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How I got schooled
by wise people of the
hills and mountains

How I got schooled by wise people of the hills and mountains

May 15, 2021

‘Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.’

 

A decision brought the turning point

I am Ritika, Akala, KedutTshulo and myraid other names that I received as an offering of acceptance and belonging along the road. With a wonder to experience a life beyond the defined boxes available in the urban context, I was confronted with a choice for change. This led to the beginning of exploring the grassroots of India in 2009. Since that turning point, I have lived a life transiting from one remote community to another, intimately working with various textile crafts of Himalayas and its foothills, extending primarily to my home of heart, North East India.

As I moved through these mountains, I got the opportunity to time travel through various ancient communities that revealed a context of craft beyond textiles. I have learnt by experience that in remote/rural communities, ability of craft is, is in effect, ability to survive.

In an indigenous home, one does not become an artisan, one is born an artisan.

With Mora and the artisan community, it is slowly becoming a life gently lived. And passionately committed.

Over the years, with no urban technical training in textiles, these natural artisans have become my teachers. They are my mentors and beneficiaries. They are my vocabulary, insight and purpose. While I share with them my understanding of the modern context, they reveal to me their indigenous wisdom.

 

Being an "outsider" inside new homes

Sitting together with women of the mountain brings forth wisdom, beyond my obvious training with their craft. Hand-craft has been a medium to learn an alternative Life-craft. These women, as my mothers, sisters, friends, confidants, teachers, advisors and laughing partners, crafted for me a sense of belonging and security on the road. It is for these women that I reach out to the mountains, and it is through these women that mountains reach out to me. Putting the description of this bond into words would take away the good taste that is inherently only present in a direct experience.

Being a "woman of plains" in the middle of men of the mountains, I have felt an obvious sense of care. It perhaps comes from their knowledge while observing my body-language, that clearly indicates my lack of skills required to survive solo in a region where nature is the master. My urban conditioning speaks louder to them than my any word ever will. So, I have walked their territory under a watchful gaze, either in closeness or in distance; either known to me or never known, until i turned around to find a pair of eyes watching my every move. Like that, they have parented me.

I walked my first wobbly steps on their land with fire-filled energy, while still in the prime of my youth. Now 12 years have passed and my body is telling me that body does reflect the fleeting passage of time. Only to remind me that living in the mountains and jungles have gifted me a body that is younger, healthier and more alert than when I came here. This precious passage of time spent in close proximity to the people who co-exist with nature, has also brought to me a fresh perspective on the conduct of Human to Human, Human to Nature and Human to Matter.

Every morning in their home, even before the first rays of the sun touch the fertile soil of this beautiful land, I have woken up to the sound of the roosters crowing. Around me, I see the village already packed with action. The grandmothers taking care of the grandchildren, while the mothers tend to the household chores. They make fire, and set a large pot on the central cooking space. The smoke from the fireplace chimney or a window indicates to the village that the housemaid have risen for the new day. Kitchen is a hive of activity in the morning. Hungry poultry, pigs, watch dogs, and sometimes cows noisily request for food. Animals are fed before the humans set themselves to their first of the two main meals of the day. The women cook large portion of staple (usually rice), a small piece of meat or dry fish, and a simple boil with vegetables or leaves either grown in their own farm or foraged from the jungles. Family eats with a satisfaction that their yesterday’s hard labour has put today’s food on the table, or rather their bamboo floors.

Preparation of food for family happens simultaneously while cleaning the house, pouring rice beer for the family, collecting Dao (local machete) and other tools as their final preparation for leaving to the fields. Meanwhile men do some quick household repair jobs, chopping wood, sometimes helping the women in feeding the animals but mostly preparing for their version of the long day ahead.
And through these extremely action packed early mornings, one often misses seeing the actual sunrise. There’s only a subtle reminder when the things become more visible, and the pale yellow, sometimes orange light engulfs the usually dull, dark small hut that happens to be your sense of home in their home!
Over the years, the unfamiliarity starts turning into routine. The body and mind starts navigating the spaces through their patterns of movement. There is a constant presence of words spoken in dialects that slowly begin to bring some fuzzy context. And one day, it strikes, the key question-


Am I an outsider inside new “home"?

