In the field of traditional healing, Sreedhar Desai has carved out a name for himself. While his fame has spread far and wide, awards and recognitions have come his way thick and fast too. Torch bearer of a family tradition called the ‘Royal Practitioner’, Mr. Desai uses his service for the community’s benefit. An areca plantation adjoining his ancestral home in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district has sustained his family as he pursues his family tradition.
Mr. Desai may have rid innumerable patients of their chronic ailments but has little clue to rid his community, called havyaka, of its persisting gender crisis. Gone are the days when a havyaka boy could get a bride from the same caste unless he is a doctor, engineer or has a high-profile job. Being a qualified banker, his elder son has long settled into matrimony in Bangalore whereas the younger sibling, holding the family tradition, is paying the price for staying back.
Pramod, 28, shares his parents’ anxiety but tries to ward it off saying, “Isn’t it more important to take forward rich family traditions?”
The havyaka have distinct lineage as followers of the Advaita philosophy. In the past, the havyaka community used to perform spiritual rituals for royal courts and empirical governments. However, it is only in recent times that the community has diversified outside its primary vocation of agriculture.
In the emerging situation, eligible bachelors are facing the dilemma of either to forgo their traditional vocation or be ready to marry outside of their community. For majority of young havyaka, it has remained a tough call. No wonder, the number of those awaiting matrimonial alliance has continued to swell. Sample this: in some 10 villages around Hulemalgi village in the district, there are as many as 80 eligible men in the age between 26 and 56.
Given a much skewed male to female ratio, many consider it to be testing times for a community that is just about 300,000 in number — spread across Uttara Kannada, Dakshin Kannada and Shimoga districts in Karnataka and adjoining Kasargod district in Kerala. Much to the disappointment of the organisers, a community matchmaking attempt a couple of years ago in Sirsi town attracted only four girls against a contingent of a thousand boys.
The crisis has been further amplified as more parents prefer to marry their daughters outside of their community on the pretext that village life is difficult. The case of havyaka is a reflection of the larger malaise afflicting the farm sector. While elsewhere negative return on investment is forcing farmers to shun farming, it is the market-driven value system that is downgrading the rather profitable plantation agriculture in this region.
Unlike in any urban centre, the Desai household located in the thick of the forests has 24x7 water supply. Diverted from a perennial spring, the supply is not only uninterrupted but rich in mineral nutrients, too. Most of what the household consumes daily is drawn from the farm which is also endowed with no less than 300 medicinal and aromatic plants. Not only is farming still profitable here, the quality of life in one of the world’s 16 biodiversity hotpot could be anybody’s envy.
No wonder, the havyaka take pride in their rich culture and are aware of the influence they have had in politics. However, it is the erosion of values in recent times that have let the community down. While the radicals within the community argue that the young generation needs to break the family norm of searching for a bride within their community, the unresolved question is whether such compromise will help the community pull itself from its current abyss.
(The writer is with The Ecological Foundation, New Delhi)