Friday, 24 February 2017

Strange encounters in the Jaintia hills

My friend Hema and I had undertaken a 2-week long road trip in January 2017 through some hilly parts of NE India. At one village in the heart of the Jaintia hills, we ran into a French anthropologist friend of mine, who was staying and working in the village at that time. The additional tensions created between the ethnographer and her field consultants on our arrival in the village as tourists are described in this description of our brief stay in the village.
It was not easy to find that little village beyond Amlarem where we were supposed to be going for a 'home-stay'. It was supposed to be at most a 20 minute drive from there. It took us more than an hour, given that most of the road was eaten up by an unending row of trucks carrying huge stone boulders to Bangladesh through the border at Tamabil just beyond Dawki.

By the time we finally arrived, the afternoon was almost over. Our host was a tiny petite Jaintia woman named, rather surprisingly, Geeta. She spoke very good English -- and ushered us into a small freshly painted, neat and spotlessly clean Assam Type house and showed us our rooms --  'If you don't mind, you will have to share a room,' she informed us. My other room is being occupied by a lady French scholar. Hearing this, I tried to imagine who it could be -- this was a Jaintia village, so it could only be Adele. 'Is it Adele D.?' I asked.

'Yes,' she said looking at me incredulously. 'Do you know her? Did you know she was here?'

'I didn't know she was here.' Adele is the only scholar I knew working in that part of the Jaintia hills.  To meet Adele here in this remote village of all places in the world -- the world was small.
But before anything more could happen, Adele appeared, a pale apparition in black, white and grey. She was in the typical dress of that area, and couldn't believe her eyes when she saw me. 'So YOU are the tourist who was supposed to arrive today, is it? Did you know I was here?'

'I didn't know,' I said again. 'It is just by chance that we happened to come here.'

This was almost too much of a coincidence -- that the only village in the Jaintia Hills which offers a homestay is the same village where Adele has been working for the last eight years was just hard to believe. But perhaps not so, with hindsight. Because Adele had taken Geeta with her to NEHU. Geeta was Adele's principal translator, close friend and consultant. She had recently retired as a school-teacher, as a result of which people normally referred to her as Babu Geeta (don't ask me why). Over the years, having Adele over to stay might have given Geeta the idea that she could have other guests too. Adele had shown Geeta what a guest might need and expect. Her English had also got much better through her long association with Adele. So it was perhaps not so surprising after all that she should be the one who offers to take in tourist guests.

I could sense some unease in our host when she heard that I knew Adele. Slowly the story unfolded.
'I was asked to clear out of my room and move to a room in Geeta's own hut, since you were coming,' Adele informed us.

Geeta had good reasons for doing so, 'how was I to know that you, my tourist guests, would know Adele? I was not sure how anyone else would feel about having a foreigner sleeping in the next room, or joining them for meals. That is why I thought it best to ask Adele to move to my own house for the days that you are here.' Fair enough, we thought.

But there was more to the story. 'In fact, when I called Geeta from France this time to tell her I was coming, Geeta told me that she had started a tourist 'homestay' business and would not have a lot of time to work with me as she would be busy catering to her tourist guests. Actually, she asked me not to come. Can you believe this? This is what I get after so many years of working together. I considered her to be a good friend, I never expected that someday the one-day tourist would be dearer to her,' it was hard to miss the hurt tone in Adele's words.  

Geeta on her part was also not terribly excited that we knew Adele. For she feared that Adele would tell us unpleasant things about her, and we, in turn, might stop other tourists from coming to stay with her. Moreover, since we had a self-appointed village guide in Adele, she missed out on her chance to make some more money by offering us guides to show us around.

 The first evening Adele took us of a round of the village. There was a river which one could go down to, down a steep flight of steps. We turned back after having gone a part of the way, since it was getting dark and we were not sure how much further we needed to go. There are living root bridges beyond there, we were told.  We went past a tomb with a star on the top where one would normally expect a cross. Adele could not quite explain
 what that could mean. At one end  of the village stood the two churches, a fancy Catholic one and a rather plain Presbyterian one. Beyond were the forest clearings where they cultivated brooms for sale, Adele informed us. At another end, stood a few painted but crumbling tombstones, as desolate guards to the village. These are from the time before they  converted,  Anne told us. Nobody takes care of them anymore.

The food we were served for lunch and dinner gave Adele more reasons to sulk -- 'I have never been served such delicious meals in all the  years I have been here. Thanks to my 'tourist' friends, I now know how well you can cook,' Adele paid Geeta a left-handed compliment in our presence. We felt rather uneasy to have to be party to all this.

