Scathing winds of summer, some called it. Fields were fraught with despair. The air eddied around them, longer than they could remember. It lasted forever. Each gust swept drifting leaves. Lurking though the grove, they stood apart. In ashen boughs and their scarce rustle, we heard their unsung sorrows. “We have problems. Too many of them,” muttered Patrebasappa. In diffused light, his eyes seemed rigid. Anger writ large in his face as he turned around and glanced at the men beside him. “We are all farmers,” he declared, “It meant something, once.”
Despite frequent occurrence of dry spells in Kurudi, Patrebasappa managed to harvest 64 quintals of corn this year. “I sold them for Rs 1,420 per quintal. I didn’t grow anything else. I couldn’t. Earlier, I would cultivate several varieties of fruits and vegetables in my farm. Now, I have nothing. First, the water dried up. Then, the weather turned rogue. Our food disappeared soon after. What was once a thriving farmland is now struggling to survive. So, I buy my vegetables from the market. What choice do I have? Alcohol addiction is another major issue we need to tackle here. Villagers continue to spend whatever little they earn on liquor which spells doom for a struggling farmer. The problem has aggrandised in the past ten years. Maybe it helps them escape their troubles. May be it helps them cope. But they don’t go away now, do they? They never will unless we address them. Everybody has problems but we can’t drown our sorrows in alcohol. We can’t give up hope. That’s all we have,” he said.
As the farmers discussed the plight of loan defaulters in the village, a large gathering of party workers shouted slogans outside his home in praise of their leader. Their spokesperson summoned Patrebasappa and he disappeared into the crowd. A disarrayed group of volunteers walked into lanes unaware of its inhabitants. They stepped closer to rows of perplexed faces lined in the alleyway. Hands balled into fists, they raised their arms shouting in unison. New faces met old ones, and they all sallied forth towards cluttered streets. They crossed paths one after the other in their quest for another house, another face, another vote…
“Seasonal promises,” said one of the farmers as he broke into a wide grin, “We get them every election season.” He placed his palms on the edge of the cot and traced his fingers over its rough edges. Within the reach of his arm, was an old tattered newspaper. As he bent down to pick it up, to his dismay, the commotion outside grew louder and within seconds we heard the booming voice of ‘the leader’. From around the group came murmurs of approval. In sullen desperation, the farmer’s eyes darted across the door. A shadow flickered over the door frame. “Nobody,” the old man muttered lowly and then pronounced aloud in his characteristic baritone, “You must stay for dinner.” We politely refused and told him we would be back tomorrow.
It was getting late and Arun suggested that we head home. By now, the streets were deserted. In twilight, we followed tracks of an old man carrying dead wood and branches. Haggard with fatigue, he dragged his feet along scorched pavements. He tread lightly lest he burn his soles again. Home was nowhere to be seen. Not yet. He stopped to catch his breath once more, and vanished into narrow lanes before our eyes.
“Here’s where he lives,” Arun pointed at a tiny house. “The man we met earlier today,” he explained looking at our puzzled faces. “His name is Nagaraj.” In the corner, where one lane converged into another, stood an old house. It looked run down, its paint wore thin. Slabs of wood leaned precariously against its walls. It didn’t belong there. A burly old man dragged out a heavy slab and drove a wedge through it. He advanced a few steps farther and examined the cleft up close.
“Banni Banni,” said Nagaraj in a feeble voice as the man tossed wooden slabs aside oblivious to our presence.
A small vase of plastic flowers atop the television set caught our attention as soon as we set foot in his house. Off the hall, was a bedroom that belonged to everyone. A patchwork quilt hung beneath the cot in the room. A rusty teapoy lay beside the kitchen where women sat on the floor dicing vegetables for supper. A young girl fussed in her mother’s lap. She held a tiny doll with blonde piglets in her arms. She refused to budge while her grandmother offered her some milk.
“Many years ago, my father borrowed Rs 20,000 from State Bank Of India,” said Nagaraj as Arun explained why we were here. “He passed away in an accident. His debts were never cleared. I was very young. I didn’t understand what it meant. Our world was shattered overnight. I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I’d never see him anymore. Twenty years later, SBI filed a case against us. They ordered us to cough up Rs 140,000. Apparently, this was the final amount I owed them. I told them my father had died and that I wasn’t aware of laws assosiated with penalising defaulters. I had missed a few hearings earlier since I couldn’t find anyone to take care of my farm. I paid a heavy price for my father’s decision to seek help. I don’t blame him though. I am a farmer too. And, those were troubled times.”
He gazed at the cracks on the walls as though they didn’t exist. The hard lines of his mouth softened a bit as his granddaughter walked towards him. Her name was Chenna Basavamma. She took short unsteady steps and stumbled into his open arms. Her toy lay abandoned on the floor.
In hushed tones, Arun confessed to us that it was immoral on the bank’s part to punish a helpless farmer by putting forth preposterous conditions that would only hinder him from escaping the entrapment of debt.
“I remember when the police came home,” Nagaraj said playing with the young girl’s hair, “It was the worst day of my life. Upon the insistence of the bank manager, I was arrested and thrown into prison. I was there for four days. If it weren’t for Arun, I’d still be in jail today. With the help of a few Karnataka Rajya Raithara Sangha (KRRS) activists, he fought with the manager and implored him to settle the case out of court. In the end, I was asked to pay Rs 40,000 as penalty and the bank agreed to forgo all charges against me. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in jail. So, I agreed to their demands.”
His troubles never ended. There was anguish yet to bear for he was a farmer, after all. Some years, he gathered poor harvest. Some years, he longed for better rains. But for now, he seemed content with whatever he had. “There were times when I lost all hope but I survived,” he said in whispers.
After some tea and biscuits, as we got up to leave, the family stood around us in solemn silence. “Matte yavaga barthira neevu?” asked Nagaraj with a heavy heart. We promised him we would return soon.
We then walked back to Arun’s home as he discussed the importance of sustainable agriculture. As the skies turned mauve, we asked him if he remembered where his favourite spot in the village was. “Right there,” he pointed at distant fields that glimmered in the evening sun; where one land ended and another began. An endless sojourn of verdant green, that’s where he found his solace as a little boy.
As we stumbled into meandering lanes, his smile faded. “They too shall disappear some day,” he said stepping into his house, “They always do…”
(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.