An Unexpected Visit to the Original People of Kerala
Which tribe does he belong to?
Then the question is, about whom, are you talking?
The one on the left or the one on the right?
Reghu on the right is member of Kada, or the forest people of this part of Kerala, millennia removed from the hustle and bustle of Cochin
He is a millennia removed from all these non forest people.
We had driven up to Vazhacal section of the mountains, which form a spine along the Kerala borders to the east. Leaving Cochin in the early morning, we drove north to Chalakudy from where we took curving roads, taking us away from the sea level to about 500 metres above sea level with further mountains rising higher in the distance.
The first stop was Athirapilly Waterfalls. It is a wide waterfall, 220 metres but the height is only 43 metres. I fondly thought about the various visits to Foz do Iguacu and various friends.
As if it were to prove a talisman, I was wearing the tee shirt of the Diabetes Programme of the UmonHon Indians, Adivasi of the American continent. Adivasi meaning the earlier inhabitants.
We decided to proceed through the narrow road from Athirapally towards Vazhachal Forest Ranger station with the hope of driving further into the forest. When we reached the Ranger Station at Pokkala Para, they were naturally suspicious of our intentions. My friend Suresh, from Tourist Land travel agency explained that I was a doctor and interested in Adivasi (the indigenous people of Kerala).
Unusual for a representative of the beauracratic officialdom, Sasi Kumar, deputy range officer came with us, seeking the assistance of an elderly Adivasi, by the name of Ponkan. We walked with him to one of the many cement blocks which now has substituted the traditional forest dwellings of the Adivasi.
The first house we stopped, the mother of the house came out with her husband in tow. Neither of them could remember their age nor their year of birth. They thought they could be about seventy years old. They had lived in the forest and now live in this colony. They were nomadic, wandering around in the forest, eating what the forest gave them, there was no need to learn to read or write, which neither of them did. But they did proudly point out that one of their children could read and write and then lamented, what is the use; they can't get jobs, anyway? They speak Kada language, among themselves, have no dealings with Tamils across the range, so don't speak the language and most of them are not fluent in Malayalam the language of the state of Kerala.
I had told at the Ranger Office that I was a doctor, he told me about the TB, Intestinal Worms, Albinism, General debility, Anemia as the common illnesses. They took me to a house where a young woman of 25 is in bed unable to move, with her husband also sick and unable to work or do anything.
Vijaya a talkative young lady, daughter of the older woman we had spoken to, in the first house, was there and said: she went to the doctor because she was weak in the legs and they gave her TB medications. First of all, she had been attended to by the doctors at the Government Hospital in Chalakudy. I asked did they do any x Rays? Yes they produced crisp clean x rays of her spine and also a CT scan of the Spine! I was quite impressed, at the attention whatever it was, from the government hospital in a rural town to a young woman of a neglected tribe of people.
The X ray and the CT scan took me to the days when I was a very eager medical student in London. TB of the Spine, can present without respiratory symptoms, had said, the teacher at Brompton Hospital whose face I barely recall, what do you call it, young man? Pott's Disease, sir, yes it was the common cause of vertebral fractures in the centuries past, so here I was, year 2007, seeing for the first time on CT scan, and staring at a young lady of 25 lying helplessly with Pott's Disease..
Her husband who is 30, sat in the next room, his legs swollen, can't be the heart I told myself, could this be the kidney? From what? I asked him to
show me his medications, Mebendazole was among them? Intestinal parasites? Liver flukes?
This is practice of medicine at its rawest.
I wanted my brother Richard to be present there with me, to help me with the diagnosis and treatment of these diseases. And thought my sister friend Dar who could be such a good educator for these helpless people, so that they can improve their general hygienic levels and escape from diseases.
Her mother was sitting outside so was her father, whose name was Poonan. The girl above was her daughter. Her other daughter has five children of whom three are born Albinos. Two are normal. Altogether there were ten in the family, the two albino girls were studying at a boarding school far away from here but they were being looked after. I wonder whether I could find them some ayurvedic oil that would protect them from the sun, as that is the main danger involved under this relentless sun. they have been given sunglasses but they don't wish to wear it, so that their eyes are constantly squinting.
You see me here, with Vijaya, who is a member of the local governing body, faithful voter for the communist Party of India, Marxist. I made a mental note to write a letter if it ever reaches him, to Fidel Castro, to mention of this Marxist outpost in the forest, where one of the oldest people on this planet lives. I am sure he would facilitate the education of
any of these people if they wish to be educated. I told them that, and then I thought to myself... Cuba at the moment may as well be in another planet, as far as these people are concerned, what I should do, are things which in no way de tribalizes them....
