After his bath and meal, Tularam put on a new vest. Next he wore a pink kurta made of tussore silk. Along with it, he wore a dhoti with a red border. He had salt-and- pepper hair, cropped short at the back. Behind that, there was an ill-matched knotted tuft of hair. Under his thick, grey moustache, he had a beaming smile. A ring made of tiger stone adorned his finger.

Sankra was about twenty miles from his residence, but he would not go there that day. He would go to Rajim. Avadhoot Singh would take him there like he did sometimes. The raja was going to come there that day. One did not know how long it would be before he came; in fact, it also could be evening or night. The ranger of Sankra had been notified yesterday that the raja had summoned Baidyaraj. While going there, Avadhoot kept repeating that Baidyaraj would be honoured with his title of Baidyaraj that day, and it would get registered – otherwise, among so many people, why should he have been sent for?

It was not because he was thinking of the title, but about his meeting with the raja that Tularam’s heart was palpitating. Apart from that, Rajim was a place where their neighbouring river Sandur had gone and joined the Mahanadi.

Many hundreds of lotuses of several temples bloomed there. Some days ago, there was a Kumbha Mela – the annual fair for pilgrims – at Rajim, on the banks of this very river. Baidyaraj had not been able to go at that time. He would go and see the remains of the dismantled mela now.

Sankra was his workplace, Tularam thought. Sankra was also a very auspicious place. The raja had first come there and called for Tularam. That was on one evening last winter. He had been immersed in his work, his face, hands and neck covered in medicinal powders and smells. In a great rush, Avadhoot and ranger Vishal Thakur had called him and taken him there.

He had had to stand at a stretch for ten minutes because the lunch for the day was in progress there, very belatedly, almost close to evening. The dak bungalow in Sankra was quite old. In one corner of the verandah, Tularam had seen 1827 engraved in stone. These were high structures of yesteryears, in which the bricks were held together by limestone powder and brick dust. There was a rafter made of high-quality wood, and a tiled roof over it. Every few years, the tiles which would come loose would be changed, the weaker wood would be replaced, and the bungalow would be brushed over with paint, so there was no way one could make out the life span of the bungalow.

The sounds of loud conversation, sometimes laughter, clanging of plates, spoons and utensils were coming from inside. Of course, Tularam’s palate had craved a cup of tea. But who would give them tea here? As the evening deepened, the mosquitoes of the forest started humming in the verandah of the bungalow. They were given chairs, but one had to walk around, or they would get badly bitten by these mosquitoes.

Once upon a time, this house had been constructed and built amidst a dense forest. Large trees, packed together, were therefore within reach. In the evening, it seemed as though the trees were walking around, wanting to climb the verandah and get inside.

Even when the raja had finished his bath and emerged, wearing a freshly starched and pressed khadi pajama and kurta and adorned with some perfume, the precincts of the bungalow still teemed with people. But there was space in between; they were not crammed together.

A senior officer of the forest department was bending a little as he talked, and standing up at times in between.

Tularam kept sitting, unperturbed.

The raja had wanted to know what Tularam did for a living. Before Tularam could reply, he realised that Tripathi, the officer babu, was rattling off the answer.

The state of the Adivasis was not what it used to be formerly. Baidyaraj had two-three acres of farmland, he knew all the medicinal herbs, and was well known for treating epilepsy. He had recently also bought a motorbike. And he was cultivating wheat these days, facilitated by the use of the water pump.

Tripathi had deliberately told the raja that Tularam has some reputation as a healer of epilepsy. Later, Tularam had got to know that the raja’s only daughter – poor thing – suffered from epilepsy, but there were so many new ways of treating it these days.

The raja had a head full of dense, black hair. His complexion was also dark. He was six feet tall, healthy and robust. He liked company while eating and making merry, and was a talented man. Otherwise, how could the son of an Adivasi sit at the helm of the state? Tularam was not scared of this raja. It was as though he had come to convey some news about his environment, his village or his constituency to a neighbour.

“I am Tularam Dhuru, Maharaj, and my father’s name is Mahanguram Dhuru. I am a Gond Adivasi, people call me Baidyaraj, and my home is in Chandanbahara – Sihaoa.”

“What other titles do Gonds have, Baidyaraj?”

“Actually, there are no titles at all, but everyone wants to attach a title to their names these days. My grandfather, father and I have always called ourselves Gonds.”

“Why are you addressing me as Maharaj? There are no kingdoms and fiefdoms any more. Hindustan is free.”

Sujan Kumar raised his hand. “But we have created a new state. I hope you are happy about this!”

In this region of Chhattisgarh, Gonds are thirty per cent of the population. They are the natives of the forest plateau. Apart from them, there is a considerable populace of non-Adivasis too – Kamar Sahus (who extract oil from seeds), Nagarchis, Misaads or barbers, Keots (fishermen), Yadavs and Satnamis. Satnamis have quite a lot of sway in this area.

Tularam was speaking in the Chhattisgarhi dialect. His tone and manner of speaking were not tense but calm and composed, full of smiles. Sujan Kumar was intermittently frowning a bit or fidgeting in his seat. He had spent twenty years in politics, but most of it had been in Delhi, so he could not follow all the words of this language.

Of his own volition, Tripathi was latching on to a few cues from the words and explaining: “The Gonds are very happy, Sirji. Chhattisgarh has just become a new state. Earlier, one had to spend Rs 2000-3000 to go to Bhopal. Even if you went there, you could not accomplish your mission, because who would listen to the travails of people from such remote areas? Now they are able to go to Raipur and come back by evening; the expenditure is also not that much. And your government gives us rice for three rupees a kilo. What do you say, Baidyaraj?”

“Of course, rice for three rupees a kilo has both its pros and cons.” Hearing this, Sujan Kumar had stirred in his seat restlessly.

