Story 9: The Last Tribe
Deep in the jungles of Bastar, a young tribal woman goes about her morning chores. She is barefoot, dressed in a soft cotton sari which lightly covers her breasts.
Like the ladies in lockdown are discovering, life is really so free, without a bra.
Basa heads into the forest, with a basket fashioned from bamboo leaves. Here, far from civilisation, there are no grocery shops selling atta and dal, packaged food or water. You eat what the forest provides you – fruit, shoots, herbs, leaves and eggs. On most days, Nature is generous. There is enough – and more – to keep the stomach satisfied.
She heads back to the village, humming a Gondi tune under her breath. Her 4 year old son and 2 year old daughter are awake and playing outside the hut.
“Wait, my child I will prepare food for you,” she said, tenderly scooping up the baby in her arms.
Basa opened the storeroom to bring out some firewood. This was a recent addition to her modest home. A year ago, some government contractor came and did a survey. They built a room with a hole in the ground, for every home in the village. They said it was a ‘toilet’. But why should anyone go to the toilet inside a room when they have the vast, open jungle for the same purpose?
The young mother prepared a gruel of kodo millet and some paste from the green leafy vegetables she had collected that morning. Tired with the exertions of the day, she took a swig from a small earthen jar. The liquid penetrated her throat and warmth spread throughout her body. As a drowsy feeling swept over her, she lay down on the cool mud floor.
In her dream world, Basa was a little girl, helping her mother in the forest.
“Look what I found,” her mother exclaimed with excitement. There, in the leaves of the sal tree, were ingredients for a chutney which they all relished. The older woman carefully collected as much as she could carry and hurried back. She pounded the chapda with a mortar and pestle, added chili and salt, and tasted it. Mmm… just the right amount of zing.
Someone was at the door of the hut, calling out her name. Basa, and all her neighbours, were being asked to report at the headman’s hut. A stranger in a white coat was standing there, a long line of men, women and children stretched out in front of him. He took a long needle and jabbed into every extended arm.
Basa didn’t even feel the prick, really. The sting of the red ant was much more potent. And the ant was everywhere. You never knew when it might climb onto your body.
There is an old saying in Gondi, “The brave one sits on the anthill without crying out.”
Dr Deepak Mehra sat on a stool but certainly felt like he qualified for a medal of bravery. It had been a long 8 hour journey by road from Raipur to Bastar district. And from there, an open jeep into the jungle, the last half hour by foot. The government had gone mad – they wanted to test random samples in every taluka of every district across the country.
Who would do the job? Young MBBS doctors like him, of course.
A week later, a high-level meeting chaired by Amitabh Kant examined the data from the nationwide effort. And a single figure caught his eye. A tiny backward pocket in Chhattisgarh had zero Covid cases. Was something wrong with the data? A team would have to be dispatched at once, to re-examine them…
3 months later, the International Journal of Virology carried a paper written by Dr Mehra et al:
“The tribals in a remote district of India called Bastar have high natural immunity, thanks to their traditional diet. Alcohol distilled from the mahua plant (Madhuca longifolia) is used for treating cold, cough, bronchitis and other respiratory disorders…”
Researchers also noted that the oft-consumed red ant chutney had strong anti-viral properties.”
A Sanjeevani vaccine to combat novel coronavirus will soon be available… to all.