The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Part III: Two spirited grandmothers

The journey from Nengti's village, Gobindopur-Johoratola, into Malda town is incredibly short. It takes about half an hour on a motorcycle. But it is easy to forget the closeness of the town and give in to the apparent remoteness and insularity of the adivasi villages in and around that immense mango grove. There is a brief stretch, as you ride along the Mahananda river in the evening, when the deafening chorus of frogs from the dark mass of trees on the other bank is like a mad, timeless noise inside your own head. Then swiftly, suburbia takes over, and it is like being in Kasba or Garia, with its neon-lit interiors, grocery stores, tea-shops, cybercafes and tutorial homes. The wedding in the grove vanishes like a dream in the woods. Gobindopur becomes, like M.N. Srinivas's Rampura, 'the remembered village'.

Yet, the borders of that other world are porous. There is a continual traffic between those villages and the town. In the evening, droves of adivasis can be seen walking silently through town, often led by seedy-looking middlemen. They are migrant labourers going back to their villages after finishing their shift, or being taken to the station, like Nirmal or Nikhil and their fathers, from where they will head for bidesh. There is also a constant procession of women like Lokhhi, with little bundles on their heads or holding a child, who come into town to build its homes or work in them.

But another village I visited in Malda is truly remote from the town and the river. In the middle of vast, silent stretches of parched, open fields, the Santhal village of Popra ' where a woman had recently been hacked to death as a witch ' seems to have grown around a small mud-and-thatch children's ashram. This ashram has its own shrine to Shib and Ram, its little patch of vegetable garden, and a fast-drying-up well. It is run by a middle-aged Santhal widow, Rekha Hembrom (picture), who is known as 'Guru-ma' in that entire region and beyond, among the Santhals of north Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar.

Hembrom narrates her own life as a public, and frequently itinerant, battle against two challenges. First, running this ashram, and two others in South Dinajpur, with uncertain funds and scarce water. Second, the vice that she perceives to be the bane of the Santhal community ' nesha or addiction to drink. (As she was telling me about this, I remembered ' with an odd feeling of vicarious guilt ' those huge pots of pochani placed at the symbolic centre of Nengti's wedding.) For Hembrom, Santhal communities at their most typically vice-ridden, were made up of perpetually inebriated, and therefore lazy, impractical and gullible men, exploited and over-worked women with naturally loose morals, and neglected and poorly educated children. The Santhals' spirits-driven egalitarianism keeps them mired in their own backwardness. Most of the 13 children staying at her Popra ashram have been virtually abandoned by their parents, as their mothers blithely move from one marriage, tana or dhuku to the next. In the past, the abandoned children would be looked after jointly by the village. But with the men going away for long stretches as migrant labourers, leaving the women alone to manage the home and work in the fields, the tradition of childcare within the community has been eroded. Addiction to drink begins early. The women sedate their babies with pochani or mohua before going out to work.

Hembrom's parents were Santhal agricultural labourers, but insisted on sending their seven children to the village school. Rekha studied up to her Madhyamik, after which she got married to Shibu Murmu from Dumka in 1968. Her father-in-law was a freedom-fighter who went to work as a labourer in a tea-estate in Jalpaiguri, where he formed a majdoor sangathan and got involved in Gandhian activism. Rekha's husband went off to Burma as a soldier, returned to Jalpaiguri after a few years, and went through some sort of a conversion experience. He turned into a shadhubaba and a guru in the villages, and his preaching quickly took on a strong element of puritan reformism, concentrating on primary and moral education, and building village schools and ashrams. They had four sons, three of whom work in the Bharat Sevasram Sangha ashrams in Jamshedpur and Darjeeling. Her other son lives in Jharkhand, where he acts in Santhal films.

Rekha Hembrom's initiation into her vocation happened through her husband, whose picture is enshrined in the ashram's temple together with images of Ram and Shib. Fluent in Bengali and Santhali, she started reading the Gita, Vivekananda and 'Sita-Sabitrir jiboni' under her husband's tutelage, and became an accomplished preacher, taking on most of the preaching and management of the schools and ashrams after his death. She now travels among the villages in her expanding catchment area to collect alms for the ashrams, and to preach and distribute her pamphlets about parabartan or reform, targeting particularly the women.