 

The gift of trust comes with seasons

Still unable to put to a thorough Practice, I salute the indigenous expression of emotions felt, but rarely expressed. Observations made, but rarely communicated through words. Care given, but without a fuss. Most often, two steps ahead of a potential request.

The gift of Trust is also given mindfully. Never too easy. Never too hard. A test was put forward to me, subtle enough to not reveal as a test till many years later. Few more tests were put just as subtly, in different time zones and spaces. I could not tell whether I passed or failed. One after another when put together, they slowly started to build patterns. I summarised,


"These wise people keep track of human patterns as they do of nature. This is how they get to know you- by observing your patterns."


Over years of sitting on the threshold of belonging or not, I eventually experienced the first firm yet gentle embrace of trust from them. "This gift of trust is so silent that one can hear it only in the subtlest of breaths. A sudden sprout is felt in the heart- a feeling of joy." It created a confusion in the heart, "which of my action brought me this gift?". Many years passed finding resolution to this question.

On just another day, with no real seeking, in simplest words, they said,

 

“You have come to us, and then you have come back, again and again. That is enough."

 

I will try to articulate the essence of this wisdom from my perspective in the words that follow.

Their trust comes from the merit of consistency of intention, a genuine nature of effort. For them, my "ability" to do the right action has been secondary to my "intention" to do the right action. Right action will come with time. This was their inherent knowing. So, they let me learn by making mistakes. Seeing how much I don't know, they instinctively took over the role of my mentors. They pardoned me for my mistakes, for things I did not have the mind to do right. And they directed me towards observing a way of "experiential learning". It is not that I was given any special training. For this is their instinctual nature- to allow, observe, and align. Even when their child is about to fall, mother lets the child to feel the fall. That is how the child learns what brings the fall. Mother enables the child. Family trains the child. Into self reliance.

These children of nature allowed me to tuck myself under their wing of training. I kept saying, "I am learning so little though I have spent so much time with you." Then, I began to see that their consciousness is very vast. Gigantic. It is because of their close relationship with nature. They have acquired skills of survival that adapt to both- constants of nature and the variable uncertainties. This polishes their faculties of thought and action to a dynamic range of alertness (reflex) and agility (response). No planning can replace this training. This training is their root conditioning. They have self-reliance to manage most of their physical, emotional and mental needs.

 

Drawing inspiration from the relationship with craft vis a vis their farming lifestyle.

"Do It Yourself* way of doing things in these communities is an ancient survival based lifestyle. They structure their whole year around farming, and make what they need from locally available resources. They are naturally trained into life skills like farming, making houses, fishing, weaving, making baskets, foraging edible leaves, and many others. Rarely, people convert their craft into livelihood.

I found that I have reverence for farmer lifestyle in the hills and mountains. I like the lightness of a householder's life growing amidst their family. I enjoy observing an artisan stealing moments in their day to finish their ongoing piece of craft. I see that this format keeps their heart settled when craft is their value-add, not survival. They stay close to their families' needs. They tend to their farms. They grow their own food so they are never poor or hungry. They work with awareness of the seasons. With a full stomach, they do the craft work in their available time.

I realise with profound clarity that my heart finds resonance in working with these communities who are self-reliant and are not in desperate need to create dependency with craft. I observed this shift in my thinking when I started living close to the people who draw their dependence with growing own food, looking after their family and creating strong community living. In that way, they are never worried about hunger and survival. That is their foundational work. All else provides relief and value-add, including sustenance from craft.

I want to choose this lifestyle for myself. I have been telling my loved ones, "when I learn to live like them, then I will begin to live a successful and content life". So, I keep myself close to them, to grow under their supervision. I observe their flow of problem solving and troubleshooting. I internalise how their "lack of external resources" becomes their "abundance of creativity".

