When the lost soil Beckoned:Life Sketch Narrated by C.K.JANU

An unknown adivasi, Janu was first introduced to the world when a literacy worker (presumably) entered her name in a register at the age of seventeen as Chekot Karian Janu. It was the recent agitation by the tribals in Thiruvananthapuram that brought C. K. Janu to the limelight. Illiterate till seventeen, Janu was part of the forest like her people. Bewildered like the rest of her people the strike was a lea for the only life they knew rather than a fight for possession. Like the more publicized Medha Patker , Janu calls for forest preservation, as it is for her, a preservation of life itself. Artist Bhaskaran wrote down her biography as C. K. Janu narrated it to him. This translation is based on that publication which appeared in the Bhashaposhini Vol.25, No.7, December 2001. Efforts have been made to preserve the oral style of narration as the story is not of Janu alone but of her people. The narrative style is too unique for the words and structures and how they fit together is a stylized comment on the simplicity of the adivasi. Many words like chini for which no equivalents could be found in English or indeed in Malayalam, have been preserved. The glossary appended has attempted to explain them as closely as possible. Janu herself has admitted that their language never had a script. Many of their words probably evolved from tribal names for objects in the forest, which may not exist beyond the woods. All her statements have alluded to the plural ‘we’ rather than ‘I’, which the translation has retained whenever possible. This becomes necessary as it reflects the communal thinking and care. It seems to reflect closeness to the forest where individual possession is nonexistent. All Janu’s experiences are also those of her people. The style is rambling and travels from one subject to another as they appear in her thoughts. It reflects a simplicity and frankness that is so much a part of a people untouched by sophistication beyond the forests. 


Till recently in our locale work meant plucking paddy saplings, 
replanting, that kind of work, associated with paddy field. In our place plantation 
work — putting manure for coffee, pepper — came up only recently; it was not 
very common earlier. Our work was mainly in the field plots. We started such 
work when we were about ten or eleven years old. Carrying cow-dung to plots 
in the fields, after that, plucking out the saplings for replanting, then replanting 
them, watering the fields and clearing the weeds. Then the harvest. Carrying 
bundles of harvested paddy. Picking the sheaves of harvested grain – such work. 
At that time the wages for this work was two rupees. At twelve and thirteen 
years of age we even got up to three rupees. Getting into the fields at dawn we 
had to work till six in the evening. When we were younger we used to go to 
clear overgrown forest areas.

       In our very young days all of us small children used to pick out weeds 
from the mud rims of the paddy plots. Or else, we caught fish from the river. 
Apart from that we caught crabs from the slush of the paddy fields. We took the 
cows of the landlords to graze in the open and wandered around the forest.

       We used to eat wild berries from the forest. Searched for honeycomb in 
the big trees. Gathered twigs. Amidst bamboo groves we tried to see if we 
could make out the elephant’s footsteps. Sat idly by the waterfall. Digging 
under rocks we searched to see if there was water underneath. Collected cane. 
Once in the forest, we don’t feel hunger. We pull out tubers and eat them. 
When our people work in the fields we catch fish from the watering canals. We 
catch water snakes by planting traps; look for wild fowl in the pandrus forest 
They are caught in traps that we keep. With the end of our chela we fish in the 
streams. To catch crabs loops are made with wild grass stems and we put baits 
in them. Boys and girls join in. When work is over at twilight we come to our 
huts and make curry of fish and crab and eat it. In our childhood the huts did 
not have any lamps at all. We didn’t even know from where to get the 
matchboxes. No lamps, no kerosene nothing was there. It was completely dark 
everywhere. When it grew dark we all sat together in the yard outside. Or put 
logs together and lit a fire. Forest tubers were eaten raw or roasted.

       In our childhood, around the hut there was a lot of land and forests. 
There was also farmland. Tuvara, chena, thina , ragi all were cultivated. Even 
very small children worked on the land. To keep away hogs and wild monkeys 
we built bamboo platforms on the trees. We all climbed on it and made loud 
noises. These platforms were on huge trees. Sitting on it we could see the earth, 
the big forest and the sky During the rainy season sitting on it we could see the 
rain approaching. Sometimes the rain starts from Coorg. The crowd of elephants 
coming could also be seen from afar. Deer too would come to eat the tender 
shoots. If the elephants come in front of us we should not run up the hill. The 
elephants can run fast uphill. You should run downhill. The elephants cannot 
run downhill. Their tongues would protrude and get caught between their teeth.

       When the rains start we cannot step out. We don’t get anything to eat. It 
is not possible to dig out tubers. Leeches prevent our going into the forest. If we
blow the chini no music comes.

       We fear that elephants may come close to the huts. We cannot build a 
fire to ward them off. It is very cold. We children all sit together inside the hut 
by the side of the fire for warmth. We all smell the same then.

