Saturday, 1 September 2018

Living with and learning from a futuristic edition of myself

I think I know what sort of person I am. But then I think, But this stranger will imagine me quite otherwise when he or she hears this or that to my credit, for instance that I have a position at the university: the fact that I have a position at the university will appear to mean that I must be the sort of person who has a position at the university.”

-Lydia Davis, ‘A Position at the University’

Inside me lives this woman: a finer, sharper, surer, more advanced version of myself that I aspire to. Her hair is cut short with jagged ends, trifling now and then with her ears. She might have cut it herself. She smokes with a blank stare and makes love with abandon. She opens her eyes and looks into mine whenever I am slighted: the times I end up feeling hurt while wanting to be nonchalant, and the occasions on which anger surges through me while I wish to remain indifferent.

When I am tired of feeling the room and it is not feeling me back, I go to my own room and shut the door softly behind me. She takes a walk, slamming the door of the house behind her, not to prove a point but because if she lingered to close the door softly, it would be too late already. I stay in, looking at the roads she is travelling; it is foggy. She is bringing in a glow through her cigarette end she has lit just by breathing. (In her released breath, there is taut decision; she does not sigh.) The nictoine doesn’t give her a kick; it’s there so she can practise inhale-exhale with a cylindrical object.

She wears lipstick, matt. I put some gloss; it’s an attempt to affirm myself, my resolve that I won’t get shamed for asserting through my body, would not treat it as incidental baggage. She finished asserting a while ago. Now she walks in, she occupies. She owns the land she walks on and is humbled by it; she couldn’t be bothered about property.

She has seen too much by now to keep focusing on her individual life zoomed in. She has chosen to be a cog because it keeps moving, keeps seeing from different places. Her wheel is wooden. It carries earth and is run down. She is not run out.

She loves with her mouth full and protects with a vengeance. I do too, till I learn to practise caution with passion, fairness with loyalty. Her throat is lined with husk and she sings with a headtilt and closed eyes. She does not anticipate applause/criticism. Her heart is racing. She is running to catch up with the song and become it. I listen to her and sway. I don’t want to answer questions so I do it when people are moving to other rhythms of their choice, when the room has sanctioned movement.

In my dreams I am scaling up fortresses to escape my assailants. She goes out and stands in the middle of the road and dares them to come. If they do, she looks them in the eye. They want to crumble her, they might, but she pierces them clean. There is no win or defeat. Shit happens, it doesn’t. She is there. She is always there. She doesn’t run away from, she doesn’t run towards, she runs when she wants to excite herself.

Sometimes I withdraw. I let everyone see her. Then she laughs with the guests, or doesn’t. But people feel safe anyway because she does, secure and whole in herself. I feel envy on some days but she couldn’t care less. Parties aren’t her thing. Too much unorganised action.

She looks for lava and black holes and epicentres of seismic zones. She bites her lips and makes them bleed and keeps her mouth slightly open. She is not suicidal, or homicidal. She wants all to live and grow in her and to still keep standing. If a shrapnel hated her eye and her eyeball popped out she would carry it in her hand and walk through the fire and smoke and take it to someone who could stitch it back. She knows when to ask for help. She does it rightfully and earns respect for it. She does the same for others, offering help. Because what else is there to do, when you know you are but a dot and would rather be joined with the others, and not be a bot? The next day she looks at her burns and wonders if nature can heal her or if her animistic gods annoyingly witness these moments as her laziness, and scowl.

Where am I? Where was I? I don’t know because I was too busy looking at her.

She goes places, I go to different ones. We don’t know if we want our paths to be one. We are sure we want them to cross. We go and get the same tattoo.

First published in thREAD, The Hindu, 1 September 2018.

Monday, 20 August 2018

No resting upon laurels: The grit and resilience that goes into making Haryana’s medal winners

In India's very own Little Cuba

The afternoon bus that has started from Delhi stops for tea, and close to the shop there is a poster of a boxer. I know it won’t be long before I find myself in Haryana’s Bhiwani, a town known intriguingly as Little Cuba. How can an urban growth centre in the northern hinterland, home to a number of Haryana’s top politicians who rode the waves of caste politics in the past, can have anything to do with Fidel Castro’s socialist arcadia, the island off the coast of Florida? Rolling the question around in my mind, I go through my notes. The links show up. 

