She wasn’t there. Beneath the tree, she’d sit all morning while her grandchildren played in the courtyard. She’d look at the street, at the debris scattered on the roadside, at the construction site where lay trolleys of bricks and stone, at the flowers that never blossomed, at empty balconies with mats filled with red chillies. The house was locked, and the door bore signs of desertion.
She wasn’t there today.
“Goodbyes. They are the toughest,” said Arun with a smile as we packed our belongings and headed to the car, “It only means we meet again. We are family now.” He climbed down the staircase staring at the vehicle parked below.
Outside, there were people walking, riding and driving to places they were meant to go, places that claimed them but they were yet to claim. Some looked troubled. Some perplexed. Still, they were beside one another. Each unaware of the other’s existence. It was alive: this street. In open grounds, pigs snorted, and kids wailed.
Noises ebbed and waned in every corner. No one belonged here, and yet everybody fought for space within its empty boundaries. Across the road, where lay a street cart selling snacks, an old man sat on the pavement. His palms were dusty. But it wasn’t his dishevelled appearance that bothered the city dwellers. It was his presence. For, it was space that he’d occupied, space that belonged to none but claimed by all.
“Does human life have no value?” asked Arun last evening after dinner, “If a farmer is pushed to the brink of killing herself, how can we justify her death as a means to development, to progress? What kind of society have we created? How do we measure her worthiness? A farmer sells his or her tomatoes for Rs 5 per kg or Rs 15 per kg. But the market rate of tomatoes will not see drastic variations. Farmers are expected to adapt to our greed regardless of their social or economic situation.”
Does it bother anyone at all? He wondered aloud. Only mildly, he’d answer. And, he answered them all: questions that he’d impose to no one in particular, that everyone knew but no one acknowledged. Some days he spoke of Ernesto Che Guevara and his impression of agrarian India. Upon his visit to the country, six decades ago, he wrote: This enormous and extraordinary country has a series of institutions and customs that do not respond to any concept that we may form about the social problems of the times we live in. We have the same political and economic system, a similar past of opprobrium and colonisation, the same direction in our line of progress; yet, the solutions – very similar and geared towards the same objective – differ like day from night; while the hurricane of agrarian reform sweeps away the big land holdings of Camaguey in one grand wave and advances unstoppable through the entire country giving free land to the farmers, the great Indian nation treads cautiously with oriental parsimony, convincing the big landlords of the justice of giving the land to the tiller and the farmers of paying a price for this land, thus making almost imperceptible the transition of one of the most noble, sensible and pauperised masses of entire humanity from misery to poverty.
A lot has changed, since then, and yet the anguish of the farmer remains, said Arun scribbling on torn pages. The notebook didn’t contain anything save scribblings. Red, blue, green, black, there were lines of all sorts. They denoted thoughts both troubled and intuitive, hidden and expressed. Some spiralled, some ended abruptly.
“Let us take a picture together. That way, I’ll have something to remember you by,” he said stepping aside.
We then drove to the market dodging traffic in narrow lanes. There were cyclists, bus drivers and bikers fighting to claim their ground in crowded corners as pedestrians occupied paths alongside open sewage lines.
Arun accompanied us. One of his colleagues stood by a broken pavement beside an institute. He raised his eyes to catch Arun waving at him. In the car, they whispered about the death of a young man in Hyderabad. “Suicide,” he muttered to Arun, “It has been a month since he killed himself. “He was a student.”
“He was Dalit…”
Another story. Another end.
Arun’s gaze turned awry. He looked outside for signs to indicate our route. But the road held no signs, no signs at all. The clutter of the streets seemed distant. So, did his eyes. “Ambedkar spoke of ending social distinctions. He spoke of a society that doesn’t thrive in the shadows of oppression and injustice. He spoke of equality. He fought for us,” he said staring at the buildings outside. He rubbed his hands against the window leaving imprints on the glass. “The nature of our struggles hasn’t changed. We continue to battle our own in the name of caste, class and religion. We have isolated our own humanity.”
As the roads widened, he pointed to a shop that sold stationary. The man at the counter fiddled with a jar of plastic pens; a bundle of sticky notes beside it. We asked him for a map. He then walked to the nearest shelf and picked up a book. “This is the only atlas I have,” he told us, “It is good.”
We glanced through it. The North-East occupied one page. All the seven states were crammed into a space that barely defined its contours. The atlas would serve us throughout the year albeit poorly. Some days, we would look for villages that became our home or cluttered towns we had passed by: the ones where people sold fruits on speckled tarpaulin sheets. We would trace unchartered trails on its pages where resided tribes deep in the mountains. The maps didn’t contain their names. They never did. We’d find them, though: both places and trails that ran across each other, unmarked and unidentified.
“I’ll call you. I’d like to know about farmers in other states. Their plight is no different from those here. I am certain…”
At the last junction, he waited and waved till he couldn’t see us anymore. He walked away. His green shawl hung on his right shoulder. Always. It was how we remembered him.
