We drove straight into the arms of a yonder hill. Thick fog rolled over its caverns; a distant thunder chiding on the winds. As we crossed a garden of bedewed green fields and crooked coconut trees, a faint fragrance of wilting foliage wafted through the air. And, far beyond the grassy swales, amidst blooms of flowerets, stood a small cottage.
A young girl stood motionless staring at us, from behind a tree, agape with perplexity. We soon spotted Lakshmi walking towards the jeep with a smile. Her ebony skin glowed in the afternoon sun. Her stark features indicated her tribal ancestry. With a fierce surge of pride and valour in her heart, she narrated the story of Mudugars.
“The tribes are as old as the hills. Everyone speaks of forgotten memories; of times when we belonged to the forests. When you meet the tribes, you will perhaps understand what we have lost and what we gained over the years. Most of them are weary of outsiders. For, there have been several in the past who capitalised on their struggles,” said Lakshmi and climbed onto the vehicle.
We drove up the hills towards the hamlet. As we crossed a rocky trail, she looked at the Malleswara mountain ranges and exclaimed, “That’s the lord’s abode.” They called it Andava Mudi — a sacred shrine where the tribes celebrated the unison of the cosmos and the earth. Across the hills, amidst its ridges, lie remnants of an ancient civilisation that once thrived in the bosom of the forests. They believed that their creators descended unto the hills every once a year to bless those who sought refuge in the spirits of divinity. They belonged to the earth, and the earth belonged to them.
During Sivaratri, a few chosen men embark on a journey to the summit of the hills carrying plates of fire as offerings to the spirits. Since Malleswara was once their home, they considered it their duty to appease the Gods. However, they weren’t allowed to visit the mountains at any other time of the year for the ranges now belong to the Kurumba tribe. A few decades years ago, Mudugars sold the peak to them for Rs 1. “At night, you can see flames crowning the hills. It is quite a spectacular sight,” said Sheen.
In conversation, he also mentioned that there were numerous confrontations between tribal representatives and the legislature in the past. We asked Lakshmi if she ever felt threatened by the governing bodies. Without batting an eyelid she said, “I fear no one. I will always stand up for what I believe in.”
The rugged pathways soon swerved to the right. In about half an hour, we reached Vittiyoor – a Mudugar Hamlet. We parked the jeep beside a tree and walked towards the heart of the village. The hamlet seemed empty save a few women and children. Roosters and goats ran astray while a few kids walked towards us carrying a bundle of bark and sticks. A wave of curiosity sparkled in their eyes. A young man looked at us with trepidation. Another joined in, and then a third. Their impassive expressions concealed their anxiety. For, they had met far too many of us. To them, we were merely strangers spinning yet another tale of their angst and misery.
“Why are you here?” asked one of the men.
“To meet you,” we replied.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“We are here to learn more about you and your ancestors.”
His face softened. He realised we meant no harm. Lakshmi led us towards the Ooru Vikasana Samithi Office. Women stole a few shy glances and ran indoors. Some had toddlers attached to their hips while others took a short nap in a tiny room beside the kitchen. We sat on the floor with a group of women who ran the department. After exchanging some pleasantries, we asked an old woman with ashen grey hair if she remembered tales once told to her by her ancestors. She seemed confused at first and said, “No one remembers anything. There are no stories left.”
Lakshmi soon chipped in and recited with great panache legends of their past. “We don’t know where we came from but we know where we lived. We don’t speak the same language as Irula or Kurumba. Today, Muduga is a mixture of several languages. Over the years, we have changed the way we live, the way we dress and perhaps the way we sound too. Back in the day, we followed many rituals that would please the spirits of our ancestors and Gods. Of course, we were prone to superstitious beliefs and practices. Mudugars treated others as untouchables. No one was allowed to marry outside the tribe. Members would be shunned from the community if they ever went against the leaders,” she said.
Consuming alcohol was traditionally an acceptable social norm within all tribal hamlets. It was never perceived with judgement or indignation. Every household brewed their own liquor and everyone had a drink or two after toiling away in the fields. Over a period of time, as government sanctioned liquor shops cropped up in every nook and cranny of the village, alcohol became readily available to the tribes.
No longer did they have to go through long arduous hours of creating their own broth. With altering cultural dynamics and rising unemployment, Attapadi had yet to face its worst fear. Prolonged addiction soon relegated to domestic violence and maltreatment. “This can’t be attributed to alcohol alone. Nothing could be more cataclysmic than adding helplessness and hunger to their already miserable existence. Their socioeconomic vulnerability is directly related to the volatile nature of their lifestyle. Alcoholism aggravated the situation, no doubt. But imposing a permanent ban on liquor stores only strengthened their resolve to go against the law. Without a shred of doubt, women and children suffered the most,” said Lakshmi in a disconcerted voice…
(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