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India family visit 2023 Gadchiroli district

Our diary from our visit to family and friends in India. We spent most of the time in Gadchiroli, where Laila grew up. We flew in and departed via Hyderabad. There are accompanying soundscape recordings. All photos from our camera, rather than phone. Images can be clicked on for full size.

I make no claims to being an expert on India, or the places we visited, everything here is based on what we saw, heard and people told us in conversation. A relative in Gadchiroli said this great quote about some of the researchers who visit the jungle areas in the district "They come here, they make their own chapatis, eat them alone and then leave" Hopefully I've avoided that as much as possible.

Gadchiroli and some background:

This diary is mostly it’s about our time in Gadchiroli, where Laila grew up and family members and childhood friends still live. It’s about our day to day experiences, the people we spend time with, the hospitality they share, and what they tell us about life here. I’m very fond of Gadchiroli.

In previous trips our time here has been limited to a week or so. This time we’re here for three weeks. We spend time with relatives and friends, or wondering around the towns districts and lanes. The town has grown since Laila lived here, there are many districts and outlying villages Laila had not visited before. The area is mostly agricultural, surrounded by rice fields and jungle. it’s a beautiful and interesting place to visit.

Situated in central India, on the east side of state of Maharashtra, Gadchiroli is not on the route map for most European tourists visiting India. It’s not close to any of the usual major sightseeing destinations. As such I often get asked by people if they can take a photo or selfie, and some times people comment ‘Ek foreigner’ when passing in the street. Occasionally Laila will also get the same treatment, when wearing clothes bought in Brighton or London, as the majority of women in the area wear Indian style dress. People often appear pleased when they learn she speaks Marathi (one of the main local languages)

One night on this trip, there was a street carnival in town, I went on my own as everyone else was busy. The streets were packed, with people having a good time, I was enjoying the live music, fireworks and parade. It seemed to be an important local celebration. For whatever reason, that particular evening, there was a constant stream of people asking for photos, “where are you from? Why are you here? Do you like Gadchiroli? As the parade disappeared up the road, and things calmed down, wondering about why this might happen, I asked a guy, “do you get many foreign tourists round here?” He laughed “no, this area is mostly poor farmers. Tourists are not interested in us, they all go to Mumbai or Goa”

This part of Maharashtra, has a population of between 60 and 70% that for official purposes is classed as historically marginalised castes - Scheduled Caste, Other Backward Caste or Scheduled Tribes or Aboriginal peoples, sometimes called Adivasi, which is a contested term. Because of their status, there are affirmative action programmes to give people better access to education, employment etc, although many people we met in the outlying jungle villages made it clear they were struggling to access these things and felt marginalised.

There are increasingly worrying reports in the global press about Modi, the BJP/ RSS and the scapegoating of minority communities in India. This is often played out divisively by those in power and the government supporting press as if Muslims are a problem, and there is a Hindu/Muslim clash. People Laila knows and works with have been targeted for writing against the government, some arrested and physically attacked. Naturally it’s a concern. Laila has always said, for as long as she remembers, growing up here, the idea of asking someone their religion, or using it as a key aspect of identity was unheard of. Sadly this division seems to be being pushed onto people in some parts of the country, or at least the narrative is being played out in the media. However, in the Gadchiroli and Nagpur area, many people we’ve met have been clear that this is not happening here, there is no Hindu/ Muslim clash in this area. We’ve been told this in casual conversation with people we’ve met in the street, and also by academics, community activists and leaders. Many people have told us this is a top down policy, which they are actively against. Many here have been keen to stress a sense of unity.

Youtube video playlist from our time in Gadchiroli.

Thursday 27th July; arriving in Hyderabad

Due to a visa mistake, we missed our original Monday flight to Mumbai, need a replacement visa and to book new flights. At short notice, the best option is Hyderabad.

According to friends in Mumbai, the monsoon has been so heavy, there’s flooding and they’ve all gone down with a virus, so it might all be for the best anyway.

We get a taxi from Hyderabad airport, the driver tells us it’s been raining for 5 days here and has only just stopped. I forgot how green Indian city’s can be, the jungle looks like it would take over the minute people turn their back. Its great to be back in India. We have a day in Hyderabad before traveling to Gadchiroli.

Saturday 29th August; travel to Gadchiroli

From Hyderabad to Gadchiroli where Laila’s Mum and Bhabhi live. Kushi is also there, home from studies in Pune.

We take the 9.30 train from Secunderabad station to Balharshah in Maharashtra. Monsoon has been heavy this year, the train passes many flooded areas, the guard tells us farmers will have lost crops and their livelihoods. From Balharshah we take an auto rickshaw to Chandrapur, where Bhabhi has arranged for some friends to pick us up and drive to Gadchiroli. We wait at the bus stop on the side of a busy road . It’s a 90 km journey, and much quicker by car, so we appreciate the offer. Laila buys a plant from one of the stalls at the bus stop to give to Didi (sister) whose family are driving. There are hundreds of plants on the stall, at night she wraps a wicker fence around them, it’s unlikely anyone will steal anything here. We also give them a box of Karachi biscuits, from Hyderabad. Hyderabad is known for its food, and the biscuits are a treat (I always try to bring a few boxes of the fruit and nut ones back to the Uk)

Much of the journey is through jungle and rice fields. Since we last visited in 2019, the road has been resurfaced and widened, which makes for considerably smoother travel. The route is dotted with small villages, some flying Buddhist flags, which is not something I’d noticed on previous trips and is a response to the ongoing Saffronisation by the BJP & marginalisation of parts of Indian society.

There is a growing Adivasi activist movement to protect forest lands from increased industrialisation and environmental destruction. The other notable concern is that on the outskirts of Gadchiroli, a large shopping centre is being built. It’s named after a place on the disputed border between India and Pakistan, where the Indian military killed a number of Muslim ‘terrorists’. it’s a depressing sign of the militarisation of public space and the normalisation of the narrative portraying Muslims as a threat, which is also happening under Modi and the BJP government.

