An Official Visit: An Excerpt from "Woodsmoke and Leafcups"

03 January, 2016

The botanist, anthropologist and writer Madhu Ramnath spent thirty years with the Durwa tribe, adivasis that reside in the forests in Bastar, Chhatisgarh. During his stay in the forest, Ramnath abided by the Durwa way of life: learning the language, and working on the hill-slope.

Ramnath has routinely written on the life of the adivasis and their engagements with often-hostile state machinery. He likens his experience of living among the Durwas, in the forests, as remaining "outside a country I knew and with which I was familiar: the scent of sal hinting at something more refreshing than the goals to which India aspired." In this excerpt from his book, Woodsmoke and Leafcups, Ramnath recounts a visit from the Divisional Forest Officer, or DFO, an officer of the Indian Forest Service.

One of those visits happened on a summer day when the midday sun had caused us to scurry for shade. The tuk-tuk-tuk of the little barbet was broken by the distant hum of a vehicle. A red cloud appeared in the distance and approached the village. The jeep entered without pausing, making its way directly to my hut and coming to a halt. People emerged from the nearby huts and children peered from between the bamboo fences. A door opened and the DFO, dressed like a Texan cowboy in a red checked shirt tucked into a pair of jeans, scrambled out of the vehicle calling my name. Another door opened and the DFO’s subordinates, a range officer (RO) and two nakadars in uniform, stepped out.

I invited them in, shooing off the hen and her chickens, and offered them mats to sit on. The senior man looked around and entered hesitantly, seating himself awkwardly on the mat with his shoes on. The RO stood at the entrance, awaiting orders from his senior, while the two nakadars ambled around the enclosed garden. The driver of the jeep remained in his seat.

“We have come to see what we can do for the people,” the senior man began. “We want to take up some developmental works in the village.” Then he explained how he planned to improve the agricultural conditions in the village. The Depart. was expecting some money from the World Food Programme; a proposal had already been formulated and sent to the capital.

“Go get some people,” said the senior man to the RO. The RO, who dared not sit at the same level as his senior and had remained standing, said to the nakadars, “Go get some people.” The nakadars wandered into the village. In a short while, as the officer continued to explain the idea about progress and development, they returned, and with them came Birsu Mutak and Lambo Mutak. They’d been lying in the shade, chatting, and wondered what the whole thing was about. I offered them a mat.

“People’s participation is very important,’ the officer said to everyone in general.

“Yes, sir,” agreed the RO.

The mutaks sat to one side and continued their chat in Durwa which none of the jeep people understood. As no one understood that peculiar mixture of English and Hindi which the officer spoke, the officer in the main addressed me. “The most important thing for everyone is irrigation. We will build a stop dam and benefit everyone. Singh, find out where their stream is. Water is good for everybody, is it not?”

This last question was addressed to the mutaks. They guessed that they had to agree to something. “Yes,” they said together, and continued their conversation, making a joke about how sleepy they felt.

“Better variety of seeds for all the vegetables and crops,” the official droned, “and also saplings of fruit trees. At a later stage we will introduce wheat to the people.”

“Yes, sir.”

Thereupon the DFO launched off into his unique scheme of castrating all the bulls in the village. A better breed of bulls will replace the present ones. Future cows in the village will then yield litres and litres of milk ... At this point, Birsu Mutak dozed off and Lambo Mutak laughed and muttered, “I’m going to fall asleep myself. What’s he going on and on about?”

Then sounds of drunken chatter, loud and punctuated with hiccups, floated in. It was Baya, my neighbour, who had been on a drinking spree all week. He was speaking in a blend of Durwa, Halbi and his version of Hindi, and trying to make his way past the nakadars blocking his path. Baya swore at them, suggesting incest.

The children found this intervention wonderful and followed him towards my hut. I was delighted by this diversion. “What’s all that noise?” exclaimed the officer, pausing in his monologue.

Even Birsu Mutak awoke from his nap.

“Just my neighbour dropping in. Perhaps he wants to participate in the discussion.”

“I think we have discussed everything quite thoroughly,” said the officer, hastily rising to his feet. “The RO will look into the follow-up and keep me informed.”

“Yes, sir.”

They walked out and got into the jeep, each according to his designation. I received a brief farewell nod from the officer. “Go!”

This word was directed at the driver. The vehicle came to life, reversed, bashed into my fence and then drove off. For a while we heard its hum and then only saw a red cloud of dust.

We joined Baya for the rest of the afternoon.

Excerpted from Woodsmoke and Leafcups, published by HarperCollins Publishers India.