“These days, Gonds don’t have to go to far-away villages to seek a livelihood,” Tularam had said. “Sitting at home, they are getting unlimited rice for three rupees a kilo. It is very convenient – when you have saved a quintal of rice, it is conducive to arrange the wedding of a son or a daughter. But alcohol has created a lot of problems – it is enough if your hands and feet continue to work without hurting a lot. They will drink cholai; if there is mahul at home, they will drink that – otherwise, go out and buy it they must, and after that will start the fights and the violence –

“Otherwise, both boys and girls are going to school nowadays, even the children of Gonds stay in hostels, anganwadis have been started. When the country became independent, we did not realise it as much. We spent our childhood and youth either working as labourers or wandering around in the forest. Now, with the creation of the new state, it really feels as if we have gained our independence...’

Sujan Kumar’s eyes shone with joy. Tularam Dhuru was rewarding him for his work. A child of the forest was tasting freedom – although through the medium of a decentralised rule. But there had actually been no transfer of power, and the distribution of wealth and power had become even more unequal, so to speak, in the ten years that it took to build this state. But it still felt very good to hear all this.

During the elections last year, when Sujan Kumar had declared the accounts of his assets, his property had amounted to two-and-a-half crore rupees, including gold and jewellery, immoveable property, bank savings and investments. Now his assets were worth fourteen crores. The price of the three shops he had bought in Delhi in a timely transaction when the market was favourable had multiplied ten to twenty times. Irrespective of that, Sujan Kumar fancied framing and displaying what Tularam Gond had certified in his bedroom.

“What else, Baidyaraj? Which herbs do you know, and what do you glean from the forest?”

Tripathi and his cronies could read the look in the eyes of the powerful politician. In the dim light of the verandah, on this wintry day, there were two people in the only two chairs. The rest of them were all spread out here and there ... Tularam kept on talking in his slow and unhurried manner, like a passenger train, and Sujan Kumar listened. “Shatabari, shaheb, ashwagandha, shalparni, tembaraj, bhojraj, kamaraj, anantamul, kekrasinghi, jatamangsi, bakchauda, dudhi, sehna gurmar patti...”

The raja had heard of shatabari before – asparagus. It had started being served in soups at the tables of aristocratic households in Delhi for years now. Asparagus cured nervous anxiety; it was found in the tablets of branded companies. Sujan Kumar took those pills at times. But he did not know that shalparni was used to make medicines for gout and cancer. Gurmar patti cured diabetes, Tularam had said. Tembaraj and bhojraj enhanced memory, anantamul treated stomach cramps and leukorrhea. Kekrasinghi healed arthritis, and bakchauda cured both arthritis and xin xin arthritis.

Tularam Gond really knew this forest very intimately. There were more than 200 varieties of medicinal plants and vines in this forest. Of them, Tularam was familiar with about 150. He had worked with about 100 of them. His father, Mahanguram, was a Baidya, and Tularam had learnt hands- on from his father. And he had read the manuscripts of two-three generations that had been preserved in his home. Baidyas often chat about their interpretations of these in the godowns of the forest, in the local village markets, or inside the forest. Like bees that spread pollen, they scatter the seeds of new flowers that have the potential to blossom ...

“Tell me, Baidyaraj, have you seen snakes in the forest?”

“Oh lord! Such varieties of snakes! Not of one kind. We meet snakes every day – nagin, ajagar, shnuriya, pahar chitti, phar dangiya, rokchakki. Shuya snakes fly – it is a wondrous world of colour, sound and life in the forest. There are 100 species of birds in the Sihaoa forest – kukri, neelkanth, thehra, gidhra, raona, manjur chhuriya, chachatiya. Yes, I have seen all animals except elephants. At dusk and in the hushed afternoon, when the animals come close to the water, one encounters them. There are no elephants. Once I saw a herd of tamed elephants in the Sitanadi forest. But I have seen cheetals, samas, banbhuinsas, gawars, snusurs, wild cats and crocodiles in the Sandur river. And the Sitanadi has a strange animal – salkhapri. It has a pointed face, and it eats ants.”

“Pangolin! Pangolin! That is a very rare animal. Zoos are the only place – ”

“In the forest of Sitanadi, many such beautiful animals have disappeared or got drowned and got lost. Guya snakes, salkhapris and the like – ”

Sujan Kumar realized that the happy, fearless Tularam Gond, with his hair cropped short, was a gold mine. Hundreds of years of knowledge, history and exuberance sat still inside the man as if engraved on a sedimentary rock.

He called Tripathi and asked him, “Has Baidyaraj really got his title somewhere, or... ”

“No, no, people just address him as that; he is highly respected in village homes – ”

“What if I call him to the capital and confer him with the title, on behalf of the state – ”

“That will be wonderful, Sir. Tularam will be greatly honoured.”

Tularam was going to be presented before the international committee that was coming to teach how to map rural resources. He was a child of the forest discovered by the chief minister himself. Sujan Kumar could see the future course of events displayed before his eyes. There were similar people in the Adivasi community. Ironmongers, potters, weavers, folk singers – each of them was the repository of a profound heritage. This was the very soil from which Teejanbai’s Pandavani spread to the entire country and world. There were innumerable ministers in the entire country who had helped increase the wealth by five times in five years, but not all of them were Sujan Kumars.

That is why Avadhoot Singh had said this morning that a title would be conferred on Tularam that day. He might have been joking, or perhaps he was not. One could not predict Budharaja’s inclinations; he gave a meagre handful of burnt paddy to some, while he flooded another’s backyard with tumultuous rain.

Mahanadi: The Tale of a River

Excerpted with permission from Mahanadi: The Tale of a River, Anita Agnihotri, translated from the Bengali by Nivedita Sen, Niyogi Books.