Kutrumali’s Demons by Dr Randall Sequeira

Kutrumali – a Kutiya Kondh indigenous village on an aluminium-ore rich plateau is part of the community health program of Swasthya Swaraj. The tribals might soon have to face the same troubles that their cousins faced in the Niyamgiri hills of the neighbouring district.

When I had last visited Kutrumali with Kumar Singh, 6 months ago, to do a small awareness meeting on malaria, I was amazed by a number of things. The length and tedium of the long-winding journey and treacherous‘short-cut road’, the absolutely flat table-top plateau-head at the end of the uphill trudge, the quaint village on one end of the plateau surviving at this height without a water source, and its resilient tribal villagers ekeing out a living from the bauxite riddled fields.

So I was really excited when the boss-woman mooted the idea of a small village camp for vulnerable groups hiding away in the village during the monsoons, as 6 months is a long time. I arrived a little late on the morning of 27th Sept at Kerpai, where Lisa was waiting for me since early in the morning. She had heard about a festival taking place at Kutrumali in the morning and was eager to leave as soon as I arrived but I delayed leaving till after lunch very thoughtlessly – assuming that it was just a passing celebration. By the time a late lunch, a few unexpected patients and a hiccup with our plans had combined to delay us till 3pm and infuriate Lisa so much as to have her leave with our nurse Basanti on the road to Kutrumali. Anuja and I followed sheepishly, crossing the river slipping and sliding guiltily as the delayers-in-chief.

Now, though Lisa had hurried on, she didn’t really know the route and called us in the limited network circle of Kerpai (a new phone tower set up due to the largesse of Airtel) to egg us on and catch up. We did just at the fateful turn where the steep shortcut up the hill begins. We had often looked up to see flashing lights on the road in the night from the Kerpai health centre, fantastically fooling ourselves into believing that these might be naxals signalling to each other, but luckily our only live companion on the road was an inebriated and partly comatose resident of Kerpai, napping by the side of the road. The road up the hill gave us a magnificent birds-eye view of the Kerpai, Kachalekha and Gopapada villages and we also had the company of Billu, our canine clinic guardian who followed us dutifully up the hills. As the slope straightened out, I impressed on everyone the empty resonant echoes our footfalls made on the mineral-rich rocky path that we traversed – the cheddar that everyone was after.

As we got closer to the village of Kutrumali, we got numerous pilgrims returning from the festival in the fading sunlight, back home to their villages of Majhigaon, Kerpai and Tadadei, that only increased the speed with which Lisa walked so she would get to watch some part of the Porbo (festival). Sadly, I realized then that we were already late and got into a conversation with one Ramsingh who was the husband of one of our Swasthya sathis. He waxed eloquent about Jami-Porbo invoking the Dharti devta and the Guruguniya of the village – he was apparently childless for 10 years after his wedding and then managed to have a baby girl and twins thereafter. He said that all those couples who were barren made sacrifices at the festival of goats, chicken or buffalo-calves asking the guniya to walk on burning coal embers and sit on a seat of thorns and he did it for them to have their one wish of children being fulfilled.

Due to my long conversation, I seemed to have lost my colleagues, Basanti, Lisa and Anuja and after passing through the village and school quickly I made my way to a festooned arch close to the second pada of the village, thinking they might be there. All that remained though was the skeleton of bamboo that signified shops and stores that had packed up, a pit with coals that were now cooling off with mahuli (the local-alcoholic brew made of mahua flowers) in pots at both ends of the pit and a man teasing the carcass of a headless bull calf. This man under influence himself, showed me the temple that had multiple offerings of fresh-picked grains and then took me to the second pada where I met the guniya of the village. He had long hair, tied behind, high cheekbones with sunken eyes and a dirty orange lungi worn with a white vest with Mercedez insignia in green on it. I greeted him and spoke in my version of cobbled together Odiya and minimally verby Kuwi while he conveyed to me that I could come by later for dinner. I wanted to stay but had to find my companions, so I made my way back to the school where pilgrims from various villages were busy cooking a meal and I noticed the three women in the middle of this raucous crowd. As evening gave way to night I noticed a change in the village though that wasn’t quite there before. Lights twinkled on in the gathering darkness in different parts of the village numbering to almost 12 where 6 months ago, there was just one light in the centre connected to a faulty solar panel, that had a life of its own but sputtered to a dim glow at regular intervals. These lights shone brightly though, beacons of God-knows-what in the darkness. Then I remembered the Chief Medical Officer of the block telling me about the new solar lights in Kutrumali. The CMO and his group had a 3monthly, Larssen and Tubro (L&T) Mining wing sponsored picnic to Kutrumalion a health check-up.