       Have never heard of anyone coming to put us in school. When anyone 
comes from outside we all hide in the forest. No one goes near them. We would 
run away. We were frightened of the white dhoti and shirt people who, we 
heard, ate buffaloes and cows. So if anyone came to our place we ran and hid in 
the forest. No one knows the forest like our people. The forest is like a mother 
to us. Because the forest does not go anywhere; it is more than a mother to us.

       Our community did not have any cattle. There was no money to buy 
any. The forest and grass were there in plenty. Our boys and girls shepherded 
other people’s cattle. Once into the forest with the cattle we are there till sunset. 
That is when we cut bamboo from the groves to make chini. If we blow into it 
lovely music can be heard.

       There was only one dress then. When the elder’s chela became old, it 
was torn to two or three pieces and we took one each. There was one chela 
piece with big butties. Then there was something like a petticoat. It was then 
that they came from Manandavady to take children to the hostel. Many children 
were taken. Little ones and big ones, that was how my little sister went to study. 
I am not sure where I was at that time, in the fields or fishing in the river or 
shepherding cattle in the forest or digging for roots.

       Our place is called Trishileri Chekot colony. There were a large number 
of huts. Only our community was there. Adiyar.

       I went to Vellamunde with mother, to look after a teacher’s child. The 
way we took was unfamiliar. It was a long walk. It was not by road. That was 
when I saw places other than the forest and fields. At that time I had not been to 
Kattikulam or Mananthavady. It was a girl child I looked after at the teacher’s 
house. She was a nice, fair child and I liked her very much.

       Marykutty teacher’s house was a row of rooms. Just next to it were 
many other “house-rooms” like this. There were masters too. Teacher’s house 
was brightly lit at night. She bought me a one-piece dress. It was a big one. It 
had butties, pictures of flies on it, like honeybees. When it got dirty it never 
showed. To drink kanji there was an aluminium dish. I kept it in a corner by the 
grinding stone. The oil for chimney lamp was also kept there.

       Nearby there were other masters. There were also other small children 
who did not go to school. The child was bathed on a paala. We went with other 
children to pick the paala of arecanut trees from the garden. This could not be
brought back as a bundle on the head. Lots of dry fronds were put together and 
the long ends pulled over the shoulder to drag them home. This way it was 
possible to bring a lot of them together. I heard that Marykutty teacher’s husband 
was in the army. Teacher got letters. I haven’t seen him.

       Teacher’s home was at Athirampuza. When school closed teacher took 
me to her native place. We travelled at night by bus. This was the first time that 
I got on a bus. We returned also at night. It was very dark outside. Coming 
downhill we could see tiny specks of lights below. It was very breezy. I sang 
songs to put teacher’s child to sleep. In our community when children are put to 
sleep the women sing:

Little chino cried for bamboo sticks,

So went to get chini

Kani viranatthi.

The girl child cried

So went to get flowers

Kani viranatthi,

When the girl child cried, for her went to pluck flowers

When the boy child cried

Went to bring chini.

       At Athirampuza teacher’s younger sister was there. Her name was Sally. 
Here I went to church. When all of them went, I too went along.

       At Vellamundu there was a ‘cinema talkie’. There were other shops 
also. Pictures of the cinema were stuck on shop walls. It was the picture of two 
huge laughing heads. That was when I was about seven or eight. At Vellamunde 
I saw a cinema. It was called ‘Chembarathy’. I thought Chembarathy was a 
flower. I remember a girl in a dotted skirt singing a song in the picture. I went 
with teacher. The ‘talkies’ was very dark, but not like the forest. I sat on the 
floor, no, on a bench. There was a nice fragrance inside which was not familiar 
to me. From the cinema ‘talkies’ teacher bought a songbook. Teacher would 
look at it, learn the song and sing. Since I could not read I sang without learning 
while washing vessels, putting the child to sleep, bringing water, or washing 
clothes in the river – all along. I stayed a long time with teacher looking after 
her child. About two or three years. Then when Marykutty teacher was 
transferred, mother brought me back to Chekot. I don’t know where teacher 

       After returning from Vellamundu I continued working in the fields. We 
worked with the landlords of Trishileri. When we did not go for work we 
worked on our land. There was a big hill around. A lot of forest was cleared and
stumps burnt to make clear ground. Climbing a few hills would take us to Coorg. 
It is said Coorg is close to our place. In our language there is a good mixture of 
Kannada language. Amongst us each community speaks differently. Languages 
are also different. Words are different too. Paniyar, Kattunayakar, Kurumar, 
Chola Nayakar, Mullo Kurumar, Vetta Kurumar- When we speak we understand 
each other. Since no one is literate in our community there is no written language. 
I do not know whether at Chekot any of our community had land ownership 
papers. There was forest and farming. The demand for the right to land came 
much later.

