Spanish missionary Father Ignacio Galdos
PIC: REENA MARTINS
It’s early evening in the Bardipada forests of south Gujarat, and the air is rent with the mildly intoxicating fragrance of the mahua flower drying in cow dung-caked courtyards or brewing in backyards.
As he walks down a winding village road, Father Ignacio Galdos, an 81-year-old Spanish missionary, cheerfully greets the tribals with a firm handshake. “Aujo (see you soon),” he says in Gujarati.
The recent kidnapping of two Italians in Odisha may have fortified India’s position as a danger zone, with countries such as the US and Britain getting shriller in their travel advisories. But Westerners have been living peacefully, deep in the forests and remote villages of India. Some are on a religious mission; others have stayed on because they find their work satisfying. And safety — despite the kidnapping and release of Claudio Colangelo and Pablo Bosusco — is seldom an issue.
Ian Watkinson, a British writer and photographer based in Chennai, has travelled to troubled spots in the Northeast and Kashmir. And he stresses that he has never felt afraid or threatened.
Greg Malstead, a British activist and international director of Freedom Firm, which works for victims of trafficking, is completely at ease with the silence of the night in Ootacamund, where he has been living since 2005. “By 9pm, the city is almost a ghost town,” he says.
Women find it a tad more difficult to gain acceptance than the men. Kornelia Santoro, a German food writer who lives a quiet life in Goa, fought off two army jawans who tried to rape her one night in 1994 when she was on her way to Leh. Her motorbike had broken down and she stopped at an army camp at night, looking for a spare part. “I wouldn’t advise any woman to be out too late,” she says.
Alessandra L’Abate, an Italian weaver and textile activist working with weavers in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka since the early 1990s, says it took her a few years to be accepted as a divorcee. “The women would accuse me of spoiling the life of the boys apprenticing with me,” she says. “But the great Indian tragedy is that they never say it to your face, so I’d get to hear of it from the third or fourth person,” says L’Abate, who first came to Tamil Nadu with her Gandhian parents.
Foreigners tend to adopt local customs too. Tanya Balcar, a British forest conservationist, set foot as a tourist in the sleepy village of Vattakanal near Kodaikanal, with her partner Bob Stewart in 1985. They tied the knot only about five years ago. The entire village was invited to the wedding feast and the tying of the thali-mala, a south Indian marriage custom.
Many have been helping the local community. Balcar and Stewart were disturbed by large-scale deforestation and succeeded in replanting acacia trees with the locals. They set up the Vattakanal Conservation Trust and planted seeds of species native to the southwestern Ghats and the Nilgiris. Their efforts also motivated the local youth to fight for asphalted roads, running water and electricity.
The foreigners have seen India change dramatically over the years. Watkinson’s lens has been recording the country’s sifting landscape from the 1970s, when villagers in remote Bengali villages had not even seen a wristwatch, he says. “Today, they are eager to photograph me with their mobile phone cameras.”
When Father Galdos first started work in Zankhvav in Surat in the 1960s, he had to walk through jungle terrain for hours in the scorching heat. “But the tribals were very hospitable and gave me food and shelter,” he says. Later, a local merchant gifted him 12 acres for a dispensary and boarding houses for male and female students.
In those days, wild animals abounded in the forest. Pug marks were often spotted on the floor of the boarding kitchen. On monsoon nights when Galdos’s jeep would get stuck in the mud, a sharp whistle was all it took to bring the hardy tribals out of their huts and lift it out.
But the missionary, who came to Bombay from Genoa in 1951 after a 21-day-long sea voyage, stresses that his toughest task was to get tribal children to a school that began as a rough bamboo and teak structure, plastered with mud and cowdung.
“They said they had been happy all those years without any schooling, and wouldn’t want to get their girls educated as they’d eventually marry and leave,” he says. Today the school, a brick and mortar structure with a large playground and stadium bordering a scanty forest, has 380 girls and 375 boys.
Apart from local customs, the foreigners have picked up languages too. Galdos speaks fluent Gujarati and the languages of the indigenous Kokni and Gamit tribes. Balcar and Stewart have picked up Tamil from the locals and from 10 different teachers. “We manage to make ourselves understood,” Balcar laughs. “I can speak a few words of Tamil to make the people laugh,” L’Abate says.
They have the occasional urge for food from home, but after an unsuccessful attempt at teaching the villagers to make pasta, L’Abate has decided to eat the local fare in the villagers’ homes. “They couldn’t understand why I’d cut up a chapati to be boiled into pasta,” she laughs.
Balcar says it felt strange to eat idlis for dinner at first, but now it’s “perfectly normal”. She is so much at home now that she feels awkward when she visits England. “The streets are empty and people there don’t look you in the eye.”
After all these years, Balcar has clearly adopted the Indian way of life. There is just one habit that she can’t get used to. “I still can’t deal with men urinating in public,” she says.