Duckbill Blog: A Long-ago Life

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Arefa Tehsin: A Long-ago Life

Arefa Tehsin’s “Amra and the Witch,” the latest in the hOle books, is out later this month. 

Of all the lives that I’ve lived, some have bleached to a bleak memory while others refuse to fade. They burn as bright as the cooking fire in the mud chulha of Veerma’s hut. Most of the times they hang on the edge of consciousness. During short interludes from the breathless pace, they blaze like a smile … leaving my mouth filled with ashes. 

A casual discussion about Bhils brought back the memory of a life once lived, and sparked an idea of a book in my editor’s mind. My family’s association with the jungles and Bhils goes back generations. These age-old natives of Mewar were the khoju shikaris and jungle companions and guides of my grandfather who had an arms and ammunition business in the pre-independence era. In the early post independence years, many worked in our family’s mining operations.

The Bhils were tyrannised and trampled on by not just the nobles but even the villagers, and lived in abject misery. They feared death in the family, not for the loss of a loved one, but because they didn’t have the money to cremate their dead. They had to borrow from the moneylenders, which pushed them into monstrous interests and consequently slavery for generations to come. These short-built tribals, with the strength and colour of a salar tree trunk, possessed the hearts of giants. They would put kings to shame with their hospitality, even though they could barely eat one meal a day.

With the influence my grandfather–later the Mayor of Udaipur–had on many nobles and landlords of the region, he tried to change their perspective towards the oppressed tribals treated worse than animals. Topa wala bapu aaya” was one of the folk songs sung for him in the remote tribal villages. In 1960s, my father lived in the  forested valley of Dholi Ghati as a hermit, doctor and hunter, looking after the family mines. Neither the government nor non-government organisations did much to uplift the Bhils. Here, my father saw people eating leaves and tubers and die due to starvation. He did his best to help them, but his efforts had very little impact. 

Our family began running into heavy losses and subsequent debts due to non-payment of royalty to the government for the vast leased mining areas; there were no roads in those forested hills to transport the mined minerals to the railheads. My father and his brothers surrendered their mines and started a small manufacturing unit in the late 1970s. A couple of Bhil families working with us made their mud huts in our backyard in Udaipur. 

Those huts and their inhabitants were a part of my world as I grew up. I remember the calloused fingers of Veerma’s mother rolling thick maize rotis by the cackling fire. The smoky warmth of the hut that wrapped us like a grandma’s quilt. A bare-chested Veerma, smeared with sun, scampering up a tree and clutching a guava as if he were holding on to his forest home, forever lost. This was so long ago, in another lifetime. Before youth overtook us. Before we became conscious of the juice of plucked mulberries trickling down our chins. Before we imprisoned ourselves in fence posts and boundary walls. What I have in the current life is the hope that Amra and Veerma, somewhere, are soaring in the wild wind and singing the corn song in the corn field. 

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