Nine-year-old Rosemary loves school. “I love studies. I want to become a doctor when I grow up.” Why? “Everyone respects doctors because they cure the sick. I want to treat the poor in our colony,” she says enthusiastically over the phone.
Rosemary belongs to the Malapandaram community, a tribe of healers which has been impoverished by dominant ideas of development.
About 50 families of the community – which historically subsisted on hunting and gathering – live in Lalbagh and Gopal Nagar areas of Thonnakal village, 18km away from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram. They either live in makeshift tents or rent a single room of the houses of villagers for an exorbitant sum.
Within the community, Chudalayappan – who says with unshakeable certainty that he’s 120 years old – is known to be a good healer.
“When I came to Kerala the money here was chakram (the official coin currency of the Travancore kingdom),” says Chudalayappan. The Malapandarams are believed to have originated in Tamil Nadu. They still speak Tamil among themselves but are also fluent in Malayalam.
Chudalayappan lived in a number of places all over Kerala before settling in Thonnakal 30 years ago. “Then, this area was covered in cashew nut plantations and forests. We collected raw material from the forests and turned them into medicines at home.”
Raw material included both herbs and animals. “We made mayilenna (peacock oil) and karadi neyyu (bear’s fat). But now it’s a crime. We don’t even get herbs now, because of which younger generations were forced to stop,” says Chudalayappan.
Back then, entire families would spend days, weeks or even months, in villages or towns. They would provide medicine and treat people for a variety of ailments. Chudalayappan has healed people by going to their houses.
Once much sought after and respected, the Malapandarams have become victims of a civilizational shift. Growing urbanization and deforestation have shrunk the sources of their livelihood and subsistence. The simultaneous spread of allopathic medicine and formal education has meant that there are no takers for their knowledge and its products.
Forced by these changes, they began to settle down and only some men continue to travel all over south India. Some women take up domestic work while men are daily wage workers. “Some people still continue to sell medicines, but they’re not ours,” says 40-year-old Anthony.
Anthony and family
Moving from subsistence to a job has been difficult for the nomadic tribal community. “We were forced to leave what we knew, but we need another option,” Anthony says.
Perhaps with this realization, this tiny settlement of the community – numbering a total of about 5,850 people in the 2001 Census*** – began sending children to schools about a decade ago.
Beena Pradeep, a senior teacher at the Pattathil LP School in Thonnakal, is very happy with her students from the Malapandaram community. “Around 40 children from the community study in our school. Many of them are good at studies, but people from such extreme backgrounds need extra support.”
As the outside world erodes their universe, they see the seed of a solution coming with it too.
“We (Malapandarams) don’t need a religion or caste but to survive in this world, both* have become necessary. My children should not suffer like us. It’s my dream to give them a good education, but we come from a very poor environment. My kids need a helping hand, they need caste,” Anthony said. The necessity of “jaati” is an oft-heard phrase, but what community members are actually demanding is ST status.
Manoj knows this only too well. He thinks his life could have been different had the community been given ST status. One of the few who has passed Class 12 exam, Manoj had recently applied for a job open to ST candidates. He cleared the exam, but did not meet one eligibility criterion: ST status. “How will we live? Even education won’t help us.”
Beena, Headmistress of Rosemary’s school, also feels the same. “Rosemary lives with her mother and sister in a tarpaulin shed. Her mother doesn’t have the money buy a plot of land. To buy land from government, they need a caste,” she says. Rosemary’s family has to shell-out Rs 1,000 per month for the land on which their shed stands, an amount that they can ill afford.
Beena speaking to children in the colony
Manju, another community member, has another worry. Even with the high rents, the rooms they live in are small and congested. Most families earn between Rs 6,000-7,000, half of which, goes on rent.
“We need houses, but don’t know which door we can knock on. Most of our houses are not safe, and we have grown-up girls. How can we sleep peacefully? Our only request is to include us in ST category and give us a piece of land,” she says. Several of the grown-up girls sleep in three or four of the “better houses” which have sturdy doors. Such a protective attitude towards women is possibly rare, as gender relations in the community are equitable.
While the community fears strangers, others are more worried about a familiar sight in the colony. “From every house, at least one child goes to church,” Beena claims. In the case of 10-year-old Kannan, he goes to a temple while his sister Malu goes to church.
Rose Mary's house
A local political leader who sought anonymity alleges, “The church tries to convert them by taking advantage of their poverty and insecurity. Because of their living conditions, they often fall sick. They are being converted by offering them treatment and security,” he says.
But within the community however, many are unconcerned about conversions. After all, missionaries have been a presence in their lives for many years. Anthony for instance, is not Christian even though his name might suggest so.
When he was growing up elsewhere as a child, he says missionaries attempted to convert his family. “I fell sick when I was about four years old, and some church people asked my parents to give me a Christian name and convert. But they just gave me Christian name. We did not convert,” says Anthony.
All Anthony wants is a way to live in a world that he has been forced to make his own, at least for the sake of his children. “We need good education, food security, and a house to live in, to survive here. But above all, we need to be officially recognised as a tribe.”
The government however, appears to be in no hurry to do anything. The Kerala Institute for Research Training and Development Studies of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (KIRTADS) has been conducting research to confirm the community’s origins.
“They are tribals, but we need to establish that through research. After that we will move their file to the government,” says Dr S Bindu, Director of KIRTADS.
If they get a move on, perhaps Rosemary will not have to build a house for her family. She might grow up in one if her mother can buy land as a member of the Scheduled Tribes.
Edited by Anisha Sheth
All Photos : Sreekesh Raveendran Nair