22-Oct-2009 -- “Munus splendidum mox explebitur” or more colloquially “the splendid task will soon be fulfilled”. This is what was on our minds as we drove onwards from Nandul towards our last CP of the state- Hatigam at 20N 82E. Even at this juncture Kasi was vehemently arguing that the CP was in Chattisgarh, the neighboring state. There was reason to doubt about its location, as it was placed just on the border; the map depiction was that of the cherry on the top twirl of an ice cream cone.
This trip, we were using public transport. The Orissa State Transport bus would have been bested by a glacier. Even though the confluence points were separated by just seventy miles or so, at times seventy miles in rural India can feel like a good seven hundred miles. The journey took us a good of half a day; the narrow curvy pot holed road wound its way around the small villages. The bus stopped every few minutes, taking on and seeing off passengers for whom this was the only source of transport.
There were maize plantations on both sides of the road. The tall stalks swayed to and fro, their crisp green leaves moving like limbs of the human body. Maize had been introduced in the area lately as an alternative to upland paddy in the sparse irrigated areas of Kalahandi. Umerkote, the place that we were passing through is one of the largest maize producing areas in Orissa. The hardy crop has been yielding good profits. Maize is well suited to these small marginal farmers as its cost of cultivation is low, it tolerates drought, intercropping does not affect it, no fertilizers are needed and pest load is almost negligible. To the poor farmers who had traditionally engaged in sustenance cultivation of low yield rice, maize is a miracle crop. They can easily sell the crop, even the lower varieties which are bought as cattle and poultry feed. A local farmer at a wayside tea stall told me this little ditty “Tanka darkar karle puo, Chaitra masa re makka ruo” which means “Son if you need money plant maize in March.”
The bus stopped at Umerkote, we got down for stretching our now cramped bodies. After some tea, we were once again on our way, our destination being Raighar, a small border outpost from where the CP was about 16 kilometers. A half hour drive from Umerkote, the bus was waived down by a police jeep, the officer told us that the road ahead was blocked by villagers who were protesting against some government policy. There was not other way, and we prepared ourselves for a long wait. Kashi had meanwhile switched on the Garmin and found that we were just 33 kilometers away from the CP.
We decided to take a ride on one of the passing tractors, who would have anyway been allowed passage. We got down our bags, and soon we were hanging on for our dear lives on the mudguard of a tractor. We rumbled on towards Raighar and had covered a good distance before we encountered the road blockade. There were about a hundred villagers who had blocked the road. They had put some old tyres on the road and burnt them the thick black acrid smoke hung low.
We got down and approached the crowd which immediately made way presuming us to be journalists. The camera tripod was a give away and soon we were surrounded by the group, each wanting to tell his version. We gathered that they were protesting the death of a farmer who had committed suicide as he had a very poor crop and was unable to pay the loan which he had taken from the co-operative. It was ironical. Here we were standing on a road on both sides of which were lush fields. There were no government officials in sight, and a few policemen stood about two hundred metres away. I tried to convince the crowd that we were not from the press but they would just not understand. In the end Kashi pretended to take the interview of the Sarpanch, and for good measure I clicked away a few photographs. The advantage of digital photography is that you can see and show the results immediately, the people were pleased with the photos and we were soon on our way.
We walked away from the crowd, going down the road. The traffic build up on this side was much less, and we were soon on the open stretch of the road. The Garmin Navigator showed the CP to be just 19 kms away. There were no vehicles going our way, the few that were turning around refused to take us to Raighar. The others were reconciled to a patient wait.
Kashi soon improvised a stout stick and tied up our bag on one end. I hitched the camera bag and the tripod and we started our walk towards Raighar. Very soon we were joined by a myriad of people, who were carrying farm produce, poultry, earthen pots etc. and were on their way to the Raighar haat. These weekly markets "haats" are a tradition all over rural India but none so colourful and traditional as in this part of Orissa. These markets are dotted around the districts and occur once a week to serve the local villages and tribes of the area. These once a week 'haats' are the lifeline of then local populace. For many of these people, the haat is the only contact with the other civilization. There has been very little change in most of these markets for a millennium. Most of the villagers walk nearly ten kilometers or more to reach the market with their humble produce which they either sell or barter while catching up on events or news. The produce may be cultivated, gathered from the forest or crafted. The haat is the place where everyone, whether a tribal from a village in the hills or a traveling storekeeper going from one market to the next, cross paths.
These markets are usually held under the canopy of old trees, a place that is designated on the outskirts of the village. Different 'haats' cater to the varying needs of the local tribes in the different districts; therefore each 'haat' has its own different flavour, colour and size. The haat at Raighar too was a regular Thursday affair.
