‘Tomra shohor er lokera bondhutto kore, bondhutto rakhona’( You city people make friends but don’t retain that friendship) says a Santhal girl as Maitreyee B Chowdhury observes life by the Kopai
A couple of months ago, I was in the university township of Shantiniketan. My accommodation was close to a small Santhal settlement near the Kopai river. The rains were long gone and the river was a trickle, with water up to the ankle length only in certain places. On some mornings my friend and I walked up to the river, trying to click the yellow tailed small birds that accompanied us or the small kingfisher that flitted from one electricity pole to another. There are several small and pukka roads that lead you to the Kopai, on the way tall Deodar trees form a shade. In some places signboards inform you of a trail that had been taken by a baul, students from the university slowly cycle past you, people stop to chat, smile even- you know you’re in a different land. From time to time we would see small tea junctions where old men would gather to talk over their morning cup of tea, biscuits would be fed to the stray dogs over much discussion on who would win the elections this time, or how a particular bus had failed to tun up the day before and much more. Further down was a strangely still little pond, surrounded by Banyan trees, with remains of mysteriously conducted puja on its concrete banks. A few feet away a woman sat down stirring the juice that she had extracted from the palm to be made into jaggery. She shouted at us to come away and instead directed us to the Kopai.
Many years ago, my friend had met a young Santhal woman on this very road. Newly married and shy, she had talked very less while on her way home. Nervous about strangers and hesitant to talk she had instead guided my friend to a small settlement of Santhals. On the door of her small hut she had squatted and offered a sudden smile that remained en capsuled with my friend. ‘Tomra shohor er lokera bondhutto kore, bondhutto rakhona’( You city people make friends but don’t retain that friendship) she had said. My friend had returned, with me in tow to keep the promise of friendship.
World over the Santhal art, dance and music have been profiled again and again. To a certain extent this has perhaps come at the cost of their privacy and intrusion into their lifestyle. Walking through the village one gets a feeling that an understanding of their art, songs and dance may not be the only ways of knowing these people. We sat down for a bit near the main tube well of the village under a large Mango tree where somebody had placed a bench just behind a hand pulled cart that stood stacked with hay. As we sat there, an entire lifestyle passed by us. I realized that art wasn’t a separate entity for the Santhals, as I walked around the small houses or talked to some small child and followed her around– the subtelity of Santhal art hit me hard. It was everywhere around you, in their trash, on their walls, in the colours they used, the homes for the pigeons that they created, the music that they sat down to and so much more.
I saw a small child apply a lepon the walls of her friends house, later she told me that she had promised her friend that she would gift her a peacock on the wall. When I met her she had been busy making arrangements to draw the peacock on mud. Santhals are shy, hesitant and reticent when approached to talk about themselves and yet their curiosity about everything overcomes them. Didi mach khete bhalo laage? ( sister do you like fish) Or aaj rate naach hobe, ashba neki?( Tonight there will be dance, will you come?)
The woman whom we found after a long search, looked like a haggard woman too tired to talk. Was this the woman who had talked with so much pride about the city dwellers treatment to the Santhals? One wouldn’t know, a hard life in spite of art surrounding it can be unkind, the curiosity of outsiders an intrusion- suddenly there is a wall that you cannot penetrate anymore. You glimpse only so much of a simple life and an enchanting community and wish that they remain the beautiful people that they are- subtle, quiet and individualistic.