New Internationalist

Garden party with the forest people

After my last blog, lots of people wrote to me saying ‘we wish we could attend your Chembakolli party too’. Well, I wish you could too. So, the next best thing, I thought I’d tell you about it.

I’d suggested some adivasi friends visit us for a change, to eat with us at home.  They arrived early and stood looking around in amazement. ‘Hah, you say we live in the forest. Look at your place, it’s total jungle behind your house’. Then they disappeared in various directions, exploring the wilderness beyond our garden. They returned jubilant. ‘There’s tons of honey here. You’ve got loads of bees and hives. Amazing!’

They had discovered a tiny bulbul's nest with two babies in our rosemary bush as well as leopard, bear, and elephant dung not far away. They also identified the droppings of sambar deer (the bane of my life as they eat every flower in sight) mouse deer, barking deer, rabbit and porcupine all around the garden. They also noticed that wild boar had dug up tubers higher up the hill. They disappeared for half an hour and returned to marvel at how lucky we are to live in this place which is not governed by forest department rules.

Something we’ve always noticed about people from the Kattunayakan tribe is their love of flowers. They pointed out plants, entranced by some unusual blooms they’d never seen before. I told them they could help themselves to any plants they wanted. One child, a six-year-old, was so fascinated by the flowers she asked her mother to take a plant back. The parents were gentle, patiently explaining how the plant should be dug up and why particular plants shoudn’t be touched.

Stan, my husband, wrote a paper for the government two decades ago pleading that the forest be treated like a lab where precious knowledge is passed on from generation to generation of adivasis. Most tribes are losing this now, as access to the forest is restricted. But watching the Chembakolli people instruct their kids was a revelation, an education for teachers as well as parents.

As part of the cultural documentation, we are trying to make adivasis, especially young people, proud of their ethnicity and origins. Too often, their customs and identity are denigrated by the dominant groups around them. Schools are one of the worst offenders because the very syllabus is loaded against them.

So I talked about the fact that their traditional food was highly valued by sophisticated chefs around the world. And these ‘wild’ veggies were also expensive. The kids are often told that they need to learn to eat ‘proper’ food by their mostly ignorant, very provincial teachers. So they are shy about their mushrooms, wild greens, and bamboo shoots, because of the ridicule they receive.

I soaked a variety of dried mushrooms and cooked them according to their traditional recipe. They were amazed to find dried mushrooms and tinned bamboo shoots. They eat these abundantly, freshly picked and hadn’t a clue mushrooms or bamboo could be preserved or how expensive wild mushrooms could be.

They left after lunch, especially delighted with my special mushroom curry. The huge pot of chicken curry, sambar (spicy lentils) and rice went down well too. But most of all they were pleased with the different plants they’d gathered. As for us, it was a party to remember.

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