4 The Tribal
THE CRYING emanated from the middle of the clearing, a long wail punctuated by two short ones, like a funeral dirge. The arc of grief rose to a peak, tapered off, then rose again, mirroring the rhythm of the ocean waves crashing against the jetty a short distance away.
It was the beginning of October. The fury of Kwalakangne, the south-west monsoon, had abated, and the days had started to become hot once again. Stepping out in the scorching sun at noon required constitution and resolution.
Melame and Pemba approached the clearing, where six wooden shacks with corrugated asbestos roofing stood on stilts. A couple of young boys wearing shorts were noisily playing football in front of the huts, oblivious to the wailing in the background. A thin, mangy dog lay flopped on the ground, its tongue hanging out. The smell of chicken shit hung in the air.
Melame paused before the third shack and waited for Pemba to push open the door. The room inside was small and sparsely furnished. It contained a high wooden cot with a mosquito net supported by four bamboo sticks. A clay pot rested on a wooden stool. The walls were adorned with cautionary posters provided by the Welfare Department dispensary, warning against polio, tuberculosis and AIDS. An ancient ceiling fan whirred overhead, bringing some respite from the heat. In the right-hand corner, on the wooden floor, lay the naked body of a man approximately sixty years old. His eyes were closed, but his mouth was incongruously open, gaping in amazement at his own death. There were two people, one on either side of the body, crying in unison. One was a wrinkled old woman, wearing nothing but tassels made of sea shells around her waist, her withered breasts hanging like udders on a cow. The other was a young man wearing a loincloth and sporting a plain clay wash on his face and body, the sign of mourning. He got up as soon as he saw Melame and Pemba.
'Melame is very sad to know that his friend Talai has gone to the great beyond,' Melame said gravely as he embraced the young man. For a couple of minutes they communed in silence, eyes closed, cheek against cheek.
'When is the funeral, Koira?' Pemba asked the young man.
'This evening,' Koira replied.
'I didn't know Talai was sick,' said Melame.
'He wasn't,' said Koira. 'My father just had mild fever yesterday. Mother applied some moro leaves to bring the fever down, but by this morning he was gone. Just like the wind.'
'Look after your mother,' said Melame, gently patting Koira's shoulder. The old woman continued to wail, taking no notice of the visitors. Melame and Pemba said their goodbyes and stepped out of the shack into the sweltering heat once again.
'That's the third death this season,' the older man said, his voice quivering. 'The legions of eeka are increasing.'
Pemba nodded grimly. 'When malevolent spirits multiply, things can only get worse. At this rate, our tribe will soon become extinct, like the dugong.'
'Ah, the dugong! I have almost forgotten what it used to taste like,' Melame replied wistfully, smacking his desiccated lips.
'But Pemba still remembers. For my initiation ceremony I actually speared a dugong,' said Pemba.
'You were a great hunter. One of our best,' Melame responded approvingly. 'But look at today's youngsters, celebrating tanagiru by drinking beer and coca, that too made by the foreigners!'
'You are right, Chief. Well, what can I say? My Eketi is no better. He roams around the Welfare Office all the time, waiting for handouts. They say he sells honey and ambergris to the welfare officials in exchange for cigarettes. I have caught him several times smoking them. It makes me hang my head in shame,' Pemba replied in a low voice.
They trudged slowly in the direction of the turquoise ocean, wiping the perspiration from their brows. Bordered by casuarinas and coconut palms, the creek looked green, shady and inviting. They could see two white motorboats moored at the jetty. On the other side of the jetty were the cottages of the welfare staff. They passed the powerhouse, where the generator was making a racket as usual, and the dispensary, where Nurse Shakuntala was sitting all alone, fanning herself with a magazine. The next building was a dilapidated old warehouse, which now served as the school. They saw Murthy, the teacher with the slick, oily hair, standing with six tribal kids in the playground. He was distributing paper flags to the children, who wore identical blue shorts and white bush shirts. 'Now look,' they heard him instruct, 'when Minister Sahib arrives on Sunday, you have to stand in line at the helipad just like this and start waving these flags. And I want each one of you to give him a big smile. Now show me smiles, all of you.' He raised his right hand, in which he gripped a wooden ruler. The children gave nervous, toothy grins.
