River, Rocks and bare hands

Learning to fish with my bare hands with Korku tribal women in the forests of Melghat, I learnt one basic life lesson we have forgotten in these times of apparent plenty — food is precious in nature, and ought to cost hard work. And that within the ecosystem, the hunter and hunted stand an equal chance.

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An eel caught by the boy who was to be my husband

Tu Macchi ka dal khata? (do you eat fish curry?)” asks elderly Jamnu.

Khata (I eat),” I reply, adapting the same pidgin version of Hindi that the Korkus of Melghat use to speak with outsiders.

“Then come fishing with me tomorrow afternoon.” Says Jamnu’s daughter Budhia.

And I know I have hit gold. In more than a decade and a half of intermittently travelling in these hills, I have heard many times about dam fishing, but never seen it actually being done. Easy availability of nets, and even desperate methods like dynamite or poison have made fishing into an individual instead of community activity, and all but wiped out this most primal technique of fishing with the bare hands.

The trip starts with packing food. “By the time we are finished, we will get very hungry,” says Budhia, as she packs several large jowar bhakhar (shorgum flat bread) with chana bhaji into a large piece of cloth. The tender leaves of the black gram plant, which cook into a delicious, crisp preparation, are plentiful in all farms just now, and it is mostly what we have been eating for the last three days. Her mother-in-law Ratnay, and her kinswomen Chanda and Nanu – all women of the Dikar clan, join up, carrying similar packets of food, iron pans, and for some reason, several sarees.

The sun, still hot on a December noon, beating down on us, we stroll down to the Sipna river, about five kilometers from the village of Kotha in Melghat, Maharashtra. Half-way down, Budhia’s sixteen-year-old niece Lalita catches up, completing the fishing gang.

The process starts with a discussion on an ancient British times stone bridge on the river. The four older women stand in a group, looking keenly into the sunlit water, to judge where the greatest number of fish might be, and notes are urgently exchanged in fluent Korku. Budhia, who evidently feels responsible for me, invites me gently into the circle. “Look there,” she says, pointing to a stretch of water in the centre of the flow, “Don’t you think there are lots of fish there?” I peer hard, spot a fish-like shadow flit against the backdrop of mossy rocks, and nod, trying to look wise. “That is where we are damming,” she tells me.

Decision taken, the women put down their loads in one heap, the food stored safely under an iron pan, and stroll off into the forest. “You go down and pass river water up to wet the soil,” says Nanu to me, over her shoulder.

“What soil?”

She just grins and waves to me to follow her.

“How will you carry the soil – in a ghamela (iron pan) or in a cloth?” she asks again, as we dig up large chunks of red soil. “Nahi, isko nahi bojhata (no, we won’t make her carry a load),” says Budhia at once, solicitously. Nanu, who, no doubt, doesn’t share the sentiment, shoots me a challenging glance.

“I would like to carry a small headload,” I say, “Not as big as your’s, but something I can carry.”

Amidst hoots of laughter, I am initiated by carrying a half-pan of soil on my head. Nanu, her point made, walks besides me, solicitous that I don’t trip with my load. We pile up our mud on the bridge, just above where the dam is planned. The other women go back twice more for huge headloads of soil, while Chanda goes into the river bed, just below where the soil is piled up on the bridge. Filling a pan with water, she holds it up for me to catch. “Go pour this over the soil.” “Yes,” quips Nanu, approving my new assignment, “Stay here and stay out of trouble.”

For some half-an-hour, all of us work on wetting and kneading the soil with our feet into a pliant, sticky mass, and then I am abruptly laid off. “Now go sit under the bridge,” says Budhia, “The next stage is not your cup of tea.”

And the actual work of dam building begins. Little Lalita and elderly Ratnay dokri maay (grandmother) remain on the bridge, while the three strong, middle-aged women get into the water. The circular dam is planned around three sections of the stone bridge. The walls of the bridge form a natural part of the dam, and along one wall, there are the remains of an old dam, which is also going to be part of the structure.

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Budhia, Nanu and Chanda(left to right) hard at work on the dam

Budhia first walks off a little way downstream, and breaches another dam there. “It will help drain the water off when we empty the dam,” she explains to my query.

