A Toilet in Every Ancestor’s Shrine

“How dare you speak of Mother Earth in that way! If you keep speaking ill of her, these things may happen. You must not speak this way!”

These are the words of an Abujhmadi tribalist in Central India, Chhattisgarh State. Narendra, a freelance anthropologist who was matter-of-factly welcomed to the village of Bastar, had just told the man about the threat of climate change. With this conversation, I entered into the remarkable, sensitive attempt that Narendra has been making for decades to bridge between the pre-neolithic world of the Abujhmadi and an educated modern Indian. The conversations are rare, because these tribals don’t have much need for, or interest in, talk. When Narendra asks for a companion to go to town to buy matches (he is not adept at the drill method) and cooking oil, he sometimes waits 3-4 weeks. (the forest is too dangerous to walk alone). These tribalists have no need or interest in going to town. The intermittent conversations, now over several decades, bring out the wide gulf between modernity and a way of life that eschews the plow, the shovel, the mattock (they all cut the Earth, causing her pain). Rather, tools consist of bows and arrows and knives that are sharpened carefully every day and perform a myriad of little tasks.

When Narendra asks these simple tribal folk to describe “home” they are shocked that anyone would consider a house/hut/dwelling as “home.” When they get the concept from Narendra, they simply turn and indicate with a sweep of the arm the forest in which they live, laughing at anyone so doltish they would consider a structure “home.”

Reading through Narendra’s dispatches from Abujhmadia that have been published in Dark Mountain, I am struck by the fact that such a people as this can still live in this fallen, overcomplicated, mixed-up world. They not only have a tiny vocabulary (except for the names of everything in their forest), but no hierarchy, no government, no words for conflict or “broken.” They have few cultural forms, just a place for adolescents to go before initiation, and dances that accompany that rite. They tell Narendra they have no need to count higher than 5. “We have five senses – that’s enough.” (The village a few kilometers away, inhabited by a different tribe, counts to 7, and has more words). Though civilization is not distant (28 km), they have no interest in trade or exploring that world, or learning Hindi or Chhattisgarhi.

I have been in a state of wonder for several years about these tribal people. When I was in Central India during my Fulbright year (1968), I had visited the Bheels, a slightly more advanced adiwasi group near my base in Indore. I met them in the market town of Thandla on a fair day, which featured a wooden ferris wheel with a hand-crank. The Bheel kids loved it, while their fathers glared at me from the corners of the photos I took of their women. But I didn’t’ visit their village. What Narendra was describing was much more simple, primitive, as in primal.

A few weeks back I read a Dark Mountain dispatch that spoke of the jarring collision between this ecosystem-sufficient world in the deep forest and two forms of modernity – the Indian government and the Naxalite Maoists who have established a power base in this remote area. Essentially, after 2013, this achingly Edenic world has been lost forever through forced contact.

Two examples. As part of the government’s push to end open defecation, which is rampant all over India, they are installing toilets in villages. In Narendra’s Bastar, the only place in the tiny huts that has room for a toilet is the corner occupied by the ancestor shrine. Uncomprehending, the tribals, who revere the forest and their ancestors, simply cannot understand why the government would even think of it. But one after another, the little huts get toilets, thereby losing their shrines. Most importantly, they lose their sacred tie to the ancestors who taught them over tens of thousands of years how to live sufficiently in this particular forest. All latrines are not equal, and, as opposed to modern Hindus trapped in cities with inadequate toilet facilities, they know how to deal with their shit.

The second example of violence, which their language attests doesn't exist, is the Maoists abduction of adolescent girls, who are taught propaganda dances, replacing the traditional initiation ones. This is a lot smarter than forcing toilets on folks, appropriating the tools of culture from the inside. Two forms of violence, then, something that had never happened in their linguistic history.

Learning that this simple world, one that I imagined had vanished in the colonial era, was lost forever was devastating. I was near tears the rest of the evening, full of complex emotions that were hard to name. The next couple of posts will try to make sense of all this: the arrival and loss of a very particular form of an edenic ideal that I have never been able to name clearly.

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