A rhapsody of brittle winds lulled us into a deep slumber last night. This morning, however, was starkly different. Window panes didn’t rattle as they did. And, an unaccustomed silence hung in the air. We stood against the sills observing the semi-constructed building outside. Colourless and bare, it looked odd amidst those that were considered finished. And yet, in it resided a family that called it home…
At 8.30 am, we decided to head towards Shiriganahalli to spend some time with farmers. “I won’t be able to join you today,” said Arun with a smile as we handed him the keys to our room, “I have some meetings to attend in the city. I will join you for breakfast.”
We received a text from Ravi shortly thereafter. He’d started riding from Bangalore early in the morning and would reach Davangere by 11.30 am. We were excited to meet him. Being on the road, we get used to saying goodbyes to people who have become an integral part of our lives. We often find ourselves hoping for moments that last longer, for memories that don’t fade with time. And, whilst discovering familiarity in realms cloaked in the unfamiliar and uncertain, we are instantly drawn to the possibility of seeking comfort in the arms of people we once left to carry on with our journey.
We drove towards Hadadi in an hour or so. A sudden wind swept forth the dreary farms as we wandered empty roads. We stopped to see shapes rising in the midst of it all. Some were small. Some large. Like mute spectators, we witnessed their performance that foretold tales of survival and endurance, of rising leaflets and falling petioles, of drying farmlands…
We weren’t quite sure if we were heading in the right direction. We had made a note of the GPS location the last time we visited the village. However, the route seemed to be leading us elsewhere. We continued following the map and took a detour towards Shiriganahalli. At a cross section, we took a right and instantly realised we were lost. The narrow roads and fields were nowhere in vicinity. We inquired with an old man walking past us if we had taken the wrong trail. “Ayyo, iddu Bethalakatte Bisaleri Road alla. Hadadi Road hogbekagittu neevu,” he said pointing behind us. We then rang up Arun and asked him to help us with directions. Once we realised, we had to turn around we drove nonstop towards the sea of paddy and arecanut farms that led us to the village.
A tractor rumbled to life and lurched forward. A pleased young man directed it behind the steering wheel drawing spirals on the ground. He went in slow circles around the field as a flock of white birds hovered over him and his machine. Save the roaring engines, there was no sound in Shiriganahalli that morning.
His name was Sanjeeva Reddy. He was Maheswara Reddy’s cousin.“Aarama Iddira?,” asked Sanjeeva abandoning his tractor to talk to us. His face split into a smile when we told him we wished to meet farmers to understand their situation in depth. “We have water but our lands end up betraying us. Most of us didn’t make enough last year or the year before that. Every season seems to be a struggle and brings in a fresh set of problems,” he said.
His voice trailed off as he stared into the fields. “It doesn’t matter,” he muttered, “We will continue to till our soil. What else can a farmer do? We can’t afford to give up hope.”
A few miles away, we came across Maheswara Reddy clad in a white vest and blue lungi. Trotting with casual gait, he walked towards us and stopped to greet a few villagers passing by. In conversation, we mentioned to him that we required a list of farmers who had defaulted on loans and were flatly refused debt moratoriums over the years.
“Well, you will need to note down the names of every farmer in the village in that case,” he said chuckling away. We offered him a lift to his house. En route, we came across a large group of people dressed in white engaged in conversations with a few women. Some men straggled behind them. The entire group had the Congress shawl draped around their necks. “Panchayat elections are just around the corner,” spoke Maheswara in a whisper and added, “So, the candidates have decided to pay a visit to all villages in a desperate attempt to secure votes and perhaps change a few minds.”
We parked our vehicle near the temple. It took us a while to realise that the entire village wore a deserted look today. A few men sat next to us whilst we explained the purpose of our visit. Many more joined the group as they heard a middle-aged farmer speaking on our behalf. Some remained silent so as not to shatter the spell of the moment.
It was then that Maheshwara decided to intervene and in an animated tone bark out instructions to unaware villagers. “Get yourselves organised into groups. There are many things you can do from making home made pickles to crafting wicker baskets. Ask the women if they would like to try their hand at sewing. Don’t just sit there. Do something useful for once!” he said.
We could sense judgement and condescension in Reddy’s tone as he flailed his arms in the air. Soon, smiling faces gave way to befuddled expressions. Farmers were gradually caging in and some returned to their homes. Those that stayed then confided in us that they were weary of giving away their names for they feared it could land them in trouble. We decided to step in at this point and patiently explain to the group why we required their names since that would give us complete clarity on the number of farmers struggling to pay their debts.