       Going for fieldwork meant doing everything that the landlord’s men 
wanted. Since only landlords could give work, our people were always 
frightened. The party people used to come to the landlords. There was no singing 
while working on the fields, there was no such habit in our community. While 
working we chew tobacco. When we go on fields we get kanji at noon. Our 
people cook it. Holes are dug in the ground and areca fronds are put into the 
hollow and kanji is served on it. Sometimes there is tender leaf or jackfruit 
curry. Kanji water was always served in excess. When the rain and the wind 
come, we get wet in the fields while working. A person used to stand at the mud 
rim of the field plots watching us work. He wore a sleeveless shirt. We were all 
frightened of everything then. When it rained frogs would croak from all over. 
I have wondered where so many frogs hid in the field. Have never seen our 
people asking for wages for working in the fields

       I do not know if my wages were taken by mother or by father. I don’t 
even know if we were paid daily wages or as lump sum. When I was young my 
father lived separately. He married again. In our community this was not an 
unusual thing. When my father left my younger sister had not been born. Whether 
married or not, everyone has to work on the land. Even if everyone works, to 
fill our stomachs we have to get into the forest.

       When I was small our people saw only the landlord. My people worked 
for a Warrier. Either Krishnankutty Warrier or Govindankutty Warrier and also 
for Vallil Samy. The field and everything was theirs. When my forefathers 
cleared the forest and burnt the stumps and made clear fields ‘they’ would 
come and take it as their own.

       When the harvest was taken in we were paid in paddy. I never knew the 
rates of it. It was measured in a hollow bamboo stump. When paid in paddy our 
people returned very downcast. No one in our community was heard shouting 
or creating a scene. Even in our other communities it is like that. Our people 
have gone to work in the fields and forests and nowhere else.

       At about ten or eleven years of age I went to Valliyoor temple festival. 
The community people went together in the evening. They went as a large 
group. We had to walk a lot. Even so it was a very happy event. It was a summer 
when the nights were very cold.

       Then we used to go for the Tirunelli festival. Near Mundavadi at a place 
called Edappadi also there is a festival. When we go for the festival we look 
around at the sights. That was when we heard songs through the mike. For a 
long time we used to sit near the speaker and listen to the songs. Not just sat but 
sat on our haunches. Everyone was like that. Then we would look at the giant 
wheel, which was turned by foot. The elders bought and chewed tobacco. We 
bought puffed rice. That needed little money. It was not habitual for us to mix 
with other people and we never attempted to do so.

       We would peep into the magic show stall and long to see the magic 
show. A figure with a girl’s face and a fish’s body climbing out of the water, 
was drawn there. When catching fish in the stream that picture would come to 
mind. I longed to sit on the swings. Didn’t know if it was allowed. Didn’t know 
about money either. We walked in groups through the stalls. We bought butterfly 
clips and other clips. We also bought glass bangles. The salesman would slide 
the bangles on to our hands. The next day if we went to work, the bangles 
would all break. We would wait for the next festival to buy bangles.

       The song from the mike could be heard a long distance. When we return 
the song would echo from the hills. The market sold many-coloured foodstuffs. 
They had sweetened coloured water in bottles. There were also people selling 
cloth. There were lot-calendars with pictures of film folk. It had big pictures of 
coins and notes printed on it. If we drew lots we would get a number of pictures 
of the joker. Pictures of gods with arrows round the head were also there. Other 
pictures were that of a goddess who made coins fall from lotus petals and a 
blind man wearing black glasses and a hat. There was a man who showed us 
waterfalls, tigers, lions, and hills through a box. It was called cinema. We saw 
some film stars through this. Wandering around the whole night, after a long 
time, somewhere below the temple we slept huddled together. At Valliyur Kavu 
there were people of our community doing the outside work. Then at some 
point of time all that became nonexistent.

       There are five children in our family. Three girls and two boys. Father 
has another child too. We all go for work on the fields. We also go for plantation 
work. In our community unlike Hindus we do not have gods and goddesses. 
We have not heard of any fair god or goddess. In our area the main trees and 
stones are kept for worship. At our place in Trishileri Chekot there was a huge 
tree. In remembrance of our grandparents and great grandparents a few stones 
have been placed there. Once a year we worship them. Then according to 
tradition certain rituals are performed. This happens at night during a very cold 
season. A fire would be lit at night. On bright moonlit nights the sky could be 
seen through the leaves of the tree. Then our men blow the chini and blow on 
the thudi. It would go on till late in the night. After that we children used to play 
blowing the chini and sounding the thudi. To make the chini we would go into 
the forest and get bamboo. When it is kept on our lips and blown, melodious 
music is produced.