Sasi the deputy ranger was in attendance. He mentioned about the high rate of alcoholism among the Adivasi. He is sympathetic towards Adivasi, having worked in the forest for his entire working life of 34 years. But when you hear the shopkeepers or others or for that matters most of the inhabitants of India talk about the tribals, it is with such arrogance full of derogatory terms. Having heard that many a time in USA and other American countries, I want no part of it. To the trader, who said something to the effect that the government looks too much after them, I say, the highest rate of alcoholism in the West Indies is among the migrants and their descendants from India. That usually puts them in place. The Indians are not that sophisticated for the most part to understand the nuances of exile, deprivation of land and the rights, as they have an institutionalized form of racism, called the Caste System fully entrenched in society, even among converted people such as the Moslems and Christians of this country.
I had noted the names of the patients and what they needed, also the possibility of multivitamins and minerals to supplement their meager diet,
mebendezole, which they can get from government pharmacies but it looks like the entire tribe would benefit from a cleansing of their guts! Creams and ayurvedic oils for the albino children... but what can I do right now?
My previous experiences have helped me
As a Lakota leader once said at a meeting, instead of coming and telling us what is wrong with us, help us understand what is wrong with us.
A shopping list was made so that the various families I had visited will get packages of fresh food, vegetables, legumes and grams, spices, eggs
Off we went to the lonely store in a small village nearby, which boasts of no electricity but has two small café s serving Indian food. After all it was time for lunch. Both Munkan and Sasi had eaten, so Suresh and our driver and I sat down under the tin roof of the café with no fans, with the sun shining brightly outside and into our heads through the roof which offered no protection.
Rice, some vegetable curries and a pappadam, warm water. They brought us a piece of fried fish. I said jokingly, we shall now celebrate the one year anniversary of the death of this fish. Later on adding, Nehru was the Prime Minister, now long dead and gone, when this fish was alive....
Shopping for The Other
The Pleasure of it all
Sasi had advised me of the lack of proper nutrition, among these people from the forest, which at one time provided them with all they needed. Protein from animals hunted, chicken running wild and also fish from the river. All sorts of vegetables. Starch was available in various forms. One exceptional form was the seeds from the bamboo, it appears as sun flower seeds but leaner, and one can crack the shell and inside is a soft starchy kernel, which can be ground and made into a rice soup. Now sedentary to some extent, and with the government giving them 55 kg of rice per family. I am glad to report that coca colonization has not arrived here yet, mainly because they are too poor to afford coca cola which is fairly expensive by Indian standards and is considered a middle class drink or drink sported by ignoramus to show they had arrived at the bourgeoisie status.
The following was our shopping list. The prices are given in Indian Rupees, about 43 to a USD and about 60 to one Euro.
Kadala, which are large grains, 35 for one kg. I had thought it would be good to give enough for each of the families I had met, two kilograms of the vegetables and grams, so that they could supplement their meals for at least one week. Payar, is the green gram, at 45 per kg; Big gram at 24 per kg, Potato at 12.50 per kg, wheat powder at 17.50 per packet, ten packets per family, eggs at 22 for 10, green peas at 22.50 per kg. spices included Chili Powder at 20, Tamarind powder at 16.25 and coriander powder at 16.25 each of them at 1/4kg packages. A package made up for family of Pankan, whose daughter is the President of the Panchayat, four members in that family; Vijaya had six people in her family, chino and her sister rosamma and her sixteen year old daughter Anitha, who is consistently at Grade 7 for the past many years, had five in their family. To each of these family we made a package, at double the amount shown above, and the cost was 463 Indian rupees, added to it was a long bar of washing soap at 26 and two fragrant soaps for bathing at 13 each, 500 Indian rupees each was the package, i.e. slightly over 10 usd or slightly over 8 euros. Ponnan whose family was larger and included the three children who were albinos, we made an allotment of twice the amount, so it cost 1000 rupees. The reluctant but happy grocer was given specific instructions and we headed off towards Mukkumpuzha colony, on the banks of the drowned trees flooded by the dam which had been built upstream. A little known fact is that in Democratic India, hundreds and thousands of tribal families had been uprooted by building of dams, much reminiscent of what they had done in the United States, by flooding ancestral territories. Such is the respect for the Other in great democracies of this world, now Undemocratic China is following the same route by building the largest dams and largest building at no concern for the welfare of the simple man.
This is Assi, whose husband appears with me on the first picture on this travelogue. She is young, of undetermined age but I would say around 20. Because of the distance of the school from their colony, most of the people, even the young ones are completely illiterate. She many have completed 2nd grade education. After talking to Munnish, the chief of this village at a picturesque spot of 13 adivasi families, we went around greeting various members. Most of them lived in rudimentary huts built well to withstand the rigours of the forest and modest and ecological. This group is less acculturated that the first group we met even though they lived just a few kilometers from each other. The first one had 22 families and this one just 13. They must observe some strict form of clan rules to avoid endogamous marriages, how would they determine consanguinity that is the anthropologist in me asking questions but right now what they needed was much more than important than an academic's curiosity.
Assi had been sick, unable to keep anything in her stomach, feeling nauseated and dizzy; I was quite surprised how pale she looked, muddy coloured sclera and also very pale conjunctivae. She said she had no appetite and hardly ate. Imagine even those with good appetite among them are deficient in nutrients, so what about one who does not eat or drink? They have no fresh water available from taps, no electricity, no solar panels, just the nature around them to live out of, with occasional subsidies from the government.
