Every time I go to Sittilingi, there is a lot of work that I try to finish in the 3-4 days that I am there. But the last time around, it was the beautiful festival of Pongal and I spent my days there walking around the villages and skipping across farms into houses to eat lots of vegetables, fruits and Pongal. I also got to talk to a lot of tribals, something I absolutely love doing. They are a very simple, friendly lot of the merely curious kind when they ask you a million questions; it is not prying into your private life as those corrupted by city existence would term it. I got to ask many questions myself and realized that when you scratch below the surface and peer through the tall blades of the sugarcane stalks, what you see is a society that is holding itself back with many age old regressive norms and superstitions.
It started one afternoon over lunch when Tha told me about this young boy of just 19 years whose marriage had been fixed with his cousin from the hills. I kept saying “19 years!” with a question mark on my face and incredulousness in my voice. The girl in question is 17 years and the couple is sort of in love; though neither is in any hurry to get married. Tha told me about the whole family drama that ensued, with high voltage aunts, a meek father, a crying mother and a confused boy all thrown in. The underage couple must be married already now, even as I write this. Another two lives have ended, even before they have actually begun in any way.
The hospital and all the initiatives that go with it today have been around for two decades now. G and Tha have been relentlessly working to create awareness in healthcare and also to bring the tribals a little forward in their thinking and in their practices. Several inroads have been well laid in either of the areas, yet, there remain a few aspects of the ancient tribal society that hold them back from embracing progress completely.
Child marriages, or rather, underage marriages are still very common. If you should ask, yes, there is a law which makes them illegal; the parents can be sent to jail for trying to get underage children married off. But we are talking about villages deep into the hills which are miles away from ‘modern’ ideals, let alone police stations. There are few complaints, if any. What is worrying is that this has been the tribal way for centuries and they refuse to understand why they need to change.
Promises to marry the girl off to her cousin is made sometimes when they are in their cradles; the promises kept as soon as the girl turns old enough to bear children. By the time a tribal girl turns 25, she is already mother to at least two children who are already going to school! I discuss this with Manju, the office staff at Svad and Porgai initiatives, one day in Bangalore during an exhibition when we are waiting for people to walk in through the gates. He is city-educated and though his home is in the hills, Manju is progressive and utterly modern in thought. He tells me that a tribal girl rarely remains unmarried at say 20-22 years. In quick succession, they have kids and the rut of domesticity sinks in faster than for others. “By the time they are 30 years old, they have no more enthusiasm left for life,” he point out, very rightly. I understand then the look of sometimes sheer shock on the faces of people when I tell them I am not married yet. Half of them think I am still below 25 (good for me!!) and the other half think I have no hope left, being an old woman already!
I understand a community’s practices rather well. The tribal one is where they marry early, perhaps a remaining vestige of a once very low life expectancy. It reminds me of the Earth’s Children book series by Jean M Auel, a phenomenally well researched saga set in pre-historic Neanderthal and Cro-Magnan man eras. In that age, a man of 30 was a wizened old soul who would walk with the help of a stick and needed to be taken care of by sons or by ‘women’ 10-12 years old!
A community is progressive and more likely to withstand the passage of eras and time if it has the ability to move ahead with new practices. The key is to embrace the new and turn it into the community’s traditions instead of clinging on to archaic ideas that once made sense. With underage marriages and other practices that are also detrimental to the individual and collective progress of the female in the tribal society, the tribals are succeeding only in holding themselves back. What is instead needed is a deep rooted faith in their culture, yet a modern approach to its daily practice.
It is sad to see girls barely out of their teens hoisting a child on their waists and dragging themselves along. I hope for change; hope is always the best sustainable tool after all. Meanwhile, I have resigned myself to feel ancient whenever another tribal asks how many children I have!