“The Oraon or Kurukh tribe (Kurukh: Oṛāōn and Kuṛuḵẖ), also spelled Uraon or Oram, are a Dravidian linguistic group inhabiting states of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. A large number of Oraon have migrated to tea garden of Assamand West Bengal. Their language is Kurukh, which belongs to dravidian languages family. They use Sadri, a lingua-franca of the area to communicate with other tribal and non-tribal people. Traditionally, Oraons depended on the forest and farms for their ritual and economic livelihood, but in recent times, a few of them have become mainly settled agriculturalists. Small numbers of Oraons have migrated to the northeastern part of India, where they are mainly employed in tea estates. Population estimates are unreliable, but the total population is estimated to be around 3.5 to 4.5 million people.” Wikipedia
Sharmila (Milo) moved into our house in an afternoon in the year 2000. I was in standard IV, Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai had just released and all I wanted was to be Hrithik Roshan’s wife. Thankfully a lot has changed since then. Her father, who at some point worked with my father, had sent her over so she could study and have a better life in the city.
Before she even settled in, my first words to her were if she liked Hrithik too, she nodded yes and that’s how our friendship began. Growing up, she saw all my phases- the tomboy phase, the boy crazy phase, the bitchy phase and the person I am now, who she refused to acknowledge. While she remained the same– level headed, disciplined and determined.
We spent afternoons talking about our plans for the future, unbeknownst to us that everything would change post-high school. When we completed our education- she decided to move back home to prepare for armed forces and I moved to Delhi to pursue college ( a tryst that I could never finish ). Our meetings soon became scarce but she made it a point to stay in touch, a virtue that I quite unabashedly lack.
While I was busy chasing the city lifestyle, changing cities, falling in love and getting my heart broken, she got married to a guy her family found for her. She passed all preliminary rounds for Police training but she got pregnant and there her dream was tossed out of the window and her life was over before she even had a chance to see the light. Postpartum depression that was left unattended made way to something bigger and when we finally met in 2018, 4 years since we last met, she broke down and told me that she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has been under medication that makes her sleep all day. I was left speechless.
Between our chats, I also realised that apart from a few short visits to drop her home for summer vacations while we were growing up, I never really got a chance to spend time with her family or understand her culture (the teenager in me didn’t feel that was important). I quite forcibly invited myself over to her place to film a video for my YouTube and she made herself a checklist to help me understand the Oraon life. This brought in a fresh zest of energy into her life and a whole new purpose to work towards.
December was when we all agreed it would be a good time to visit her home and after a couple of months of her calling me at ungodly hours to plan everything to the last bit, it was time for our visit. My mother and brother accompanied me as we commenced our road trip. A couple of hours from Siliguri, Milo stayed with her husband’s family at Matidhar Tea Estate- home to a sizeable number of people from the Oraon tribe who had migrated here to work in tea estates. Many of them converted to Christianity from their original beliefs of animism (Sarna Dharma) and some even practised popular Hinduism rituals of the regions they settled in without letting go of their animist ideals.
Milo and her family had only just converted to Catholicism because she was tired of her husband’s rampant drinking problem and she needed a permanent solution to abstain him from drinking. She very eagerly took me around her house, as soon as we reached, showing me the manger that she had built for Christmas from a few days ago. Pratibha, her daughter introduced me to her little friend, Ipshita– who couldn’t quite make up her mind if she wanted to be friends with me.
The festivities started soon after. Girls decked in beautiful yellow and red sarees sang hymns praising Jesus while matching steps to the drumbeat. They warmly asked me to join them and I couldn’t have been happier. After a little chat with the locals from the tea estate, we learnt that various Oraon subtribes and people from other tribes also happily co-existed in the locality. We also made a short visit to check their irrigation facility that drew its water from the Balason river. After all this, we were starting to feel slightly peckish.
The lunch spread was laid out and we were delighted at just the sight of it. From parab rotis– mildly sweet, round balls of dough that comprised of semolina, wheat, coconut and crushed peanuts, a spicy beef curry, broken rice, dal, and pennywort (thankuni) leaves stir-fried with potatoes.
The food left us very well satiated and as dusk slowly crept in, families began to prod fire in their yards to warm themselves for the brash winter night that was to follow. With that, we got our clue to head home from this simple oasis of her village life and embrace the cacophony of the city. Milo, as a token of love, wanted to gift us a rooster that guests are given as part of the Oraon culture. But we couldn’t take the bird back so we asked her to set it free (I am convinced they made a country chicken curry out of him the very next day).
On my way back, I couldn’t help but count the pros of slow living amidst nature, animals and a community that looked after each other. In our busy lives when sustainability has been wiped out by capitalism to its very last bit, isn’t it imperative that we begin to look inwards and drop the need for constant chase and just lay back for a bit? To grow our own food, to consume only what is required? To give back to nature the same way it provides for us? These are just questions that we needn’t only ask ourselves but it is time we act on them and go back to ways that help us reflect on our mind and look after it holistically.
Watch the full video from my after at Matidhar Tea Estate.
Milo and I met a year later and she has been coping surprisingly well with Schizophrenia and grandiose delusions. Mental health is important and if your loved ones are suffering, make sure you contact your nearest mental health worker.