Mayilamma: The Life of a Tribal Eco-Warrior

Note:
Reproduced below with permission of Orient Blackswan Private Limited is an excerpt from the book Mayilamma: The Life of a Tribal Eco-Warrior translated by Swarnalatha Rangarajan and Sreejith Varma (Orient Blackswan 2018, pp. 55-59)Mayilamma (1940–2007) was an illiterate adivasi woman whose iconic leadership of her community against the unrestrained extraction and pollution of water by Coca-Cola put the nondescript village of Plachimada on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border on the global map of environmental activism. Mayilamma: Oru Jeevitham [Mayilamma: A Life] maps the rise of eco-activism in Kerala alongside the realities of consumption, globalisation, widening socio-economic inequalities and the rising ecological burdens borne by the marginalised poor. The book’s English translation titled, Mayilamma: The Life of a Tribal Eco-Warrior brings this important Malayalam text into the domain of international environmental justice writing for the first time, and shows how—in a classic David-and-Goliath struggle—this frail fifty-year-old widow became a symbol of the global resistance against the multinational soft-drink giant. The book’s thirteenth chapter titled, “Protest: The First Year” narrates the beginning of the landmark protest and Mayilamma’s transition into a public figure.

Chapter Thirteen

Protest: The First Year

We decided to begin the protest on 22 April 2002. I learnt it was a special day—Earth Day! For poor people like us, could there be a more appropriate day than this to fight for our soil, air and water?

On that day the people from the Company tried to create a rift among us. They promised jobs and water. Some of us fell for that bait. Later Venuettan and others spoke to everyone and made them understand. In spite of this some people went back to work. Such people are bound to be everywhere, I guess.

In the morning of the first day of the protest, a procession of cars carrying C. K. Janu and others came to Plachimada. It was Janu who inaugurated the protest; we put up a pandal and launched the protest. It was decided that all of those who could join the protest should sit in the pandal. No one gave much thought about how long the protest would last. During the discussions Vijayakumarettan had clearly told us that they would not close the Company in a jiffy and leave as we expected them to. One of the leaders told us a Christian story. The story of a small boy named David who defeated a giant called Goliath. Our fight with the Company was very similar to this story! They told us that in the story it was the boy who won the fight. We thought that we, like him, would also win the battle even if it took a long time.

Janu told us a lot of things that day. We felt inspired when she told us about the protest in her place. We made up our minds that we would not give in just like that. Janu assured us the full support of the Gothra Maha Sabha. We were delighted to hear this. But, looking back, I feel hurt when I think about Janu.

The Muthanga incident took place shortly after we began our protest. The police arrested Janu and put her in jail. All of us felt as if one among us had been persecuted. So we went to Palakkad and staged a demonstration carrying lighted ranthal lamps. We even went to Thiruvananthapuram to meet Janu. We consoled her saying that we were with her. However, after being released from jail, Janu did not seem to care about us. The other day when the Mahila Sangham meeting was held in Palakkad, Janu had come along with Ajitha teacher. She also came to the protest pandal for a day. However, the intimacy that she showed us in the early days was now missing. I do not know if this is merely our assumption. But we were deeply hurt about this. I think that all of us who get together for a cause must be united; our strength lies in it.

The members of Ayyankali Pada were also with us for two months offering all possible help and support. They even organised a big adivasi meeting. They left us after that and reappeared ten months later. By that time we had experienced a lot of hardships during the protest.

Prema teacher of Porattam alone would come very often. She would sit in the pandal and talk to us a lot. She would always eat a ladle of rice with us before leaving.

Many people used to visit when the protest was going on. They would all express their solidarity for our cause before leaving. Big people like Medha Patkar also came. So did a lot of writers like Sarah Joseph teacher, Sugathakumari teacher, Vasudevan Nair Sir and Azhikodu Sir. The judge, Krishna Iyer Sir, had also come. Later people from distant countries also started coming. They enquired about our problem in their language. The people who accompanied them made them understand what we said by translating our words. I cannot even pronounce the names of those people. We did not understand a word of the speeches they made in different languages. There would be some speech or other all the time. Everybody said the same thing. Listening to these speeches over and over again, I also learned to speak on stage. Even if this had not been the case, I believe that the words would have come naturally to me because my mind was overflowing with so many thoughts. Nowadays people take me to many places to speak and light the lamp during inaugurations of this and that.

Wherever I go, I have only one thing to say, “Our air, water and soil belong to us alone! We will always fight against those who try to destroy them.”

Speaking in this vein, day in and day out, has made me forget my Tamil. I now found myself capable of switching to Malayalam when the occasion demanded it.

A few days after we started the protest, people began scoffing at us: “Fools! Sitting to protest without going to protest! What can you achieve by fighting against such a big Company? You don’t have even a spare set of clothes to wear or even a small piece of soap to clean yourselves! Sitting down to protest? If your bellies went empty for four days, you would get up and leave!” The women who did the job of cleaning bottles in the Company would comment that we sat in the pandal because we were too lazy to work!