I made my way to Shanti’s house(she was our swasthya sathi) to get us some utensils to cook and dry firewood lost in how the large metal beams and roof like panels now changed the entire outlook of the village. There was now also a company-sponsored solar pump that brought up water to the school. When I returned with the firewood I got from the kind Shanti (she was really generous despite being recently removed from her job because of having self-appointed a helper who demanded extra wages we couldn’t pay), the pilgrims helped us light our own cook-fire and we settled down into the school as our home for the night. Although we struggled to make our tea and a meal of mixed vegetable Khichdi especially with the fire, we soldiered on, with the discussion veering from fire lighting and maintaining strategies, to the Jami-porbo that we missed toKutrumalis school teacher who had now started providing a regular mid-day meal but was also the biggest advertiser for the good that L&T brought to the village of Kutrumali..

The evening also brought with it, the sound of music from the village and drums from the guniya pada. As the sky further darkened and our khichdi cooked merrily on the flame though, a dreary fog set in, eating up all the trees that cut our line of sight from the village and slowly engulfing and de-kindling the lights in the village till we realised we were shrouded in it and couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead. It got colder, and although the drizzle had stopped we did manage to see or imagine a couple of floating lights in the thick of this mystery mist that we had no explanation for and shivered through. The drums beat on though and I convinced myself that those drifting lights had to be solar charged torches and slowly the fog cleared with the moon winning out in this battle of light and blindness just as our warm, spicy khichdi was ready. After our dinner, we made our way to the village to see the Majhi youngster dancing a sinuous beat in their typically circular fashion. Shanti again came to our rescue with blankets and promised to get all the pregnant mothers and children for a check-up early at 6 in the morning.

We came back to the school and after completing our jigsaw puzzle of bedsheet covers we lay down to sleep with Basanti cherishing her first trek in the hills, Anuja nursing a cold, Lisa fighting her sleep demons and me thinking of Tolkien’s book, The Hobbit. The school, had a seepy roof with drops collecting and dripping from it, forming a weird cave-like atmosphere (I’m sure the school students didn’t like it) and though the windows were all closed the cold seeped in through the floor and the gaps, not all of a sudden but insidiously enwrapping all of us . The drums from the village continued till early morning and I heard vague conversations taking place either in dream or reality, I know not, out of the school door. A combination of the mysterious mist, the dripping stalactite roof, Lisa’s sleeplessness, the drums and the dream-like conversation and my thoughts likening us to the hobbits lying safe in Beorns Home while the sounds of a feral Animal Dance in the dangerous night played outside, lulled me fretfully to some shut-eye. It wasn’t that feared for myself then. I feared for this rustic village high up on a hill, with its quirky people and guniyas, its dancing men and women, its corn fields and mango trees and all the forces from outside (including us from Swasthya Swaraj) that endeavoured to change their destiny. Who would be Beorn for them – Did he have to rise up from within.

We got up the next morning, to a glorious sunrise, though and a line of mothers with toddlers. I heard the same sickening story of a stillbirth here and an infant death there, of children with bones showing and bellies protruding, of an inability to visit the hospital because of a drunken husband and too many mouths to feed and of fevers roiling and ebbing for months but I stuck to our job there, creating solutions where I could with the help of Anuja, Lisa and Basanti – what would I do without this team?

After the mothers had left we returned to Shanti her blankets and utensils and I assured her that I would smoothen out her problems with the Swathya Swaraj. We left Kutrumali with a weird mixture of disturbed feelings and hope.

The people

Kumar Singh: Field animator in charge of monitoring health and education related work in a cluster of 6 villages

Shanti: Swasthya Sathi in Kutrumali –the local voluntary health worker

Anuja: Nutrition program coordinator, in charge of monitoring malnutrition among children in our project area

Basanti: ANM and community nurse

Lisa: Education program coordinator, in charge of making schools and the Mid-day meal program functional in our project area

Guniya: The local shaman 

Me: Randall, doctor

Dr Randall Sequeira graduated from St. John’s Medical College and then did his M.D. in Internal Medicine at S.M.S Jaipur. His passion to improve access to healthcare has led him to do work extensively in health centres located in remote, resource-constrained parts of the country.

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