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THE MEETING TREE

‘What is that?’

‘Meeting tree.’

‘What is happening?’

A large group of men was sitting under a very big tree at the edge of the paddock.

‘Man, woman. Wedding.’

Raju pointed at the temple.

‘God.’

I didn’t really understand. He looked at me like I was a simpleton, then sighed and pointed at the tree.

‘Man tree.’

Then he pointed over to the crest of the hill.

‘Woman tree.’

Get it? I could only see a big crowd of men there too. I stood up to go see.

‘No!’ said the security guard.

‘No!’ said Raju, ‘very dangerous.’

‘O.K. If that’s the ‘man tree’ and that’s the ‘woman tree’ – who are all those other guys under that third tree?’

‘Ah-h-h-h,’ said Raju, ‘little big problem’.

*

Isolated tribal societies seem to operate on a rhythm, a slow heart-beat that sustains the greater community yet maintains their village privacy. Every week on a certain day in a certain town there is a market; this is called a ‘haat’; as much a social event as shopping. The locals are spread wide in tight-knit, family groups, farming the surrounding land, squeezing what they can out of difficult soil. Once a week everybody walks for miles into town to shop, bargain and gossip – then everybody walks miles back home. The show moves on; the next day there is a ‘haat’ in a neighboring town, the next day in another and so on, rotating in a seven day cycle around the district – Bakhatgadh comes alive on Wednesday.

The other six days of the week the town settles back into its customary torpor; a sizzling wasteland dotted with stalls, a dusty road, a rabid dog and seething silence – the surrounding villages hum to their own tribal tune; secret, savage gardens full of suspicion, reticence and greed. They just want to be left alone. This is not some idyllic rural commune – relationships are just as volatile as anywhere else; sometimes far more intense.  Trapped up in the hills, wound tightly in superstition, caste and family, the tribes battle nature and each other to stay alive.

With infinite wisdom the tribals have built in a release valve. Once each year, sometime in the fortnight before Holi, the district explodes with a special event; a ‘bhagoria’, a mela or festival used for the young men and women of the area to pair off, start a relationship, get engaged, married or, in most cases, just elope and have sex under a bush. Like the haat, it travels around the wider district in rotation and, like the haat, every bhagoria is different. It’s an important once-a-year day; some very serious business indeed gets done at a bhagoria. District dispute is dragged, debated, sometimes battled out at a bhagoria. Tribal justice is swift and brutal – it’s always best not to get in the way.

*

Those people were still sitting under the three big trees. There were a lot more of them now. Things were getting animated at the man tree; seventy, maybe eighty men sitting in the dirt, some standing, weaving through the crowd. They were starting to shout.

Up at the woman tree the numbers had grown, too; sixty or seventy, maybe more – the same at the third, mystery tree. Each group was starting to shriek at the other. Man tree, woman tree, problem tree – that’s all I knew. I was eating lunch about five hundred yards away.

Madame and her Sir-to-be came over. They looked like they’d been arguing. I had to ask the obvious question.

‘Oh-h-h, this is just local business,’ she said airily, ‘nothing to do with us…’

Her voice trailed off as the shouting increased. I saw a rock fly though the air. Madame’s eyes flickered to her fiancé. He glanced blankly back. Nothing must be said to upset the guest.

‘Where are you going this afternoon?’ she said hopefully, ‘back to Kavant?’

‘Do you know why there are three trees?’

It took her a moment to get my drift.

‘Ah-h-h,’ she said. ‘A girl was meant to get married tomorrow. It’s a very auspicious day. That’s her family, up there.’ She pointed to the woman tree.

‘The jilted husband’s family is under there,’ she said, pointing across to the man tree, ‘he’s young and handsome and angry.’

‘Under the other tree is the family of the man she has run away with.’

Ahh, now it began to make sense.

‘Nobody can understand why. She’s very pretty and he’s very old and ugly and has two other wives – which only adds insult to injury.’

Sir curled his lip. He hadn’t shaved for several days. Surely that wasn’t whisky I could smell?

‘Tribals,’ she sniffed and looked devotedly at her fiancé; ‘wives come and go here. Filthy. Nobody knows who has fathered who. Fifty years ago they were wandering around with a bow and arrow…’ she paused, expecting me to nod and agree. I couldn’t see her at all. She was a blur of pique, white noise and static. What did she look like? I don’t know.

