Belonging to the Alu Kurumba tribe in the Nilgiris, Janaki walks to more than 20 villages every month to gather news for the community newsletter.

This 60-yr-old cant read or write but her ground reports are transforming the Nilgiris
Features Human Interest Thursday, April 26, 2018 - 16:02

A 20-minute drive from Kotagiri’s Johnstone Square will take you to Mamaram, a tiny village surrounded by picture postcard scenery – bluish mountain peaks cloaked in dense fog, tall trees with purple flowers and a generous number of manicured tea plantations. This Nilgiri hamlet was the starting point of our journey.

From a roadside shack we replenish our water bottles to the brim and N Selvi, a member of the Keystone Foundation and my guide for the trip, buys some warm masal vadai carefully wrapped in newspaper.

“Are you sure you don’t want one? You won’t get anything else until we return,” she warns me.

Explaining my loss of appetite in the mountains, I settle for a piece from hers and quickly regret not getting one for myself. Adjoining the shack are a few narrow steps leading up to the tea plantations behind it. This well-trodden pathway, amidst short tea shrubs, is the route the Kurumbas and the Irulas of the Kotagiri region take to reach the nearest village that connects them to basic amenities.

From this point on is a 40-minute trek, up a little and downhill mostly, to Valerikombai, the Kurumba settlement in the Nilgiris where we’re going to visit Janaki amma. Keystone Foundation works closely with indigenous communities in the Nilgiris and has several projects aimed at improving their lives, livelihoods, and maintaining their unique cultures. 

Our walk is punctuated intermittently by breathtaking views and by locals with enviably nimble strides who stop to exchange pleasantries with Selvi. There’s ample shade too, provided by jackfruit trees, ilavam panju (kapok/silk cotton) trees and several other ornamental Shola trees.

This pathway, I’m informed, is not always friendly. Just a couple of days before our trip a local was attacked by a bear and had to be taken to Coimbatore for treatment. Elephants are the most notorious of the lot, says Selvi. This might sound like a very precarious way of living, but for Janaki amma of the Alu Kurumba tribe, it’s the least of her concerns.

We reach a small clearing and a short walk from there takes us to where 60-year-old Janaki lives with her 15-year-old daughter Shivamma and another relative.

Standing under the cool shade of tall Shola trees, her biggest woe for now is that her neighbour’s goats have been ravaging her humble kitchen garden of beets, carrots and broad beans. “I’ve only got a few tomato plants left. Those goats are a nuisance,” she frowns.

Even while she mulls ways to keep the goats off her dear garden in the future, her frown is quickly replaced by an easy, toothless smile for her visitors. Janaki is the oldest female reporter for Seemai Sudhi, a community newsletter.

Dressed in a colourful nylon saree of red, beige, brown, yellow and purple, her grey hair parted in the middle and tied in a bun, Janaki amma looks like the cool blue mountain’s archetypal dweller. One might think that her age or gender or illiteracy might have been a roadblock, but Janaki is not one to live by the rulebook. Encouraged by her husband, who passed away a few years ago, Janaki took up a vocation that was going to change her life and the lives of others around her.

Blazing a new trail

Janaki began her journalistic career a little over a decade ago in 2007. Her assignments for Keystone’s monthly newsletter, Seemai Sudhi, take her to several neighbouring villages. With much patience, she counts the names of the villages in what seems like an unending list – “Attadi, Kodithurai, Mel Kuppu, Keezh Kuppu, Kozhikarai, Athipadiga, Bhaviru in Kozhikarai, Kunjapannai, Mandharai, Thudikarai, Vellarikombai, Sundapetti, Koovakarai, Kakagundu, Arayur, Aanakunji, Kovilmattam, Banagudi, Kallur, Anil Kaadu, Pacha Kaadu, Pudhur,” she says adding, “I don’t go to Semmanar and Dhalamakkai anymore because of the elephants and, of course, the distance.”

Keystone began its community newsletter Seemai Sudhi in 2007 to cater to tribal folks living in the Nilgiris. The monthly editions carried news from neighbouring villages and served the purpose of bringing the community together. Although successful initially, the newsletter is currently a trimonthly. When it was started, Seemai Sudhi had 22 women reporters and 8 male reporters. It currently has only 8 women reporters, including a 12-year-old girl. The foundation also has its own radio channel – Radio Kotagiri – that hosts interesting shows ranging from farming techniques to healthcare and other awareness programs.

Janaki amma has been a part of Seemai Sudhi since the beginning. Not knowing how to read or write, she trusts her memory to remember all the news she collects over the month. Janaki then narrates what she’s learnt to her daughter who writes it down for her or Janaki directly visits the Keystone office to report to Selvi who takes down notes.

The most interesting fact though is that Janaki walks to all these villages, most of which are difficult to access for outsiders. Sunshine or rainfall, she makes her rounds to these hamlets, talking to villagers, memorising the places that require street lights, electricity or roads that need fixing.

Janaki amma recalls the time when Panchayat officers had a problem when she stepped forward to fix a water situation herself. “They didn’t like it. They questioned how I could bypass the system. I told them I was just doing my job,” she shrugs.

Brave like her tribe

The Kurumbas, among all the Nilgiri tribes, are the most adventurous. They consist of the sub-tribes – Alu Kurumbas, Kadu Kurumbas, Jenu Kurumbas, Betta Kurumbas and the Mullu Kurumbas. They are expert forest dwellers and are known for their fearless ways. Unlike the Kotas who are seen on the developed parts of the mountains, Kurumbas remain on the steeper slopes, sheltered by the trees and closer to wild animals. They are also known for their healing powers and their knowledge of sorcery, and according to some accounts were once feared by the other tribes.

Naturally, Janaki amma shrugs and laughs away the things we deem as challenges. Her knowledge of forest medicine is also helpful during her trips. People come to her for small ailments, and pregnant women often seek her advice. “I took care of all my four pregnancies. No one was allowed inside when I gave birth,” she adds casually.

Janaki’s knowledge is almost instinctive. “I don’t know the name of the plants but I know what it can be used to heal when I look at it. There’s a root we used to cure piles. I can show it to you,” she pauses and looks at me expectantly, “but we’ll have to go deeper into the forest for that.”

Janaki also encourages people to visit a healthcare centre instead of ignoring certain illnesses. She also acts as a messenger between hospitals and villagers, keeping tabs on child births. She also informs mothers about vaccination drives, makes a mental note of water woes in the villages and passes on her knowledge of concocting medicine from herbs. “Why should I keep it a secret? I don’t want the knowledge to be buried with me,” she explains.

Janaki and her neighbours have to trek to the nearest village just to stock up on vegetables and basic provisions. During the summer, they depend on the jackfruit (she tells me they make a variety of dishes with the fruit) and mango trees, and when it rains, they find plenty of spinach on the slopes.

As she talks to me, Janaki amma bustles through the day, tending to her kitchen garden and taking care of daily chores. On the days when she ventures out to collect stories, she leaves home at 8 am and returns only when dusk falls. The treacherous route, full of uneven boulders and slippery terrain, has never been a challenge for her spirit.

Before we leave, pointing to the hill on the other side she says, “That’s where the elephants are more frequent. They break water pipe lines and can be quite dangerous sometimes. I feel the elephants can be handled but these goats…” she trails off.

Also Read: 

Keeper of Kota tongue: Meet the priest who created a script for a TN tribal language

Meet Krishna, the Kurumba artist breathing life into a 3000-year-old tribal art form

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