Why reading this great study on Indian migration is a throwback to Prakrit erotic poetry

As I read Chinmay Tumbe’s tapestry of men moving in circles and women on lonely islands in his book India Moving: A History of Migration, I was strongly reminded of AK Mehrotra’s Absent Traveller, a wonderful translation of select poems from Gathasaptasati, writes Nisha Susan

Nisha Susan July 03, 2019 09:42:12 IST
Why reading this great study on Indian migration is a throwback to Prakrit erotic poetry
  • More women have moved permanently than men throughout Indian history due to the practice of village exogamy

  • it is their connections and migrant links that constitute some of the major ‘invisible threads’ holding together Indian diversity

  • Reading Chinmay Tumbe’s India Moving: A History of Migration triggered a strong reminder of AK Mehrotra’s Absent Traveller, a translation of selected poems from Gathasaptasati

By Nisha Susan

Chinmay Tumbe’s India Moving: A History of Migration is a brisk, insight-packed, enjoyable read. A friend who attended his recent reading in Mumbai said she liked that his work is always plotted against gender and caste axes. So I read the book expecting interesting data around women and migration but an unexpected thing happened while I was reading it.

Tumbe points out that in India migration for work is circular, that Indians migrate to work to different places but retire in their hometowns. Of the 100 million migrant workers in India (Economic Survey of India 2016-17) most are circular migrants, Tumbe notes. This, however, doesn’t apply to women:

“Among voluntary streams, marriage and movement with the household are important stated reasons of migration, amounting to over 300 million people in India as per the Census of 2011, almost completely dominated by women… More women have moved permanently than men throughout Indian history due to the practice of village exogamy and it is their connections and migrant links that constitute some of the major ‘invisible threads’ holding together Indian diversity.”

Why reading this great study on Indian migration is a throwback to Prakrit erotic poetry

More women have moved permanently than men throughout Indian history due to the practice of village exogamy | Image for representation only. REUTERS

And in the late evening that I was reading the book, I thought of the song from Saraswatichandra I sing as a joke all the time: “Main toh bhool chali babul ka des, piya ka ghar pyaara lage. Koi maike ko de de Sandesh, jaake maike ko de de sandesh, piya ka ghar pyaara lage.” It translates roughly to: “I have forgotten my father’s village, I have grown fond of my lover’s home. Would someone go to my people and give them this message? Tell them I have grown fond of my lover’s home.” As Tumbe writes, ‘The old adage of most Indians dying in their villages of birth may be true, but most adult women die outside them, as they leave after marriage…”

Thinking of Kumud (Nutan) pretending she is happy when she is utterly miserable with her husband, far from home, and then the millions of Indian women across the centuries who are miserable is enough to make anyone else miserable too. But then as I read Tumbe’s tapestry of men moving in circles and women on lonely islands I was strongly reminded of AK Mehrotra’s Absent Traveller. This is a wonderful translation of a selection of poems from Gathasaptasati, 700 verses in Maharashtri Prakrit originally said to be compiled by the Satavahana king Hala and dated to between the first and the sixth centuries CE.

In the 15 years I have owned this book it has remained the absolute favourite book of poetry I own. It has also been a literary island of sorts unconnected to anything else I know. Until I read Tumbe’s book, the eponymous traveller, what he leaves behind, and what he returns to, had never been so visible.

Troubled by thoughts

Of his desolate wife

The absent traveller

Now approaches his village,

Now leaves it behind.

But never mind the title, the inner lives and erotic adventures of the woman at home are central to the Absent Traveller. After reading Tumbe, suddenly she has also become more complicated (in a good way, I hasten to add). She, the migrant by marriage, becomes the absent traveller.

Here is a mother telling her daughter as she leaves her village perhaps forever,

Go little one, and wipe your tears.

There are girl friends and reed stands

In your husband’s village,

And the Goda flowing through hills.

Or here, as a woman challenges her brother-in-law when he says he knows the village she grew up in –

Stop lying, brother-in-law

You haven’t seen my village,

Not the winding Murala

With many bends, many canebrakes

Several verses in this collection feature a woman who has wasted away so much in longing that her bangles slip off her wrists. Once so much so that even the standard-issue hard-hearted mother-in-law is moved to tears too. The mother-in-law in these verses is always around to make the heroine slog, or interfere in her illicit, amorous pursuits while the husband is away. As Tumbe says, “Women in particular gain considerable autonomy in nuclear families given the absence of their husbands but not in other family structures.”

A rigorous mother-in-law,

The housework endless:

In the evening perhaps,

But don’t wait.

And oh man, there are illicit pursuits. While the history of women in India and Kumud bereft of Saraswatichandra might be full of sadness it’s hard not to get a more lush and giggly version of ancient lives when you read The Absent Traveller.

In one poem, a woman says –

When he’s away

His many infidelities

Come to mind:

When I see him, none.

Sure your man is far away and possibly cheating on you. But other travellers come to your door too.

As the traveller, eyes raised,

            Cupped hands filled with water, spreads

His fingers and lets it run through,

            She pouring it reduces the trickle.

And if you are not into strangers, there are always neighbours. Even mothers-in-law have friends.

Mother-in-law, one word

About the long bamboo leaves

In my hair, and I will bring up

The dirt-marks on your back.

And threads might be maintained to your maike in new ways.

She thrusts her lover

      Towards her husband back early:

‘This man just arrived

      From my father’s village.’

Tumbe points out in multiple ways that the Great Indian Migration Wave (his term) creates regions with swathes of missing men. He writes, “Between 1872 and 2011, the sex ratio of Ratnagiri district in Konkan Maharashtra never fell below 1100 females per 1000 males.”

Why reading this great study on Indian migration is a throwback to Prakrit erotic poetry

India Moving: A History of Migration by Chinmay Tumbe

In this context if you turn to our Prakrit companion you will find this wicked verse:

He’s the beginning.

Middle, and end

Of every conversation:

Aunt, is this

A one-man village.

Or this one:

Sometimes, child

Eating scraps for dinner.

We make out with our husbands

In manless villages

Autonomy in the matter of travel has been very low for women over the centuries. Tumbe quotes rules listed in the Arthashastra, rules governing women’s mobility. “There were also detailed regulations regarding the absence of the husband for long periods, including oversight of the women left behind…She could always visit her own family on special occasions such as childbirth, death and illness.”

India Moving: Author Chinmay Tumbe on the history and consequences of migration in the country

In our present-day, Tumbe notes, “the most awkward question of my interview schedule as part of research in 2011 [was] ‘Why don’t you bring your wife to the city?’ The answers or counter-questions of the migrant workers were nearly unanimous: ‘Who will look after my parents back home?’ ‘What will she do here?’

Rules and money orders are great but here is a Prakrit verse in which a woman is contemplating who she is in different places.

Village born,

Among rustics raised,

To towns unused,

To city-men attractive:

I am what I am

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