Bhiwani has produced the highest number of boxers representing India in the international sports meets. Of the five boxers who qualified for the 2008 Summer Olympics, four were from Bhiwani. Vijender Kumar, a heavyweight boxer, won the bronze. Kavita Chahal, a boxer from here, won the bronze medal twice in the World Boxing Championship in the 81 kg category. The tradition began with Captain Hawa Singh, an indomitable fighter who won the boxing gold in two successive Asian Games – 1966 and 1970. That was a time when brute instincts and raw courage were all that mattered. Indian athletes were yet to think of technology or foreign coaches. Training in another country was an exotic idea. After he walked off the ring in glory after a rewarding career, the army officer, built the boxing academy, the nursery for the long line of subsequent boxers, both men and women. Indeed, this district, about 125 km from Delhi, is closer to Cuba which boasts of two fabled boxers with three Olympic golds each. Boxing which once thrived on the island as a kind of tourist attraction, later took deep root there. Of its total haul of 73 Olympic medals, 37 were golds. Yes, Bhiwani is Little Cuba.

I am jolted out of my travel into the history of this fierce sport to confront a man who sits next to me on the bus and tries to molest me, a frustrating but common travel ritual for women in the country, I think of the challenges the women of Haryana must have had to overcome in order to become sportspersons, in a state infamous for its rape culture and skewed sex ratio.

My first stop in Bhiwani is Bhim stadium at 7 am the next morning. Young people can be seen practising different sports. The stadium is funded by the government and therefore is open and free to all. Nobody is turned away, a coach tells me, unless people leave practice for lack of motivation or other reasons. In the case of seasoned players, sometimes they have to quit if they and their families cannot afford it. While the training is for free, the families still have to ensure a supplementary diet, and sometimes shoes, equipment, etc., for the players. Like a coach at the stadium put it, “Stomachs have to be filled before we can expect people to bring medals. Look at this road. It was laid fifty years ago. Now if people run here they have to breathe in dust. What if they end up getting TB? And there is no insurance for injury.”

A girl aims a hockey stick on the grounds of Bhim Stadium

On making further enquiries about players battling tough financial odds to continue their practice, I come across Renu’s name, a senior national gold champion in powerlifting. She agrees to meet the next morning in her village.

When a powerlifter turns the potter’s wheel

In the shared auto that I hire to reach Renu’s place, Dhani Mahu, a couple of passengers are carrying fruits and vegetables to sell in their village, and a large slab of ice to keep the perishables cool. One of them, sitting next to the driver, keeps looking back and requests the others not to step on the sack of melons placed on the floor. On reaching his destination, the autowallah gives a holler in the direction of the house and a child comes running to help, in the nick of time to rescue a melon that has rolled off the auto floor and is about to be swallowed by the open drain.

Renu’s village is the auto’s last stop. My phone has no network and I have to borrow someone’s handset to tell her I am at the bus stand she had asked me to come to. I could have as easily asked the people around about Renu’s house, I realised later, because she is a known entity here, a national level powerlifter the village is proud of.

Having completed her master’s from Bansilal Government College for Women, Tosham, Renu lives in the village Dhani Mahu. The fifth grade girl who won the school race stayed consistent enough in her college athletic meets, where she was awarded the Best Athlete title. Encouraged by her teachers, she started practising powerlifting in Bhim Stadium. Renu’s entire family expresses gratitude towards her teacher, “Suresh Ma’am”, who saw Renu’s potential and guided her towards opportunities that would help her become a professional.

The choice of the sport was not arbitrary for Renu. She started with wrestling, but once she got injured and had to stay off it for about a year and a half. The other problem was that it demanded attending practice sessions twice a day. Renu had to choose something that allowed her to assist her father, Ram Niwas, in making pots from 4 am to 9 am. 

At 9 she would take a bus from her village to Bhiwani, begin training at 10 am and continue till 2. By 3 she would be home and between 8 pm and 9 pm again pottery was her job. She could not opt for a sport that required one to attend evening practice as well.

Renu chose to be her father’s co-worker: “I cannot let him do all this alone.” Her mother, Sushma, says these two are the only ones in the family who know how to mold earthen pots. “Even I could not do it. And this girl picked it up so soon!”