We’re dropped at the end up mums lane around 7.00, just as the sun is setting. It’s been 4 years since we were last here, there’s an excited sense of coming home as we walk the short road to the house Laila grew up in. Everything looks pretty much the same, quiet and green , with trees and bushes as a reminder that not many years ago, much of this lane was shrubs and low level forest. When Laila’s dad built their house, it was the last one in the lane. There are maybe a dozen more now, but it’s still peaceful and most of the neighbours know each other.

It’s great to see Mum, Bhabi and Kushi after such a long time. We eat aubergine curry, daal, rice and fresh chapati, along with yogurt and pickles. Everything is homemade, from ingredients grown on local farms. it all smells and tastes deliciously fresh.

Sunday 30th; Market day

Each morning, the milk guy brings a small churn of milk, which is poured into a pan and kept in the fridge. One time he didn’t come ‘till around 10 in the evening, and was sorry that his cows had been slow that day. The milk is used to make dahi (yoghurt), paneer (cheese) ghee, butter and of course in tea.

For breakfast we have chapatis with coriander, garlic and chilli chutney, with yoghurt, chai and pomegranate juice. All homemade, with produce from the Sunday market.

Last time we were here, back in 2019 I bought an orange painted metal box from a guy at a road side stall.

It’d caught my eye several times and on the day we left, I ran back from the bus stop to buy it, had a little chat with the guy and rushed to catch the bus out of town. It’s a lasting memory of Gadchiroli and I use it as a cash box at gigs. I often wonder if we’d bump into the same guy next time we visited, so was a bit disappointed to find some of the stalls no longer in place after the road widening.

One of the foods we both miss in the UK is corn on the cob, grilled over hot coals, served with chilli and lemon, usually purchased from roadside stalls. We saw a stall last night when we arrived, so popped back today to get some. The guy on the stall has an orange cash box, same as the one I’d bought last time. Whilst preparing our corn he commented ‘the last time you came, you bought one of these boxes from me “ I laughed and told him I use it regularly and it’s a nice memory. He told us his stall had been relocated, but business was good in the new spot. We’ll visit his stall a lot during our stay.

By now it was early evening and Bhabi was heading to the Sunday market, she asked if I wanted to go with. On the way she explained the reason town is do busy today is because of the market. It’s the main market day and people come from all over the local area to buy and sell fresh veg, herbs and spices. The market area is covered by yellow tarpaulin, most people sit on the floor, with their produce in piles in front of them, there are huge piles of garlic, chillies, all kinds of veg. There are a few stalls with cooked snacks, samosas , fried chillies in batter, jalebi and other sweets. Some stalls have piles of mixed spices on small newspaper squares. You can ask to add extra spices to these, they’re the nearest thing here to a pre-made spice packet we see in the UK. Everyone is carrying multiple cloth bags, there are few plastic ones, and anything they needs wrapping is done in newspaper. Bhabi says prices have risen due to the heavy monsoons, but the veg she buys today will be kept in cool dark cupboards and stay fresh for 10 to 15 days. We eat samosas and dahi vada for tea. Bhabi says tomorrow she’ll show me how to cook some of the veg from the market.

Monday 31 July; Laila’s old school

Gadchiroli is rapidly expanding. Today we decided to go for a longer walk and explore some of the newer parts of town. Historically people with certain occupations concentrated in different parts of the town, this was also connected to caste. For example a part of town might be occupied mostly by people with admin jobs, another might be traders. Laila is curious to know how much this may still be the case. We set off along one of the newly widened main roads, but it’s hotter than expected so we decide on a shoreter route, cutting down a quiet lane toward home for a rest. The lane takes us toward the lake in the middle of town. You can’t really get right next to the lake edge, as much of it is swamp and there are no clear paths. We eventually find a long concrete walkway that cuts about 50 or so meters into the lake, which is a great spot to sit and take in the view, watch insects and listen to the nature sounds. There are houses nearby on reclaimed land, some of them have water around their edges and seem to be built half on swamp land. The area is quiet, there’s little traffic sound and just the occasional chicken or background chit chat. It starts to rain, which is very welcome in the heat. Laila asks a young kid if she can have a go on his bike, which he’s happy to do. I walk down another track toward the lake, but the kid warns of snakes so come back. We continue toward town and come across Laila’s old school. Some of the rooms she used to study in are now derelict and overgrown with plants, but some classrooms are still in use. A group of curious students come and say hello, their teacher invites us in and asks Laila to tell them of her journey as a student at the same school to where she is now. They’re all very interested and take lots of photos. Many of them have travelled to school on bikes, which are all left outside in the yard, there are maybe a hundred, including quite a few nice looking mountain bikes. There is no gate to the school, anyone could walk in just as we did. Not one of the bikes are llocked.

Later on we all went home and made puri for tea.

Tuesday 1st August; walk around the lake

Went for walk on my own. Past the fish market, there’s a bit of waste ground, with a few animals grazing. There’s also a sandy path that goes around the west side of Gadchiroli lake, along the waters edge. You can walk near the water on this side . The path finishes next to a small temple on the south west side of town. There are a few guys sat outside the temple, who say hello, we have a little chat. I wish I’d learned more Hindi, as my conversation is limited.

This part of town is quite different from the area Laila’s family live. Many of the buildings are single story, some have roof terraces, others apex roofs with terracotta tiles. The buildings look older and many are in a state of disrepair. The houses are generally smaller here. There are wild pigs bathing in a stream that runs to the lake. As opposed to the many cows in Gadchiroli, which seem impervious to traffic and will let people stroke them, the pigs are best kept at a distance, as they can charge and cause injury. There are also old fishing boats, that look abandoned and no longer in use . Further up the road are also a few of the trucks with sound systems built on the back, with the huge chrome trumpets that blast music out. A guy tells me they’re for weddings. I follow the road round, and pass several Buddhist flags. Theirs is a movement in India, where caste oppressed people have beeb converting to Buddhism as a way to counteract the caste system, which may be what’s happening in this area.

It was cloudy when I set off, but around midday, the sun had come out and was unbearably hot.

Laila was spending the day helping Kushi with her college work, so after resting up at home, I followed another road north, out of town into the countryside. Once again, caught out by the weather, this time a sudden heavy monsoon downpour. The streets clear as people ran for shelter, a guy invites me into his home to take cover. I’m only 5 minutes from home, so politely decline. The rain soon stops and I head off, the concrete road turns into a red dusty track, with just the occasional building. A couple of kids are playing a toy flute, the ask me to play and if they can take a selfie. The landscape is a mixture of rice fields, often deep in water and the outskirts of forest or jungle. Walking around the back lanes and outskirts of town, I’m taken aback by just how green the surroundings are, plants and shrubs creep across buildings as if to remind us, we are all guests here.

