were all hung over on mahua and its stronger cousin, salfi.

“Why don’t you do any work?” One job profile of state coordinators is to never give up.

“What do we get by working?” One villager asked, impatient at the persistence.

“You can get a better life and be happy.”

“We are happy now.”

This story I have heard from different places but the context remains. Bertrand Russell wouldn’t have had to look far for his essay ‘In praise of idleness.’ In these parts fun is still alive, uncorrupted by competition – an impediment to the original spirit of play. An old man sauntered in with rheumy eyes and maudlin stories. Happy for the company I made space on the mat for him. Without pausing his whine list he put on my sunglasses and gestured me to take a photograph. I did and when I showed him the review display he was least interested – he had already moved on to examining my watch with its many knobs. I removed it – before he asked me to – so that he could try it on. It was fun – pure and innocent.

The mahua came and I asked for an extra tumbler, offered him a drink. He swigged it all in one go, smacked his lips and was quiet for a long moment. Wearing a bare vest he was now eyeing my jacket. I broached my desire to eat Surguja chicken; flapped my arms and made a lot of cluck-cluck chomp-chomp noises. He continued looking at my jacket through wet eyes. The lady who was watching my best dumb charade imitation of The Little Red Hen went inside and brought a bowl of raw chickpeas. Moved by her warmth and not wanting to offend her I took a handful and threw it into my mouth. Soon the composite resins attached to my front teeth were added to the channa churn. The old man was babbling again and I didn’t have any more mahua to spare. I offered him chickpeas instead. He took one from my palm and examined it closely before muttering ‘chawal baba*.’

His eyes were brimming now.

*Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh is known as ‘chawal baba’ among the tribal communities of the state. This is because his photographs appear on the sacks of rice distributed at Re 1 per kilo in the backward regions. In addition to rice, pulses too are given at highly subsidised rates. While this is imperative to ward off poverty and hunger from the tribal dominated belts, criticism has also emerged that this has given rise to a whole generation of lotus-eaters. Even in the village where I had my fill of mahua, the men weren’t in the fields or forests but were sleeping. By the time I left two hours later, I saw a half-hearted bucket brigade of young men and boys collecting and stacking fallen tamarind.


Profile photo of Thommen Jose

After taking a master degree in communication and journalism, Thommen Jose tried to sit behind a desk as a sub editor with a national newsweekly but did not last very long. An avid adventurer and distance biker, he soon discovered that he has to hit the road quite often to keep going. Currently based out of Delhi, he develops communication collaterals for the development sector, has scripted and directed a travel series on Tibet and Nepal, writes travelogues for newspapers and recently wrote and photographed a travel guide, ‘Experience Agra and around on the road’ which was published by the Times of India. is his blog, travelogues from which find their way into national and international newspapers, magazines and travel websites.

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