Then, carrying a coffee coloured saree, she carefully circles the proposed dam area, selects a spot, and looks inquiringly at Chanda and Nanu, who are keenly following her actions from across the dam site. At their nod of approval, she drops the saree into the water, like a signal.

And the heavy work starts in earnest. The three women put their shoulders against a broken concrete slab lying in the water near one of the bridge walls, and bring it upright. Nanu holds it up while Budhia piles up stones to extend the dam wall. With a loud splat, a large lump of mud lands on a pillar of the bridge, dropped by Lalita. Others follow. Nanu, still supporting the slab with her knees, uses her hands to steady the growing pile of mud. Once Budhia has put in enough stones to support the slab, she starts lifting off large balls of mud and planting them first on the slab, and then on the growing stone dam wall. Budhia takes them up and passes them along to Chanda, who has taken position further along the wall. Lumps of mud line up all along the fast-growing length of the wall.

The three women then start breaking off smaller lumps, and their hands disappear under the water with them. Chanda has collected a pan-full of small stones from the river-bed. Her hand disappears under the water with one, and comes back without it. It is impossible to see what is happening under the muddy water. From the pushing, tucking and rubbing motions, I guess that the smaller rocks are being plugged into the gaps between the bigger rocks, and a mud plaster is being applied to close off all chinks and prevent the dam from leaking.

Their faces intent, bodies taut and conversation reduced to grunts, the women work for more than two hours, pausing only to occasionally flash a reassuring smile at their helpless dependent draped over a pillar, going clickety-clack with a ridiculous little gadget. Questions are impossible, and there is an impending sense of danger. At one point, Budhia rushes to rescue a large heap of precious mud that has fallen into the water, and the mass she brings up in her arms could easily dislocate her back. The dam – three feet high in some places — stands on no foundation, and any moment a part of it can collapse onto someone’s body (it does collapse a few times, harmlessly) and cause serious injury. Or someone can slip and fall on the brown slime on the shifting rocks in the river bed, and  break their back. For one moment, I put my camera down and just look. In this work, the women have as much chance as the fish they are hunting. The dam can seriously injure or kill any of the women as surely as the fish which are going to die to nourish these strong, resilient bodies. This is how things work in an ecosystem – the hunter and hunted have an equal chance.

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The foundation-less dam can collapse and injure Budhia any moment

In this work, the women have as much chance as the fish they are hunting. The dam can seriously injure or kill any of the women as surely as the fish which are going to die to nourish these strong, resilient bodies. This is how things work in an ecosystem – the hunter and hunted have an equal chance.

Budhia, bent over and upto her shoulders in the water, pauses in her labours to take a deep breath. Her straining, intent face is at its most beautiful. With a start, I realise that in this moment I am seeing her in total oneness with the river she is straining against – a primal, raw oneness that is love and war at once. In her struggle against the river, is Budhia also conscious of loving it? Maybe not in this moment, but last night, while inviting me to this adventure, she had described how rich and full of fish the Sipna is. “There are so many fish in our Sipna,” she had said, her voice going tender, “Sweet fish. No other fish is as tasty as our fish here.” Yes, I think Budhia loves her river even as she struggles against it. She may not, however, resonate with the vocabulary I am using to express her truth.

In the backdrop, two men are fishing with nets, floating peacefully on inflated tubes. For the first time in 16 years of working among indigenous people, it strikes me how easy fishing with nets is compared to dam-building. Nets, which are expensive, I realize for the first time, turn fishing which is a community and sustenance activity, into an individual and commercial one, because they make it possible for just one person to sweep large quantities of fish off the river with far less effort than a dam. That is when selling starts. It does not really provide the fishermen with a satisfactory livelihood, but takes the fish effectively off the platters of the poorest.

Two adolescent boys have come over the bridge and stayed to watch the fishing operations. One starts helping Ratnay with tossing the mud, while the other sits dangling his legs. The silence is complete. The women, waist deep in water and bent over, so that their shoulders are level with the dam, have sweat dripping down their foreheads and noses as the sun bakes their heads, even as their bodies give the occasional shiver from the cold water. The work has now acquired a steady rhythm. Ratnay and the boy toss mud down from the bridge. Unskilled Lalita catches the mud, conserves it on the pillar, and carries lumps across the water to the three expert builders. The only sound is the eager calls of the egrets which are gathering – they seem to know that when humans build dams, there are fish to be had.

