After completing her Masters in Biotechnology from IIT Madras, Kavya Menon worked as a Technical Consultant. She always wanted to use her knowledge and experience for greater good. She joined SBI Youth for India and chose to improve health and hygiene in the villages through awareness camps on Female Reproductive Health and provision of free resusable pads for adolescent girls. This blog post is about one such workshop conducted with help and support from Ecofemme based out of Auroville.
I have started the series of Menstrual Awareness Workshops on May 28, the World Menstrual Hygiene Day in a small hamlet called Puthu Road, which is in the Kodiakadu Panchayat, part of the Point Calimere Reserve Forest, in Vedaranyam, Tamil Nadu. This introductory session was conducted with major help and support from Ecofemme, based out of Auroville. Harishini Mugundan of Ecofemme had led the entire session with ease and taught us enough to conduct future sessions on our own. 22 girls participated here.
The men folk in Puthu Road go for fishing in the swamps and seas and the women are mostly dependant on the salt pan labour for their daily wages. The children mostly go to school for as long as they feel like, mostly stopping after class 10 or 12. Girls start helping in household chores, and if there are younger siblings, mostly they drop out of school…
While walking through the village road to do my project work, I saw 8-10 people sitting in the farm land nearby. These people seemed to be more impoverished than any local resident of the area. However, this was not the first time that I have seen such a scene around my village. On most occasions, I was in the bus and never had the opportunity to talk to these people and know more about them. To satisfy curiosity and know more about them, I asked villagers about these people. These people belong to a caste called ‘Nat’. The word ‘Nat’ is derived from the Hindi word ‘Natak’ which literally means ‘drama’ or ‘play’. While there are number of popular folklores that mentions about ‘Nats’, it was strange that none of the local people talk to these people.
People gave a number of reasons like – ‘they have a different language’, ‘they are not indigenous people’, ‘they have really short tempers and tend to fight on trivial issues’, etc. The villagers were concerned about my questioning and warned me about them, before I went to talk to a family (in the picture). People said ‘be careful they have a dog with them, it would be better if you talk to them at least by keeping yourself 5 meters away’. Now being a local person myself, I adhered to the warning and talked to them from a good distance.
Who are they?
Nats are professional dancers, acrobats and dramatists who are nomadic (or semi-nomadic) in nature. These people travel from one place to another and have no permanent home. However, the family I met said that they are permanent residents of Chitorgarh and travel here for food for themselves and their animals.
What do they do?
Well, they beg. They go from door to door and ask for meals or money. Each family has a certain number of houses in the local area from where they have a tradition to take away some food or money. They have a fixed time to visit the places (after harvesting). Occasionally, they perform dances or acrobatic stunts in the area. According to folklore, decades (or centuries) before, people came to a consensus that the people who belong to the Nat caste will have the job to ‘beg’.
Villagers do give them food or money but in general, they don’t talk to them. They let them stay for a few days in their fields but they don’t let them come inside their houses to drink or eat. They carry food, utensils, sleeping mats, donkeys, goats and dogs while travelling from one place to another.
Damroo – A member of the family I talked to
So, I initiated a conversation with the family while heeding the warning given by the local people. I stood over the boundary wall and spoke to a young lad, standing near the wall. His name is Damroo. With curiosity, I asked him whether he goes to school or not. He said he is studying in class VI. I asked him, ‘what are you doing here? Don’t you need to prepare for the final exams?’ He replied that, he is enrolled in the school but was unable to go to the school regularly because of his work. , Damroo is unable to go to school, because his family migrates from one place to another for survival. He further added, “even if I go to school, the teacher doesn’t let me in. It is rarely that I get the opportunity to go to school.”
As we were talking, I could sense from his stares the he was hoping that I would give him something (money or food) at the end of our conversation. He asked me about the date of the Holi festival. I answered him promptly and asked what is so special on that day? He said, “I and my family need to go to the highway of Gogunda (nearest highway) to stop the cars that pass by and ask for ‘Holi’ (that’s asking for money).” What do they do with the money? Well, according to him, they cook sweet dish that day to celebrate Holi.
What is the reality of the ‘Nat’ caste?