We heard more of these stories from Adele over the next couple of days -- how she had taken Geeta to a conference in Shillong with her, how she had brought things for her from France, how she had taught her how to make marmalade from the oranges growing wild in her garden.

Geeta was not Adele's consultant. They worked together to translate and transcribe the texts that Adele  gathered from elsewhere. It was hard work, Geeta told us, since the ritual language of the past was quite different from the language they spoke at present. Adele agreed, but it wasn't so different that it would be impossible to make sense of it. One just needed patience and persistence; she accused Geeta of being lazy, distracted and not committed to her work.

'In any case she is no longer interested in working with me -- she dreams of becoming very rich by having tourists coming over. Forgets that even I pay for everything that she gives me -- food, a place to stay, her time!'

We found Adele's behaviour quite unreasonable. She had become very possessive about Geeta, and wanted Geeta to only work with her, to the exclusion of everything else. Like a spurned lover, could not cope with the fact that Geeta was not playing along. 'She has forgotten how much I have paid her in all these years for working with her and for staying with her. She has summarily told me to leave. She will regret it someday when she realises that there are no tourists coming, and she has sent away the only person who was willing to pay her.'

But that was Geeta's problem, not hers, we tried to reason with Adele. If she had asked her to go, why was she still there? You have overstayed your welcome, we tried to tell her politely. Could she not find another person with whom she could work on the translations? [We had actually met at least one more person in the village, another school teacher, who spoke fluent English even in the 1.5 days we were there.] Surely there must be others, we suggested. 'Why don't you go away for a while to another village?'

Of course she could, she knew many people in other villages, Adele claimed. Even in this village, she had other friends. In fact she wanted to get married to a man from the village --  but somehow it did not happen and now he was dead. She had spent years trying to understand their language as well as their old belief system. It was clear that she knew a lot. Did you know that rivers decide the clans of the Jaintia people? Did you know the grandmother rules over a Jaintia household, the women continue to stay with the mother, the men visit their wives in her home, and if anything happens to the parents, the children continue to live with their maternal grandmother? When we asked her why the  tombstones looked so Muslim she told us that many families living in the village now had lived in Bangladesh not more than a century earlier, hence the unmistakable Muslim influence.

Adele took us for a walk around the village. They are forgetting everything about their past after becoming Christian, she complained. But nobody was too serious about going to church either. There were signs of prosperity -- in the houses, the cars and the living standards. They are getting rich by selling boulders and brooms and other forest produce, Adele told us. There were also many clear signs of development -- the roads, the many steps leading up to the village, bridges over rivers. At one place they had gone so far as to cement over a living root bridge, to make the bridge easier to walk on for villagers and tourists. We were appalled. 

But Adele had more tales to tell.  Earlier there was a sacred grove right outside the village, but the villagers gave it up in favour of a road. At another place, on one side of the road was an ancient burial ground. Earlier, when babies were born, they would be named in the presence of their ancestors  in the field in the valley on the other side of the road, by calling out loudly to the ancestors. But now there is a road right through the middle of that area which was so important for ritual purposes. 

Almost all her friends who knew about their traditional practices were now dead, most of those who were still alive had converted to Christianity. She was not too happy with how the new converts did not value things from their past, how they even laughed at her sometimes. She resented the fact that they were more interested in worldly things, in doing business and earning money than with preserving their past.

We tried to reason with her. How could she expect everyone to share her interest in those things, after all they had deliberately given it all up in favour of a new religion and a modern way of life. Why was she upset that they wanted to be successful and rich? Didn't we all.

Adele found it hard to believe that I was there simply as a tourist. 'Have you come to check this place out as a possible place for future field work? You could have simply asked me.'  I was not there as an anthropologist, but meeting Adele there and seeing how she behaved had aroused my curiosity as an ethnographer. It was clear that the strains of being in the field for such long stints at a time had made Adele go a little weird. There was something crazy the way her unending complaints alternated with exclamations of 'Eesnt it marvellos?' even about things that did not look particularly remarkable to my eyes. I could not help the anthropologist in me place myself in Adele's shoes and wonder if I behaved as abnormally and seemed equally strange to my field consultants. There were many things Adele and I had in common, besides our common profession. Both of us came from politically active families, both of us had started with the natural sciences before moving on to the social sciences.

