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Invisible boundaries

Referring to a dramatic mode of communication — paper and pencil — GEETA DOCTOR highlights the need for us to `redraw' the maps of our identity. It is imperative, she says, in the context of a partisan-like debate on whether the secular fabric of our society will survive the onslaught made on it by the forces of hate.


The author's sketch of Yellachallahally on the Bangalore-Chennai highway.

IT'S at times like this, when parts of Gujarat have been rocked by communal hatred that one remembers Sanjoy Ghosh.

Before his tragic disappearance in Assam, Sanjoy, who had trained to be a social worker at Amul in Gujarat, had created his own unique NGO, Urmul, at a village named Lunkaransar, near Bikaner. Aside from working with the people of the area, he used to encourage other social workers, activists, or just ordinary visitors to join what can only be described as extended walkabouts through the scattered groups of villages in the area.

One of the most dramatic modes of communication that the Urmul group used was paper and pencil, or crayons. These would be passed around to members of the visiting group as well as to anyone in the village who might show an interest in drawing. The aim was to draw a map of the village. Naturally, the village headmen and the important men would never be drawn into such a frivolous activity. It was left to some of the women, those who specialised in making the ritual drawings on the floors and walls, to start creating ideas on paper instead.

This gave them so much confidence, that when it came to sitting together and looking at the collected works, during the second half of the day, they would come out of their purdahs and talk very boldly, not just about their work, but about the problems that they faced in the village. In some cases, it might be the difficulty of getting water from a canal that was too far. In others, it could be the idea that there was just one tree that had survived in the village. Most often, this was the sacred Peepul tree built on a platform next the temple at one end of the village. "That's God's tree, so we must protect it," the men would exclaim. It was the only public meeting place for the men of the village to hang about. We realised how even a simple environmental message could survive if it came wrapped up in a legend, or as a religious prescription. In due course these so-called "sacred trees" survived also because they served a practical function. At the same time, the concept taught us how to look at the social dynamics of the place, in a simple and vivid manner.

Recently, when we stopped for a night at a village on the highway from Bangalore to Chennai, I did a Sanjoy Ghosh. That is I made a map of the surroundings. It was only for my own reference, since I did not have his skills in reaching out to the people who were living there, nor did I have any reason to do so. It was such a tiny village at first it looked like just any other disorderly conglomeration of thatched huts surrounded by trees. There could not have been more than 50 huts in all and a dozen or so single storey brick and mortar houses, overlooking the fields beyond. As I walked along the one main street that led down from the highway, I immediately became aware that just as in the Rajasthan villages, the focal points were provided by two magnificent Peepul trees. One was at the start of the main street, the second one was further inside where the small stone carved temple stood. Both had wide platforms built around them in stone and mud, with three images of entwined snake gods embedded in the mud, close to the tree trunks. "This is where we Muslims live, that's the Hindu area," explained a boy who had decided to be my guide." It became quite clear that even in this tiny place, there was an invisible line that divided the Hindus from the Muslims. For all practical purposes, the main dirt road that cut the village into two segments served as a boundary. As we walked further down and the track split into two forks (one that led to the left where there were the few shops that serviced the village and the other to the right where the more pucca houses were situated) I realised that the Muslim section was in the first quarter, nearest to the highway. The other three sections were Hindu, but within these there were even stricter hierarchies. For instance, the second Peepul tree with its surrounding platform was on the right side of the main street just next to the temple.

IT was a small temple, but obviously this was the radial point for the Hindu families. The more affluent ones, if they could be described as such, lived on this segment of the village. Some of them had motorcycles and two-wheelers and all of them had independent one-storied houses. Their houses faced the farm lands, so perhaps they were the farmers. Some of them kept the large circular trays for silk worms and one could see the mulberry bushes further ahead. An irrigation canal carrying water separated the main village from the fields.

"Have you come to see the old temple?" asked a cowherd, who was grazing his cattle in the open area, just beyond the boundary of the village on the right flank. "It's just there, near the old well," he said talking in Kannada. The old temple was barely standing, just a rudimentary shelter made of granite slabs with an amorphous mound underneath. It could have been an older version of a snake goddess. Even beyond this deserted place there were the huts of the landless labourers. Perhaps they used the well and the old temple.

On the road going to the left were the shops, a kerosene shop, a place that stored the rough implements needed for the fields and a general store . The gutter ran alongside the two edges of the dirt track, and whether on the Hindu side, or the Muslim, the toilet facilities consisted of a crude cubicle loosely covered with tattered cloth on wooden poles that drained into small iridescent pools of dirty water that spilt into the gutters. Around these, there scrabbled a few chickens.

"Would you like to see how the agarbathis are made?" asked my guide. Because of the language barrier, we were effectually excluded from the Hindu areas. The children mixed freely with each other, but there was an almost imperceptible wall between the adults who lived on the three-quarters of the village that was Hindu. There were well-dressed children from these areas who were in uniform waiting to go to school, but it was obviously not the village school, that I had noticed at the entrance to the place. The better-off families, in this case the Hindus could afford to send their children by cycle or bus to a proper school in the neighbourhood.

