The lorry screeched to a halt. We saw the driver and conductor run towards us. They were yelling at each other in Tamil. Fayez slammed the accelerator to the floor hoping that the jeep would shoot forward. Unfortunately, we steered ourselves deep into the muddy patch of the verge that resulted in the vehicle tilting to almost 45 degrees. We could hear the metal scraping and shuddering against the edge of the forests. The men beckoned Fayez to steer to the right but this led to the jeep slipping down further. Fayez then turned off the ignition and helped us get out of the vehicle.
With muddled and slightly apologetic expressions on their faces, the men left us promising to return with ropes once they unloaded the truck. Wisps of fog rose gliding over the forests as the crisp, chilly air strung a melody with murmuring tree tops. Beneath the cover of the trees, tall grass swayed in the intense gust and swell of gentle winds, as we heard the rumble of a bike from a distance. A dozen leeches marched forward from their slushy trenches towards us and before we knew it we were surrounded by them. A few crawled up Fayez’s shoes when he tried to straighten the tyres.
As streaks of white clouds engulfed the landscape, we spotted two brown creatures running across the road. Five more accompanied them. One stopped in the middle of its tracks and turned around. We caught a glimpse of its furry black tail and rich brown coat. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Stranded in the middle of the forests, we crossed paths with a colony of dholes.
Some people passing by asked us if we were alright. We told them that help was on its way. There were many who just simply stared at us and left without uttering a word. It was almost comical how we had to explain to villagers — what had happened — over and over again. A visibly distraught autorickshaw driver stopped and asked us if we needed to go to the hospital. We told him we weren’t hurt and thanked him for his kind gesture. He gave us his number and asked us to call him in case we needed help to get back to town.
The sun was going down and we were worried that we would be stuck here for a while. In about half an hour, another autorickshaw zoomed past us. It was filled with a few local men. The driver caught a glimpse of the jeep reclined to the side and decided to stop. One of the passengers got out and walked towards us. He had the gait and bearing of a tall man. His name was Thomas. The driver introduced himself as Prabhu and asked, “What happened? Are you tourists? Where are you from?” We narrated the whole story to him. He hurled a few abuses towards the driver of the lorry and said, “This is one of the most dangerous roads that curves upwards. He should have slowed down. Thankfully, you are all unhurt.”
Thomas curled under the jeep and started clearing out strewn leaves and twigs stuck to the bottom. He then gathered a few stones to place them underneath the car. After inspecting the tyres, he casually walked towards us, plucked a swollen leech from his ankles and squished it between his fingers. Puffing on his beedi, he looked towards Fayez and said, “Don’t worry I’ll make sure you get out of here safe and sound. We will not abandon you.”
Meanwhile, Prabhu had called a few friends and asked them to come to the spot. Soon, we were surrounded by locals who held intense discussions on the best possible way to get the jeep out. A middle-aged man approached us and said, “I saw you in the morning. You were taking pictures near the waterfalls. In about a hundred metres from where you were standing, I spotted a leopard prowling along the road. I’ve seen a few in my lifetime. They’re quite magnificent, aren’t they?”
And, in that moment, we felt at home with a bunch of strangers who stopped in the middle of the forests to help three helpless and lost travellers. We felt pulses of cosmic energy emanating through their kindness and compassion. They were determined to help us and said, “We aren’t doing this for money. We are simply helping a fellow human being in need. You have come from such faraway lands. You must leave with a good experience.”
Some of Thomas’s friends got ropes from the town. One of them with a thick bushy moustache tried to move the jeep a several times. We then realised that we needed an equally powerful vehicle to be able to pull the jeep out. So, Prabhu asked a friend who owned a taxi-jeep to come to where we were. In about ten minutes, there were at least twelve men who attached and secured the ropes from both ends. Four men pushed the car from behind and two stood on the foot board. While three men were on the side pushing the vehicle forward, the others signalled the taxi to accelerate. In one swift motion, the jeep was pulled out of the ditch and onto the road. Everyone burst into an uproar of cheers and screams. Thomas walked to us with a big smile and said, “See, I told you we wouldn’t leave you!” Throughout the day, people kept trying to con us and here we found ourselves in a situation that restored our faith in humanity. There’s incredible depth in the simplicity of a villager whose heart and soul bows before the spirit of humankind.
