Children of the Forest

The oxymoronic ‘one-day field work’ I’ve ended up doing in the Nilgiris for my PhD gives me a legitimate excuse to escape from the monotony of the lab in Bangalore, twice a month.  I never get tired of being in the refreshing, ever changing, magnificent bit of the Western Ghats where I’ve set up my experiments, or of listening to the non-stop chatter of my 20 year old field assistant, Susilan.

Susilan is a Kani tribal from Karayar; his village is embedded in tropical rainforests near the Kalakkad-Mundanturai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) [as an aside, here’s a lovely essay on KMTR].  Growing in the vicinity of forests has given him the uncanny ability to ‘know’ forests very quickly; within a month of coming to the Nilgiris to assist in my work, he already knew the location of many fruit trees, streams and hives full of wild honey, and the shortest route from one forest patch to the other.  From his stories, I‘ve gathered little bits of knowledge about many plants and animals, his people, their way of life, their relationship with the forest…

When I was in the Nilgiris a few days ago, Susilan had another set of stories to tell me.  He had just returned from their yearly ritual of trekking up Agastyamalai, through 100km of thick forests, to offer prayers at Sage Agastya’s shrine at the peak.  During the journey, the older members of the group narrated to him the legend about the origins of their tribe: The first Kanis were made by Lord Shiva to guard the forests in the southern end of the Western Ghats.  On the occasion of Shiva’s wedding with Parvathi, the daughter of the Himalayas, there were so many guests arriving at the bride’s home in the northern frontier that the subcontinent began to tip under their accumulated weight.  To re-establish balance, Shiva asked sage Agastya to travel to the south; he came to the land of the Kanis.  Now, the Kanis were a fun-loving sort, and they enjoyed playing pranks on Agastya, like bouncing sticks off the meditating sage’s head!  The infuriated sage reduced the first Kanis to ashes – all 38 of them.  Lord Shiva heard of this; he sent word to Agastya that he was planning to come to the south to visit his children, the Kanis!  The worried sage then re-created 38 people to replace the Kanis he had destroyed, just in time for Shiva’s arrival.  ‘So that’s why we now consider Agastya as our Father, and visit him every year’, Susilan said.

Our conversation then drifted to the present day Kanis, and his home in Karayar.  ‘A few years ago, there were some forest officials who promised us 10 lakh rupees if we went away from the forest; they don’t want us to live in the forests any more.  They said they’ll also give us some place to stay outside the forest.  But we refused.  What do we do after the 10 lakh is spent? Our people only know to use firewood for cooking; where’ll we find firewood in a city?’ Susilan asked.  Yes, and where will they find the fish, the plants and animals they’re used to? What will happen to their intimate knowledge of the forest, accumulated over time that goes beyond history?

Back in Bangalore, I am still thinking about Susilan’s story… Can one really claim to preserve the beauty of an epic intact, after tearing out the characters whose story it is?

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