As we drove away, we thought of his room, the pile of newspapers in the corner, his empty notebook, the plastic flowers on the table, and our endless conversations over coffee. Of the silence we shared together.
The fields were stark, and bereft of colour. There was nothing left of it today. They were withered dry. But they weren’t in ruins. Somewhere ahead of us, a few sprigs survived. They were deserted, this morning: the fields, the roads, the skies. In that place, where towns seemed obscure, and villages no longer visible, where on quiet days one could hear cattle hooves stomping across gritty farms, the roads turned unfamiliar. Each route more remote than the other.
We spotted a young man cycling, a while later. We asked him for directions.
“Turn around, and take the first right,” he told us.
“You missed a turn. The narrow road will take you to Jagallur.”
Once on the road, we headed straight. At the center of the village, where many gathered every morning and evening, he sat down with his newspaper; the old man with gold-rimmed glasses. We had seen him before. He didn’t speak much. Nor did he look up.
We parked the car near the tea stall. Where a stained pot occupied the stove, soiled paper cups were strewn all over. Thick stains of tea ran down its walls. A swarm of flies hovered over tins that contained sugar and coffee. Inside the dimly lit kitchen, a man stirred a large pot of sambar. Singed and stained, the stall had seen better years. It wasn’t much but people gathered here every day.
Pawan was waiting for us.
“The list is ready,” he said walking towards the car. “You’ll find the details of all farmers who’ve borrowed from the co-operative bank over the last few years.”
He stood for a while staring at a young boy sitting on the porch swinging back and forth. At the far end of the lane, his companion sought shade under a cluster of trees. All to themselves, they sat shrouding their words in unfamiliar tunes.
“My doddappa lives nearby,” said Pawan turning around, “He is a farmer. Come, let us go to his house…”
The lanes were wet. Pots of water drained on the ground let the dust settle every morning. Hens pecked the street while stray dogs sauntered towards corners with shade.
To the left, was the house. It didn’t have a courtyard at the entrance, just a large door and window. Inside, it was quiet. The living room was packed with memorabilia collected over the years.
Plastic chairs were laid in the hall as Pawan’s aunt served us some tea and bananas. A middle-aged man walked into the room. His name was Manjunath.
“They are here to understand how farmers survive in drought-affected regions,” explained Pawan.
“What do you grow?” we asked him.
“Onions and bananas, mostly.”
He pondered for a while before talking. “I have been growing them for 15 years. It isn’t possible to grow anything else since there isn’t enough water. I have to call in private tankers to save my crops. I get about 30 to 40 tankers every week. And, I spend Rs 500 per tanker. This has been the situation for the past five years. Most of our borewells have failed. If we have to dig more than 600 feet, then we end up shelling at least Rs 60,000,” he said.
Like Manjunath, there were a few who could afford to spend on tankers. But there were many who couldn’t. Their farms never survive the drought. Neither do their families. Several migrate to cities in search of temporary jobs. All the while, their permanent residence remains abandoned. Nobody returns home, and even if they do they don’t stay for long. At home, they stay hungry. And, in foreign lands, they remain homeless.
“Where do private tankers get their water supply from?”
“From the reservoir nearby…”
“In a few years, the surrounding villages may suffer a massive shortage of water. All of them rely on the reservoir for farming and other purposes. If it runs dry, then we won’t last long. Moreover, there isn’t any alternate source of water,” said Pawan.
His uncle agreed. As we left, his aunt rose to fetch us some water. We then walked towards the road where eager customers thronged the tea stall. A few older men sat on its crumbling concrete steps and sipped their tea. The man at the stove grabbed some glucose biscuits and handed it to them. Something rustled to the right, just out of their view. They weren’t sure what it was. Neither one bothered to look up.
“Are these the people talking to farmers?”
“Yes,” answered Pawan.
Ashok smiled at him. His mind raced as he spoke about the struggles farmers faced in the last five years. He owed people money, he said. Three of his borewells had failed. And, each of them cost him Rs 70,000 to Rs 80,000. “They have to be dug more than 600 feet. I owe banks Rs 100,000 in all. Maybe, this is the story of every farmer. I don’t know. But this has been my situation for the past five years.”
Beside him, an old man nodded in agreement. His name was Alappa. “Earlier, we would receive rainfall in the months of June, July and August,” he said, “Last year, we received rainfall for two or three days only. In my lifetime, I have seen the weather change in ways I can no longer comprehend. How will our fields remain alive? I grow cotton and onion. These crops give me two yields a year. BT cotton is harvested in March or April. And, they require a lot of water. You don’t get any organic cotton seeds now. Nothing is organic anymore. Last year, I earned around Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000 from my crops but I spent Rs 25, 000 to 30,000 on them. What other choice do I have but to migrate and look for work?” he asked.
After a while he rose to leave. He smiled again, and poured his tea into the bin. “I don’t have any borewells on my farm. And, I can’t afford private tankers. I have to rely on rainfall to grow my crops. Nothing is reliable these days. Neither man nor rain,” muttered Alappa.
“Without rain, there can’t be any crop. Without crop, there can’t be any man…”
(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.