The area around Raipur in Madhya Pradesh is known as Chhattisgarh. A large number of tribal people live here, as they do in other parts of the State, such as Bastar and Jhabua.
The tribal way of life is different from the way the other villagers live, although they are usually neighbours. While the villagers live mainly by farming, the tribals are closer to the forests. They make their own tools and instruments, weave baskets and hunt small animals. Their knowledge of the forest and its wealth is unmatched.
The tribals have their own language, songs and dances. They worship God through nature, and their ceremonies are different from the ones we have in temples and churches. Because they are innocent, and often childlike, some villagers and people living in the city think they can easily fool the tribals.
Thinking this way can lead one into serious troubles, as a merchant of Chhattisgarh found out.
Champak Lal was a merchant in a village near Raipur. His house was one of the biggest in the village. His shop sold grain and pulses, spices, soap, matches and other essential things. When these were weighed out to his customers, Champak Lal, or his assistant, Kewal Ram, were very careful that they did not give out a single extra grain.
The villagers were aware of how the merchant drove a very hard bargain, and how he was totally without feelings, or kindness where profit was concerned. His wife, Shanthi Devi, was fat, and wore heavy jewellery. Under the gold chains beat a kind heart.
One spring morning when Champak Lal was sitting in his verandah, he heard a man crying out on the street, “Buy my crows! Fat and juicy crows!”
Champak Lal was astonished. Who would sell crows, he wondered. And who would buy them? His curiosity was aroused. He got up and peered down the road.
A bare-chested tribal was coming towards his house with a basket on his head. A dirty cloth was twisted around his middle and he wore slippers made from the rubber of old truck tyres.
The tangia (axe) slung on the tribal’s shoulder showed he was a hunter. As he came closer, Champak Lal called out to him.
“What are you selling?” he asked.
“Kaua (crow), Sir,” said the tribal.
“Show me,” said Champak Lal.
The man walked up to the verandah steps, and put down the basket. Then he sat next to it, looked up at the merchant, and grinned.
“See, sir, fat and juicy crows,” he said.
Champak Lal was amazed. Inside the basket was a pair of plump, grey partridges, birds especially valued for their tender meat. They lay with their legs tied, and their speckled feathers gleaming in the sun.
`How foolish this man is,’ he thought, ‘calling these valuable birds crows!’ “How much are they for?” he asked aloud.
“Twenty rupees for the pair, Sir,” said the tribal.
“I will not pay a paise over fifteen rupees,” said Champak Lal, beginning to walk back into the house.
“O, kind and gracious Sir, take them. Please take them,” said the tribal, keeping them on the top verandah step.
Champak Lal turned back, giving a small grunt of satisfaction. He counted fifteen rupees and gave them to the man. The man smiled and gave a small salute as he took the money.
“What is your name?” asked Champak Lal.
“Nathu,” said the tribal.
“Well, run along, Nathu,” said Champak Lal. “And let me know again when you find some…crows,” he said with a mean smile.
The partridges were cooked on a stove out in the courtyard of Champak Lal’s house, as Shanthi Devi was a vegetarian. When she had seen the two birds, her eyes had widened in surprise.
“How much did you say you paid for them?” she asked.
“Fifteen rupees,” said Champak Lal, chuckling. He called his friend from a neighbouring village for dinner, and continued to chuckle late into the night.
Ten days later, he was sitting in the verandah again, when he heard a call, “Buy my beautiful rangna!”
It was the tribal, carrying a gleaming copper pot on his head. “Rangna-a-a-a,” he shouted. “Who will buy my beautiful rangna?”
“Here, Nathu,” called Champak Lal, remembering his name effortlessly, “what is this rangna? Bring it here.”
Nathu walked over to his verandah again, and sat on the steps. He set the pot next to him.
Champak Lal stared at it. A very handsome, weighty piece, he judged. Although it was a used one, dented in a few places, the pot shone in the sunlight. Such an old and heavy vessel must be worth almost a thousand rupees, thought the merchant.
“What did you call this?” he asked the tribal.
