We meant to start our day early to visit the tribal settlements. We wanted to understand what life was like for those who resided in the Muthuvakodi Village and discuss with them about the Lantana-livelihood initiative. However, Fayez was still running a fever from last night. So, we asked him to get some rest and we decided to leave in a few hours.
En route to climbing uphill into the forest, we made a quick stop at Khaja’s workshop to talk to him about Mari and what we could do to fuel his passion for automobiles to unimaginable heights. Our plan was to talk to Khaja first and ask him if he thought it was a good idea to meet Mari’s mother who worked as a labourer in one of the cardamom plantations.
Much to our dismay, Khaja wasn’t there. We decided to meet him tomorrow and continued to drive towards the forest. Before we left the house today, Fayez’s mother offered us some oats with warm milk, boiled tapioca and fried bajjis. This allowed us to save breakfast money. So, we used that to fill Fayez’s jeep with fuel. We were running low on cash since our payments were delayed this month. We realised that this could have an adverse effect on our journey. However, there’s no way we would’ve ever compromised on our work. The only areas in which we were ready to cut corners were food and stay. With hope and determination in our hearts, we decided to go ahead with our endeavour to interact with the tribals.
There was absolutely no sign of rain in Bodi town but as we drove through the villages, we could see thick white clouds blanketing the hills before us. As soon as we entered the forest, it started raining quite heavily. On the way to Kurangini village, we spotted Maarimuthu on his bike. He asked us to wait for him in the village.
Fayez parked his jeep near Maari’s house while we waited for him to return. An old man walked towards us with curiosity and peeped into the jeep. His name was Daniel and he told us that he was the caretaker of a small field that had several arecanut trees growing in clusters. We’ve passed by these fields on numerous occasions on our way to the forest.
Maarimuthu joined us shortly. We were instantly drawn to his infectious energy. He seemed to be the perfect guy to bridge the gap between us and the locals since he had a sound understanding of the prevalent social issues within the tribal communities. Most of these tribes residing in the forest have been declared backward by the government.
We asked him to join us on our journey to the forest but he told us that he couldn’t. His pregnant wife was alone at home and he wished to stay by her side. In conversation, we asked him about the four isolated houses we stumbled upon two days ago that were built away from the Kurangini Village. We wondered aloud why they chose to stay there away from the community. To that he replied, there’s a temple nearby and many villagers visit and offer their prayers there from time to time. So, these families opened a few tea stalls and sold snacks right next to the temple to make some money from visiting pilgrims/locals.
We also informed him that the forest department has stopped the tribals from clearing Fayez’s land expressing their concern over ‘patta’ issues. He told us that he would be more than happy to accompany us to the Forest Office on Monday and was quite confident that the issue would get sorted out. After catching up with him for a while, we decided to drive further towards the tribal village. Owing to heavy rainfall, the off-road stretch was quite slippery and Fayez carefully drove up the trail leading to Muthuvakodi. We also hoped to meet Thangappan in the village to talk to him about the lantana project and get a better understanding of the socio-economic scenario of the tribe.
We couldn’t believe our luck when we spotted him in a distance. He was digging holes in the ground to build a strong foundation for a tiny stone and mud house which he would construct himself. We quickly got out of the jeep and sought shelter from the strong winds and rain. The downpour was incessant but the forest roared to life.
Thangappan’s simplicity and humble nature warmed our souls. We couldn’t speak his language and he couldn’t speak ours but we connected on a fundamental and emotional level. Sometimes, in a race to merely survive and thrive through selfish means, we tend to forget the universality and power of human emotions. We explained to him about our plans to introduce the skills of making furniture using lantana to the tribals. This would also result in them exploring a new source of income. Since, lantana infestation has progressed exponentially in these regions over the years, this seemed like a more efficient way of ridding the landscape of the plant.
He seemed quite interested in picking up the skill and was keen to know more about the project. We explained to him what we proposed to facilitate over the next few months in detail. He told us that most of the tribals have left the villages and either moved to bigger towns or have shifted to the other side of the hills in Kerala since there is no way they could earn their living here. It is a constant struggle for them to make ends meet and most of them gradually lose hope and end up abandoning the places that define who they are in search of greener pastures elsewhere.
A few days ago, Jose told us that some tribals decided to settle down on the lower regions of Muthuvakodi village since they weren’t supportive of the elderly folks’ tradition of consuming marijuana and alcohol. We asked Thangappan if this was true and a cause of concern for them. He told us that some of them owned lands here and it made no sense for them to uproot their families to join the settlement above. Moreover, it would have been quite cumbersome for them to travel to and fro from the higher regions of the land to the city or town for work. Hence, he decided to settle down here.
During our conversation, we asked him if he preferred to live in the forest or would he love to move towards town someday? Without batting an eyelid, he replied that he cherishes the peace and quietude of the woods. Every time he goes to the main town, the solitude of the forest beckons him to return. He confessed to us that the city makes it quite hard for anyone to survive. He was quite content with whatever he had. He grew his own food and some cash crops like coffee, pepper and chillies to earn his living.
