The Katkaris and me
As a child and a young boy, I spent a lot of time in the jungles of the Western Ghats of India, staying at an agricultural research facility run by my uncle Paul and aunt Trudy Stein, in the middle of the moist deciduous forest of that area. My father was a snake expert and had set up a lab on the same plot of land. It was full of cages for snakes. From the Steins’ station I would roam the jungles, Mowgli-style, getting into (and out of) all kinds of trouble. I have written about that in previous articles.
Today’s story is about the Katkaris, a small tribal community close to the Steins’ station, where I would often go, seeking companionship on my jungle jaunts. There were about fifty in the settlement, living in close to stone-age conditions: they had no metal, apart from a few pots (the rest was earthenware) and, prime possession, five or six knives. At least three of these were gifts from my father Alois — I have memories of him giving them, wrapped in brown paper, to the Katkaris, who burst into jubilation, prancing around and cutting twigs with their powerful new tools.
A couple of the Katkari men were intermittent menial labourers, and were able to purchase or barter a few simple items in the village. But they seldom had opportunity to do this. The British had, decades earlier, classified the Katkaris a criminal tribe in the “Habitual Offenders Act”. They were associated with theft and robbery. They were also ranked among the lowest castes, untouchables, and associating with them was thought to be defiling.
I experienced, and in fact knew, nothing of this, and was quite lovingly looked after by the members of the tribe. In fact, the leader, Raoji, was commissioned by my father to keep me alive — make sure I did not fall into a ravine or get attacked by some dangerous animal on my jungle walks. It became my hobby to run away and escape his watchful eye.
The Katkari had no agriculture, and essentially subsided on things they killed, plucked or dug up. The men had fishing traps, wooden spears, and bows and arrows. I never saw them actually succeed in bagging an animal or bird, though they occasionally managed to kill some fish with their simple spears. When we were there, my father would shoot a wild boar or a deer, and the Katkaris would have a couple of glorious days eating their fill (and more) of fresh meat.
I should mention that the women were quite skilled at catching crabs, which were profuse in the area. They rubbed stones together to lure them out of their holes. The men would also dig up mice, rats, and other rodents, from which they would make super-hot curries (and invite me to join in the feast). The boys showed me how to eat grasshoppers and other insects, which were surprisingly palatable.
There were a handful of Katkari boys around my age — probably a few years older, but smaller than the well-fed town kid. They would accompany me into the jungle, and show me “secret” places only they knew.
Like a patch of thorny Karavanda bushes on which we could feast. The picture shows a harvest of Karavanda berries, which we found quite delicious.
I soon became the leader of the Katkari boys. As the son of a biologist and snake expert, I actually knew more about the jungle than they did. For them, all snakes were poisonous and dangerous, while I knew the only four kinds that were. I have written about that here.
The Katkaris were full of myths and superstitions. Let me illustrate that with a little story. In recent years I revisited the area, and, strolling along a jungle path, I saw this termite hill. I broke off a little piece so I could see the termites, and was immediately warned: don’t do that, you will wake up the cobra! My reaction: after 60 years that myth still persists?? The story at the time was that these mounds were built by a snake, which resided in them.
Another example: the Katkari boys were told that geckos were deadly poisonous, while I kept catching them to feed my father’s snakes. And even today you hear the same kind of stories.
At the time, and to this day, everyone believes that these geckos are poisonous (to touch or eat). Whenever there is a case of food poisoning, when dozens of guests die after a festive meal, people will say a “paal” (the common name for the gecko) must have fallen into the cooking pot. I was very tempted to eat the tail of a gecko to show people that it was not true. But I never did. I felt too badly for the gecko.
How this mythologizing works (and I have told the story often to make a point) was clearly demonstrated on a later trip to India with our three-year-old son Martin. He enjoyed playing in a pile of sand in the corner of the garden. But the chief servant of the house, Laloo, kept pulling him away, saying it was very dangerous, due to the deadly lizards that were there. I told him they were completely harmless, but he could not be convinced, and persisted.
So in a heroic action I sat on that sand pile, motionless, for maybe fifteen minutes, until I was able to grab one of the lizards. I took it to Laloo, who was horrified. Even just touching it, he said, would now make me seriously ill. I squeezed the poor creature until it opened its mouth and tried to “bite” me. I could barely feel the tiny little teeth on my skin. For Laloo I was doomed!
Now comes the point: he had watched the above in horror, shaking his head. But the next day, when Martin went to play in the sand, Laloo immediately told him to come away. “There are deadly lizards here!” He trusted his community myths more than what he had seen with his own eyes.
Back to the Katkaris. I did not speak their language, and they learnt just a few words of English — come, go, eat, drink, rain, monkey, etc. I learnt the names of animals, fruit and trees in their language. It is amazing how much meaningful interaction can be conducted on a few dozen words.
My three main companions, two approximately my age and one clearly older, started learning from me, from seeing me do things. They slowly lost their mortal fear of small reptiles, and in fact helped me catch them for my father’s snakes. One of the boys even dared to touch the snakes I occasionally found.
The boys were usually clad in a simple loin cloth, and sometime even joined me on a stroll completely naked. Naturally, they were barefoot. I wore rubber soled sneakers, and once, in pursuit of a little grass snake, I ran into an area of brambles. The thorns went through the rubber and punctured my soles. I sat there, bleeding, while the most enterprising of the boys went after the snake, running over the brambles on bare feet. His soles were tougher than my sneakers!
My alpha status with the boys grew tremendously when I was given a small Diana airgun. I have written about that, about how I managed, sometimes with their help, to bag animals that were normally beyond the scope of this “toy” gun. They would return to their settlement full of pride, with a sparrow, a bat or a small rodent, which would be duly cooked for them by their parents. The boys very seldom came to the Steins’ farm. They were very aware of their general status as outcasts. They would accompany me in the jungles, but avoided coming close to the house in which we stayed.
As I grew older, and went to a European school in the city, we lost contact. About sixty year later I visited the community again, and met the grandson of Raoji — as I have described in this story.
During the visit I discovered something I did not know: the land on which this clan of Katkaris resided was still theoretically owned by my long gone father! It was registered to the name Friedel. Clearly he had bought the plot, in the 1940s, and allowed the Katkaris to live on it, legally. He gained their trust, taught them how to use guns, and had taken them on his hunts.
Alois, seated on the right in the above picture, was the great white hunter who descended on them, coming on the big fire-train, giving them gifts, and regularly providing them with the meat they so cherished. That is all described in my article “Life in the jungles”.
Alois Friedl biographical stories
- 1. Alois: the beginning — The adventurous life of a young boy started with his fleeing from his native village in Bavaria, Germany.
- 2. Alois: Gateway to India — How this adventurous young German technician (my father) made his way to India, 110 years ago
- 3. Alois: Death in the jungle —He describes his first hunt in the jungles of India, over 100 years ago.
- 4. Alois: Prisoner of war — What was internship like during the first world war. Not like you might think, in British ruled India, a century ago.
- 5. Alois: Deadly poisonous snakes
How a German technician in a British prisoner-of-war camp, in 1914–18, dealt with the reptiles that abounded in India
- 6. Alois: Purdah — A description of how, in 1914, Indian traditions and mores made even a minor dental treatment of women a major challenge.
- 7. Alois: The last tiger hunt
Sitting watch over a dead tiger, he developed an almost personal relationship. It was like holding a wake over the body of a friend.