He lunged forward with an unsteady grace. His cheeks were pallid. His sunken eyes longed for sleep. It was February; that time when the weather turned rogue. Averting his glance from other villagers, Lingappa leaped from one corner to another. A few older men jeered impudently. Some glared at him as they walked by. They were resentful of him; his bedraggled state bothered them. Yet, it scarcely seemed as if he paid any heed to the village or its inhabitants. Ever again, he spoke to them: those who shied away from his prying eyes. Occasionally, his wry smile irked them. They didn’t deign to answer him. They never did. A young girl walked behind him tracing his footsteps. Her name was Halamma.
“Appa,” she said hoping he’d turn around.
He walked. She trudged along. She was late for school, again. She looked like her mother. As years fell away, her father slurred his way through many crowds: unnoticed and unknown. Not today. For, his cracked soles had walked this street before. His fingers were arched as if he were clutching something. A sickle, perhaps. They barely touched his sides; his hands. Lingappa stumbled his way to the temple where we first met him. “Namaskara,” he said swaying unsteadily.
The birds had returned. It was 9 am. Before our eyes in sudden view, the distant swarm appeared encircling the fields. In the now bright day, Lingappa’s inebriated state offered him tolerance. He was burdened, no doubt. It was pain he tried to escape. But it never escaped him. In torment, he sought his solace. “Aamele banni neevu,” he said waving his hands at us; a wry smile flitting across his face. He had seen better days. Halamma stood beside him. Into abandoned streets, where resided their home, they soon walked away.
Where crammed lanes invaded distant spaces, we walked past large doors. They were locked, all of them. The rooftops seemed deserted at this hour. So wide they stood. In layers. They projected emptiness both outside and from within. Our eyes were riveted upon them: the empty horizon, and desolate courtyards. That’s when we first heard it: the silence of the alleyways.
The walls were singed near the stove. Jars of pickle lay untouched on the kitchen shelf. There were other spices in tiny containers tossed in the corner. Sanjeeva’s wife placed a tiny bowl of mustard and curry leaves on the table. She murmured under her breath. Her loosely tied hair stuck to the nape of her neck. It was quiet inside. Sanjeeva rocked back and forth in his chair. He hummed a tune unfamiliar to us.
“Oh banni banni…” He stood up.
His son peeped through the bedroom door. With a mischievous glint in his eye, he ran towards his mother. Photographs rattled as he sprinted across the room. We sat on a tiny wooden bench near the front door. It had no duvet or cushions. Bare and barren, it laid adjacent to the wall.
After breakfast, a few farmers gathered near us. “My father insisted that we go to college. He believed it would change our lives,” said Sanjeeva sipping his tea.
“I didn’t complete my BA,” he confessed staring at the walls. “I couldn’t clear a few subjects. That’s why I’m stuck with farming. I worked with Karnataka Rajya Raithara Sangha (KRRS) for almost eight years. I worked for the welfare of farmers. We fought to get them what they deserved. But I couldn’t survive for long. There were days when we’d shell out funds from our own pockets to further a cause or join protests in neighbouring villages. After a period of time, it begins to take a toll on you. You can’t run a family and ensure your kids go to a decent school on a paltry income. So, I left the organisation and decided to pursue farming instead.”
Many looked on as they sat on the floor. They had seen and heard it all before; stories of others. They had questions, all of them. The ones that had no answers. A young farmer, sitting on the verandah, flipped through pages of a local newspaper. He read with an agitated breath. He soon got up and left just as he arrived. Sanjeeva’s house disappeared from his sight. No longer was he seen in the clamoured streets. Fading voices muffled his footsteps. He went towards lanes that led to nowhere in particular. Empty homes and vacant glances lurked in every corner. They were all there, and yet none made their presence felt.
Down the road, a mile from the neighbours, warped sheets of tin clanged against each other. It didn’t bother them. Nothing did, these days. Men listened keenly to us. Some just observed our faces. Their thoughts remained uninterrupted; a hollow visage of emotions shrouded in angst. Amidst conversations, a middle-aged man drew formless shapes on the floor. His fingers dusted the coarse surface. He was unconscious of the silence that had ensued thereafter. And, in stillness, he sat.
“Although we have water, there isn’t enough electricity to pump it into the fields,” said Sanjeeva breaking our reverie. His peers nodded in agreement. “The biggest problem lies with water management and agricultural resources required for farming.”
Strange, we told them. For, farmers in Jagallur and Kurudi managed to grow a wide variety of crops despite severe water shortage. “Those areas are rain-fed and their soil is far more fertile than ours,” Sanjeeva said, “Ours is artificially irrigated. We get our water through the reservoir. Adu ontarra mosa. Naturally irrigated areas have a far better chance of growing different crops. We can only survive on paddy and sugarcane. We have no choice. Our soil is destroyed and nothing favours us anymore. Neither weather nor earth. Nothing.”
If a farmer was willing to transform his farmlands and had a certain vision for himself, he could achieve greatness both in life and farming, said Arun one evening in Davangere. He wiped his forehead several times that day as we took a stroll down the market. Within minutes, he bent down to examine some fruits at a stall. “At times, it feels as if farmers lack purpose and have given up hope. Sometimes, it feels as if they don’t really wish to put in any effort to survive. They can’t give up,” he said wrapping some oranges in a sheet of paper.
