Saturday, November 26, 2005

CULTURES THAT TAUGHT ME

Basuvan was a short man, according to his own ‘Kattunayakar’ brethren. He was about four-and-a-half-feet in height, thin, wiry and would have never exceeded about 45 kilo grams on any day. His ancestors were experts in the art of tapping honey from those massive combs that dangled on the near sky-high trees of the beautiful undulating Malabar hills in the Western Ghats. Basuvan was according to his own people, closest to their ancestors when it came to cajoling honey out of the combs. Because most of these honey comb-bearing trees were in the midst of prime elephant and tiger forests, the people of this community were also experts in camouflage and stealth. And so was Basuvan too.When I met Basuvan for the first time, he was planting yam in his backyard (he lived in the forest). I was aimlessly wandering in Basuvan’s home ground searching for the ever-elusive Malabar grey hornbill. Basuvan was busy digging pits to plant the yam, when I casually asked him if he could join me in my search of the hornbills. He did not reply though he nodded in positive. In the five years that I spent with Basuvan, he had never spoken many a words.We began our search together. While I was straining my ears and eyes to locate the hornbill, Basuvan had a very simple technique. He was looking for the fig trees in the forest. For he knew - and his ancestors had definitely passed on the knowledge - that the hornbills will flock around any fig tree that has ripe fruits in it. And I did see hornbills in hundreds on the fig tree. I had a lot of pride in myself that I was ‘the expert’ in the forest armed with all the requisite background knowledge on the hornbills and their habitats. But without uttering a word, Basuvan showed me my place by using his indigenous knowledge of the habitat. Basuvan’s abilities for observation were enormous. By viewing a pugmark, he would comment about the age of the tiger, its gender, the mood of the animal, whether it was hungry or was just having a casual stroll. Every day we would be charged by elephants, and I cannot think of a day, when it was but Basuvan who plucked me out of danger.I did learn to survive and enjoy my prolonged stay in the forests. I learnt to move through endless herds of elephant by plastering myself with elephant dung. I learnt to mimic the calls of the leopard and the hornbills, the barbets, the jungle fowls and so on. I learnt to walk with minimal disturbance to other co-habitors of the forests. I learnt to sleep on the forest floor and yet be always ready to spring up and ascend the nearest tree to save myself from some of the charismatic animals of the forest. I actually realised that over a period of time, I actually had began to train the powers of my senses to better use in this beautiful journey with Basuvan. I realised that for the first time in life I actually was looking at plants beyond their mere ‘scientific names’. I was very happy and satisfied, for there was a new vigour within. I was more observant. I was seeing entities that ignored my attention, I was hearing sounds that were unheard before, I was smelling fragrance that missed my nostrils till then.I and Basuvan went on to work together for the next five years. I do feel that I owe my life and its learnings to Basuvan. Though, my work got internationally published, commended, and the Bharathiar University awarded a doctorate for my work, it actually belonged to the puny kattunayakan whom his people called Basuvan.The cultures that taught me in the city and far off in the forest communicated a common thread. These cultures demanded one’s total attention, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days. These cultures demanded the senses to delve deep beneath the periphery. These cultures demanded silent expression and were predominantly silent. These cultures demanded my time in fullness. These cultures were about subtlety. I am in the midst of another culture. And my leaning continues……

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