Adele and Geeta made a strange pair... both of them were unmarried, true, but while Adele was completely alone and a sort of odd one out, Geeta presided over a bustling household, with a huge number of nieces, nephews and their children. The contrast was really striking. We also wondered about the fate of a lonely anthropologist in a remote place. If something happened to Adele in that village, it would not be easy for the news to reach France. As if guessing our thoughts, Adele told us, Do you know a nephew of Geeta's tried to strangle me to death once?

Why, we asked? 'Well, for my money, I guess. I have also got mugged by taxi drivers and local goons a few times also for the same reason.' She said that she usually carried enough money to last her for all of the three months that she usually stayed in the field with her when she came. That could be enough reason for a poor villager to mug her, I imagined.

But Geeta's take was slightly different. Adele did not like people who had other views from hers. And she did not worry about openly denouncing them in public, whenever she had an opportunity. She also did not like people who put their worldly concerns before preservation of their traditions. She had tried to help one young man start a newspaper in the local language, helping him to develop a script for it, but was very angry when the whole project fell through due to lack of popular support and interest. 'No point doing anything for these ungrateful people, they don't deserve it, in any case. I was the fool to have wanted to be of help,' she concluded.

Although  I was there as a tourist, the anthropologist in me made me worry about the ethics Adele followed in the field. So much so that I thought it important to talk about it.  She can't be doing things for them with the hope of eternal gratitude in return.  As anthropologists we are not supposed to pass normative judgements about our field consultants. We are also not supposed to tell them what they should be doing, how they should be leading their lives. We are only supposed to observe what they do and report back on it. We might have our reservations on what they do, but it is not our business to tell them what we think is right, and what is wrong. Already, the fact that she had introduced sweet marmalade into a village which did not eat sweet things before made me worry.

But Adele did more than that -- in fact, she boasted to us that she had quite a reputation as a healer because she has cured many people in the village and elsewhere by simply holding their hands and talking to them. She also used a cortisone cream she had brought from France to massage elderly people to cure aches and pains. 'I am very much in demand here,' she told us happily, people think I can do wonders.' I was not sure that applying cortisone on unsuspecting villagers was a very nice thing to do.

'These little kids in the village are my best friends,' Adele told us, when a few of them came up to them and chatted with her. But they ran away and hid themselves when I said I wanted to photograph them. 'No, they don't want to be photographed. They are scared of you,' she told me. 'They wanted to know which part of their body you would eat first. They are convinced you are either witches or demons.'

Seeing the disbelief in our eyes, she continued, 'In the beginning they thought I was a witch too. Since you are my friends, you must also be witches -- pantaloon-wearing witches.'

'But we are not pale like you. In any case, why should they think we shall eat them,' we asked again.

'Because I tell them stories about demons and ogres, and how they eat up little children.'

That sounded really crazy. We wondered why she did not tell them about more pleasant things. The way she behaved it was probably not too difficult for little children (and also adults) to imagine that she was rather different from the rest of the villagers. To give further credence to this picture, Adele would squeal 'Ouiiii....' to whoever she met on the way. While 'Oui' was the usual Jaintia way of greeting one another, and was a valid word also in French, Adele's version of it had a rather mysterious, other-worldly quality to it.

Adele told us of her first contact with the Jaintia people. 'In the beginning they thought I was a ghost or a spirit and they were scared of me. They found me too pale to be real.' On her first trip to the area, 8 years ago, she had spent some time in NEHU Shillong and had become curious about the Jaintia people. So one day, she just took a chance and decided to travel to a Jaintia area and see if she could find some people to talk to.  'In the beginning everyone ran away from me. After walking a whole day, I was very tired and hungry and asked someone to give me some food. In fact it was the fact that I ate food, that saved me, can you believe it? Ghosts and spirits do not eat food. So they decided I can't be one.'

It was hard to believe that such things could happen, even in a remote village in Meghalaya in the 21st century. Did all this really happen or was it just Adele's imagination? We were not too sure. For it was clear to us that for Adele, the lines between fact and fiction, Indian and France, field and home, reality and imagination, had got somewhat blurred; I wondered how she behaved back home in France. Perhaps she got confused sometimes about where she was.  

There were occasions when we wondered if she was delusional or was simply making things up. For we had a couple of firm examples. For instance, she declared at some point: 'You are the first of Geeta's 'tourists', and given the trouble over demonetisation, you guys could also be the last.'
But that was simply not true, for on the last day, just when we were about to leave, Geeta produced a visitors' book for us to sign -- in which there were at least a dozen or more names and addresses of past visitors. Perhaps we were the only guests that had arrived while Adele was there. But we were certainly not her only guests.

