We drove towards Nenmara as the sun went down. After a quick meal, we inquired for places to stay in and around town. Most of the lodges were completely booked and couldn’t accommodate us. Some of them took advantage of the weekend and were charging exorbitant rates. After driving around for a while, we gave up. We then decided it was best to head towards Nelliampathy and ask the locals for help.
We rushed towards the Forest check post and were fifteen minutes late. A cop manning the booth told us that private vehicles weren’t allowed to enter after 6 pm. We requested him to let us in. He then asked us, “Where are you going? Where do you plan to stay?” We told him that we knew a few locals in Nelliampathy and that we would stay with them. To that he replied, “They don’t have any registered guest houses. I’ll have to check with the head office. They should be able to tell me what to do.” Meanwhile a VIP vehicle passed by us. The cop rushed to the passenger immediately and greeted him with a big smile. He let them go without any hassle.
We rang up Prabhu and requested him to talk to the lady cop. While she seemed convinced, her colleague shook his head. Eventually, they let us pass through. The burly male cop seemed furious as we whizzed past him. Laws and regulations are applied more stringently to the common man while those belonging to a higher stratum of the society reap the benefits of their power.
We drove uphill into the forest as a flock of birds returned home from foraging in the twilight skies. Not a breath crept through the chilly air, and yet the leaves stirred. A grim amber glow broke through the woods as it shone its last. Nightfall was upon us. Our reverie was soon broken by a group of people who signalled us to stop. One of the men walked to us and whispered, “A herd of elephants were spotted nearby. If we are lucky, we should be able to see them.”
We got out of the jeep and stood in silence with our fellow companions. Before our eyes, under the pall of dusk, stood a family of wild elephants grazing the verdant slopes slapping mud on their backs. Little clouds of ashen white and gold soared through the forests; twigs and branches dipped and whirled, as the majestic creatures ate their fill. Scattered through the hush of the jungles, crickets trailed an alluring tune as a baby elephant and its mother vanished deep into the woods.
It was getting late and we didn’t think it would be wise to spend the evening amidst prowling night creatures. We reached the main town and met Thomas and his friend. Soon, Prabhu joined us too. We told them that we were looking for a place to stay. Fayez decided to accompany them to a few lodges. Meanwhile, Thomas’s friend asked us if we wanted to have some tea. We went to a small stall and struck a conversation with him. When we had met him earlier during the day he told us that he wasn’t married. “I have no wife or kids. I have a small television set. You can stay in my house. I always look forward to friends and family visiting me. It can get pretty lonely in this town. We don’t have a thriving art scene here to keep ourselves entertained. You won’t find anyone practising or learning Carnatic music or any other classical forms of art. At least, we have each other for company,” said the middle-aged man as he sipped on his coffee.
In an unfortunate turn of events, most of the lodges were booked and the ones who had some rooms left were charging nothing short of Rs 1500 per night. We were in a fix and didn’t really know what to do. So, we decided to sleep in the jeep one more night and perhaps rent a room tomorrow hoping that the rates would go back to normal by then.
Prabhu introduced us to a young man whose parents stilled lived in the Adivasi Colony. We told him that we wanted to meet the tribe and understand why the government hasn’t facilitated any measures to provide them with basic amenities.
Thomas peeped into the jeep from the other side and told us that the bus stop was the safest place to be parked at night. Since it was brightly lit, wild animals wouldn’t venture into this part of town. “There’s nothing to be worried about. No one will trouble you here. I’ll see you in the morning at 10. I’ve to go to church tomorrow,” said Thomas as he started his bike and left. Soon, everyone followed suit and promised to meet us for breakfast.
At this point, we were surrounded by a small crowd who were curious to find out who we were. We soon realised that many people unknown to us were now fully aware that a jeep with three strangers would be parked in the main town all night. The uncertainty of the troubles we might be attracting for ourselves concerned us. Although, it is imperative that we place our trust in strangers when travelling through uncharted lands, we realised that it is also necessary that we caution ourselves from time to time.
It was almost 10.30 pm and we decided to drive away from town and hunt for a safe spot to keep the jeep parked all night. The tea estates glistened as we drove through them wondering if we would find any wild creatures prancing around rows of unkempt bushes. A few metres ahead, a police van sped towards us. They rolled their windows down and said, “You have to come to the Police station right now. The Sub Inspector wants to have a word with you.”
We were perplexed and asked them what we had done and why were we being summoned to the station? To that one of them replied, “Follow our van and you’ll find out soon enough.” Our minds were racing and in our hearts we knew that this wasn’t a random act. Neither did they question who we were nor did they ask where we came from. They were deliberately looking for us.
We followed the van and parked in front of the station. There were at least ten uniformed officers who surrounded us and asked us to produce our ID Cards. In a feeble attempt to get more clarity on what was happening, we asked them once more why we were here. To that a well-built officer replied, “Sir, will be here shortly. He wants to ask you a few questions.”
We waited for a while and the Sub Inspector whose name was Shivadasan emerged from his room. With an arrogant tone, he yelled at Fayez and gestured him to enter.
“Do you speak Malayalam? What is your name? What are these foreigners doing here?”
Fayez replied, “Yes. My name is Fayez. They are not foreigners. They are from India. They are my friends. And, they are freelance journalists.”
“What are you doing here? Why have you been asking questions about the tribals?”
