The morning began on a somber note. We woke up to the sound of church bells tolling in a distance. Our thoughts wandered to last night’s events. We could remember Thomas’s face; that stern facial expression trying really hard to mask his fear. Eyes bloodshot and filled with concern, his body was as still as the grave. He didn’t utter a word till the very end.
We thought about the pot-bellied cop to whom we were already criminals even before we were given a chance to prove our innocence. There was a sense of triumph and arrogance in their approach. Ironically, these authoritative figures are meant to serve the nation, safeguard its citizens against all odds and make educated and informed decisions at all times regardless of the situation.
This incident fuelled our determination to meet the Malasar Tribe. We had to understand why we were being hindered from interacting with them in the first place. We were now sure that there was something the State and police department didn’t want to draw attention to.
Our thoughts were broken with a loud thump on the door. And, it soon followed with a barrage of knocks. It was Prabhu. He was very concerned about us and asked us if we were alright. He was baffled that we were called by the cops at night. We told him that we were unfazed by their behaviour because we hadn’t done anything wrong. “I don’t understand why they did this. Unless, someone told them otherwise, there was no reason for them to take you to the station on grounds of suspicion. I wish you didn’t have to go through this. But now, you have full permission and clearance to go wherever you want in Nelliyampathy,” said Prabhu and smiled weakly in a forlorn attempt to reassure us that we didn’t have to be worried anymore.
At around 9 am, we decided to step out to have some coffee. We were supposed to meet Thomas after the mass. We headed to a small eatery right next to the police station that according to the locals served the best breakfast in town. As we sipped on our coffee, we saw several villagers dressed in their finest walking to the church.
Before us standing under a pomelo tree, was one of the cops we had spoken to last night. He stared at us for a while. We didn’t pay him any heed. In a few minutes he called out Fayez’s name and asked to join him for tea.
“How long have these guys been travelling?”
“A few years now.”
“How old is she?”
“Why isn’t she married yet?”
“That’s her personal choice. Perhaps, she could answer this question herself. Would you like to ask her?”
“Oh No! That won’t be necessary.”
“How come she is unmarried and is yet travelling with two boys?”
“They aren’t here on a holiday. This is their work. And, it requires them to travel to rural areas.”
They shared an awkward silence between them. Fayez then decided to end the conversation short and walk towards us. The cop on the other hand seemed lost in his thoughts. To him, the unmarried 28-year-old girl travelling with two men was much more disturbing than the fact that we could be aiding Maoists or terrorists. It was a clear case of cultural shock and an incomplete understanding of shifting socio-cultural dynamics that led him to believing that it was absolutely unnatural for us to do what we were doing.
We met Thomas after a while and unlike yesterday he was sober. We sensed an altered vibe in him. He didn’t seem like the enthusiastic and fierce Thomas cheta we had met yesterday. Perhaps, he was discouraged by his relatives and friends to get involved with us. We couldn’t tell. Today, everyone was back to the daily grind of their usual routine. Thomas had to leave to Palakkad for some work and he told us that he would meet us later.
We showered and packed our things in record time. We then gathered our bags into the jeep. A man in civilian clothes looked in our direction and made a phone call. In a few minutes, there was a police officer walking to and fro from our jeep barking instructions at someone on the phone. Two cops walked out of the station towards us and asked, “Where are you going?”
“We are going to the Adivasi Colony.”
“You know why. We are going to document their culture, lifestyle and understand their issues and concerns.”
“When will you be back?”
“We can’t be sure. It entirely depends on how much time we decide to spend with the community.”
The cop who could speak Hindi pointed at one of our bags and asked what it was. We explained to him that it was a camping tent.
“What is it used for?”
“We could use it to camp anywhere in the jungles if we wanted to.”
“You can’t camp here. You’ll need the forest department’s permission. Besides there are a lot of wild animals here, it wouldn’t be safe.”
“We didn’t mean these forests. We were just giving you an example of what the tent could be used for.”
“Ok. Before you leave, you need to come to the station and meet the sub inspector.”
“We’ll see you soon enough.”
Once we were on the move, we discussed how this bizarre attempt of ascertaining and illustrating their authority over us was absolutely unnecessary. We had already given the cops all the information they required. And, yet they had to question us for no reason at all. We drove through the forests all the way to the spot where the jeep had almost toppled the previous day.
