Sunday, August 25, 2013

Writing on the Nomadic Budubudike Tribe: In The New Indian Express

An edited version of the story below was published in today's Magazine section in The New Indian Express here.

Some bequeath private planes, some bequeath a tiny rattle drum. To the graying, lightly rotund old man, that little drum is the most revered heirloom he could have wished for. It is what gives him his identity, his livelihood. It is what gives him the epithet Budubudike Dasaiah when he sells people the idea of listening to their daily fortunes first thing in the morning or sometime in the lazy afternoons. 

Amidst cereal for breakfast and dreading rush hours, the old man who saunters into city lanes with the rattle held firmly between his pointer and his thumb does not catch any attention now. Except maybe that of old timers who remember slower times yet. Their fortune telling in exchange for a bowl of rice or loose change is scorned at, the members of the tribe looked at suspiciously and shooed away with disdain. But in the frayed edges of cities, in villages, in hamlets and along country roads, the nomadic Budubudike tribe is still revered for their insight into the future, for their apparent clairvoyance.

The old glory is what Shankarappa holds on to. Wrapped in several layers of colour cloth, the little rattle drum is his inheritance. It is the middle of the day, just after lunch hours. He sits surrounded by women, children and several men younger than him. In the backdrop are huts erected over thin bamboo sticks bent into domes and covered with old torn sarees. 

The Budubudike tribe, identified almost solely by the rattle of their tiny drums as they seek alms and offer to tell people’s futures, used to be nomadic. Most today hover between a semi-nomadic state and rootedness in a village. Shankarappa, amongst the older ones who used to be completely nomadic once upon a time, is one of the first in his tribe to own a house. It doesn’t matter that his house is far away from the town of Pavagada, on the border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu that rose to infamy over a case of the sale of widows a few years ago.

The smell of a wild pigs being roasted in an open fire wafts in. These people are good hunters; when wild pigs become a menace in fields, farmers invite them to kill the beasts. They get to keep the meat. The count was two the previous evening, one is being roasted, the other is tied to a tree and looks forlorn. We decline a lunch invitation.

Seated on a rickety chair that is conjured up from one of the huts perhaps, we listen to Shankarappa romanticizing his old nomadic life. “My parents were nomads, I settled 
down in Pavagada about ten years ago,” says the 50-something year old. He was earlier in Chalkere, at a distance of “Rs 15 for a ticket in the bus,” that’s how they measure distance. 

The Budubudike tribe seeks alms in the morning and share the food they get for lunch. That makes up their work day. Some have now taken to making brooms. Their 
little drum is always about their person, believers are still told their fortunes. Some, like Ramu, sell sarees in villages.

Ramu lives at the foothills of a rocky hill at the edge of Pavagada, along with 20 other families. His dome shaped hut is an assortment of sarees most colourful, some parts embroidered by his wife. He lovingly unfolds sheaths of cloth and holds up his little drum as well. His idea of the community is devoid of romanticism; he focuses instead 
on the hardships. “I settled down in Pavagada about 16 years ago for my children. They can go to school. If we are nomads, how can they study? I don’t beg though,” he emphasizes.

What Ramu does is buy in auction sarees donated to goddesses in temples. Each cost about Rs 30. Repairing, cleaning and packing costs another Rs 5-10. He boards 
buses and sells them in villages for a profit of Rs 10-15. That apart, once in a while he tells fortunes at village fairs. “It is my family profession, I can’t completely leave it,” he adds.

The tribe worships Adi Shakti in varied forms, as Gowdachandramma, Muthyalamma, Soudamma, Kollapuramma, Maramma. Two families in the colony have converted to Christianity. The head of the family fell ill and only Jesus was able to cure him, he says, refusing to give his name or any other details. He wears a plastic cross around his neck and listens to the radio all day. There is a big red cross painted above his door; the family no longer mingles with the rest of the tribe.

As is wont with tribes elsewhere, very few here study at all. The government classifies them as Marathi, depriving them thus of all beneficial schemes. Rifts are resolved in a Panchayat tradition; they and the government largely ignore each other’s existence.

Shankarappa plays his little drum and mutters for a minute. They are perhaps chants, perhaps incantations designed to mystify and intimidate listeners. The fortune teller imagines a future for his people. He wants the government to recognize them. He wants them to have houses, education, jobs and respectability. He wants them to set their roots firmly into lands of this earth.

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