January 06, 2005

Girls under a tree

On the crest of the rise behind Shanmuganagar, the slope on which the sari-ed tents flap in the evening breeze, stand some obviously Muslim, obviously wealthy women. They come, they go, they stand there, more come and more go. After speaking to the Irulas for a while, my curiosity is piqued. What are those women doing, I ask the Irulas.

Oh, there's a dargah there, they say. Let's go see.

So we trudge through the sand, between the saris, up and over the tent. What's on the other side is like a scene from a Merchant/Ivory film about the British Raj. Five young women, again obviously wealthy and three obviously Muslim, are cavorting -- let me say, this is the moment I truly understood that word -- under a tree. They are throwing stones and large sticks up into the leaves, and wolfing down the berries that drop to the sand. Noticing that I am looking at them, and the tree, and the sticks and stones, in some wonder, one of them runs up and without a word, hands me a berry. It is almost unbearably sour. Just beyond them is the dargah, a splendid old structure with a large dome.

I feel like I am in a dream. Not 25 yards behind me are nearly destitute people preparing to bed down for the night under flimsy pieces of cloth attached to poles. In front of me is a shady tree and a gorgeous building and these girls running about.

Apart from handing over the berry, there's not one bit of communication between the girls on one hand, and the Irulas and me, on the other. They won't even answer when I ask what this berry is. So after sniffing around the dargah a bit -- I politely say no to the old caretaker woman's murmured question about whether I want to go in -- we trudge back up the sandy slope. Back to the saris.

Who are these people, I asked the Irulas. Do they come to help you, offer you food? (This question, because I remember the Parangipettai Muslims who have been so generously feeding people in villages in this area).

No, say the Irulas. Sometimes they stand on the ridge and laugh at us. Sometimes we take food to them. (My eyebrows must have risen at that, because they nod their heads and repeat it). The Muslims from Parangipettai help us, but not these women.

I don't know what to make of this. But as I said, I now know what "cavorting" means, and having found out in this place, I'm not sure I like the word much.

1 comment:

Janaki said...

your writing gives me hope and courage and faith that the world is not the bad place we all believe it has become. Your reselience amazes me and may God give you all the strength to help more people.