Renu is skilled at making pots and helps her father in the business

Outside Renu’s house, pots have been kept in the sun to dry. Right after stepping in, the hall-like area is full of freshly churned out matkas, that sell for 55 rupees a piece. Steadying the wet lump of clay with light hands, Ram Niwas says he is hard at work because it is in these months of summer that the pots sell. The cost of the pots has remained the same for the past seven-eight years, and Renu’s father does not want to risk upping the rate because there are many potters in the area who would be willing to sell at lower rates.

After crossing the courtyard comes the room where Renu’s sister Rekha is cooking. She has come from her marital home to help with the household chores here while the rest of the family is busy making pots or, like her mother, mixing the ingredients for them. On one cot lies Renu’s other sister Mamta. She is suffering from brain fever, and sits up with difficulty to fold some clothes her mother has brought in. When I talk of the trend of pottery classes in cities, how much people pay for them and about glazed pottery, Renu’s mother says with enthusiasm, “Oh but we can do that too.” She eagerly asks Renu to produce a big, colourful earthen vase. “She had made it for her school project and everyone had appreciated it.”

Like her mother, Renu’s elder sister, Rekha, too is proud of Renu’s achievements. Sharing stories of Renu’s achievements and struggles, the mother-sister duo try to make up for the monosyllabic answers Renu offers with a sad smile. The entire family, Renu most of all, is going through a period of despair because Renu, 24 now, does not have a job yet after three and a half years of powerlifting. When she applied for a job in railways in Jaipur through the sports quota, she was told she had filled a wrong entry in the form. Under the head “event”, she had written “powerlifting”, instead of the weight category, 72 kg. She requested the concerned officials to let her reapply. They were sympathetic but unable to help.

The memory of that lost opportunity still hurts her, “The age limit there is 25 and I am already 24, though I don’t know who got selected because all five of us who had applied from Haryana got rejected.” For over a year and a half she had practised powerlifting with the thought that it would keep her perfectly prepared when the time for the physical trial for the job came. “If I had got a chance to appear for the test, I could have done the lifting in one go.” Though most things and prospects have started seeming uncertain to Renu in the past couple of years, when she talks about her sport and her capacity as a lifter she speaks with perfect confidence and clarity.

Her assurance is not baseless. Within ten days of starting practice, she had learned the technique. In Shimla and Jammu, she got the title of the best lifter.

Another ray of hope had appeared when she had got to know of recruitment through the railways talent quota, which doesn’t have age restrictions. When I met her in May this year, it had been one and a half months since her application. She also went to Delhi to meet her local political representative who wrote a letter to the railways. Again, the people seemed helpful but could only say that once there is a vacancy she would be asked to come for a trial.

She also travelled to Bangalore when Border Security Force (BSF) constables were being employed. Nothing came of it. At the time of this interview, Renu had not been going for her powerlifting practice, something that pained the entire family. Without a job, she could not afford to spend more money on her special diet as a sportsperson, and the travel money and entry fees one has to pay when going for competitions. “My gold in the Asia Championship held in Jaipur was confirmed. I was completely confident of my performance. But I could not pay Rs 70,000 as the fee.” When she travelled to Karnataka and Kerala for contests, she had to spend Rs 20,000-25,000 each time.

Rekha says, “Renu bears all our expenses. How much can she do alone without the financial support of a regular job?” Their brother Aditya has gone to Delhi to prepare for a government job. Sushma jokes that she would have to go and see if he is studying or upto some mischief. Renu stays sombre and asserts that her brother is hard working and not the sort to fool around. Rekha talks with pride and relief about the fact that people in her marital home are educated and are earning fine, so that’s one thing less for her to worry about.

Most of the money earned by the family gets spent on Mamta’s treatment. The family also sold a buffalo they had to meet the medical expenditure. Renu shows me her sister’s old photograph, a huge contrast with the person lying on the bed whose body has been rendered extremely weak battling constant illness. Renu speaks proudly of her intelligence and how she had completed the ITI course.

