The last part of our road trip took us into the mountains of Munnar, where the strange-looking tea plantations sat in amongst some of the cooler corners of Kerala.
It was here that I was touched by a chance meeting with a goat-herder. The same age as me, we couldn’t have been more different.
At around five the sun prepared for an evening behind the Western Ghats and I made my way to the highest point in the Munnar region for some sunset pics. As I got the tripod ready a goat emerged from the road below, followed by another, and then another. A man hobbled behind them, staff in hand and foot bandaged.
This was Chella Duri, the local goatherder who worked on the land belonging to the Deshadan Resort, Kerala’s highest holiday retreat. At 40 years old he was the same age as me but he wore a face that had seen far more hardship than I. He was a Hindu from Tamil Nadu, the neighbouring state. It was not uncommon to find Tamils working in Kerala. With Kerala being the most educated state in India finding labour for the manual jobs normally meant employing people from Kerala’s poorer, neighbouring state.
Using his staff he hoisted himself upon a small brick pedastal and, turning to the vast mountains beyond, proceeded to shout “Bah, bah!”, the Malayalam word for “come here”.
He smiled for a while as his goats hopped up the mountain to the path where we were standing. Despite his satisfaction he looked uncomfortable and glanced quickly at his bandaged foot. I asked our driver what was wrong.
“I broke my foot on a stone whilst climbing after my goats”, he explained. “I bandaged it up but it got infected and now it is painful”. Why not get it seen to? “I have two children, a boy and a girl, and all my money has to be spent on them. I work from 8am to 6pm and I earn Rs 4,000 a month”. That’s around €60. Sixty euros to spend on his family of four. No wonder he couldn’t afford the medical attention required to mend his ankle.
I carried on photographing as the goat-herder chatted to the driver. The goats continued to appear from beneath the fence, grazing and fighting around us. The driver took me to one side and suggested I give the herder Rs10 for his troubles, emphasizing that this was the driver’s idea, not the injured man’s. I’d intended to give him Rs100 but after hearing of his ailment I slipped him Rs500. I only mention the amount to put in perspective what I was giving him for a few photographs, compared to his paltry salary that barely put food on the table for his family.
The herder was genuinely grateful of the money and he took the driver to one side to discuss something. The driver had already explained that I lived on a boat. “The goat herder would like to know if you are interested in buying his son”, explained my driver. I thought the joke was in poor taste but smiled anyway. “He is serious”, continued the driver. “He cannot earn enough money for his family and if you were to offer his son a place on your boat you could feed him and educate him. Then the goat-herder would have enough money feed his wife and daughter, and might even have enough to get his ankle seen to”.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Had this man really just offered the services of his nine year old son? Indeed he had. I was dumbstruck and ran back to Liz, trying to explain this strange encounter.
You know, I actually went as far as working out the logistics of such an arrangement. Where the boy would sleep, what work we could get him to do, how we’d allow him telephone calls to his family to avoid homesickness, and what entertainment we could provide for him in the evenings.
It didn’t come to anything and needless to say we have met people far more needy, at least the goat-herder’s son had a father earning some money. Still, I was touched by that encounter and I will never forget Chella Duri, foot bandaged, shouting “Bah” at the mountains, wishing for something better for his family.