Sunday, October 23, 2011

Wisdom from Wilderness

The bandicoot squealed in pain as he made his way along the jungle path. A thorn had got deeply embedded in his tail and it caused him no end of pain.

An Adivasi woman, returning from the forest with a head-load of firewood,

heard his painful entreaty and taking pity on him, sat down and pulled out the thorn. But in the process, a bit of his tail came off in her hands. Greatly relieved of his pain, the bandicoot decided to make capital of the situation. Instead of thanking the woman he abused her. “You clumsy fool of a woman, couldn’t you be careful, you have broken my tail, my prized possession. Now that you have caused me this immense loss, you must compensate me.” He shouted and he danced around her, “Give me your sickle or give me my tail.”

Nonplussed, the Adivasi woman meekly surrendered as the bandicoot forcibly wrenched the sickle from the woman’s hand and went on his way. He was proud of his enterprise. “I went to the woman with my need, and came away with a bonus,” said the bandicoot under his breath. “A good beginning to a long day,” he continued as he walked sprightly down the path. He came upon a bamboo weaver at the edge of the forest, weaving baskets.

 In the absence of implements, she had mastered the art of skillfully splitting the bamboo with her teeth. The bandicoot offered her the sickle in the hope of making a quick buck. “You fool of an Adivasi, “he called out to the startled bamboo weaver. “What are you doing with this antiquated technology, while I have in my hand an implement that will not only make your work easier, you will be able to multiply your production of baskets manifold and just think of how rich you can become.”

The basket weaver was wary of the strange creature offering her the sickle. “Where in the world did he lay his hands on such an instrument,” she thought as she looked at the bandicoot, barely pausing her weaving. Almost reading her mind, the bandicoot pompously declaimed, “I come from a distant land, where we are so much advanced. And because we have technology like this sickle, not only is our work more efficient, there is also less drudgery.” The bamboo weaver, still not sure of the bandicoot’s intentions, stretched out her hand and took the sickle. Of course, the sickle makes life so much easier and work so much faster. Her mouth would not be so sore at the end of the day, the basket weaver thought as she quickly mastered the art of using the sickle. The pile of baskets by her side grew, and she was genuinely happy. How to multiply it??

As luck would have it, the sickle soon broke. The basket weaver was frightened. “What now? Will this bandicoot punish me?” she thought. The bandicoot noticed the weaver’s predicament and immediately seized the opportunity and shouted, “You fool of an Adivasi! I gave you the sickle to speeden up your work. Looking at the pile of baskets by your side, you certainly have made a lot of baskets. And tell me, you couldn’t have made all those baskets, were it not for my sickle. These baskets are not yours, they are mine.” He kept shouting at the already frightened basket weaver. “Give me my sickle or give me your baskets,” he continued in the same harsh breath. The basket weaver though to herself, “I can’t give him the sickle because it is broken, and I cannot go to his country to get a new one. Might as well give him the baskets. I did not think that the bandicoot would be so ruthless, after all, he was the one to offer me the sickle, I had not gone to ask him for it.” “Give me my sickle or give me your baskets,” the bandicoot continued to drone. Intimidated by the bandicoot’s aggression, the basket weaver parted with her baskets. “I can always make some more baskets and make a living. But just now let’s get rid of this problem,” she thought. She parted with the baskets, and the bandicoot went his way with a pile of baskets.

“A thorn in my tail begot a sickle, and the old sickle begot me this pile of baskets,” the bandicoot muttered to himself. He walked down the path. “If it continues this way, the sky is the limit. Let’s see where my fortune takes me,” he said to himself. Soon after he spied upon a group of potters who,

lacking the means to carry earth, were carrying the soil from the fields to their work place with their bare hands. Showing great concern to their unwarranted toil, the bandicoot offered them the baskets. “You fools,” said the bandicoot. “Why are you carrying the soil to your pits in your hands. Is this the way to make pots?” We have no other means to carry the mud,” replied the potters. “Take these baskets, they will not only greatly reduce your labour, you will be able to carry so much more mud and make so many more pots. Just imagine the prosperity that you will be into, if you can make pots in large quantities,” the bandicoot said. Mindful that his earlier attempt with the basket maker had resulted in a windfall he was sure that he could repeat the performance with the potters as well. He began dreaming of untold possessions. Unsuspecting of the bandicoot’s real intentions, the potters gratefully accepted them and were happy to find their labour much reduced. Fired with new found enthusiasm, they began making pots in quantities they never had dreamed of before and under their breath thanked the bandicoot.

