The Kalrayan Hills project has been going on from the time I have started coming to Sittilingi. The girls I have befriended here tell me about the hills and needless to say, I am intrigued. One Monday afternoon, after the usual one train and two buses journey from Bangalore, I arrive at Tribal Health Initiative. By that evening, G, some of the health workers and I leave to Karumindurai to stay the night, armed with a big plastic container for water, some vegetables and a few eggs, one of which breaks along the way.
Early the next morning, we huddle into the THI jeep and drive to Vellimalai, where we have a branch for the out patient facility and for the health auxiliaries who will soon come in for training. Up a hill, we arrive at the house, painted a happy yellow with pink and green borders. I can see a whole range of hills from up there.
The owner who lives next door comes up to chat with G. inside, there is a flurry of activity, tables are moved about, the floor swept and the front room is cleared. Soon, the women start to arrive one after the other. Some are very late because the only bus to Vellimalai from their remote villages was late that day. There is no guarantee that the buses will come at all on some days, I am told.
The room fills up with voices soon. With my rudimentary Tamil I figure they are greeting each other and asking after mutual acquaintances and relatives. Gokul, the driver’s son is running about. A HA has brought her son along; he is quieter and peeps from behind his mother.
G begins to talk to them, drawing figures on the black sheet on the wall. I don’t understand that much of the language to follow what he is saying, though I know the HAs are learning something in pediatrics. After a while, they are made to repeat the procedure they would follow in their villages if a sick child came to them. They are also taught to take breathe counts and experiment with each other. I realize that some women don’t know how to tell the time! But the health workers explain to them with a big clock in hand.
The lessons continue inside the room. I let myself out to take a walk further along the road. There are more hills, green fields, monkeys, some cattle and many tribals that I meet. By the time I am back, it is nearly lunch time. The guy we buy the food from every week has given a lot of extra rice in each food packet, “for regular customers”, he says. We sit facing the hills and eat piping hot rice, vegetables and curry.
As we sit and talk afterward, it emerges that one of the women is from a village that still doesn’t have a bridge. Every monsoon, they have to hold tight on to ropes and precariously balance themselves to reach the other side of the swollen river. Then there are other villages, it comes up in conversation, which are so remote that the villagers have to walk 24 kilometres—one way—to reach Vellimalai! I almost heard myself gulp!
Yesterday, G told me about this patient who wanted a tubectomy done. She had had a baby just ten days ago. This woman had walked 4-5 hours to get a bus and then travelled some 2 hours to reach the hospital. Post surgery, she would again have to brave the hills and reach Neymalai, near Valapadi. In that delicate condition!
We get many cases like this at the base hospital and at the Vellimalai OP facility. For some it is a two day trip to come to Sittilingi. They still come. That is why the training of health auxiliaries is so important. The crucial first treatment will be given in the villages itself. The training is nearing completion. Post Pongal festival, we hope to start the field work.
The training class was great fun. After serious lessons, everyone started giggling and talking. They posed for pictures for me and waved goodbye with bright, toothy smiles. They still had a long way to go. There is still a long way to go.