I and Kashi were soon a part of the crowd. We had to walk nearly four kilometers and reached Raighar just as the haat was about to begin. The photo-op was too much to let go by. We decided to stay over for the morning and get our first hand experience of the haat. It was yet early; most of the traders were either unloading their wares or setting up shop. I and Kashi went to a nearby hand pump and had a good wash. A traveling village barber had set up his shop under the canopy of a huge mango tree. A cracked fly blown mirror was hung up on the trunk of the tree, and an ancient wooden chair with an adjustable neck rest had been put up. The barber was busy honing a cut throat razor on a leather strap which he had conveniently hung up on a branch. He was stropping it up and down, and after every dozen moves, would test the sharpness of the blade. I was sold, and very soon the barber had had first customer of the day. He kept me waiting on the straight backed chair, while he went about unpacking his tools of the trade from the barber box. Combs, brushes, scissors, straight bladed with large circular finger holes, powder puffs and brass bowls, a block of worn down and smooth alum, cheap talcum powder and the foaming soap. He laid them all out on a makeshift shelf that he had hung upon the tree.
Among the many things that a man loves is, to be given a shave by another. It’s a great feeling. I sat back in the barber’s chair with my eyes closed and enjoyed the trip. After lathering my face, he asked me for the choice of razor to use. He had a razor with a disposable blade too, but I opted for the folding cut throat one with a wooden handle that he had been sharpening. The barber unfolded the razor and gave it another round on the strap; he muttered a silent prayer, while holding the razor to his forehead. I was his first customer, hence the prayer. It was one of the smoothest shave I have ever had. At the end of the shave the barber rubbed the alum block to cauterize all the cuts that he may have made. It stung, but he soon applied a after shave menthol cream. All this for three rupees.
By now, the entire market place bore a festive look. Neatly dressed tribal women, oiled hair and flowers on their heads. Most of them had tattoos on their arms and a few were tattooed on their faces too.
The haat was like a one-stop shop, you find everything - from vegetables to striped underwear, colourful dresses, shoes and slippers, wicker baskets, brooms, decapitated chicken, bleating goats, leaf bowls, earthen pots, aluminum utensils, tobacco etc. In one corner a man had put out a variety of imported Chinese torches for sale. In another corner brightly dressed up women were selling mohuli and handia, the local potent brews from large aluminum pots. Even though it was early, a few of the locals had already sampled their wares and were lurching around.
There were some exotic items for sale. Huge tubers, the shape and size of elephant legs, brown on the outside and milky white inside were stacked. The inner portion was being scrapped by a scraper and the shavings were put in a leaf bowl. I tried some, it was sweet and crunchy. Another villager was selling the eggs of the red ant, a local delicacy. The smell of dry fish hovered in the air. A quack had set up his colourful tent right in the middle of the field and had put on a prerecorded spiel, monotonously advertising his miracle cures in high decibel. He had a cornucopia of dried herbs, animal bones, powders, potions, and also a few live iguanas. His specialty was the “sandhe ka tel”, which he prepared by dipping one of the live iguanas into smoking oil. This was supposed to be a strong and effective aphrodisiac. His confidence was contagious, though his wares could impair even the believers.
In the far corner, excitement was being betted at. A cock fight was soon to be under way and wagers were being laid. Amidst the cacophony of the market, the voices of at least a hundred men, all waving their hands vigorously, rose above all others. We had earlier seen met a few men wandering around the market with handsome cocks, I had presumed that it was jungle fowl which they had brought for sale. However these were trained fighter cocks specially bred as vicious and temperamental beasts for this blood sport. A ring had been roughly drawn and men sat encircled clutching small denominational notes. The fight was to be between a red and a white cock, and the book maker was pretty busy.
These cocks had great vigour and stamina and they exhibit formidable courage during the fight. Both the fighters had edged blades attached to one of their legs. The fighter birds rose high and tried to kick the enemy bird. It was a no holds barred fight. There were flying feathers and blood spurts. The crowds cheered themselves hoarse. The fight ended with the red rooster emerging as the victor. The owner of the successful cock was entitled to get the defeated cock. Most of the fights are to the finish. One of the birds usually bleeds to death and in a rare case when both cocks are killed; the owners exchange the dead birds. Women are not allowed to watch this sport.
So engrossed was I in the activities that I had completely forgotten that we were out on a Confluence hunt. Kashi had been impatiently hinting that it was time to leave. He had made enquiries and convinced an Auto Rickshaw man to take us to a destination which we ourselves did not know. I had to drag myself away from the haat.
