"Whose curse has befallen this village?" Lasey Toto shouts at the dark clouds. Intermittent flashes of lightning emerge, as if an angry reply to his emotional outburst is being offered from the heavens. "Why am I alive to see so many deaths in front of my eyes? What bad have I done to carry my son's hoku [coffin] to the grave on my frail shoulders?" The 92-year-old is barely able to bear the trauma of the death of his eldest son, Krishna, who was 53.
Lasey is not alone in his grief. He is part of the Toto community, a tribe with a population between 1,500 and 1,600 people, who live in a small village called Totopara. Located in Eastern India, near the Bhutan border, Totopara is enclosed by the mountains set along the Torsa River delta.
The surrounding dense jungle keeps the village isolated from the turbulence of the outside world; the screaming of peacocks and the coo-oohs of Asian koel birds offer a panacea to the stress and worries of everyday life in Totopara.
A naming ceremony, referred to as, "Madipaepawa." The ceremony is performed on the seventh day after birth for a girl, and on the fifth day for a boy. | (Abhijit Alka Anil/Courtesy Narratively)
Standing in front of his na-ko-sha — a dwelling erected atop wooden poles, six feet above the ground, with a roof made of straw — Lasey says his son Krishna began to lose weight and complained of headaches and loss of energy three months before he died. "He had become too weak in his last days and was unable to walk," Lasey says. "He died inside the house. It seems that an evil power wants to devour us."
Just a few days earlier, a couple in the tribe, both in their late 40s, also died shortly after beginning to complain of weakness and swelling throughout their bodies. They left three children behind. Their eldest son, Shimo, 22, now has the responsibility of running the family.
A multitude of recent deaths with hauntingly similar circumstances have some made people fearful that the Totos could soon be completely wiped off the Earth.
The Totos' origin, says K.S. Banerjee, an anthropologist in Kolkata, India, "is yet to be completely known, but they are considered offspring of some Indians who had settled in Bhutan, and were then driven out from the country to the plains of the sub-Himalayan zone of the Dooars." Their forced migration occurred in the middle of the 18th century, and, according to Banerjee, the Totos consider themselves descendants of Mongoloids. Their facial features bear a resemblance: "They have flat noses, small eyes, broad and square cheeks, thick lips, and black irises," Banerjee observes.
There are also theories that the Totos might have integrated with fugitives from Bhutan, whose forefathers had been dragged away to what is now West Bengal and enslaved at about the same time the other band of presumed Toto ancestors were on the move.
Today, the village of Totopara has two schools, serving kids through the 12th grade. The women of Totopara do much of the household work and attend to all their children's needs. The women also earn bread for their families by chopping wood and rearing cattle to sell to local markets. Totopara men work a variety of day jobs within the village, though some hop the border to Bhutan, where a thriving tourism industry provides work in hotels.
Totos have their own spoken language, which is endangered due in part to the lack of a written component, and the fact that the state language, Bengali, is taught in the schools. But it is the Totos themselves that may be facing annihilation.