What is, or should be, the staple food of human beings? Grain, right? Wrong! If septuagenarian Bayabai Bhoyar of Mandva village in the Yavatmal district of Maharashtra is consulted on this subject, she will tell you clearly enough that even 30 years ago, the natural staple food of her people was not grains, but 'bhaji' - vegetables. "The typical grain and pulse-dominated meal was a four-months-a-year luxury," she says. "For the remaining eight months, it was mostly vast quantities of greens and other vegetables, cooked with some broken grain or 'besan' (gram flour)." She adds wryly, "And we were a lot healthier and stronger than the grain-eating young ones of today, who have to be taken to doctors every month!"
Looking at Bayabai's proud and erect bearing, even at her age, one can well believe her. Bayabai is part of a group of dalit and tribal women from 12 villages in the Yavatmal district who have started making a data-base on a rather unusual subject: uncultivated or wild vegetables. These are plant species, which grow wild on farms and in forests - leaves, fruits, roots and flowers that were traditionally consumed as vegetables by the indigenous tribal population. With modernization, the nutrition practices of these groups have changed in favor of 'mainstream' fare. In the process, the consumption of the vegetables of yesteryear has dwindled sharply.
The process of collecting this information began three years ago when, during a casual conversation, women talked to Madhukar Dhas of a local NGO, Dilasa, about the disappearance of traditional eating practices. The women eagerly accepted Dhas's suggestion that they start collecting information on the old vegetable varieties. Till date, with technical support from Dilasa, the women have collected a data on 76 different varieties of vegetables and are trying to resurrect consumption practices that have nearly been lost by creating awareness among the younger generation.
Talking about the veggies, Bayabai's eyes grow contemplative. "Now there is 'tarota'," says she, "It has to be eaten seven times in a season at least. Keeps off 'vaata' (body heat). Then there is 'ikdodi', very bitter, but once a year its fruit has to be cooked. It drives away fevers, chills and worms. As for 'chyur', it tastes very good with 'besan'." She carries on and on in this manner.
In the Vasari, Anusuyabai Meshram, 35, who lives outside the village with her family, has preserved a lot of information simply by not following the mainstream. A wide variety of wild vegetables figure on her table. She rattles off their names: 'kukuda', 'sheo', 'phetra', 'umbar', 'ghodkakdi', 'ghusran', 'gophan', 'vasan', 'chuchu'... "Most of these vegetables grow wild on our land. And I go into the forest regularly on alternate days during the rains and in winter to get various 'bhaji'."
But in the village, she says, trends have changed. The loss of indigenous knowledge and the prohibitive cost of the marketed stuff have together undermined the diet of ordinary people. Today, she says, it's mainly 'bhakhar' (jowar bread) and 'dal' (lentil), with potatoes and brinjals, the two cheapest vegetables, thrown in sometimes."
In Warsephoda village, a very old woman bent over and blind with age - known to the local people only as the 'buddi' (old woman) recalls how in the 1940s, the residents of the village had survived a 12-year drought on a diet of the leaves of the 'vasan' vine. "'Vasan' has great strength," she says, "It can survive 14 years of drought, and it is a complete food in itself."
But why has the practice of eating wild vegetables declined so drastically? Villagers have different answers, but a mainstream lifestyle and the commercialization of agriculture appear to be the most important factors. Today, even the plants are not to be seen. Bahinabai Narnavre, a knowledgeable matriarch from Mandva, says, "The animals on the farms have disappeared. Earlier, animals like bullocks and goats used to eat the plants and spread the seeds."
In Rajurwadi village, Lalita Dethe, 50, blames the increased cash-dependent lifestyle, which forces farmers to favour cash crops over wild foods. "The vegetables are uprooted as weeds even before they can drop their seeds. Or farmers kill them with weed-killers," she observes.
Individual species, say villagers, are also getting lost due to similar reasons. Tembhra, the 'chikoo'-like fruit of the tendu tree, which was once a great favorite in these areas, does not grow at all because the leaves of young trees are plucked for commercial purposes. Masala paan, another universal favorite, is disappearing with the rise in milk trade (traditionally, tribals here did not sell milk), as its roots are considered good for milch cows.
But this documentation exercise has raised awareness to a certain extent. "The greatest inducement came in the form of nutritional awareness," says Dhas. "Women in this region are suffering from anemia due to their altered diets. When they were told that eating wild greens helps, they were eager to try it out."
In Rajurwadi, the case of Rekha Jilte, 30, proved to be a trigger. "I used to suffer from anemia and was very weak," says Rekha, now a picture of health and beauty, "But after I started cooking and eating green 'umber' (a local variety of fig, rich in iron) regularly, my health improved so visibly that now everyone here eats 'umber'."
In other villages, too, consumption is visibly higher. Shashikala Kusram of Warsephoda, says, "While weeding on the farm, I keep the vegetables aside, and bring them home in the afternoon. Earlier I used to throw them away."
But things are still far from ideal. Most people below-45 find these vegetables unpalatable. "We are too used to conventional food," admits Rekha, "It took me several months to get used to the taste of 'umber'."
Children, especially, say mothers, are unwilling to try out traditional fare. "They have bread-butter and chocolates in their heads," rues the elderly Vitthal Bhoyar.
The acquired habit of eating grain-based food is the main reason. Bayabai says, "My sons used to eat 'bhaji' with gusto as children, but now they have to have their 'rotis' and 'dal'."
Dilasa has helped the women organize two cookery camps where lost recipes were resurrected and new ones created. "The recipes helped to an extent, but the problem was that the most popular recipes were always the oiliest and spiciest ones," says Dhas, laughing.
The complete resurrection of these lost food practices is going to be an uphill task and these women know it. Quite a few have lost hope and believe that it is too late. But there are the optimists. Like Bayabai. "It will mean resurrecting an entire lifestyle - right from agricultural practices to education to environment - everything. I know it will not happen in my lifetime. But if I keep working, maybe my grandchildren will eat some more greens than they used to, and be healthier. What more can I hope for?" she asks with a smile.