Woodsmoke and Leaf Cups: Autobiographical Footnotes to the Anthropology of the Durwa by Madhu Ramnath; Delhi: Harper Litmis, 2015; pp 324, ₹399.
Sarkar teen parkar—adei thindana, narpitana, auru jiyam noipitana (The three qualities of government—to beg, to terrify, and to make the heart ache) This is the essence of a reverse anthropology—an Adivasi view of the mainstream, literate world and its power structures—of how a tribal people in south Chhattisgarh perceive the behaviour of government people and their system, in their own language, Durwa—a language we have probably never heard of. As such, these words contain the essence of the hellish situation that has developed in the region during the last few years. Many books have been written about the civil war situation in Bastar. Many have analysed the Maoist conflict and the Maoist system of governance. Some are based on interviews and interactions with Maoists. This book goes deeper, in the sense that it presents us with the cultural system that was there before Maoists came on the scene, and the interactions with forest guards and other small-time exploiters who have long plagued Adivasi villagers. Presented not academically, journalistically, or governmentally, but in an Adivasi idiom of storytelling and anecdotes, spiced with a wild, vivid sense of humour.
Beating Heart of Tribal India
Over the last few years, people have viewed Bast—meaning the old district of Bastar that equals south Chhattisgarh, since what was Bastar has been increasingly subdivided into an ever-rising number of new districts (presently seve—through the lens of appalling human rights abuses, as epicentre of India’s Maoist conflict. People who have known Bastar longer feel intense anguish about the violent tragedy engulfing a region that used to be the beating heart of tribal India. Adivasi cultures existed here with maximum confidence and least disturbance until 2005, when that slippery entity SalwaJudum burst onto the scene. Reviewing this extraordinary book properly would have to begin with an aside on terminology, to wake us up to some fundamental questions. What is Bastar? What was Bastar? What has happened to the extraordinary wild forestland that was Bastar? This is a landscape that speaks, or spoke, Gondi, Durwa, and other ancient languages that most of us in cities are quite ignorant of. Extremely beautiful, expressive languages, that have a very different form “modern” languages such as Hindi and English, which formed through military campaigns of conquest across cultures. Which is a significant connection? There is a definite continuity between the military forces that rampaged to and fro between Hindustan and Afghanistan, where Hindustani formed as a language of commerce and command, and the camps of security forces proliferating across Bastar, where shouted commands mix Hindi, English, Halbi and Gondi, for those enlisted Adivasis who serve in the Koya commandos and other such units.
Anthropology of Power Abuse
This is a book of “deep anthropology,” giving what anthropology promises yet rarely delivers. It is an in-depth analysis of a tribal culture, and the complex cultural interactions through which outsiders can begin to understand such a culture—a tribal people whose name we have probably never even heard of, who live across the border between Sukma district of Chhattisgarh and Malkangiri district of Odisha—Odisha’s most Maoist-affected district and south-westernmost toe, where it dips down to meet the Godavari. Along the way, this is also an anthropology of ourselves, and of how “we,” the modern world of “educated people” are impinging on this culture that lived in Bastar. We may know all about the history of Naxalites and the Maoist war against the state. But this is the first book that shows the conflict through the eyes of the Adivasis it affects most deeply, and quite rightly, the conflict arises tangentially. What most prominent are the daily, weekly interactions and depredations of government officials, especially forest guards. Through accounts of these interactions, this book is also an anthropology of power and the details of the exercise of power.If the world of learning and academia operated as it should, this book should transform ways of writing and thinking about India’s tribal people that colonial anthropology moulded into a set formula consisting almost entirely of negative stereotypes—a cultural racism and dehumanising objectification that remains largely unchallenged by intellectuals, even from the left. Yet Woodsmoke and Leaf Cups is written with deceptive, disarming simplicity, unfolding the social structure through anecdotes, evoked through the cheeky subtitle Autobiographical Footnotes to the Anthropology of a tribe that most people have never heard of.
