I arrive in Nilambur by bus and checked in to the Nilambur Manor Hotel, supposedly the best hotel in town.
Nilambur is well off the tourist trail so they rarely get any foreigners visiting here.
The facilities available in the hotel room were getting depressingly familiar, no hot shower and no toilet paper,
not much of anything really except a bare empty space. You don't even get soap, a towel or a sheet on the bed unless you ask for it,
and asking for things in a backwater hotel in India can be an exasperating experience as I was about to discover as I traipsed back down
to reception and tried in vain to ask for toilet paper.
After much confusion and non-comprehending stares, and at one point even being handed a newspaper, I eventually gave up
and went outside to a local store instead.
Toilet paper was obviously a completely alien concept to these bottom-splashers,
so I wondered if such Western commodities were available in this town at all?
I simply didn't have the energy for further questions but visiting the shop next door I was able to purchase toilet paper immediately and hassle free.
So why did this guy in the hotel react like I was asking for space dust?
Toilet paper was obviously just not in his job-description.
My experience of mid-range Indian hotels is that all the staff are poorly educated and no doubt poorly paid too.
They've revised a few lines of English which they repeat parrot fashion,
but ask them anything even slightly out of the ordinary and they're completely non-plussed.
It's like having to deal with Manuel, the waiter from Fawtly Towers, every day! Except that there isn't even a crazy Basil
Fawlty there to help you out, there's just another absurd Manuel!!
OK maybe I should learn a few lines of their language, but which language would that be exactly?
In Masingudi they speak Tamil, here in Nilambur it's Malayalam, the tribes each have their own language, nobody here speaks Hindi,
so don't even bother with that.
Indians travelling from one province to another speak with each other in English!
But unless they're well educated it's going to be very basic English spoken with a very thick accent,
and you can't blame them because their teacher probably had a very thick accent too, as did his teacher before him,
and so it is passed down until the language they are speaking is barely recognisable as English at all.
In fact it's Indian-English and that's fine for them because these people simply don't travel much, but for me it's damned hard work!
In the cosmopolitan cities and tourist meccas it's fairly easy to make yourself understood, but in a small backwater like Nilambur I was going to struggle.
Speaking slowly, loudly and clearly doesn't help at all, it only confuses them more.
Indians speak loudly and rapidly, and don't much bother with vowels, I guess that they expect me to do the same.
I may sometimes recognise one word and use that as a starting to point to work out the rest, but it's hard work and very tiring, and combined with the constant noise, crowds, smells, traffic and pollution, Indian cities can rapidly become an overwhelmingly stressful experience. Luckily I was still in the hills so I didn't have to deal with the heat and humidity too, at least not yet anyway!
I ventured back into the hotel and realised that I was going to get nowhere here without a guide.
“Guide?” I asked, trying to keep things simple.
Before long I made myself understood and was handed the business card of Sajo George, “Ecodux – Come with reality & go with morality”!
I met Sajo later that evening in the hotel. He was young and enthusiastic and his English was good enough to keep my stress levels down.
I asked him about the Chola-Naikas and told him that was the reason I was here, to visit these tribal people who still lived nomadically in the forest. He had maps and was quite clued up. After making a couple of phone calls he told me:
“There's an organisation that meets with the Chola-Naikas every Monday. They come to Manjeeri to trade.”
Manjeeri is a small collection of brick-built houses that the government built in the forest to house the Chola-Naikas, but the Chola-Naikas shun them and prefer to live deep in the forest in their caves and temporary dwellings.
“It should be no problem,” he said, “we just need to get a permit from the forest office.”
Today was Thursday, so I had several days to wait. In the meantime he told me about his friend Jins who owned a small plantation right on the edge of the forest. Next to where he lived was a village of Kattu-Naikas.
“Shall we go there?” he asked.
“Sounds good!” I replied.
“We can leave in the morning.”
DAY 2 - Friday
We hired a Jeep and a driver and headed north towards the forest and the mountains. This was not the same direction that the Chola-Naikas lived, they lived to the East of Nilambur, Nilambur being completely surrounded by forest on three sides with a gap only to the south.