In a world where most people are rushing towards modernisation, it is quite refreshing to find those who are able to appreciate the simplicity of their rural life without a shred of regret. With the government offering them free farming and residential land, the tribals have had very little dependency on money over the years. However, over time, they are getting sucked deeper and deeper into the vicious cycle of the monetary system thanks to limited or no sources of income. With a bleak present and weary future, these tribals are trying their level best to make their voices heard and survive with dignity.
We tried to get some clarity on the situation of education in these tribal settlements. Apparently, both parents and children would be more than happy to have access to decent education. However, there aren’t too many children left in the village since most of the families have migrated to different cities. As a result, teachers don’t show up to classes quite often since there are only about eight to ten students studying in the entire school. To them, the numbers are minuscule and it wouldn’t matter if a handful of tribals are denied their right to education. The government too has neglected their duties towards the tribals here and have failed to provide them the necessary facilities with respect to infrastructure and schooling in the village.
We also mentioned to him that our roof almost flew off due to strong winds two nights ago. We asked him if such a phenomenon was an annual seasonal occurrence. He said that these regions experience strong pre-monsoon and monsoon winds every year for two months. He assured us with a big smile that what we have seen so far is only the beginning, and that the winds will only get stronger throughout the month.
We still had to traverse through slippery mud trails to reach the upper region of the tribal village. There was a faint drizzle in the air and it was going to be a challenge. So, we bid our farewell to Thangappan and moved on.
When we reached the village, we were greeted by the thundering roar of the banyan tree at the entrance yet again. And, just like the last time, the village seemed deserted. Not a soul in sight and not a thing out of place. It felt like we had stumbled upon an abandoned civilisation.
We decided to follow the winds and explore the village on foot. We soon came across Surya and his younger brother Selva. They recognised us instantly and walked towards us. Clad in a lungi, Surya was carrying his little sister on his waist. We asked them to show us around. As we walked through the settlement, we noticed that most of the houses were locked. We spotted a few that were open where people took shelter from strong winds.
Surya told us that there are 25 families living here and 40 houses in all. There is a nursery and primary school in the village and both are dysfunctional. He studied in Bodi town till grade six and then decided to quit early because other kids bullied him and teased him for being a tribal boy. His eyes reflected the sadness and angst he might have felt putting up with the ‘children of the city’ at that time. His younger brother is now in grade six.
There have been numerous instances of tribal children dropping out of schools throughout the country because of the inherent practice of racism prevalent in our society. We target those who are helpless; those who are different and those who have been shunned by our urban civilisation simply because some of them do not belong here. Suppressed and helpless, these children build hatred in their hearts at such a young age. Perhaps, if we taught our children the importance of compassion; of seeking similarities rather than differences, maybe just maybe, the world may become a better place to live in.
We continued to walk around the village and take in the beautiful view. We asked the boys where everyone was and why was the village deserted at this hour? On inquiring further, we found out that strong winds had disrupted the power supply to the village and most of the men had gone to fix the problem.
As we were walking through the village, we saw a group of men pass by us. They kept to themselves and didn’t make any eye contact. From our past experiences with rural communities, we have always come across a slightly closed or reserved demeanour from the locals in the beginning. However, over time, as we got to know each other, a beautiful bond developed between us gradually. Hence, we weren’t too concerned about the cold treatment coming our way from some of the older men.
Constant downpour made it difficult for us to move around freely. After spending some time in the village, we trekked down to our land before heading back to town. Surya and Selva ran barefoot ahead of us giddy with excitement. After about 400 metres or so through the jungle, Selva decided to go back to the village but Surya accompanied us all along. We wished to head deep into the forest but the heavy downpour and grass as tall as 5 feet kept us from going too far. Moreover, we were starving.
So, we turned back and walked towards the jeep. We walked ahead while Fayez was trying to catch up with us. Surya stopped and waited for him. In a concerned tone, he said, “We shouldn’t leave anyone behind when walking in the jungle.” It got us thinking about the life lessons he had learnt living here with his tribe amidst the hills and the forests; lessons that taught him to survive in the woods, to never abandon one of your own; lessons that taught him to be a better human being…
We reached the jeep in no time and Surya decided to leave. We drove down to Bodi town. But we were in no hurry to hit the busy streets anytime soon. On the way, Fayez parked the jeep beside a forest and we spoke for an hour about our experience with the tribals today as we witnessed a sea of clouds move from the mountains to the town. It also made us realise that having a vehicle of our own had its own advantages. It would allow us to stop where we pleased to take a break, live in the moment and even interact with people and communities unknown and undiscovered. And, we wouldn’t we have to rush to destinations in the nick of time.
We reached town and ate at a small stall. We were quite concerned about our delayed payments and hoped that they would come through in the next few days. Monetary constraints have slowed us down from time to time but it wouldn’t deter our spirits from setting out to do what we intended to do with our life and journey. Occasionally, we do feel trapped and bogged down by such restrictions but it only strengthens our resolve to pursue what we have always been deeply passionate about…
Project ‘Rest of My family‘ is an attempt to connect back, re-discover our relationship with and understand our responsibility towards the larger family that we are a part of — the rest of our human family. Hence, it is titled Rest Of My Family.
Through #RestofMyFamily, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help….
Find more about the campaign here: http://igg.me/at/restofmyfamily/x/539502