“We have been travelling all over the country capturing the lives of people residing in rural India. We came across the Malasar Tribe who lived in the hills of Nelliampathy. So, we’ve come here to meet them and understand more about their culture.”
“Can you ask your friends to come inside?”
Fayez gestured for us to follow him. We took our seats in front of the Sub-Inspector. Meanwhile, another subordinate officer had joined us. His menacing expressions suggested that we were already criminals in his eyes. Nothing about this meeting seemed like a routine procedure. However, we were unfazed by their treatment. For we knew that we hadn’t done anything wrong.
“So, what kind of stories do you write?”
“Anything that depicts the truth about our culture, tradition and social issues.”
“Why are you so interested in this particular tribe?”
“We are interested in spending time with communities that haven’t been written about. We would like to know more about their dying traditions and the issues they’ve been facing over the past few years.
“Who told you about Nelliampathy”
“A simple Google search on tribes of South India will also give you a list of tribes residing in the hills of Kerala. We realised that the Malasar tribe of Nelliampathy was hardly written about. So, we decided to come here. This is our job. We haven’t done anything wrong and we would like to know why we have been called to the station this late.”
“Our intelligence reports suggest that there could be an impending Maoist-Naxalite attack in the area. Since you are outsiders, we have to verify that you aren’t aiding any of these criminal organisations.”
No, we aren’t terrorists or criminals. We are freelance journalists. You can take a look at our work online. We have been doing this for years. We have a blog and we also write for numerous publications.
We will get that verified with our Intelligence Agencies shortly. Why do you need to visit this tribe? They don’t have any issues. There are people in far worse conditions than them. They have everything.
That could be a possibility but we would still like to see it for ourselves. So, we will go the tribal settlement tomorrow in the morning.
A policeman in civilian clothes entered the room. He could speak in Hindi. He started asking us a few questions and we told him that there was no reason for us to be here. Another officer chimed in and suggested that we go to Attapadi instead. “You will find many tribes there. There is no problem here at all. There’s no need to visit the tribe. They all live in permanent structures and have everything. Besides, they live deep in the forests where the Maoists operate. It wouldn’t be wise to go there.” At this point, we realised that we were being completely discouraged from going to the settlement. This just strengthened our resolve to meet the tribe tomorrow and understand why their issues have been suppressed for more than a decade.
The Sub Inspector handed our IDs to his juniors and asked them to make a few copies. One of his subordinates whispered in his ear and suggested that they keep our passports with them. We told them that was unacceptable since we were innocent and there was no reason for them to withhold our documents without our consent. They didn’t have much choice in the matter. So, they reluctantly returned our IDs. Shivadasan then looked at Fayez and asked, “Are you their tour guide?”
“No, I am their friend. They don’t speak Malayalam. So, I’m here to help them with their work.”
“How did you meet?”
“We met a few years ago in Bangalore through a common friend.”
“Where are you from? Give me your parents’ contact details. Are you the owner of the car? Where are the papers?”
“I’m from Irinjalakuda and here’s my father’s number. I’ll fetch the papers for you.”
While waiting for Fayez to come back, the SI called the Irinjalakuda Station and requested for the Station Master. He told his superior that he had three potential Maoist terrorists in his custody and that he was calling to verify the identity of someone who hailed from Irinjalakuda. In a proud tone he announced, “They were initially brought in for suspected terrorist activity but on further questioning we realised that they are probably harmless. Two of them are freelance journalists who write for Google and the Internet.”
After a while, he hung up and turned towards us, and asked, “So, why were you driving around town this late? What were you planning to do?” We told him that we were looking for alternate accommodation since everyone in town was overcharging their customers. His expressions softened a bit as he realised that they had probably made a big mistake. “I can help you with that. There’s a man who runs a guest house nearby. His name is Prince. I’ll ask someone to call him,” said Shivadasan. As we looked around, we spotted Thomas and his friend standing next to a few officers. Fear was written all over their faces and they seemed a bit frazzled. We gave them a reassuring smile. We were at the station for about 45 minutes and were now completely exhausted. We asked the SI if we could leave and he politely agreed.
As we walked out of the room, he turned to us and said, “You have to keep us informed of your whereabouts tomorrow. You can collect the papers of your car as you leave Nelliampathy. As long as you aren’t helping any Maoists in the area, you should be fine. You can go wherever you want but I’d still advise you to steer clear of the tribal area.”
We were then hurried into a few dingy rooms at a guest house right beside the police station. The roof was broken and the bathrooms were shambolic. Since we had no choice but to spend the night there, we decided to grab our bags from the jeep. Soon, Thomas came hurriedly to meet us. He lit a cigarette and whispered, “I was on my way home. The cops came in their van and stopped me. They asked about you and wondered why we were with you guys. We told them the whole story. But, they didn’t seem convinced. I’ve never set a foot in any police station in my life. I was so scared and worried for you.”
We later learnt that someone told the cops about three strangers who were asking too many questions on the displaced tribals. It could have been a disgruntled lodge owner who lost his opportunity at looting yet another unassuming customer or an overexcited informant who was trying to get into their good books. We may never know. Nevertheless, one thing was for certain. We were now being watched. Why? We still had no idea. This whole incident just strengthened our resolve to go to the tribal colony tomorrow. There was nothing anyone could do to stop us from meeting the original inhabitants of the hills abandoned by those they once called their own…
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