A few days ago, I went on an impromptu visit to a tribal village at supper time, with a group of people who were carrying out a nutritional assessment there.
Tribal people are a complex entity in India. There are many different tribal populations throughout the country, mainly in remote and hilly places, but they don’t seem to be equivalent to the indigenous Maoris of New Zealand, or the Native Americans for example. For example, in Tamil Nadu, the tribal members are viewed with suspicion and distrust by the “locals” as having weird and strange customs, yet they are Hindu, speak Tamil and look Dravidian. To the outsider, they seem to be culturally equivalent, but not to those in the know. Their main difficulty is lack of land rights. Without land-owner ship they are destined to work for others, as they cannot generate any income from farming. The tribal people I visited are traditionally snake catchers. In this capacity only, they are tolerated by the locals, who are happy to have snakes removed from their homes, but don’t want to mingle with them socially or allow their women folk to marry any of them. Again, to an outsider, this seems no different to the other many, many castes prevalent in India, which dictate the job, for example rope-makers, latrine cleaners, sweet-makers, leather tanners and lifestyle you and your entire family for generations must have. The strength of these castes is most powerful in the villages where there is little social mobility or migration. It strikes me that the tribal people are just another bottom-dwelling caste ostracised by those microscopically higher up the social scale. They are another marginalised group amongst the myriad of others scattered liberally throughout the land.
Unfortunately, as if life weren’t hard enough, having been too successful at catching snakes, they have worked themselves out of a job. There are not to many snakes endangering villages, and the few serpentine intruders seen are not enough to keep those, for whom this is their only source of income, in the money. They have tried to redress this by diversifying to catching rats, but this too is hardly going to reverse their fortunes and make them millionaires.
As they have no land to farm, not only is their income restricted, but their diet is also limited to what they can find or catch. It is for this reason that RUHSA staff wanted to carry out a nutritional assessment and what better time to go than suppertime, when pots are steaming and people are gathering.
At first, they seem genuinely irritated to be disturbed at such a crucial moment in order to answer impertinent questions about what they eat, when, how often etc; especially as their stomachs were probably gurgling in anticipation at the smells coming from the pots and having Important People barging in simply meant a delay in tucking in.
Questions flew backwards and forwards about the contents of the pot. Did it contain enough carbs, protein, vitamins. It looked like brinjal (aubergine) at first and then I looked more closely. There was a tiny leg floating in it. Having relaxed slightly and accepted our intrusion as an inevitable delay to eating, and probably in an attempt to hurry us on our way, they offered us moresels of this delectable feast to the Honoured Guests. Of course I couldn't refuse, that would be rude and I'm always ready for new gastronomic experiences.
It tasted like chicken. Just kidding, more like pheasant and even more stringy. I think they left the skin on and I was picking squirrel fur out of my teeth for ages afterwards. It could have been much worse. The next door-neighbours were having rat curry.