Nowadays, the emphasis on education, availability of modern health facilities, new found consumerism and thus need for income has led to a gradual need to make transition from using "craft as lifestyle" to "craft for livelihood". This has compelled a new context and thus a need for appropriate intervention.

This is where I saw the birth of an inspiration in me that became the driving motor for Mora. To learn to constantly improvise a model of entrepreneurship for them and myself, where we can look after our food, our families and then in available time, engage in a mode of sustenance that stems from craft. To arrive at an approach that organically invites innovation towards adapting indigenous wisdom and the existing craft to modern context, while constantly re-claiming our original essence- a responsible relationship with nature.

 

Beginning of leaving lighter footprints

When I stand witness to this wisdom, I find it meaningful. I observe their quick feet, agile bodies and uncluttered mind and seek to absorb the essence of their lifestyle.

Each day I remind myself of the gift their training brings to me. My heart feels settled. Initially, this came a self-enquiry.

"By trusting me, are they turning me into a responsible human-being? I need to no more seek acceptance from them. There is no need to struggle to fit in. They have already given me acceptance. Am I ready to take on this adventure- an adventure called commitment? Will I lose my freedom? Or have I begun to seek responsibility?"

This enquiry is graduating me to the next step of learning- Responsibility. This graduation to responsibility has given me purpose. Purpose gives me direction. Direction gives me motivation. Motivation gives me perseverance. This gives birth to patience. Patience is an essential product of self-transcendence.

As i see it, now I feel free to choose this responsibility as I am being trained into a sturdy foundation by the very people who I wish to be responsible with. This direction of responsibility is setting me free from deliberate seeking or any distractions. The Path is clearer now and all I have to do is keep walking.

If I wish to walk a long road ahead, I must continue to leave lighter footprints along the way. Nowadays, I find myself simplifying my complexity by saying phrases like, "I am feeling very good, I am learning how to cut fire-wood."

And much to everyone’s amusement, I still never strike the Dao at the same place twice.

 

Life-craft Training

With responsibility, comes the need for training. The faculty of their unique character has empowered my inside with a new set of tools. These new tools teamed with my existing ones bring forth a new Insight- I call this insight, "How I got schooled by wise people of the hills and mountains", giving this letter it's title. Here is a succinct version of the highlights:

  1. Small. Steady. Sensible. Stable solutions are able to sustain so they are "Sustain-able".
  2. When we aim big, it can create excess pressure. When we leave all open-ended and flexible, it does not let the adequate momentum to build up. To be mindful of the pressure intensity can bring productivity. Just like living with nature, one must keep a dynamic balance between the Constants and Variables. Keep to the natural constants. Choose variables that fit these Constants.
  3. Keep sustained interest. Persevere. To not be in a hurry to get results. Change must be natural and not abrupt. Adapt to the expectations of each season. Respond as per the season.
  4. Learn to keep a close check on my intention. What is fuelling my inner driving motor? Learn to draw parallels from the patterns of need-greed, human-nature, excess-sufficiency balance. Where do I stand on the spectrum of commitment, involvement, immersion, engagement with the current intention-action?
  5. Watchful approach to Purpose based on Observation and Empathetic study. Which means to not jump to conclusions and amendments. "What do they really need instead of what i think they should have." Even better, "What is this situation teaching me? Where does it want me to look? What could be my appropriate offering to them?" One can have subjective, conditioned and thus warped ideas of the sense of "growth", "development" and "necessity" of the other. Understanding this from multiple perspectives is the beginning of empathetic interaction.
  6. It takes a village to uplift the craft of the village. One craft is interdependent with other crafts and everyday lifestyle. To bring sudden change to anything in this cycle will have butterfly effect.
  7. To approach with dignity for what they have rather than pity or sympathy for what they don't have.
  8. Be grateful to existing.To bring the focus to celebration of existing craft rather than mourn over what is dying.
  9. Simplify. Think towards simple, not complex. Keep attempting the simple till its inherent complexity reveals. That will bring forth an insight of the layered nuances.
  10. In the modern context, craft must arise as relief from dependencies, and to ease the pressure that dependencies create.
  11. To not be over ambitious. Communicate mindfully and gently. When I keep hopes that are manageable, I can avoid loops of disappointment. The mountain and hills communities give a lot of value to spoken word. Hence, I must not keep changing words with changing thoughts of my monkey mind. I can learn to align action to words. To their watchful eye, no action will be missed. Rest assured, one's heart will get all the silent appreciation with their gift of trust.
  12. Not to forget, learn and share words and phrases of their language/ dialect. Nothing else brings two ethnicities closer than a genuine attempt to speak each others words. Learn to sing their songs even if they happen to be out of tune. Then repeat the names of these ethnicities, their weaves, the looms, their greetings so often that the people who see these craft, also start speaking in the tongues of the ones who make them. The laughter of words pronounced wrong is a moment of shared joy! This new familiarity brings sustained interest.
  13. To learn to keep Nature and their original lifestyle as priority. Rather than seeing what they are doing as wrong or right, I learn to focus on how I craft my daily action in such a way that it brings least problem to the "other". If there is merit in my daily Practice, their natural curiosity will bring change. That too, if needed. An ill-prepared approach may lead to more new problems than intended solutions. Rather than "cookie cutter" solutions that we think are right, I can learn to arrive at a solution that is in harmony with their life. Such intervention can bring growth without shaking the steadiness in their life. This may retain good roots. Simultaneously, also add good natural nutrition.