Madame blithely rattled on.

Bhagoria is the time tribals use to settle their scores in front of the temple.’

‘Which might just be… that temple – over there?’ I enquired gently.

‘I think so,’ she said.

‘She means yes,’ said her husband-to-be, with all bitter calm he could muster. He could stay silent no longer. It was evident that Dogster was not the only person abandoned high and dry by Rana Singh’s entrepreneurial ambitions.

He was 100% tribal, Adivasi to his core; this smart old bugger had rented out the battleground for their annual tribal war.

*

The situation was worse by the time we got back to Tent City. Now there were at least a hundred men under each tree. Everybody was really smashed, milling around in their own groups, periodically standing up to shout abuse across the field. There was high pitched screaming from the men’s tree.

‘E-e-e-e-e-eeyah!

‘That’s their war cry,’ whispered someone.

‘E-e-e-e-e-e-e-yah! This high-pitched falsetto shriek of exasperation echoed across the dirt.

‘That means ‘come and fight’, said the voice.

In my experience, tribal communities and alcohol seem to be a particularly volatile combination. These guys get drunk in a way I simply don’t see anywhere else; staggeringly, wildly, gob-smackingly drunk; fall-over drunk, crazy drunk, violent drunk; above all – unpredictable drunk.

A bunch of men broke out, advanced unsteadily across the field then stood shouting and taunting their opponents. This confrontation was clearly governed by strict rules of behavior; threat, counter-threat, escalating rage erupting into a kind of war-dance; out of control – but in control, all at the same time – as much as three hundred drunks ever can be.

The brew of choice is ‘toddy’, an alcoholic drink brewed daily from the fermented sap of the coconut palm. If there’s not a coconut tree around they will boil up a tourist or two and ferment that. I would be a fine Jus de Chien – probably an acquired taste. Toddy seems to come in two strengths; in the morning a light weight, restorative drink, rather equivalent to a beer; by evening, when nature has pickled the broth, toddy turns into rocket fuel.

‘E-e-e-e-e-e-e-yah! A group broke away from the woman tree, a dozen enraged drunks unable to control themselves. The screaming increased. Whack! Someone was hit. Wham! Boof! Smack! People hurtled in to the battle zone. ‘E-e-e-e-e-e-e-yah! Some are dragged away. ‘E-e-e-e-e-e-e-yah! Rocks flew. This has all erupted as I watch, my lunch hovering somewhere between dish and disaster, barely five hundred yards away. It seems seconds away from a full-scale war.

I notice several of the security men, kitchen boys and Madame’s fiancé standing close by, ready to fight or flee. I suspected the latter. They aren’t smiling. One wiggled his head. Time to retreat? Err, maybe. I saw Raju’s back arch; he was dancing on hot coals, ready to run in a second. That’s when I knew I was in trouble. Madame’s fiancé gently took me by the shoulders and walked me away.

‘Get in the car,’ he said, ‘just in case we have to make a quick exit.’

My heart skipped a beat.

*

Hovering, hiding.

Mukesh slid into the driver’s seat. He had the key in the ignition, ready to go.

‘Hey, Muki,’ I whispered. I don’t know why I was whispering.

‘Hey, Papa,’ he smiled. His eyes looked a bit crazy.

‘Is it always like this at bhagoria?’

‘Yup.’

I looked across to see a dozen men intent on beating someone to death. A hunting party swooped down from the hill and pushed them away. Tribes akimbo. Arms waving. Bluff and fluster. Someone will have a black eye in the morning. One combatant is dragged from the field.

‘Fool tigah-h-hhs. Gr-r-r-r-rrr.’

*

‘E-e-e-e-e-e-e-yah! Come and fight!’

Really, they were all more E-e-e-e-yah than tigah-h-h. The preliminary biff and whallop didn’t last very long – that would have been much too easy. There was far more potential carnage involved.

Relatives charged in from all three sides and dragged the combatants away. Groups of young men scattered and lay in clumps around their trees emoting like extras in a Bollywood movie; high volume, high drama and high camp all at the same time. There was no masculine reticence here – they carried on like a pound of pork chops; squealed and screamed, wept and vowed tribal vengeance for evermore.

‘E-e-e-e-e-e-e-yah!’

There’s only a fine line between the sound of a wounded warrior and a drag queen with acne.

‘E-e-e-e-e-e-e-yeww!’