Thursday 3rd August; meeting a community activist

It started raining yesterday afternoon, and won’t stop until late tonight. We decide to go for a walk to a village about 6km away. It’s at the end of the track I started down the other day. On the way we pass through some of the lanes I’d been through previously. We meet the same guy who invited me to shelter from the rain. It’s a Dalit caste area, financially poorer, often marginalised people. He invites us in for tea. It turns out to be his mates office, who has a job as a community relations person for the Police. A few more people come and join us in the small office. One of them is a Doctor in anthropology and also an human rights activist for caste oppressed people. A couple of old Sikh guys also join us, they say they’re tool makers by trade, and that there is a Gurdwara on the other side of the lake we should visit.

There’s a conversation about the Indian politics, the general impression is that the narrative of a Hindu/Muslim clash is something that’s come from the top down and serves as a distraction from issues such as caste oppression.

The Dr/activist guy invites us to his house, which is just up the road. The rain is heavy by now.

We’re welcomed in to sit in the front room. There’s a large bookshelf which looks like a treasure trove of knowledge, Laila is skimming through the books excitedly. He makes more tea and introduces us to his wife and her friend. He’s quite an incredible guy with a wealth of knowledge. He shows us a document from 1777, which he has preserved in a plastic laminate. He found the document in an old temple, and the priest let him keep it. It’s a signed decree, by the then local Brahmin leader, that the local forest dwelling community (the guy’s ancestors, the current community he is part of) should be forced off the land they live on and bought into the caste system as weavers. He also shows us books in English from 1916, in which the British Empire, categorised all the groups/communities/ castes in India, with information on them, and their usefulness to the Empire. Some are simply listed as ‘criminals’ or ‘thieves’

Laila and he swap details and discuss working on an article together. As we start to leave I notice a microphone, “ oh, it’s my hobby, to relax with’ He plugs it in, and sings. He has a beautiful voice.

We head off down the road, against several local peoples advice we follow the mud track, through the rice fields rather than on the main road. It’s peaceful, beautiful and intensely green in the downpour. It’s also very muddy. There’s a couple of farmers walking along the lane, they invite us into the rice fields to see the crops. They also laugh at us for wearing shoes. Bare foot or sandals are best, in the rice fields bare foot is the only sensible option, everything else will just get clogged in the mud. He leaves his sandals by the edge of the road and heads across the field. We decide to stay on the lane a bit longer, I see a large scorpion or lizard jumping through the puddles, we’re soaked through, so head home. There’s some calming bird song along the way and we see parrots in one of the trees.

Friday 4th August; Gadchirolis first Gudwara

We head to the Gurdwara the Sikh guys we’d met yesterday told us about. It’s on the other side of the lake, in an area of town Laila is not familiar with. The rain has stopped and the weather is hot. We walk slowly. The Gurdwara is is in the same area with the sound systems I’d passed through a couple of days ago. it’s one storey high, and people are currently building a second storey. Laila gets chatting with a lady outside. A bunch of young guys ask me where I’m from. I can manage a basic conversation in Hindi. They ask if they can take a selfie. The family of the lady Laila is chatting with invite us in for tea. There’s some interesting history here. They’re three generations now, the grandparents (the lady Laila first met and her husband) originally came from Punjab as traders to settle in Gadchiroli. When they first arrived, this area was entirely jungle and they lived in a shack. They’ve since built the house we’re sat in now and a small Sikh community has grown around. The community worked together to build the Gurdwara. They’re happy and say life is peaceful here.

After tea, we’re stood outside chatting. A young guy comes by on a motor bike, he’s on the town council, his job is representative for minority communities in the area. He’s from the Congress party (opposition to the BJP) Most of the people in this part of town are Muslim or Sikh, the area is also mostly Dalit caste. They’re very keen to stress that there is no Hindu/Muslim clash in Gadchiroli, people live peacefully and help each other out. The narrative of a Hindu/Muslim clash is something stoked from above by the BJP & RSS in larger urban areas. Unfortunately it’s lead to violence against Muslim communities in bigger cities and serves as a distraction from actual issues including caste prejudice and marginalisation. Thankfully that’s not happened here and Laila says this is the India she remembers as a child, as opposed to what’s happening some parts of the country. The general feeling is that Gadchiroli is peaceful. Further up the road we stop at a little open fronted store for samosas, they’re freshly made, two women sat inside on a mat, rolling the pastry and making filling, a guy in front of the shop frying. They’re family, it’s busy with a queue of people sat inside waiting to be served. Everyone is casually chatting. The samosas are freshly served, hot and some of the best we’ve had. They ask if they can take a photo with us. We do the same, it’s a nice memory.

Saturday 5th August; Meeting old friends

It’s sunny! In the morning we went to see Dr Sushil kohad, the academic and human rights activist we met the other day. He and Laila have a long conversation about Indian politics , the history of Adivasi (sometimes referred to as tribal) communities, Dalit activism and global geo politics. They’re planning on some work together.

Afterwards we walk through some of the sunny backstreets of town, laila shows ne a flat she lived in as a teenager. It’s boarded up and empty now. The neighbours ask us if we’re researchers, apparently NGOs often come to the region. Laila wonders if they’re relatives of her friend who used to live here, it turns out they’re her kids and Mum still lives here. We pop in for tea and a happy reunion. One of the daughters organises fashion shows, so it’s interesting to hear about her event management work.

Later that day we caught up with more of Laila’s friends, including some who’ve just built a really nice place on the edge of town. It’s surrounded by nature, we go up to the roof terrace to enjoy the views. Apparently as humans expand where they live, tigers habitats are being encroached upon and they sometimes visit the area.