 

Experiencing the first sweet-taste of "Very little great impact"

After many years of patient application of their training, I finally experienced my first sweet-taste of a phenomena called, "Very little great impact". I will try to state with an example related to Thebvo Project.

I started the vision of Thebvo Project in 2011 with Kuzhami people of Nagaland. With an enthusiastic hope to elevate their indigenous skill of making textiles out of stinging nettle plant from its “ancient context of lifestyle” to the “modern context of livelihood”.
I imagined the production to pick up at a good pace. I also felt assured that we would make certain quantity of fibre every year. Also, by second and third year we would be able to make products and sell it at the market and that would make our project sustainable. And, by 4th year or so, we would already be creating leadership and handing over the project.

However, the project could not be set in real motion till 2014.

All the plans that I felt confident could not meet the intended timeline. One by one, they revealed to me that they are farmers first, householder second, community people third and then when they have their limited free time, they take the role of an artisan. How could I imagine that they will be able to create a production line?

This “community work” worked with an equal and opposite force towards all ideas that came from the approach of successful social entrepreneurship. A successful enterprise in an urban setup, meeting the above criteria is more feasible than the same application in rural, and especially in a place like Nagaland. If one tries to do the same in a village where the lifestyle is governed by the seasons and needs of farming, all these “good plans” seem helpless.

This much needed “set back” was my biggest learning and was my biggest growth spurt.

I decided in that moment that my earnings from mora can give a foundational ground of confidence to pick up responsibility of Thebvo Project. However long it may take, to do it most ethically, most compassionately, at an appropriate scale, keeping nature and their original lifestyle on the top. I decided to retain the small scale and gradually reduce the desire of the “great impact”. Because in that very moment my entrepreneur mind began to make a substantial shift towards the point of view of a community where I grew new respect for their old system of life.

When I observe as an ambitious entrepreneur, then we may not be considered a success story. Because in this decade long work, this project has produced very little in terms of numbers and reach. And has not yet started to bring “returns”. But when I think as a human, I see us as a super success story.

We have been able to successfully adapt our project to fit the farming lifestyle of the community. Their personal time is still their own asset that they utilise according to their need. Which means Thebvo project is flexible to absorb each artisan’s individual lifestyle. Artisans of Thebvo Project are not under any inflexible timelines, deadlines, frameworks, structures, production capacities, targets and pressure to deliver orders. The perseverance over these years has brought me the gift of faith in the project from the community. Resilience to not exploit nature has left Thebvo growing in the jungles even in the midst of changing landscapes due of climate change. We walked gently. We constantly reminded ourselves to go slow. To always remember jungles when we think about production. Over these years, Thebvo has gone through creative innovations that has celebrated Indigenous Thebvo, bringing value to it that can only come with devoted time and effort, at a natural pace.