The Arrival of Saksharatha

       When I was sixteen or seventeen, the Saksharatha people came to Chekot. 
After our work in the fields it was at night that learning began. On the open 
ground outside a house we all sat together and began our study. Canfed sponsored 
it. It was a Warrier girl who came to teach. She would come for a month and 
then stay away for quite some time. It was as if she came to tick in the register 
and get her allowance, not because she wanted our people to read and write.

    A chimney lamp and a foldable board lay in a corner of the hut. After 
working throughout the day in the fields, then coming for this, our people would 
be fed up. In the morning all have to go to work, something has to be cooked 
and eaten. In such a situation the Saksharatha learning also waned. I liked very 
much to study. There were others like me. What I thought was that if any 
application had to be written at least one could sign it.

     In my younger days we had a friend — Ammini. Our mother and 
Ammini’s mother were great friends. Ammini was not interested in learning. 
She liked planting and growing things. During the Saksharatha days she came 
for a while. Then she left it. When we all started wearing blouse and all, Ammini 
would never wear anything like that. She continued wearing the chela in our 
old way. She wore a number of bead necklaces and bangles. Tucked into the 
waist of her chela she always had some seeds for planting. She also always had 
a knife to cut things. I am very close to Ammini. The girls in our community 
are very close to each other. That is the way. Ammini liked me studying. After 
a few months, people stopped attending Saksharatha, the teachers also stopped 
coming. The Warrier girl would go and get her allowance. Then she would 
come at some time and conduct some programme –races, jumping competitions 
and things like that. After that, nothing. During the rainy season no one came. 
Returning from work in the slush and mud no one would feel like lighting the 
lamp. We wished only to gobble up something in the dark and go off to sleep.

      I tried and learned a few letters of the alphabet. My younger brother’s 
second standard textbook was there. Looked at the pictures and letters in that 
and learned a little. It was when the Saksharatha people stopped coming 
altogether that the Solidarity people from here came. They formed groups of all 
the women and began teaching. They wanted our people to learn. They were 
able to persuade our women into coming to learn. The person who taught us 
was called Sibi. When we studied for a year it was possible to begin reading. 
Sibi enjoyed teaching. He wanted all of us to learn to read. We studied long into 
the night. We practiced writing on a slate. We also learned to write in a book. 
Sibi is no more now. He had cancer.

     I learned bit by bit by reading all the pieces of paper that came my way. 
I tried to read the paper wrappings brought from shops. On the way to work if 
I found bits of newspaper that would also be read. If a paper with printed story 
was found there was lots to read. Torn scrap of a weekly would be read in bits 
and the story understood. That is how I began reading the Manorama weekly. 
I did not know whether those stories were real or not. I would just read. Ammini 
liked to hear stories. I read more for her to hear.

     The next year I was able to teach our people. For long I was the instructor 
for Saksharatha. There was a small allowance. I would also go to work. It was 
then that I joined the Karshakathozilali union. At the Saksharatha time I joined 
all the competitions, singing and all. I have taken part in kathaprasangam too. 
It was reading what was given in writing. “The Victorious Journey of 
Prometheus” was one story usually chosen for the kadhaprasangam. I did not 
know what kind of a story it was. At that time we also used to go for the party 
processions. We would shout loudly the slogans the party gave. Party work was 
also there. That too was done without serious awareness of anything. But it was 
liked all the same.

       All of us used to go for Party programmes. It was one Govinda Warrier 
who worked amongst us. He was one who owned farms and land. He never 
used to come to our huts. When people were needed for processions (of protest) 
he used to send for us at Chekot. Then all of us would go. We went in a lorry. 
There were fights for better wages also.

      All our people had become mere coolie workers. All our land was usurped 
and no farms remained and we became just labourers. We had strikes to increase 
fifty paisa to one rupee as wages. Whenever the party wanted, there would be 
strikes. When a strike was called, we did not go to work. Some people employed 
others to do the work. At that time some people would be working at Govinda 
Warrier’s place too. The Party itself used to interfere and settle the strike. It 
used to make us feel that the party is for our people. The union people taking 
money and making a compromise to end strikes was common in Trishileri.

      Krishnankutty Warrier, Govindankutty, Raghavan Warrier then some 
Chettys– our people worked for them. At that time the landlords were all party’s 
people. I would inform the people what the party said. If a strike was decided 
upon, then no one was allowed to work. Even though our people endured 
suffering and hardships, they still stood by us.

     All the land we had, had been taken by the landlords and the new settlers 
put it in their names. What was left belonged to Vallil Swamy. When our 
forefathers cleared the wild forest by burning the foliage and stumps and planted 
the thina, the fertile land would be taken over by the landlords; or the new 
settlers would pay them something and make it theirs. They will start planting. 
We had to toil on that same land and would not be paid any wages either.

