The Village of Storytellers
(I wrote this on a whim while waiting for my husband to pick me up from office, for womensweb.in. OF COURSE, the girls at womensweb.in were too sensible to publish it for their Muse of the Month section. My work of fiction is too amateur and lacks depth. But since I wrote it, I thought maybe I can put it up here. Kindly bear my figments of imagination.)
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
He sighed as he spoke, rolling the tobacco leaves between his palms.
I looked at him, a wizened figure, deep lines criss-crossing his face. His rickety hut reeked of the strong tobacco that he smoked continuously. A buffalo skull with huge curved horns adorned the front of his door. He was the village headman, after all.
We had stumbled upon this small conglomeration of tribal people deep in the jungles of the sprawling Okawi Wildlife Sanctuary, on our quest to map the presence and movement of the rare Pinata, a small passerine bird of Himalayan origin. Theirs was a world forgotten, untouched by the vagaries of time. The men hunted for food while the women tended to the children. The forest department deliberately turned a blind eye to these sporadic activities, the villagers being staunch worshippers and keepers of the forests, hunting only for necessity. Besides, poaching was not rampant those days, back in 1980, and there was enough ecological balance even with this little village in the middle of the forest.
I saw no perceptible sign of livestock or agriculture, barring a few patches of potatoes and the seemingly innocuous tobacco plants. There was no electricity, no radio. I had wondered aloud how they kept each other engaged. It was then that the village headman had uttered the words about stories keeping them alive. Stories that each one had inherited from their fathers and grandfathers as legacies. They added their own twists as they sat around the fire, telling their stories, while keeping a look-out for the lurking predators. I sat listening to them in rapt silence, while my fellow researchers slept, and realized that it was a night I would never forget.
I listened to her constant chatter, seeking a chance to ask the question gnawing in my mind.
“Did you chance upon a little tribal village in the middle of Okawi?” I blurted out in the middle of a sentence.
“A village?” Anshita seemed confused. “There are no villages in Okawi, auntie. Okawi is too small a forest to hold any kind of village with so many towns surrounding it. Why did you ask, but?”
Had the world changed so much then, I thought.
“I once knew some story-tellers there,” I answered in a low voice.
“Oh, now I understand what you meant, auntie,” Anshita perked up. “You meant the Chokhi Dhani type of village resort, didn’t you? Yes, there is one near Okawi. They have a story-telling session in their itinerary, held in the evenings around a bonfire. Some guys were there to tell stories, but most of us were busy getting mehendi drawn on our hands. Only a few children were listening to them. The parents were quite thankful to get the kids out of their hair, I guess. I saw one of them pay a good tip to a story-teller. Auntie, are you listening?”
My mind had drifted off to that evening 33 years back, and the words of the village headman resonated hauntingly.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live….”