Slowly, as the shadows start lengthening – we had started at 12 noon, and now it is about 3 PM – the dam comes to a finish. It is a large circular structure about twenty feet by thirty feet, almost three feet deep at one end and 1.5 feet around the others. Chanda scrambles over some dry rocks to reach the spot where Budhia had dropped the brown saree into the water. At the same time, Budhia – she appears to be the workhorse of the team – starts strengthening a stretch of old wall, slicing off a narrow, crescent shaped section from the main pool. Chanda waits, watching Budhia’s work keenly, and when the little wall is nearly done, she breaches the original dam wall at the point where the saree had been put. The coordination and timing is absolutely split second, like it has been all along.

“The water will drain away through this,” she explains on her own, sensing my eager question, as she lays the saree out as a trap at the mouth of the breach to trap any escaping fish, and secures it with stones.

Ulachne ko aa ja (come to help with emptying the dam),” Budhia calls me. And taking one of the iron pans, she starts a cascade of water flying  out of main pool into the crescent-shaped draining pool. The speed is amazing. The others also get to work with pans, but because they are working in the deeper part of the pool, the speed is less.

 

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Budhia (right) and Lalita draining out of the main pool into the crescent shaped outer pool

On unsure steps, I cross over the moss covered rocks and into the dam to help with this easier activity. I really do want to put in my share of work to earn the fish I will be eating, but my heart is sinking. And the work is just as hard as it looks. I have to bend over to fill my plate – it is tiny compared to the pans the women are using – rise, and throw it out into the draining pool. My shoulders and back feel it at once, and after twenty strokes, I have to stop and rest.

But the women are not working constantly either. They drain, then stop to rest, using the time to check the dam for leaks as the water level drops. Fine points of engineering are discussed in urgent tones, remedial measures are applied, mostly in the form of a coat of mud, and then the splashing goes on.

Tera paani kam nahi ho ra (your water is not reducing),” teases Chanda. I look around, and realize that the part of the pool I am working in is walled off from the rest by and old, submerged wall. Oh god! I have gone and gotten myself a pool of my own, and now my performance can be individually assessed.  And the miserable trickle of water I am sending out will not empty this pool in a year!

“Oh no, she is working well,” comforts Budhia, “She is good. We will marry her to him next year,” she says pointing to the teenage boy. “Yes! yes!” cries everyone, including the boy, and the joke lasts till I try to cross over to the other side of the pool, and slip and fall on my backside. Then the new joke is about my wet and muddied dhungan – bum.

But only slightly over an hour later, the boy who is to be my husband cries, “Woh dekh, macchhi kuda! (look, a fish jumped!) The water is now around ankle deep in this part of the pool, about three feet deeper than the water-level in the river surrounding the dam. The work becomes hectic. Lalita drapes another saree over the wall of the inner pool, and stands in the draining pool holding its other end up. Budhia drains into this saree now, and streaks of silver flash and jump in the silt that gathers in it. When some fish are seen scrambling behind rocks for shelter, she drops her pan, chases and grabs, turns over rocks and grabs some more. Behind me, the boy screams, “Catch it! Catch it!” I turn around, and miraculously, grab two fish at my first try, along with a handful of silt.

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a pair of muddy tails

But even within this confusion, some understanding is dawning. Maybe Budhia and Ratnay have a better sense of what abundance really means than I do. Our nets and tools have made life – and food – way too easy to get. Maybe they have no business being so easy. Food is precious in nature, and maybe this back-breaking labour is just what a basket of fish ought to cost.

A pan has been placed on a large flat rock, and I toss my catch into it, grab once more, and to my own incredulity, land another tiny one. The boy flashes me an appreciative smile as he brings up a handful of squirming tails.

But I can either get my hands muddied catching fish or I can take pictures. Also, I am constantly in danger of slipping and falling, breaking a bone and getting everyone in trouble. So old Ratnay packs me off with, “You caught three fish, you will get only three fish to eat. Now get out of the way and sit still.”

