The next day, we woke up to the sound of scores of children singing the national anthem outside our window. It was only then we realised that our guest house shared a wall with a high school. The kids dispersed from the grounds and soon the classes began. Amidst blaring horns, we could hear teachers struggling with their microphones all the while trying to impart their knowledge on capacitance, voltage and electromagnetic fields to their students.
After some breakfast, we decided to meet the boys one last time before we hit the road. Everyone was gathered on Sharath’s roof playing poker and keeping scores. While we heard some of them guffawing in the background, others discussed about the possibilities of going on a road trip soon. The day was bright and sunny. As we waited for the boys to settle down, we thought it’d be wise to read up on some of the issues that required urgent attention in Kerala.
One of the major concerns that the state and authorities have been trying to address over the years has been tribal land displacement and rehabilitation. The Adivasis have had to bear the brunt of land alienation apart from dealing with an alarming depletion of resources and arable land. To top it all, the constant deterioration of socio-economic capital has only crippled them further. During our research, we came across a few tribal settlements residing in Nelliampathy. Apparently, they have been on a strike for more than 11 years. The government refused to offer them land, sanitation or electricity and made tall promises of strategising a rehabilitation programme for almost a decade. Some fear their land rights have been devolved altogether. We wanted to reach out to the community and get a first-hand understanding of the situation.
After grabbing some grub, we set forth on our journey towards Nelliampathy via Peechi Vazhani Wildlife Sanctuary. We took a few unknown roads instead of following the highway. We followed some routes on Google Maps and ended up at several dead-ends. A narrow trail led us to a small house under construction. While the Maps asked us to move ahead, there were no roads left. In the end, on inquiring with a few locals, we realised that we were nowhere close to our destination. The Sanctuary was not in the vicinity at all.
Later, someone told us that there was a lovely waterfall nearby. We thought it’d be great to catch a glimpse of the sunset near the falls. We headed in that direction on an off road trail and got lost again. With no one in sight, traversing the rough terrain on our own was quite a tedious task. After a while, we thought it’d be wise to just head back and ask for directions. It got dark soon and much to our chagrin, one of the locals residing in the area informed us that it wasn’t advisable to go to the falls at night.
We soon came across a junction that split into two different roads. While one route led to Valparai another led to Nelliampathy. We parked on the side to take a break and contemplate on where to go. In the end, we took the road through the forests to Nelliampathy.
Driving through the Sholayar Forest Reserve was quite a remarkable experience. In the morning, the reserve offers a spectacular view of waterfalls, rocky cliffs and tropical forests. And, at night as darkness swallows the earth and its inhabitants, the surging sounds of the woodlands can build a rather mysterious and eerie vibe. Trees took on silhouettes of dark creatures that kissed the star studded skies as the horizon welcomed a crescent-shaped moon. It almost felt as if we were driving amidst creatures of the night perhaps aware of our existence; perhaps not. Nevertheless, at times, it felt as if we weren’t alone.
Fireflies adorned the trees as sleepy towns braced the chill in the air. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, people had built cosy bungalows and cottages tucked away from the heady chaos of an urban civilisation. We came across numerous paddy fields and tiny houses built right in the middle of the forests.
After a while, we stopped at a church to fill some water. A man approached us and asked where we were headed. We told him that we were on our way to Nelliampathy. He stroked his chin and frowned as he said, “You might be on the wrong road. No body ever uses this route to go to the hills.”
We were quite certain that we were on the right track and decided to drive further down the road. Within two kilometres, we came across a few grocery shops that were still open. We stocked up on supplies and asked the shopkeeper for directions. He pointed towards an inner route and advised us to keep going ahead. We took that road and followed the stars that led us to a mountain range nestled in the greater depths of the Western ghats. Legend has it that Nelliampathy was formed as a result of a severe seismic activity that led to displacement of mountains on this belt.
We soon came across a path that had Messi and Sassi separated by a coffin painted on the road. We wondered who this ardent Messi fan was and what the message signified.
At around 11.15 pm, we managed to reach the check post. There was no one manning the booth. They were all asleep inside. We tried waking them up once or twice. There was no response. Finally a lungi-clad sleepy-eyed man walked out of the room and asked us what we wanted in Malayalam. Fayez told him that we had booked rooms in a hotel and it would be great if he could let us in. He flatly refused. Apparently, you can leave the forests at any time. However, you cannot enter beyond 9 pm. The man didn’t bother listening to what Fayez had to say and yelled, “Come back in the morning.” He then went inside and banged the door shut. We had no choice but to pass out in the jeep.
There wasn’t any hint of rain until then and all of a sudden we found ourselves in the middle of a heavy downpour. The rains barely subsided and kept coming in short bursts throughout the night. We decided to play some music and catch some shut eye. However, all we could hear was the incessant buzzing of mosquitoes at periodic intervals. We were trying our best to get some sleep when we heard a car pass by us. The toll was opened for him in an instant. Fayez rushed to the spot and asked the man at the booth to let us in. He said he couldn’t and told us that this particular gentleman owned an estate on top of the hill. So, he let him go.
Eventually, we were left with no choice but to try and pass out in the jeep for a few hours hoping that he would let us through by dawn…
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