“We remember everything. The first signs of rain. The last signs of life. You never forget these things. You couldn’t even if you wanted to. First signs of death are the hardest to fathom. They always are. With the death of a harvest, comes the death of a voice. And, in their silent wails, you hear fading glimmers of hope,” said Arun as he stepped outside.
“Some live to tell their sorrows. Some don’t…”
Miles away, a flock scaled the cliffs. In hollow winds, they soared across pathless woods. Amidst dry whispers of creaking boles, we heard them tremble. Sometimes.
In fleeting moments, cracked feet and bruised souls set foot once more into lands where tread no Gods nor men anymore. For, they too were forsaken a long time ago… “There will be many more deaths this year, and the year after that. Many have stopped going to their farms. Every year brings in more dread and despair than the last. Farmers will continue to migrate to cities. You’ll find such ‘migrant workers’ everywhere living in tents built with tarpaulin sheets, seeking refuge in unknown towns. The ones whose kids aren’t allowed to mingle with yours; the ones that will live and die on the streets. We have created the largest number of rural refugees this country has ever seen in the past two decades,” said Kari Basavaiya quickening his pace towards the tea stall, “Farmers became agricultural labourers who then became construction workers. Some of them still farm everyday. And, they will continue to do so. They don’t know what else to do. They are farmers, after all.”
They appeared out of nowhere. Their voices muffled, barely discernible. In hoarser harmony, they moved closer to the stall. Clinging on to each other, they walked past the dilapidated house: the last one in the alleyway with the wooden door. Its serrated roof swung against its walls. And, it lay abandoned like the other homes in lanes beyond. A heavy lock dangled from its iron clasp.
Where were its inhabitants, we wondered.
Perhaps, in the city. Or in strange towns where no one knew their name. Perhaps, they wandered into streets thinking of home…
They came closer to us. There were nine of them. Ten, maybe. They wore white. A few held sickles and scythes in their hands. Their companions carried hay knives in gunny sacks carelessly tossed over their shoulders. Crossing paths with us, they overheard farmers telling Arun, “I was eighteen or twenty when I first noticed it change. The landscape. A few years later, we ran out of water. It was as if it never existed.” They nodded in silence and moved on. For, they had to return to their fields like they did every single day. Of their journey, we were uncertain if we could trace their trails. They walked. We drove away. And, no one looked back, that day…
“Pawan will help us with the list of farmers who have defaulted on their loans,” said Arun in the car as we drove towards Gollarahatti. Tossing through intolerable heat, we spotted abandoned landfills in towns faraway. Distant woodcutters held converse with dead tree trunks. Circling thickets were little birds that wobbled unsteadily towards their home. They sprang aloft wondering, and wandering into lands where dwelled their muse.
In Gollarahatti, we spotted a middle-aged man sitting underneath a tree. He held his hands in his arms. A fledgling crouched in silence beside him, awaiting its prey. Thimmanna’s eyes were bloodshot. His ebony skin shone in the morning sun. Shadowed in creases, his forehead swayed with the winds. His eyes flickered towards us. A look of pained surprised and anger crossed his face as he heard other farmers share their sorrows.
“Bari Bargal saar illi. Yenu Sigalla,” he said slurring.
“It didn’t give me enough crops. It never will. Daridra bhoomi idu…”
“I am 47-years-old. I have two sons and one daughter.”
“Only one of them is a farmer. The others do whatever they can to keep the stove lit. Some days, it isn’t…”
As droughts worsened, his farmlands dried up. Thimmanna left Gollarahatti to work as a construction labourer in cities far away from home. “Shimoga, Mangalore, Mysore and every other city in Karnataka,” he announced to us, “I looked for jobs that would help us survive. I thought I would do alright at one point. I couldn’t have been more wrong,” he burst into fits of giggles, “I couldn’t sustain myself let alone keep the family alive. I didn’t prosper anywhere. I was born here, you know. Maybe, I was never meant to go anywhere else. I’ll die here too in this dry, parched land. I can’t even manage to arrange for fodder for cattle. I need Rs 50,000 to keep them alive. There’s a price for everything.”
“Everything looks dead in this village. Everything but us…”
He kept repeating himself. And, we let him. They all did. A few kids snickered at the farmer but were chided by their elders. For, he was one of them: an invisible face drifting in a sea of pain. It was here where he was surrounded by family. It was here where he felt the most alone. He had endless conversations with himself. Somedays, someone listened. Other days, he had himself.
“I am an alcoholic,” he announced reluctantly, “That is my only vice. That and my inability to excel at living.”
His derisive laughter echoed in the village. No one else followed suit. He spoke to everyone. They saw his sorrow. He saw theirs. Drifting into memories, their forlorn faces contorted with anger. They didn’t leave. Neither did he.
As Basavaraj and Kariappa made poignant remarks on rising seed and fertiliser expenses, a young girl walked towards her home holding a pot of water. Her long hair was knotted at the nape of her neck. Her brother had just returned from the farms. They talked for a while. Some rose in tandem, and walked away from them.
“I gave up school after 12th grade,” she said with a shy smile, “I failed history. I never bothered trying again. I don’t want to go to back to school. I was never interested anyway. I go to the fields with my brothers sometimes. Most of the days, I help my mother with chores.”
She stole a glance at a figure behind closed windows. It disappeared. Wisps of smoke rose lazily from the chimney up ahead…
A young man stood beside her with a smirk. He wore a red-striped shirt and tattered jeans. His name was Basavaraj. He was 21-years-old. A group of boys surrounded the courtyard as they sneered at him. He seemed unconcerned with their remarks. Ignoring them, he spoke again, repeating every word with caution. “I am 21-years-old. I work as a construction labourer. I dropped out of school after ninth grade,” he said.
“Why?” we asked him
“If we were financially stable, we wouldn’t have left school now, would we?” he said with disdain. His friends burst out laughing at his remark while his uncles reprimanded him. He wished to speak again. But he ceased. Instead, he gazed away from us.
“Many of them are happy being away from the confines of a conventional schooling system. They believe they are in control of their lives and that they do not need to spend most of their childhood fussing over homework. Maybe they are truly happy. I do not know. But I have seen far too many young men regret their decision,” said Arun frowning as we headed back to our car.
Thimmanna stared at the tree: the one that stood tall in the courtyard. He smiled and cried. There was no one around him. He stumbled and fell at its roots, hoping it would protect him; hoping it would help him forget his troubles. It didn’t. It stood motionless and heard his cries, much like his brothers. In murmurs, he wove unfinished tales of lament and loss…
“These people belong to the Golla community,” said Kari Basavaiyya straightening his jacket in the car, “Their women have suffered atrocities for many decades. During menstruation and child birth, they aren’t allowed to live with their families. For, they are considered impure. There are tiny settlements just outside the village where young girls and women live in isolation lest they ‘pollute’ their homes. A mother is expected to stay separately in a hut for 15 days after she gives birth to her child. Nobody protests against these customs for they were taught not to. Such inhumane practices continue even today. Over the last few years, activists and institutions have intervened and educated people on the deleterious effects of such traditions being upheld even today. But they still exist. I hope there comes a day when our daughters won’t have to live in fear, when we won’t undervalue their existence; when no one will tell them that they are impure…”
(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.