The bandicoot, too, sat looking at the potters with satisfaction, “The baskets are going to give way soon. It is only a matter of waiting. And that I can do, because it costs me nothing. All their toil is only going to make me rich. Let them toil and make many more pots, I will have so much more to go away with. Fools!” After a while, the baskets began to give way, one by one. At an opportune moment, the bandicoot triggered an altercation with the potters. “Fools!” he said. “What have you done! You have destroyed all my baskets. Give me my baskets or give me your pots,” he cried in mock anger. The potters were bewildered; they had not anticipated this. “So many thanks for thanking this bloody bandicoot for his generosity,” they said to each other. “We can’t give him back the baskets, because only broken bits of bamboo remain. What else can we do? Let him take the pots and go away. At least then we will not have to listen to his screeching and have some peace. So what? We can make pots all over again.”
And thus the bandicoot came in possession of several mud pots. He whistled a merry tune in his mind as he thought, “A thorn in my tail produced a sickle, a sickle produced bamboo baskets, and now bamboo baskets have produced mud pots. What good fortune I have had so far, and I wonder where Lady Luck is going to take me next.” A sickle, pot, basket . His next halt was a village of farmers growing vegetables in their house gardens.

Lacking any large utensil, they carried water from the stream to the vegetable patch in small gourd canisters.

A good part of the day was often spent going up and down the hill slope carrying water. The bandicoot sat on the opposite hillock and saw the farmers toil to water their small kitchen gardens.

When they had nearly finished and sat to catch some breath before the last few trips up the hill, the bandicoot walked down to the weary farmers. “I have never seen more foolish farmers than you,” the bandicoot said going on the offensive. “You seem to be enjoying yourselves walking up and down the hill slopes with thimblefuls of water, as though you had nothing else to do.” The farmers were taken aback with the bandicoot’s audacity, but noticing the number of pots the bandicoot was carrying, they restrained themselves. “We have nothing better than these gourds to carry water. But if we had any better means, we would love to reduce our toil,” the simple folks said to each other. Noticing their eagerness, the bandicoot immediately offered the pots, “See to it that you handle to pots carefully,” he said stretching out his hand. “If you break them you will have to pay dearly.” The farmers took them gratefully and made one last trip with water up the hillside rather than four. The bandicoot watched them look at the pots with amazement. “I wonder how they managed to carve out such thin stoneware,” said one tapping on the side of the pot. “No, it’s not stone,” said another, “It appears to be made of mud yet remains unaffected by water. I wonder where they go this type of mud.”  The bandicoot was distinctly pleased. His appetite for profit grew, along with the growing vegetables. Each exchange was distinctly profitable, and he had gained by large margins. He patted himself on the back for his astute business sense. “It is good business dealing with these simple folks. They take you so seriously that they don’t seem to notice that all my bargains have heavily weighed in my favour.” But mud pots are mud pots, not like the pumpkin gourds, and at the slightest bump against a stone they broke into pieces. When a couple of pots had broken, the bandicoot in his usual style attacked the farmers. “What do you think you are doing!?” he asked the farmers. “You have been merrily breaking my pots, even while your vegetables are flourishing. What do you think? I am going to let you off so easily? Give me your vegetables or give me my pots,” he demanded. “Give me your vegetables or give me your pots,” he repeated. The simple folks surrendered easily to the repeated badgering of the bandicoot. They watched as the bandicoot gathered the vegetables they had watered and grown with so much toil and made his way away from the village.

Some of the younger of them wanted to stop the bandicoot, but they were restrained by the older folks, “You should have thought of it before you took the pots. You were so eager to get the pots and reduce your toil that the bandicoot knew he had a bargain on his hands even before the offered the pots. You did not notice that there was a catch somewhere. So he merrily took you for a ride. Three months hard labour lost. But you cannot return his pots, and he had told you right from the start that you will have to pay dearly. Well, you agreed when you took the pots, now you cannot back out from the agreement. Pretty hard lesson, young men. But sound wisdom doesn’t come cheap.” Counting his fortune, the bandicoot made his way. He was pleased with himself and his business acumen. One torn in his tail had finally become a huge quantity of vegetables, he could barely drag along the path. “Business is very profitable,” he thought to himself. “Only you must be enterprising and be able to convert adversity into advantage. The journey through the forest was not a bad bargain at all.” On the hill slope ahead, the bandicoot chanced upon a group of cowherds.

It had been a bad drought, and the skin of those cowherds clung to their bones like that of their cattle. It was several days since they had had a meal, so when they saw the bandicoot dragging along a whole pile of vegetables their faces lit up in hope. The bandicoot was quick to recognize their plight. He offered them the vegetables saying, “I am your God-sent. These will make you a long awaited meal. Eat to your hearts’ content.” The hungry cowherds gratefully accepted the offer.

While they cooked the meal and began to prepare to eat, the bandicoot rehearsed the dialogue in his mind. Hardly had the cowherds finished the meal, when the bandicoot looked them straight in the eye and demanded, “Give me back my brinjals or give me some cattle.” The cowherds looked at him with surprise. “This is no good Samaritan,” they said to each other. The bandicoot kept up his demand with a steady drone, “Give me back my brinjals or give me some cattle.” But then we did not ask him whether he was giving the vegetables to eat for free,” said one. “I thought there was a catch somewhere,” said another. “But I was in two minds looking at our empty stomachs. So we have no choice.” The cowherds stood at a distance as the bandicoot chose the cattle he wanted and walked away. He could not believe his good fortune.

