CHATTISGARH LAKSHMI SHARATH watches in delight as two locals heatedly discuss an old legend of the land
Iwake up gingerly, listening to snatches of loud animated conversations from my guides. The all-knowing 64-year-old Toppoji and the 59-year-old hyperactive driver Mumtaj Ali are having a loud discussion on The Ramayana. They alternate between Hindi and Chhattisgarhi, but I'm more fascinated by their tone and intonation. Toppoji speaks in a very low tone — his characteristic slow sing-song-voice while Mumtaj is all animated and often ends the conversation with loud exclamations.
I'm in Chhattisgarh, and it's a long journey from Raipur to Chitrakote. But the conversations keep me going. The Ramayana legend goes back to the time when Ram, Sita and Lakshman were wandering around what is now Chhattisgarh. Toppoji and Mumtaj argue on the setting of the story. “Was it a lake or a forest where the local women chanced upon Sita flanked by Rama and Lakshmana?” asks Mumtaj and narrates the story without waiting for the answer. The local women saw Sita with two men and exclaimed she had two husbands. “Sita immediately retorted that each of these women will have Chattison (36) husbands,” says Mumtaj as we break into laughter. Toppoji and Mumtaj continue to discuss how most women in Chhattisgarh do have multiple husbands, although Mumtaj adds hurriedly: “Not everybody though.”
More laughter. The landscape plateaus and leads to dense forests as the roads open into small huddles of villages and markets. It is my first day in Chattisgarh, and we have been on the road. Almost 44 per cent of the State is covered by forests, says Toppoji, anxious to add that it is safe for tourists to drive around the State. But Mumtaj tells us the naxals are camouflaged well and would surface anywhere, anytime.
We stop for tea, and continue our journey. Chhattisgarh is very safe asserts Toppoji again, and Mumtaj is eager to prove him right. To ease the mood, he veers the conversation towards Bollywood. “Mumbai is absolutely nothing. “You must watch Chhattisgarhi films,” he says and reels off titles such as “Laila Tip Top, Chaila Anguta Chaap”.
Another hour passes by. I learn about the tribals, their art forms, their burials; we talk about how Chitrakote denotes a herd of deer and how the famous waterfalls gush during the monsoons. Later in the day when I did see the monumental Chitrakote falls and soaked in its spray and let its misty foam purge me, I realise journeys are not just about sightseeing. They are about people, conversations and stories. And as my fellow traveller said we found our Chhattisgarhi Mumtaj a shade more interesting than the historic Mumtaz Mahal who inspired a wonder of the world.