‘Mela’ must have its origins here. Around me were colourful plastic goggles like props-in-calling for the retro-theme Vespa ads, mandating humungous physical strength from the parents to pry away boys who just stood there transfixed to imagined bell-bottomed Bollywood numbers from the 70s. Little girls stood in queue outside bangle shops awaiting their turn while the shopkeeper with grave nods and dramatic shaking of head decided on the colour of the chudi that went best with each skin. His judgment was sacrosanct and his wry little comments were met with fluttery laughter or coquettish cackle depending on whether you were waiting, watching or with your hands outstretched.
“You look like Rani Mukherjee… So you will look better in red.”Neither his design judgments nor the accessory verdicts held much rhyme or reason. Nevertheless it was great fun to watch the newly-bangled girl go pink while the next one in line came forward with an anxious look whether the seller would up his ante. The seasoned veteran of village fairs he was, nobody was let down.
“Now who is this…Vidya Balan?” Was followed by a “Then, ‘veeery Daaarty Picture’ it is,” added for house benefit. His rubberneck kept on untiringly prying the crowd for anecdotal inspiration.
Just like from this little bangle shop, mirth and happiness reverberated from numerous other make-shift stalls that cascaded in all directions from the vast, brown ground winging the only road that connected Jokbahla to the city of Raipur in Chhattisgarh. This ‘connection’ went deep down rock-strewn ravines and overflowing dykes, lost its way over desolate buttes and mossy moraines, twisted through dense jungles and diverted haphazardly around patchy irrigated stretches. I thought the jeep I was being jarred around was a remnant of a World War till the driver told me it was a ‘1990’. Jokbahla is close to 300 km from Raipur with the last 100 km a stew. Then, travel comfort is not top-of-mind for this is Naxal territory. Making a film on behalf of the government had the potential to land me in the crosshairs; but what would work on my behalf was that I was hired to do the job by a grassroot NGO.
“The driver will sound the bugle and will have the hazard signal on throughout the trip.” The government official who saw me and my crew off said.
“This will keep them (the Naxals) at bay for they will know that it is a government official passing through.” The only thing missing in his assurance was the assurance itself.Of course as we approached the jungle, in a show of scared sodality, we unanimously decided not to sound the bugle or to blaze the hazards but just slip past quietly through. After all, announcing from a winding distance ‘here comes the government’ would give any potential captor enough time to lay an ambush. That we may talk our way out citing common benefactors might be a different story, possibly a pointless one depending on the methods employed for the ambush. What scared me more that my cameraman was a nervy type who nursed a very public grudge against all terrorists, Naxals and the Taliban; he lost his journalist brother to crossfire between the police and terrorists in Kashmir.
“That we don’t take recourse to the gun does not mean that we don’t stand for anything,” he muttered nervously as we clattered along the jungle trail. I wholly, fully agreed.
We arrived at the dimly-lit office of the NGO as twilight fast spread its speckled blanket over the bucolic surroundings. The verdurous canopy of the trees had conspired to loom over us in a rusty-tawny silhouette. As we stood around waiting for dinner to be served, we were introduced to most of the dozen odd members of the organisation which had devoted over a century of work in these regions of perpetual gloaming. Some of them struck me as the real deal – savants whose heavy intellect and deep convictions were hidden behind twinkling merriment that at times I misinterpreted for bouts of irascible dotage. We were yet to have an audience with the top guy, Fr Joe; but were assured by his suffragan that we had his blessings and we should have our dinner whenever it was ready instead of waiting for him. We did as we were instructed for we had to film from sunrise the next day.Save for the habitual ululations of the forest – the hyenas and wolves through the night and the wild hen and peacocks from dawn – the night was otherwise uneventful. Uneventful I say for some of us – okay, me included – were half expecting a tough-talking, baby-faced, gun-toting, conviction-pouring Naxal to pay visit. Early mornings seemed to have a phlegmatic effect on the dispositions of the inmates who were otherwise excited the previous night when we were let into tales from their first year in the village, their first meeting with the Naxal, the close calls. The excitement had worn off for them. Fr Joe was yet to make an appearance and we left him the apostrophe that he was. We began our schedule filming the sun streaking like beaming marmalade over a promontory; it was also a kind of ritual personal obeisance to the power.
The village fair coincided with the final day of our schedule. All of us were exultant that the fortunate development would give the film a definite ‘lift’. We began by filming a family coming from a faraway village to attend the mela and followed them through the gaiety of frivolous new possessions and the indecisive preludes to purchases that were more momentous, like, say a grindstone for the kitchen or a new shirt in the ‘latest Bombay fashion’ for the awestruck father. The lady of the house stopped outside a shop selling brooms, obviously wanting to pick one.
“Why don’t you make your own?” Lest his authority was drowned in the festivities, the father had to show who called the shots.
“You bought yourself the latest fashion shirt and you can’t get me a broom? Will you do the cleaning with your latest fashion shirt, then?” It was coming, only a matter of time.
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t buy you anything.” Caught on the back foot, the father conceded. “Come on, let me get you a latest fashion necklace.”Seeing that their father was sweetly ensnared, trapped, the kids were quick to score; they asked him for money to get sweetmeats and went off on their own. Though I was surprised how they would recoup with no mobile telephones or a PA system on the ground I didn’t want to break my shot. Besides, this obviously wasn’t their first fair.
And definitely wouldn’t be their last either.