'Looks like another VIP is coming. Now all of us will be ordered to do cleaning and dusting and made to put on those horrid clothes,' Pemba said in irritation.
'Can there be anything more demeaning than parading our children before the inene?' Melame asked, his voice bristling with anger.
'No, Chief,' Pemba concurred. 'We have been made slaves in our own land.'
They passed behind the little temple built three years ago by the welfare staff. A square block of concrete with a white dome, it housed a stone image of Hanuman in mid-flight holding up a mountain, the entire thing painted a garish orange. They glimpsed two figures inside the temple, bowing their heads before the monkey god.
'Isn't that Raju and Taleme?' Melame asked incredulously.
'It does look like them,' said Pemba, craning his neck to peer into the semi-darkness of the sanctum sanctorum.
'Now Melame has seen everything.' The chief shook his head slowly. 'Our men have even forsaken our god.'
'That is because our god has forsaken us. Why is Puluga causing all these deaths? You need to do something, Chief, and quickly,' counselled Pemba.
'I think the time has come to consult the torale,' replied Melame. 'Today we will all be busy with Talai's funeral. But let us have a full Council meeting tomorrow morning. Spread the word quietly. We will meet inside the forest, at Nokai's hut, where the prying eyes of the welfare staff will not be able to spot us. That welfare officer – what's his name, Ashok – is particularly nosey.'
'Quite right, Chief. He has been taking an unhealthy interest in our tribe. The children have nicknamed him Gwalen – Peeping Tom,' Pemba laughed.
'I think he is more dangerous than a snake. Ensure that he doesn't get wind of our plans.'
'Yes, Chief.' Pemba bowed his head.
The forest was a palette of greens, brushed with patches of pink and white. Climbing orchids burst from branches and clumps of pink lilies poked up here and there like anthills. Triangles of Deodar trees stood like sentinels against the sky. The jungle thrummed with the sounds and scurry of life. Clouds of mosquitoes hummed their monotonous song. Invisible parakeets and parrots cried out from tree branches. Cicadas screeched from shrubs and bushes. Monitor lizards and snakes slithered through the underbrush.
Melame stood in a little clearing under the shade of a lofty garjan tree, directly in front of the medicine man's hut, and surveyed his flock. The women were busy as usual, making tassels of nuts and sea shells, gathering firewood or braiding their hair. The men were working on a log with their adzes, trying to fashion a canoe.
Melame breathed in a lungful of fresh air, still redolent with the aroma of morning dew, and looked longingly at the tree-lined vista in front of him. This little stretch of forest was the only surviving patch of green on the island. The settlement in Dugong Creek was littered with tree stumps. Every day ramshackle trucks loaded to the brim with timber rumbled down the Little Andaman Trunk Road, which ran along the island's edge, slowly denuding the island of its forest cover. Virtually every part of the island was now dotted with rice fields and coconut plantations. This was the islanders' last refuge, the only place where they could still hear birdsong and be themselves, naked, free and alive.
'Is the bait ready?' the chief asked Pemba, who nodded and pointed to a large earthen pot lying at his feet. Melame, looking satisfied, tapped on the door of Nokai's conical hut, thatched so low that it could only be entered by crawling.
'Go away,' the torale shouted from inside. 'Nokai has been having bad dreams. He cannot step out of his hut.'
Melame sighed. The medicine man was a reclusive, reticent oracle who hardly ever ventured out of the forest and was notoriously difficult to please. But without his powers of medicine and magic, the tribe couldn't survive. He could stop a storm simply by placing crushed leaves under a stone on the shore; he could divine a gathering illness from the lines on a man's face, and advise a carrying woman whether she would give birth to a boy or a girl simply by tapping her belly. The torale alone knew how to avoid malicious spirits and propitiate friendly ones, how to protect the clan during a lunar eclipse and what to do to counteract a curse. Melame was convinced that short of bringing a dead man to life, Nokai was capable of working any miracle. So he persisted, holding up the earthen pot.
