Summers were spiteful. And, that afternoon, was no different. We walked alongside the main road away from the village. In that brief instant, we were flung towards it again: spaces that defied warmth. Where sunken fields disappeared before sight, the winds became our only companions.
The day got hotter. By the roadside, a small crowd of men gathered near the temple. They were waiting for us. They were farmers, all of them. “They come almost every month,” they said.
“What do we do with these notices? How do we pay them anything?
What do I feed my family?”
They spoke in whispers. Some rose in anger and walked away. Sanjeeva held a piece of paper in his hands. “How much do you owe the bank? And, how much land do you own?” he asked the men standing before him.
Shadows of birds flitted across the ground; their wings circled with a monotonous rhythm around the trees tracing their flight to the roof. They fluttered a little, and then stood above us. In stillness, they scanned the horizon. There was nothing above nor below just lost trails with broken shrubs. They stayed there for long.
The news spread. Farmers from all over the village gathered at the centre. An old man limped his way across the fields. His towel hung on his right shoulder. “I don’t how will I repay anything this year, or the year after that? If it isn’t the banks, it’s the dalals. There will always be somebody. When will it end?” he asked. “Never. Our lives and deaths will go unnoticed. Nothing will change. But write down my name. Tell my story to anyone who’ll listen.”
The list got longer. We stayed there all morning. A young boy accompanied his father to the temple. He smiled coyly at us. He rushed to the others to examine the paper. It caught his attention for a while. He gave up school in ninth grade, they said. He wasn’t interested in studying any further. “His parents couldn’t afford to send him to school. He now farms every day. I am not sure if he likes it but that’s what he wants to do. He doesn’t have a choice,” said the men.
There were many like him. Years later, he would be where his father is: shattered and helpless. But he won’t. For, he had bigger plans for himself. Maybe he’d migrate, move away from it all: the cluttered streets, barren fields and the endless struggles. They’d chase him nonetheless. They were all a part of his life, and would never leave him behind.
Away from us, in the corner, a young girl stood near the temple. She was the priest’s daughter. They don’t own any land and his only source of income came from performing rituals. He didn’t speak much. He muttered verses under his breath, and turned around. It wasn’t every day that he earned.
“His older daughter dropped out of school after SSLC. They couldn’t afford to send her to college. She underwent training in tailoring. But they can’t buy her a machine. How will they? They are barely surviving. So, she has given up. She doesn’t do anything but household chores all day,” said Sanjeeva.
The birds flew away. And, the farmers left. They had to go to the fields. They spoke of humanity, as they walked away. The lack of it. It was abandonment that broke them. A mean gust stopped them in their tracks. “We can’t stop farming,” they said to us.
“It’s what we do. So, we go every day. It may seem pointless but it’s necessary. What else are we good for?”
Days later, we would find them heading back home. Their eyes downtrodden. Outside, there’s stillness everywhere save the trees. Nothing moved. Neither human nor animal. They braved the weather, and tread into spaces where birds on branches warbled. Deep among the shrubs, lay creatures that crawled into the earth. Some crouched in silence. And, we stood there, that summer morning, amidst prey and game. Both aware of each other’s presence.
“Maybe we should give up,” they’d tell us, “Why bother? When will things get better? I don’t know, and neither do you.” For a long while afterward they were careful to say no more lest they lose their hope. For, that’s all they had for now. Hope.
We returned at 4 pm. We told them we would. We drove through parched lands, all day. They followed us everywhere, those empty fields. Where withered crops lay abandoned, we spotted someone standing still. He stood there for a while, and returned to the trees. There was nothing left for him.
We didn’t stop. But it stayed with us throughout: the image of the old man. His dusty feet; his bare hands trembling. His rusted sickle dangling from the trees. Each sight and sound remained with us that day. And, we would chase them, yet again, weeks later…
Soon, the cracks on the roads widened. Once again, we imagined them there. Farmers sitting underneath trees staring at the skies. We imagined them talking about mundane things. We imagined them looking at distant ruins. There was no one here. And, for the longest time, nothing changed. It no longer struck us as odd — the absence of it all.