And here in 2021, we have our flame of love for Thebvo still alive. When Thebvo is being twisted and spun by hands, we collect those fibres in a basket called Melhe. That basket sometimes takes long to fill up as the yarn making process is tedious and labour intensive. At that time, I tell my heart a song that we made while living together with Kuzhami people,

"Melhe Prophera, Ali Prophera"
Basket is filling up, heart is filling up!

This song is a metaphor for celebrating small, steady and continuous steps. It is a delicate song of perseverance. In not working towards creating a great impact, we can eventually start heading towards making “very little great impact.”

Thebvo Project has inspired me to extend the same value system to my own life, and thus my dearest extension, Mora and all her different branches.

Consciously learning to watch what footprints I leave when I walk the earth.

What footprint must I carve in the rock, so it remains my long-lasting imprint?
What footprint I leave on sand, that it may be gone with the wind tomorrow?
What footprint do I leave on water, that it keeps disappearing even as I walk?

 

The power of "may be"

Alan Watts, explains through a story, a mellow glimpse into this context:

"Once upon a time there was a farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbours came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.”
The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.”
The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbours then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.”
The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbours came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad— because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.”

So, when people ask me if it is bad that development took so long to reach these remote regions. I have begun to say, “may be”.

And when people ask if it is good that people retained their ancient beliefs in the absence of surge of modernisation. I also say, “may be”.

I can see that they are still skilful and self-reliant. But I also see that they work very hard.

Modernisation is bringing convenience. It is also bringing new habits and dependencies.

Is it good? May be.

Is it bad? May be.

I see that these communities are in a delicate transitioning stage. While they are still holding the essence of their past, the inevitable change is catching up soon.

 

If you go slow, you will reach faster

That brings me to my favourite story from some wise man in some ancient world.

Once someone asked an old man, I wish to carry many apples on my cart to the next village, how long will it take to get there? The old man replied, “if you go fast, you may never reach or may take very long, but if you go slow, you will reach faster.” The perplexed man left the old man in a hurry. He dumped all the apples on the cart and rushed to reach the village. The apples kept rolling down, and he kept stopping to pick them up. The sun was coming down and the village was no where close. Then, the old man’s words returned to him and he carefully stacked apples on the cart and moved as gently as he could. Not many apples rolled down after that. And he soon reached his destination.

 

Urgency of change: “getting the work done”

A youth from Zapami village has beem “remotely” facilitating a weaving-based livelihood project for Mora during these pandemic times. The more he pursued towards encouraging his fellow villagers to see this as a good opportunity to earn, the more helplessness he felt at the face of actually “getting the work done”. Few months have translated into more than a year and instead of making about 20 shawls in this period, we are yet on our 4th shawl.

Here is a gist of our conversation:

Pfolo: How do I say? There has not been much development from the last time. I feel helpless that work is not moving forward.

Me: Is it because of the local festival?

Pfolo: yeah something like that. They just like to do their own thing. And women are too busy. Very busy. Sometimes field, other times Church, then festivals. They cannot do weaving work properly. Cant dedicate much time.

Me: Yes I understand. Now paddy cultivation will also begin around 3rd week of May. They wont be able to weave till July na?

Pfolo: yeah its like that. They just like to go with their own flow of life.

Me: (laughs) ki koribo dei. Inika e ase. (What can we do? It is like this only). Production is going slow, time is moving fast and we are feeling scared for yarn storage etc. Yet I cannot help but feel happy that there is still a skilled rural community in the world that does not feel the pressure to respond with urgency when an opportunity to earn money comes to them. They can still choose to go with their flow. And prioritise where they wish to give their time and effort. Farming for your own home offers privilege of a full stomach.

Pfolo: (laughs) yes, that is true. They will weave when they want to weave. But I will try my best to encourage them.

Me: Not easy dei!

Pfolo: For sure, not easy!

“She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.”

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