Thursday, March 03, 2016

On a Tribe in Kodagu: In Filter Coffee Column in Kindle Magazine

On a recent research trip to Kodagu, we met a few tribals, one of whom was the lovely Sarojini. For this month's Fiction Issue of Kindle, I wrote out her story, slightly fictionalised. Read on the Kindle website here or see below.


They say it looks like glass, shining, translucent. Even cuts like glass, apparently, so said Sarojini and her writer husband. Not writer as in someone who works with words. Writers are also supervisors in the coffee plantations of Kodagu, people who must have once written down the accounts and the names of workers in awkward cardboard bound log books. Maybe it comes from the Kannada raiTa, again the supervisor. Writer sounds fancier, no doubt.

We call this glass-like sap sambrani, the emphasis of the word falling upon the ‘n’, pronounced with a sharp outtake of breathe, almost rudely. For such a rude word, it smells wonderful though. You might know it as dhoop, that coarse powder that you sprinkle on a handful of burning coal to brings out smoke smelling like inside a temple. Or at least a prayer room from a chaste praying household. That nice smelling thing you blow into the fire before lighting up a joint, you know, because the neighbours would know otherwise. They find you and your ways curious, as it is.

Sarojini’s parents used to harvest the sambrani from the tree, she tells me. It is called the dhoopa tree and apparently bears fruit of some sort, I forget those details now. You run a gash against the truck and soon, the tears from the innards of this tree oozes out in waves. These dry and look like glass, sometimes the colour of coffee, borrowed from the neighbouring plants, I presume. The sambrani fetched some 12-15 rupees a kilo, now it is over double, Sarojini’s husband quips. He is from the hills, the forests, the proper forests where their people, the male-kudiyas, lived once. The adivasis, the tribals, the children of the earth.

Now they live in villages and tend to some land in the backyard and work for plantation owners who visit weekends, with their wine drinking friends from the city. Sambrani was what they sold and made their small change money from, these tribals. Even when the laws forbade it. The guards that were appointed to make sure no trees were cut or animals killed or produce sequestered away by the powers that could were neighbours, grandsons, friends that learnt to climb trees and swim together. So they would look the other way, back then. The forest was all that there was, to earn some change. The forest was all that was ever needed.

There are many reasons why Sarojini’s husband left the forest. The laws were just one slight angle to the list of aspirations, dreams, problems and poverty that marked out why they had to move. It sounds glorious, this living in the forests and tending to land and hunting for food and all that. It really isn’t, not with the poachers and the government and roads and people with the money. Even in the absence of these it is not easy. The same old story they all say, no medicines, no roads, no education, no respite from the relentless back breaking work if you have to eat and live, one day to the next. If not the glamour of living in the forest, the heart wrenching reasons for their movement is romanticized, politicized. Gosh, we never stop exoticising the tribal, do we? Such an easy trap this is. So convenient, so expected, even demanded, to write their story a certain way only.

Ah, yes, sambrani then. As we were talking, Sarojini went to a room beyond the front room we were all hunched up in and came out with a plastic bag full of the powdered sambrani. It must have been about a quarter of a kilo or so, I can never measure weights and distances in metres or feet just by looking. It is a form of dyslexia, I suppose. It doesn’t smell anything, just as it is. So she offers to bring in some coals and throw a handful in and proceeds to do so. The whole room and the bit of the courtyard smells warm and happy and nostalgic then, the sambrani is from the days of growing up, before the Good Knights, for keeping the mosquitoes away in summer. I tell her mother used to hold a plate of coals and sambrani under my wet hair to dry it. I tell her I hated lying still till it dried but the hair did smell lovely later.

Sarojini and her husband tell me that there is one sambrani tree in the estate they look after for the owner now. The people who work there cut away chunks from the dripping sap, saying they need it for evening prayers and for god and festivals. The workers who come from Bihar and Assam don’t know what to do with it, not much. But they are learning too, taking to the ways of this land, just like those here have taken to eating wheat for breakfast. All that that happens when cultures and languages and foods collide and mix and morph into the palates we are familiar with today.

Her husband says that he and his people are allowed to go into their forest, some 25 miles or 3-4 hours of steep climbing away, only once a year for a festival. Pigs and sheep are slaughtered and the festival goes on for three days. The heavy utensils and the spices and salt and water and blankets, everything is carried all that way. The forest officials have to give permission, he says, they believe in the god too, in how powerful this god can be. The god has a name Sarojini reverently calls out, when I make notes. The grandfather, a nameless grandfather who has been elevated to a god himself, is remembered and offered prayers and food.

This year they didn’t go, because an uncle who used to invoke the gods and who would get possessed every year, he died. The whole family won’t go this year. The families all take names that depict the hill they are from and some unique geographical features of the forest, a rock under which the beehive was, that sort of thing.

The sambrani in the packet looks tempting and I want to ask for some. The ones we get in the market is from farmed trees, harvested from a maintained, manicured grove, grown for the sole purpose of making sambrani powder to sell in hastily designed square packets. It is not the “real” stuff. But maybe they need it for the festival next year. They say there is only one tree in the plantation and everyone wants a piece of the glass.

Maybe the grandfather is satisfied only with the real stuff. Or maybe it doesn’t matter. In imagining the primitiveness of this festival, in the perceived ancient unborn traditions and practices, all I am doing is trying to write my exotic story too, this.

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