'See, Wise One, what have we brought. It is turtle meat, absolutely fresh. Pemba caught it just yesterday.' Melame opened the lid, letting the smell of the meat waft into the hut. If Nokai had a weakness, it was for turtle meat.
The bait worked. Presently the door of the hut opened and a wizened hand snaked out, grabbed the pot and dragged it inside. After a long interval the door opened again and the torale gruffly invited them in. Melame and Pemba slithered through the opening.
The hut was quite spacious inside. It contained a single raised sleeping platform in the centre. The ceiling was decorated with all kinds of objects – animal skulls, nautilus shells, bows and arrows and pieces of multi-coloured cloth. There was a wooden pan on the ground full of strips of dried boar and snake meat. A crackling fire burnt in the far corner in another earthen vessel. Nokai sat in the centre of the hut on a majestic tiger-skin rug, believed to have been a gift from the King of Belgium, whom he had once cured of the usually fatal black water fever. The earthen pot was lying in front of him, licked clean.
The medicine man peered at them with his hollow eyes. They glinted like pools of water in the near-darkness of his hut. 'Why have you come to bother me?' he demanded gruffly.
'Our race is in trouble, Wise One,' Melame replied. 'Our wild pigs have disappeared, turtles have become as scarce as the dugong, and our tribe members are dying like flies. Talai was the third one to go. Why are the spirits angry with us?'
'All this is happening because you lost the ingetayi,' Nokai said sternly. 'The sea-rock was a gift from our greatest ancestor Tomiti. It was engraved by Tawamoda, the first man. As long as we had the sacred rock, we were protected. Even the deadly tsunami caused no damage to our tribe. On the contrary, we were blessed by a girl child. It is only since the ingetayi disappeared that our tribe has fallen on hard times. How could you allow our most sacred relic to be stolen?'
'I really don't know, Wise One,' Melame replied sheepishly. 'We kept the sea-rock hidden deep inside the Black Cave at the far edge of the creek. None of the inene ever ventures that far. It is a mystery who could have taken it.'
Nokai gave another burp, groped about amongst the bones, rattles, charms and sea shells scattered across the tiger-skin rug, and came up with a large pearl oyster shell. 'Look at this,' he said. 'Once this was a living body, but today it is just a dead, empty shell. How? Because the spirit which resided in this shell has gone. Puluga resided in the ingetayi. When the ingetayi left Gaubolambe, Puluga left the island too. Now we are without his protection. The friendly spirits are angry with us for letting our God go. They are the ones causing all this havoc, these deaths. It is the curse of the onkobowkwe. Naturally, the person who stole the sacred rock will also be cursed. The spirits will not spare him, but they will not spare us either, for allowing the ingetayi to be stolen.'
'So what do we do? How do we save ourselves?' Pemba asked.
'There is only one way. Someone will have to go and recover the sacred rock,' Nokai replied.
'But for that we must first find out who has taken the ingetayi, and where it is residing now,' Melame said. 'Only you can help us locate it.'
'Yes, Nokai will help you locate it.' The medicine man nodded. 'But in return I want enough turtle meat to last me the rainy season, a big pot of honey and at least five nice pig skulls.'
'Granted, Wise One. Now just tell us who has the sacred stone.'
Nokai dragged the earthen vessel containing the fire closer to him. He rummaged through the items on the rug again and extracted a large lump of red clay and some brown seeds. He threw the seeds into the fire, where they burst with a bang. He smeared the red clay all over his face and body. He then went to the sleeping platform, raised the thin mattress and brought out four large bones from underneath it. 'These are my most prized possession. The bones of the great Tomiti himself.'
