Lakshana Palat

BOOK REVIEW: White as Milk and Rice

Normally, the words ‘Indian tribes’ bring forth a series of fixed images in our minds, fed by mainstream cinema: Men and women working in wild jungles, video clips of them dancing for tourists who are eager to circulate these clips and photos over the Internet. While intrigued, and perhaps sympathetic, most of us are content with our birds-eye view of a world that’s altogether too ‘different’ to comprehend. And that’s what ‘White as Milk and Rice’ seeks to change.

In her own words, author Nidhi Dugar Kundalia in her latest book ‘White as Milk and Rice’ does not bring the ‘margin to the centre’, but instead, makes the margin a ‘place of reality’.  With delicate emphasis, Kundalia attempts to weed out negative imagery that has formed of the tribal communities, and this is reflected in the title itself.  Kundalia herself explains why. For over a century, the Kurumbas were ostracised owing to their knowledge of sorcery and witchcraft, which consequently led them to be estranged from employment opportunities and education. In order to free themselves from these destructive stereotypes, the Kurumbas added the name ‘Alu’ before their names. ‘Alu’ means milk in Kannada, indicating their harmless nature. Meanwhile, the Halakkis, who have suffered similar aversion, credit their name to the rice they grow, which is white as milk. And, hence, the title.

Rich with oral narratives, Kundalia draws us into the lives of six isolated Indian tribes, who are reeling from the discomfiting transition into a rapidly changing world. It’s the battle of identities, the desire to hold on to tradition and to avoid being swept off into ‘modernity’. In this book, she shows us their perspective and what are the exact thoughts that assail them, as they see their land being encroached on, their children enrolled in ‘factory schools’, and the desire to stay in the comfortable familiar.

Kundalia has done admirable and remarkable research on six communities from across the country. Distanced from not just the cities but the villages as well, their interactions with the world in general are scarce, and restricted to just commercial gains. Through the eyes of people from each community, Kundalia shows us their life story. Rather than placing herself in the narrative, she steps aside and lets us hear it from them. We experience their trials, tribulations and joys. It’s this gentle and curiously unsentimental narrative that makes ‘White as Milk and Rice’ such a riveting read, and not a run-of-the-mill ethnographical account.

We meet Sukri from the Halakki tribe, Pangshong from the Konyak tribe who unearths riveting details about his culture from grand-uncle Wangloi, a warrior along with Birsu’s ‘ghotal’ life. Birsu gets increasingly concerned about the big corporations destroying her jungles. The fireflies have vanished, and the Mahua trees are collapsing because of the storms. There is deforestation and their homeland is being taken away, eliminating traces of their old familiar life and thrusting them into the hyper-globalised world. The question that is running through their minds: What is the meaning of this forced integration with ‘mainstream’ society, and what will it bring? They wait for the answers.

Kundalia is emphatic that these stories she has weaved are not representative of the whole tribe, but rather, they echo the challenges the community faces on a daily basis.

An impactful read, the stories of ‘White as Milk and Rice’ linger on, even after you put the book down. 

Article by Lakshana Palat

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