“What about the permit to visit the Chola-Naikas?” I asked.
“No problem, we can get it tomorrow,” Sajo answered.
“But tomorrow is Saturday..”
We drove through small villages and plantations of banana, beetle nut and coffee, and after about an hour I could see the forested mountains ahead. Stopping at a small settlement we met up with Sajo's friend Jins and then set off down a 4WD track deep into a valley between forested mountains. Patches of natural forest were mixed with plantations on the valley floor, with rubber trees dominating, little collecting vessels hanging under a sharp cut in each tree to collect the latex.
We soon came to a small settlement ahead by a river that ran through the valley floor. The setting was idyllic. Bright sunshine causing the green palm leaves to glow over traditional looking houses made of bamboo. Scattered amongst the bamboo houses were a few painted brick dwellings supplied by the government, and most of the houses had modern tiled roofs to protect against the monsoon.
“We're here,” Sajo said, “these people are Naikas!”
Villagers soon gathered around to see what was going on, both men, women and children, but they were either shy or wary because they hung back and didn't come forward to greet us. Sajo found the headman who's name was Mathan and introduced me. I told him why I was there and said that I wanted to learn about how they look for food in the forest.
“Honey!” he said, “We collect honey!”
He pointed to some thick cylinders of bamboo that were hanging from the eaves of the house.
“You want to see?”
“Sure!” I said.
One of the young men took one down, laid it on the floor and proceeded to carefully crack it open with his sickle. Once he'd made a crack down one side he split the bamboo open to reveal the honeycombs and frantic little bees inside. I just had time to take a photo before I was covered in swarms of little bees about the size of house flies! They crawled all over my face and my arms as I swatted them away and fled!
“Don't worry! They don't sting!” Sajo said smiling. The others thought it was quite funny too and once I'd calmed down they squeezed some honey out of one of the combs for me. It tasted amazing! Light and syrupy, pure nectar!
“OK but this isn't really wild food,” I said.
“No but we collect wild honey too!” and they pointed up at a large tree some distance away.
On a branch high up I could make out a huge swarm of bees, and these were not the tiny harmless ones either.
“Better leave them alone,” I said.
“Not the right time of year anyway,” they replied.
“What else do you collect from the forest?” I asked.
“Roots and herbs.”
“Do you hunt?” I asked.
“No,” he replied, “but sometimes we catch ant-eaters.”
It took a while but eventually I worked out he meant pangolins, specialised ant-eaters with big claws and spiny scales.
“Does anyone still hunt?”
“We're not allowed to, but there's one guy on the other side of the village who hunts occasionally.”
“Let's go and see him then,” I told Sajo.
I said goodbye to Mathan and his family and then set off further into the valley on foot,
crossed a small bridge over the river and then passed some houses on the other side.
Outside one of the houses sat a rather sad looking man.
“He was attacked by a bear,” Sajo said, “You want to go talk to him?”
“Sure!” I said.
The guy looked miserable and stared into the distance. His foot was laid up on a table and was a mass of scars. Apparently he was out collecting gooseberries when the bear attacked him. His foot was completely crushed and he had to be taken to hospital. He didn't really want to say much more so we left him sitting there with his family and continued on.
We arrived at the hunter's house and he greeted us happily with a big smile on his face. I asked him what kind of animals he caught, he didn't really want to answer us but still kept the cheeky grin of the petty thief on his face. As far as the law was concerned he was a poacher so he was wary of talking to outsiders about it. I managed to get out of him that sometimes they smoked porcupines out of their underground lairs and then clubbed them to death, but more than that he would not say. Sajo told me that they set snares and even hunted with bow and arrow occasionally, but they weren't going to admit that to me. How could they trust me, after all I could be anybody.
As we headed back I heard a pounding sound off to my right and in the distance could see a dark old man pounding at a pile of vegetation that laid on the ground. There was something about this guy, he looked ancient, aboriginal, not like the other people in the village who looked more like regular Indians with their cropped, wavy hair, moustaches, modern shirts and lungis (a lungi is a kind of sarong that is either worn long or tucked up into the waist, most Indians own a lungi and will commonly wear it around the house).
