Arumugan’s wife Remakutty walked into the courtyard from behind the house. Head lowered, she gathered some rags into a basket while an old lady stood in silence beside us staring into the woods. Her eyes scoured for something perhaps to fill the void in her heart. With a faint hint of a smile curled on her lips, she turned to us with wonder and asked why we were here. We told her who we were and what we did. To that she replied, “Can you ask those people who make rules to let me build my home?”
Arumugan and Senthil were deep in conversation when an old man walked towards us. He had ebony skin and unruly silver hair crowned his head. His left eye watered nonstop. His right hand was covered in bandage. “I was attacked by a lone tusker ten days ago. It turned violent and cornered me. It threw me around for a while and lifted its leg to step on my skull. To protect my head, I distracted the tusker by placing my right hand straight. In a fit of anger, it stomped on my face and hand. I barely escaped death, that day. I got twelve stitches on my arm and my eye is damaged forever,” he said.
We asked him if he remembered anything from his time in the jungles. His eyes crinkled at the corners as he tried to remember but all he was left with was faint memories of a time long lost. “I was very young when we lived in the forests. I don’t remember much. All I can recall is white men coming to our lands and running the tea estates. Everything changed after that,” he said with a forlorn smile.
Perhaps, the white men changed the dynamics of these forest dwellers. Perhaps, it was one of the settlers who never considered these tribesmen as family. Or maybe, it was a combined effort. Nevertheless, they were driven out of their homes and lands that they once identified as their own.
As he turned to walk away, he pointed to the old lady sitting on the ground and said, “That’s my wife. She can’t work anymore. She isn’t that strong. So, one of us has to go to work, so that she gets to eat. I will not let her stay hungry.”
We pondered if they remember the ways of their ancestors; the tune of their ballads once sung in the deep crevices of the hills. “No. All that was forgotten a long time ago. We just perform a few songs and dances on January 26 to commemorate the day we left the forests,” said Arumugam.
We asked them if we could see the entire settlement from a higher spot. Senthil led the way and Arumugan soon followed. They took us through winding paths where emerald trails told tales of many a solemn promenades. We walked alongside tiny patches of farmlands fenced by sticks that had rows of tapioca plants and other tubers growing in tandem.
The wretched state of the houses in this tribal settlement presented a scene of appalling misery. Their inhabitants sat frozen in time. Their eyes vacant and expressions desolate. We wondered what it must be like to stand the test of time as their faith in humanity dwindled everyday. Owing to internal disputes between the forest department, state government and the Panchayat, the authorities haven’t been able to provide efficient solutions with respect to water, electricity, housing or even employment.
We walked towards a trail that steeped upwards adorned with herbaceous shrubs on both sides. The monsoons made the lands marshy which attracted hordes of leeches. We spotted a well-built house made with organic materials that had a beautiful garden. It was fenced on all four sides. Apparently, when the lands were allotted to them, the owner of this house chose this particular spot and spent all his time and energy on nurturing efficient farming techniques. As a result, he was able to sustain a living for himself and his family. Apart from food, he also grew cash crops like coffee and pepper that allowed him to earn a decent livelihood. Unlike him, the rest of the tribals decided to wait for help that never came. While some of them refused to put in the extra effort to ameliorate their current living conditions, he worked towards becoming self-sustained despite being wronged by the system.
From where we stood, the settlement was hidden in plain sight. Bursts of blue shone against the lush green vegetation. There were deafening pleas of helplessness floating within the silence of the forests. On our way back, Arumugan found a huge wild mushroom amidst tall shrubs. He declared that it would be great for supper tonight.
As we walked towards his house, he confided in us that the government had given them solar lighting in 2009. However, due to poor maintenance and lack of funds, they couldn’t make full use of the panels. They are more interested in a sustainable solution rather than a quick-fix remedy. “I don’t want to depend on torches anymore. I don’t want to be constantly worried about the safety of my family,” he said in a concerned voice.
Although they practise a stable and systematic way of living which includes nurturing a habitat for wild animals, they often find themselves in danger of crossing paths with an aggressive creature. Senthil was once attacked by a bear in the jungles. Luckily, he struck a match to light a small fire. This scared the bear away. They are predominantly found in those parts of the forests where larval bees or honey are found in plenty.
Back in the day, the tribe would hunt animals for food and even consume monkeys. Ever since the ban imposed on hunting wild beasts came into being, the tribals have refrained from killing any animal.
It was time to leave the forests and bid our farewell to its dwellers. As we left, we vowed to never let their voices die out or their efforts go in vain. Their smiles indicated that they were grateful but their eyes told a different story. Far too many times promises were made and far too many times were they abandoned. They weren’t sure if we would ever come back. And, they don’t see a point in placing their faith on hope or on the system anymore.
To them, we were yet another group of storytellers who sought purpose in our own lives by connecting with them and sharing their story. As we packed up, we told Arumugan that it was incredibly noble of him to send all his children to school. Some tribes don’t allow their girls to be educated or even interact with other male members. His eyes were moist and his lips quivered as he said, “We encourage everyone to work hard so that they have a chance at a better life, at least better than mine. Maybe education is the answer. May be it isn’t but there is no harm in trying.”
When we first entered the forests to meet the tribe, fear and anxiety filled our hearts. We weren’t sure of what to expect. But after our interaction with them, we realised that they were yet another group of individuals entangled in the maze of a morally and socially corrupt paradigm.
We went back to the station since they withheld Fayez’s documents. Meanwhile, he finally managed to connect to a network and call up his family in Irinjalakuda to inform them that everything was alright and that the cops were conducting a routine background verification. His dad was furious and quite concerned.
Apparently, the Sub Inspector Shivadasan had called him up at 11.30 pm last night and asked him if his son was a Maoist or terrorist. The Irinjalakuda station too sought to verify his identity and background since they were informed that we were probably aiding or abetting acts of terrorism. Their incompetence and unprofessional behaviour had now hit an all time low.
Fayez was enraged. We reached the station and he decided to take the SI to task. He told him that he had trusted him and for the first time in his life he decided to place his faith on the system. It is common sense that you don’t call an old man in the middle of the night to ask him if his son is a terrorist. It almost seemed as if they were voluntarily making an attempt to further tarnish the reputation of a system that has proven to be inadequate and inefficient time and again.
The SI had an apologetic smile on his face as he tried to calm Fayez down. He told him that he was merely doing his job and did not mean to cause him or his family any discomfort. He promptly picked up the phone and rang Fayez’s father to clear the air.
We decided to walk towards the jeep as the SI sorted out the misunderstanding. Apparently, their intelligence agencies had informed them that we were in fact journalists and had no terrorist connection whatsoever. The cop who spoke in Hindi approached us once more to find out where we went and what we intended to do with the photographs.
Apparently, he used to be in the army and was posted in Aurangabad for a while. In conversation, we told him that what they did was wrong. They should have followed the rules instead of doing whatever they pleased. He giggled aloud and looked towards the station and said, “Dont be so loud.” He later revealed that someone had in fact lodged a complaint against us last night. He refused to go into details but explained to us that they were merely reacting to a situation. Our thoughts lingered to moments when the locals expressed their displeasure over the attitude of authorities who seemed to have forgotten where their true responsibilities lie. It also made us wonder who’d respond to the complaints and concerns of the Malasar tribe. Forgotten and ignored by their own kith and kin, they continue to dwell in the forests on borrowed lands and vanishing trails…
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