I’ll do it.” The words escaped my mouth before I could think things through. Sometimes your mouth says yes to something your heart had always wanted to do, before your brain had had a chance to process it. My heart had always wanted to visit the small towns and villages of India — to see the ‘real’ India.
The task I had taken up involved visiting and collecting data from three tribal areas of Maharashtra for a Planning Commission survey to measure the efficacy of income generation schemes for Tribals. One of the districts I had to visit was Nandurbar — a place which I never knew existed until then.
“Nandurbar? No, only semi-deluxe bus,” the man said. The semi-deluxe bus turned out to be an AC bus with a non-functional AC. But to maintain the temperature perhaps, there were a few windows that wouldn’t budge, letting in wind, dust, and rain.
A light drizzle greeted me when I reached Nandurbar early in the morning. The bus dropped me near the main bus-stand, and I proceeded to check into a nearby hotel, which came highly recommended.
The room was just the way I expected: damp, stuffy, dull, and the mug in the bathroom had paint stains. There were many big black ants loitering about, about which I dutifully complained to the manager. “It has rained, sir. That’s why they have come out,” said the manager in a tone that suggested ‘Why bother? They won’t cause no harm’.
The local tribal office was small but pleasant. On the day I arrived, two officials escorted me from the hotel to the office. I was ushered into one of the bigger cabins, where a formal welcome speech was made, and a bouquet of flowers was presented to me. I was introduced as Krishna Rao, the man from New Delhi — a fact I did not bother to correct, because in government offices, the word ‘navi dilli’ worked like a charm.
Field inspectors were appointed to assist me during the survey. This took a huge load off my mind, as it meant they would take me on their motorbikes to the villages I wanted to visit. “I will introduce you to the tehsildar if you want,” said one of the field inspectors, and turned the bike before I could respond.
At the tehsildar’s office: “Sir, meet this person… he’s come from New Delhi and is a member of the Krishna Rao Commission.” My mouth opened in protest, but I stopped just in time — I had to maintain the façade to get my work done quickly.
Riding pillion with various field inspectors on the motorbike gave me a 180-degree view all along. Nandurbar, and its adjoining areas, Sakri, Shirpur and Navapur have a rugged, untamed beauty. I was on a high when I visited the villages at the base of the Satpura mountain range. Beyond the Satpura is the Narmada, and further North are the Vindhyas – the heart of India is mystical, and I had just touched its southern tip.
The Tribals love their mountains and stay as close to them as possible. This, however, has isolated them. Even for people who wanted to help, travelling in such areas is no cake walk. In fact, many of the villages cannot be accessed by roads.
In one of the villages we visited, almost everyone was illiterate. The whole village came out to see what the man from New Delhi wanted. I was interviewing one lady: “Age?” I asked. “Around 24,” she replied. “Do you have children?” “Yes, I have two.” “What’s their age?” “One is 12 and the other, I think, 10.” I turned to the field inspector in disbelief, “If she is 24 and her child is 12, wouldn’t it mean she delivered her first baby when she was 12-years-old?” The inspector questioned the lady, “That’s not possible!” An old woman in the crowd started laughing, “Please explain to me… in what way is it impossible?”