“It is a rangna, Sir,” said Nathu, grinning happily. “My mother’s old rangna. It is still strong, see,” he said, thumping the metal pot with his palm.
“How much is it?” asked Champak Lal.
“A hundred rupees, Sir,” said Nathu.
Champak Lal turned down the corners of his mouth. “Too much,” he said. “Find another buyer for your rangna.”
“Oh, no! Good Sir, kind Sir, how much will you pay for it?” asked Nathu.
“Eighty rupees,” said Champak Lal firmly.
The grin was wiped off Nathu’s face. But he lifted up the pot and placed it a few steps higher, inside the verandah. Then he held out his hand. Champak Lal counted out eighty rupees and gave them to him.
He laughed heartily as he related the tale of how he had acquired the rangna to his wife. Shanthi Devi turned the pot over and over in her hands, marvelling at its weight and appearance, unable to find a serious flaw.
“This is more a gift than a sale,” she said.
Champak Lal spent every morning in his verandah, alert and waiting for the tribal’s call. He was extremely eager for his next bargain. All the people who had seen the rangna had admired it and exclaimed at its worth.
Hardly a week after acquiring the pot, Champak Lal was in his verandah when he saw Nathu approaching from a distance.
“Laplaus!” yelled Nathu, who was striding along, swinging his arms. “Who will buy my priceless laplaus?”
Champak Lal called out to him and he came immediately, sitting at his usual place on the verandah steps.
“So, what is this laplaus you are selling this time?” asked Champak Lal.
“Here they are, sir, the most precious laplaus you have ever seen,” said Nathu. As he spoke, he removed a small leather pouch from the twist of cloth around his middle. He opened the pouch, and from it poured out a gleaming heap of diamonds on his dirty palm.
Champak Lal was struck dumb. The stones were blinding in their brilliance. There were twenty-two of them, from the size of peas to that of marbles. His mouth was dry with greed. He asked, “How much for these…er…laplaus?”
“Ten lakh rupees, sir,” said Nathu without hesitation.
“What? Ten lakhs? This is too…” began Champak Lal, but Nathu cut him short.
“Yes, yes, but I cannot accept a paise less, because these laplaus are not all mine. They belong to the whole tribe, and I shall have to pay all the others,” said Nathu.
Champak Lal was thinking. The Chhattisgarh area has diamond deposits which have not been fully mined even today. The tribals know the secrets of the forest and could well have amassed this wealth over the years. Moreover, Champak Lal had experience of Nathu’s estimate of what he was selling. If he sold a thousand-rupee pot for a mere eighty rupees, what would be the true value of something that he was selling for ten lakh rupees? The merchant’s mind boggled at the thought. He made a decision.
“All right, I will buy your laplaus,” he told Nathu. “But give me time till evening to raise the money.”
“0 kind and gracious Sir, you are too good. I shall return at sunset after visiting my wife’s uncle,” said the tribal, and departed.
That afternoon Champak Lal sold all his stock, much of his wife’s jewellery, and managed to collect the sum of ten lakhs, just minutes before Nathu reappeared. Nathu’s grin was back in place, and the diamonds as brilliant as ever. Even in lamplight, they could dazzle the eyes.
Champak Lal paid the money after counting and checking the stones once again. The tribal wrapped the money in a cloth, slung it over his shoulder along with his axe, saluted the merchant and vanished into the dark forest.
The next day Champak Lal took the diamonds to the city to sell.
The jeweller examined them carefully, then shook his head and said, “Brilliant they are, but diamonds they are not. Glass, only glass.”
Champak Lal could not believe his ears. All thoughts of bargains and profits fled. He had thought all along that he had
been fooling the tribal. Actually it was Nathu who had laid the cleverest trap for him.
The people of Chhattisgarh tell this story with the following poem that sums it up:
Kaua ka dhokha me teetar bikais
Aur bikais rangna
Ab jo pade laplaus dhamaka
Na ghar sohay, na angna.
(He bought partridges in the guise of crows
And he bought a rangna
But now that the laplaus explosion has hit him.
Neither his house, nor courtyard can comfort him.)