It takes me an hour and almost twenty stale jokes from Satender, my friend from Netarhat, to finally reach Basiya’s home. It’s a dull morning here at Netarhat. The Jungle along with its swaying trees and fluttering shrubs is yet to wake up. Every now and then, a bird chirps. I keep walking up, debating with Saty (He loves it when anyone calls him by this name!) whether it is a cuckoo or not. It seems he is more interested in knowing about Salman Khan’s latest girlfriend than talking about some boring bird whose chirpings he has been listening throughout his life! I keep climbing up as I am here with a purpose to know everything about tribal tattoos. A dilapidated building greets us. Saty is quick to educate me about it being a haunted place. I try to act intimidated, for the sake of him. He knows I would not buy this crap. ‘Tell me if you find some tattooed ghosts, I would love to interview them,’ I tease him.
We walk out of the Jungle and hit the road. For a devout non-vegetarian like me, the sight of hens fluttering here and there is a pleasing one. Saty is quick to catch my longing eyes. ‘You won’t be able to catch them, they are lightening fast’. He cuts short the fantasy which has begun to titillate me. We keep moving ahead criss-crossing some tiny huts plastered with Mud, some ‘pakka’ houses and small groups of tribal children who appear to be playing Chor-Police out there.
We are heading towards a village named ‘PASERIPAT’where I am told that I would find some information about ‘GODNA’. Saty is taking me to a woman named Basiya who, he thinks will be able to quench my inquisitions. I am excited about this place, about meeting Basiya. The hens keep on fluttering along us. I still have an iota of hope remaining inside me- a hope to catch at least one of them!
It looks like just another house that we have crossed. We are now at Basiya’s place. She is sitting outside on the road, fearless. Very few cars and buses romp on this road! She appears to be in her 50s. She keeps on smiling as Saty tells him our purpose of visiting her. She seems to be taken off the hook. I fear her refusing to talk. But she is still smiling.
She takes us in. ‘She says she does not look good enough to be on camera!’ Saty tells me. I am mighty impressed with the Goat that is tied in her courtyard. It’s so clean out here.
It’s a new experience for me. Talking to her won’t be that tough because she seems to have got a so-so command over Hindi.
Basiya smiles at me. I do not know why. But it feels good. Her immaculate hands are all scribbled. They call it ‘GODNA’ – a variant of tribal tattoos prevalent in large parts of Bihar and Jharkhand.
ME – ‘Do you know that the world outside is dying to have a hand like yours?
BASIYA – (She is polite enough to try and speak in Hindi) – is it? Babu, you see, we have always been here, in Jungle. We do not know much about the world.
I realize my mistake. I should have never asked the question at first place. Her simplicity is mocking at my intellect.
ME – Your hands look good. You know what it is a fashion symbol now.
BASIYA – (She keeps on smiling incessantly!) I do not know much about fashion. I got it done when I was very young. I had gone to the jungle to collect some firewood and Khukhdi (They mean Mushroom when they say Khukhdi) when the GODNAWALIS did it.
ME – You got it done in a Jungle??!
BASIYA – Yes.
I am amazed. How many ten years old in Delhi can even dream about getting a tattoo done in a Jungle?
ME – Basiya Jee, Tell me how was the experience?
BASIYA – It pained a lot. They did it with 9 small needles. It kept on paining for the next eight days or so.
ME – What did they use for ‘GODNA’?
BASIYA – We use Kajal (Lamp Black), women’s milk and burnt Coal. We make a paste of these items, beat them and then put them on the skin after heating. The needles are used for scribbling the designs.
ME – Do people go for having a specific symbol for tattooing?
BASIYA – We do not care for the design much. It can be anything ranging from the name of the person or the name of her husband to the replicas of TAJ MAHAL or anything!
A Taj Mahal on the wrist of tribal lady miles away from Agra! I would love to have a look at it for it would be no less interesting than the original one.
ME – Did you tell them to draw something specific on your hand?
BASIYA – No. They just did it all by themselves.
She is giggling. I think that she feels I am looking like a joker dressed in a Black Nike boxer with a brown Crocs sandal!
ME – Why are you laughing?
BASIYA – My hands are looking like some age old mud and here you are clicking their picture! It’s the first time in my life that somebody has clicked my photo.
ME – The world will love you and the tattoo on your hand.
ME – Why do you people get tattooed? Does it have to do with your culture?
BASIYA – Yes. We are ORAONS. An ORAON tribal woman’s purity is measured by the number of GODNAs that are done on her body. It is said that these GODNAs ensure us a happy and prosperous life after death.
ME – People back there in Delhi shell out thousands of Rupees for them only.
BASIYA – Delhi is a strange place. We do not talk money here. All we give the GODNA walis is a few kilos of Rice or Sugar as a token of our gratitude for them.
ME- Does the younger generation among your community goes for getting them done?
BASIYA – Nobody likes it now. The kids do not want to have it. They say that a GODNA doesn’t look ‘fashionable’. So they do not have it.
ME – I have heard somewhere that many of the tribal folk songs are based on the theme of tribal tattoos. Can you please sing one for me?
BASIYA is now laughing hysterically. She cannot take it more. It hasn’t happened with her before. She is laughing meanwhile her daughter hands her a packet of FAIR AND LOVELY – a fairness cream. The capitalists have not spared even this poor household! I cannot wait to click this strange irony!
ME – Do you know what it is?
BASIYA – No. My elder daughter says it makes people glow. It is so costly.
Color has its own price! I wish I could talk more about with her about this but right now I need to persuade her to sing the ‘tattoo song’ for me. It takes me ten minutes to cajole her to sing it for us.
‘Gore gore banhiya pe kale kale godana…..’ She sings it hesitatingly. (A black tattoo is there on a white wrist!)
She is taking me along with her to meet Chariya, her friend since her childhood. She needs a partner to sing along.
Chariya is a heavily built woman, with a lot more GODNAS done around her body than Basiya. She laughs more than Basiya. Together they laugh at everything – at my questions, at their answers, at my response, at my clicks! They start chatting in ‘KUDUKH’, the language of the ORAON tribes. I am not getting even a single word of them. I think they are laughing at me.
They have decided to sing a song for me. They sing it and that too laughingly. But it sounds nice, sweet and appealing. The song goes like:
“GHAR BANA LO, DURA BANA LO,
KONA MEIN KANAILI…ROPE…
KANAILI KA PHOOL SONA LAKHE LAGE LA,
CHAILA CHAATI MEIN TAANGE…!”
(MAKE YOUR HOME, FIT IN THE DOOR,
IN A CORNER PLANT THE KANAILI FLOWER,
THE FLOWER APPEARS LIKE GOLD,
THE HERO WILL TUCK IT NEAR HIS HEART.’)
I am not too sure whether this song is anywhere closer to tattoos. But looking at them, I feel its best not to interrupt them because together Basiya and Chariya make a great pair – a tattooed duo they are, the Divas from the Jungle!!!