1996 – Winin Pereira records memories of time with adivasis in Alonde

When we first went there was no place – it was a bit far from the village itself – we had to stay on the land. We had to cross two nullahs (streams) in the monsoon. So we put up a small hut . . . the main village is Alonda but this plot was actually in a neighbouring village called Moho.  So I went there and stayed with this partner of ours and two adivasis.  

The adivasis put up the hut in probably half a day. They went into the forest and got a plant, not exactly a reed, which was used by them for making the walls of the huts. They’d come back with a couple of headloads – they joined them together with local natural fibres and we had a hut. On the top they put a similar cover with grasses. It was just enough for three of us to sleep along the breadth of the room and one of us to sleep along the length . . . They just plastered it with mud and cowdung and in two hours had the room ready. The cooking was done outside . . . it’s remarkable the way the adivasis do these things. They chose a bit of land which was a little higher, maybe 8”, 10” higher . . . a sort of ledge or step . . . They took a pickaxe and dug out a square or rectangular notch not too wide so the cooking vessel could stand on it. The portion below was where they put the firewood. Firewood was available all round us and we would go to the village to get the dal and rice – that’s all.  

We were next to a nullah so we got water from there. The adivasis were very clever, we drank the water directly from the nullah – they would never drink that water . . . people wash their clothes in it. They always dig a pit on the banks as far as possible from the main stream  and let water percolate, filter out. So we got sick but they didn’t. You don’t see these things. You drink water one day or two days and that’s enough to give you . . .  

We had gone claiming that we were superior to them so why should they bother to teach us? It was only later when we started learning from them, asking them the names and uses of the trees and plants they began offering advice. The normal thing is if they offer advice to the people of the village they would laugh at them, so they put us in the same boat as those people. They were afraid we would laugh at them. We never did laugh at them . . . but they thought that we would. I don’t think we told them (we’d been ill) – too embarrassed! They certainly had a good laugh at many things we did.  

But then we managed to get another small hut . . . we bought a house from the village. It was so easy to buy a house. They dismantled it – there are no nails . . . what we needed were beams and pillars . .  walls were the same . . . just made a foundation. It took about a week and we had a house. 

There too the adivasis has a good laugh at us and told us not to build there – it was too near the river . . . build it on higher land . . . we said no, we wanted to watch . . . it was a beautiful place . . . lots of birds throughout the day singing,  kingfishers . . . villagers used to come and fish . . . catch eels and prawns . . . What an education for a person who comes from the city with all the traffic noises . . .  

The huts were both too close to the nullah. One year there was extremely heavy rain and it started falling . . .  I stayed a little longer . . . but when I left, about 6 o’clock in the evening I couldn’t cross the nullah. Luckily one of our neighbours had built a particular type of fish tank . . .  across . . . The water was rising so fast those adivasis who were in the fields stayed on the fields all night. They were very good swimmers but they wouldn’t risk it – they were standing on the bunds all night. But in that flood the hut was washed away.  

Whatever little furniture and pots we had were washed away. The Adivasis had a good laugh at us – see they laugh but they came to help – they’re very good that way . . .    

So this is the story of the hut. I kept asking everybody for information. . . and spent so much of my time doing nothing, just enjoying my forest. At that time it wasn’t much of a forest, it was scrubland . . . there were a few paddy fields which had not been cultivated for years . . .  The rest of the land we just allowed to grow – for two years we didn’t cut the trees. We allowed the adivasis to lop branches but it was too much, we had to restrict them . . . within ten years some areas were impassable . . . 

It was a lovely place to live, in the forest completely surrounded by trees . . . there was a little verandah . . . I would sit on the verandah and watch birds, just think, do a little writing.  It was peaceful – you couldn’t hear a truck, you couldn’t hear a car . . .  this old habit of the sannyasis  – go into the forest  and live in the forest . . .   

I thought knew a lot about plants but when I went there I was amazed at the variety. I didn’t think they grew so close to Bombay – I thought they grew in some remote area. The problem was identifying them. They need a plant and flower . . . to take it for idenfification to a  herbarium. I bought a whole set of (books) ‘Plants of India’  . . . (pointed books out) 

The adivasis had their own name for plants . . . unfortunately this set had no illustrations or not clear ones . . . the adivasis told the location and name of the plant and uses to which they put them . . . I used to note down everything for later on  – very often I couldn’t identify a plant. This problem you will not have in England – the local names and botanical names are well matched. Here it is very . . .Then we realise the extent of the knowledge of these people. They knew so much, even about farming. We found out they were experimenting – we bought the land for experimentation but they were already doing it . . .

They needed to regain their self-respect.  We thought we could go there and improve their agriculture . . . and this  process of learning from them gave them self-respect. Somebody valued their knowledge, was learning from them. Their culture was strong enough . . .  

Many of those from the formal educational system lost their knowledge completely. Then we started using this knowledge . . .using their medicines and the herbs they cooked – very nice, very tasty – you have to follow exactly the way they do it. There was one plant, they used the leaves; they told the social worker to use limited quantities but he didn’t – started vomiting . . . another said “Don’t eat the seeds” but they ate a couple initially and became very sick. They wanted to live off the land – probably they thought they would experiment and show adivasis it could be eaten. 

I stopped going only two years ago . . . I used to sleep alone there at night  – one adivasi hut was half a mile away but they sleep so soundly . . . so the family thought they had to keep someone to sleep . . . I didn’t want anyone – the place was safe  – adivasis look after you . . .

One day at election time the adivasis came to me and told me better go . . . they insisted “go and hide” (from the Communists/Marxists) They made a little hide: “You sleep here – they might come and burn your hut down”. The adivasis normally run away from them . . . they just want to be left alone . . .  

I told him (Ravi) to put up just one small adivasi type of hut – he wouldn’t  . . . Nothing happened, nobody came, then our house broke up . . . I was homeless . . . It looks as though I’m destined to stay here . . .   

 

Transcribed – BP