Where had he come from? Being the bandicoot in torture with the thorn in his tail, and now he was the proud owner of a whole herd of cattle. Never mind the fact that they were a little weak from starvation. A good rain would fatten them beyond recognition. He wondered where Lady Fortune was taking him. Leading the cattle, the bandicoot made his way through the drought stricken villages. The rains had just come, and the farmers were preparing to sow their seeds. He came upon a farmer who had lost a bull in the drought and the famine that had accompanied it, and he was forced to plough his field with his wife teamed up with a bull to pull the plough. The bandicoot thought Lady Luck smiled on him.

He walked up to the farmer, red with mock anger, “You bloody idiot,” he shouted in a burst of feigned anger. “You bloody idiot, you have teamed your wife with the bull to pull the plough. Do you have any sense left or have your brains evaporated with the drought?” The farmer was taken aback. “Who is this fool?” he muttered under his breath. But keeping his irritation under control, he turned to the bandicoot and said, “You must be a stranger to these parts, friend. But this is the first good rains that we are experiencing after three years of parched land and dry throats. I lost three of my bulls in the drought. Not that it was me alone, but most of us lost our cattle. Some don’t even have any cattle at all to plough their lands.” But the bandicoot appeared unforgiving. “This is no excuse to treat your wife as a beast of burden. I cannot tolerate this. A woman is to take care of the home and hearth, and not to be tied to the plough.” The bandicoot immediately promised to extricate the wife from the heavy yoke by offering a bull.

The farmer gratefully accepted the animal and continued to plough his field. The wife, freed from the yoke, sowed the seed after him. All seemed well till the bull still weak from the drought died. The bandicoot was in his element once again. “You fool! Who told you to kill my bull! I cannot forgive you for causing me such great harm. Give me the bull or give me your wife!” cried the bandicoot with a ferocity that took the farmer by storm. And without a moment’s delay, he walked off with the woman leaving behind a shocked husband. So the bandicoot, who first approached the woman to help him remove the thorn from his tail, finally walked away with the Adivasi woman as the result of his exploits. Who is the bandicoot”? the children ask the story teller. “You need not go far to find the answer, children,” the storyteller says in reply. “The bandicoot is the one who robbed us of our lands, our livelihood, our crops, our cattle, our mothers and our futures.”

And the children remain silent in thought at the revelation.


 Contextualizing the story:

Telling history can also be fascinating. This parable is history. For the uninitiated, the parable makes little sense though it stimulates the reader to try and uncover the hidden meaning. Without any link to history of the area or the history of the people who lived there, the parable is devoid of any cogent story. To the initiated and the listener engaged with the narrator, the parable covers close to 15 decades of brutality from the advent of colonial rule in 1820 to two decades post the transfer of power from the colonials to the locals that has its parallels in the history of indigenous peoples across the globe. Thane district and its indigenous people, where the parable took root, was ceded in 1818 to the British as part of the dowry of a Portuguese prince to an English dame. Living in the forested hills, the Warlis were feared by the plainsmen for their raids on their villages. In the name of establishing law and order, for over three decades, British soldiers ravaged the hilltop villages and herded the tribal residents to the fringes of the forest and brutally pushed them from a hunting and food gathering existence into a settled agriculture. Alienable land titles, on payment of rent in cash, conferred on the names of the men in the middle of the 19th century, opened the area to outside communities who quickly alienated lands, labour and livelihoods, pushing the proud forest people into rack renting and inhuman bondage. The inhuman conditions prompted the Warlis to be part of a decade long militant struggle to liberate themselves and their womenfolk from the brutal clutches of money-lenders turned landlords, close to a century later. Known across the country as the “Warli Uprising”, the struggle liberated the Adivasi people from debt slavery and sex bondage that became harsher and more brutal with each passing decade. Engaging with the narrator of the parable, takes the inquiring listener to understand their history of how the trading community saw opportunity in adversity, much like the bandicoot after a bit of is tail broke off in the efforts to maneuver the thorn wedged in the tail The bandicoot began with the alienation of the means of production - to the alienation of labour - to the alienation of 160 livelihoods - to the alienation of access to means of survival – to the final alienation of the body of the labourer; a complex economic history of crude appropriation spread over then decades, in a parable that only the seekers of the truth can unravel.

This story is taken from the book, ‘Wisdom from the Wilderness’, which is a collection of stories narrated and illustrated by the Warli Adivasis of Thane District in Maharashtra. These stories have been collected, translated and collated by Pradip Prabhu, Shiraz Bulsara and Kashtakan Sanghatna. With their approval, Francoise has creatively interpreted this narration in her own unique way through her iconic dolls. Pradip Prabhu: an advocate, founder-member of Kashtakari Sanghatana, an organisation of poor, landless and marginal adivasi (tribal) people from north Maharashtra. Pradip has been working with tribal community organisations for over 30 years now and has been a Specialist Member on tribal and land related issues in several official committees set up by the Planning Commission and other institutions. He is also National Convenor, Campaign for Survival and Dignity and Chairperson for the committee on convergence in MGNREGS.

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