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
The girl child cried
So went to get flowers
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.