“Look at these people,” he remarked whilst crossing the busy street, “How many of them, you think, would understand the troubles of a farmer? How many would consciously worry about their pitiable state? We are all lost in our own journey. And, we are all struggling, no doubt. Some just more than others…”
“The primary issue lies with ignorance,” explained one of the farmers sitting beside Sanjeeva. “The sahibs in the agricultural department and the scientists who give us suggestions have perhaps never set foot on the fields. They do not understand the ground-level reality of our situation,” the others chimed in, “How many times have they ploughed and tilled farms in their lives? How many times have they visited farmlands and recorded changes in the soil or how weather patterns have altered the landscape? Not once. We are aware of our reality far more than anyone else. There has been none in the past nor anyone in present who can make a difference to our lives. And, that’s the truth. We are nobody. And, we’ll continue to remain insignificant.”
The farmers ardently believed that the government and developmental bodies aren’t genuinely concerned in resolving their issues for this would entail ending corruption and uniting once and for all to end a severe crisis. “Placing humanity above politics is rare,” said a man rubbing his knees. His face twisted into a smile as he asked, “Has it ever happened before? Our crisis doesn’t merit any attention, you see. Who is listening? No one.”
That evening, at an unknown time, they would return home wondering aloud if it were all a farce: the gilded threads of hope they firmly clasped on to, if loss was their only inheritance.
The heavy scent of tempered spices brooded over the hall. After tea, we mentioned to Sanjeeva that we wished to go to Lingappa’s house. We found him loitering in one of the streets. His withered soles didn’t bother him anymore. “Illi ella badavaru,” he said pointing at dilapidated structures occupying the edge of the village. “Nodi neevu…”
It was cluttered. And, they were everywhere: homes that barely stood up, people who never stayed on. Everyone had to leave to the fields, to towns alongside people they didn’t know. They were strangers to each other. And, it remained that way. The old were left behind. For, they had nowhere to go. In conspicuous clusters, toddlers gathered away from the hand pump. They held towels and bars of soaps in their hands. Soiled sachets were strewn all over. A little girl trundled back to the window of a tiny house. It opened to the trees in the backyard. Her muffled giggles didn’t go unnoticed. It was time for school.
It was odd to see him behind us; a shrivelled figure in white shirt. We thought we had lost him. He flinched and his forehead creased with worry. Lingappa couldn’t keep up. His feet struggled. Somewhere ahead of us in the wilderness, empty branches stirred. Dust settled on the ground as an old farmer sat beneath a tree. His fields were empty. Nothing grew there anymore.
“Why do you drink so early?” we asked him.
“Tumba tension saar,” said Lingappa with a guilty smile. Kicking pebbles aside, he whispered, “It helps me escape, I think.” It wouldn’t help him. Nor would it change anything. Perhaps, he’d end up where he began. And, he knew it. For, it was his faithful companion: failure. Yet, he told his story to anyone who listened. Holding on came easy to him. He never learnt to let go. At times, he couldn’t handle it, and it’d all fall back: the worthlessness of it all.
“Houdu, houdu…” he nodded his head and disappeared into an alleyway.
We followed him. To those who loitered in the streets, he remained invisible. He traced the trail that led him home. There were several such buildings in the lane: home to some, and shelter to others; temporary structures with permanent residents. Their ancestors had escaped their descent into vagrancy. They were landless, many of them: the people who stood in the courtyards.
“We can’t farm anywhere. We can’t afford to buy our own land. So, we have to rely on labour work,” said Lingappa. Open drains lined the street. Some women carried buckets and pots on their heads. Their children ran behind them.
Lingappa stopped walking. He turned towards us and said, “Banni….”
The lane opened to a tiny pathway near his house. It had a tiled roof. And, the walls were green. He stood at the entrance staring at its empty floor. The hall was shrouded in darkness. Its occupants remained silent. There were no doors, no windows, just a hall leading to an open kitchen. That’s where the entire family slept, and ate. That’s where his kids did their homework. In the hall. There were no cupboards or shelves. It had nothing. And, that’s how they lived. In nothingness. But it was their home.
Clothes were piled on a rope in the corner. The room opened to a small veranda. Large vessels of water were kept aside as a young girl sat on the floor scrubbing soiled dishes. She was Lingappa’s daughter. “I have two daughters,” he declared, “Both go to school.” He gestured us to follow him inside.
There were footprints on the ground, words on the walls. And, there were verses scribbled everywhere. They were in Kannada. A few faded English words could be seen in the corner. They were names: Kalamma, Pallavi, Suma. The other wall read: 30 dina galallii English kalibahudu. It was a canvas of memories. These walls. For, they had captured many years of perseverance, years of their childhood. We ran our fingers over them. Their ridges and imperfections had been etched over. In the cracks, lay creatures in nocturne. They were broken; these walls.
“My older daughter,” muttered Lingappa.
“She writes on walls.”
“Sometimes to learn. Sometimes to teach me. She hopes it would distract me from my alcohol addiction. So, she scribbles on them every day. She has been doing this for a while. She thinks if I learn a new language, I’d give up alcohol. I can’t stop drinking,” he said. His voice trembled. “Everyone makes fun of me. Some rebuke me all day long, you know,” he said staring at his feet, “I may be a drunkard but I won’t let my daughters suffer. I don’t trouble them at all. I make sure I don’t affect their studies in any way. And, I try not to be a burden on them. I would never do that. I wish their lives were better. I wish they didn’t have to struggle like me. I don’t know if it will be any different though. Nothing has changed in a long time. Nothing. May be we will get used to it.”
They already have. They stayed there for long. They had nowhere else to go. Their dreams never took flight. And, they never believed in them. They couldn’t afford to. It was a painful task one that required them to hope. Theirs was a timeless story one that would be forgotten, and relived.
We left. They didn’t stop us.
Lingappa stood at the front door. “I’ll come with you,” he said dragging his towel on the floor. His daughter looked on….
(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.