The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Part II: In the dance, and out of it

On the second day of Sumitra Tudu's wedding, most of her peers in the village of Gobindopur-Johoratola had to get up early and write their English and Mathematics exams. That mango grove ' around which they lived and went to school, in which they played, and across which Sumitra's wedding would be played out ' was busy all day with boys and girls in uniform, whizzing past Sumitra's house on their bicycles. They called out to her and reassured her that they would be back soon: 'Nengti-re, aaschhi danra, porikkha-ta likhye ashi!' (They spoke among themselves about school matters in Bengali, and about everything else in Santhali.)

I saw many primary schools in the parched interior of rural Malda, and children, among them a noticeably high number of girls, flocking to school every day. In Malda town, I met some school-teachers one evening, and had a rather solemn discussion with them about mid-day meals. Most of them seemed to resent the meals, and having to be responsible for keeping them going at the expense of their teaching. They also said that once the cooking started in school, the children would get uncontrollably distracted by the aroma of food, and even their parents were worried that their interest in school did not have much to do with the love of learning.

The smell of cooking that wafted across the mango grove that morning came from a different source. The groom's party had arrived very late the previous night and set up camp at the opposite end of the grove from the bride's house. All morning, huge pots of rice were being cooked under the trees, to be consumed with a tomato-and-red-chilli chutney. Next to the clay ovens, the groom sat demurely, wrapped in the turmeric-stained cloth sent him by the bride's family. In front of him lay the beautifully crafted bamboo basket in which the bride would be carried out to him for the final vermilion ceremony. And on either side of him, hanging from the branches of a gigantic mango tree, were several pots of pochani or rice beer, prominently completing the symbolic adornment of the nuptial space.

The previous evening, just when we were about to leave, a little procession of men and women suddenly emerged from the darkness of the grove, headed by a man heavily made up and dressed as a woman, in a green saree and a gamchha twisted around his head into a false coif. He was carrying a huge pot of pochani on his head, and led the others to Nengti's house where he was elaborately welcomed and fed. He was delivering to the bride's family the entire village's joint wedding gift. This gift and the offerings brought over from the groom's family ensured an ample supply of intoxicant for the entire period of the wedding. That evening, everybody was up all night drinking and dancing. We had to decline Nengti's sister's unabashedly seductive invitation to stay back and make merry with them. As we left, there was an unmistakable sense of imminent revelry and abandon in the darkening grove. Young people were flocking in, and the mingling had begun to a mix of tribal drums, synthesizer and film music, although the sudden outbreaks of dancing were entirely in the filmi style.

But this morning, the dancing which began early near the groom's end of the grove was purely tribal. The women from Nengti's village, the youngest to the oldest, formed a long row of dancers, their arms around one another's waists. And they were dancing to the drumming of the men from the groom's village, led by its jog majhi or Master of Connections. (One of his responsibilities during the wedding was to mediate the new erotic liaisons ' the tanas and dhukus ' formed among the guests.) This dance, then, was structured like a duel: between the girl's side and the boy's, between women and men, dancing and drumming, melody and rhythm. The women danced (all wearing blouses, unlike Ray's Duli), with the most complicated footwork, to the changing rhythms provided by the men. Sometimes the women would sing out what sounded like shreds of songs in a shrill chorus: 'Sitting in the basket,/ Rubbed with oil and turmeric/ Why, little girl, is your head bowed'/ Look this way at us/ You are about to leave your old home.'

This high, drummed-up singing mingled, in my ears, with the continual screech of the lone tube-well, and the frantic shrieks of the swine running around everywhere in some sort of inexplicable, end-of-the-world panic. (The final wedding feast would be with some of these swine or shukri. They also have the habit of snouting up and devouring the fresh paddy roots from the neighbouring fields in which most of the Santhals ' including Nengti's parents ' labour. These fields are mostly owned by the 'Mohammedans', who sometimes complain to the police, so that there are sudden police raids in the village, terrifying the villagers. The swine are taken away, or 'fines' paid to the police in order to be allowed to keep the animals.)

The morning's dance was also a duel against time. As the day progressed, it became an ingenious stretching out of space into time. The women, from Nengti's side, were dancing ostensibly to lead the groom and his men across the grove to Nengti's home. But the women's real aim was to prolong this journey and endlessly delay the boy reaching the girl. The distance between the two demarcated spaces would normally take only a few minutes to walk, but the women managed to dilate this interval into hours by varying the pace and style of their dancing, sometimes insisting on dancing at one spot, while the men speeded up their drumming and the jog majhi screamed and flailed his arms about, trying to lead the women on towards Nengti's house. This duel went on until late afternoon, as the shadows lengthened in the grove.

As they came close to Nengti's home, I noticed her brother, Nirmal, determinedly chewing some uncooked rice and storing it in his cheeks. He then mounted a man's shoulder and approached the groom, who was also on somebody's shoulder. As soon as the two were brought close to each other, Nirmal spat the entire rice-and-saliva mixture brewing in his mouth all over the groom's freshly bathed face with a well-aimed fierceness that won the roaring approval of the entire crowd. Again what struck me was the ritualized irreverence being shown to the groom and his party ' almost a public shaming of him ' by the bride's family.

Even the vermilion ceremony that followed ' with Nengti brought to the groom in the basket and rising up in it like a snake to be doused with the vivid red powder ' did not manage to counter this sense of the bridal party's ritualized, and perversely enjoyed, 'empowerment' within the structure of the wedding game.

Yet, throughout the day, in the margins and interstices of the wedding, I had a series of brief encounters that spoke of something quite other than empowerment. First, there was Santoshi (picture) and her mother. Santoshi is a child of about four, who seemed to belong to the entire village although she lives with her maternal grandmother or Nani, whom she calls her mother. Her real mother had married a Santhal from Bihar and then come back to this village with Santoshi and her two siblings, one of whom was later taken back to Bihar by the father. Santoshi's mother then married a Muslim man from the neighbouring village and went away to live with him after converting to Islam.

Santoshi stayed back with her Nani. The mother did come to Nengti's wedding and joined in the morning's dance, but she dressed differently, with her ghomta tucked behind her ears, and stood out among the other women who did not cover their heads. In the middle of the dance, a tall man, dressed in shirt and trousers, came in, drew her aside and spoke to her briefly, after which she quietly left the dance and stood apart from the crowd. We were told that this man was her husband and he disapproved of her dancing. (It must be recalled here that most of the adivasi villagers work in paddy fields and mango groves that are owned by their Muslim neighbours.)

Then there was Nikhil's mother, a Mondol. She was beaten up brutally by her husband for letting their teenaged son, Nikhil, go away to work as a migrant labourer in Delhi. On his way back, Nikhil fell grievously ill at Panihati, where he was left behind by his companions who returned to their villages without him. Nikhil is still untraced, and his slightly crazed mother was haunting the grove that evening with his photograph, asking everybody how to register a 'missing case' with the police ' something that had been done already, but to no avail.

And finally, there was Lokhhi, a comely Santhal girl, a little older than Nengti, who came panting out of the dance to us, took us aside and implored her teachers to find her a man ' 'Ekta chhele khunje de na.' Her 'sirs' had become a little wary of this because whenever they fixed a time for her to meet a prospective groom, she would go away to work in another village and fail to come back home in time. But the main reasons why all these matches have failed so far were that she had grown too old and had worked as a domestic help in Malda town, both of which were a blot on her virtue.

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