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Lost and safe in the Malkangiri mess, Part 1; Bangladeshi immigrants, burning puppets, Koya tribals & hydroelectric power

21 November 2010

so, our Malkangiri adventure then… one of our best experiences of this trip, if only we could have stayed a bit longer -as the traveler will always bemoan his/her fate of leaving a good place behind in search for new destinations-Malkangiri, explained to us by other Oriyans as a dangerous place, a place of evil and anxiety. Well, none of it true!

A recount of those 3 that became 4 days, part 1

It started with the busride from Koraput tot Malkangiri. We had been warned that it could take up to 5 hours as the *highway* to Malkangiri isn’t an easy one. It actually took us 7 hours to get there with a ramshackle bus that broke down a few times (little boys going underneath to fix it). Once we got out of Jeypore nature just seemed to take over and one scenic green hill after the other sprung up, beneath them rice terraces overlapped each other while little ponds and irrigation canals dotted around while the sun was going down as a orange ball. That makes any travel overtime always worth it. I think that this was also the area where every year in November the cobra festival is held right before harvest season. Since harvest was already in full swing, we most likely missed this bizarre night of snake charmers and ritual popcorn feeding to wild cobra snakes (to please them so that they don’t bite workers in the rice paddies). It soon got dark, so no more nice views, just flashes of villages, lights and dusty bumpy roads going deeper into the hills. In the bus you could really see the mix of tribals and modern folks. Two young Indian men in neat shirt & suit were looking at a newly bought i-phone gadget. Leaning against them (as it goes in a packed bus) a tribal women who was clad in a traditionale single sari (showing the naked sides of her upper body), barefeeted and tribal tattoo dots on her arm just looked at them and their gadget with an unmoved gaze in her eyes. Whether she felt pity for them and their technology or felt more lost herself in this moment, I couldn’t tell.

We arrived in Malkangiri and we went straight to look for a hotel, as the Malyabanta tribal folk festival had already started. Malkangiri is only a small place and the 4 hotels were already fulll, how stupid that we didn’t reserve before. None could think up a solution and neither the organisation of the festival (as I tried to play my journalist card to no avail). Just then, at the last hotel there came a savior soul who offered to put us up in his family home. Sujit (or Banti, as by his nickname) had already seen us in trouble at a previous hotel and had followed us to offer help. How gladly we took it!

He installed us in a spare room in his small house but in the beginning we felt quite uneasy as his wife Jayanti was 6 months pregnant and not really in healthy spirits. Especially when at 22:30 she even cooked up a quick tasty curry meal for us, the shame of our own mismanagement came over us in the way that her husband imposedto help some foreigners who got stuck here. In the little while that we talked with Sujit and Jayanti, already most things that we wanted to do in/around Malkangiri were going to be arranged with local help of Sujit and his relatives, talk about hospitality! He falso explained that his family originally came from Bangladesh as refugees and that most people in Malkangiri are of Bangladeshi descent who have formed many towns in the area. Still, he felt Indian and Oriyan and not Bangladeshi.

Next morning, Sujit took me out to buy breakfast (south Indian dosa’s!) and arranged a vehicle in which we could explore the tribal area’s, some hydroelectric projects and also go to his native village. Sujit is an electrical engineer and has a contract business with his best friend Aruna as associate, so he came along. Also his older aunt and his young cousin joined us, like going on a family road trip. We set off with 6 of us in a Suziki van, loaded water, soda’s cookies, fruit etc. and the bollywood music in full blare. Passing the centre of town, there was a protest going and a mob had formed who did  lots of shouting, also a straw puppet the size of a small man went up in the air and set on fire. “Who are that, the naxalites?”, “No, the opposing liberal party who want to see the chief minister be put out of office”. Oh that. A few minutes later, the crowd had already dispersed and only the still smoking  straw puppet left behind. If some unknowing visitors had entered town at that moment, they probably would have had different thoughts on staying.

First we went by his office, where electrical transmitters, transformers, metal pieces of poles, thick cables were arranged in heaps outside, lying in the scorching hot sun. he clearly wanted to show us his workplace, so who were we to say no after already such hospitality? On the road we passed a river which were feeds of the hydroelectric dam further on and stopped at a Banglasdeshi temple built by the local Bangla population and inhabited by Bangla swami’s (priests). Bit of Puja time and looking at the river which could rise 5 meters high in rain season, which it did every year.

