Nidhi Dugar Kundalia is a journalist, whose stories have appeared in various national newspapers and magazines. She mostly writes on socio-cultural issues, documenting human lives and their journeys through various settings. A graduate of the School of Arts, City University, London, she lives in Kolkata with her husband and children. Her first book The Lost Generation: Chronicling India’s Dying Professions was released in 2016 to a warm reception.
She has recently come out with the book “White as Milk and Rice: Stories of India’s Isolated Tribes”, which tells the stories of six remarkable tribes of India. Chirdeep Malhotra connected with her for an exclusive interview, in which she talks about her latest book, the writing process and the research involved, and the books on her current reading list.
Why did you choose the title “White as Milk and Rice” for the book?
The stories in the book largely deal with identity issues faced by the individuals of the Indian tribes. One of the tribal stories is about the Alu Kurumbas of the Nilgiris. Until the last century, this community was feared due to their sorcery and witchcraft practices, depriving them of employment, education and integration with the other tribes of the region. It is said that to clear out or impair the negative opinion vested on them by the local people, this particular set of Kurumbas added up a new prefix of Alu before their names; ‘Alu’ in Kannada means milk, implying good and harmless like the milk. The prefix was used for improved status and wider acceptability. Another tribe documented in this book, the Halakkis, subject to years of antipathy by the mainstream society, credits its name to the rice they grow, which is white as milk. Thus, I went with the title White as Milk and Rice.
In the book, you have written about six different Indian tribes. What made you decide on choosing these six tribes out of the multitude of tribes in India?
I’m a travel writer. And these are the stories of particular tribal individuals that I met along the way. They may not represent the whole tribe but their life stories echo the challenges that the wider community faces in their everyday lives. Geographical accessibility, follow up phone conversations and other interviewees who added to their backstory helped in shortlisting the tribes further. In some cases, we had a better translator and in other cases, the interviewee had a more riveting narrative.
Can you talk more about the structure of the book? You identify one protagonist from each tribe and take the readers through their daily lives, while also telling about the historical and cultural context of their tribes. Did you have this structure for the book in the mind from the start, or did you come up with it while writing it?
When I started out, I thought it would be useful to follow one individual from each of these tribes over a few trips. I had intended it to be a travel writing account– with me, the narrator, interacting with these tribals. But I realized that I was interfering with their storytelling, which was already rich with anecdotes. Halfway through the book, I decided to scrap myself out and leave the tribals to narrate their own accounts. Through their life stories, I have taken the liberty to weave in textures, not forgetting the environment which so vastly varied from story to story, and lend itself into the character and personalities of my protagonists. Where I think information has interfered with the storytelling, I have added it in footnotes and endnotes.
Can you take us behind your creative process while writing this book and what kind of research went into it?
On field, my days were spent interviewing people, and visiting mentors and NGO’s associated with them. The nights were spent making notes on their behaviour, body language, environment and other observations. After returning home, I spent hours in libraries, gathering as much material as I could on their cultural history; it’s hard for me to proceed with writing until I know that I have exhausted all material that I can access– scholarly works, news and other bits of information.
What kind of challenges did you face while writing this book?
Most stories in the book are based in deep interiors of our country. Our taxi broke down twice on the six hours long mule paths in Nagaland. In Bastar, we navigated hours of forest on foot. I visited at least five villages in Tamil Nadu before finding forest-based Kurumbas who were willing to open up to outsiders; the challenges were mostly geographical. Finding translators who also understood their cultural nitty-gritties was a daunting task, but once that was in place, it was a thrilling journey documenting these lives. It is incredible how quickly the landscapes, culture and people change in India every few hours.
Is there any interesting anecdote or fact about India’s isolated tribes which surprised you the most during your research for this book?
The book is full of surprising anecdotes for someone new to Indian tribal cultures. But what particularly surprised me, and awed me was the incredible community-led approach. The particular Naga village that I visited has weekly meetings on Sunday where they allot fields for various groups of young men and women– depending on the size and need– irrespective of the ownership of the field. When the young hunters return with game, it is divided amongst families which have social functions like child birth or a wedding ceremony due. The older men and women, meanwhile, take care of their grandchildren and homes. Resources are carefully used and allocated, setting an incredible example of sustainable living. The story of the Konyak Naga tribe that I write in the book is a rich read.
Can you recommend more books which delve into the history, culture and traditions of India’s isolated tribes for readers interested in the subject?
The reason I started writing this book was because most work I found on the subject was scholarly. But if that is what you’re seeking, then there is a brilliant range of works– books by Verrier Elwin and Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf make an engaging read. Exceptions are novels like Arun Joshi’s The Strange Case of Billy Biswas, works of Mahasweta Devi, and some of Ruskin Bond’s writings. I particularly enjoyed the recent memoirs of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar.
Which books feature on your current reading list?
There is a book on Rajasthan’s Oral History by Rustom Bharucha, where he converses with Komal Kothari, highly regarded for his knowledge of folklore. I’m re-reading Truman Capote and hope to finish a wonderful new book– Djinn Patrol by Deepa Anappara.
What do you wish the reader takes away from your work?
I only hope to bring the marginalised tribals to the centre and show the world that inspite of their remarkable lives, how ordinary their feelings are.
Lastly, what are you working on next?
I hope to start a column soon. The idea for my next book is still brewing in my head and I’m yet to begin my research for it.
‘White As Milk and Rice: Stories of India’s Isolated Tribes’ by Nidhi Dugar Kundalia has been published by Penguin Ebury Press. Read more about the book here and buy it here.
Also read: An excerpt from the book ‘White as Milk and Rice’ featured in The Dispatch.