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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  1. #1 prem 01 Jun 12

    Hi Marie,
    Thanks for writing this article. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I have to admit, usually I could not finish reading long articles. This was perfect! I felt like I was there with them enjoying the lunch.
    I am sure a lot of people might have felt the same way.
    Thanks again.
    Prem

  2. #2 Ludwig Pesch 01 Jun 12

    Inspiring and touching upon things that matter while being so tangible for all.
    This piece should also reach kids in classrooms all over the world; ideally followed by a trip to a nearby forest under the competent guidance of someone familiar with local flora and fauna. I wish there was also scope for an audiovisual exchange programme on select topics found in this blog. Showcasing initiatives where gimmicks or gossip now prevail and merely distract.
    While there can be no denial of phenomena to be alarmed by (such as seen in the campaigns of Greenpeace, Amnesty International and other NGOs), it is minute observations of one's own environment that have the greatest potential for beneficial change.  
    Lasting impact is the result of things that can be emulated if not ’paid forward’, and this in an atmosphere free from anxieties. So more courage is really called for among educators.”
    Looking forward to your next piece, as always  ...

  3. #3 mari 01 Jun 12

    'Stan's paper has me thinking about how we aggregate value for indigenous population knowledge in plants, flowers, food and other items. I have seen lots of such knowledge in Central and Latin America as well as in my own country, the United States.
    This knowledge needs to be valued and compensated in a practical way that benefits the varied indigenous communities.
    What ideas are out there to compensate these populations and thereby add to Stan valuable paper of capturing this critical knowledge.
    David Cohen
    Washington, DC

  4. #4 Aloke Surin 01 Jun 12

    Hi Mari,

    I could actually picture your party in my mind....I wish you had included some photos of the people (esp the little girl who wanted to take the flower) and some of the dishes! Great also that in your last couple of blogs you have not focussed on the grimmer issues that beset India...though they do require being written about and acted upon, it is also nice to rediscover the lost world of the Nilgiri adivasis that you write about...Keep the party going!

  5. #5 david cohen 02 Jun 12

    'Stan's paper has me thinking about how we aggregate value for indigenous population knowledge in plants, flowers, food and other items. I have seen lots of such knowledge in Central and Latin America as well as in my own country, the United States.
    This knowledge needs to be valued and compensated in a practical way that benefits the varied indigenous communities.
    What ideas are out there to compensate these populations and thereby add to Stan valuable paper of capturing this critical knowledge.
    David Cohen
    Washington, DC

  6. #6 Vijay 03 Jun 12

    Wow, Mari...that party sounded real fun! Hope to join in the next one.

  7. #7 Prabir 04 Jun 12

    Now we are really going to have to see your jungle!

  8. #8 Niral 05 Jun 12

    Hi Mari,

    It was nice to read about the adivasis having a great time. I can imagine them going berserk in your ’backyard’.

    Whenever I've been to your place, I've always hoped that I would run into some wild elephant or a leopard or even that resident tiger up at the water spring that I heard about durin my last visit. I always seem to get treated to all that amazing bird life all around your place.

    Your tribal friends can teach us a lot about how to live simply and how to appreciate the nature around us rather that destroying it and bringing down new ecological problems on us.

  9. #9 Misgana Amanuel 06 Jun 12

    Hi Mari, I always marvel at the the memory of Gudalur an enlightening experience so close to nature. Thankyou for the elonquently written blogs. I miss the days in Gudalur, a privilege to be one of the few who saw the tiger !

  10. #10 Plants 16 Sep 13

    I have also met some adivasi peoples, they too love by the flowers and they make jewelry through the flowers and wood. Nowadays few tribes has left in our nation and all over the world. They depend only on trees and forest for a living; if forest decreases as current ratio, then we lost all tribes totally.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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