Tuesday, July 31, 2007
The woman sitting across from us passes a hollowed gourd that has been sealed with fire. It is filled with alcohol made from fermented rice and brought by her tribe to sell at this weekly market in the hills. She is a Bonda, and we are now in Orissa, a lush green state on the eastern coast of India, to study her tribe along with the other indigenous groups that still populate this region. Our guide is Samar and our driver is Dija. They are Hindu, but both seem to have a deep respect and love for the tribes in this part of their home state. Shortly after picking me and Chris up at the train station in Visha, as we drove through ridiculously beautiful hills and valleys, Samar told us, "Maybe we will make a connection." Huh? "A connection," he said again, as if it didn't need much explaining. I was too tired from our overnight train ride from Kolkata to ask to many questions, but now I've been wondering. Where is the connection?
Our new tribal friend’s name is Bubhai, which means Wednesday in the Bonda language. It is customary for all children in the tribe to be named for the day on which they were born. She, like the other Bonda women who have come to the market, is draped with hundreds of beaded necklaces which conceal her breasts and stomach. Beside this, she wears nothing but a short sisal skirt tied around her hips and a bright lungi tied over her shoulders. Bubhai’s hair is shorn, as is customary for married women and her scalp is wrapped in more strings of beads. A pile of thick aluminum necklaces rests on her collarbone, bangles are stacked along both of her forearms, and she is barefoot.
Of 8.15 million tribes people in the state, the Bonda only account for about 5,000. They are considered among the most primitive tribes in India. To get to the market, they walk hours through the forest from their village in the hills with urns of the fermented rice alcohol they produce perched upon their heads. They also distill a mild beer from the sago palm trees that grow in the area. At the market they set themselves up in a small field along the road to sell their wares. Samar, explains that many of the tribes people stay on after the market has finished to drink and dance into the night. Afterward they make their way on narrow paths back through the forest to get home. But now it is monsoon season. Today, the sky opens up periodically, sellers cover their goods and we get wet, so there are not as many people here as usual. Bubhai tells Samar that this means it is not worth it for the Bonda to stay long and try to sell their alcohol, let alone stay to celebrate.
Samar sends us to explore while he reconnects with some old friends. The market is a carnival of color, sights and smells. Spices hang in the air, and goats wander past. Women in saris and assorted styles of tribal dress sell their wares and see to their shopping. As we pass stalls of everything from brass pots to chickens and tarps scattered with vegetables, it is clear that we, big and sunburned and curious, are the oddities here. All eyes seem to shift with us as we crouch to examine some okra and bitter gourd. When we stop and talk to someone, a small crowd gathers. The Bonda prove to be among the most forward of the tribes people at the market when two women approach us and cajole me into buying them snacks. No less persistent than the women who sold me some of their beaded necklaces as soon as we entered the market, they pull me over to a stall and point to their open mouths until I relent and buy them a few plastic baggies of what looks like Chex mix. The men hang back, and the guide books warn that tourists should not try to take their pictures. Like all the tribes people gathered here, the Bonda are thin but muscular, lithe from hard work and walking.
While we wander, Samar finds a clearing in front of a neglected looking Christian church where we can talk to the Bonda. When we do finally sit down together, we regard each other with curiosity. Bubhai is joined by a woman with a sweet, self-conscious smile who looks about her age, as well as another woman who looks ten years older and lacks the colorful attire of many of the Bonda. Once we begin talking, a Bonda man appears and keeps trying to interrupt Bubhai as she answers my questions. Eventually the women shoo him away. Bubhai does not ask me about where I came from or why I want to talk to her. I realize that even if she did, my answers would mean nothing to her. How does someone who may have never held a book visualize a school? Suddenly my students in New York seem very far away. My life seems far away.
Bubhai has had six children in all, but two died as infants. The infant mortality rate among the tribe is about 14 percent. When I ask through Samar what kinds of stories her mother told her as a child, she looks puzzled for a moment. Samar rephrases the question and after thinking Bubhai says,
“When I was young, and I would not go to sleep, my mother would tell me, ‘If you don’t sleep, the tiger in the forest will know. He will smell you and know you are awake and he will come and eat you up.’”
This confirmed what my research before meeting the Bonda had suggested. Their stories are not about once upon a time or happily ever after, but are instructive about the lives they live and the world they live in. It’s a hard life. The Bonda still rely on hunting and gathering. They lack safe drinking water, are malnourished and live in poverty. It is easy to romanticize the lives of the tribes, especially when they are as striking as the Bonda. What is more difficult is determining how to preserve their culture, but at the same time help them to live better lives.
Some of their practices, while alien to me, actually make a lot of sense. For example, a Bonda woman of about age twenty-five will choose a ten year old boy as her husband. It is not a sexual relationship, at least not at first. The match is made with the understanding that the bride will take care of her husband at the beginning of his life, when he is vulnerable, and the groom will take care of his wife later, when she becomes weaker.
Before we go, Bubhai and the women sitting with her start to sing a song that a bride’s friends and sisters sing to her on her way to get married. They are shy in their singing, bowing their chins slightly and looking at me a little sideways. I am taken off guard by the sadness in the harmony of their voices. I’ve never heard anything like it. The notes go down where I expect them to go up. It is as unfamiliar and surprising as all of India itself. It is beautiful.
I ask what the song means and Samar translates:
“It means the women are sad their sister is leaving. They know that this step, getting married, will take her away from them and bring her closer to dying.”
This somewhat same existential idea comes up in “Our Town,” a play by the American playwright Thorton Wilder. The story takes place in a small town called Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. It follows the courtship of two high school sweethearts, George and Emily. When the couple gets married, Emily gives a soliloquy in which she professes her own fears about the transience of life as she approaches the altar. She sees her steps down the aisle and away from her girlhood as steps toward her own mortality. It’s one of my favorite plays, for its sweet depiction of life in a simpler time, but also in its reminder to appreciate life while you live it.
So I listen to the Bonda women sing a song which in its own way is so much like Emily’s speech, and realize that, even here, in a clearing in a forest in the hills of Orissa, where life seems to be lived as it has been for hundreds of years, time is fleeting. Our time will end. In itself, this is not the idea that I’ve traveled thousands of miles to bring back to my students. Rather it is this understanding that however different the Bonda may be from us on the surface, there are still fundamental experiences that we all share: birth, death and singing our song.