They were sure starting to sound the same.

Eventually the shouting died down and the battlefield emptied, leaving just three men standing alone in the field. After a long discussion the elders returned to their respective corners. The entire group from the man tree got up and stumbled into the twilight, replete with shouted insults over their disappearing shoulders, the crowd at the woman’s tree melted away – soon everybody was gone, just a distant ‘E-e-e-e-e-e-e-yah!’ from a rocky pathway on a rocky hillside in a rocky situation, not quite in Gujarat.

*

‘You can come out now.’

Madame’s fiancé opened the car door. I caught a blast of Johnny Walker as he leant in to talk.

‘What’s happening?’

‘Everything has been resolved.’

‘Phew.’’

‘They’ve resolved to fight it out tomorrow at the bhagoria – all-out war.’

That ‘phew’ turned round in mid-air and dived back into my mouth.

‘Here? Tribal war? In front of this temple…?’

‘I think I might make an early start at getting the tents down in the morning,’ he said casually.

I was getting his message loud and clear.

‘What time were you thinking of leaving?’ he asked.

A moot point. I had come rather a long way to see the Bakhatgadh baghoria – but once the baghoria got to Bakhatgadh, I wouldn’t be able to get out. We were at Ground Zero.

Thousands and thousands of people would converge on this very spot tomorrow morning. They would keep coming and coming and coming till the roads were full, locked down with humanity – with us a tiny pocket of foreign air in the middle, trapped until night, when the afternoon toddy had fermented to a killer punch – which would be about the time of the scheduled tribal war in the camp grounds.

What time was I leaving? Dunno.

Sometime between dancing and death.

*

Whoof!

At the far end of the row a tent crumbled to the ground. A lorry drove in, honking. I’d slept late. I was awake now. Madame’s fiancé stood solid with a bottle of Kingfisher beer wrapped up in newspaper, directing the proceedings. He barked out a Hindi oath.

Whoof! Another tent came down. Raju and the boys hurtled round the camp picking up everything they could find and loading it on the lorry. It was all a little surreal, to find your hotel being demolished around you. Whoof! More canvas hit the dirt.

‘Please, Mr. Sir, chelo…?’

Madame blasted from the hospitality tent with a bill for every sip of liquid I’d consumed.

‘Well, this has been a very interesting experiment,’ I said gaily as I gasped at the amount. She knew I was lying through my teeth.

‘Thank you, do come and stay at our other hotel,’ she lied right back and thrust a leaflet at me.

‘Excellent,’ I smiled, dismissing the idea in a millisecond. We shook hands and smiled and lied and smiled and lied until I could get into the car and shut the door.

Whoof! Another tent collapsed.

I got the hint.

We’re swallowed up, embraced by the crowds, swept through the stalls, the shops and the shouting of the Bakhatgadh Baghoria.

Troops of saris wander past, each in their distinctive village colors; ten green maidens, a dozen purple daughters, nine yellow cousins all in a row; a pod of green grandmothers, a splash of pink ladies, five orange aunties, eight red sisters out for a husband – magnificent women covered in jewellery; thick silver necklaces, bracelets, bangles, rings and dingle-dangles, impeccably framed on dark brown skin, jet black hair, warm black tribal eyes.

Listen. Drums, flutes and bells, the shriek of kids, the warm growl of young men, dressed up to kill, heading for their date with destiny. Should destiny fail to deliver, there is a Ferris-wheel for children, three for grown-ups, a magic show and a miracle, a wall of death and a hand-powered merry-go-round.

How could I possibly leave?

‘You go, Mukesh – go park the car outside town.’

Over there – a glimpse of a hand, a scarf, arms flying in the air.

‘Come find me…’

By the time I’ve threaded my way through the crowd the dust has doubled, fifty or sixty men swoop wildly in a circle, arms flailing like an upturned caterpillar, their heads thrown back, throats wide open with the wonder of the drumming and the dance. In the centre of the cyclone three men with large drums bang away as if their lives depended on it. The dance lurches round them in a mysterious, rhythmic flow; three steps rapidly forward, one step slowly back, three steps rapidly forward, one step slowly back – an odd stumble-bum ballet with plenty of scope for creative inspiration. Inspiration and toddy seem to go hand in hand.