     That is how we started to eat what we got from the shops. Had to go to 
the ration shops, had to own a ration card. Even ginger and chilly had to be 
bought. Cash was very much needed. The landlords and the party people would 
settle all strikes. For, if the strike prolongs we will die of hunger. If we die who 
will work in these fields around us? Who will go to shout the slogans? Therefore 
all the strikes ended through underhand compromises.

       It was at the time of Saksharatha that we went to Kalpetta. I was in the 
labour union and so might have gone to Kalpetta before. But didn’t know it was 
Kalpetta. It was the district level meet at Wyanad. All our people went in a 
lorry. It was a Thomas who took us from Chekot. He was a party man. We 
travelled clutching on to a bamboo pole fixed on the open lorry for support. We 
held the flags also. We shouted the slogans. They were about agricultural labour.

      There was a crowd enough for a festival at Kalpetta. There were songs 
from the mike too. There were a number of flags. There were many party leaders 
where the stage was set up. Paper was shredded and hung up. On the table 
were frond wicks and the para. The paddy in the para had a whole bunch of 
coconut flowers, kadir, placed in it. The landlords had that kind of para. We 
thought that the great landlords must also be members of the party. A song 
usually sung while working in the field was heard through the mike.

      Farmland, better living conditions, none of this was part of the party 
agenda. When I was a farm labourer, I used to attend party classes. I had felt 
that there was something different about the way of talking there. If we tried to 
present any of our problems, it was usually avoided with the excuse that it had 
to be considered by the higher committee. E.M.S also took class. In our area, 
the party, landlords and plantation owners had all grown together and joined 
like a huge tree. To deal with problems of our existence and to work for it became 
impossible for the party. Not only that, the mainstream party people looked 
upon us as mere land labourers. Therefore the party needed us only to shout 
slogans, partake in meetings and at times of voting only. The party workers 
behaved very badly towards women in our community. This was no different 
from the behaviour of mainstream society.

     In spite of all this, I worked for a long time as a karshaka thozilali. I had 
both field work and Saksharata work. When in the party there was plenty of 
opportunity to go to the people’s huts. Since all had to go to work during the 
day, the meetings were held at night. That was how I chanced to go to the 
Paniyar and Katunayakar areas. In our community, the chola kurumar, kurumar 
and adiyar groups all had different problems. There were problems in our hut 
when we had to go for the meetings at night. Since women in our community 
were not used to this, there were lots of difficulties. However, when common 
issues were solved in small ways, there was happiness. We were scolded for 
being away from the hut. Even elder brother would scold but we continued to 

       When I was a child, I had heard Varghese and his comrades spoken of 
with fear by the elders. We knew that Varghese was somewhere in the Tirunelli 
area. Varghese was highly esteemed among our people. At that time, valli labour 
was a contract maintained to make the paniyar, urali and the vetanaykar in our 
community work for seven seers of rice and a piece of unbleached cotton cloth. 
It is said that Varghese worked against all this. Even then the harassment from 
the police and fear prevented our people from talking about Varghese. There 
was a practice in our midst to collect wages once a year from the landlords on 
the basis of accounts kept. When payment was made, one sack of rice would 
be mixed with two sacks of husk. When this was measured, Varghese is said to 
have interfered and secured good rice for us. It is heard that he went straight to 
the landlords and talked directly. Apart from this, it was in hollow bamboo 
stump that rice was measured out as wages. He demanded that this be changed 
to litre measure and made the landlords themselves measure the rice to be given. 
Our old people were very close to Varghese. Varghese personally knew the 
difficulties of our people. It is said that he used to stay among them and see 
their problems.

       While working for the party itself, it was understood that party work 
within the community could not do anything constructive for us. When one
tried to voice various issues in the party committees, it was clear that the decisions 
of the party were coming against it. Moreover, it was seen that the lower 
committee which could only carry out the decisions of the higher committee 
was unable to express its own views. The party and the landlords were uniting 
to become a huge tree threateningly resting against the little huts.

       When our people died, there was a burial place in Trishileri. Only our 
people were buried there. It has been there from the time of our forefathers. 
The place around this belonged to others. When one such owner slowly crept in 
extending his boundaries, we soon had no burial ground. Then our people went 
out together and built hedges around, reclaiming it. It is called the kurumar 
chira. A path was also cut out to our burial ground. The encroacher brought the 
police and took away a lot of our men. Then our women marched to the police 
station with pick axes and shovels. They said that our burial ground cannot be 
encroached upon. Thus the police gave in and freed our men.

       When things were like that the party interfered in this matter. It was at 
that time that the election to the co-operative bank took place. Our encroacher’s 
vote was a deciding factor in the election. With his vote the party would have 
got the governance of the bank. To get his vote the party argued from his side 
and tried to settle our land dispute. Many such instances took place frequently. 
The party stood by power and money. The labourers on the land did not have 
any value. It became clear that nothing could honestly be done for our people 
by working with the party. It was felt that it is better to do small deeds for our 
people while remaining within the community.

