The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Girls and boys in a mango grove

'What does an ethnographer do' ' he writes. ' Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures.

'Syar, Nengtir-na biya!' a little girl informed us, leaning, with coy but laughing eyes, on the rickety gate of green bamboo that led to her mud-and-thatch learning centre in the village. This spotlessly minimal Shoishob Bikash Kendra ' childhood development centre ' stands on the outer limit of an immense mango grove, where the old, densely-leaved trees suddenly give way to golden-green paddy fields stretching out towards the Bangladesh border just a few miles away. The mud walls of the centre are beautifully decorated in chalk with art that, in this case, is not simply children's art looking like tribal art, or tribal art looking like children's art, but is actually that rare and fascinating combination, the drawings of tribal children. Across and into the mango grove are the adivasi villages ' mostly Santhal, mixed with Pahariyas, some scheduled castes like the Mondols and Haldars, and the 'Mohammedans' (as they are locally referred to). From these villages, the children, from the tiniest to those in their early teens, come to the centre, apart from attending the local primary school.

The centre is run by a Malda-based NGO working with tribal children and youth, and two of its teachers had brought me along to this village of Gobindopur-Johoratola to attend the wedding, or bapla, of one of their Santhal pupils, Sumitra or Nengti, daughter of Shangjili Soren and Rombhu Tudu. (Santhal women keep their maiden surnames after marriage.) Nengti was marrying Shib Soren, a Santhal boy from a village about an hour's walk away. Nengti and Shib are in their early and middle teens respectively.

Nothing could be a more ironic setting for a child's wedding than this combination of mango grove and childhood development centre. The magic of the vast aam-bagan echoing, during the long vernal afternoons, with the sharp cries of boys and girls at play, fleetingly silhouetted among the endless vistas of tree-trunks, their leafy boughs hanging uniformly low like a sheltering sky of dense green clouds ' a glimmering, bird-haunted shadow-space that slowly darkens into evening. And the spartan learning centre, alive, during the day, with the drone and twitter of the children's lessons and chatter, mixing the language of childhood, mostly Santhali, with the languages of learning, Bengali and a bit of English.

These, apart from the village itself, became for me the melancholy, beautiful matrix within and against which the complex, baffling choreography of Nengti's wedding was played out, with its widening circles and networks of people, action, ritual, dance and meaning. Yet the bafflement and concerns that I carried away from my few days in Malda were far from simply melancholy. I realized that the only way I could begin to make sense of and communicate the intellectual, ethical and emotional challenges that my experiences there confronted me with would be to take photographs and write. And as I struggle to translate the simultaneity of human events into the linearity of writing, to convert time and space into language and syntax, difficulty into readability, I cannot help feeling restlessly envious of those who can make documentary films.

On the first day of the wedding, we were told that the groom and his party, in keeping with Santhal custom, would be arriving from their village and camping out among the trees and cooking their own food, before coming up to the bride's house the following day. An important villager, the aptly named Matal Murmu, had offered his grounds to Shib and his folk, and the morol or dadu, the village head, had taken out the stainless steel utensils and cooking pots that were kept in his custody for such feasts. (He had also given the land for the learning centre, right next to his hut.) We kept asking Nengti's family and neighbours when the party would be arriving, and everybody would say, 'Ei ekhhuni ' very soon!' This they kept saying all day, from early morning until late in the evening, without the slightest anxiety or apprehensiveness, and with a blissful cluelessness that was both exasperating and infectious. It was also peculiarly relaxing, even stupefying, to give in to this attitude to time ' an indefinite longueur filled out with drinking pochani (rice beer), music, dancing and mingling. This was accompanied by an increasingly inebriated sociability, almost patrician in its absent-minded expansiveness of spirit, devoid of the anxious and harassed bustle that tenses up middle-class Indian weddings, especially in the bride's home.

