A day before the Adivasi Food Festival, there was a lot of humdrum in the village of Kandhadakuluguda. On one side of the village is a stream that cuts through the fields and one can clearly see mountains at some distance. Khajur (date palm) and Naariyal (coconut) trees (the only ones I can identify) dot the landscape and are hugely outnumbered by the eucalyptus plantations that cover huge swathes of landscape. On reaching Kandhadakulguda, we could see young men putting a huge tent together. Older women sat together making bowls and plates from leaves. A huge crowd was expected from a number of villages. The Food Festival was organised to celebrate the diversity of food, cultivated and uncultivated, present in the diets of the Kondh Adivasis. A number of us, at Muniguda, had tried to pitch in in our own small capacity by preparing the labels of the food that were to be displayed the next morning. A bunch of city people we were and it showed in how we exclaimed at the vast number of wild greens, millets and pigeon pea labels in the collection, ourselves oblivious of these many varieties.
On the morning of 10th June, we headed towards Kandhadakulguda and started preparing the remaining labels. People, young and old, men and women had started coming in. The residents of the village had worked hard to make the arrangements. Tables were set along the length of the tent with the space in between for the visitors to sit. The tables had hundreds of siali (Bauhinia vahlii) leaf tokris (bowls) to keep the millets, pulses, sorghum, maize, tubers, roots and a host of other things. There were balls made of wet mud with sticks attacked on them. The labels for the foods were to be stuck of these sticks. As we sat down to put the labels on the indicated foods, to our dismay we realised that a number of labels had not been prepared. A number of names of the varieties were missing! I had no clue how to go about identifying the unlabelled food as I had hardly come across these many foods before. Later I realised, that this was only a blessing in disguise because soon a number of young girls and old women huddled together with me and we started snipping, cutting, and hurriedly writing the names of these unlabelled foods. The younger women scuttled after the older ones hurriedly asking them which food was called what. After confirming their guesses, they took their pens out and neatly wrote the local names on the labels. One could see a spirit of oneness bringing the young and old together, the young trying to speculate the names of the food (and almost always getting it right!) and the old helping them out whenever they got stuck.
When everything was ready, the festival was inaugurated and for an auspicious start, the other older women and priestesses of the Kondh community, made offerings to their community deity. After that, the visitors went all gung ho about the arrangement, and one could see people, both young and old, both men and women, merrily crowding around every variety and guessing what they were. It was a celebration of a tradition that has seen many a losses but still has refused to succumb to misfortune and the next day was a testimony to that.
The next day, the gathering had a more sombre tone for everyone had gathered to discuss the problems they thought were pertinently disturbing the communitarian ethos of the Kui samaaj. Starting with mono-cultural plantations of eucalyptus and teak planted by the Forest Department (FD) being mentioned as a problem, they also pointed out to the usage of chemicals in agriculture. It was also told that when the FD officials had come to plant nilgiri (eucalyptus) and teak in the forest, people from around 10-15 villages had come together to protest against their presence. Another problem raised by the older women was that their children went to residential schools after 5th standard and that had affected their dietary patterns, their health and their idea of the kind of life they aspired to.The variety of food that was available to them in their villages because of the proximity to the forests wasn’t there in the schools. The dissonance between the mainstream education system and the adivasi way of living could be seen in this discussion when a young girl stood up and shared her misgivings. She said that the young men of the community rode bikes which ran on petrol bought from selling grains. Where were these ideas coming from? The distrust of the Kui Samaaj towards state entities could be seen in the numerous incidents that were shared. There had been eucalyptus plantation on 50 hectares of land that had destroyed the cultivable areas. These plantations have today rendered the land unsuitable for grazing and agriculture. A number of people asserted that plants that bear food should be planted instead of nilgiri (eucalyptus). Who was deciding this anyway? At the end of this, an old woman stood up and clearly told everyone that merely discussing these issues won’t do. One had to look for ways to resist and act. Everyone then sat in smaller groups and strategized. These 2 days were a window for me to the Kui worldview and there was a lot to understand. Their world doesn’t fit well into the moulds of my ‘schooled’ mind. It is hard to understand what is private, what is common or even what is living and what is non-living, my demand and supply economics fails to capture how they assign ‘values’ to things. Their resistance to schooling, consuming potatoes and soyabean, and hostility towards nilgiri (eucalyptus) was a lesson I never got in school.
For someone who thinks money can be chewed and digested, this way of living will seem absurd, anachronistic and probably foolish. Why grow food when you can grow cash (crops)? But behind this refusal to switch to cash heavy crops is not a blind antagonism towards state and the market but a deep-rooted and now-heavily threatened relationship with their ecology. I don’t claim to understand this relationship but from what I have observed, it is a way of living that denies importance to the never-ending aspirational ladder of moving towards a ‘more’. Of course, it is not like they haven’t started climbing it. The Kui people are very much part of the state-market economy that pushes everyone ‘up’, or on a road that only goes ‘forward’ but that has also meant breaking their relationship with the forests, the animals, birds, the wind, river, and all kinds of living beings that are a part of their worldview, which, unlike us, they refuse to do. A 2 kilometre tiring walk up a hilly dongar with 2 fellow Kui travellers introduced me to their forest in which I couldn’t distinguish one plant from another. Every time I asked the name of any plant, they would tell me its name along with its use in their homes.Today, slowly, we are cutting down these different trees and replacing them with single varieties of eucalyptus or teak, trees that fetch cash but not food. Imagine a recipe with all spices being replaced with just one thing, salt. What will it end with? A disaster.
My city eye and urban mind has different names for forests – resources, greenery, wilderness and what not. Probably your-trained-in-Biological-Sciences eye is more discerning than mine but I doubt it has the same perspective as the Kuis do. This is not a post to castigate the urban and romanticise the rural but to acknowledge the almost irreparable chasm that afflicts our ecological understanding today. People (and that includes me) who can’t grow their own food eat money and hardly can differentiate between paddy fields and grasslands inhabit urban areas. The Kondh adivasis refuse to join this ever-increasing crowd of blind consumers and rightly so. My concrete house, heavy city air, and wide roads almost always fail to enchant them but let us get real, India needs to embody vikas, even if you want it or not. Your swanky pleasant car might have been dug out from someone’s home at the top of a mountain. It made someone homeless and rootless, a loss which one cannot capture in words. We are lying to ourselves if we refuse to acknowledge an ‘Us’ and a ‘Them’. There is an Us whose lives have an effect on the Them and of course, vice versa. What matters though is who’s living their lives at the others’ cost. I learn from Them not for the sake of ‘preserving’ their way of life but because I don’t want to end up eating a dish with too much salt. It is our survival imperative to learn from Them, not the other way round as vikas would like you to believe.
– Kavya Chowdhry, Living Farms, Odisha