His name was Kaithen and he had a beard and mop of greying frizzy hair, his skin was very dark and sweating in the sun and his frame was lean and muscular. He had a simple wrap around his waist and his eyes and lips were stained a bleary red due to the excessive amount of betel nut that he must have been chewing. He was pounding the black pods of a kind of legume called Thottapagar, the seeds of which he can sell on the market to farmers who use it as a lay crop. I asked him if he ate any of the food that he collected from the forest but he said no, it was just to sell.
We arrived back at Mathan's house and were asked if we'd like some tender coconuts. I'd just run out of clean drinking water and was starting to worry so I jumped at the chance:
One of the young men, called Soman, then proceeded to tie rope around his feet and holding another rope between his hands shinned up one of the coconut trees. He was so fast that I didn't even get chance to photograph him until he was high up in the top of tree, lopping off coconuts and launching them down at us.
I cannot describe how wonderful it is to have someone crack open a fresh coconut for you on a hot sweaty day like this when you've just run out of clean drinking water! Tender coconuts are nothing like the stale old things that we have for sale in the supermarkets back home, they are full to the brim with sweet, cool liquid, there must have been at least half a pint in each one (and I had two!) and once that is finished you break it open to reveal the flesh, which is not hard and dry like the stuff back home but is soft and tender. It looks like pieces of fresh squid but is so soft that it almost falls apart when you pick it up. You have to slurp it down and again the taste is sweet and wonderful.
I was feeling refreshed and happy but still I hadn't seen anyone collecting or eating real wild food. I had a word with Sajo, and Sajo had a word with Jins, who had word with several others and soon we were heading off into the forest, me, Sajo, Jins, Soman and one other young tribesman called Babu who was wearing a dark, checked shirt.
It turns out the Soman and Babu work for Jins on his plantation. Soman and Babu are of course Kattu-Naikas, but like most plantation owners Jins is an outsider from mainstream Indian society. He's a jolly chap with a permanent smile on his face, and if you didn't know he was the plantation owner you'd think he was just one of their friends. He seems to get along well with everybody and doesn't do anything to make any enemies.
“How much do you pay them?” I ask him, curious to know what a working wage is here.
“150 rupees a day,” he answers.
That's about £2 or less than $3 a day, but I have to admit that no-one seems to be working very hard here, everyone just looks laid-back and relaxed.
There are no paths in the forest so we had to force our way up the steep valley side through thick undergrowth.
It was hot, sweaty and tiring and I was beginning to wonder what I had let myself in for, but luckily we weren't going far.
Soman soon stopped and started hacking away under some rocks with his digging stick.
The rocks were not giving away easily and he was putting in a huge effort. After about ten minutes he gave up digging and wandered off to another part of the forest. I figured they were going to be a while so me, Sajo and Jins just sat on some rocks and waited. Jins had just bought himself a video camera and was having all kinds of fun filming everything in sight (mainly me!)
After a while Soman and Babu returned with a handful of roots spread out on some green leaves.
Dinner at last! We climbed down to a stream where there was a small waterfall and a pool surrounded by dense jungle. While me and Jins bathed and cooled down, Soman and Babu roasted the roots by building a fire over them.
As I crawled out of the pool Sajo handed me a blackened root.
It didn't look very appetising at first but when I peeled off the skin to reveal the white centre I was greeted by an amazing smell like roast chestnuts.
It tasted wonderful, somewhere between a roast potato and a roast chestnut, but better than both and with the consistency of a roast parsnip.
After that I couldn't get enough of it and ate every last bit, all the while Jins was filming me, grinning all over his moustachioed face.
I couldn't understand why they didn't eat this stuff more often, but then I remembered the effort that they had put in to find it and dig it up, and the fact that they worked on the plantation all day. Heating up a pan full of rice was just so much easier after a hard day's work I guess.
We headed back to the village along the valley floor through betel nut and rubber plantations.
Jins asked us if we'd like to stay the night, but all my belongings were back at the hotel and our Jeep driver was waiting to take us back to Nilambur.