The population of the Nats is less than 0.4% of the total SC population in Rajasthan. They were known to have their origins from the ‘Mewar’ region itself. Some of the Nats are also cattle traders. Majority of them, like Damroo’s family are landless and unskilled professional beggars. Many of them are also engaged in unskilled jobs as laborers.
After I finished my conversation with Damroo, he was still looking at my eyes with optimism that I would give him some money or food. I wasn’t sure if I should give him some money. Therefore, I started walking away saying ‘thank you’ for taking his time for the conversation. But he stopped me and asked for money. I generously gave him a note and his happiness and exhilaration at receiving that tiny amount was huge and was worth taking a snap. Unfortunately, I was unable to do that.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a most unique festival called Dungar Dev Puja. Every five years, an entire village or a family lineage comes together to pray to the God of their hill. Their belief is that the Hill God protects their crops and their families from droughts and diseases and ensures overall good health. The uniqueness of the festival, however, lies in its customs.
Dang district is located in the southern fringes of the state of Gujarat. It has 98% tribal population and 70% forest cover. It forms one end of the Western Ghats and thus, is also host to the only hill station of Gujarat, Saputara. Due to the lack of irrigation systems, most of the farmers of the district can only grow crops in the monsoon season. The poor farmers are subject to distress migration during the other months, when they have to travel to Shirdi and other nearby towns and cities in search of livelihood. My project, developing rural tourism, aims to generate income for the local farmers by employing them in this commercial tourism venture.
As Bhaskar Bhai and I wound our way through the cold December night to reach the Nawagaon hilltop, we were welcomed by slow meandering notes of an instrument and eerie singing voices. As the spectacle unfolded, I noticed writhing bodies dancing around a fire, high shrieking laughter, sombre women holding plates of offerings and lamps and people playing strange instruments and singing. Bhaskar Bhai explained the entire setting before me, “This is a special night for these people. It is the night that the spirits of the hill enter their bodies.” Against the backdrop of a dark Saputara, ancient rituals ensued. Bhaskar Bhai went on, “When these spirits take hold of a body, the man becomes infallible. We have seen men break stones with their own foreheads, walk on burning coals and lie on prickly thorn branches.” I simply stood startled for the first few moments, not knowing what to expect. A young screeching man came close, as I watched hesitantly. Without warning he shifted some burning logs, revealing smouldering ashes and splinters of burning wood. I remembered roasting tomatoes in my camping trips, on such glowing ashes. And he went on to trample these glowing ashes in brazen fury with his bare feet, howling into the night, before pausing and rejoining the singing dancing procession. Barely had I gathered myself that a bare-chested young fellow flung himself into a cluster of thorny branches, only to emerge visibly unhurt. All of them, one way or the other, corroborated the presence of the Dungar Dev spirit. While the young men continued to revel in their possessed state, it was the music that really drew my attention.
Two instruments were used, the Pavri and the Thadi. A Pavri is made out of the shell of a bottle gourd and horn of an Ox, decorated with peacock flowers and played by blowing into the mouthpiece. The sound of the Thadi is created by slowly running your fingers over the hollow stem of a ‘Sir’ plant that is placed on a metal plate with a small sheath of a beehive connecting them. While the Pavri is responsible for a throaty concoction of variable pitches, it was the sound of the Thadi that set the eerie undertone for the night. The surreal resonance of the two unusually talented singers from Maharashtra and their Thadi playing will remain with me for some time to come.
We were walking across the panchayat area from one school to the other and were observing a number of things around the panchayat area. While walking we saw a bunch of children playing with bows and arrows. We asked them, where did they buy it? They replied that they made it by themselves. When we inquired more, a few children among them knew to make even more toys from wood. Not all children had this skill though.
Most of the people living in Bagdunda are from Bhil tribe. Bhils are known for their archery skills. Archery and dramatics are part of their culture. Their role in the 1st war of Haldighati has been well acknowledged.
Lalit is from the community of Bhil tribe in the area. He demonstrated his skill by making a bow & arrow in front of us by cutting a piece of wood. He showed us a number of other toys which he made such as – bullock cart toy, cricket bat and sword. He said, his grandfather taught him this skill. When we inquired further, we came to know that Lalit do not go to school regularly. Rather, he hates studies and the school. He says,” I simply don’t get what they teach in the school”.
