Each morning, they looked different; their smooth edges collapsing into stark columns. Amidst those boulders, stood memories of past and present. Ruins, they were called. For, they captured time. Both in remnants, and memories. In collapsing structures, that survived their past…
In the streets lingered men, women and children: modern inhabitants of ancient towns. They sold souvenirs, memories to pilgrims and travellers. Some of whom left behind stories. Some of whom left behind themselves. In hidden alleys, we found such storytellers walking behind stalls humming songs of a forgotten era. Cities of the past held such charms. Always.
“Many were displaced,” said a young man selling fruit soda, one morning. “You will see abandoned houses on these lanes.” We did. They were covered in green paint. A few were torn down. In some structures, rusted tumblers occupied kitchen shelves. They were left in haste, perhaps. Their roofs were held together by tarpaulin sheets.
Most were broken. Some didn’t have any roof.
Sometimes, we would spot columns and walls that didn’t belong in their midst. In places where open yards turned to dumping grounds, where roamed nothing save loneliness, in those encroached spaces once lived migrants who settled in the city between walls so fissured, and columns so ruined.
“I don’t know where they went. They were asked to leave. Something to do with preserving structures, they were told. I am not sure. A few made homes elsewhere. Some couldn’t,” he said pulling his cart away. He sold soda in different flavours: lemon, sweet lime and cherry.
He didn’t tell us his name. We never asked him. A few years ago, he had moved to Hampi from Bihar.
“To earn, of course…”
From the roof of the cart, where hung lemons and plastic flowers, an old radio crooned Bhojpuri songs. They reminded him of his past, of home.
He stood for a while waiting for customers. This lane didn’t attract many of them. Tourists preferred walking elsewhere, he said.
He reminded us of someone else. A man we met two days ago in the middle of nowhere. He was a farmer. We had bought some bananas from him. He had nothing else to sell. “They are from my farm. I come here every week. All of us do,” he said with a bright smile.
Through the ruins of Bukka’s aqueduct near Anegondi walked a shepherd, tending his goat flock to the north. They were off their trail by several paths. He let them wander. Beneath the nearest pillar, he stood staring at the walls, at faded inscriptions, and at halls where rang echoes of laughter, where once tread royalty in its midst. He wasn’t royal but in that moment, he belonged there.
These lanes were different. Here, old ladies sold fresh fruit, trinkets and cloth bags. Some kept road maps and brochures that had blunt corners. On one side, at the edge of the temple, coracles and motorboats carried tourists from one shore to another. The river was calm unlike the hawkers.
The boatmen hurried everyone. It was time for the last boat to leave. An old man sat on the banks watching the sunset. A woman sat beside him. They never looked at each other. They never spoke. In the stillness of that evening, one could live such moments. The ones that passed by but not quite in a hurry. Those that went unnoticed far too often, just as they were remembered.
In the morning, the paddy fields looked empty. No one walked through them. No one wandered in its open stretches. In forlorn corners, lay gunny sacks; piles of hay heaped on them. That year, the rains came early. We wondered if they survived.
The stalls were deserted. But the lanes weren’t. An old woman stood at the open window unmindful of insects swarming into her kitchen. At the window sill, lay an empty tumbler. She stood there for a while, and stared at everything. But her eyes held nothing.
It was 37 degrees outside. We left Hampi early. But we couldn’t drive any further. We stopped near a temple that had a tree where several sought shelter in the heat. In farms beyond, buffaloes grunted and stood their ground.
An old man stood up, meanwhile. He was dressed in white, and had a big smile on his face. He walked straight to us. He couldn’t see very well. There was something about him that warmed our hearts. Some people had that effect on others. We spoke of him again, months later, as we sat around the fire: the old man who slept under the tree, who lived at a time when the boulders were surrounded by wildlife. The summer afternoon slowed him down. It was the heat, he’d mutter to us a while later, that tired him. He coughed into the hollow of his cupped hands. Over and over again, that day.
“My name is Hanumappa. I am 85 years old,” he said running his hands over the car.
“Where do you live?”
“I am from Agalikere. I am a farmer. I have three children. And, they are farmers too.”
