What does the Fox Say ???
A kuravar selling beads
“Who are you” — A diminutive young girl with dirty ruffled hair and a glazed stare asked when a friend and I stepped into their gypsy colony behind the Kottur Market to ask its inhabitants the exact same question.
Kotturpuram in Chennai is listed in Wikipedia as the locality of stalwarts from the world of business, politics and culture.
There was no mention of the people whom I was looking out for, even though five generations of the Narikuravas (Fox Catchers) had been living in and around the area.
Gowri, a bead seller from the Narikurava community who I’d met at the Besant Nagar beach earlier had advised me to meet B.M John Rajkumar, president, Tamil Nadu Narikuvar Samudaya Sangam for further details about the 300 families living in their locality.
After getting directions from 7 different people, we finally reached the place to find that Rajkumar was out of town; his daughters then guided us to meet Manoharan, the general secretary of the Sangam.
With over 3500 people and 3000 registered voters among them, the dwellers are living a life of constant neglect, public and government apathy.
“We pay our water taxes but still the corporation workers ask extra money for unclogging our drains. Roads have never been laid here in all these years. Do they do the same thing in your locality?” asked Mariyappan, a 10th standard drop-out who now picks garbage for a living.
The Narikuravars are famous for their jewellery made out of beads and brass, but the younger generations are aware of the dwindling fortunes in that market and find rag-picking to be a much more lucrative option.
Though boutiques around the city buy their jewellery and sell it for a higher price, the profit margin for these gypsies seems to be very minimal.
The Kuravars are also known for their homemade medications to soothe ailments like headaches, migraines, sinuses, back and neck pains.
“Though we have been living on roads and in penury for so long, our food habits and culture ensures that we hardly get diseases unlike you people who enjoy facilities like air-conditioning” said Manoharan, prompting the small crowd gathered around him to erupt into peals of laughter.
His voice was earnest and filled with pride when he showed the various photo albums and the coffee-table book made on his community which gave a sneak peek into the history of the culturally rich and diverse Narikuravars.
While glancing at the photos, I noticed the guns and traps that they used for hunting seemed to be showcased extensively. Unfortunately for them, hunting was not legal anymore in India.
“We are basically hunters who are trained to do just that, not only for commercial reasons but also for our daily food. But the law now says that we cannot do it. They fine us Rs 30000 if we hunt animals and birds in the forests” said Mohan while handing me one of his licensed guns that were useless to him except to fulfil the requirements of getting married to a girl from his community.
It took a four and a half decade long struggle for this community to be given the Scheduled Tribe status. With no proper status and not been given “Land Patta” for their individual houses, the Kuravars are not sanctioned loans by the banks citing them to be nomads who do not have a permanent address.
Though they all seem to have accounts in various nationalised banks, Manoharan feels it to be as pointless as the guns they own.
“We have only 200–300 in our accounts and even that cannot be withdrawn citing the minimum balance requirement.”
While lauding the demonetization move by the Government of India, they added that it is put them under extreme duress because their daily income has taken a hit and it is impossible for them to provide change for the new Rs 2000 note when even providing change for Rs 1000 used to be a headache.
The government does provide sops and help them during calamities like last year’s floods and this year’s cyclone, but considering the huge numbers present in the colony, they find this to be inadequate.
With a very eclectic food habit when compared to the other inhabitants in that area, they find that the tolerance towards them has grown over the years and they are also slowly finding acceptance in the society.
Good Samaritans from across the city have helped them in their times of need and one Fr.Samivel takes care of the daily provisions for their community and also runs a tuition centre for the 48 kids who study in the nearby corporation school.
“We are people and so are the others. We co-exist and I don’t think it is that big a deal” felt Mohan who did say that the safety of their women is taken care of because they always carry a long sharp knife that they use for picking garbage.
Looking at the friend who was with me, Soni, the wife of Manoharan said, “She might have a problem if she walks alone in this area, but her safety is guaranteed if one of our women accompanies her. The guys in this area know better than to misbehave with us.”
Looking at the number of women and children in the locality, we had to ask the question of sanitation and health care in the colony.
Manoharan talked about how the women in their colony used to prefer normal childbirth, but now are visiting hospitals like the other people. Medical camps are conducted frequently for the benefit of the people in the colony.
He then said that for normal ailments they use their homemade medications.
“Close your eyes and remove your glasses” said Manoharan and applied some oil to our temples.
There was a searing burning feeling in my head and my eyes started to water and I felt blinded. The immediate reaction was to safeguard my wallet and mobile phone from them and the unified feeling the both of us had was that this was how we might meet our end.
We thought we’d be robbed or even worse, dead.
When the pain finally subsided and I could open my eyes, I saw the crowd around me beaming and saying that this oil is effective for headaches and sinuses.
There was a disturbing sense of embarrassment and I realised how deep-rooted the prejudice against the Narikuravars still continues, though they were denotified in 1952 after being part of the Criminal Tribes Act 1871.
Ravi, a Kuravar youth took me to the terrace of a house to show the entire locality from a vantage point. He showed the vast expanses of land that used to be inhabited by gypsy families which have now been taken away by the various housing societies and lamented how they are now restricted to a small section.
“The younger generation are literate but that is not enough. The government and other agencies could provide us with basic life skills training like tailoring and beautician courses that can provide employment opportunities to them. Most of them are 10th standard dropouts, so all they can do is join the jewellery trade or rag-picking or resort to thievery” said Ravi in a very normal tone.
A nomadic tribe that is known for their hunting skills was now forced to hunt for garbage in and around the city of Chennai.
Looking at the condition of those people I got reminded of the directions given to their colony.
“Go straight and take the left adjoining the Vinayagar (Lord Ganesh) temple.”
It was ironic that though a member of the tribe is deified as the wife of Lord Muruga (Lord Ganesh’s brother), the tribe as a whole seems to have not been represented in the bureaucracy and forgotten by the society at large.
Basically, we have systematically and effectively let our gods down.