Melame and Pemba kneeled in deference to the great ancestor. Nokai sat down on the rug once again, spreading the four bones around him. Then he put his head between his knees and appeared to go to sleep. Melame and Pemba settled down to wait. They were familiar with the medicine man's routine. He was preparing to visit the spirit world. The brown seeds and the red clay would repel malevolent spirits, the bones of the ancestor would attract benevolent spirits. They would enter the hut, bringing a cold draft in their wake. Being blind, they would feel the torale's body all over, making him shiver with cold. They would then truss him up like a pig, load him on their back, and fly into the sky.
For close to eight hours, Melame and Pemba watched over Nokai's body, as inert as a stationary turtle, while shadows lengthened outside the hut. It was late evening when the torale finally woke up with a start. He seemed groggy and disoriented. His eyes were bleary and there were numerous small cuts and bruises all over his body.
'Water, quick, get me some water,' he cried. Pemba had a jug of water handy. The torale drank greedily, half the water cascading down his chin. Catching his breath, he announced dramatically, 'Ingetayi a-ti-iebe. Nokai has seen the sea-rock!'
Weary from his ordeal, Nokai narrated his journey in fragments, with Pemba and Melame having to tease out the details from him. This, he told them, was the longest trip he had ever undertaken. One that took him across the four oceans to the land of the inene. Soaring high in the sky, he had passed over snowcovered peaks and long, winding rivers. He had crossed barren sandy deserts and lush green valleys. He had seen metal birds flying in the sky and long iron snakes moving on the ground, smoke billowing from their hoods. The spirit of Tomiti himself had then led him on the trail of the ingetayi, crossing dense mangrove swamps, honing in on a vast bustling city teeming with people, where concrete buildings stood taller than the tallest mountains and where the night was lit up by the light of a thousand suns. He had swooped down to a small green-roofed house next to a small pond and that is where the ingetayi was, sitting atop a pedestal in a small room, surrounded with images of the inene's gods.
'Tell us who lives in the house, Wise One. He must be the one who stole the sea-rock,' Melame urged.
'I saw only two people in the house. An old woman, wearing a white dress, and a short, bald man, with bushy eyebrows, thin lips and a bulbous nose,' Nokai replied, adding, 'He also wore glasses.'
'Banerjee!' Melame and Pemba exclaimed simultaneously, recognizing the description of the senior welfare officer who had left the island two months ago in an unseemly hurry.
'Puluga be praised. All our troubles will now be over,' Nokai declared. 'As soon as the sea-rock is returned, the spirits will be propitiated. We will have enough honey and pigs and cicadas and turtles. No one will die and become an eeka.'
All three men stepped out of the hut and Melame broke the news to the other members of the Council of Elders, who had been waiting patiently since morning.
'The only issue now is who will undertake this mission? Who will go to the land of the inene and recover the sea-rock?' Pemba tossed the question.
The elders looked at each other's faces and looked away. A profound silence fell over the assembly. The wind dropped. Even the children running around with their toy bows and arrows ceased their sport and stood still, nervous and confused. The only sound was that of the distant waves breaking against the reefs. The air became heavy and dark with tension.
Suddenly, an empty bottle of Kingfisher beer dropped from the sky and crashed at Melame's feet, narrowly missing Tumi, who was breastfeeding her baby. Everyone looked up in alarm, wondering what new punishments the spirits sitting up in the heavens were doling out for them. They frowned when they spotted Eketi relaxing up in the garjan tree. He waved at them.
'You leg of a chicken. Come down immediately,' Pemba bawled. 'Otherwise I will become the first father to ask Nokai to turn his own son into a dog.'
Reluctantly, Eketi shinned down the tall tree. His movements were quick and nimble, like a monkey's. He jumped to the ground and stood before his father, a sheepish grin on his face. He was tall by the standards of his tribe – a good five feet – and muscularly built. He wore red shorts which were torn in a number of places and a dirty white T-shirt bearing the logo of the Dallas Cowboys. A small plastic bottle containing chewing tobacco dangled from his neck.
