Amma

Amidst the sounds of the rain lashing against Amma’s tin roof, her battery-powered radio played romantic Malayalam songs and the smell of freshly-cooked sambhar wafted into the big room with small windows that held a fire place. This big room has no doors; it is a room made of mud with a thatched roof where Amma sleeps, roasts yams on the woodfire and . On most nights, the only sounds she will hear are of the crickets or the frogs in the rains. On other nights, the soft thuds from banging drums and dull fireworks to scare off wild boars and elephants in the distance will disturb her silence.

Amma has spent her entire life here, in the dense forests around Ponmudi Hills, home to the Kani tribe to which Amma belongs. For the last many years, Amma has lived alone after her husband died of a heart attack and one of her sons was killed by a wild elephant. Her days are spent working around the house and attending to the ocassional patient who will appear very surprised at a glimpse of her life and at where they are as they trudge along the dirt path towards Amma’s home. They look even more curious when she opens her lone wooden closet and scours through a hundred bottles to make a concoction of oils and ointments.

The trees are very tall and the jungle is dense in these forests. A small patch of medicinal plants grows wild behind her kitchen, a small enclosure made of tine holds her religious idols and offerings next to her house and half the house remains unfinished because Amma ran out of money while building her home. She speaks fondly of the days when the Kingdom of Travancore ruled these parts, of when the King himself would show up to enquire about her tribe. She’s unhappy that the government today won’t come to ask her how she’s doing. Her poems began to reflect the society that trasnformed around her; the road that was never built, the man that drank too much alcohol and the changing history of Kerala. It surprised everyone around her that Amma had managed to stretch her few childhood years of education into a blossoming love for poetry and writing. Everyone here knows Lakshmi Kutty, they also know her as the herbal doctor and poison healer, as a poet and as the seventy four year old woman who lives alone. Forty four years of treating patients using natural medicine and several decades of writing poetry has made Amma a diligent list-maker, 514 patients treated for everything from cholestrol to cancer and over 300 people treated for poisonous snake, scorpion and spider bites to be precise. Every patient she has treated finds mention in her diaries.

On days when we walked through the forest, past shiny, clear streams; Amma warned us about the perils of bathing too late or eating too early, about the waste we produced or the things we consumed. There was a lesson in everything Amma did and said; metaphors, humour and rhyme found a way into her everyday humdrum of life. When she switches on the radio again at night and settles in to write poetry on her wobbly desk, Kunjan and Kunji keep warm near the fire. Amma sings aloud her old poems, her voice competing with the sounds of the friendly frogs and the static of the daily news as another lonely night falls in the Ponmudi Hills.