“How about we come back tomorrow and then stay the night?” I asked.
Sajo spoke to Jins (who doesn't speak English) said it would be fine.
“Great, that's all settled then! We'll see you tomorrow!”
The Jeep took me and Sajo back to Nilambur as night fell.
Later on that evening I met up with Sajo in the hotel again. He had brought with him an article that was published in a college magazine about the Chola-Naikas, or the 'Asian Cavemen' as they were sometimes known. The article contained several black-and-white photos of the same quality you'd find in an old newspaper. One of the photos showed a cliff face with a temporary shelter built over the entrance to a shallow cave.
“So this is how they live!” I thought.
The tribe lives deep in the forested mountains, in a location so remote that they had no contact with the outside world until the 1970's. In 1976 an attempt was made by the government to bring the Chola-Naikas more into the mainstream of Indian society, to 'rehabilitate' them, as the jargon goes. This attempt failed, the Chola-Naikas were not interested in contact with the outside world and were quite happy where they were, thank you very much.
In 1982 the government built shelters for the Chola-Naikas and named the settlement Manjeeri.
The Naikas were not interested and stayed away, so in 1989 the government built 'modern' houses for them to live in.
Again they were not interested, one or two families moved in but most of the Naikas remained in the forest and left the houses to rot.
The Chola-Naikas were known as 'Kings of the forest' and would not give up their domain so easily!
DAY 3 - Saturday
I sat and waited in the hotel lobby while Sajo went to the forestry office to arrange my permit for the following Monday. Then he returned with the bad news, the divisional forest officer (DFO) would not give me a permit.
I was incredulous!
“You said there would be no problem!” I said.
“The forestry guy I spoke to said there would be no problem, you can come along and talk to the Naikas, we can even show you their caves. We just needed to get a permit from the DFO, but the DFO says 'No', has was getting angry with me so I had to leave.” Sajo said.
“Shit! I'll just have to go and talk to him myself!”
I went to see the DFO, who's name was Ummer, but he would not be budged.
He didn't even listen to my story or my reason for being there.
He told me that he couldn't issue me with a permit.
I would have to go in person to Trivandrum (the capital of Kerala, some 500km away) and apply in writing to the head of the Kerala forest department,
but he warned me that the last guy who tried had been waiting over three months!
So I was being completely stone-walled by this jumped-up official. Most of what he said was a lie. He had the power to issue me with a permit, he just didn't want to. He didn't want foreigners poking around in his business and stirring up trouble, all he wanted was a year or two in his job without any incidents so that he could take his next step up the career ladder elsewhere. This is how it is in India. Government officials have total control over their own little domain, everything depends solely on the personality of the official, what his priorities are and who's giving him the biggest bribes. Laws can be strictly and mercilessly enforced in one area, while they are ignored in the next. It's all down to the luck of the draw for anyone who has to deal with them and especially for the tribal people under whose jurisdiction they fall, and as the top official changes every couple of years as they progress up their career ladders, law enforcement can change suddenly from one year to the next. I had already seen how the tribes people around Masinagudi were afraid to collect essential supplies from the forest, even though it was their right to do so, because corrupt forest officials would accuse them of poaching and extort money from them.
So now it was my turn to feel the brunt of petty officialdom. I was told that with the previous DFO it would have been no problem to visit the Chola-Naikas, many people had done so and it was even down as one of the attractions of Nilambur on their tourist website! But this guy didn't want to take the risk.
“Too many elephants,” he said, “Too dangerous!”
Our brief meeting was over. I was furious but there was nothing I could do.
As we left I said to Sajo:
“There must be some other way? Can't we just go there anyway?” I asked.
“It's not possible,” Sajo said, “There's only one road into the area and there's a checkpoint with guards. The guards will only let you past if you have a letter from the DFO and even then they will phone him to confirm it before you can pass.”
I was confounded. I couldn't push the issue any further.
Sajo was now getting worried that I would get him into trouble and so eventually I just had to drop it. Even if we could get around the checkpoint somehow, how could we find the Chola-Naikas? They lived deep in the forest and were hostile to outsiders. The only time anyone ever saw them was on Mondays at Manjerri, and that would be swarming with forest officers.