The lorry finally made an appearance and all the locals pounced on the driver. Prabhu asked him, “Why were you driving so rashly? Don’t you know how risky these roads are? What if something had happened?” The driver apologised to everyone and told them that he’d be more careful.
As everyone dispersed, the taxi driver asked us to pay him Rs 500 as his fare. We eventually agreed to split it with the driver of the lorry. Since, we couldn’t find an ATM anywhere, we were now completely out of cash. As the taxi left, there was a small commotion around us and we couldn’t understand what was going on. One of the men, who slightly slurred as he spoke, gestured at Prabhu and asked, “How could you let him take their money? They are our guests.”
Some of them turned to us and said that they were very sorry for his behaviour. To that Thomas replied, “If we can’t learn to help another human being without any hidden motive, then what’s the point of living. We didn’t get any commission from his earnings. And, we hope you bear no ill feelings towards us. It is only because of our belief in humanity’s ability to do good that we decided to help you. It’s our way of earning good karma. That way, we can hope that someday when we are in trouble, some kind soul will help us.”
Sometimes, when fate brings us at a crossroads with helplessness and despair, the universe sends a sign that there is hope in us after all. Thomas offered to buys us some tea and we decided to head towards a stall near town. Knowing fully well that we had no money left, the entire gang bought us some vanilla cake and tea. They asked us what we do for a living and we told them our story. Thomas turned to us and said, “I may not understand your language but I certainly understand the language of the heart. Maybe we were destined to meet. It was a sheer coincidence that we were passing by. And, I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the eye if I’d not helped you. I might be poor and I don’t have much but it’s the least I can do to keep my humanity alive.”
All of them work in tea estates and earn Rs 230 a day. They also showed us their salary slips. They’d just received their paychecks today and couldn’t wait to celebrate. Thomas confided in us that they had been pestering the Union to increase their minimum wage to at least Rs 500. “How can they expect us to survive and run a family on Rs 230 per day. We are debt-ridden and always worried about our future. I hope our children don’t pay a heavy price for it,” said one of the men as he sipped on his coffee.
With ambiguous laws governing minimum and fare wages, estate owners and corporates are exploiting skilled workers by underpaying them and perpetuating a system that enslaves the common man. With a deteriorating socio-economic captial, the locals have no choice but to continue working within such structures. This had led to a massive migration of villagers from the hills to neighbouring towns in search of lucrative jobs.
Despite their constant struggles to make ends meet, they seemed quite content with their life. “I don’t have much but I make sure that I’m always neatly dressed. I don’t need to put up a facade that indicates how difficult my life is. Life is hard for everyone. Today, we will forget all our troubles and celebrate with friends and family,” said Thomas in an excited tone.
They asked us to join them in the evening. Since we had to go to another town to withdraw cash and fill some fuel, we politely refused their offer. We also told them that hotels are overcharging their customers in Nelliampathy and that we were going to look for alternate lodges in Nenmara. They even offered us to stay with them in their houses. We didn’t want to burden them anymore. So, we told them that we’d return tomorrow.
As we decided to part ways, in conversation, we mentioned that we were looking for the Adivasi Colony. They gave us exact directions and told us that these Adivasis were deprived of everything. Neither did they have basic facilities like water and electricity nor the right to build houses. They still lived in makeshift tents and did odd jobs to survive. “The government has done nothing to help them. Their situation worsens every year. It is sad to see these tribes live in such horrible conditions. We have become immune to their troubles. Nobody cares anymore,” said Thomas and added, “I don’t think the authorities really want to resolve the situation here. Honestly, we can’t even take a dump peacefully in this town without being bothered by an official for no rhyme or reason.”
(to be continued…)
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