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Old Ways vs. New Ways: Tribal India
East India Tribal Man Harvesting Palm Sap to Make Beer

            For four tortuous hours we bounced and lurched over narrow, crumbling mountain roads to a remote forest village in the eastern part of India, an area of tribal people who still live as they did hundreds, even thousands, of years ago.  In the interest of the tribe we hoped to find, I can’t reveal either its name or location.   

             Once again, we parked up the road from the village where we finally stopped.  It was market day, so the narrow dirt streets were filling with people who had hiked down from even more remote villages higher in the mountains.  Unlike other places we’d visited in this part of Eastern India, foreigners were not particularly welcome.  My friends and I did our best to be discreet as we wandered among the villagers from around the area who were buying and selling local produce and other wares.  

             People from the X tribe had left their homes early in the morning, walking barefoot as far as 20 kilometers through the mountainous jungle, despite the leopards, wild boar, jackals, and other animals that were known to live there.  Tigers were not usually seen in the area, but there were no guarantees. 

              The women of the tribe were unmistakable as they walked into the hillside market: small, dark brown, with delicate features, they looked very different from the women of the other tribes who had already put out their eggplants, cauliflower, tomatoes, and other produce on pieces of cloth and in baskets set on the well-trod dirt.  These tiny women wore their fortunes on their bodies, starting with two large twisted-aluminum rings around their necks and two huge brass earrings.  Their shaved heads were entirely covered with many coiled strands of small beads until they seemed to be wearing colorful, close-fitting hats. 

              They used to be entirely naked except for their ornaments, but now they wore pieces of cloth called lungis wrapped around their waists and sometimes short capes to protect their backs from both sun and jungle.  Their almost naked, quite flat, chests were more or less covered with many strands of beads, often enhanced with bits of glass and small seashells, that reached to below their waists.  Bracelets of multicolored beads covered most of their skinny arms and decorated their ankles.  They carried whatever they intended to sell in bundles on top of their bead-wrapped heads.

             As we walked through the market, we also saw women from a different tribe who wore large brass nose rings.  Nobody looked like the tribal women we’d seen anyplace else.  Very few men from any tribe were visible here.  They were probably back home, most likely drunk on mahua, a fermented drink made from a local tree, although they also made beer from rice or palm sap.  As with many tribal societies, the women of these remote villages did the bulk of the work and, for the most part, ran the tribe.  In one corner of the market, however, a few men were selling several kinds of fish – which already were becoming fragrant as the day grew hotter.

             The home villages of the X tribe, we learned, are spread over a jungle area of more than 15 square kilometers, their total population not more than five or six thousand.  None of these people wanted the outside world to come to them, but a few of the younger women who had hiked down to the market were willing to sell a strand or two of their beads.  Before making the long trip, we’d been warned that they didn’t like either photography or visible cameras.

             Times are changing, however, even for them.  Their children are starting to go to school and to participate in government programs, such as the free lunches for students who attend class regularly.  It seems inevitable that over time even this remote tribe will become part of the modern world – in some practical ways, at least.  This may or may not be good. 

             It may give them more options in their lives, possibly increase their life expectancy, and make life easier for them in a number of ways.  Or will they learn to prefer packaged junk food to freshly picked fruit and vegetables?  Will they learn to make cheap trinkets to sell to tourists, forgetting their own culture?  As they acquire technology, will they come to want canned entertainment that has nothing to do with their own experiences?  Or, as they learn to read and become aware of the larger world will they discover wonders they never could have imagined, music, art, literature, science, the glories of civilization?  Is that too much to hope?

            Are the old ways worse, better, or just different than the changes that wait on the horizon?  Are the people of this tribe happy, now?  Who can say?  I don’t think they could say.  They’ve never known anything else, until now.  They’ve never had a choice about how they live.  Isn’t happiness about choices?  If you can choose something different, but don’t then maybe you really are satisfied and happy with what you’ve got, but – I believe – you need the opportunity to make the choice.

             Politics, geography, economics, religion, ignorance, all can – and often do -- limit choice.  That’s true in the United States, the Middle East, everywhere in the world.  Delphine in my new book discovered that this is true in the parts of the world that she explored.  How can people consider themselves happy until they know and understand their options and have the freedom to choose between them?  Growing up, I often heard the statements "Ignorance is bliss" and "What you don't know can't hurt you."  I never really believed them.  Ignorance is not necessarily bliss.

     Bruce Douglas Reeves, author of DELPHINE, winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Competition, published by Texas Review Press, available from University Press Books-Berkeley (800-676-8722), Diesel Bookstore-Oakland, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and by order from your local bookstore.

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