This house is made up of thatches of reed and the panels are made of bamboo strips. The girl with a very attractive smile looked distinctly Australian aboriginal.
Now back to Assi. She had some antacid with her (the Zantac variety) but nothing had provided relief. With her permission I examined her, she was tender in the gastric area and also in the renal area, but there was no symptoms relating to her kidneys. She was shy to answer my medical questions since the entire village was looking on, her mother was prodding her to answer my questions which she did with the great modesty, befitting of a young girl surrounded by such a magnificent forest.
The paleness of her conjunctivae and very pale palms, suggested a deep anaemia, perhaps related to an intestinal worm infestation for which she would need mebendazole.
Here I had to explain something to the tribe, quite contrary to my advice to the tribal members in the USA. They have no sugar; neither do have clean water to drink. So I told Assi, just this time I will get you a bottle of coca Cola so that she will get some water as well as some sugar (coca cola in India is made with sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup as in USA, the latter is dead dangerous!). She needed also Iron supplementations and also vitamins and minerals, since their diet now is nowhere near balanced. Now I had to make provisions for yet another family. Reghu her husband decided to accompany us to the shop where we would procure some provisions for her including two kilograms of sugar so that she could have sugar water in the future, such as given to the children in Oral Rehydration Programme. There is a bus coming this way, in about one hours time, so Reghu could catch it to come home, reaching his forest home before it gets too dark.
The elephants leave us alone, Vijayas mother had told us, they have their paths and they go along that and don't bother us. Reminded me very much of the time I went bathing in the crystal clear waters of the river sabinas originating in the sierra Madre occidental with a group of Mexican Kickapoo. A long green snake slid past, the Kickapoo reassured their shivering doctor that the snakes know not to bother Kickapoo and there have been only snake bites involving Mexicans. What about Australian Jews, I remember asking nervously.
It is important to give without being asked. My father, Olav ha shalom, once told me, in the fading lights of an equatorial day in Brunei, true charity is giving without being asked. Reghu was reluctant to answer questions about what they had in the house or what they did not. I had noticed that the level of personal hygiene was poor because of the lack of availability of accessories to keep one hygienic, mainly fresh water. The river had dried beds with ponds of collected water, and I am sure they bathed in them, perhaps used a substitute for soap or nothing at all. Much more information could be gathered on repeated visits to them, first of all, provide what little we can. Immediate sustenance and then health education.
Five families of about thirty adivasi members, a small effort without planning when we left Cochin that morning to watch the waterfalls at athirapally! The colonies had around 150 members in 35 families, the numbers are approximate only. The total cost has been around 3000 Indian rupees, around 80 usd.
This picture shows inside of a home of the Forest People, as expected all natural substances go into the making of this house.
As we prepared to say good bye to our new friends, I wondered about this unquenchable desire to be of assistance without being asked to the indigenous peoples. It is as if I seek them out and offer my services and dispose what is modestly available. Many explanations fleetingly go through my mind. Some intellectual and other just humbly human.
Goodness does not begin and end at definite points in our lives, it is continuous and we give them to those around us by our actions. I strongly felt that my partner and those others on whose love I strongly depend upon to carry on this wildly nomadic life, the love between is just an extension of this desire to be of assistance, it is somehow converted into another form, in which blessings are brought forth, and each of us, whether it is Wehnona, Michele or Deb at the UmonHon or Dar in Yakama or sister Jackie in Miami, are able to propel that energy into the spaces around us. We are not miracle workers, but humble human beings, who have seen things beyond ourselves. In that way, we are blessed. And our love and respect for each other is a part of our life and our dreams, and as Bushmen/San People of Kalahari say, we are a dream dreaming of ourselves
To me, the presence of indigenous peoples, whether the native Americans of north, central or south America or the native people of my own country, or San of Kalahari or Orang Asli of Malaysian Forest or Adivasi of Kerala Forest, is an honour for me. They are man-child, the creation closest to the Great Spirit. Even though my own cultural tradition allows me to go back a mere 3500 years, ( I just celebrated the 3300 odd anniversary of redemption of Jewish people from Slavery in Egypt this last Monday with one of the last remaining Jewish families in cochin ), when I am with indigenous people, Cachiquel in Guatemala or Warao in Venezuela or the last of the Yamana in Tierra del Fuego, I connect with a universe, so distant to the human memory, makes me realize that regardless of our individual origins, cultural and racial and continental, the spiritual world is the same for all of us, and the best teachers are those who are the most innocent of all creations of the Great Spirit, the ones he created first, the people we call Indigenous or First nations or Los Indios or People of the Forest or the True People (Jhu/Wasi)...
When I went to the Pharmacy in fort Cochin, the Moslem owner greeted me warmly, I am quite surprised how friendly the Malayalees are and also they tend to remember your face, he offered a small discount on the medications I was buying for the Adivasi people.
Published on 4/12/07