Fayez had charted out a route based on his conversation with the locals. We soon found the detour we were looking for camouflaged in the woods. We drove through the offroad trail and skirted through paths with thick undergrowth. As we closed in on the canopied walls of thorny shrubs and tall trees, we spotted a lone house in a distance. We stopped to ask for directions. A lady walked out of the house and told us that we were on the right track. “Drive straight ahead and you should reach the colony in about 300 metres. The roads are pretty bad. So, make sure you don’t stray from this path,” said the middle-aged lady and walked away towards a trail with entangled vegetation.
Branches cracked over a carpet of dead leaves as we drove that morning into the heart of the woodlands. Our eyes fell on the specks of light upon the hillside. And, we wondered about those who once resided in lands unfathomed and undiscovered. The faint whiff of petrichor drifted through the air as we chanced upon an old man in tattered clothes with a sickle in his hand.
He walked towards us and asked, “Are you lost?” We told him that we were on our way to the Adivasi Colony. He asked us to drive further into the jungle and said that we would reach the settlement in about 200 metres. We thanked him and continued driving. At this point, we realised that there was no turning back. We were unsure of the danger we were putting ourselves in. Perchance we stumbled upon a Maoist belt, things could go drastically wrong. Nevertheless, it was a risk we were willing to take.
The green trail swerved to the right and we could see a few houses in the vicinity. We stopped the jeep and took a look around. And, what we saw appalled us. While broken thatched roofs provided the residents shelter from the sun, perforated tarpaulin sheets protected them from seasonal winds. Slowly, it all started making sense to us. The aggressive reluctance of the officials in letting outsiders visit the colony; the government’s lackadaisical attitude towards tribal welfare. They were all a part of the larger plan to suppress the voice of those who have been pleading for justice since time immemorial.
We walked towards the first house we stumbled upon. We were met with curious eyes and startled faces. There was a frail old woman with hair as white as sand sitting on the ground staring deep into the forest. Her eyes were distant and she could speak no more. She once set foot on the emerald-crowned cliffs where the birds soared high and the forests hummed with pride. They were the original inhabitants of the hills. And, not once did they tread treacherous paths of mindless destruction and selfish consumption. For, their territory lasted the length of the cosmos. They belonged to the earth and the skies.
Clad in a wornout lungi and shirt, her son-in-law smiled as he approached us. “Who are you? Where have you come from?” he asked with amazement. We told him that we were here to meet his family and that we have been looking for them for a while. He listened to us with utmost patience and in an apologetic tone he said, “My name is Arumugan. I’m sorry I wish I could offer you some chairs to sit on. As you can see, I have nothing.” His eyes betrayed his smile. There was bitterness and sadness in them.
“We have no water. We have no electricity. We have no toilets. We don’t have any home or identity today. And over time, they even took our hope away,” said the middle-aged man who beckoned us to follow him to his courtyard. Hopelessness was deeply ingrained in his spirit and in his heart he knew that help would never arrive.
This particular settlement was called Pollukad. The people identified themselves as descendents of the Malasar tribe. Most of the indigenous population residing in these mountainous terrains practised a lifestyle that sustained and nurtured a healthy ecosystem. Their battle for land and ownership can be traced all the way back to the pre-independence era. The land that they are currently residing in was temporarily allotted to them by the government. In actuality, these are unfarmed lands that belong to private orange farms. Nelliampathy has an abundance of tea, orange, cardamom, coffee, pepper and fruits growing in the hilly terrains. Most of the land here is owned by commercial estates that run profitable ventures.
“When we were employed by the orange estates, we were given temporary houses within the farmlands. The minute they realised that our work was done and they longer required our services we were asked to leave. And, until another estate hired us, we would sleep on the pavements or wherever we found shelter. I was told that our ancestors owned land within the forests for almost 30 or 40 years. It was taken away from them in the pretext of providing employment and other lucrative jobs,” said Arumugan.
The government refuses to give these tribals ownership of land nor do they allot them an alternate area where they can build permanent structures. The tribe is therefore stuck in a limbo. If they abandon their current residence, they wouldn’t be eligible for any help from the government. And, if they continue to reside here, they will never receive the help they were promised in the first place. From being a mighty tribe who once dwelled in the forests and the mountains, they have now been reduced to hapless beggars at the mercy of an incompetent and corrupt system.
(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