Saturday, October 22, 2011

Dependence, Tradition, and Tourists

We travelled with ASDS' partner organization, MORE, to two villages. Both were insanely isolated, at least an hour's bike ride on a poor excuse for a road. The heat has become all-too-familiar and the cool monsoons of Bombay remain a distant memory.

The first settlement was called Budugulla. It was extremely remote, both in terms of physical as well as cultural isolation. Upon entering the area I saw a woman cutting a small cucumber like vegetable with red seeds. Her instrument of choice was a machete, held stationary as the vegetable was pushed into the blade. The woman was shrivelled, a product of weathering - her environment had faded the dots of green dye that lay tattoo-ed on her forehead and chin. Her skin was like fine, wrinkled leather. But she was beautiful. A young boy called the villagers using a dried buffalo horn. He called it an Adivi Dunna. In my romanticized idealism, observations were restricted to such superficial ones. How could I know what that woman had been through in Chattisgarh? How could I understand what her life was like, what hunger and unemployment and death was like? My life was far too distant from hers. In the few hours I spent in this settlement, I was a tourist, watching specimens with my eyes instead of understanding these individuals with my heart. This is the unfortunate truth.

Announcement Time (Photo Credit: Naveen Ramisetti)

The people in Budugulla were highly dependent on the forest for survival. They sold teakwood branches for Rs 200 a bundle. They collected leaves from the almond tree and sold them at a rate of Rs 2 for a hundred leaves. The women went out into the forest with an empty basket and collected whatever they could find - roots, shrubs, plants, vegetables, wood. Anything usable went in the basket. If a Forest Official caught them, the collection would be confiscated. They have already cut some 75 acres of forest and continue to cut whatever they can. Such is life in Budugulla. Who is to be blamed for such a condition? That is a question that can not be answered yet. 

Skin diseases were visibly prevalent amongst the people we interacted with. The women in particular suffered from discolored blotches on the face and welts on the neck. The children stared at us with swollen bellies and empty eyes. We were told that in the last rainy season almost everyone had tested positive for malaria. MORE interjected and told us they had gotten the doctor to the village to distribute malaria tablets.

Hunger is the Norm (Photo Credit: Navin Ramisetti)

Despite the poor state of nutrition and health, the tribals adhered to certain cultural practices we had not yet encountered. For example, they used a traditional medicine called Geedi, and followed the belief that revealing any specific information about Geedi's medicinal properties would nullify its beneficial effects. While they owned cattle, they did not drink cow's milk, claiming that it was meant for the calves. In the rainy season when there were food shortages, they dried and ate a fruit called Tummi. Red ants constituted the base ingredient for pickles, sambar, and chutneys. You can't be choosy if you're hungry.

Our next stop was Khaman Togu, a local village where we had lunch. Their huts were a bit bigger, the walls decorated with white paint. Here, they grew cash crops like cotton and tobacco. They had checkdams. They provided employment to the IDPs from Budugulla, paying them Rs 100 to Rs 150 for a day's work. In short, the locals were better off than the IDPs. This made sense as they had been here for much longer. The IDPs are courageous, for living in the middle of the forest like they do. It's a difficult life. Gopaiah, the village head, was the only one that spoke to us as the others looked on. You know, 30 years ago we were like them. We had nothing. Now, things have changed. The IDPs come to our village to charge their phones and they watch television in our homes. We try to teach them how to sow seeds and farm properly, but they don't listen. They want to stick to their ways.

Cultivation in the Forest (Photo Credit: Naveen Ramisetti)

Our last stop was where we spent the night, Ashwapuram. We arrived at 10 pm. Upon reaching the village, I heard high-pitched singing in the distance. With the help of a few villagers we moved to an area where a fire had been lit. Namaste. A woman greeted me as she clasped my hands in the dark. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw where the voices were coming from. They were moving in a circle, their feet shuffling to an inner beat as they synchronized their movements to their words. Praise the fish of the River Godavari. She gives us what we need. We respect all She has to offer. Nameless, faceless beings danced and sang. Some of the volunteers tried to capture its beauty through voice recorders and flash-blinding cameras, but I just listened. A pang of guilt struck me.  Was this a staged performance? Turns out that it was. I was the tourist and they were the exhibit. 

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