Culture is a tricky thing. How do we define it? Who decides when customs and traditions, even ancient, cherished ones, can be dispensed with? These and many other similar questions have been debated by the Adivasi groups we (ACCORD, an NGO in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu) work with for the last 25 years. Yet, culture was not a priority, it was neither life threatening, nor in clear and present danger (we thought). And so land, human rights, health, education and housing took priority.
A quarter of a century later, we realize with dismay that the Gudalur Adivasi kids who go to local schools are losing their language, customs and traditions. My husband, Stan, adores kids and is a born teacher. While taking a class for primary school teachers-to-be, school leavers of around 18 years old, he asked them about their backgrounds, tribes etc. He returned home the first evening really saddened by the fact that some kids didn’t know their fathers had been in jail, fighting to save their land. When asked what Adivasi (original settlers like aboriginal people) meant, they said poor, primitive, at the bottom of society, uneducated, illiterate – almost identical to what their parents might have said 25 years ago, before they began organizing themselves to create an identity they could take pride in. Had we come full circle? Was it all in vain?
So Stan began talking about Adivasi culture and philosophy, that Adivasis constituted eight per cent of India’s population, the fact that they shared an ethos with indigenous groups all around the world. That indigenous people are unique because they mostly practise equality which is brought about by design, not chance. He talked about how some tribes in Africa distributed their goats and cattle when someone lost theirs to death, disease or drought and how these values were inculcated in them through rituals and everyday practices.
The young people began discussions about each other’s customs. The youngsters doing the course were Paniyas, Bettakurumbas and Kattunaickens. They exchanged stories of how equality and sharing was instilled even in little children in their individual tribes. We non-adivasis were constantly stunned by the fact that Adivasi kids never fought for a sweet, however tiny. They always shared it solemnly and equally, a truly amazing sight to see.
At the end of the first week, Stan then gave them a weekend assignment. They were to go home and ask their parents and grandparents to tell them stories of the past. The stories about customs, traditions and food, or just stories, were to be recorded and shared when they returned.
The group came back on Monday morning brimming over with information. The stories they told were charming and had a logic of their own, often hard for outsiders to comprehend. But what turned the tide for us was when a visiting trustee of a donor agency asked them what they planned to do after the training was over. On the first day, when Stan had asked them a similar question, they had said maths, history, english. A week later they announced to the visiting trustee: ‘We are going to teach all the kids what Adivasi means and that our people are spread out all over India and all over the world. That our parents and grandparents fought to retain our ancestral land and that Adivasis were the first people to rise up against colonialism. They fought the British in the 1700s and could not be subjugated. That’s why they remained proud and independent.’ The outburst left everyone stunned.
Stan returned home beaming, grinning from ear to ear. One of the best weeks of his life. The lessons had been well learned.