Lalit’s father is a migrant labor who is working at a construction site in Surat. Her mother takes care of the cultivation on the little land his father owns. Lalit helps her mother in farming. Both of his parents never went to school. They live in a BPL house provided by the government through ‘Chief Minister’s Housing Scheme’. Her mother wants him to study hard and lead a life of dignity but he never gets any interest in studies.
Lalit’s case is an example of how a child learns from the community he/she lives in. He learns from the environment. They don’t get fancy toys around this area. Therefore, they started making their own toys. The formal education system doesn’t have space for such traditional knowledge. Formal education system don’t even acknowledge this as a knowledge because the definition of knowledge is very narrow.
When we asked more people about Lalit’s skill of making toys out of wood, we came to know that it was very common in the past. It was now that people has stopped giving it any value at all. It was for a genuine reason- “What is the use of this knowledge? What this child will earn out of it in the future?” they said. It is a valid question indeed. But let’s give a thought to the reason behind this question itself.
Our society progresses in a particular societal structure where every skill and knowledge is appreciated by putting a value to it. This value, in general, is a monetary value. In such a scenario, a skill or a particular knowledge may not get acknowledgement for its novelty or aesthetic value.
Unfortunately, formal education system also progresses in a structure where traditional knowledge has been valued at a lower level. The knowledge of that we have got from the era of enlightenment in the west has been valued at a higher level. In this structure, any new addition to the knowledge is appreciated. But such kind of addition is within a given framework. The destruction of some existing knowledge is not even acknowledged.
As we were expecting, Lalit’s school teachers do not know anything about this skill. They rather replied back with the same set of questions that we rose earlier. They didn’t appreciate the skill of Lalit.
While writing this child’s biography, I could remember a few words of MK Gandhi when he said “The school must be an extension of home. There must be concordance between the impressions which a child a gathers at home and at school, if the best results are to be obtained”. But what we could witness here is completely opposite scenario, a complete disconnect of school’s learning with the learning of a child at home.
Radhika is a 12 year old girl who studies in class V in a private school near her house. She belongs to the ‘Kumhar community’ in the area. Traditionally, Kumhars belong to the ‘potter’ community. In this area, most of the Kumhar families still engage in their traditional occupation.
Radhika’s parents are illiterate and never went to school. Her father is a bus driver and her mother is a potter. They have a monthly income of around Rs. 8000. Unlike many other communities in the area, the Kumhars have lesser land holdings. Radhika’s father owns approximately 1.5 Bigha of land (around 0.3 hectare).
She has 3 siblings – two sisters and a brother. It was strange to know that despite having so many financial limitations, Radhika is studying in a private school. The Panchayat has 9 government schools and in most cases only children of higher income families send their children to the private schools. We were therefore quite eager to know about the motivation of Radhika’s parents.
In her mother’s view, education will lead her children to a prosperous life. They won’t be able to survive by doing prajapat’s work (i.e. pottery). She says, the standard of education in the nearby government school is quite poor and the teachers are not interested in teaching. Moreover, the environment in a government school is not suitable to learn anything whatsoever.
In this area, the motivation level for educating a girl child is also quite poor. Girls tend to get drawn into farming or traditional household jobs from a very early age and also get married at a young age. In the lower castes particularly, girls do not get education beyond class VIII or X. Most of the times, parents don’t even admit girls in school.
It was therefore good to see a passionate mother standing up for her daughters’ education. “I will make her study to the level she wishes to study”, Radhika’s mother said, as according to her education is the tool for survival in the years to come.
“I tell my story not because it is unique, but because it is not”.
Suresh who lives in the village called Majam of Gogunda block is different from other children of his age. He has been paralyzed since birth. Suresh is unable to walk properly as he drags his feet while walking. Despite this, he still walks alone to school daily; such is the passion for learning in this child. Though he is differently – abled, he does not let his disability come in the way of his doing what he wants to do. He loves to write, even though he does so with much difficulty, as his hands have a tremor while writing. However, unlike other differently-abled children, Suresh’s story is inspiring and surprising. While interviewing the head of the upper primary school, Madam Seema we came to know about Suresh.