Somehow the protest reached its fiftieth day! On that day, Dr Nandakumar Sir came from Ernakulum to participate in the procession in Plachimada and also to give a talk. I saw with my own eyes a man among us telling the police that we must be beaten to pulp. That is exactly what the police almost did during the protest. We were accused of bringing in extremists. When the police started beating up Nandakumar Sir’s driver, I tried to intervene and stop them, for which I was verbally abused by a policeman.

When the fifty-fifth day of the protest passed, we did something new. We collected the Company’s fertiliser that was used in the field of the farmer, Sreedharettan, and spread it out at the entrance of the Company. We thought they should also get to know what a foul smell was like. There was a lot of physical violence that day. Ambikal’s thali thread was cut and her clothes were torn. Many people were taken away to the police station.

One day we went on a procession to the Panchayat office. I do not remember the date. We even flung cow dung at the Panchayat office. All of us were so angry. We felt that all political parties were against us. They must have thought that supporting people like us, who had no education or awareness, was a waste of time. How can the poor adivasi people measure up to the level of the muthalali bosses in the Company? They wanted our votes. We all knew the price of a vote. Each and every leader would come up to us and ask for votes. We would believe their tall claims and end up voting for them. In the Panchayat the Janata Dal was the ruling party, while the MLA belonged to the Congress and the MP to the Marxist. We thought that all these parties would be with us during the protest. So why should we fear the Company’s power? Water is needed at the time of both birth and death. They have snatched this precious water from our hands. We will fight with whoever supports the Company and opposes our protest.

Every household will fetch seven or eight votes. We are not prepared to donate those votes and sit at home like bobbleheads. Achuthettan asked us to vote for him. We did that. He promised us water in ninety days. The Panchayat President told us that it would take one year. Krishnadasettan, the Marxist party leader, told us that he would be with us whether we win or lose our fight. Are all these assurances enough? How long can we survive on the strength of these hollow words and promises?

We marched up to the MLA’s house carrying brooms. Everyone was with us. I could not go that day. All this is what I heard from Ambikal. The MLA told them, “Going by your activities today, I don’t think you are here to inform me about a wedding or a funeral. Why didn’t you come to me first?”

What can we do if people in powerful positions tell us this? There is nothing else we can do but feel the pain.

Protests, public speeches, processions, rallies, humiliation— that is how a year passed. In the meanwhile, all sorts of people came and left. Some of them, I heard, had come to test the purity of water. They declared that the water was unfit for drinking. Likewise, the Company’s fertiliser was tested in Thiruvananthapuram. I heard that the results proved that there was no ‘fertiliser’ in it! It became clear to me as the days went by that the Company brought ruin to the people of the place and nothing else.

Author’s Bio:

Jothibai Pariyadath is a noted Malayalam poet, translator, and blogger. She has published three collections of poetry titled Pesamadantha (2009), Kodichi (2017), and Mooliyalankari (2021). Her blog Kavyam Sugeyam features her renditions of more than five hundred Malayalam poems. She has published Malayalam translations of the poems of Vladimir Mayakovsky and the script of the Italian film La Notte. Pariyadath is the recipient of the Kovai Cultural Centre Literary Award (2010) and Muthukulam Parvathiyamma Smaraka Sahithya Puraskaram (2021).

Translator’s Bio:

Swarnalatha Rangarajanis Professor of English at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras and is passionate about environmental humanities. She is the founding editor of the Indian Journal of Ecocriticism (IJE). Her academic publications include Ecocriticism: Big Ideas and Practical Strategies (2018) and co-edited works titled Ecoambiguity, Community, and Development (2014)and Ecocriticism of the Global South(2015). She is the co-translator of Mayilamma: The Life of a Tribal Eco-Warrior(2018). She is one of the series editors for the Routledge Studies in World Literatures and Environment and the co-editor of the Routledge Book of Ecocriticism and Environmental Communication (2019). She is the co-editor of the forthcoming A Handbook of Medical-Environmental Humanities to be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2022.
Her short fiction has appeared in anthologies of publishing houses like Penguin, Zubaan, Westland, New Asian Writing, South Asian Review to name a few. Her poetry has appeared in the collection All the Worlds Between (Yoda Press, 2017) and in Muse India. Her debut novel, Final Instructions was published by Authorspress in 2015. She has co-edited a collection of interviews with Contemporary Women Writers from Tamil Nadu titled Lifescapes which was published by a leading feminist press, Women Unlimited in 2019.

R. Sreejith Varmaworks as an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, School of Social Sciences and Languages, Vellore Institute of Technology. He earned his PhD from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in 2018. Along with Swarnalatha Rangarajan, he is the translator of Mayilamma: The Life of a Tribal Eco-Warrior. His latest publication is “Resource Extractivism and Environmental Damage: An Analysis of Two Extractivist Fictions from Kerala” in the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. He is also a bilingual poet who writes in English and Malayalam, his mother tongue.