There are few locals and summer visitors who have not bought some of the abundance of produce from the forests around Kodaikanal—marsh flowers, mushrooms, seasonal berries, and other wild fruit. A familiar figure around town, Sahaya Mary is the community’s favourite forest gatherer, a prolific source for the gifts of the forests, as well as tales of old Kodai.
I first met Sahaya Mary over thirty years ago on a misty August morning when she knocked on my door with a basket of wild blueberries (also known as bilberries). I had never seen or eaten blueberries before, so I watched fascinated as she filled an old tin with the purple berries. ‘Seven rupees for one tin,’ she said.
‘Where did you get these berries from?’ I asked.
‘From the forests around us, you have to go deep inside where the best bushes grow. They ripen at this time of the year and are available for only two months.’ She went on to describe her early morning foraging trips to the forests to get seasonal produce.
I had just moved to Kodaikanal that month with my husband and three young children, still unsure how I would take to living in the countryside. Inexplicably, it was with the basket of wild berries in my hands that I found my bearings. In the following years, Sahaya would always bring me the first blueberries of the summer and other seasonal produce.
Sahaya Mary was a little girl when she first went into the forests with her mother and grandmother. She learnt to pick edible mushrooms, and to track and avoid the wild creatures of the forests. There were secret spots where the best fruit grew on low branches, and you had to know what each season brought: red and yellow raspberries through the year, blueberries from June to August, and mushrooms for six months or longer, depending on the annual rain patterns. She learnt where to find mountain olives, wild pepper, guavas, and tiny strawberries that grew on the forest floor deep in the sholas. From the new pine forests, she collected fragrant resin used as incense and pine cones that we would throw into the fireplace and use as Christmas decorations.
‘There’s always something to be found in the forest through the year,’ she says. ‘On some days, especially after a thunderstorm, there are many gatherers out in the forests looking for mushrooms, ordinary field mushrooms that grow under pine trees, tiny mushrooms that grow in clusters, large Easter mushrooms, golden-yellow ones and tiny red ones that some customers relish.’
India’s indigenous people—approximately 8.6 percent of the country’s total population—are spread out across the country. Our Forest Rights Act gives Adivasi tribals and traditional forest dwellers the rights to collect and sell minor forest produce. Indigenous communities, like Sahaya Mary’s, have survived for ages by foraging in the forests they consider their home—taking just what they need, always leaving some behind to regenerate. As the world’s fragile eco-systems get degraded due to the loss of forest land, soil desertification and climate change, anthropologists warn that this century may see the last of the world’s hunter-gatherers—nature’s best guardians. This will sever a link to our past and a lifestyle that has sustained millions from the beginning of time.
Mary says she will be the last forest gatherer in her family, as her children have moved to the city. ‘I still love going into the forests but not my husband—in fact, he finds the forest scary; he’s a town boy, you see? I love the freedom my work gives me. I tried domestic work once, but it’s not for me.’
Like other local tradespeople, she has been affected by this year of uncertainty, Sahaya told me, when I stopped at her cart. It is usually parked at the Seven Roads Junction and hard to miss. ‘As many of our old gathering spots get degraded, we have to go even deeper into the forests,’ she said. ‘Sometimes, I get nothing, so I sell fruit and vegetables.’
Sahaya Mary’s husband Rajan is retired from his job at the Kodaikanal Club. He now makes peanut butter, mushroom and lemon pickles and tomato chutney on order, which bring in additional income. Older now and not as agile as she used to be, Sahaya doesn’t go to her customer’s homes with her basket of produce—her customers go to her. So, if you see a diminutive, red-haired woman with a big smile selling produce at Seven Roads, do stop to shop and chat about the forests around Kodai—and a community and lifestyle that are rapidly disappearing.