The thonk, thonk sound reverberated over the languid sun-drenched river, as the tribal women in their bright saris smacked their laundry with the onomatopoeic dhoka, shaped like a miniature cricket bat. Pink, magenta and turquoise clothes lay drying, draped over the hot rocks. Everyone was hustling, trying to finish doing their daily chore before the rocky patches got submerged again by the water released by a dam upstream.
The shiny new super-sized SUV we had driven in stood in a dusty patch by the river. I wondered if the women found it to be as out of place as the city slickers that had streamed out of it. We had come out for an excursion between breakfast and lunch, from a farmhouse we were visiting in the Bhimashankar foothills, about 3 hours’ drive from Pune, home to a sizable population of adivasis, or aboriginal people. There are about 60 million adivasis in India. Anthropologists and geneticists believe that many of the adivasis trace their origins to migrations of Austro-Asiatic-speaking Australoid people that peopled the subcontinent much earlier than modern Indian populations. It was my first opportunity to see them up close and I had lots of questions. But my companions were more interested in frolicking in the river, taking advantage of a clean, unpolluted river, a rarity in modern India.
I was fortunate to have been invited to the farm by my friend Jasbir, who knew a friend, who knew the owner, Mr. Ramachandran. Mr. Ramachandran had a Greg Mortensen-esque story of how he came to own a farm there. Thirty something years ago, he was hiking in the hills nearby and had got lost. Hungry, thirsty and disoriented, he had stumbled into the village of Tadwadi , late in the evening, where the villagers had sheltered him. The next morning, he woke up and fell in love with the place, bought a piece of land and over the next three decades, developed a working farm and built a farmhouse, partnering with the villagers. Mr. Ramachandran and his son Amit, an IT professional who lives in Pune, were fantastic hosts. We enjoyed getting a tour of the farm, where they grow mangoes, guavas, papaya, turmeric, corn and rice.
We feasted on wonderful organic food, sourced locally and from the nearby villages. In our honor, a couple of the free-range chickens running around the farm ended up in a delicious pot of gavran chicken curry.
At night, the guys drank rum-and-coke and played cards. We talked about the adivasi culture and its assimilation into the mainstream culture. I heard about the low level of education and widespread alcoholism among the adivasis and their shameless exploitation by the politicians. The latter was a familiar theme. Just about any conversation about modern India seems to end up in a lament about “the politicians”, who seem to be single…no, many-handedly ruining the country. But in this case, it was particularly poignant, for it was the poor adivasis, one of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups, who were getting cheated out of whatever little they have.
Before we left, I got a chance to take a picture of a couple of adivasi women who worked in the farmhouse. My spirits were lifted by the remarkable, quiet beauty and dignity in their faces.
It was another day in India. So much to take in, so much to fathom, so little time.