       It was at that time that we encroached the land at Thirunelli. This land is 
a hill. About eighteen acres of hill. Forty five landless, homeless families came 
here. There are paniyars, adiyars, kuricheers among them. In our hut we had a 
friend Devi, another one was Lekshmi. Then there was a girl Valli. She had no 
one else.

       Lekshmi was here in Thrishileri. When she was married and taken to 
Chekot, her husband used to come drunk and beat her. He worked in the forest 
“Coop” where trees are felled, both legally and illegally. The employers served 
liquor to the labourers. Some of our people had fallen in such traps.

       Lekshmi would go to work. If she went for daily labour it was possible 
to cook something at home. Her husband’s violence became so much that she 
could no longer stay there. When he would not let her go for work either, Lekshmi 
came to us. Here in the land we do some farming. We have planted tapioca, 
ginger and plantain. Water is scarce at our place. Now there is a case going on 
about this land. That is why our hut does not have a house number. We do not 
have a ration card or anything like that. So we have to earn wages. Work is also 

       Devi edathi is there with us. She is not married, she does not like to be. 
She used to go for work. She was also at Thrishileri. When we came here we 
came together. Now in her hut there is no one else. There is no land either. 
Encroachers have taken over and are farming the land. There are no papers for 
the land.

       It was while working in the party that I got the other friend. When going 
to Pettamala from Plamoola colony. Just below the hill, in a by-lane below the 
tapioca patches, she sat crying. It was one evening when we were going for the 
party committee meeting. Her name is Valli. Thin, emaciated, she was not 
capable of anything. She was about eighteen years old and couldn’t even walk. 
Valli’s father and mother had died when she was very young. So she was in an 
aunt’s house. She was sick from her childhood. If anything struck, her body 
would swell and swell. She is unable to do any work. Her aunt never gave her 
anything to eat. She ill-treated her very much. She was so weak. She was beaten 
a lot for not fetching water. Her body was completely swollen when she was 
seen standing and crying. We brought her to the hut. Next day we took her to 
get medicine at the hospital. No one came from the house she stayed in. When 
they were informed, no one wanted her. So, for about ten to fifteen days we 
stayed at the hospital and cared for her. After that we brought Valli here. Now 
she is able to walk a little.

       When we came to this hill our people and the party were against us. This 
land belongs to someone the party is close to, it seems. He is in Bangalore. This 
land was taken from our people and that is why we encroached on it. When we 
built a hut there, it became a big issue. Because of this our people were not 
called for work for a long time. Very often people who had land, do not call us 
for work – if we go for strike. After that when it is time to farm the land they 
call. Those who own land do not know how to work on it. They will never work 
either. So when work on the land is called for, they cannot help sending for us. 
So when we came to this land we all had a lot of difficulties.

       A person who did not have any money to buy rice was willing to sell his 
goat for six rupees. So we gave him the money we had and gifted the goat to 
him. After that when he tried to sell the goat’s kid, he gave it to us. We now 
have fifteen goats. We do not milk the goats. The goat’s kids drink it up. None 
have been sold. We three look after them together. When we went for the strike, 
Valli was the one to care for them. When for forty-five days we were at 
Thiruvananthapuram, the wild pigs came and ate up our ginger. It never was 
useful anyway. There was no money in it. This is a place where elephants come. 
When the elephants descend the entire banana crop is destroyed.

       Even then this is good fertile land; it is virgin soil. Anything that is 
planted grows. In our hut the four of us are like one family. Now we don’t go 
for work. There is no time for it. Devi edathi goes. Lakshmi too goes. We 
women are very close. We like it.

       In our community the women take on more responsibility. They go for 
coolie work. They do all kinds of farm work. Digging, planting seeds, preparing 
the ground for planting, and so on; they do all the work on the land. They also 
look after the little ones in the hut.

       The lifestyle of our people, rituals and existence itself are closely 
connected to the land. If that is severed, they have a lot of problems. It will be 
wrong to compare with the mainstream society’s ways and customs. When 
looking at the newly formed colonies we can see this.

       Our people who could dig the land and find water now have to go on 
strikes because the taps are dry. This happened because our sources of existence 
were banished by the plans and programmes that have been executed. Our people 
and our forefathers were used to getting from nature and from the land first 
hand information. Our farming implements, vessels, places of stay – we could 
make all this. We could live with the animals. We could know the changes in 
nature. All that was possible because we had land. In spite of this now we need 
to compete with mainstream people and we are always the losers.

      Our songs and rituals originated and can be preserved only in our life 
pattern.In other lifestyles our traditions cannot survive. It is all connected to 
our farming, to nature, to the earth. Our society need not be made specially 
aware of that. It is inherent in our society. It naturally ought to be there.