Sunday 6th August; Trip to Adapalli & village market

We took an auto to Mahadwadi/Adapalli 6 km north of Gadchiroli. Crossing the Kathani river on the old bridge a herd of cows comes the other way, we slow down , they pass close enough to stroke, it’s quite a site. We pull down a side road toward the village. There’s a large lake on the edge of town, the area is low lying and generally quite wet, like much of the district, lush green jungle and rice fields surround the village. Next to the lake some temporary wooden posts with yellow tarpaulin sheets to cover from the sun are set up. Underneath people are making samosas and other snacks. We buy samosas and sit under one of the yellow sheets. The sun is very hot by now, and the shade is appreciated. The stall people explain there will be a market in a couple of hours, people will come from the surrounding villages to buy and sell fresh veg. They’re preparing early for the crowds. Sunday is the main market day in the district.

We walk into the village, there’s a statue of Ambedkar, suggesting the area is probably a Dalit area. People greet with Jai Bhim, and there are some Buddhist symbols on buildings. There are also signs supporting the farmers protest, although the local people say the issue wasn’t really in this area. We refill with water from the shop.

The lanes in the village are busy, groups of young kids playing, adults chatting in the shade. Some of the buildings are the old mud brick style, with terracotta roof tiles. Laila says they lived in such a house when she was young, they’re very cool in the hot weather. Pigs, cows and chickens roam freely. There’s very little motorised traffic here, compared to Gadchiroli. We see several wooden carts, pulled by Ox. We walk to the end of the village lane. Someone tells us there’s a footpath across the fields to the river, but it would be too muddy for us (this is no exaggeration, the mud in the fields is deep, thick and sticky) besides there are likely snakes. Back in the village, there’s a sudden downpour, we shelter under the edge of a building with a few other people waiting out the rain. There are patches of blue sky, sunshine, pretty flowers and paintings on building walls encouraging care for the environment. The rainfall is a refreshing break from the heat. It stops after maybe half an hour. We walk around village outskirts toward the lake on the edge of town. A farmer tells us a railway is being built through the area, that will bring trains to Gadchiroli. He had to sell some of his land, which gave him enough money to build a house and keep some savings.

We decide to head toward the river, but need to refill drinking water before setting out. Laila and Kushi rest and I head back to the shop in town. A bunch of teenagers are walking the same way, so we get chatting. it’s quite a long walk, lots of people ask where I’m going, ‘to the shop for water bottle’. People give directions and ask where I’m from ‘from London, my wife’s family is from Gadchiroli’. Some know Laila’s family surname as her father had been a local trader. Some people ask if I speak Marathi the local language. In the villages there are many people who don’t speak Hindi, and only know local languages.

Gadchiroli district is not a tourist area, people are curious, often exclaiming ‘foreigner’ as we pass. When wearing clothes bought in the UK, this applies to Laila too and people seem quite pleased when they learn she speaks Mahrati. It’s always friendly and is and a nice way to meet people and find out more about the area. It’s surprising how often people share a connection, they used to know Laila’s dad, or the family shop or went to the same school. I buy the water bottles meet Laila and Kushi, we head back to the market, which is now in full swing. Large hessian sheets are set out on the floor, with piles of vegetables, several types of aubergines, tomatoes, cauliflower, ochres, onions, piles of chillies, garlic, ginger, coriander and quite a few I don’t recognise. Other stalls sell freshly made jalebi, samosas andsweet or savoury snacks. Like markets anywhere, there’s a nice social element, people gather around and chat. It’s very relaxed compared to the big Sunday market in Gadchiroli. We meet the teacher from Laila’s old school which we’d visited a few days ago and a few more people who know the family. We buy bags full of vegetables and samosas to take home. One woman tells us everything is grown in her garden. She introduces us to her brother, who she runs the business with. It turns out he went to school with Laila’s brother.

Back in town we quickly pop to the local Sunday market, it’s hectic compared to the slower paced village one. Someone tells us there’ll be a Qawwali group playing later. Back home after we eat, Bhabi, Laila and I head to the Qawwali. There’s nothing to be found. We wonder around the market streets which are now dark and empty, bump into an old friend who’s just opened a wedding shop, then go get ice cream and sit chatting in the quiet street. I realise that other than the occasional ice cream, we’ve not eaten any processed food since arriving, everything is grown locally, sold at local markets and cooked at home. There’s no additives or preservatives and nothing comes in plastic packaging. We head home to bed.

Monday 7th August; Motorbike ride to the Ghat

Laila has gone with her mum for a health check up. They’ll be a few hours, so I go for a walk on my own. There’s a lane that goes north west from town toward the river. On the outskirts of town the building slowly change to become more farm like, there are haystack in peoples yards for cows to eat, and lots of chickens and goats. The soil here is a strong red orange colour. There are farmers working in the rice fields and lots of bird sounds. The lane becomes muddy track. A couple of young guys stop on a motorbike. What are you doing? Walking and looking at the nature. They say they’ll take me to the river and invite me to get on the bike. I’ve no idea how to say ‘I’m nervous riding without a helmet and with 3 of us on the bike” besides everyone round here rides like this, so get on. It’s a bumpy lane and they drive slowly. We swap names and chat. They’re farm workers, they say the area has many Dalit and Adivasi people, they say the government helps them. We arrive at the river bank, at a Ghat, which is an area that leads down to the river. There are women washing clothes in the river and a guy with a large herd of goats. The river water is high at the moment due to the rainy season. The place we’ve stopped is on a bend in the Kathani river, which gives spectacular views in both directions and across the wide, muddy water. Apparently in the summer season the water is much clearer. The guys drive back toward town, dropping me off on the outskirts. They ask if I’m happy with the trip? As random encounters go, it was pretty good! They’re also happy.

I decide to head back along a different route, cutting along a back lane that runs along the outskirts of town. The alley ways soon become very narrow, and there are lots of goats. Many people are sitting in their front doors or small yards. There are big piles of branches and logs outside most of the houses, Laila says most likely for cooking. A couple of young girls, maybe 3 or 4 years old follow me, they’re giggling loudly shouting ‘gora gora” (white, white) I say hello, but they just laugh more, they’re almost beside themselves with laughter as they follow me up the lane. A bit further up the lane a group of guys beckon me over to sit with them for a bit in the shade. I didn’t realise until afterwards, but they’re trying to give me directions back to town. I take a wrong turn and end up lost in a maze of narrow gully’s. There are cows grazing in the narrowest of passage ways. Eventually I make it back to the guys who point me in the right direction. One of them knows Laila’s brother. Back toward town, it’s early afternoon and the heat is intense. There’s a big tree with a guy underneath in the shade selling tea. I sit, drink tea and rest before wondering back towards Bhabi’s shop. Laila and her mum are back from the check up, everything is fine . Khushi has made egg fried rice for lunch so we go home to eat that with green been curry and mango chutney.

