The tribal communities of India had to reinvent their cultural, social and geographical identities every time a new invader charged into the Indian subcontinent in the past century. Post-independence too, these communities were forced to adapt to the changing pace of modern lives, and despite Jawaharlal Nehru's Panchsheel principles, which was supposed to guide government actions in dealing with tribals or in more recent times, the PESA (the Panchayats [Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, and the Forests Rights Act, which were also intended to help them, these tribal communities have only grown more marginalised in the last few decades.
What makes things worse is that the government data and statistics fail to capture the essence of their daily lives, and stories and narratives from the tribals themselves are conspicuously absent from mainstream literature.
Maria girls from Bastar, for instance, practise sex as an institution before marriage, but with rules — one may not sleep with a partner more than three times. The Hallaki women from the Konkan coast sing throughout the day-in forests, fields, the market and at protests. The Kanjars have plundered, looted and killed generation after generation, and will show you how to roast a lizard when hungry. The original inhabitants of India, these Adivasis still live in forests and hills, with religious beliefs, traditions and rituals so far removed from the rest of the country that they represent an anthropological wealth of our heritage. Unfortunately, this rich heritage has scarcely been documented.
It is this lack of documentation of the personal history of Indian tribes, that author Nidhi Dugar Kundalia has tried to remedy in her latest book — White As Milk And Rice, Stories of India's isolated Tribes. Kundalia's book not only brings interesting stories of the cultural and social heritage of the Adivasis but also aims to ask several pertinent socio-political questions like how has the changing environment and economy of India affected these tribal communities? How has their movement outwards from the isolated depths of the forests and remote mountains, and the partial integration with the rest of society, changed them? How do these changes affect individuals? Do they bring these individuals into conflict with the larger goals of their tribal societies and villages?
The book is written in an interesting format, where the author identifies one protagonist from six different tribes — the Halakkis of Ankola, the Kanjars of Chambal, the Kurumbas of the Nilgiris, the Marias of Bastar, the Khasis of Shillong, and the Konyaks of Nagaland — and leads the readers through their daily lives, while giving us a historical and cultural context of their tribes. Therefore, despite being non-fiction, this book reads like fiction, filled with intimate details of the lives of the protagonists.
For instance, in the introduction of the book, talking about the Kurumbas of Nilgiri, Kundalia writes:
Identity issues among these tribals are deep-rooted due to the years of injustice meted out to them. Take the instance of the Alu Kurumbas: Back in 1901, when Thurston first conducted a study on the Kurumba tribe in the Nilgiris, the prefix ‘Alu’ was absent; it seems to have been a recent development, a phenomenon just a few decades old. ‘Alu’ in Kannada means milk, implying good and harmless like milk. Before this, the tribe was feared due to their sorcery and witchcraft practices, and it deprived them of employment, education and integration and interaction with the other tribes in the region. It is quite possible that in order to remove or impair the negative opinion the local people entertained of them, certain sections of the Kurumbas themselves might have
added the new prefix of Alu for improved status and wider acceptability.
In the chapter on Kurumbas, we find a wonderful story of a little boy named Mani, who goes job hunting at the neighbourhood Badaga village and is mesmerised by the concrete homes in which the villagers live. Here's an excerpt from that chapter:
...Like most other children in Hulikkal, a small village in the Nilgiris, Mani lives in one-room mud hut, where pots and pans are pushed aside every night to make room for mats, where they can hear their parents make love, or whatever else it is, through the mosquito net that hangs between them. He shifts on the floor; his upper back hurts from being slammed against walls by his angry father when he had come back jobless from the Badaga village. ‘I can’t pay for the giant morsels you eat any more,’ he had shouted as he thrashed Mani. Mani wonders what it must be like growing up in the big Badaga houses he saw today, where children sleep in different rooms, thick brick and cement walls separating them from their parents.
...Earlier in the day, Mani and his uncle had walked uphill after getting off the bus; the long walk had made
his legs hurt, but that did not bother him. He was willing to cross many more such hills. In the absence of trees, that part of the Nilgiris was full of gusty wind that stung his eyes till tears stained his cheeks. When his uncle spoke, the winds carried his voice louder than he meant it to be, ‘I told them you already know sowing’; he’d brought him here for a daily wage job at a tea garden. Mani nodded, although he’d hardly worked in fields: They had only a small plot where they grew vegetables and some millet. On other days, they ate what they collected—roots of yam, herbs and honey—from the forest where they lived or rice given to them by the government.
This village, meanwhile, only housed the Badagas, an educated, prosperous tribe that had migrated to the Nilgiris in the early twelfth century. The estate owner his uncle was taking him to had political aspirations and everything he did was to be transactional, driven by the desire to secure votes. Among his pet constituencies were the hamlets of the Kurumbas, also some of the poorest people in Nilgiris, and the area beyond.
‘Call him appa,’ his uncle insisted, in the Alu Kurumba language, a mix of Tamil and Kannada. ‘Remember, you’re a Kurumba. Do not stare at their family members.’ Mani nodded, though his uncle had already told him this many times, just as he had told him to pat his hair down and not to say inane things: They are all educated, so don’t talk any jungle hocus-pocus.
...It was only in these last few years that his forest tribe, the Kurumbas, had started working in the fields of Badagas during the day. Until a few years ago, whenever the forest tribals came in view of a Badaga, word flashed through their village, and women and children ran for the safety of home, hiding inside till the Kurumbas had gone.
...The Kurumbas, they said, had medicines that could put all the inhabitants of a Badaga village to sleep before slinking back into the woods. Their ace sorcerer, an odikara, could make openings in the fence, and the Badaga’s livestock, under his spell, would follow him through it without so much as a cluck or a bleat. They could, apparently, turn into bears and kill people, just as they knew how to counter the other spells, to remove or prevent misfortune.
Many decades ago, when the Badaga grandfathers were little boys still hanging from their mothers’ waists, one of their elders returned from a Kurumba settlement situated outside the jungles, where he went to scout a plot for tea planting. He came back breathless, just about stuttering that their end was near and that a monster was around. Now, a Badaga knew that if a Kurumba sorcerer was casting spells, he could be appeased with rice, oil, salt and clothes. But what was this big brown animal he was screaming about, its eyes glowing red?
As the story goes, the goats, hens and cows were restless; they knew for certain that the elderly man had seen an
irate Kurumba-turned-monster. All night, they howled in their sheds and tapped the ground, and the villagers slept
fitfully, imagining figures and shapes in the hilly darkness. The Badaga elders today still fear the sorcerer
Kurumbas, often banding against them; their school-going children, though, have less faith in the Kurumbas’s magical abilities.