'Tumharey hathon bane pattal bharte hain hajaaron peit,
Par hajaaron pattal bhar nahin paate tumharey peit.'
(The leaf plates made by you fill thousands of bellies, but thousands of leaf plates fail to fill your bellies)
Penned by Nirmala Putul, this laconic couplet aptly expresses the gloomy existence of tribal artisans who survive by making pattals in Jharkhand's hinterlands.
Nirmala, a poetess from Dudhava Kurva village, writes in Santhali and Hindi. Recently, she offered me the privilege to experience the city life through her eyes for a day. Along our way, we came to a grocery shop where she requested me to buy a palm leaf fan for to help her get relief from the hot sultry weather. I bought the fan for Rs 10.
It was then that the sensitive poetess asked me: 'Do you know the fan's story' She narrated the story of the fan and its makers taking me closer to the harsh reality of life.
In her words: 'I watch Usha and her husband Suresh toil hard, even staking their lives, to make fans. Usha and Suresh belong to an indigent tribal community of Maniarpur adjacent to my village.
'Everyday, Suresh climbs the tall and scrubby palm tree to cut its leaves. His wife collects them, dries them in the sun and cuts the thorny leaves into pieces to weave the fans. Usha has got many bruises on her arms and fingers caused by the barbed leaves she works with. Suresh, too, has scars on his legs and arms that he got while climbing the trees. He has also fallen from them many times. The couple produces eight to 10 fans a day. In the morning, a 'middleman', a link between fan-makers and the market, brings his van to buy the fans at Re 1 a piece to take them to the market.
'Usha and Suresh, in fact, represent the people of the whole Maniapur inhabited by 30 families, all engaged in this trade. I watch them work, with their wounded hands and legs, earning little to keep their body and soul together. These half-naked and semi-starved fan-makers have been living in dingy huts for generations,' she said.
'They are not aware that the fans made by their bruised hands sell at Rs 10 a piece in Dumka and Ranchi markets. And no one has told tell them about the market value of their product,' she said. Nirmala ended her story with a wry smile on her face. She, while walking with me from shop to shop, and places to places in the city, told me similar stories about the makers of 'pattals' (leaf plates), which the rich people use in grand feasts.
She also told me the stories of the delicately woven 'chatais' (leaf sheets) in enchanting shades and its makers, which adore the elite's drawing rooms in cities.
The exploited people constitute the theme of her poems. Nirmala herself is a Santhal. Daughter of a school teacher who is no more now, Nirmala has dedicated her life to poetry and social work. She has penned two books of verses published to her credit by the prestigious Jnanpith Publication and the Ramanika Foundation, New Delhi in 2004. Her books are Iyak Odaksendra Ray in Santhali and Nagarey Ki Tarah Bajte Hain Shabd in Hindi. Her poems have appeared in prestigious literary journals such as the Hans and Kathadesh.
'Even if you would have walked with Amartya Sen and Jean Drez, they would tell you the same stories, though in a more economic language, of how some people lack the capacity to reach the market and get the due they deserve,' Nirmala said.
Countless NGOs have been at work to improve the tribals' 'capacity to earn'. But the tribals remain where they were decades ago with the elite and outsiders dominating the markets and keeping the tribals away from the reach of the market.