At other times, we felt, Adele made us do things, simply to spite Geeta. For instance, on our second evening, Geeta told us in the afternoon that she had to go for a evening Fellowship to her sister's house and therefore had  requested us to have our dinner early. We had agreed. But just as we were returning for dinner, Adele came and told us that the village headman and another elder wanted to meet us right away in another house. Not wanting to annoy the village headman, we agreed, thinking it would be a matter of only a few minutes. But both the elders got up and left the house when they saw us arriving, and it took us more than a hour of socialising with the hosts of the house, who happened to be Adele's friends, before we got back to Geeta's. Geeta was naturally unhappy that we had come back so late that she had to give the fellowship a miss.

But it was not clear to us whether she did anything deliberately, or whether she did what she did or said what she said after proper thought. For instance, at one point she offered to take us to visit the next village. It was only when we asked her how long it would take us to go and come back that she said, two days to go, walking over the hill, two days to come back, and maybe a couple of days there! Then there was that strange walk that we went on with her into the forest. Actually we had set off on our own, but she had quickly caught up with us exclaiming, 'Eesnt it marvellos to meet like this again?'

As we went further into the forest we came across a hut -- 'This is where my dear friend lived,' she told us, 'so I used to come here often to talk to him. We used to go for long walks in the forests together. He knew so much. He used to tell me many things. We were in love, and he had even agreed to come with me to France. But he died before we could get married. Some people think it was a curse.' The house was locked and had a deserted look. We felt sorry for her.

Every now and then, she would stop to pluck and smell leaves and flowers of various creepers and ferns, exclaiming with childish pleasure 'Eesnt it beautiful?, Eesnt it marvellos?' She claimed that she knew every turning and led the way till we thought it was time to turn back, when she told us, 'I'm not really sure where we are now!' At that point, my friend Hema decided to take charge and navigate back using the sun and her basic sense of direction as guide. Soon after we arrived at a fork where both Hema and I felt we had to go right while Adele insisted we go left -- we went along but a few steps further was a lovely field of what seemed to be small pink-lilac flowers that we had never seen before. While that was proof that we were on
 the wrong track for Hema and me, Adele went on further and in her enthusiasm to pluck one of those pretty flowers, literally jumped into the field and fell knee deep into what was actually a pond of mud!  And then finally when we sighted, after a nearly 4 hour walk, the first house we actually recognised as part of the village, Adele declared that she had never seen that house in her life before; but only the previous evening she had taken us past it and given us detailed accounts of all the people living in that house...

The weirdest story came last when just as our vehicle was leaving the village, Adele ran behind it waving for us to stop as she had one last question -- 'how much do you pay your consultants per hour,' she asked me? What a ridiculous question to ask, I told myself, 'It varies from person to person, task to task and place to place,' I told her, and asked the driver to drive on. If she hadn't figured out how much she needed to pay Geeta in all the eight years she has been there, she never will, with or without any tips from me, I told Hema, as we left them behind. 

She had thanked us profusely for all the advice we had given her to resolve the rather tricky situation she found herself in then. We had advised her to call a meeting of the village elders to discuss the problem. We also asked her to move to another house, if not to another village, and try to find herself a few other people with whom she could carry on her work of translation and transcription. But we were not sure that she really understood, or that she really would do as she promised...there seemed to be some strange sort of inertia that made her cling to Geeta, and pretend as if nothing was the matter.

We realised that like many very clever people, while Adele was very able to argue and reason at higher levels about the abstract and the abstruse, about life, death and its mysteries, and about cosmologies and world views of culturally different people, simple daily social interactions with people and the logic behind the everyday priorities that influence the way people behave and the obvious economic considerations which underlie the decisions they make  were much harder for her to understand or sympathise with.   And that created a lot of friction in all that she did and said. But she did not seem to notice that anything was amiss. And even if she did, it did not occur to her that it had anything to do with her, her presence or her behaviour.

It was clear that she was doing a lot for the recording and preservation of the language and understanding the ritual traditions that were fast 'disappearing' from those areas, but she had failed in her personal relationships with the local people. She had also become a relic of the past, a past that most of the people we met seemed impatient to put behind them and be done with. In that sense, she was really like a spirit from their left-behind worlds crying for attention, finding the stage emptying one by one, screaming revenge and destruction on all who dared to ignore her and leave, but realising that her magic was gradually wearing off ...

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