Her own disappointment about not having got a job despite having applied and trained physically for it has not coloured the compassion she has for her family members. This can be seen the way she treats her ailing sister, protects her niece from scoldings (Rekha’s little girl) when she drops Renu’s trophy while playing with it, and ignores her family’s call for lunch while making pots because the power supply, which makes the automated wheel turn, would only last an hour. (Sushma happily compares her granddaughter to Renu, saying the child is bright and determined like her aunt. To prove her point, Sushma asks her to perform a Haryanvi dance, which the child does without a moment’s hesitation.) While many players turn to the job of a coach later in their careers, Renu can’t do that because then she cannot participate in her father’s work.

Renu's niece holding up her aunt's trophy

Ram Niwas does admit that in the beginning he had asked Renu to give up her practice, because of the financial stress it was creating. But when he saw Renu’s resolve and also that she was earning, he went to the moneylender. Despite the interest rate, Ram Niwas feels moneylenders known to one in the village are kinder and charge a lower rate than banks. Sushma was also apprehensive about mounting expenses, “But we still ate less to save more for Renu so she could have the strength to lift weights.”

A June 2018 report published in The Hindu talks of how the Haryana government issued a notification in April this year asking sportspersons to deposit a share of their earnings with the state, and amidst criticism, withdrew the order. Before that there was an attempt to lower the amount of prize money for Commonwealth winners from Haryana if they worked with different departments or states.

On the subject of earnings from her powerlifting, Renu recalls an all-India university competition when she got a cash reward of Rs 18,000. When she became a national champion, her village residents rallied around to gather money and handed over the amount to Renu to felicitate her. These were the two occasions when she received a monetary award for the sport she excels in. Renu believes other sports pay well, though a national level gold winning wrestler I met in Hisar, Sunaina Dalal, also talked of the various competitions she had won, where monetary prizes were announced but never reached her account.

Renu hopes that she would be called for a trial to Delhi for the talent quota job she had applied for in the railways. But considering past experience, she is also afraid to be too optimistic.

Coach speak

Poonam Bamal, a coach originally from Hisar and working in Bhiwani’s Bhim Stadium is someone who has been an international-level wrestler. She is sympathetic to the predicament of players like Renu. A hockey playing father’s daughter, Poonam became a coach because for a professional sportsperson, opportunities and scholarship amounts were much more modest a few years ago. Her back injury sustained during a sports camp in Delhi also became a deterrent. She shares with some sadness, “Parents who cannot eat send their children here. One parent is an auto driver, another a wage labourer. Some cannot provide for their kids the recommended diet.” But still they send them here, all in the hope of a future for their children where the kids, unlike their parents, can get the rewards they deserve for their labours.

During this conversation, the father of one of Poonam’s students comes and stands apologetically next to the coach. He waits for her to notice him. Poonam explains to him that he has to bring his daughter to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) hostel tomorrow for a contest. He doesn’t know where the place is. Poonam tells him. Stopping with his foot a football that has strolled in his direction, his brows are knitted together in concentration trying to remember the directions Poonam has just given him. Before and after he leaves, students come and touch Poonam’s feet for blessings as they go home after their practice. “Overall, this is the best and the oldest stadium. But then the SAI hostel for boys has so many facilities. In Bhiwani, we don’t have a real wrestling hall; Rohtak does. Here several children train in a small hall on mats smaller than the standard size. The government does sanction the supplies and equipments we put in requests for, but it takes a really long time to come.”

As a wrestling coach, did she feel that the popular Hindi film Dangal inspired more girls to participate in the sport? “People aren't so educated or open minded. They fear for the safety of their girls. I understand their concern. Places and people are not as safe as they used to be once.” Poonam’s own daughter, who had been playing nearby, comes and sits on her mother’s lap and asks for my bindi. She takes turns to put it first on her own forehead, and then on her mother’s.

Wrestling coach Poonam Bamal with her daughter

To have a woman as a wrestling coach at Bhim Stadium did put some parents at ease. “When I had joined, there were 3-4 girls. Now there are 25. The volleyball coach is also a woman. But we remain a minority still; the number of women coaches was even lower when I was younger.”

Much to contend with off the grounds too

Haryana’s Anuradha Beniwal has been an international award winning chess player and now runs her own academy in London. She is also an author and has inspired youth in Haryana and all over through the solo inter-country travels she undertakes. She knows the world of sports closely because of having worked with an organisation in India that identified and supported talented players. According to her, like in any other workplace, sexual harassment does exist. “These are young girls from extremely low income backgrounds and then their coaches identify and train them, sometimes even providing financial support, opening a whole new world of exposure and opportunities for them. It can be overwhelming. The coaches are like gods to them. In such a situation if someone does make an advance, opposition or reporting is not easy.”

