My films have taken me to different states, difficult terrains, tribal forest villages, remote mountain villages – where people or communities live as though they are living in an island and not in Indian mainland. I had no idea such communities ever existed, living with bare necessities, with bare demands. They toil hard for their survival and they respect their surroundings because their rivers have waters, and their forests have trees & their air clean.
Even with their meager living condition they look happy and they are extremely generous when it comes to showing hospitality to outsiders like me.
I will narrate three incidents out of many that I have experienced that I will never forget…..
In Paderu district of Andhra Pradesh we were to shoot in a small tribal village that was tough to reach. Our luxury SUV could not take such an arduous path hence we were put on a jeep that could maneuver its way through an unequal convoluted path. I have faced these issues several times while shooting in these far flung locales. So I & my crew invariably depend on local transport like a bullock cart or tempos or even high rise jeeps to travel to these villages. This was one such case.
The journey wasn’t an easy one. There were hardly any roads. But as soon as I reached the village all my exertion vanished. It was a beautiful clean village and the women of the village welcomed us with garlands made out of champa flowers. The young men with indigenous instruments (like a dhol) sang some songs and the young girls holding each other did some beautiful dance but the steps were extremely complicated. I was absolutely awed to see how these girls and some women in their twenties doing those steps uniformly & effortlessly. They were wearing colourful sarees & hibiscus flowers on their head and many of them wore three or more rings on their nose.
The most interesting sight however was actually a group of elderly village women with deep wrinkles on her face and holding a cigar like smoke and puffing off and on while chatting & laughing. The group reminded me of city college girls smoking and chatting in their college canteen.
The shooting started and we got busy. After couple of hours I saw a little hut and I could see there few children were playing games while a lady was cooking a meal. It was when I went close to the hut I saw the board of Sarva Shikhsha Abhiyaan. So this was the village school. There was only one room and it had few chatais where children were sitting. I could see an old plastic cold drink bottle containing 20 or 25 chana seeds and another bottle of green fruit like substance. There were few slates and an India map on the wall and a rusty looking black board.
I quietly sat down near the lady who was cooking a meal. When I asked her she said she was preparing khichri for mid-day meal for the children. The vegetables looked fresh and I was intrigued to see baby potatoes, cherry tomatoes and baby carrots & loads of baby spinach. The lady fried the onions and green chillis and added lots of cherry tomatoes and then added all the veggies and cooked for a while and then added dal and rice into the pot. The aroma was making me so hungry but I knew our lunch was scheduled at the next village so I knew that this khichri was not meant for me or my crew. I spoke in her language which to an extent I could understand. What she was saying was that she was a teacher and also cooked for the children. In a while the language coordinator joined me and it was only then I realized that she uses indigenous techniques to teach the children. Whenever the children find it difficult to calculate the teacher would teach them with help of chana seeds. I was looking at innovations by a humble teacher who not only taught with very humble teaching aids, cooked for the children, washed their dishes after food, and sometimes would drop the children home.
In half an hour the meal of the children was ready and the children got so excited and they took out plates from their school bags that were made out of cloth and two or three from old sarees as I could figure out. While they all ate the teacher poured a little khichri in a small bowl which probably belonged to her and ask me to taste. I was absolutely taken aback. The lady with small amount of khichri was offering it to a total stranger.
A humble katori of khichri in a tribal village with little children tasted divine. While I made faces of happiness while having Khichri with my fingers as spoon the children laughed and laughed……..
Up next, Sarguja district, Chhattisgarh. I was shooting in mid June and it was hot and dry. The village was very small but unusually clean. While shooting inside a small village 4 hours from Ambikapur I saw in one of the villages houses a mat spread in the inner courtyard that had some yellow flowers on them kept I think for sun drying. On asking I found it was mohua flowers, the dried mohua flowers were used to produce a local drink that will be preserved for winter consumption. Along with Mohua, there were tomatoes, laal mirch for sun drying.
Finally I saw something dark brown with uneven shapes drying on a piece of cloth. The lady of the house told me that it was sun dried goat meat, deboned and cut into small pieces that can be kept for very long time after drying and pointed out to little earthen pot hanging on the outer sides of her hut that contained sun dried meat. She gave me the quick recipe as I looked a bit baffled. She told me sun dried tomatoes with garlic and meat with lots of red chillis cooked in earthen pot for more than 3 hours tastes very well. I smiled and she smiled back and gestured tastes better with mohua drink and pointed it out to the sundried mohua flowers. Later she served me and my team small grain boiled rice & some red chilli crushed with burnt garlic and some green tomatoes that she plucked from her tomato plant.
A simple but yummy meal that tasted so good that I still try to copy the recipe at home but it never tastes that good. Though haven’t tried the sundried meat. You can though.
Baran district in Rajasthan is a treacherous place in summer. While the car was travelling to the location, we found no road side dhaba or shops or anything for almost 100 kilometers. When we reached the location our bottled water was over and we were thirsty. There was no pond, well or tubewell in the village. The village women walk 3 or more kilometers to fetch water. The crew was thirsty but we knew there was no water in the tiny village. The extreme weather condition had made us tired and exhausted even before our shoot.
I sat in a shade of a house and few adolescent girls were sitting nearby. The obvious question that came to my mind when I saw them was how they were coping with menstrual hygiene. The girls giggled perhaps no one ever asked them that question.
One of the girls said in matter of fact way that she lies down outside her house and no one can make out whatever happens as she covers everything with sand. I looked at her and I know the word jugaad has several positive repercussions as women we have always resorted to some jugaad in our puberty to avoid embarrassing situation. Deep inside Rajasthan village, this young girl is also resorting to jugaad as the concept of sanitary napkins is yet to come to the village.
The shoot began and I start sipping hot tea served in glass and some atta balls which have been baked on koyla. The first sip and I knew this was not tea – it was a hot milk drink loaded with sugar. The woman saw my reaction and smiled and as I asked the coordinator how they made that chai he said it was made completely with milk as there was no water & shakkar – and that the milk source was sitting right next to me.
As I looked back I saw a black goat sitting with her mammary glands tied with a cloth. I looked at the coordinator, ‘Goat milk tea’, he smiled, ‘Yes, freshly taken out goat milk tea.’