'None of you have answered the most important question our tribe has been asked,' Melame addressed the elders again. 'Who will volunteer to recover the sacred rock?'
The question was met again by a wall of silence.
'What has happened to your people, Chief?' Nokai berated Melame. 'Is there no one prepared to defend the tribe's honour?'
Melame stood like a condemned prisoner, silent and impassive. It was Eketi who finally broke the impasse. 'Eketi will go,' he announced calmly.
Melame looked doubtfully at him. 'Do you think you will be able to handle this task? All day long I see you loitering on the beach, drinking beer and coca, trying to palm money off the foreigners.'
Nokai stepped in. 'Puluga be praised. Eketi is cleverer than you think. For three seasons I taught him my secrets. But he has no interest in becoming a torale. He wants to conquer the world. Nokai says give him a chance.'
Melame turned to Pemba. 'You are his father. What do you say?'
Pemba nodded sagely. 'I agree with Nokai. If Eketi stays here, the welfare staff will make him their slave. He will be doing chores for the inene all his life. Let this be his initiation ceremony.'
'Yes,' Nokai concurred, 'the ultimate tanagiru. It will rejuvenate the entire tribe. And when he returns with the sacred rock we shall give him a hero's welcome, just like our ancestors gave Tomiti when he first brought the rock from Baratang Island.'
Melame turned to Eketi. 'You know it will be a hazardous journey, don't you?'
'It is a risk Eketi is prepared to take,' Eketi replied, sounding more mature than his years. 'It should be a risk the tribe is prepared to take. Our very future depends on it.'
'Don't worry, Nokai will protect you,' the medicine man said reassuringly. 'I will give you tubers which have the protection of the spirits, and pellets which can cure any ailment.' He stepped inside the hut and returned with a decorated jawbone on a black string. 'Once you put this sacred bone around your neck, Puluga himself will become your guardian. No harm will come to you.'
Eketi kneeled before the medicine man and accepted his blessings. Then he took off his T-shirt, ripped the tobacco pouch from his neck, and put on the jawbone which glowed like phosphorescence against his coal-black skin.
Pemba injected a note of caution. 'What if the welfare staff catch my son?' he asked. 'You know the hiding they gave Kora when he tried to get into the speedboat without their permission. That man Ashok is very clever. He can even speak our language.'
Eketi dismissed this with a wave of his hand. 'So what? I can speak English better than him. The welfare staff are fools, Father. They are interested only in making money. They have no interest in me. But how will I go to India? Eketi cannot fly like Nokai.'
'We will make a canoe for you,' said Melame. 'The best boat we have ever made. You will leave at the time of the moon of full dark. No one will spot you. Within a few days I am sure you will be able to reach the land of the inene. Then you just have to find that rotten egg Banerjee and recover our stolen rock.'
'And how exactly will Eketi find Banerjee?'
'By finding the green-roofed house.'
'Do you have any idea how big India is?' Eketi cried. 'It is bigger than the sky. Searching for one green-roofed house will be like looking for a grain of salt in the sand. What I need is something called an address. Everyone in India has one. That's what Murthy Sir taught us in school. Now who has got Banerjee's address?'
'Oh, we didn't think of that,' said Melame and scratched his head. The assembly fell silent.
'Puluga be praised. I believe I may be able to help,' a voice rang out. A shadow detached itself from the trees in the background and stepped forward.
The islanders recoiled in shock. It was Ashok, the junior welfare officer.
'Kujelli!' exclaimed Pemba, which was the Onge equivalent of 'Oh shit!' though its literal meaning was 'The pig has pissed!'
'I come in peace,' Ashok declared in fluent Onge as he approached the gathering. A clean-shaven man in his early thirties, The Tribal 49 he was of average height with a thin build and short black hair. 'I will take Eketi to India,' he said. 'I know Banerjee's address in Kolkata. I will help recover your sacred rock. Will you describe it to me?'
He took out a pen from his bush shirt and opened a thin black diary.