Among many levels to this work, one is that of storytelling at its best—telling the story of tribal people’s daily life, and the interferences and abuses of power that come from government officials, politicians and other exploiters and manipulators of every hue. Language is central to this work, as well as this wild, Adivasi sense of humour, that mainstream anthropology hardly ever evokes—perception of the crazy contradictions at the core of the destruction called development, brought out through fascinating, telltale details, without the least bit of romanticisation. The violent side of tribal life is presented unsentimentally, from internal conflicts to the hunts and killing of animals that forms a thread through Adivasi culture. The Department of Mysteries,” whose lower officials swagger over Adivasi landscapes like small kings, is the forest department. For example, “Moya was carrying his bow and arrows, considered a man’s shringar, as decoration and for protection. On the way, he was stopped by the director of the National Park, and a few nakadars …”. Moya is taken to jail and a court case inititiated, since hunting is forbidden in the park. But who made this so? Who made the forest
department? How can anyone ban hunting when it is an intrinsic part of this culture since time immemorial? All too easily, in the embedded power structure that has grown up in Bastar! Another department with similar powers is the “rimni department” (revenue), and it often happens that a man will come to a village threatening people with jail and fines for cultivating “government land,” and then pretend to respond to entreaties, taking money to enter names in a book to rectify people’s land entitlement (supposedly!), for a few hundreds rupees only. Often these men are total imposters. Ramnath has fun with one such. “The rimni ‘official’ would get a meal of chicken, toddy to wash it down and hot water to bathe. The bathing was always a spectacle; most of these specimens who came were from Cuttack district, and bathed noisily in public, soaping themselves all over, including their hair, gargling and spluttering all the while, shouting orders to the children to pass the soap or fetch more water” . On this occasion Ramnath intervenes, and the whole village has some fun with this particular specimen.
Question of Land
<>Land is a massive question, and the book bears witness to rarely articulated yet vital aspect of the vast stuggles over land and territory that haunt tribal areas. For one thing, the book shows how the traditional hunt territories of the clans that make up a village constitute the actual, culturally recognised territory of a village that goes far deeper than any written record of ownership. As Marx and Engels recognised, what differentiates tribal from “modern” societies most radically is the prior importance of communal land over any form of private property. These societies are communist in essence, in their egalitarian norms of behaviour as well their forms of ownership and exchange. Many factors have combined to disturb this. For a start, other tribal groups come in who have been displaced and transitioned to a stage where their instinct is to clear forest as soon as they can lay claim to it, and the Durwas have suffered such incursions; where the leaders of incoming groups befriended up and coming Durwa youth; got them to
allow the new groups to settle and take over hunting territories; cleared forest, questioning the authority of Durwa elders, who had managed these tracts of forest sustainably as hunting territories “since time began.” And when “communist” politicians hold meetings nearby, sending out orders for people to attend rallies, and give out a message that all such land claims will be backdated to allow cleared forestland to be legitimised, and more forestlands to be taken over and cleared in this way, no force seems able to prevent this destruction. This story is told through many examples and levels, adding immensely significant detail to one’s deeper understanding of the forces at play. The backdrop of the Maoist conflict is not tackled explicitly, though Durwas live right in the heart of the civil war engulfing the region. To understand what has happened and what is really happening right now in this area, it is not enough to know the history of the Maoists and the state’s war against them. The norms of daily life, and the norms of interaction with government officials and other exploiters that embedded power abuse over generations need to be understood too, as village people have experienced and understood them, with immense wit and discernment, for a long time.
Journey into Tribal Culture
In terms of “anthropology,” the book offers what mainstream anthropology hardly ever gives us, for the simple reason that anthropologists’ notion of “data” is so superficial, and draws so little from indigenous perceptions. In this case, the author has immersed himself in adapting to life in a tribal culture for 30 years. For example, the book makes clear—supporting the ethnographic tradition in this—that in Durwa culture, there are two kinds of death—“good death” and “bad death” according to the written ethographic tradition! Of course, Durwas express this a lot more subtly and vividly: “There are only two kinds of death: chatta chayarana and bat-thel chayarana, dying on the mat, indoors, and dying outdoors …” These kinds of death are illustrated, with humour and compassion, through the passing-on of old acquaintances, in their journey into the great unknown. Along the way, and throughout the book, we get many examples of spirit possession—a fascinating subject. For the best part of 1,500 years any form of shamanic possession was outlawed as witchcraft by Christian institutions in Europe, including the inquisition—the ultimate censor! Between the years from 1300 to 1800 many thousands of people, especially women, were burnt at the stake as witches. As a result, the colourful forms of social behaviour, songs, dialogies and much more that take place during spirit possession represent the ultimate “banned knowledge”—the antithesis of moden, academically “legitimate” knowledge. Spirit possession is rarely described or analysed by anthropologists, largely because it demands huge linguistic skill as well as social familiarity with participants before one has any chance to even begin to understand what on earth is happening, let alone interpret it. Here too, the drama of spirit possession is rarely without huge humour, that lightens the atmosphere in the face of the worst misfortune,
including disease and death. This is a book highly recommended for anyone who wants to journey into a deeper understanding of the tribal cultures that currently face genocide in central India.