une 2016 By Nabanita Deshmukh Intimately entwined in nature, tribals grow up naturally virtuous, embracing a holistic perspective that we would do well to emulate, says Nabanita Deshmukh ARUNACHAL PRADESH 1980 Virtue and Warmth The enchanting Mishmi Hills of Arunachal Pradesh A nervous Maharashtrian man stands on a steep cliff looking down at a surging river below. He needs to cross it and go to the other side. The gap is enormous and the sound of the river’s roar fills him with trepidation. “How to cross it, bhaiya?” he asks his tribal friend. “Simple,” says the man pointing at a rope spanning the river from top, “hold on to it, become a monkey and cross it.” “Si-mm-ple?” stammers the Maharashtrian, “But I have never done rope climbing before and I do not know how to swim!” “I’m sure you’ll do fine,” chuckles his friend, and to set an example, he grabs the rope and begins dexterously crossing the stream. The Maharashtrian follows suit but mid-way through the crossing, his palms become clammy, his ankles bleed, and his toes freeze. He somehow manages to get on to the other side and limps into his tribal host’s hut. After a simple meal of hot rice and dal, he is now ready to sleep. It is a cold winter night and the eldest member of the family, an old man affectionately called ‘budha’ in those regions, sits near the fire, close to his guest and stokes it. At around midnight, the guest wakes up and finds the old man still awake, stoking the fire. “Budha, won’t you go to bed?” asked the gentleman. “You sleep. I’m not sleepy,” replies the old man. The next morning, the Maharashtrian gets up early and is shocked to find his host still awake, stoking the fire like before. “Why didn’t you sleep, Budha?” he asks, and the old man gently replies, “You are my guest. To keep the fire burning so that you sleep well and don’t feel cold, I stayed up.” Nabanita along with her husband, Bappu, and a Mishmi tribal couple A young man walks 50 kilometres up the meandering paths of the Mishmi Hills of Arunachal Pradesh. He holds a large bag in his hands and makes his way laboriously up the slope. These are days when there are no mobile phones, Uber taxis, state transport buses or NEFT transfers. The gentleman’s name is Lakshman and he is employed as a peon in a primary school. His duty every month is to get the salaries of the teachers from the nearest bank situated 50 kilometres away, and he has no choice but to walk. Today, on reaching the school, however, Laxshman’s mood changes. He finds one packet of cash missing from the bag. “I must have surely dropped it on the way,” he mutters. Upset and worried, he makes his way down the hill convinced that he would never get the packet back. “Which fool will let go of so much cash?” he murmurs, striding down the narrow path he had trod an hour ago. Half way down, however, he spots a white flag clumsily put up on a heap of rubble. He goes near it, removes the debris and to his utter surprise finds the packet of cash below it-untouched. Not a soul in sight. ‘If something does not belong to you, do not take it,’ goes the old tribal saying; and here, on this deserted stretch of the Mishmi Hills, it was followed to the letter! ODISHA 2015 The Fiery Kondh Woman Burlimundi is an old, wrinkled woman living in the forests of western Odisha. She belongs to the Kondh tribe and has been living in this area for decades. Petite yet tough, old but unbent, Burlimundi personifies all that is beautiful and sturdy in tribal women. At the ripe old age of 90, Burlimundi can literally trot up the hill with the younger women of her tribe to collect firewood. “What makes you so strong, Burli?” I ask her when I first meet her during a programme on sustainability for the village women in a small hamlet near Rayagarha. Burlimundi flashes one of her sweetest, most toothless smiles, and replies, “I will fight like a tigress with those people who want to seize our land and drive us away from here. I have seen tigers, bears and elephants roaming these hills when I was small but they have all been killed, and now outsiders want to kill us by cutting down our spirits (trees) and mutilating our deities (hills) for mining. Never will I allow that to happen. NEVER!” By the determination in her voice, and the steely glare she gave me that day, I knew for certain that Burlimundi meant business and God save the people who dare mess around with her! MALAYSIA 2016 ‘Dream Giants’ In Malaysia an indigenous tribe bases its existence on dreams. Sounds incredible, doesn’t it? The Senois live deep inside jungles and shun all outside contact. The only way to reach them is by boat or helicopter. The Senois are extremely hardy. They are ‘free of crime’, do not suffer from stress and, most interestingly, make dreams the focal point of their lives. How do they do this? If a Senoi child has a nightmare about a tiger attacking him and wakes up in a cold sweat, his parents console him by saying, “Next time a beast attacks you in your dreams, attack him back! Don’t be a coward and run away!” And interestingly, the very next time the child sees a tiger, he attacks him and the nightmare disappears never to trouble him again! OLD WISDOM IN NEW The once flourishing and lifegiving natural resources are being decimated by greedy land usurpers Tribal wisdom is indeed precious – the touching hospitality of the old man letting go of his sleep to let his guest rest. The honesty of the hill people who will not take anything that does not belong to them even if it were a large packet of cash. The determination of the Kondh woman to hold on to her land and save it from being plundered by miners and the real estate agents, and finally the lessons drawn from dreams that the Senois so appropriately use to solve their life problems. Inspiring glimpses of the tribal’s values yet for most of us, tribals are poor, uneducated people who not only have nothing to teach us, but need to be supported to come out of their ‘primitive’ ways and embrace civilisation. In the guise of the ‘white man’s burden’, the British came to India and decimated an infinitely superior culture because they did not have the wisdom or depth to understand it. Are we doing the same with our tribal brethren? The tribal’s world view, unlike ours, is holistic, and not a fragmented or a self-centred one. Nature is the very basis of a tribal’s existence. It is a nest wherein he takes refuge, his source of sustenance and strength. Rivers, mountains, forests and fields are all manifestations of unseen divinities. Everything in the physical universe has a purpose, therefore it has to be properly guarded, respected and followed. There is no concept such as living exclusively for oneself or for the family. The tribal’s realm is a shared space where people meet, talk, work, dance and sing. In such a world can exploitation and alienation ever exist? LUCKY TRAVELLER I consider myself fortunate to have gone to some god forsaken places to meet the so called ‘god forsaken’ people and having done so I have become richer from an inward perspective. Spending time ‘midst those undulating hills covered with lush green forests and meandering streams’ has filled me with a sense of peace and humility. Humility in the face of nature’s grandeur and the simplicity and grace of indigenous people who still retain the freshness of trees and the wisdom of the hills. About the author : Nabanita Deshmukh is a teacher and a writer of children’s stories and poems. She conducts storytelling and language workshops for teachers and students and is associated with various tribal schools in Odisha and Arunachal Pradesh.
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