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The unfailing companionship of dried bhakri

The humble flatbread, often leftovers collected as alms, is baked in the sun to provide nomadic tribes with their only reliable source of food.

india Updated: Jan 18, 2018 08:32 IST
Gayatri Jayaraman
Gayatri Jayaraman
Hindustan Times
dried bhakri,nomadic denotified tribes,maharashtra
Nomads belonging to the Masan Jogis of Arjapur village in Nanded seek alms for their daily needs. (Anshuman Poyrekar / HT Photo)

Between the camel bazaar and the donkey sellers, in front of the giant loudspeakers of the tamasha tents that are all lit up by night, the blazing afternoon sun beats down on rows of bhakris set out to dry. This sea of brown is actually flatbread made from wheat, bajra, and jowar. It reflects the sun, speckling the faces of former chief minister Ashok Chavan , BJP leader Pankaja Munde, and of less recognisable netas adorning refurbished political posters.

Foraging is an age-old practice. In most villages, it was customary to keep one bhakri for the cow, one for the dog, and one for the wandering mendicant or tribes- man. The practice is reducing these days, so the vimukta bhatkya jati, or nomadic denotified tribes, use mass gatherings — temple festivals, fairs, bazaar days, election rallies, or wherever thousands are expected to congregate — to collect leftovers from makeshift food stalls. Anything that you may have left on your plate, even that half roti you couldn’t finish, is dried in the sun and saved for the long haul.

A few hours in the blazing Indian sun wrings the moisture out of the bhakri, making it crisp like a Gujarati khakhra or a biscuit that is fresh out of an oven. This dried version crumbles to the touch, is immune to moisture and fungus, and can last for several months.

Depending on the amount of space the nomads have in the saddles of their beasts of burden (donkeys, sheep or goats) they load the dried flatbread into satchels in halves or quarters or crumbs. Nomads carry very little — one tarpaulin each, usually found at gatherings or jatras — but they will carry every morsel of bhakri they can find.

Inside the makeshift tents, it is lunch hour, and the tribesmen have been able to beg for some lentils, pitla (thick gravy made out of gram flour) and greens. One man has got a bowl full of chicken curry, with a whole leg piece in it. He generously passes around the gravy but keeps the chicken for himself. The dried bhakris are crumbled into whatever each may have on their plate and mashed with the fingers until it is soft enough to eat. Once soaked, it mashes on the tongue instantly but retains a chewy give. In a more refined form, with some ghee, this would taste like dal baati choorma — a wheat dumpling in lentils.

The bhakri’s accompaniments vary greatly. Some days, the nomads catch mice, a wild boar or a pig, or a farmer may give them a chicken to cook. But they rarely exploit their own livestock for food. They rely on pilgrims and travellers at the jatras wasting food in platefuls, and are rarely let down. Maidans filled with drying bhakris after large gatherings are evidence of this.

On most days, the tribesmen drink fermented gruel in the mornings, and stop when they feel the rumblings of hunger. Unlike cows and buffaloes, donkeys and goats can be milked at any time of the day, and nomadic tribes use the milk to wet pieces of bhakri. Some milk is left in clay pots, hundis or dhunis, with vegetables to curdle it into a semi-curd that can form the next meal of the day.

If they find a farm in the middle of its cultivation cycle, the farmer may pay them a small fee to park in his field so that the droppings of the livestock can act as fertiliser. He may sometimes give them grain or gravy instead of cash, and allow them to light a fire -- which means they may eat fresh food today. When they cook, they pound the grain coarsely and fashion it into thick bhakris over a low flame, baking them till they turn a light pink. This minimises the moisture content, allowing the bhakris to be stored when everyone has eaten.

When they travel into the forests, says Hema Patil, food lab coordinator of the Gian Sanstha of the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies, associated with the Honeybee Project of IIM, Ahmedabad, the tribes chew the dried bhakri pieces with raw and tender pink-tinged leaves of the jamun, mango or moringa trees. They also carry a chutney made from garlic and dried red chillies. The chutney provokes a flow of saliva when there is no other liquid available for the bhakris. Onions and green chillies, where available, also perform this vital function. When there is nothing, they eat the bhakris by softening them with water.

As nomads roam from forest to farm, village to town, their dwelling is a random happenstance, a space where the tarpaulin may hang. Food is never taken for granted. The nomad has just one wish -- give us this day our daily dried bread.

Bhakri recipe: Ghasyo

Teekar, on the far end of the Rann of Kutch, is called ‘Suryasth Bharat’ the edge where the Indian sun sets. Beyond it is Pakistan, where the sun possibly never rises. The tribes don’t count its sunsets. The tribes of this arid and barren landscape carry this recipe – ghasyo -- with them.

Wheat or bajra is ground to flour and heated on a very low flame in a dry kadhai or on a griddle until it turns pinkish red. This should take 10-15minutes. It is cooled and carried for long period and is typically eaten with jaggery and ghee. It can be premixed with ghee and jaggery and two spoons are consumed with milk, buttermilk or water. It is referred to ‘instant roti’ as it is said to form a sweet bread inside the stomach.

What are ‘Vimukta Jatis’ or ‘Denotified Tribes’?

Vimukta Jaatis are the former Criminal Tribes of India, so notified by the British colonial powers. The label includes the Bhatkya Jatis or nomadic tribes. In 1871, a large section of tribes were labelled criminal by birth under the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. The Act impacted 13 million people by 1911 and its scope was expanded throughout the 1920s, to cover 313 nomadic tribes and 198 de-notified tribes, a total of 60 million people.

The National Commission for De-notified, Nomadic and Semi Nomadic Tribes (NCDNSNT), constituted in 2005 noted that forest laws played a role in displacing these tribes, causing many to be so labelled for protesting eviction from forests and foraging lands to make way for the British railway, roads, and mining projects. The tribes under the act were required to notify the police if they entered settlements, which led to police brutality and superstition surrounding them, not to mention downright exclusion from social progress. The jaat panchayats became their only source of community redressal and justice. In 1950, the list of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was released.

In 1952, the Ayyangar Committee Report repealed the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 throughout India and enacted Habitual Offender’s Act 1952. This Act was recommended for repealing by the Renke Commission in 2008, but has so far not been withdrawn. Today, several tribes have been included under the SC/ST/OBC reservation quotas. Plans are afoot by the current Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to repeal even this classification in 2018.

First Published: Jan 18, 2018 08:32 IST