       It is habitual of the mainstream society to dig up traditional rituals and 
manners and celebrate them. That sort of tradition has now crept into our 
community. Ritual patterns like the gaddika ought to last or perish in our 
particular background. According to need and situation, tradition and ritual 
should grow and die. No one in the mainstream society insists on keeping alive 
every one of his or her traditions. The customs and traditions of our community 
should not be wrenched out and taken to their recreational life, or their 
celebrations. All this came from our land, forest and nature and our relationship 
to them. It can only exist in that environment.

       In the name of development programmes for us, mainstream society 
seeks its own benefit. Now in Appappara colony, nobody owns even a cycle. 
But the tarred road was laid for the good of the people around it. In huts where 
even ground for open air is not available, a road is useless. To answer nature’s 
calls there is no forest, no toilets. The roads just get soiled in that way too. 
During the Saksharatha and the Karshakathozilali days, there were opportunities 
to meet and mingle with a lot of our people. It has been possible to know more 
about the problems of this community. Problems are different at different places. 
Loss of land and the several difficulties created thereby was found as the major 
problem. Common solutions cannot be found for all. When colonies were created 
difficulties of accepting that way of life have grown into a major problem. 
None of our old huts had much amenities. They were not tall. Those that we 
made were only for us to sleep in. Not only that but to escape the sun, rain, 
wind, and wild animals. To gather together, sit idly we had a large stadium like 
central yard surrounded by all the homes. Nature was there wide open before 
us for children to observe and learn. Bird sounds and gatherings told of time 
and season.We knew the months by the falling leaves and looking at the sun we 
knew the end of day and the clouds told us of the approach of rain.

     When colonies were created, huts were built almost touching each other. 
There were occasions when one had to get into an autorickshaw immediately 
in front of one’s house. A community, which was once clean and tidy now, 
goes around without a bath, smelling of sweat, abusing each other, also because 
they are now entrenched in such surroundings. Complaints of chicken scratching 
at the neighbor’s plot, little children soiling the surrounding, soap falling into 
drinking water – our people have started disliking each other.

      Earlier we ate the chama and thina that we sowed and reaped. Tapioca 
and yam too were cultivated. When land was lost, every thing had to be bought 
from the shop. The people in the mainstream society say that the roots we ate in 
the forest are bad , poisonous and without nutritive value. The potato and dal 
from the shops are good according to them. Our lands are now kept as forest 
reserves. But when our people go to buy something from the shop they don’t 
have any money. Daily labour is not always available. People don’t have work 
to offer on the land – it is for business and sales that it is kept aside. All the land 
available is kept fallow because they say farming is not profitable. To keep 
hunger away we need land. It is in such circumstances that the cry for land 

     In our midst at first, land encroaching farmers came and changed ways 
of farming and made farming a business. It is because even then the owners, the 
landlords, did not come to the fields and tend the lands, that the present situation 
arose. Though it was said that agricultural land was for the farmer, it was the 
educated people who got the land. Only those communities who acquired 
education directly from the land would be able to toil on the land. A community 
which learns songs and stories from books cannot farm.

     There is a difference between the women of the mainstream society and 
our women. In our midst, unity is formed through our women. Hence it is not 
easy for them to join the mainstream opinions.Whatever the difficulties may 
be, they will stand by what they think is right and have the guts to do so. Our 
dressing habits and ways stand unchanged more among the women. The forest 
rains, wind and sufferings have been shouldered again and again, hardening 
them to this kind of a way of life.

      But the men are not like that. While walking through the lanes someone 
might put his hand around one’s shoulder, whisper something in one’s ear, buy 
a tea, give a beedi and change one. There is such a technique in the mainstream 
society which can transform people totally. In the mainstream women had not 
worked earlier and when they started to work, women’s issues became a problem. 
Our women were accustomed to digging the earth and working in the fields 
from the beginning itself and from this it seems they got strength.

      In our midst, weddings are not very great events. Four or five people 
come to the girl’s house and take her away with the boy. Those who come are 
given something to eat. Then the couple stays at the boy’s place. It does not 
matter where. Since men and women both go to work, separation in marriage 
does not create any major difficulty. If so desired, one could form another 
relationship and live. In this social set up, all that is not grave issues. Getting 
something to keep away hunger is the most important thing.

      Those who come amidst our people with ideas of upliftment and 
programmes are the ones who exploit our people. It happens in dealings of land 
and of women. Our women and girls are used for the pleasures of mainstream 
society. The situation today makes them lose everything. In Tirunelli and other 
places the landlords use their wealth and the power to give work, to exploit the 
women. The party has also used its power to do this. They have also stood by 
such people.

