Of cheetahs, chow mein and 'non-learning' Adivasi kids in Madhya Pradesh

Sahariya Adivasi children near Kuno wait for their share of the Chinese noodles that arrive a few times a week

Ram Avatar making and selling vegetable noodles in Aharwani, a village in Sheopur district
of Madhya Pradesh (photo: Priti David)
Ram Avatar making and selling vegetable noodles in Aharwani, a village in Sheopur district of Madhya Pradesh (photo: Priti David)

Priti David

As Ram Avatar Kushwaha enters Aharwani, he slows down to manoeuvre the mud roads on his motorcycle. He reaches the rough centre of the hamlet and switches off the engine of his 150 cc bike.

In about five minutes, toddlers, mid-schoolers and teenagers start congregating around him. The bunch of Sahariya Adivasi kids wait patiently, chatting among themselves, holding coins and clutching Rs 10 notes in their hands.

They are waiting to buy a plate of chow mein, a dish made of stir-fried noodles and vegetables. Aware that this well-mannered but hungry clientele will soon get restive, the motorbike vendor is quick to unpack.

There isn’t much — he pulls out two plastic bottles: “One is a red sauce (tomato-chilli) and one is a black one (soy sauce),” he explains. Other goodies include a cabbage, peeled onion, green capsicum and boiled noodles.

“I buy my supplies in Vijaypur (town),” he says. It’s nearly 6.00 pm, and this is the fourth village that Ram Avatar has visited today.  

He reels off the names of other hamlets and villages he routinely visits — Ladar, Pandri, Khajuri Kalan, Silpara, Parond — all within a 30 km radius of his home in Suttaypura, a hamlet attached to Gopalpura village in Vijaypur tehsil.

The only other ready snacks available in these hamlets and small villages are packaged chips and biscuits. He comes to Aharwani, an Adivasi-dominated hamlet of around 500 people, at least twice or thrice a week.

Aharwani is a recent settlement — its residents are those who were displaced from Kuno National Park in 1999 to make it an inviolate second home for lions. No lions have come, but cheetahs from Africa were moved into the park in September 2022.

Most of the children standing around said they attend the local government school right here in Aharwani; but Kedar Adivasi, a resident, says that though children are enrolled, they don’t learn much: “Teachers do not come regularly and when they do come, they do not teach anything.”

The 23-year-old Kedar was a teacher at the Aadharshila Shiksha Samiti, a non-profit that runs a school for children of the displaced community in village Agara.

“When students move out of middle school here, they are unable to make progress in other schools owing to the lack of basic skills such as reading and writing,” he said, speaking to PARI in 2022.

Sahariya Adivasis are designated as a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) in Madhya Pradesh, and have a literacy rate of 42 per cent, says the 2013 report Statistical Profile of Scheduled Tribes in India.


The crowd is becoming restless, so Ram Avatar stops talking to us and concentrates on his cooking. He starts up the kerosene stove and squirts some oil from a bottle into the 20-inch frying pan fixed to it.

He takes out noodles from a box below and tosses them into the hot oil. The seat of his bike is convenient for chopping the onions and cabbage. He pushes the sliced onions into the pan and a delicious aroma fills the air.

Ram Avatar is a YouTube cook. He was a vegetable vendor, but “that is very slow business”. He adds, “I had seen a video on my phone of how to make chow mein and decided to give it a try.” That was in 2019, and he hasn’t stopped since.

When PARI met him in 2022, he was selling a small bowl of chow mein for Rs 10. “I can sell roughly 700–800 (rupees) worth in a day.” From this, he estimates he can make Rs. 200–300 in earnings.

A 700 gm pack of noodles costs him Rs 35 and he uses up to five packets a day; the other big expenses are kerosene for the stove, oil for cooking, and petrol for his bike.

“We have three bighas of land but we hardly earn anything from it,” he says. He shares the agricultural work with his brothers and they grow wheat, bajra and mustard for their own consumption.

Ram is married to Reena and they have four children — three girls and a boy — all below the age of 10. He bought his TVS motorcycle over seven years ago and turned it into a mobile kitchen four years later, festooned with bags carrying supplies.

Today, he says, he travels up to 100 km a day, selling the food he dishes out to his mostly young buyers. “I like doing this. I will continue for as long as I can.”

(Priti David is executive editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. Courtesy: PARI)

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