This sense of time, or a lack of it, and this unanxious way of being ' largely, but not entirely owing to the pochani ' are important elements of the Santhal way of life. As the day progressed, most of the adults, men as well as women, got more and more drunk and dancy, without ever really passing out, and the wedding preparations started getting managed by the older children ' Nengti herself, her siblings, cousins and friends ' giving it a strangely light-hearted, slightly unreal, play-like quality, like a school picnic interspersed with children's games.

This was also the time when I got to know the family a bit. Nengti herself, in a short dress with puffed sleeves and the traditional silver necklace and ornamental hairpin, was the freest and the most relaxed member of the family that day. Prancing around with a leggy coquettishness, she moved unself-consciously from playing with her friends and dancing with her eyes half-closed to the film music playing on a rented CD-player in their courtyard, to preparing the turmeric paste with which she herself would be anointed later and attending to the guests. While running about doing all this, she suddenly snatched a piece of paper from the hands of one of the elders and showed it to us, her 'sirs'. It was a break-up of the bride-price that the groom's family was paying them, amounting to a little less than Rs 300. She told us later, with the same brisk chirpiness, that since the boy was crippled in one leg with polio they had negotiated for a pair of gold, instead of silver, earrings.

I also asked her if she was feeling nervous, and she answered, 'Why on earth should I feel nervous', giggled and ran away to join the dancers. Yet, lurking silently in the margins of the wedding was a boy, Talu Mardi, about the groom's age, who had wedded a girl like Nengti last year. He confided in his teachers, within a few months of his wedding, that he was annoyed and distressed by his wife's fearfulness. She runs away in terror whenever he calls her to him. How much of all this was Nengti aware of'

Nengti's elder sister, Muni, was clearly the belle of the ball. She had got married several years ago, and then come back home a few years later with two babies, dissatisfied with her man. Santhal women can do this quite easily. She lived in a neighbouring hut, had a bit of a reputation in the village, yet was a figure of authority throughout the wedding ' agile, efficient and, like Nengti, a natural hostess who effortlessly combined working, dancing and flirting. She wore vermilion and the white and red bangles of the married Hindu woman, yet she was also deemed the ideal candidate for the custom, called tana, of being 'pulled' into a man's room and arms, that happened freely during occasions like this. Its equally permissible counterpart is called dhuku. This is when a woman 'enters' a man's room and insists on staying in there for as long as she likes. She might even go on to marry him if things look promising.

Later during the wedding, after the boy had arrived and the rituals had started, Muni came into her own when she was required to cross-dress as what looked to me like a young rake, in a man's trousers, shirt, dark glasses and a gamchha turban, and ritually interrogate the groom and clip his hair like a barber after bathing him in public (picture). Throughout this ritual, the boy stood shyly with his head bowed, quite the timorous bride, obviously conscious of his crippled leg, and without any of the confident machismo of the typical Indian groom lording over the bride's family. Looking at Muni's stunning beauty, her Modesty-Blaise panache and Brigitte-Bardot pout, I realized why Ray had chosen Simi Garewal to play the Santhal Duli in Aranyer Din Ratri, at once pointing up and breaking down the distance between urban and tribal femininities.

Everybody was teasing Nirmal, Nengti's younger brother, barely into his teens, that he should be 'pulling' a girl during the wedding. Nirmal is one of the most intelligent students at the centre, a funny, kind but gullible boy who had been nearly seduced by middlemen, just a few months ago, into getting trafficked. He had believed that these men would take him to another city to work for a foreigner on a high pay. Bidesh, to most Santhals, can be any place outside their village, from Malda town to London. Nirmal was about to board the train, with a few other boys and girls from his village, when the entire party was accosted by NGO-workers and the children brought home. Throughout the wedding, Nirmal, with his and Nengti's friends, was writing his exams, and they kept zipping about on their bicycles in uniform. Yet, the demands of work and marriage force both boys and girls to drop out of school quite early, and only one boy in the entire group of villages has made it up to class IX so far.

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