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Everyday Life




Infectious diseases introduced with Europeans, like smallpox and measles, spread from one Indian tribe to another, far in advance of Europeans themselves, and killed an estimated 95% of the New World's Indian population                                                                                                                                 --Jared Diamond


Just as counting does not go beyond 7(1) there is no equivalent for a 'breakdown' in the local dialect of Abujhmad. There is practically nothing that 'breaks down'. Not that arrow tips and axes don't need sharpening or bows don't snap or need re-stringing, the bamboo fishing baskets a mend, or the thatch roof an annual replacement; just that there is no word that denotes their dysfunctionality. There is an activity corresponding to repairs or replacement; but the dialect has no corresponding word of its own. It is interesting to note how a word denoting such pass in an object's state has been modulated from Chhattisgarhi (a language from outside the forest and gradually becoming the lingua franca in villages surrounding Abujhmad) and pitch-forked into the dialect.


Chhattisgarhi is not native to Bastar. It is more akin to Hindi and does not have similar phonetics or other apparent linkages with Bastar's dialects. Equally interestingly, the word for 'breakdown' has not come from surrounding Adivasi dialects as Halbi, Bhatri or Gondi, somewhat similar in phonetics to Abujhmad dialect. Prior to coming of Chhattisgarhi there was no lingua franca (3) amongst these different communities. In order to converse they learnt smatterings of each other (in part it continues to this day), but did not borrow from each other and pitchfork.

The word in question is Bigdem* Aattur (2). It is a marriage of a Chhattisgarhi word denoting 'breakdown' with a native one denoting 'arrival'.  'Bigadana' of Chhattisgarhi has been modulated to bigdem. 'Aattur' means 'arrival'. A literal meaning would be ' Arrival of Breakdown'. So the arrow tip now goes blunt, the bow snaps, the roof bad. Earlier the arrow only needed sharpening or repair. Now, ostensibly, it needs a word for impairment. It is not that a breakdown is unfamiliar to the (Abujh)Madia, but that he/she did not develop a word for it.

Evidently, awareness has widened. What function does such wideness serve in the Madia's life, or in which way it impinges, remains arguable.

There is no conception in the Abujhmadia's mind of dividing the land or bounding the forest; or of property and ownership. There are no corresponding words either; neither their own nor borrowed. There is, however, conception and vocabulary for living on undivided and un-owned land and forest which earlier their ancestors did.

The Indians of North America began asking for lands once the Europeans began settling in and dividing it. They began fighting with them and amongst themselves. In the European order, Reservations were created by a Presidential decree in 1882. The earliest Reservations were square or rectangular. Landscape and 'disease' were changing, so were enhancing the subtle emphasis in conception and accentuations in language, the lending and borrowing. Now came ownership, and squares and rectangles as organizational shapes and forms. Contours of land became contingent on administrative requirements. Understood as a form of perceived and intuited reality, of thoughts and feelings about it, language now began making propositions -- that were not the Indians' own-- to land and the world. For them it was a shift, from land to humans. An unprecedented phenomenon was emerging for the Indian -- centrality of Man in landscape. The poise and intimacy of both language and landscape were beginning to breakdown and move to a crafted order.  Linguists believe, in order to grow languages borrow words from one another and often use them as though they were their own. Looking at Abujhmad, when languages do so they have to also give up a part of their referents and trajectory; they acquire another value, become sullied and evil. The Hopis used a common word for all things that fly; birds, insects, bugs and others. Upon encounter they found the Spaniards had separate words for the same creatures. Like Halbi, Bhatri or Gondi around the Madia, the Hopis had A'aninin, Mohawk, Cayuga, or Abenaki amongst others.

http://www.ecologicaldemocracy.net/gallery.php# ( a Bastar photo from here, credit Narendra)

The gods go bad, certain spots in the forest or along a river are considered evil; to be stayed away from. A particular tree along a trail ought not be sheltered under during rains. A god gets angry, even sulks now and then. For such duration it acquires another value and quality which is not intrinsically its own. Being itself, it becomes the 'other'. For the Abujhmadia this is the state of being sullied and evil. Through propitiation or other suitable action the earlier value is restored. In Abujhmad --just as in probably all ancient Adivasi-folk communities-- values are intrinsic. Wilds of Abujhmad come from the 'Endless Space', values and things too come from the same Space and they are not to be sullied. It is significant to note values and qualities are not evolved or modulated through human intervention or for human ends. That is why there is no word for useless or dysfunctional; but there are words for sullied and evil; there is nothing that has no value in the forest or in the Madia's life. Words have the value of intrinsic. The Madia says they come from experience and intuition of a certain kind. One's intrinsic cannot be another's intrinsic, too. One can acquire another's Dharma (4) but Svadharma (5) is intrinsic to the individual; it comes from the 'Endless Space'.

Linguists and anthropologists define language as a form of social behaviour and social interaction, emerging from social experience. For the Madia, however, language mainly comes from referents of unsullied nature and its workings on his mind. All areas of knowledge for him/her come from following the natural principles, be it the architecture of his hut, size of the village, distance between villages, developing tools for fishing, hunting or shifting cultivation it is nature's contours that shape them. Staying in the dense wilds he/she determines his/her own needs; linguistic needs included. His/her counting is up to 7 because his/her needs are no more than 7. He/she determines his/her needs the way he/she understands his/her wilds. Modern man's needs, linguistic needs included, are determined by modern science, technology and market individually or collectively. The modern man knows them, but it is a relationship of subservience; they demand of his/her trajectory. It is a structure wherein the powerful would always make demands and he/she would always remain subservient. Naiveté makes one believe some internal checks and balances would set matters right.

Development of relatively few words in the Abujhmadia dialect has made it a culture of autonomy and silence; and kept life and its issues non-polemical. In the end it boils down to the simple question of how many words one needs to live a good and happy life.

Till the coming of Maoists some years back, Abujhmad lived in isolation. Its borrowings were minimal and close to non-existent. Abujhmad's life will come to an end by itself. Sooner than later the dialect would be sullied and evil. Being itself, it will become the other. Like the early Europeans of North America the Maoists have planted a city in the heartland of Abujhmad. The city would make demands of the dialect. It would expel the void and vacant of its linguistic and sully it. Wildness and darkness of the forest would

give way to the light of clearing, and mystery give way to 'knowledge'.

There would come a lingua franca, too, ostensibly to bring people closer; but there would be fights and no peace.Full of landmines and arms making workshops of Maoists, Abujhmad is already at war.


(1)Counting till 5 prevailed in some villages till mid-'80s. The addition to 5, too, comes from Chhattisgarhi.

(2) From Bigadnaa (breakdown) in Chhatisgarhi/Hindi

(3) There was no common language but the different languages and communities lived in much greater harmony and order.

(4) Religion

(5) 'There are as many Dharmas as there are individuals '(Gandhi: Hind Swaraj). Evidently, the reference was to Svadharma.


The dispatch is based on field notes, conversations and observations during my stay in Abujhmad. – Narendra


Narendra is with the Dialogue from the Other End (DoE), a tribal ecological initiative on earth, wilds and forests, water, animals, healing, traditional wisdom and self-sustainability in the Bastar region of India.Narendra has spent over three decades living among and studying the tribal communities of Bastar. He can be reached at snaren00@gmail.com.