I was a gymnast in High School. Short in stature and with compact muscles, my body type was well suited to the sport, encouraged by my father’s athletic bent. He bought weights and made a heavy punching bag for his three sons when we were sprouting up into our bodies, giving us all a solid shape and foundation. My brother Casey did giant swings on the high bar. I did an iron cross on the rings, although it was more a slow descent through the skill than the requisite 2 second hold. Still, it was enough to win us the City of Ottawa Gymnastics team trophy. The accomplishment even got me a part in the High School play as Hephestus, the Greek god of the forge. Maimed by Zeus and a cuckold to the unfaithful Aphrodite, Hephestus was also the god of blacksmiths, artisans, fire and volcanoes. The successful actor had to look the part naked from the waist up. The English teacher and playwright of the school production asked me to take my shirt off during auditions in front of a crowd, which I did while turning bright red in the face.
The body building experience helped me understand Rajeev’s meaning when he told me that the Katkari are strong. Thin and wiry, Rajeev was a bicyclist as a youth, before the highways outside of Mumbai became too dangerous to cycle, and still carries himself with the grace of a long distance athlete. While at a workshop I was facilitating we challenged each other at ping pong during breaks and he told me the story of how the Katkari were the brick makers of Maharastra. Katkari men and women carry loads of 50 kilos or more on their heads, stacking bricks to be fired or loading them onto trucks for transport. They have literally formed with their own hands the majority of the bricks making up Mumbai’s towering structures, modest middle-class homes, and vast slum communities. Later, I witnessed the brick-making effort along with other miraculous physical acts of this remarkable people. “How is this possible?“ I thought as I watched a old man threshing rice vigorously non-stop for fifteen minutes. “What joy there is in this feat!” I exclaimed as several youth walked up and down a rough track in the village on home-made stilts, bearfoot and laughing.
The Katkari attribute their strength and long life, qualities well-known among the farming castes of Maharashtra, to the consumption of rodents. They are one of only a few tribal groups in India that eat the Little Indian Field Mouse (Mus booduga), the Servant Mouse (Mus famulus), the Black Rat (Rattus rattus), the Brown Rat (Rattus norvegicus) and the Greater or Indian Bandicoot (Bandictoa indica). Landholding agriculturalists hire them to clear infestations in their fields and fill the burrows with mud to close channels that siphon water from the paddy fields. The collective hunt starts by burning dried cow dung and hay inside one of the burrow openings and clubbing the rodents as they rush out of other burrows. As some animals die of suffocation in the burrows, the Katkari dig to collect the dead rodents along with panicles of paddy that have been collected and stored by the rodents. They can get as much as 12 kilos of grain from a single hunt. Smaller rodents are roasted immediately and eaten in the field while the larger adults are taken home, roasted, cooked in the form of curry and eaten with rice or bread. The rodent’s intestines and liver are cooked separately with salt and turmeric and consumed as a tonic for stomach ache.
In October or November, after crops are harvested, the Katkari celebrate the Undir Navmi, a Hindu festival dedicated to the rodent. Along with their food habits, it sets them apart from all other caste communities in rural Maharashtra, to such an extent they have no standing in any village hierarchy. They are excluded from the community utterly, putting them in a position even more vulnerable than the lowest castes and other tribal groups who have some form of membership in the village system. Exploitation and subjugation of the Katkari can occur with impunity, leaving them exposed to the risk of eviction even from their own homes and hamlets.
Research with marginalized communities is the weft and warp of my professional life. Through the Katkari, however, I came to understand racism and the evils of modern day slavery in a way that changed me at an energetic level. It filled me with a determination to tell their story and do everything I could to help them fight their oppressors.
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