The Hirma episode is one of the few times when the village elders and the village council were completely displaced by brute force. It happened during a period when the Naxals had made inroads into Adivasi villages, when boys like Barre and Bogam used their real or imaginary connections to instil fear in our lives. Otherwise, the village council has a sense of humour that the court lacks. Humour played a decisive role when Goju’s case came up before the council; Pagni’s husband brought the case up, saying that Goju had harassed his wife the previous afternoon.

Pagni was alone that day in her hut. She had not joined her husband with the cattle as she wanted to pound millet for landa. Her grown-up daughter, Kosi, had gone with her father. The village was quiet in the afternoon, with only the sounds of children’s games under the mango trees.

Goju had been drinking since early that morning and something prompted him to walk towards Pagni’s hut.

Finding her alone, Goju began flirting with her, leaning against the fence and watching her work inside. Pagni did not respond to his increasingly lewd suggestions; at one point she shut the bamboo door in his face. Replete with liquor and romantic illusions, our hero kept on and on outside, pleading with Pagni to let him in; only in the evening did Goju move away.

The council was summoned by Pagni’s husband early next morning. Pagni complained about Goju’s behaviour and the latter accepted that he had erred. He said, “I was too drunk.” The council discussed the matter and Goju was penalised two bottles of mel for his unpleasant behaviour, and Pagni’s husband a bottle for the council’s efforts. The matter was settled and then, when we thought that the council was done with the affair, it came up with a surprise. Dusheru Mutak announced that as Goju had not bothered Pagni’s lovely daughter, Kosi, it was penalizing him another bottle of mel.

The audience burst out laughing as Goju left the council shamefaced, and did not appear in the village for quite a number of days.

~~~

Apart from the ever-present humour, mutaks are also better able to understand unusual choices when it comes to love, as in the case of Buti, Pandu’s daughter.

Lati Sira had two sons, Kuta and Kosa. Kuta was crippled with polio and crawled along on the ground using his hands and one good knee. Notwithstanding his condition, he wandered far from home, even uphill, and tended the cattle, but in the main attended to chores around the house, especially after his mother’s death. Kosa, on the other hand, was a strong boy and worked beside his father cultivating the hill slope.

Pandu’s household was in the part of the village where Lati Sira lived. One morning he called for the village council to sit and discuss a matter that affected him: his daughter, Buti, was pregnant. The council sat in the usual gathering space beneath the tamarind trees, and most of those concerned collected there.

Gumak Mutak began the questioning. He asked Buti, “Child, who is the one who has been coming to you?”

“Kuta,” she said. We were surprised.

“Not Kosa?”

“No.”

“Now that you are pregnant, whom would you like to live with?”

Buti did not have to think long. “Kosa.”

The mutak turned to Kosa. “Will you keep her?”

Shy, with his eyes to the ground, Kosa replied, “Yes.”

The mutak then proposed that the matter be immediately resolved. It was agreed that Kosa and Buti would live together as man and wife. The council charged two bottles of mel for their efforts, drinking it with Pandu and Lati in celebration. The sudden turn of events was to everyone’s satisfaction.

~~~

The mutaks regularly deal with other affairs of the heart, such as elopement, a common and accepted course of action among Adivasi couples who want to get married. A couple going off together is a clear statement to their parents and the village about their feelings for each other.

However, in recent years, the “educated” Adivasi has realised that, according to law, elopement is a “crime”, and one for which the boy’s family can be booked for kidnapping the girl. Predictably, the police have got their nose into these cases now, and a traditional practice has been entrusted in the hands of people who know or care little about the Adivasi.

Each time the village gets involved with the police, it is the kotwal who needs to deal with the matter, acting as a bridge between the people and the state. It is the kotwal’s duty to report births and deaths in a village, report unresolved disputes and help the police keep their village records up to date. It is an unenviable position to be in, as neither the police nor the people fully trust the kotwal.

The kotwal of the village in which I lived was a tricky individual. He was aware that my identity and business in Bastar puzzled many people, especially the police. What was I doing in Bastar for so long? Most Adivasis accepted me for what I was or appeared to be. But officials and people in positions of authority, even the kotwal, lack that element of trust. For a long time, the kotwal was wary of me; I suspected him of invoking the suspicion of the local police against me. After his weekly visits to the police thana – where he was made to run errands, mend fences, chop firewood, clean toilets – he would make it a point to come and meet me.

“The thanedar was enquiring about you again, pepa,” he would say.

“What did he want to know?”

“About what you were doing in our village.”

“And what did you say?”

“What could I say? I told him that I don’t know anything … that you were minding your own business … How can I understand? Everyone roams about to feed his stomach, is it not?” I could guess the tone in which the kotwal must have uttered these innocuous words, the wily old fox.

It is the simple-minded, not the simple-hearted, that are the difficult ones to convince. Simple minds are unable to accept simple answers; they seem to look for complicated reasons for the ordinary. A hundred times I’m asked, “For what are you in Bastar?” For what purpose, indeed? More recently, this philosophical question has given way to “Aap andar ke ho ya bahar ke?” Are you from inside or outside?

I’ve tried several answers like, “I find life outside Bastar half-baked and drab,” or “I like to be with people who laugh a lot,” or “I’m learning Adivasi languages.” None of these satisfies or dampens curiosity. No official to whom I said this believed me, not even the kotwal – perhaps the only one of them who knew what I said was true. Curiously, the only answer that unwaryingly never failed to work and to impress was: “My father owns a timber mill.”

Excerpted with permission from Woodsmoke and Leafcups: Autobiographical Footnotes To The Anthropology Of The Durwa People, Madhu Ramnath, Harper Litmus.