We would just have to go back and visit Jins and the Kattu-Naikas to see what else that area had to offer. Officially all forest areas were out-of-bounds so I was not strictly allowed into the forest around that area either, but with our man Jins on the inside it would be no problem.
This time we took the bus, and both my bags too. Jins met us at the bus stop and took us the rest of the way in his beaten up old Mahindra Jeep. We soon reached the Naikas village and ten minutes further along the track we reached Jins' house. It was a curious arrangement, set on the side of the valley in a rubber plantation the house was entirely surrounded by betel nuts drying in the sun. Inside the small outer building was an even smaller inner building with a curious smell. Stacked inside were piles and piles of what looked like cream-coloured rubber car mats, and I was half right because they were made of rubber, though they were not car mats. This was how rubber was stored once it had been pressed and dried. Outside more rubber mats were hanging on a line and a small outbuilding contained mangles from pressing the rubber into mats. It's a curious smell, not much like processed rubber, and not really bad smelling, although it can get to you after a while.
It was Saturday night and Jins had several friends over so we all headed off into the jungle to go fishing and swimming in the river at the valley bottom. Jins was using a circular net with weights around the outside which he cast into the water and drew up, usually catching a small fish or two. The rest of his friends ploughed into the water and so I joined them to cool down. We climbed up several small waterfalls and just enjoyed ourselves in the fresh, cool water.
After a while it started to get dark and I didn't fancy being out in the jungle at night, with no paths, wearing flip-flops, so me and Sajo headed back to Jins' house. It was dark by the time we arrived there and I took a short rest.
Jins and his friends arrived back much later with a big load of fish for our dinner. They told us that they had almost stepped on a cobra on the way back, so I was quite glad of my decision to leave early! The dinner of spicy sago and fresh-caught fish was lovely. After dinner Jins' friends left and I settled down to sleep to the sounds of cicadas and the smell of rubber.
Sajo was up at the crack of dawn, but it probably took me another four hours before I finally arose, all that cold water and clambering over rocks had really taken it out of me! As I went outside to stretch and take in some air I noticed a bunch of Naikas heading up the valley, in the lead was Kaithen, the wooly-haired Naika who I had seen the day before pounding the legumes and with him seemed to be his whole extended family.
“Where are they going?” I asked.
“Oh, fishing probably,” said Sajo.
After breakfast I discussed with Sajo my options for the day. There were other tribes living in the forest, but they were not easy to get to, and we had nobody like Jins to act as a middle-man, so they probably wouldn't want to talk to us. It didn't sound very promising.
“Those guys who just went fishing,” I asked, “How will they catch the fish?”
Sajo had a quick word with Jins and said:
“They will build a dam, and then poison the water.”
I had heard about this, this was the old way of fishing! No need for nets or hooks and lines, just your bare hands.
“Can we go and watch them?”
“Sure!” Sajo said.
Jins came along too, video camera in hand, and we set off walking down the 4WD track up the valley, then through a plantation and finally onto a small path through the forest to the river. After clambering over a couple of huge boulders we saw all the Naikas on the other side of river. Kaithen was using a stick to dig dirt and rocks out of a small, blocked channel, while women carried the rocks and dirt through a pool and over to a dam they were building on the other side of a pool. Meanwhile behind them other women were preparing food over camp fires. Everyone was working at a slow easy pace, and chatting and joking, it reminded me of a Sunday outing.
“Do they like doing this?” I asked.
“Oh yes, it's fun for them.”
But it looked like hard work too. Kaithen never stopped digging, while the women carried off bigger and bigger boulders, eventually to be helped by some of the young men who seemed to have the task of putting the finishing touches to the dam. Apparently the channel had become blocked and full of rocks after the last monsoon, and now had to be cleared to provide an alternative channel for the water to run down. The dam would raise the water to a level sufficient to make it run down the new channel instead. The area beyond the dam would then be starved of water and this is where they would place the poison and catch the fish.
