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Molting like a Snake

A scenic drive winding through lush green paddy fields and casuarina plantations led us to Pinnal Nagar, a Irula hamlet at Kalvoy village in Kancheepuram District where 28 Irula families live. Sornalatha and Balaji, our contacts, seated us at the front of a concrete house. The entire community gathered curiously, and the children were the first to converse. They began with a rapid-fire round: "What is your name? Where do you come from? Can you speak Tamil?"

After introducing ourselves and explaining the purpose of our visit, Maragatham, an octogenarian, told us wistfully, "I don't know my age as I never attended school. I married Singaram when I was young. We had two sons. My elder son Kanniappan died due to illness when he was 40 years' old, and my younger son Dorai lives with his family here."

Maragatham tried to hold back her tears while remembering Kanniappan. She paused for a moment and introduced us to Dorai. Adjusting her spectacle strap fashioned out of a thin rope, she said, "My husband used to catch snakes and sell its skin while I grazed cattle. In those days, men went hunting and women worked as agricultural coolies. We received paddy grain instead of money and led a simple life eating fruits from the forest, rabbits, and rats. After the Indian Government banned the sale of snake skins in 1972, my husband also worked as a farmhand."

While I was engrossed conversing with Maragatham, four-year-old Punitha came up behind me and touched my hand. When I shuddered - I imagined snakes everywhere - she giggled.

Sornalatha drew herself closer and said, "Irula children join their parents in the hunt for rats and rabbits and can hold a snake with ease. Although educated, they follow our traditional customs and food habits."

Sornalatha, 35, is the Director of Adhivasi Social Service Educational Trust (ASSET) and has completed the Post Graduate Diploma in Social Initiative and Management at CSIM. When I asked how the Irulas made a living after the government imposed a ban on selling snake skins, she said, "As they had no other skill, they earned their living by doing coolie work. They either worked as farmhands during the sowing and harvesting seasons or worked in rice mills. They collected firewood from the forest to sell, and also engaged in fishing."

Post-tsunami, Sornalatha and Balaji were employed at Irula Tribal Women Welfare Society (ITWWS), a non-governmental organisation at Thandarai in Chengelpet for over three years. In 2009, they together launched ASSET with the objective of educating and empowering the Irula community.

Speaking about their advocacy efforts, Sornalatha said: "Out of the 37 tribes listed under the Scheduled Tribe category, Irula ranks fourth. It was a challenge for us to obtain ration cards and community certificates for our members, which is a necessary proof to avail government benefits like free school uniforms, fee scholarship, subsidy, and bank loans. We found it difficult to prove to the government that we belonged to the Irula community as they were of the impression that we would wear dirty clothes and appear shabby. At times, our community members had to even sing the traditional Irula song to prove their genuineness."

The Irula population in Tamil Nadu is estimated at six lakh. They are also found in various parts of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Maharashtra, and Karnataka. At Kalvoy village in Tamil Nadu there are about 91 families with a population of 320 who live in several settlements, and Pinnal Nagar is one of them. The government had allotted five acres of land to Pinnal, an Irula, in 1968 to establish his settlement, and today 28 families belonging to his lineage live here.

Most of the houses are thatched or semi-thatched and each has access to electricity and tap water. In 2009, the government of Tamil Nadu offered four families a grant of Rs. 75,000 each to construct concrete houses under the 'Kalaignar Veettu Vasathi Thittam' that was launched in 2010. This six-year programme aims to convert eligible huts in rural areas into concrete-roofed permanent houses by 2016. Of the 131,241 houses that were identified in Kancheepuram District for construction, the Scheduled Tribes were allocated a quota of 2.8 percent.

"I was the first Irula at Kalvoy to complete my tenth standard. I used to go hunting along with my father for snakes and rats when I was young. After I got married in 1995, I engaged in social work. I now work as an insurance agent and spend my free time to serve my community," said Balaji, Treasurer, ASSET.

As part of the Trust activities, Sornalatha and Balaji also run a free tuition centre in one of the thatched houses at Pinnal Nagar. "All the 20 children from this settlement study in government schools at Kilkalvoy and Melkalvoy and attend our tuition centre during evenings and weekends. We are planning to construct a bigger centre so that the children from the neighbouring hamlets can also attend. Besides studies, the children are taught music and dance and we have a cultural team that performs during school events and festivals," said Sornalatha.

Whilst Sornalatha was leading us to the temple, we heard a loud shriek. We saw Balaji hold a five-feet snake that squirmed restlessly. "This is 'garandiya' (rat-snake) and is harmless. They come to feed on rats," he said, proudly holding the snake by the neck. Vignesh, 15, wanted to hold it and pose for a picture and the rest of the children surrounded Balaji to have a close look.

Hiding my fear, I slowly slid away into one of the concrete houses and waited until Balaji released the snake in the nearby hillock. The stench of the snake was unbearable even from a distance of about 100 meters.

When he returned, we asked him to show us the rat burrows and demonstrate a capture. He promptly led us to the wasteland nearby, punched the fresh mud patches with a pole, and in one of the burrows caught two rats. "Do you know that these rats are healthier than chicken as they feed on herbs?" he asked rhetorically.

He carried them quietly to the hamlet and gave it to one of the community members. "Our ancestors used to depend on these rats for their food. When they found grains in the burrows, they spared the rat as a token of gratitude. But, today these will be served for dinner," he added.

As dusk neared, we noticed some children settling with their books to study. Sasi, 15, a first generation school-goer, was preparing for her tenth standard board examination. "I want to become a doctor. I would like to serve my community by offering free medicine and treatment. Although I scored only 200 marks in the model examination, I am working very hard to excel in the board examination," she said with hope.

Govindammal, 13, was helping her disabled grandmother Anjalakshmi grind mint leaves into a chutney on the grinding stone, and the aroma filled the air. Deenadayal led us to the nearby tree where the children were playing on the swing made of an old saree tied to a tree.

As we headed towards our vehicle, the children followed us and asked eagerly when we would come again.

~Marie Banu

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