Wednesday 9th August; World Day of Indigenous Peoples

There are many groups of Indigenous people in India. In the Gadchiroli area, they historically lived (and many still do) in jungle and hill villages. They are referred to by several names, sometimes Aboriginal people, sometimes Tribal people, sometimes Adivasi (although several people we met from these groups say they prefer Moolnivasi.) Historically they lived outside the caste system, and were living in the area before caste was imposed in the area. Unfortunately, they are marginalised politically, socially, economically and often have poor access to education. The majority live below the poverty line. When the British were here, the carried out the first census in India, they also started documenting castes and tribal groups. Since independence, Indian governments have also documented tribal groups , some are listed/scheduled. Due to historic marginalisation of tribal peoples, there is some work on affirmative action for recognised scheduled groups. However, as with any beaurocracy, mistakes are made and in this case, there is little political will to correct them. This has lead to some groups remaining unlisted, and thus receiving all the negative impact of marginalisation, with no effort to recognise them or provide any support, leaving the majority living in conditions below the poverty line. There is also, as with any situation when people are categorised into groups of ‘us and them’ evidence of scapegoating, divide and rule etc.

A few days ago we met Dr Sushil, from one of the Indigenous groups who is also a human rights activist and has a related PHD. He offered to hire a car and take us on a tour of the villages the people lived in. Many are remote, deep in the jungle, in places Laila had not been near before.

We meet at 8.00 and set off east on the main Dhanora road out of Gadchiroli , soon turning off onto smaller roads into the surrounding countryside. The landscape changes. No longer do we see roadside businesses, now everything is lush green rice fields. There are hardly any cars, which is a notable difference from the main two state highways that dissect Gadchiroli north/south and east/west. The common methods of transport become motorbike, peddle cycles and ox pulled cart. We stop briefly in the first village, there’s not a huge amount to see here, other than to admire how peaceful it is. The second village, a little further up the road has an ancient temple, maybe 2000 years old, it’s half derelict and over grown. It’s possible to walk inside and see some of the ancient carvings. A newer Hindu Mandir is next to it. Some of the villagers mention they’d like some research into the old temple to know more about it. We walk through the village and are invited for a cup of tea, which turns out to be the first of many today. A crowd gathers, some people ask if they can take photos, we ask if it’s ok to take one too, people wave over family and friends and group photos are taken.

The next village, there’s a gathering of maybe 50 or 60 people, they’re flying a Gond flag, there’s a small stage and PA system, people are making speeches. There’s some nice Rangoli patterns on the floor. They ask Laila if she’ll say a few words. People here speak Marathi rather than Hindi. They also ask me if I’ll say something. I feel quite awkward about this, these people have genuine struggles that impact their lives, they face systemic marginalisation and prejudice, about which I have very little understanding or knowledge. On the other hand we’ve been invited here by someone connected to the community, and been welcomed in their celebration of the day, they’ve also shared snacks with us. I say thanks for making us so welcome and wish them well. There’s a similar celebration in a smaller village just up the road. We’re given snacks made of crushed flower heads, at first I mistook them for sultanas, which they resemble. They might have sugar on them, it’s a sort of bitter sweet taste. They also give out handfuls of mashed up coconut flakes. The coconut in India is much fresher compared to what I’m used to in the Uk. The next village is deeper in the jungle, surrounded by trees. There’s a big crowd here, maybe a couple of hundred people. Many of them are wearing yellow. There’s also a military or police presence (Dr Sushil says they’re somewhere between the two) they’re carrying rifles, it’s not clear whether they’re protecting the people around here, or there to keep an eye. They seem to keep their distance. There are some musicians, a guy playing Dholl drum , and another playing a smaller, similar shaped drum plus a percussion player. Someone is making announcements with a microphone, and people are dancing to the drums.

In all of the villages we visit, there’s a mix of newer concrete houses and traditional mud houses, which are covered in plaster and painted. One of these is about 200 years old, is owned by a landowning family that can trace their lineage back to the 1400s. It’s 2 storeys high and painted in strong reds, blues, greens and yellows, with ornate carved patterns in the old wooden doors. The advantage of mud buildings is that they are cooler than brick and concrete buildings in the hot weather. I guess they can also be made from locally sourced materials at little cost to the environment.

As today is Indigenous peoples day, there were celebrations and awareness raising events. We were invited to dance, meet people and into peoples houses for food. Many of the people are involved in activism and were keen to stress their resistance is always non violent and peacefu (the Gadchiroli district is known for ‘Naxalites’, this is often the first thing people mention about the areal. We met young people who talked about their lives and issues they faced.

In one village, we stop for a meal. Before eating we chat with a local woman, who’s a womans rights activist, encouraging young women to take great roles in public life. There's dal chawel and an especially tasty egg curry. After the meeting we’re invited to a meeting in the local temple/community centre. A lot of people come and sit around the room on the floor, there are all ages, from toddlers to older uncles and aunties. Three young guys talk about their situation. Their community is not documented as a scheduled tribe, which means they dont benefit from any affirmative action programmes. They tell us there is a document in Britain, made during colonial times that has documentation of their tribal group. If this document can be found it will help their case here. The document will most likely be in the Indian High Commision, or the British Library, India Office records.

What we learned today is complex and will take a long time to process. Laila had never been to any of these villages before, people shered their food, invited us into their homes and talked about their lives. Many had been on long marches across the state to raise awareness of their situations, some had been on hunger strikes.

In the final village we visit, there’s a Buddhist temple and a Catholic church, people tell us they have no preference between the 2 and go to both whenever there is a service or activity.

On the way home, we’re driving through the jungle. Last year, there were so many tiger attacks on this stretch of road, the local authorities closed it for a while. Apparently tigers won’t attack a vehicle and bright lights will keep them away, so there was nothing to worry about. We get back home and Bhabi has made chicken biriyani and falooda for the evening meal, which is delicious as always.