The CP was 16 kms away from Raighar. It lay somewhere just before Kundie. The milestone showed Kundie to be 10 kms away, here we took a right turn and reached Maripara village. The Garmin Nav indicated the CP to be about 800 metres north. We stopped the Auto and very soon had befriended two brothers Khan Singh Ganda and Agman Singh Ganda, who readily agreed to accompany us in out hunt. The simple and guileless villagers just had a no questions approach to things; they were willing to accompany strangers without even understanding the purpose of the visit. All four of us got on the Auto and followed the straight line approach of the Garmin. We stopped the auto about 400 metres from the CP and crossed a small rivulet named Tirinala. The CP is actually situated in the hamlet of Bangapara. The nearest village of Lendibada is seven kilometers from the point. We reached the CP at around 3 P.M. It took Kashi all of five minutes with a little tooing and froing to achieve “all zeros”.
The CP was on a small hillock amidst lush green paddy fields. Because of the clear blue sky, we got reception from nearly nine satellites and the accuracy was just 7.4 metres. There were rice fields all around. One of the rice fields had a scarecrow that did not work, as it had three crows perched on it. There was a thin stream that irrigated the fields from the Tirinala that we had earlier passed. The land belonged to a farmer of the nearby Bangapara village, and very soon he was on the spot. After introductions were made, he enquired about the purpose of our visit. By now the curiosity of the Ganda brothers and the Auto driver too was palpable. Kashi wanted to explain the actual reason, but it would soon be dusk, and I fell back on our oft tested story of Cell phone towers. The Ganda brothers were perplexed, they were not aware of Cell Phones. This part of rural Orissa had still not been covered. During our travels, we had discovered places where electricity had not yet reached, yet Cell phone connectivity was available. The villagers would charge their phones using solar panels.
However the Auto driver was not convinced. He took me aside and whispered “ now that we are alone, tell me what is the real reason you came here. I promise I won’t tell anyone.” I smiled and imagined some of the possible semi-illicit (and probably more likely) reasons a person might come here: maybe I was a government agent, or a land speculator, the magic machine I held in my hands told of the fortunes that lay beneath the soil.
We got about our mandatory tasks of photographing the CP. The sun was still high over the horizon, the sky was clear blue.
East of the Confluence was the gentle slope of the small hillock. The whole area was overgrown with small trees and shrubs and there were a few flowering hibiscus stalks.
West of the Confluence the fields stretched away to the horizon. This too was similar to the other coordinates and there was a profusion of hibiscus plants.
North of the Confluence was a rice field with the green stalks already a foot high. There were sporadic trees in between. In the distance there was a field that still had the dried up brown maize stalks. The stalks are left in place after the maize is harvested and they gradually crumble into the soil, become biomass and help in fertilizing and regenerating the field.
South of the Confluence too greenery stretched all the way to the horizon. There was a middle growth neem tree in the vicinity. Long ago, this must have been an orchard, and the trees must have been felled for cultivation.
As we had frequently experienced in our previous Confluence hunts, there were no special features to be seen at this intersection of longitude and latitude, but the places we had covered in getting there were spectacular, and, in particular, the people we had met and the friendships made on the journey were outstanding.
We were invited to the Village, but as it was getting late we decided to call it a day. Mission accomplished! The search for Romance and Adventure was over. We had completed all the Confluences of Orissa! Kashi repented not having got a bottle of the potent mohuli that was being sold at the haat. I took a photograph of the whole group and then packed up the equipment.
We started back for Raighar; no one was in a particular hurry. Halfway to Raighar, we had a flat tyre, we were lucky as there was a spare and it was pretty close to a full moon. I and Kashi sat on a culvert while the driver jacked up the auto. A shooting star arced across the clear sky, and I told Kasi that we should make a wish. From here to where? Would we keep the Confluence hunts on? After Orissa-India? Yes, that was a tall order. I wished that I would at least cover one confluence in each of the 30 states of my beautiful country.
A year ago, with whomever we had discussed the Confluence hunts; all were very skeptic about our success. Some of them had written us off, saying that it would be impossible to do all the points. I recollected that I had gone to the Bhubaneswar Airport’s meteorological centre to calibrate and check my Garmin, and when I had told them of my plans they had told me on my face that it would be impossible. The Survey of India Office, from where we had procured our Topo Sheets too was not very hopeful that we would complete all the points.
Dr. Kabir Sethy, the professor of Geography in Utkal University had however encouraged me and told me that even though it was very difficult, it was not impossible. I had met him one rainy afternoon at his home and told him of my plans. I had expected a discouraging long winded academic session, but he was enthused and had promised all help, which he did extend later on. I had no knowledge of reading of the Topo maps, leave alone the GPS. He taught us the intricacies of the GPS and helped us in getting maps that were not easily available. I had kept him abreast of the successes we had met, and he had encouraged us all along. I would have to go and thank him for his role in our successful mission.
We stopped for dinner in a wayside dhaba where we dined al fresco on mushroom, rice, dal and spinach. We reached Raighar in time to catch the last bus to Bhawanipatna.