Back on the road, we turned into dusty roads and soon got to Sujit’s house where his brother was living with their 95 year old grandmother, an age not many people in these area’s get to. She must have known it all, the British rule, the brutal border killing acts of 1947 and the misery in Bangladesh afterwards. The bend of her crooked back seemed to tell it all, as all that weight had pulled her down. The small town was one of those Bangladeshi settlements and some houses there were beautifully low mudwalled farms that looked so pleasantly cool in the shade of a stretched roof and surrounded by palm and other fruit trees. Some children came out to see us, waving to us from behind the fence. Not a region where they won’t easily get to see white people.

After a quick tea we continued, this time to a tribal village of the Koya people which was off a side road into the dusty and red earthed landscape. When we arrived at Gumuka, the Koya village, it became very clear the power and respect that Sujit and Aruna enjoyed from the Koya, as they were on the verge of bringing electricity to the town for the first time ever. Just a few more poles and connection to the hydroelectric plant and presto. As I had told them I liked to record some tribal music where possible, it was easy for them to ask some men to bring the instruments. Apparently they had to go to a next village to get some drums, so it took a while in which were gazed by hordes of children, some in simple cloth, some stark naked, some in school uniform but all just as much dazed by our presence. We went into the square of the village, where a giant tree provided shade and now all the village came out to watch us, young and old alike. It was then told by the headman that we were the first foreigners in the village and they felt honoured. For everything a first time, for us too and an equal honour to be there, waiting for their music!

Gumuka, Koya village

Already some of the musicians had been drinking their local brew *solop* (a sort of rice beer) or *mahili* (liquor) and were a bit drunk. That’s what it takes from them to party and just as much part of the musical performance. Drums of various shapes were put in position and hit in different rhythms by 3 players and so it started when the flute melodie came in. Soon dances from the locals erupted and young men danced in whirls. Soon Ness was taken off to join the rounddance and quickly I was in it too, doing the tribal stepping moves that were almost the same as those of the Munda during the wedding; one step sidewards, one step forwards, backwards and sidewards, but all in equal pace on the rhythms. It’s pure social dance as only performed and preserved in remote communities, like you can still find in Eastern Europe and some last remaining bits of Western European folklore. All the while I kept recording and the music grew more intense. Women started to join in the rounddance and shouts were released to praise the music. Those who weren’t drunk from alcopop, got drunk just purely from the musical endorphines, what better way! Meanwhile, Sujit and Aruna, who didn’t like drunken behaviour as devout hindus, wanted us to retreat to the van and go. i wanted to stay longer in this intoxicating mess, the village completely opened up to us. We were dragged away by Sujit just as the music came to a stop, *click* recording stop, gave some bundled notes to the headman who kissed them and stuck them in the air up to the sun and cried out a happy shout. “But I want to give them more!” I said. “No, we really have to go now before they get too wild” and by that Sujit pushed us in the van and we drove off with the village still in a clustered mass of folks who were partying and happy with what was given to them.

Still reeling from this ecstatic experience, we continued towards the dam project, past water canals and jungle shrubbery. The Bollywood hits of Om Shanti Om back on again in full volume, Sujit and Aruna actually didn’t think much of the tribal music and liked singing along to modern pop better. We saw some walking walking along the river bushes with guns in their hands. “They’re not naxalites but tribal hunters, looking for wild pigs or deer”, Sujit said. A few people in the van had started getting sick from all the bumps on this unhardened road. Sujit felt quesy, Auntie was vomiting at a few stops and Ness also felt her car sickness coming up. Almost everyone except me, uneasy car drives just never trouble me. At one of those stops I got my feet stuck in the quick-mud at a frog pond. We saw the dam turbines coming out of the mountains as Sujit and Aruna wanted us to see them. Ok, done.

Soon we were driving up a forested mountain where it truly was jungle. Even tigers and black bear live there, so not a spot to get stuck at night. Finally we got to their native village on the other side of the mountain, Chitrakonda and stopped at the little harbour for a grand dammed lake view. Darn nice. There in the village we had our *lunch*, albeit more dinner at it was 18:00 by now. Aruna’s brother had arranged a big Oriya fish curry thali for us, as always served on a nice plam leaf, how tasty it was! We drove around their quiet, peacefull town, had a chai and started to make the 60 km return home. Our plans to be back at 18:00 had already failed, so no press pass for us at the festival. When we finally got to the tribal folk festival around 22:00, we lasted less than 2 hours and went home for some well deserved sleep.

Part 2 to follow…

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