Thursday 10th August; Sufi festival, Tajuddin Muhammad Badruddin

Laila is helping Khushi with her college work and spending time together in town. It’s extremely hot outside, in the 40s. The plan today is stay in and relax. Early afternoon I pop down to Bhabi’s shop. It’s less than a minute walk round the corner. She’s busy cutting dresses and has an extra person in helping with sewing. We get samosas from the shop over the road. Around 5, it’s a bit cooler and I go for a short walk, down one of the lanes that heads out of town to the country. Some farmers are finishing their day in the rice fields. Papu, Laila’s cousin who lives a couple of houses up from us, tells us that many farmers have just planted new rice seeds and need rain. Rice can grow and be harvested in about 3 and a half months. The weather has been unusually dry in the area. People are worried they will lose crops, which will affect livelihoods. Bhabi pops to the cafe on the corner to get tea, but they are closed today, to plant rice in the family field. Further south, the rains have been heavier than usual, which has also resulted in lost crops. Bhabi tells us 20 years ago, there were a lot more trees in the area. Deforestation is a serous problem in India, and its impact is being felt. Several people have mentioned the reason tigers are coming to towns and villages more frequently is due to their forest home being cut down. This also impacts the communities living in the forest areas. Mining and deforestation are affecting the environment. In places like this, where there is a more immediate relationship with the environment because most of what people eat is grown locally, climate change is having a more visible impact than perhaps the UK.

Later in the evening Bhabi calls from the shop, there is music on the main road near her shop. We should go and look. Laila is still with Khushi, so I go alone. Bhabi’s shop is on a quiet side lane, that leads onto tje main road running through Gadchiroli, a couple of hundred meters from Indhira Gandhi Chowk (Chowk is a market place, often at the meeting of two roads) . One side of the road is closed to traffic, to make space for the Julus/ procession. There are at least two sound systems, the one at the front is blasting loud dance beats, with flute sounds and vocals, there’s long lines of women in saree’s carrying large, brightly coloured, ornamental umbrellas, lit up with various coloured lights. There’s also several large white horses, also wearing decorations. As the parade reaches the Chowk, there’s a big firework display.

Brightly lit decorated floats are pulled by equally decorated lorries. Further down is a live Qawwali, with several vocalists walking in front of another ornately decorated truck, which i think has percussion players on it. The vocals all have huge amounts of echo, which adds to the excitement. The percussion is definitely live, but there’s so many people enthusiastically dancing, it’s difficult to see exactly where it’s from. The streets are lined with people following the parade. I like Qawwali music, so seeing it live in India is really a thrill. The whole atmosphere around the parade is so uplifting, it’s impossible not to get swept away. As mentioned earlier, I’m somewhat a novelty around here, and tonight, it really shows. There’s crowds gathered from the surrounding villages and I’m constantly being asked for ‘ek selfie’ along with ‘where are you from?’ Etc. Several people explain the festival is a Maharashtra event and there’ll be a bigger one in Nagpur, I don’t really understand, but the music and atmosphere are great. It’s all very friendly, people seem surprised and quite excited that someone from so far away is here enjoying their festival. Even one of the small handful of police on duty ask for a pic. I get dragged into the Qawwali group who are trying to explain something, but the music is so loud I can’t hear, so just end up dancing with them for a bit. The parade heads up the road, and looks like it’s going out of town, so I head home to tell Laila about it. We’d heard about a parade that would be walking 35 miles, so maybe this was it. Laila wants to get an auto to try catch up with it. There are no autos around and we can’t see the parade. Someone tells us it’s gone into the gully’s. Away from the two main roads Gadchiroli is a maze of narrow lanes or gully’s. Apparently the parade is now winding it’s way around these. We ask a few people, who point us in the right direction. It’s not difficult to find and we soon catch up with the Qawwali, the whole parade, lights umbrellas, sound systems, horses and all is now making its way through the narrow lanes. Crammed into these gullies, the dancing seems more enthusiastic than before and I’m swept up with the excitement again. Laila asks people about the event. It’s for Baba Taj, Tajuddin Muhammad Badruddin a local Sufi Saint, whose shrine is in Nagpur. There’s a tendency in the UK to see Hindus and Muslims as separate, different religions, and in some of India’s bigger cities, there’s a top down narrative promoting division between the two, often scapegoating Muslims. People in Gadchiroli on multiple occasions have been very keen to point out, that is not the case here. The population here are mostly farmers and traders, many are classed by the caste system as Dalits, ‘O.BC’ (Other Backward Caste - incredibly it’s an official term, used by the Government) or Indigenous people’s. People were keen to state this is not a Hindu or Muslim thing, Baba Taj is for all, the Qawwali are singing songs to Ali, everyone sings along, regardless of religion. It’s refreshing, especially in the context of the stories of division that have been coming from some parts of India. One song sings ‘tell me friend, what is that alcohol?’ It’s quite a different representation of religion as often presented in the UK, and is refreshingly enjoyable.

The parade heads to the local shrine for Baba Taj (Tajuddin Muhammad Badruddin). I’m invited in. It’s men only, so Laila isn’t allowed in. There’s no point in getting into a discussion at this point, it is what it is. The shrine is small, and sort of open, so everyone outside can see in anyway. The streets are tightly packed, with people trying to get a view of the activities.

There are prayers, and a sheets is placed in the centre of the room. Everyone holds or touches the sheet as it is lowered, I’m asked to do the same. After this I go outside again to join Laila, I don’t feel too comfortable leaving her, but she’s happily chatting with one of the organisers. Someone invites us to their house for tea, they live just up the road and have a balcony. It’s getting late and hectic in the streets, so it’s quite nice to be indoors. Even though it’s late, it’s still hot and I’m drenched in sweat from dancing in the crowds. The family in the house take us upstairs to the balcony and we watch the end of the parade from there. They make a sweet snack and we chat for a bit. The guy who invited us in, is even kind enough to give us a lift home.

It’s been a spectacular night, one I’ll remember with fondness for a long time.

Friday 11th & Saturday 12th August; Too hot!

