Part I – A reflection
I visited a tribal hamlet “Kelat Wadi” as a part of a workshop. Looking back in retrospect, I feel such rural exposure visits are a must for city slickers like me. It puts life in perspective.
I stared at the myriad specks of light; they never did shine so brightly. Adjusting myself, rather uncomfortably, I looked straight into the darkness surrounding us. Ronald, Sanket, Sagar and I decided to rough it out, get a feel of the outdoors. We lay in our sleeping bags and blankets, telling dirty jokes contemplating the impending morning dew which would add to the penetrating chill.
It was the first time I slept in a chawdi (village courtyard), vulnerable to the environment around me, free from the ubiquitous walls. The star filled sky mocked my limited vision, as if to signify the mysteries that lay beyond my comprehension. It is a very humbling experience, subtle yet effective.
I began my journey on the 11th of January, with a group of students mainly from Nirmala Niketan and Tata Institute of Social Sciences. It takes 6-7 hours to reach Roha station from VT (It still remains VT for me). I wondered what lay ahead of me. Ronald Rebello, friend and a social activist, briefed me about our itinerary for the next two days. From Roha we would move to Taregarh, a small village, were we would stay in the community school and local temple. The next morning we take a bus to Varathi and then begin the long trek to the small tribal hamlet, Kelat Wadi.
Some of the students were placed here as a part of their field work and were the coordinators of the trip. Many were and still are associated with the local people’s movement active in Raigad called “Sarvahara Jan Andolan”, spear headed by the fire-brand activist Ulka Mahajan, since 1990. Kelat was one of the villages that were assisted by Sarvahara (literally, one who has lost everything) in solving their socio-cultural problems and was “liberated” as one of the locals put it.
Katkari – a brief intro
Ganesh Sodaye, TISS student and associated with the movement for 10 years, filled me in with the history of the movement and the social structure prevalent in Kelat. The sangathan actually started functioning from August, 1990. The three adivasi tribes residing in Kelat are Thakar, Warli and a majority of them Katkari.
The traditional occupation of making ‘kaat’ (used in paan, made from betel leaf) from Khair trees which gave them the name Katkari was inadequate for sustenance as the forests depleted. Not having any special skills in farming, the Katkari were alienated from the mainstream and were forced to migrate to seek work for livelihood. This led their exploitation as the contractors took advantage of the landless, jobless labourers and trapped them in a vicious cycle of debt-bondage over the years.
Six months of migration leaves the children largely uneducated growing up on wisdom that comes from surviving on the fringes of life. Schools and formal education are not a part of their world. Daily meals constitute of bhakri (thick bread), rice and if possible some watery dal. Until sometime ago, his expectations were limited to these bare essentials for his survival.
The perennial instability and faced consistently with treachery, it has become difficult for this community to put their trust in anyone. Sarvahara took a holistic approach to their problems and worked on the principle of empowering the adivasis to fight their own battles. This has led to a radical change in the social and cultural life of this community.
The community dynamics are very complex, Ganesh explained. Hierarchically, the Thakars occupy the top position amongst adivasis, followed by the Warli’s and the lowest being Katkari’s. The Dhor Katkari, a non-vegetarian section is looked down on by the Son Katkari, largely vegetarians. This presumably happened due to the Hindu cultural influences specific to this region where pure vegetarian Brahmins are generally considered more pious than meat eaters. The divisions persist but are gradually on a wane.
We approach our destination in Taregarh. Sheilatai, a local activist, helps us find accommodation. Due to the community service done here by Sarvahara and the group we are allowed to stay in the school and the village temple, both modest places in terms of space.
Here we could see influences of the Hindu religion on the indigenous place of worship. Tribal Gods now had Hindu deities for company, a recent development I am informed, due to cultural proximity of the two.
We end our day, under the watchful eye of the local deity. I see a big lizard crawling on the wall, not the most comforting sight. Also, a dog keeps barking all night, ensuring that I was beady eyed and drowsy next morning. In the silence of the night, rumbling of a truck could be heard. Tomorrow promised to be more antiquated and I could not have been more exited to experience it.