Across the fields, by the roadside, stood a group of men and women looking for someone. They spoke in Hindi. They were migrant workers. Maybe they came from far off cities, we wondered aloud. Maybe they travelled to Davangere in search of work. Fields that survived the drought that year became their abode for a while. The women giggled and hid their faces. They ran to the fields, each one separately.
A middle-aged man supervised their work. He seemed content but he never told them. He didn’t want to. Beside him, stood an older woman chewing betel leaves. She wore a loose-fitting salwar that was belted at the hip. While the others went back to work, she went away.
No one looked for her. Her hurried steps took her into pathways beyond us. She walked back home. Home, wherever that was. May be, they had built tattered tents in dead fields. May be they slept under open skies. For, they sought refuge elsewhere as always. Refugees of the farmlands, some called them. They live and perhaps will die in places where farms still thrive. But was it home? We couldn’t say. For now, it was.
Sanjeeva offered us some tea. “The others will be here shortly,” he said inviting us in. There was no one home. “Have I told you about the sugar mill nearby?” he asked scratching his face.
“Landless villagers who relied on fishing went hungry last year. The mills polluted our reservoir. Everything died. Two years ago, farmers and fishermen united and complained against the mill. We all suffered. A court hearing was set and the mill was ordered to install treatment plants to purify toxic water released into the reservoir. It worked for a while. It was during the rains last year that things took a drastic turn. Everything turned black. Dead fish were seen afloat for miles. The banks were filled with them,” he said.
His friends soon joined us. They came in and greeted each other. The fan whirred softly in the corner. Shrieks of joy startled them all. The kids were back. They held each other’s hands and flung towards the bed room. The hall separated us from them. The window panes rattled for a while but their dull laughter didn’t go unnoticed. “There’s a variety of fish that grows here. We call it Julebi,” said Sanjeeva laying his hand on the table beside him. His face softened as his son came looking for him. He placed him on his lap and continued speaking, “Two years ago, we had it in excess. No one could sell their catch entirely. Last year, however, there was severe shortage. The losses were insurmountable. The mill continues to pump toxic waste into the water and surrounding farmlands. Towards Kanagondanahalli, kollenahalli and Kukkuwada, the villagers are unable to use water for drinking, bathing or agricultural purposes. It looks like sewage water and is unfit for consumption.”
Seated beside us, a young man balled his fists. His name was Ravi. The mill is owned by a local MLA, he said. No one will raise their voice against him nor will they register any official complaint. Some tried but the reports were never filed. They never reached anybody. “Villagers will step down. They always do. We don’t have any unity amongst us. Several cite reasons that help them justify their actions. ‘They are from the Lingayat community just like us. Maybe, we shouldn’t fight them’, they say. It’s fear that builds reluctance in their hearts. It’s fear that holds us back. They are powerful people. If you walk close to the mill, security guards will bombard you with questions. ‘Who are you? Why are you here? Where’s your village? What is your business here?’ They are corrupt, all of them.”
“Do you know how to reach there?” we asked them.
They nodded and stood up. Someone grabbed a piece of paper and pen from the table. They drew the route to the mill. Sanjeeva scribbled a few lines too. Junctions, fields, pathways, roads were all laid out. The back entrance, they explained, is where one can trace the channel that dumps toxic waste into the water body. They showed us the routes that led through affected villages. “Take the turn up here and drive straight,” said a man hovering over us.
“Once you cross this junction, you can ask anyone to guide you there,” said another.
“In a few miles, the mill should appear to your left. We can accompany you tomorrow. I have a bike,” said Ravi. A look of concern crossed Sanjeeva’s face. “I am not sure if that’s a wise thing to do. They will recognise us since we are locals. These guys can pass off as tourists interested in capturing rural life.”
They burst out laughing. The plan was set in motion. We were to leave at 8 am, the next day. They seemed happy, every one of them. Some of them spoke of the avalakki mills in Davangere as we left the house. “Years ago, children as young as ten were employed there as workers. They worked every single day till they were rescued. Apparently, the mills no longer employ children today,” said one of the farmers.