It’s too hot to do anything. We spend the day sitting at home , or in Bhabi’s shop round the corner, which has a cooler. Friday evening, Laila, Khushi and Mummy go to Jamatkhana. Bhabi has to work so can’t go. Friday is a bigger night than other nights. There’s a bus that goes around town to pick up people who can’t get there themselves. Even by evening it’s still to hot, the bus is packed and everyone is melting. As a non Ismaili, I sit outside during the service and seem to be a favourite for the local mosquitos. Other than that it’s a nice peaceful place to sit. After the service people hang around for a chat. One lady introduces us to her mum, who is 88. She pinches Laila’s cheeks, with a fondness of memory from when Laila was a kid. Laila often comments on how much Gadchiroli has changed since she was a child, I wonder what the place looked like when this lady was young and what she remembers.

On Saturday, Laila goes for beauty treatment at Bhabi’s. I sit in the shop and wait , then decide to pop and get grilled corn on the cob from the stall round the corner. The guy is there, but his grill is not fired up, he’s sat in the shade and says it’s too hot, he’ll open at 4 when it gets a bit cooler.

We’re going to Nagpur on Sunday.

Sunday 13th to Wednesday 16th August; Nagpur

Laila and I take the 9.30 bus to Nagpur. Tickets are 150 for women and 250 for men. State law makes it cheaper for women to travel public transport.

We meet Lailas friends, and stay at their place. Their son is coming the study in the UK this autumn, we chat with him about this, he gives us info about the city. The whole family are very knowledgeable about local history and politics, the situations of tribal and caste oppressed people in the area. They take is to a historical museum and the Deekshabhoomi, which is where B. R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. B. R. Ambedkar headded the commmitee that drafted the Indian constitution. We also visit another of Laila’s old friends, who gives us her blessing. We head back to our friends flat on the outskirts of town for the evening, eat delicious food and enjoy the company.

Mummy, Bhabi and Khushi join us on the 14th. We’ve booked a hotel a short ride away from the city centre. Taking a cab to the hotel, we passa huge sound system, set up in a chowk. The whole vehicle vibrates with the bass. We later learn this is part of the Tag Baba event we’d seen in Gadchiroli. Tajuddin Muhammad Badruddin is buried in Nagpur, his shrine is here. People have come from all over Maharashtra. He died August 17th, 1925. There are multiple parades leading up to the date, it’s a huge event, with 100s of thousands coming to the city from across Maharashtra and India.

The hotel is peaceful and comfortable.

We’re here for 2 days, 15th and 16th of August. We decide to hire a driver for the two days, who’ll also drive us back to Gadchiroli. It turns out he’s driven all over India and is a wealth of knowledge.

Both days we head to the market district Itwari. The 15th is Independence Day, a national holiday. Many shops are shut until later in the evening and the streets are relatively quiet until late afternoon or early evening when people come out for social time, food stalls and cafes are open. There are Indian flags on many buildings and vehicles. Laila and Bhabi buy fruit and nuts from a street stall. The stall is run by a couple, who, as is common here are sat on the roadside with their sacks of produce. Fresh nuts such as pistachios are considerably cheaper for a kilo than the UK. They also have dried fruit, some I’ve not seen before. One is a speciality of a region in Pakistan. We buy a kilo. The lady on the stall offers us lots of tasters before buying. We get some delicious food from a street stall, it’s got a few seats and is a great place to sit for an hour or so to watch the world go by. Later we head to a place for Kulfi, called Punjabi Kulfi Wala. The guy tells us the business has been in his family for 75 years, in the same spot.

On the 16th everything is open as normal, it’s also a big day with the Taj Baba évent, with a live Qawwali playing for around 36 hours, and also Parsi New Year, Navroz.

We head back to Itwari. it’s one of the main wholesale market districts in Nagpur. Bhabi has been coming here for 20 years to stock her shop, and is on good terms with some of the traders. Her knowledge is invaluable.

She tells us people come here from all over India. Nagpur is centrally positioned in India , people pass through passing north / south or east/west. Were dropped off in a small chowk. A maze of deep narrow lanes and gullys lead off the streets . Most buildings are a few storeys high, often close enough to each other that shop parasols touch, forming shade from the sun, or cover from the rain. In other places low yellow tarpaulin covers the market. Brightly coloured fabrics, clothes, dried fruits and nuts, metal ware for the kitchen, toys, beauty products, jewellery, carpets, curtains, everything is here. There are also shops selling incense, in some of the narrower lanes, the scent lingers giving a sweet perfume smell to the air.

Scooters, autos, pushbikes and rickshaws also mix with crowds of people, animals, including dogs, cows, calf’s and in more rural areas pigs and chickens down even some of the narrowest of lanes. At first sight it can appear chaotic, but generally people drive slowly with consideration for others. Laila says they are aware that someone or something could come from any direction at any time. There’s an almost constant beeping of horns to let people know, which after a while becomes a normal part of the city sounds. Very rarely does any of this appear to lead to confrontation. Many city, town or village roads in India, are lined with stalls or trader trolleys, selling street food, chai, fruit and veg , pan stalls along with other market products. Like markets anywhere there’s also a nice social element, which in India seems to come alive early evening. Most stalls and shops are locally owned, often family run businesses. Often, shoes are removed before entering a shop, some shops have marble floors and counters, the same as the UK. In others there are cushioned floors or stools to sit on , while shop staff lay produce on the floor to show you. There is often an offer of tea or cold water. In the market place, chai wala’s walk around with big metal kettles of hot chai, you can wave them over for a cup. It’s around 20 rupees. There are also plenty of chai stalls. For lunch today we head down a narrow, high walled gully, most of the shops here sell Incense. The gully opens into a small square, surrounded on all sides with old high buildings. There’s a bench with people sitting in the middle. On one corner is the open front kitchen of a restaurant. A guy sits on a raised surface, next to a coal fired oven cooking chapatis. They’re cooked on a flat steel plate, then a bit more on the open flame. There’s a huge pan of a creamy sweet cooking, next to him and at the end several more pans of various curries, daal, rice and khadi. There’s pictures of Krishna on the walls and quiet relaxing music playing. The open kitchen, is next to the eating area, which is one room, not dissimilar to an old wooden railway carriage in size, with a long thin table in the centre. There’s about 20 people sat round the table, and just about enough room around the edge for staff to serve food, or customers to come and go. The place is full, and there’s a bit of a queue. It’s clearly well known and popular with locals. The three brothers who run the place walk around serving food encouraging people to eat more. There’s a tap outside to wash your hands and face before entry. We squeeze in and a thali plate is placed in front of us all. Everyone eats the same, there’s no menu. One brother comes round dropping fresh chapatis on our plates, and the thali bowls are filled from a multi section pot that another brings round. They also bring rice. As is common in India, most people are eating with their hands (even daal and rice) it’s not that hard, and I’ve learned how to do it. The woman opposite comments ‘ proper Indian’. The food is delicious, but what really makes this special is the atmosphere created by the three brothers, the way the place is set up, one long table, everyone in close proximity, fresh food cooked in front of you, all eating the same., and it’s difficult to say no. One guy say opposite me has his hands over his plate to signal no more, but they still manage to scoop another ladle of curry on his plate. We both smile.