The hectic draining and grabbing continues at lightning speed – it will be dark soon – Budhia and Chanda constantly dam up deeper parts of the pool and drain into the empty shallow parts, exposing more fish. Slowly, a large plastic pan begins to fill with fish as pool after tiny pool is fished clean. The net fishermen give up their own work to come and stand around in curiosity, their faces eager. And suddenly, Chanda gives a yell. Her hand is holding up what is undoubtedly the catch of the day – a fat eel more than a foot long.

The sun is almost gone by the time the last saree is gathered up, the basket of fish is lifted out and the carefully built dam breached mercilessly for the river to regain its territory and the fish to renew itself. Ratnay and Lalita take the fish to the bank and wash the silt out carefully in a small pool, while the rest of the women wash out their tired limbs and take out the food.

My mind is working out the economics of the effort – one basket of fish – maybe 10 to 12 kgs – for five hours of back-breaking labour, to be divided among five collaborators, with a small share for the teenage boy too. Is it worth all the trouble? Aren’t nets a better idea afterall?

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Muddy treasure

But Budhia and Chanda see it differently. “Who has money for nets,” says Chanda absently, “Hum log aisei pakadta  (this is what suits us).”

“Today you came and we got more fish,” says Budhia, “You were good for us.”

Are there more fish in the river now than there used to be some years back? I expect that the number of fish would dwindle, as Sipna, like all other rivers elsewhere, is drying up due to irregular monsoons and deforestation along its course. But old Ratnay says, “Now there is less water, so we can get more fish. Earlier the river used to be so full we could not fish as much as we do now.” Budhia only adds to the confusion, “Earlier, where was the time to come fishing? The children were small, there was so much work. Now the children are older, so we have time to come fishing. We get more fish now.” Left neither here nor there by these answers, I give up my attempts at getting an ecological quantification in frustration.

But even within this confusion, some understanding is dawning. Maybe Budhia and Ratnay have a better sense of what abundance really means than I do. Our nets and tools have made life – and food – way too easy to get. Maybe they have no business being so easy. Food is precious in nature, and maybe this back-breaking labour is just what a basket of fish ought to cost.

Lalita and Ratnay are now back, and it is time to divide up the catch. Chanda’s eel is cut into five equal pieces. The larger fish – four inches or more – are picked out individually and divided by species, and odd numbers are squared up in rough terms. The smaller fry is sorted out in handfuls of mixed species. There is some disappointment that there are no large ‘malia’ – the Korku’s favourite fish. Chanda has a larger family than the rest so she is given a little allowance. She gets about three kgs, while everyone else gets slightly less. There is a little gentle grumbling at the fact that some of the precious catch will have to be shared with close relatives, so the individual shares will go down. “But they bring us some when they fish, so we can’t say no,” says Budhia.

Exhausted and cheerful at the prospect of fresh fish for dinner, we walk back five km to the village of Kotha in our wet clothes. December is a very cold month in these hills, but the uphill climb warms us up, and good humour comes back. The new joke is around my catch of three fish. “You have to pick out your three fish – we will not give you any other fish,” I am warned repeatedly and gravely.

***

For the record, I got eight fish for dinner that night – as much as I could eat – with rice and jowar bhakhars. Out of her share, Budhia passed on a small portion of the smaller fish to her sister-in-law Mirkaay. From the rest, she cooked half the small fish for dinner, and placed the rest on the hot skillet after making bhakhars, to roast gently on the cooling embers of the wood stove. It is tomorrow’s dinner, she explains, “Roasted fish taste better.” The larger fish, she will roast in rice straw next morning. This way it will not spoil for two or three days more. It will last her family of six hard-working adults for maybe two more days.

How often does Budhia go to fish like this? “When I get time,” she says, once again throwing my quantification efforts out of track, “Once the crops are done, we will go more.”

I end up wondering aloud about how many such back-breaking trips a human body can stand anyway. Budhia looks up from massaging her tired limbs and gives me a wondering look. “Tu bahut thak giya (are you very tired)? ” she asks.

Pictures of Budhia lifting the huge load of mud out of the water flash across my mind. “N-no,” I lie,  frankly ashamed of my comfort loving and ‘soft’ urban body, “Not very.”

She nods knowingly, missing my fib. “jaada nai (not much),” she says by way of reaching an agreement, “Maamooli thak giya. (Just ordinary exhaustion).”

 

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