Vishnu Bhagwan, a coach, has been training at Bhim Stadium since 1995. On the subject of sexual harassment, he has this to say: “If a coach’s intention is wrong, he cannot do well in life. Some sexual harassment complaints are because of politics. Everyone needs to have a positive outlook.”

Anuradha also points out that it is common for people from poorer families to participate in physical sports, because they care less for injury and have a more urgent need to better their resources by rising up professionally first through sports, and then through the government jobs they get. (Also in some other sports, like shooting, the cost of the equipment itself becomes completely unaffordable for such people.) The higher the level of the matches won, the higher the position one gets when employed. School teachers I spoke to said that the education system is in need of much reform, and so it makes sense for so many to be drawn to sports as a means of employment. Some of the regulars at Bhim Stadium said with a smile that while they had “more intelligent” siblings doing well at studies, they were not high scorers and so chose a sport for themselves.

I looked to meet sports officials in Bhiwani and Hisar but the coaches informed me that they are the only ones representing the government at these places. So if something has to be communicated through the authorities, the coaches act as the media for it. While these trainers do know the specifics and nuances of what’s happening on ground, they are not the ones who can take the decisions, and often have to stop at putting in requisitions. Sometimes generous state funding comes, like for Akhara Competitions, but these are spent on the events themselves, rather than on adding to the more permanent structures in stadiums.

If some of the most well performing players of Haryana have to put in not just their physical but also their financial efforts into sustaining their practice, and if some have to give up because of these constraints, maybe it is time to stop asking what they can do for their country, and start asking what their country can do for them.

First published in The Equator Line, Jul-Sep 2018.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Peace treaty

If I voice all my desires for you-
If I force open my clenched fists,
Unfurl my toes,
Shake open my set jaw,
Unconstrict my heart-

Will I be free of them?
Will your weeping ghost
Curled inside me like a foetus
Then finally find peace
And leave?

Before it does, will it remember
To put everything back
Where it was
So there are no empty spaces, no vacancies left?

First published in New Reader Magazine, June 2018.

Monday, 18 June 2018

The indigenous doctors and healers of Chhattisgarh

Mane Singh holding a leaf that is supposed to aid digestion

The indigenous tribes of the state of Chhattisgarh in central India have had their share of natural challenges when they lived largely self-sufficient lives, relying on forests for most of their needs. But they look at that period as one of peace and prosperity compared to the current set of manmade difficulties. These troubles first sprung up when the State and private companies were charmed by the rich mineral reserve in the area and started development projects like roads, railways and mines on a war footing. These interested parties then started having violent confrontations with Maoists, the rebel guerrillas in the forests whose stated aim is to fight the violent exploitation and forced displacement of tribals done by the government and the corporations. In all these, the tribes often get slotted as victims who need saving or Palaeolithic forest dwellers in need of civilizing. This piece recalls the knowledge, the respect for ecology and the learning from ancestors that has enabled the Indigenous Peoples of Chhattisgarh to practice medicine since the time when there were no health centres to the present day, when people still place immense faith in these homegrown systems.

The bone doctor

Sundar Singh

In Khamdongdi village situated in Kanker district, a well known spot is the house of the vaidyaraj, venerable for his patients as the bone-setting doctor. His clientele includes not just villagers but officials and city dwellers from the state capital Raipur and beyond. Sundays are the busiest at his clinic-house, I am informed, full of patients from morning till midnight. But even on a weekday, when I am visiting, there is news that a patient from Raipur is on his way.

Eighty-five-year old Sundar Singh Kavde, the village’s own orthopaedic, had stopped his practice after his son died, and patients had slowly started moving to other doctors. The son is spoken of as a legend. Bone surgeons from hospitals were said to visit him when he was alive, and to ask their own patients to come here if the case was complicated. I am shown a chart hung on the wall, naming the various bones in the human body. “The doctor would use this chart to explain to the doctors. The only difficulty came in fixing an injury to the spine, because you cannot bandage it properly, and the ointment doesn’t seep into the wound as well.” So how many people ended up getting cured? “The people who complained of not having recovered did not have restraint, and would have alcohol though they had been asked to abstain.” Within the campus of the house and the clinic, there is a half-constructed structure. The current doctor’s son had started building it so the patients and their relatives could stay there.