As we leave I thank the brothers, I’ll remember the place for a long time. They tell me the restaurant has been in the family for 140 years, five generations. Bhabi says they also grow much of the veg on the family farm.

In the evening, the driver we hired for the day, takes us back to Gadhiroli. Although the RSS headquarters is in Nagpur, he’s says there’s no Hindu Muslim tension in Nagpur, they take part in each other’s festivals , when the Ram festival happens, procession goes through Muslim areas, they shower them with sweets and rose petals. He also tells us the RSS are not popular in Nagpur and he believes the BJP’s days as a ruling party are numbered, many people have realised that they are playing divisive politics, and even some local BJP politicians are having doubts about the leadership.

Friday 18th August; The lanes around Bhabi’s shop

At last, it’s raining. It started late last night and looks like it’s settled for the day. Laila often jokes, this is picnic weather. This is what the weather is meant to be doing. It’s now pleasantly warm rather than muggy. Aside from being a welcome relief for us , it’s good news for the farmers, many of who have planted new seeds recently, which may have died without the rain.

I’m sat behind the counter in Bhabi’s shop., keeping an eye while Khushi runs some errands and Bhabi finishes some work at home. When the shutters are up, there’s no closing door, rather a see through blind to keep insects out. The chair behind the counter is next to the window, with a great view of the alley, a few meters away from the main road. It’s a good spot to people watch. On the opposite side of the lane is a shop selling incense, and religious items, there’s lots of flowers, bells, coconuts; it’s all quite colourful. They have incense burning outside, on their right is a kitchenware shop. The couple who run it moved to the area fairly recently, he’s a musician who plays many instruments. To the left a small electrics shop, then on the corner of the lane and main road a snack place. They live a few doors up from Laila’s mum. Across the main road is my favourite sweet shop. It’s run by a guy from Rajasthan. Most days he’s outside, making fresh jalebi. He makes 2 kinds, the regular orange coloured ones and some thicker dark brown ones. I’m not sure what’s in them, but they taste good, like regular jalebi, but caramelised. Round the corner to the left, is the guy with the grilled sweetcorn stand, the one who sold me the metal box last time. The sweetcorn comes with lemon juice and chilli power rubbed into it. I visit every few days, he’s a nice guy, who always offers a stool to sit while the corn grill. The finished husks get thrown in a box, cows come over to eat them. Quite often people stop by for a bit of a chat. He often tries to engage me in conversation, I wish I’d leaned more Hindi. Bhabi, Khushi, Laila and the sewing help guy arrive, orders are coming in over the phone, looks like it’s going to be a busy day.

A sack of wheat was delivered yesterday. This morning Khushi takes 7kg in a metal tub to the mill a few shops up from the sweet shop. They charge 5 rupees per Kg. The wheat is poured into a funnel on top of the milling machine, and comes out a spout at the bottom as flour. It’s collected in the metal tub and stored in a cool place at home. There’s enough flour here to make fresh rotis and chapatis each morning for 15 to 20 days.

Late afternoon after the rain stops, Laila and I go for a stroll round the shopping lanes. We stop in the small square with the big tree for chai , it’s the same place I went to the other day after getting lost. Laila says the old Jamatkhana was here, in a building on the square. This area is the oldest part of Gadchiroli, where the Gond people had built a fort, after which Gadchiroli is named. According to some beliefs, there are two deities living in the tree.

Saturday and Sunday, 19th & 20th August; Monsoon rains

Bhabi makes Garam Masaala. She puts a mix of dry seeds, spices, coconut and some pulses in a pan and gently roasts them. They’re then blended to a fine powder. She also makes ginger garlic paste.

Later in the day we head to Armori to meet cousins. On the way we pass over 2 rivers, the Kathani and Triveni. Both are major rivers. The Kathani is over 100 meters wide at the crossing point, Triveni nearly twice that. We crossed the Kathani a week ago. It was almost dry, a few pools and some sand banks. Now after a couple of days of monsoon rains, combined with water coming from upstream neighbouring Chhattisgarh, the river is overflowing. There’s flooding in the rice fields and jungle. It’s difficult to overstate how needed this was, many people in the area have said they’re worried that recently planted crops would die without the rains. Laila says within a day or so, without rain there would likely be special prayers in religious meetings. Unexpected dry spells, and unpredictable weather, leading to crop failure here has a more immediate impact on the community here than in the UK with out supermarkets stocked with imported foods.

We arrive at Laila’s cousins and spend a nice evening chatting and eating. We stay over and head back early morning. There’s been more rain, many roads and the villages they pass are flooded. Another day of rain will lead to roads being shut. Laila says this used to happen most monsoon seasons, and Gadchiroli would be shut off.

It’s nice driving down the main road in town this morning. It’s still early, before 9.30, most of the shops and markets are still closed. Shops open and close later than the UK. People tend to eat their evening meal later, we quite often sit down to eat at gone 9.00, and it’s not unusual to visit neighbours later than 10.00 in the evening.

A friend comes for breakfast, a lizard runs up the front room wall. I walk the friend to the bus stop, then head home. Some more friends arrive, the family of one of Laila’s childhood friends who we stayed with in Nagpur. They’re both knowledgeable about Adivasi communities and caste oppres