"Don't you go to school?" I asked my guide. As it happened, the one fairly good building that was labelled "School" was in the Muslim segment, near the first Peepul tree, in what seemed to be a neutral area. He shook his head, "It's always closed," he said.

Just behind the defunct school was another more impressive structure. Still half built, it would soon be the largest building in the thatched complex. It was the mosque and from the size of it, when it was ready, it would certainly have a school for the children of the Muslim quarter. It looked like the kind of mosques in the area that are built with "Gulf" money. Close by were the houses of some of the more affluent members of the community. At night, this tiny corner was the only one that boasted of electricity.

HERE, again, I must relate the village to the changes that have been taking place to the larger surroundings, outside its boundaries. On the side closest to the mosque, there was an impressive wall that enclosed a piece of real estate that was all but like a mirage, next to the village. A flashy modern motel had been created, complete, with Korean grass lawns with a mini golf course, swimming pool, bar and restaurant. It could have been started to cater to the even more state-of-the-art factory premises on the other side of the highway. This looked like a finely finished sheet of stainless steel that had been grafted onto the rural landscape, every item in it so perfectly planned and maintained.

Next to the walls of the factory was another transition zone, a bus stand. Because of the steady clientele, it had a number of accessory enterprises, a tea and coffee stall, selling hot iddlis, a compact plastic walled booth with table and telephone advertising "STD and ISD" facilities and a milk collection centre, to facilitate the supply of milk from the village. This is why, I realised, so many of the huts had small enclosures built right alongside them, for the buffaloes. They provided an additional source of income. "Yes, I would like to see how the agarbathis are made," I told my young guide. He yelled out to someone inside the hut where we could see mats with the finished agarbathis spread out in the sun.

"Yes, you can come in," said his grandmother, a middle-aged woman. The hut was dark, but cool. The only striking decoration on the wall consisted of two framed pictures of the Kaaba and the Grand Mosque, with another one of the verses from the Koran, in shiny letters. They looked like a ray of light in that dismal room. As the children and I crowded round at the entrance, the mother-in-law ordered her daughter-in-law to demonstrate her skills, as an agarbathi roller. The young woman was not in the least bit cowed down by her mother-in-law's peremptory ways, nor by our presence.

"We get the masala from the seths (merchants) who come from the big town," she said rolling out a small portion of the scented cow dung into an overall pellet. They give us the sticks also, this special stone is our own." Even as she talked, she wrapped the pellet around the thin stick of the agarbathi and rolled it expertly on the stone, until it had spread out evenly into a long cylindrical sheath that she placed carefully to one side. When she had rolled a sufficient amount these sticks would be put out to dry. She earned Rs. 12 per 1,000 sticks she said and on a good day, she could make around 1,000 agarbathis. When the seths came back on their rounds, they would collect the finished product and give her more raw material.

"It's not difficult work, but you still have to find the time to do it" she explained. Naturally, it would not have made any sense to her, to enquire whether she found it strange to be rolling incense sticks that would be burnt in front of gods in Hindu temples. Nor would it be fair to ask whether the Hindus in the village looked down upon them because they were earning a meagre wage, rolling agarbathis, made of cow dung.

* * *

Again, I remembered my trip with Sanjoy. Part of the exercise in breaking through the social barriers that through the centuries have kept these once isolated communities together and yet apart, was in a communal eating system that the Urmal group had devised, at least during my trip. The organisers would provide the villagers with enough money to buy the material for a good meal that we would sit down to eat together. It was served in the large brass thals that the village headman possessed. What made it exemplary is that we had to share our thal with whoever happened to be sitting on the ground opposite us, dip our fingers in the same plate as it were and partake of the meal jointly. As it happened, there was a group of social workers from Pakistan with us, so we could not have formed a more alien set of people.

At first, it was all but unbearable to eat out of the same plate with a total stranger. I had to share a plate with a young mother who had a small boy, with dirty fingers poking into the food. Even on that small circular thal, we managed only by erecting all manner of imaginary boundaries between "my" side, "your" side, but the child kept fishing its fingers through these invisible lines picking up morsels of food and putting it into its mouth. By the end of it, all of us had learnt to be as unselfconscious as that child. We all needed to eat and it was not such a terrible thing to share a meal with a strange person.

As the debate on whether the secular fabric of our society will survive the onslaught made upon it by the forces of hate and religious bigotry becomes more partisan, what we need is more people like Sanjoy Ghosh, who can help us to re-draw the maps of our identity. We will discover then, that the divisions, the invisible boundaries, are within ourselves. We can confront them, creatively, as we have done in the past, or allow them to destroy us completely. The choice is ours.

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