The 'poison' was actually two sacks full of green 'soap' berries, about the size of gooseberries, which the Naikas had just collected. Three women placed a sack full of berries on the ground, mixed in a little dirt as abrasive, and then started to pound the berries into a mush using big sticks held vertically. I picked up one of the berries and rubbed it between my hands, it produced a thick, white soap that entirely covered both my hands. I rinsed it off in the water and suddenly realised what an age-old invention soap must be! Most of the centre of the berry contained a large nut, which was presumably why it was taking such a long time to pound off the outer fleshy pieces to create the paste that they were going to use.
The water was rising now and beginning to flow down the new channel. Kaithen was still busy removing rocks and dirt and doing everything possible to open the channel as much as possible, while the young men were raising the dam higher and higher. Finally satisfied that they'd done enough they took out a large sheet of blue plastic which they would use to waterproof the dam. I was a bit upset by this modern intrusion into an age-old scene, but plastic is cheap, so what can you do? Originally they would have blocked all the gaps in the dam with leaves, but now seemingly that wasn't worth the effort.
Placing the sheet of plastic behind the dam it was immediately sucked into all the cracks and crevices that the water was escaping through. The sound of rushing water that we'd become accustomed to over the last hour or two suddenly ceased to be replaced by the sound of trickles. Now it was time to throw in the berries! They were unceremoniously dumped into the water in front of the dam and then the young men jumped in and started splashing around. Very soon the pool looked like a big frothy bath tub. I was having a hard time comprehending that this effect was being created using only locally grown berries and not Fairy Liquid! It seemed such a modern thing to see soapy water, a sign of pollution or vandalism surely. But no, what I was watching was as old as man.
The trickles of water still escaping from the dam was carrying the soap downstream, which was the intention. It was not just this pool that would have it's fish asphyxiated but every pool for the next hundred yards or so, until the new channel joined the main stream again. But where were the fish? I was expecting them just to rise to the surface and float there ready to picked off and put into baskets, but I was being naïve. I couldn't see any fish at all! I was starting to feel sorry for the Naikas, all the effort they had put in and no fish, maybe I was bringing bad luck? But again I was wrong, the fish were there, there were lots of them, but they didn't just rise to the surface and lie there dead, they became sluggish and had to be fished out of holes and crevices by the Naikas. By this time they were all in the water, fishing-around, and very soon the fish started appearing. First a few tiddlers that they tucked into their lungis and then bigger fish, bigger than I imagined possible in such a small stream!
“They expect to take about 5kg of fish,” Sajo told me.
“What will they do with it all?” I asked.
“They'll eat it of course!” he answered.
“What, now? Or will they dry it for later?”
“No, they'll eat it all tonight!”
Now that I'd seen how it was done we decided to leave them to it.
We walked back to Jins' place and after relaxing for a while decided to head back to Nilambur.
Jins drove us down the valley in his beaten-up old Mahindra and as we were driving down we encountered some youths on motorbikes heading up the valley.
Jins stopped and had a chat with them, was friendly and smiley as usual and then we drove on.
“Who were they?” I asked.
“Just some kids going fishing,” Sajo said.
“And what were they carrying in those bags?” I asked.
“Dynamite,” he answered.
“Dynamite!” I said, “They were going dynamite fishing?”
“But isn't that like, illegal?”
“And what if they get caught?”
“They won't get caught. Jins acts as the forest warden around here.”
I was flabbergasted. Jins was supposed to be protecting this environment and yet he was allowing kids to go dynamite fishing in a tiny little stream that had to feed a village full of tribal people.
“There's nothing he can do,” Sajo told me, “If he says anything then he can make enemies around here, he lives all alone in the forest, who could help him? Many of these kids are in criminal gangs.”
I can see his dilemma, but to keep the peace the people from the local towns were allowed to get away with whatever they wanted, while the tribal people who had lived here for millennia had no rights at all. It was starting to sound like a familiar story.
Back in Nilambur Sajo had arranged a meeting for me with a guy I was keen to talk to. His name was Simjith and he was the guy who had written the college magazine article about the Chola-Naikas. He seemed very evasive at first and didn't seem like he wanted to talk to me. Sajo told me that Simjith owed him a favour so he was kind-of obliged to be here, but he'd obviously rather be somewhere, or anywhere, else.