The men led us down back alleys away from the main road. We had never been here before. This part of the village seemed different, and yet in all likeliness it was similar to other settlements. The streets were empty. Here, houses remain locked. Courtyards were deserted. Its occupants were in the fields. No one had returned yet. A few toddlers gathered tyres and sticks from their homes. They ran in circles, and seemed to be everywhere at once. We saw two children standing away from them. Their school bags hung on their tiny shoulders. They were with their father. The little girl’s dark hair was pulled back in a braid. They stood before a house with a big roof. Its doors were locked, and windows open. They were waiting for someone.
“The younger generation is addicted to alcohol. So, are a few of our elders,” said a farmer walking behind us. “It has destroyed the life of many villagers here. And yet, a continuous supply of alcohol is ensured without any hassle. Even if the requirement is minimal, the bars are well stocked. It’s the family that suffers the worst. Whatever they earn, they blow it up on alcohol…”
The men took us to the paddy fields near the reservoir. They seemed at ease today. They had grown accustomed to our presence. At this time, the village seemed crowded. People were returning from the fields. We wondered if children rushed to shops nearby that had milk toffee stored in plastic jars. We wondered if there were any shops here at all. There was nothing in sight. Neither children nor shops.
Down off the side of the road, an old woman straightened her back. The paddy field had several others, like her, tending to saplings. She bent down to examine a few droopy panicles. Her name was Sharadamma. Sanjeeva held her hand and pulled her aside. This was her farmland. It was strange how she looked unbothered in the fields as if she belonged there. In the corner, her son continued sowing unaware of our presence. There were others too. Faces, we didn’t know. Faces that drifted in and out of towns. They all worked together.
They teased her, all of them. She guffawed at their remarks, and playfully hit back. They were all fond of her. She was burdened but not broken. “Her son is physically challenged. Her life is one big tragedy. He can’t do much. But she is a fighter. She does everything on her own, and yet manages to feed her family. It is farmers like her whose voices deserve to be heard,” said the villagers, one by one.
The group led us to the reservoir. A flock of birds hovered over us. They were headed home. So were the fishermen. The stench of rotten fish wafted in the air. They were discarded by the men. We saw several near the banks. Their scales pale, and eyes lifeless. For a moment, we thought we spotted a little egret springing aloft beside us; its tiny feet scurrying around dead fish. It wasn’t there. It was all empty save the dead fish.
“Don’t get too close. You are not wearing any shoes,” warned Ravi, “The banks are filled with mussels. None of us come here that often. The shells are sharp and we usually end up with bleeding toes. The ones in the sea are bigger. Have you seen them? They contain pearls. Those are oysters, I think.”
A tall man walked by. He was a fisherman. His vest was tattered, and he tied his chequered lungi high above his knee. Drawing his fishing net aside, he sat beside tiny shrubs where the others were. His friends. They lit their beedi together, and spoke in whispers. “It’s all connected,” said Sanjeeva, “If the fish die, if the waters are poisoned, if the land dries up, we won’t last long: animals, insects or human beings. No one will be spared.”
Calm waters glistened in the evening sun. Shadows deepened, and it was time for us to leave. The men suggested we go to farmlands across the road for a while. This was their favourite time of the day. Some reminisced their childhood.
“For agricultural purposes, electricity is supplied five hours every day. We can keep our motors running from 10 pm to 3 am. In order to pump water into our fields and ensure they are irrigated, we have to be up at that hour. If we miss the time slot, our farms don’t receive water the entire day. That’s what is expected of us. But what about them?” asked the farmers, “We work all day, and are up at night to keep our farms alive. Every year, the government introduces more problems that are packaged as solutions. Better loans, better schemes, better aid: we don’t need any of those. We just need fair price for our produce. We don’t want to beg for more money but we are forced to, year after year. We may not be intelligent or skilled. We just need what we deserve. A life of dignity is what we want. Is that too much to ask for?”
It wasn’t. For the longest time they spoke, and we listened. It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence that we shared, that evening, but one that we were far too familiar with.
“Will the farms survive another drought?”, we asked them.
“I am not sure. But we can’t stop trying,” said Ravi.
Yes, we can’t.
(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.