      The mainstream society has all the power and rights. They threaten by 
refusing to give work and thus silence all the wrongs from being voiced. Children 
whose fathers’ names are not entered in school registers, are many in the 
Tirunelly and Trishleri. The Saksharatha instructors have also had such 
experiences. To overcome hunger our people are forced to go to such employers 
again and again.

     In our childhood we would catch the dragonfly on the sesame flowers 
and put it in matchboxes. If the match box is kept near the ear, good music 
could be heard.The sesame dragonfly could live long in the matchbox without 
food. It would sing. It would cry. That dragonfly too is very dark and black. 
The loud mike was too much for it to argue with.

      At that time in Manandavadi at Apputi, about three hundred homeless 
people from our community were made to build huts and were made to stay 
there. That was in the year nineteen ninety four. We also stayed there. After 
that, one night the forest officials came in two or three vehicles and beat up our 
people. They were all badly injured. We were in hospital for twenty days. Then 
those who remained stopped staying in that land. After that at Vellmundu, at 
Kundera in Munnar, this kind of land encroachment took place. During this 
time the ruling parties – Right and Left – tried to suppress the strikes. Our 
people did not run and save themselves because they did not have any place to 
go to. So they were really beaten up.

     All this was not merely to encroach on land. It was an encroachment of 
life itself — to live and to die on the land where one was born and bred.

     To really try and understand the needs of our people and to work for it , 
people must come from our community.The way mainstream perceive our 
society itself should change. The outsiders who come to us exploit our lack of 
knowledge regarding the rest of the society. The huts of the paniyar and others 
are decorated with kolams and drawings. Using mud and cow dung they make 
neat huts. Even the kurumars have this. But among the adiyars, this custom 
does not exist. Now the huts have calendars with pictures of gods and goddesses. 
They buy them from here and there and stick them on the walls. The pictures of 
cine stars are also stuck on walls like this. Since the colony started, this kind of 
decoration has become popular. The language and ways of our children staying 
in the hostels for purposes of study, have changed. Don’t know if that is for 
their good or not. Our community is creating people who remain close to our 
ways and customs. People who are sympathetic to,our customs and manners 
are coming up in our community. However,if the tradition of working on the 
land is preserved the difficulties of our people would be removed. The right to 
live on the land, for claiming ownership of the land for its rightful owners, led 
to all the strikes and movements. The systems of land ownership in mainstream 
society, their ways and ideas and the systems necessary for our community are 
different.That is why, for our existence on earth, we had to fight the govermental 

      When we were young, there was no mirror in our huts. I saw the mirror 
first when I went to work at Vellamunde, to look after the child. It was one with 
a wooden handle. Some parts of it looked fungus covered. In that part I could 
not see my reflection. On returning from Vellamundu, in our hut, on the back 
wall, a piece of mirror was stuck with dung. A small piece of mirror. We stick 
seeds for future use like this on the walls of the hut. I do not know who had kept 
the mirror piece like seeds on the wall. Because the mirror was a small piece, I 
could not see myself completely in it, some parts alone were reflected. Must 
buy a whole mirror.

Translated from Malayalam by Usha Menon

Is lecturer at the All Saints College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her Ph.D is on the works of Sri Aurobindo. Is actively involved in various women support activities. Has published articles in research journals. Is the co-ordinator for Samyukta Seminars. 

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An unknown adivasi, Janu was first introduced to the world when a literacy worker (presumably) entered her name in a register at the age of seventeen as Chekot Karian Janu. It was the recent agitation by the tribals in Thiruvananthapuram that brought C. K. Janu to the limelight. Illiterate till seventeen, Janu was part of the forest like her people. Bewildered like the rest of her people the strike was a lea for the only life they knew rather than a fight for possession. Like the more publicized Medha Patker , Janu calls for forest preservation, as it is for her, a preservation of life itself. Artist Bhaskaran wrote down her biography as C. K. Janu narrated it to him. This translation is based on that publication which appeared in the Bhashaposhini Vol.25, No.7, December 2001. Efforts have been made to preserve the oral style of narration as the story is not of Janu alone but of her people. The narrative style is too unique for the words and structures and how they fit together is a stylized comment on the simplicity of the adivasi. Many words like chini for which no equivalents could be found in English or indeed in Malayalam, have been preserved. The glossary appended has attempted to explain them as closely as possible. Janu herself has admitted that their language never had a script. Many of their words probably evolved from tribal names for objects in the forest, which may not exist beyond the woods. All her statements have alluded to the plural ‘we’ rather than ‘I’, which the translation has retained whenever possible. This becomes necessary as it reflects the communal thinking and care. It seems to reflect closeness to the forest where individual possession is nonexistent. All Janu’s experiences are also those of her people. The style is rambling and travels from one subject to another as they appear in her thoughts. It reflects a simplicity and frankness that is so much a part of a people untouched by sophistication beyond the forests.

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