“How long ago did you see the Chola-Naikas?” I asked.
“About four months ago,” he answered, that would make it around October 2008.
“What did they look like?”
“They had fuzzy hair and wore simple wraps around their waist, but when they approached the village they put on modern clothes.”
No doubt they had been 'taught', like all the other tribal people here, that this was a more appropriate way to dress. The rumour was that in the forest the Chola-Naikas went around naked, the women as well as the men, but nobody had ever seen the women, only the men ever came to Manjerri.
“Why do we never see their women?” I asked.
“They believe that their women are so beautiful that if any outsiders saw them they would instantly want to take them away.”
“So what happened while you were there?”
“They came out of the forest, traded, chatted, smoked some cigarettes and then left again.”
“What were they trading?”
“They would bring roots and honey from the forest and in return they would get clothes, rice, chilli powder, coconuts, palm oil, salt etc.”
“Who provides all this stuff?”
“The Manjeeri Co-Operative Society”
“Which is a government organisation right?”
“So what is the goal of this organisation? What are their aims?”
The official line is this,
they want to provide the Chola-Naikas with food and medicine,
protect them from hooligans and gangsters and help them to enter mainstream society.
They don't explain why people who have been surviving from the forest for thousands of years would need to be provided with food and medicine,
nor what interest hooligans and gangsters would have in them,
nor why they feel that the Chola-Naikas need to be integrated into Indian society.
I'm sure that they don't bother to explain to the Naikas that they will be entering modern society at the very lowest rung of poverty
with little or no prospects of improving their lot in the future.
They don't explain to them that they will have to do back-breaking work during all hours of daylight just to earn enough money to buy food
that they currently enjoy for free,
or to buy drugs to feed the addictive habits that are being introduced to them by the outside world.
No, the Indian authorities are sure that the Chola-naikas will be much better off if they integrate into mainstream Indian society
that they just can't understand why these silly people insist on staying in their forest and running around naked.
“Do they still hunt?” I ask.
“Officially they are not allowed, but some still hunt using bows and arrows, and also sharp stones which they use as missiles and clubs.”
So the long arm of the law reaches even unto the depths of the ancient forest and back into the stone-age. All the forests are off-limits to hunting now. They are there for the animals, not for people. But surely these age-old people are as much a part of the ecosystem as the tigers and elephants are? What effect is their removal already having upon the forest? The official line is that if they allow the tribals to hunt then for every tribal there'll be twenty poachers following him, soon there'd be no animals left at all. It just wouldn't work, the tribals have to learn to live like us now.
In a country as corrupt as India perhaps it couldn't work, but I can't help feeling that with the correct laws, properly enforced, it has to be do-able. There must be a way for these people to continue to live in the forest as they always have, without stripping them of all their rights and dignity.
I thanked Simjith for all his help and he promised to email Sajo some photos to pass on to me that he'd taken of the Chola-Naikas with his mobile phone. Of course, photography of the Chola-Naikas was completely forbidden by the authorities also. As far as the outside world was concerned, that area of forest was just a blank space on the map, and the authorities were very keen to keep it that way, so that they can do as they please with the forest and the people that live there, without any outside influences interfering with their plans.
So I had not managed to encounter any people who were still living in the deep forest, nor any people who still hunted in the forest. It seemed like all my options in this area had been exhausted. I asked Sajo what he thought I should do next:
“Go to the Wayanad”, he said, “I was working there once in the forest and one day as we were driving we saw a tribal man cross the road ahead. He was carrying a bow and arrow and dressed in a traditional way. I think you should try the Wayanad.”
Wayanad province was just to the north of Nilambur province. The Wayanad was well known for it's forest reserves and tribal peoples, it was also back on the main tourist trail. It had been fun staying in Nilembur, being the only westerner there, and getting strange looks wherever I went, but now it seemed like I was being drawn inexorably towards the Wayanad, the homeland of the Naikas.