The bhagoria boogie dissolves and I notice another, even larger one taking place a hundred yards away. There are several of these, large and small, going on simultaneously. Each has its own dynamic, builds up, reaches critical mass then dissipates as people spin off to recover. Each flows anti-clockwise – why? I don’t know. Maybe they were winding up their seasonal watch, ready for the next annual circuit.

I know Mukesh will be able to find me. He just has to ask. Mr. Dogster is the only white guy here, sole foreign trespasser in the midst of thousands of tightly packed tribals – he’s safe but definitely surrounded. This is dense – about as claustrophobic an environment as you can imagine but it’s dense and friendly. There is no physical space here; people touch, push, bump, squeeze and clamber; there is no ‘me’. I’m a clear drop of water in a vast festival flood.

Keep smiling, Dogster. ‘Wow,’ I say, to no one in particular. ‘Wow.’

‘Wow,’ they smile and wiggle their heads. Everybody is here for a wonderful time.

*

Mukesh found me. He was very anxious to go.

‘Now, please sir, chelo…?’

‘No, Mukesh. I want to see the miracle.’

Dogster loves a miracle. I’ve seen Shiva floating in the air in Assam, a two headed man and a dancing goat so far. This one was every bit as good. It was a five rupee miracle so I knew it would be special.

In a dish on a table in a bright yellow tent lay the severed head of a ten year old boy wearing a red turban, a peacock feather and a bored expression. His body sprawled headless on the floor at his side – it appeared to be snoring, but of course, had no mouth to snore through.

Around the miracle was a crush of young men, three or four deep, staring solemnly at the head in the dish. The head stared solemnly back. This stand-off went on for quite some time. There was no joshing, no hilarity at the patent hopelessness of this miracle; to them, this was the real deal – even when the body twitched and scratched his bollocks. Of course, the fact that it was still alive was the miracle. I think I enjoyed the audience as much as the show. I loved the wide eyes, the lack of sophistication, the elegant simplicity of believing. I’ve lost that. One young man turned to me with amazed eyes.

‘Magic,’ he said, gravely.

*

Tent City had disappeared. More magic. It’s just Mukesh and the Dog now – just us and a few thousand tribals. The crowd seems to have swollen, all bloats and blushes, there’s a definite carnal wro-o-omph in the air. People are much drunker than they were an hour ago.

‘Please sir, chelo…?’

The longer we stay, the better it gets – and the better it gets the drunker it becomes – and the drunker it gets the more out of control. Dog loves dancing on the edge. I think we might be there now.

Three or four large circles of dancing men are kicking up the dust with complete abandon. One seems to be entirely composed of very old men with huge turbans, dirty shirts and match-stick legs. These guys are completely, wildly out of it, very drunk and very cheerful indeed, circling and stumbling, dancing like dazed pixies in the dust. One wields a large black umbrella, waving it high in the air, hooting to his Hindu heaven. There’s a fatal twinkle in their old tribal eyes; heading for sweet oblivion, dancing till they drop, round and round; three steps rapidly forward, one step slowly back; round and round, round and round…

‘Let’s go, Papa…?’

Mukesh, tugging at my clothes.

It’s hypnotic, a lurid tribal dream; Fellini Bollywood in aspic. Shafts of setting sun slash through dust turning my match-men molten, glowing demons throwing shadows through the air. Face after grizzled face drifts by, lost in their outer spaces, dancing till destiny overtakes them. Some fall stupid in the dirt, just lay there laughing while the dance sweeps around them, as the tribe and their drums, the whoops and the shouts dissolve and merge into one great tribal hum.

Magic.

That kid was right. This was why I’d come.

‘You and me, sir. You and me. Wow.’

Mukesh only had one word for happiness.

‘No fool Rana Singh, no Madame, no Mr. Sir, no old Sir, no old Madam, no tent camp…’

He turned on his Bollywood music, sighed a deep sigh of contentment and settled back at the wheel. It was the happiest I’d ever seen him.

‘Chel-l-l-lo! Gu-u-u-ujarat! You and me, Papa.’

I’ll have to stop him calling me ‘Papa’. I feel old enough already.

‘The two tigah-h-zzz!’ said Mukesh.

Well, one and a half.

I chuckled as we drove into the sunset. Wow.

*

THIS STORY CONTINUES IN PHOTO FILES, ODD SLIDESHOWS AND UNFINISHED FRAGMENTS:

 

 

COME TO SIKKIM

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