Sundar Singh applies medicine on the patient's injury

But one day Sundar Singh, the father, had a dream in which his ancestors advised him to resume his practice, and he did. In the hut that is his clinic, there are some roots and leaves brought from the jungle. He grinds the roots using a mortar and a pestle. With the advent of a mixer, he started putting the ground medicines into it so it could turn out as fine paste. A makeshift switchboard for the electric grinder is tied to one of the wooden poles that holds the thatched roof in place. A partition creates another room, which has an earthen choolha, so if a patient or their family needs to stay overnight they can cook their food.

After he has bandaged the patient’s leg, Sundar Singh comes to this other room and sits on a plastic chair, “My father, grandfather, everyone did this work. It is in our DNA. Earlier we were treating animals more frequently. Now with motors on the road, it’s people.” He gets herbs and roots from the mountains. I had heard that at some places, despite Forest Rights Act protecting the rights of indigenous people over forest produce, forest officials had been preventing villagers from accessing them. Singh hasn’t faced that problem so far: “People in the government come here to get treated. If they stop me, who will cure them?” Precious medicines do get lost, Singh adds, when there are forest fires due to people’s recklessness. Local reporter Tameshwar Sinha speaks with awe of a deputy forest ranger, quite an exception compared to corrupt government officials, according to Sinha, who had got burnt himself while trying to quell a forest fire.

After applying the ointment, the injured area is bandaged

Doctor Sundar Singh also reads books on Ayurveda to aid his learning. “At times our gods enter our dreams and guide us when we are not treating a problem in the required way.” He also gets some medicinal leaves, etc., from the market. “First we used to quickly get what we were looking for in the forests. Now we have to find them.” Since construction and militarisation on a big scale started in the state, it has lost a lot of its forest cover.

What about the fee? “We never ask for money. What people are required to get are some gauze (earlier leaves and bark were used) and some oil that we recommend. Besides that sometimes people come with an offering, say, a coconut. Even if they don’t have anything it’s fine.”

The vaidya nods when I ask if he ever has to visit a doctor. “Yes, we also get fever, typhoid . . . Then we have to go. But because they know me, often they come here and see me. But this one time I did not feel better even after injections. So I just went into the forest and got the medicinal plants I needed and they worked.”

When local doctors like Singh go to the forest, they take what they need for the time being and leave the rest, saving the rest for others and for the generations to come. They agree that people, including some of their own, have now been lured to sell for greed, which depletes the resources without replenishing them.

I ask Brijesh Sahu, the patient, why he came to the village all the way from the city of Raipur. He says, “Hospitals are expensive and there are no guarantees. Here one is almost completely sure of results if they also eat, drink and abstain as prescribed by the doctor.”

The vaidyaraj shrugs, “Sure, if someone has extra money, like thirty-forty thousand rupees, they can go for an operation. Here we have had some people come here even after they had surgeries but still could not recover completely.”

A farmer and a healer

Doctor-farmer Mane Singh looking up at the garud tree, whose leaves are an antidote to snakebites

The second visit I make is to Mane Singh Kavde’s farm in Kanker’s Bewarti village, another herbal doctor. Before we meet him, we are asked to wait outside a closed poultry shop. A while later we head to his farm, which has vegetables, fruits and trees growing. We find Kavde in the greenhouse and start talking to him but the heat pushes us out where we spread a gunny sack on the ground and begin the conversation.

Unravelling the story of how he became the accidental doctor, Kavde says that while DNA is definitely responsible for the transfer of medicinal knowledge within the family, it usually skips a generation. But in any case, he says, this way each village ends up having its own surgeon. “Apart from that knowledge and what is communicated by my ancestors in dreams, I started doing my own research. Our body is a part of nature and therefore when we take in something natural the body readily accepts it. Illness is nothing but a lack of natural elements.”

He talks of disease caused by eating what we like, not what we need. “We realize the extent of the damage only after it is done. Our resistance is going down and the size of the capsules we swallow is growing. Our ancestors ate naturally grown greens. But our government is interested in metals, not food.” He is referring to the growing number of mining sites in the state. He calls vikas, or development, a synonym of materialism, condemning the sort of food “development” sells to its buyers, “The kind of food we are putting into our body these days is like putting iron into a grinder that is made to crush pulses.”

