The road less travelled to tribal school
We walked along one day, on the road he has been taking for 14 years with unflinching commitment.
Our train dropped us at Nilambur station and Vazhikadavu and Aanamari along the Ooty-Nilambur road are familiar. But our destination- a single teacher school in the Alaikkal tribal colony is at the end of a road less travelled.
Mani Sir alias Narayanan Sir is the single teacher in the alternative school at Alaikkal Colony. He lead us into the forest showing us the landmarks he crosses everyday en route to work. “Maniyan was crushed here, Siddique met his end there, Nabisuthatha was crushed here, he pointed out in different directions as we walked along an angry trail of blood left behind by the marauding tuskers.
Animal attacks seemed to be a common feature of life here as was evident from the conversation of the plantation workers walking ahead of us. “Spotted a tiger from a jeep the other day, a scary animal with his mouth wide open”, one of them could be heard saying.
We walked till Punjamkolli. Our journey is across the Punna river across a small narrow pedestrian bridge. The rocks on the banks this side was an oasis of rest for the tired travelers. Weighed down by the weight of hard forest life and travel, people could be seen resting and catching some breath. I wished the nannari sarbath from Qasakinde Ithihasam would appear from nowhere to cool down my tedium. Day dreaming was overrun by surprise when Mani Sir pulled out a bottle of XXX rum from his bag. Surprised and confused we refused the offer for a gulp. The teacher smiled, “my wife gives me some black tea to fight the tedium, you could try a sip”.
There is another single teacher school at Punjankolli by a lady teacher named Ammini. The lone woman travelled all the way from Nilambur to take classes up till recently. Health concerns have forced her to shorten her classes to two per week now. When we reached she was there ready to receive us.
Our journey continued through the rubber plantations. We snacked on the cashew apples in the plantations and warily watched the distorted and broken grills of the forest office as we continued our walk into the forest crossing a narrow bamboo pole bridge.
Alaikal is a colony of the Cholanaiker tribe. Unused to outsiders, they retreated into their homes. Mani Sir went to every home collecting his students for the day’s class. Speaking in their language, a mix of Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and probably more linguistic mysteries than I could decipher, he introduced us to our suspicious hosts. The tribal head came calling as the curious children surrounded us happily tasting the candies we handed them. The innocent love of the forest seemed to cover us like a friendly mist.
It’s time for the classes to begin. Rhymes resounded and art flowered while we headed for a trek with our new guides, Kariyan, Sujith and Ramesh. Deep forests and a beautiful waterfall awaited us uphill. A bath in the flowing Punna river relieved our limbs of all the tedium it bore. We cooked our own food and decided to call it a day at our stay, the school. The school’s half walls frightened us for we shouldn’t be surprised if an animal leapt in across the short walls.
As we slipped into sleep a volley of dog barks awoke us. We were alarmed to the possibility of an approaching wild enemy that must have driven the dogs to such a frenzy. We glanced out through the school window. Not a single flashlight beamed, no one seemed alarmed and we settled into the belief that the locals knew better. No flashlights, we just stayed awake listening cautiously to the cacophony.
The next morning we sniffed around for the reason behind what we endured through the previous night. As expected it was the territorial war dogs don’t spare you whether city or forest. The tribals remarked fondly, “we are so used to it that we miss it when they stay silent (which they don’t). Maybe it is this noise that discourages wild animals from straying into the settlements at night.”
The lone teacher in the alternative single teacher was already there by morning, carrying milk for his children. After a dose of calcium, Mani Sir stepped into nature and started off with his classes on weights and measures seated on a rock.
After classes we headed off on our way back with Mani teacher. The riskiest patch he said was the six kilometers between Punjankolli and Aanamari. Since he took charge, fourteen people have been killed by violent pachyderms here. “Once 10-15 of us were attacked by a tusker appearing suddenly from behind bamboo groves. We ran in all directions. A while later we reassembled and a someone suggested we go ahead and find other group members. As we walked Beepathumma, from our group, was lying on the road haplessly calling for water. I gave her some black tea from my bottle. Breathing with difficulty she gasped, “the elephant carried Nabeesu away”. A frightening sight awaited when we turned our sight to the direction she pointed, there was a furious animal ready to kill a hapless Nabeesu, already flailing with the thrashed up shoulder and thighs. One eye on the animal, other on the helpless Nabeesu, I neared the scene. Within moments I fled the scene with Nabeesu on my shoulders.” It took her a whole year of treatment at Medical College before she rejoined work.
“It is mostly over confidence and alcohol abuse that leads to death in animal attacks. The animals roam around these places, we know it too, so it is better to be careful. I always stay careful, walk silently, listening to the slightest sounds. If I see an elephant from a distance I hide or take an alternate route, I take care to avoid coming face-to-face”, he said. He added that except for once when he was chased by an elephant and broke his leg falling into a pit, he has generally been lucky. With no replacements available he had to come hopping on a crutch before he had fully recovered.
Mani sir came to Alaikal colony as a literacy worker. Passionate about his job he learned the local language. When the single teacher school was established under the alternative education scheme he became a teacher there. Several students passed 10th and 12th standard classes under his guidance but none have a job yet. The tribes resist the exploitation with their knowledge of weights and measures. They have learned to ask for bills for the goods they buy. Alcohol abuse is still rampant and cheap liquor is supplied from the beverages corporation outlets at Edakkarai. Concerned about the immense personal and social costs of addiction the tribal chieftain told us, “no one listens to me, you should write about this in your newspaper.”
The Cholanaiker tribe traditionally depended on the forest for all their needs. They collected their food and medicines from the forest and lived in cave like structures called alas. Tubers, fish and exotic medicines sustained them in their harsh forest habitats. At this juncture Mani sir himself shared an anecdote, when he had just come into the Alaikal colony as a literacy worker, reading in the dim light at night used to hurt his eyes. The tribal chieftain poured a medicine on his eyes for three days. The pain disappeared and never came back again. Like the lifestyle that gave way to concrete houses and the food that is replaced by polished rice and pulses, the traditional medicinal knowledge is also disappearing from the collective memory of tribal life.
The Cholanaikers still follow their traditional system for marriages. The custom mandates that the groom must elope with the bride into the forest. The members of the tribe would then search them out and bring the couple home. They feed each other from a hand full of rice and marriage is accepted. Traditional festivities follow.
We sought some rest on a cement platform for some respite, sipped the last drops of tea in the XXX bottle and set off. It was mid noon by the time we reached Aanamari. We met several members of the Cholanaiker and the Kaattunaiker tribe who had come to buy essentials at the local market here. The respect that they held for the lone man who was our guide into the forest was humbling at the least. His risky treks have brought several children into the light of learning, giving them hope for a future.
We were finally exiting the forest into our familiar civilization. Mani sir has to go now. He is a blacksmith while not teaching. The teaching job fetches him Rs. 3000 plus Rs.500 as risk allowance. He relies on his traditional occupation as an essential buffer to the instability of his teaching job especially since there are moves to completely abolish the alternative schooling system. We looked back at the forest and thanked the forest officials- it’s time to go. He may not be the Ravi from Qasakinde Ithihasam, but still gave a picture perfect finish to our journey with some nannari sarbath at the local sarbath shop. Mani Sir continued on his journey while we set off with the story of a lone educationist on a road less travelled- that of commitment and goodwill.
(Translated by Jyothisha V J)