Hembrom kept telling me that the Santhals are actually Hindus, and the key elements of Hinduism ' the gods, the caste system and dowry ' have their counterparts in the beliefs and practices of the Santhals. It is their enslavement to alcohol and the Christian missionaries, together with the effects of 'development', that have made them forget their Hindu origins, and much of her prochar is to remind them of this. But when I asked her whether her moral reform included preaching against caste, dowry and child marriage, she was elusive.

Hembrom took me with her to some of her 'reformed' villages. One of them is Titthuria, remarkably clean, with beautifully decorated houses. She has built here a Shibmondir under a banyan tree that has now become the village-centre. All the houses had tulshi-manchas and thakur-ghars with Hindu deities, together with images of Vivekananda, Prosenjit, Jeet and Shatabdi Roy. As we entered the village, I noticed pots hanging from the trees. She told me that as a result of her preaching, the village sells all its pochani without drinking it. Her authority in that village was noticeable as she went into all the houses and asked the women to welcome me into their homes. There was something about the village's 'ideal' quality that reminded me of the village in Lagaan. The contrast with Gobindopur could not have been greater, and by this time, I sensed a rising discomfort within myself about the spirit of this difference and the way it was being presented to me. Hembrom asked me, at one point, if I would choose Gobindopur or Titthuria to live in, and it felt as if I was being asked to choose between Pleasure and Virtue.

Hembrom mentioned the active support of the Bharat Sevasram Sangha several times. Her sons worked for it and the ashram children were moved to the Sangha's hostels after they entered their teens. She also invited me to the Ramnabami celebrations and archery competition in Popra, sponsored by the Sangha. So I checked its website and found that it described itself as a 'mighty philanthropic organization', seeking to 'create an atmosphere favourable to moral and spiritual growth' according to the 'spiritual, cultural and ancient heritage of India'. 'Tribal welfare' is an important part of this agenda, largely through schools, hostels, training centres, hospitals and sanatoria. Tribal welfare was also part of the 'Hindu Milan Mandir' scheme for 'reforming and reconstructing the Hindu society, which is the largest community in India'. The 'real virtues', according to the Sangha, are 'Heroism, Virility and Manliness' and the 'real enemies' are 'Indolence, Slumber, Procrastination, Inertia, Lustful Senses and Passion'. (I immediately thought of Matal Murmu's largesse and the dancing, cross-dressed Muni, and again felt chastized by proxy.)

To what extent is this kind of Hinduizing 'tribal welfare' different from what the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Hindu Jagran Manch, together with organizations like the Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, are doing in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Orissa' Or from the RSS and VHP in Kerala working, with the Kerala Vanavasi Vikasa Kendram, 'at improving the lot of the Kerala adivasis and sheltering them within Hindu dharma'

If one thinks of Nengti, her siblings and her friends, learning, working, playing and marrying in and around that grove, then which of the women of the community might be imagined as their symbolic grandmother' There is Rekha Hembrom, gracious, stern, confident, authoritarian and visibly 'Hindu' in her widow's white and konthhi. But one cannot also help sketching in another vivid, spirited figure beside her ' Dhani Hasda, the morol's wife in Gobindopur. Old and wizened, wearing her sari short without a blouse and her thick hair beautifully coiffed with heavy silver pins, she is known to be able to hold three times as much pochani as her husband.

Most of the morning of Nengti's wedding, Dhani sat under a tree, smoking abstractedly. But from time to time, she would suddenly get up when the drumming reached a peak of frenzy, and break into a tremendous dance. Her reddened eyes opened wide, while she danced, in a look of crazed fury that frightened the children and made them run away or cry. Then, just as suddenly, she would stop dancing and go back to her seat under the tree, her eyes blank again and staring into the middle distance.

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