The Game Changer

PRIMITIVE - Saturday, January 10, 2009
  Sataram's family business is over 400 years old

I am surrounded by lingams in a man's house in a centuries old village called Bakawa on the banks of the Narmada River. You can't get here by car. We have come to see how lingams evolve. The man’s name is Sataram and lingams have been his family business for over 400 years. He lives with his wife, two daughters, and a son who is away at school.

His house is simple – an outside kitchen, open family room, and covered bedroom. We climb up to the roof of the house to look out upon the river, the birthplace of lingams. Then we’re invited to see how they are refined.

Walking from Sataram’s house we arrive at a few huts on either side of a path. Sitting on the ground in front of the huts, women polish lingams by hand in long sweeping motions. Inside, men refine their forms.

As we walk farther, the village's children begin to collect around us. They hear the clicking of Claudia's camera and soon they are trailing behind. She has become the Pied Piper.

Making it down to the banks of the river we climb into a long, flat wooden boat and take seats on simple wooden planks. We are going to the “lingam island” 100 meters from shore to see lingams in their natural state.

Surrounding oneself with one's work

Onboard, Sataram brags, “You can drink this water. The only river in India.” Then he scoops a cup with his hands to quench his thirst. We all politely decline his offer to test the water ourselves.

The boat pulls up to a rocky shore and is moored by the boatman holding onto the rocks. Two old women and a man get off the boat with their belongings, and although the island is small, within moments they vanish. I ask myself, where did they go and what did they have with them? No one lives on the island. Wondering what to do next, we spot a small hut on the banks of the island off in the distance. Someone is inside.

We decide to investigate and set out to traverse the island. It is difficult as the landscape is a sea of crags. It is like playing hop scotch on mini-mountains with many jagged peaks to be avoided. As we come closer to the hut a sound begins to gather from low among the rocks. We press on.

Sitting cross-legged on bare ground in a lunghi (a simple cloth wrap) and a piece of faded string, sits a Sadhu, a holy man, the sole source of the sound coming from the rocks. He does not move or acknowledge our presence. He just emits a steady drone in a language known only to him. It does not wax or wane or vary in pitch. The words of whatever he chants blend together to produce a single enigmatic sound. Locked in the moment, my head bowed in reverence, I spot a natural lingam half buried in the ground. The marking is exceptionally clear. It is a circle on a rock - my rock! Sataram helps me dislodge it from the earth and with a smile announces what I already know. “A natural lingam,” he proclaims.

We come back to Sataram’s house for food. Although Sandeep accepts the fare, the rest of us decline. It’s too dangerous. If we get sick, we could lose a day. I understand, but my stomach is churning with hunger.

  The old fashioned way - by hand

Eating here is a noisy affair. There are no utensils, just hands. Sataram shovels rice and dal together with flat bread and slurps it up. The noise is impolite but it is still a pleasure to watch him eat. He notices me staring, but doesn't stop.

The women, his wife and two daughters stay inside for the feast, but come out for pleasantries at the end. In the meantime, I wonder what it would be like to live in a village. Before departing, Claudia and I go to the bathroom in a blue brick cube in one corner of the family room. Inside, there is no toilet, not even a hole; just a gutter along the side. I am nervous the door is going to fall open so I put my hand on the blue wall for balance. Upon finishing, I notice the paint has rubbed off. I’m not sure village life is for me.

The car ride back is rocky. I lie down in the back seat, face up. We don't know where we're staying tonight—Indore or Delhi. All of us have secret hopes that we'll get on a plane tonight. I have my doubts. Then Glen discusses the monumental discovery of the day. The government is damming the Narmada River.

That means the low season will not come again. Lingams will be lost, and the people who depend on them will have to conjure up creative methods to retrieve them from the river. The entire village of Bakawa is being uprooted and sent to higher ground.

Lingams, which I thought were plentiful, which make up part of the bread and butter of Primitive, may become rare. In fact, they will become rare.

Glen notes, “This changes the ball game.” And I’m reminded of something I’ve heard him say on numerous occasions: “The magic words in this business are ending or ended.” Lingams I’ve discovered, are somewhere in between.

Riding the Lingam to
higher ground