We went to his place to know more about him. Suresh belongs to the Meghwal community whose traditional work is to skin dead animals to make footwear. Many of the Meghwals still practice the traditional occupation. Suresh is the only child in his family. His father owns a small patch of land where he does cultivation and rears goats. The tiny plot of land (around 0.3 hectare) enables him to grow food enough to feed his family from one of the two cropping seasons. Due to lack of water, his family does not grow Rabi crops. During that part of the season, his father works as a labourer in the city. His mother runs a small grocery shop and they live along with his grandmother in a kutcha house built under the Chief Minister’s housing scheme.
Several people criticize the ‘No Detention Policy’ of the RTE act on several grounds. But Suresh’s case makes us ponder over the merits of the policy. Suresh is currently studying in class IV, but he is unable to read and write to pass any kind of exam whatsoever (be it written or oral). It is because of the ‘No Detention Policy’ that he has been able to study till now.
“If I fail him, I am sure he will leave the school immediately. He does not want his disability to be a reason not to study. Though he cannot hold a chalk or a pen properly, yet he will continue to put all his efforts till he writes it”, said Seema. ” I wish RTE had some special provisions for disabled students like Suresh”, she added.
His mother wants him to study but she is afraid that poverty and the disability of her son might stop his education. “It is the motivation of Madam Seema that makes me to send him to school”, his mother said.
Fearlessly, in search of wisdom and knowledge he travels almost 12 kms daily to go to school. Ignoring the thistles, pebbles and thorny bushes laden here and there he goes to school every day. Valuram is studying in class 10. He is one of the brave ones who chose to study unlike other children of his age in the community. Yes, studying indeed is a challenge for the people living in his community, simply because school is far away from his home. The 6 kms distance is not a straight road but rather, includes climbing a hill and walking on a road full of thistles and pebbles.
Valuram’s commitment to study can be seen from the fact that he scored the highest marks during class VIII and the state government has given him a laptop as a gift for the achievement. Unfortunately, he could not use the laptop because his village has no electricity. This is a fact for a number of students like Valuram, who, for this reason have sold their laptops to other people in the city for a small amount. But Valuram didn’t sell his laptop. His mother told us that though they were willing to sell the laptop the teacher of the school wouldn’t let them do so.
To know the scenario of the place better, we went along with him. It took nearly an hour and a half to reach the place where he resides – Sanghon ka Vera, a tribal hamlet which falls under Gogunda block of Udaipur district. Sanghon ka Vera is in a valley with nearly 40 families. Till date, there is no electricity and water supply in that region.
Valuram belongs to the Bhil tribe. The Bhil tribe has very low literacy rate. In fact, Valuram’s mother never went to school and his father gave up studies after finishing class V. He has 4 siblings – 2 brothers and 2 sisters. His parents are sending all of them to school. Being the eldest son of his family, he is struggling hard to achieve what none in his hamlet has ever achieved yet.
His father is a tailor in the city. He travels 50Kms daily to the city to earn some money which is just sufficient to feed his family. But his parents wish to make all 5 of their children (including the girls) to study to the level that they wish to study. His mother said, “His father won’t let poverty break the momentum of his child”.
Almost all the people accept the situation as it is. The major source of livelihood is either meager work in nearby village shops or subsistence agriculture. Even in agriculture, the major chunk of the population is dependent solely on kharif crops, as the rabi crops need abundance of irrigation. The secondary occupation is livestock rearing. They have animals like goats, camels, etc. which they sell only in adverse situations to get immediate monetary assistance. Further, ‘Sanghon ka vera’ is totally cut off from government initiated welfare plans and policies.
Poverty sometimes acts as a monster which takes its toll and the worst sufferer and the softest target is always a child’s future. While we can’t generalize, it does appear as if this boy has something outstanding in him – the natural gift of perseverance, patience and extraordinary confidence. He talks less and listens more. His silence, however, brings to mind the truth in Binoy Acharya’s words “sometimes, we need to learn from people’s silence”. Though the path Valuram has chosen might seem humble to create even a ripple in the vast sea of the outside world, he is confidently preparing himself to fly high and break the shackles of all difficulties.