Its been just over two months since fieldwork began and the going has been good but it hasn’t always been easy. Negotiating difficult terrain and possibly dangerous animal encounters are among a few of the daily occupational hazards making it a job almost impossible to do solo. When the going gets tough I find myself relying heavily on my friend, partner and field assistant Dorai, a middle aged Paliyar tribesman from a small village called Kuthiraiyar close to Palani.
The Paliyar people are the original inhabitants of the Palanis and were traditionally food gatherers and are thought to have lived in the Palanis to close to 2000 years. They lived in the forest subsisting mainly on edible tubers, roots, wild fruits and honey, but have had to take on varying occupations to sustain themselves in changing times.
I first met Dorai three years ago when the two of us were part of a small team studying wild foods like tubers and yams in the forests near his home .
Dorai seemed to know the jungle intimately and had a quiet, almost gentle way of interacting with the forest, a quality that drew me to him almost immediately. When I got the approvals for the project, I needed a field assistant and I couldn’t think of anyone better than Dorai. In the last couple of months Dorai has guided me through some magnificently treacherous terrain and on more than one occasion prevented us from wandering smack into the middle of elephant herds. He has also saved our lives on several occasions by finding water in small hidden springs and once by guiding us to a safe refuge in near total darkness on a stormy night. In addition to the obvious benefits of his company, his knowledge of the jungle and its life forms has made my time with him a learning experience. His general conduct and way of living is also remarkable. Dorai lives very simply. He is extremely adaptable, able to survive and be content in almost any situation. In a small backpack slung across his tiny frame, he carries the entirety of his material world… along with our lunchboxes. He never asks for anything, and waits patiently to for his needs to be met… almost like the forest itself. It made me really think about how people from my socio-economic background live.
As Dorai and I continue on this journey together, I know that we will have many more adventures and discover a lot about ourselves in the process. I’m glad to share this experience with him.
1. Dhruv Athreye in February 2018 began a survey of mammals in the Palani Hills and is publishing notes of his field work.