One of the men shot a glance in our direction. He threw his crumpled towel carelessly around his neck. His face twisted in contemplation as he gripped his knees to stand up. He told the farmers standing before him that perhaps they should seek our assistance to help their voices reach out to those who could lend them a helping hand. “I will get it done for you. Don’t you worry. Come back in two days and you should have the list ready,” he said to us.
Away from the prying eyes of farmers and villagers alike, stood a middle-aged man swaying to and fro. His eyes were bloodshot and he slurred as he spoke. He stared at us in awe for a while before turning to Maheshwara and inquiring who we were. “Why don’t you stop drinking? Do you even care for your family,” Reddy chided him instead. He raked his fingers through his hair and bowed slightly. “Look at your teeth. When are you going to make changes in your life? You are drowning in debt and yet you spend everything on alcohol and gutka. Don’t you have any morals? Who will take care of your daughters if something happens to you?,” Reddy went on.
“He is a drunkard. He won’t last more than a few years,” Reddy declared looking at us. The farmer bowed his head in shame as Maheshwara went on his disparaging rant for a while. His eyes reflected sadness. He slurred slightly and in whispers said, “No matter what happens, I won’t be a burden on my children. I will make sure they go to school and won’t compromise on their education. At least, they should have a chance at a decent life even if I don’t. My oldest daughter is very bright. She in seventh grade. I am not sure how I will be able to afford her fees after tenth grade. I will do something. I am not a bad person. My life is hard. I need alcohol to escape my problems. I have a lot of them. Problems.”
“I will do something. I will. I won’t drink,” he repeated as he traipsed along paths that led him nowhere. His feet stumbled as he took on trails away from the village. He shouted far and high, and became silent at once. He was broken from within. Perhaps he sought compassion from estranged strangers. Perhaps he sought love. Alcohol was his escape and agony his realm…
Within moments, a large gathering of party workers stormed the temple premises. Bells clanged, gates were opened and a special pooja was performed in honour of the candidate. “He has never been here before. And, if he gets elected, he might never visit again. That is politics, for you,” said a farmer bursting into a fit of giggles.
Our presence didn’t go unnoticed as a few men walked up to us demanding the purpose of our visit. “You must write about our saar. He has done phenomenal work here,” said a man. While a suitably cutting retort may have been in order, we decided to smile and politely inform them that we weren’t representing any news organisation.
They turned alert immediately as the party leader walked to us. He shook our hands and said if we required any help he would be more than willing to extend his support towards our project. He never told us his name nor did he ask us who we were. He left without giving us his contact details or address. Without a trace, just as he arrived. A perfect politician.
Many more villagers joined the group as they were asked to assemble at the temple. It was the wrong day to interact with farmers since they were preoccupied with Panchayat Elections. We decided to head back to Davangere and promised them we would return in two days.
We then called up Ravi and realised he was just 4 km away from the village. He was waiting for us at a tea stall in Hadadi. We drove as fast as we could till we spotted his beaming smile from a distance. “I kept my promise,” he said.
He rode beside us as we drove past fields of arecanut and withered grass. On a whim, we wandered off towards grassy spurs hidden in paths that veered off the main road. It led us to Kashi, a seemingly small settlement where resided farmers, their drifting hopes and paling dreams…
We spotted a lone tree in the paddy fields. Its branches wobbled slightly wailing a melancholic ballad of forgone joys or an impassioned plea of survival. Still, there were stories hidden in its trunk. Stories of greater awakenings. Stories of fallen hopes. Perhaps, if we listened closely, we’d hear them all…
We sat beneath it as we spoke about what we had heard and discovered over the past few days. We told Ravi about everything we saw; everything we felt — the shadows of human selfishness and greed enveloping the suppressed section of our society. In the name of progression and development, we have categorically devised a system to destroy our own humanity through caste, creed, race, religion and other social barriers. We discussed the plausibility of overcoming our differences and working towards revolutionising cultivation in the country. We spoke endlessly for an hour.
“If every farmer dedicates a small portion of his land to natural farming to grow his own food, that is all it would require to make a change fundamentally,” said Ravi. We wondered aloud if Marullusiddappa could be entrusted with the responsibility of coaxing farmers in and around the area to try their hand at organic farming. We hoped to share our thoughts with Arun later that night.
It was getting late and Ravi had to head back to Bangalore. As we turned away, we spoke of different times, of better times when summers were never wreathed in brutality. A few farmers sat away from us oblivious to who we were. They were alone and so were we. We sat there together, in silence. We looked back once more as we drove away. We’d never forget them. Maybe, they’d never remember us. All we had were just a few moments with each other. But there were moments, nonetheless…
(to be continued)
Project ‘Rest of My family‘ is an attempt to connect back, re-discover our relationship with and understand our responsibility towards the larger family that we are a part of — the rest of our human family. Hence, it is titled Rest Of My Family.