Kavde was a trader running a profitable business, until he fell sick and had to find and prepare his own medicines for his recovery. “In modern medicine, they give you fifty medicines for one disease. Nature is such that one thing here can treat fifty ills.” The medicines he gives are supposed to do a speedy job of killing the virus, while the discomfort caused by the malady takes a few days to end.

To introduce us to some of the medicinal properties of the vegetation growing around him, he first offers us some tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon Roxb.) fruits, saying having them once is supposed to boost immunity for the next six months. He plucks a few leaves off the garud tree, named after the mythological bird, supposed to be an antidote to snakebites. “But the patient has to be brought within an hour. It becomes a challenge if the heart shuts down.” Talking of the tree’s potency, he states that if a snake rests under the tree for too long, it would die. Around another tree is a creeper called giloy, or Tinospora cardifalia (Wild.), used for tying the bandage in case of a bone injury. Mane Singh distinguishes trees by their sex and uses their products accordingly. “If a tree has a thick bark, it is male. Women’s hearts are full of kindness, and so the bark of female trees would be soft, and can be chewed.”

Tendu fruits

With government subsidies and his own knowledge and hard work, Kavde’s farming practice has been flourishing. It did receive a slight setback though at a time when he was inundated with requests for appointments from patients. He recalls an obese, ill young man who was too sick to walk. “I prayed to my ancestral pen (god) powers and gave him twenty millilitres of a plant juice. By the time his family took out a stretcher to take him back after the treatment, he was fit enough to walk.” Others sitting around, my young guides in the village, discuss the case of the two-year-old who had holes in her heart, and was getting better with Kavde’s treatment. “But then,” Kavde recollects regretfully, “the family discovered that I knew about their same gotra (clan) marriage, and were embarrassed to visit me any more, as such marriages are against the rules of our community. It was a pity that feeling uncomfortable about it they stopped the child’s treatment.”

The biggest challenge for the “natural” doctor came when he had his first HIV patient. The nurse who came to see him about it had to get over her sense of shame, because of societal stigma around the affliction, before she could tell the vaidya that she had been diagnosed as HIV positive. It was Kavde’s first case and he did not know much about it. The woman kept asking him if she would get well. “I prayed for guidance and the medicines I was able to give her transformed her. Her pale face looked radiant on the next visit.”

Mane Singh's farm

With his popularity growing, Kavde has had to allot fixed dates and time for his practice, which he sees as knowledge sharing and not a commercial enterprise. Then he was able to have time once again to devote to his crops. But as a farmer some of his concerns continue. “Farmers are forced to sell some crops to traders at rates even lower than the minimum support price. Subsidies are not there for everything. It was better earlier when we could barter goods amongst ourselves. Now it is more difficult to afford because to buy something our neighbour is producing we have to approach the trader and pay him a higher rate. That’s why the development song rings hollow. Let the delegates visiting from other countries come to the villages, not the big cities, to see the ground realities. We were more developed earlier because there was more prosperity amongst people. Now the only thing actually getting developed is capitalism.”

Sundar Singh and Mane Singh, both the doctors adhere to the pledge which says a doctor’s first duty is to treat and heal the patients. Today hospitals in bigger cities and the fraudulent work done by quacks have also made sections of the population suspicious about indigenous medicines. Yet when this knowledge is appropriated, patented and packaged by pharmaceuticals and sold at high prices, the public puts its trust in the drugs. While the healers I met were concerned about this development as it limits access and corrupts the natural composition of the herbs, personally they have no urge to be competitive because healing is not a commercial enterprise for them. “Here,” Mane Singh says, “we share our knowledge with the community. It has been transferred to us from our elders to benefit people, not for profit making.” Perhaps this is why youth groups like KBKS, Koya Bhoomkal Kranti Sena, receive higher education as well as local trainings, and attend inter-state tribal meets, to educate themselves and fellow tribals about their rights, so that they both preserve their own traditions and resist vested interest groups from taking advantage of their knowledge and resources.

First published in Intercontinetal Cry, 23 Apr 2018, supported by the Centre for World Indigenous Studies.


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