“How was harvest last year?”
“Not very good. But we managed to survive. Things aren’t the same, now. Those days were different. This was all forest, back then. There were leopards and tigers roaming these lands freely like how we do now. Today, they don’t exist and we are in plenty.”
He leaned against the door as he fell silent. The winds changed course and blew in directions furthest from ours. Leaves stirred but the trees remained steady. Down came a branch on the ground, where two men had left their slippers, one behind the other.
“They all dropped out of school,” he said squinting his eyes.
“My children. They decided to help me farm. I too left school when I was very young. My master would hit me every day. I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to attend his classes. I lived in constant fear of being punished by him. I couldn’t take it anymore. So, I stopped going. But I don’t regret it. Ever since, I have been farming and earning a living for myself. When I was young, we had 120 acres of land. We never bought anything from the market. I remember growing everything we need. Agriculture flourished back then. We’d get 120 bags of paddy and almost 60 bags of corn on a good day.”
One day, some sahibs visited their village. A massive wall be built here to store water, they were told. They called it a dam. Soon, the construction began and many lost their land. “Some of ours was acquired. Some we sold for Rs 5. I don’t remember much. Today, we own almost 1 acre of land and grow paddy, groundnut and corn,” he said looking away.
He stared at the hills above. A red flag fluttered in the distance. He pointed at the largest boulder and asked, “Do you see the temple above the hill?”
“I go there every year during the jatre. We climb all the way to the top. You can see everything from up there: the temple, the villages, the fields. It’s beautiful. I can’t climb the stairs all at once. I have to take a break in between. I am too old now. I never leave my village. How will I feed myself if I go? Who will look after my farm? Besides, I am happy here.”
“Come home. Have some tea.”
“We can’t. We have to be in Koppal in a few hours.”
“I don’t know why we met. Maybe we were meant to. I don’t know when I’ll see you again,” he said folding his arms. He bowed his head and whispered. “I don’t know why you stopped here. But it’s nice that you did. May be we will meet again.”
Yes, we would, by the boulder at the edge of the road.
He hummed a yes. Then, a few words. He held our faces too, one last time. As we drove away, Hanumappa stood beneath the tree waiting for the car to leave his sight. He didn’t wave at us. He just stood there. But the crinkle in his eyes didn’t wear off.
Nor did his smile.
The weather was warm. It never left the air, these days. The warmth. On the roadside, where lay piles of broken twigs, a man walked with a large bag on his head; his feet bare, and shoulders bent. Then, there was another, a few paces away. This time, it was a boy. His knees wobbled from time to time. His bag was larger.
In Koppal, every now and then, we would stop to ask for directions. This time, there was no one around. So, we waited under the trees. The leaves rustled no more. We waited there till the sounds faded away…
Where a canopy of trees sheltered the roads, lay a path that led us to Bandhavi Shale – a residential school set up by Visthar.
In the courtyard, gathered little girls. Some oiled their hair while others held their books close to them. The little ones played around the pond. The older girls swept the floors of the dining hall.
They were children of Devadasis.
Some were rescued, some rehabilitated. Everyone had a story.
In the olden days, the Devadasi system was practised by all sections of the society that identified themselves with the Hindu religion, Nazar would tell us later on. A project coordinator at Visthar, he was here when the first Devadasi girl was rescued and brought to Bandhavi, when the first stone was laid, when the communities turned their backs on these women, when the first Devadasis marched to claim their rights and claim their lives, to claim dignity for themselves and their children.
“Gradually, it was isolated to the temples. It was here where the ‘sexual factors’ came into play. Soon, the upper caste withdrew from the practice. It then seeped into the lower sects. It led to a downward spiral from then on. Because of its vulgarity,” he said.
“Which community do these girls belong to?”
“Dalit. They are all Dalit. The Devadasi practise is predominant in Madigas. They are the lowest in the social ladder. Lower than anyone you can imagine or name. Almost as if they are invisible.”
“They are your sweepers, your cleaners. They are the ones who clean your gutters, the ones who carry your dead. The ones who will always be associated with doing such odd jobs. Jobs that wouldn’t befit your social strata. And, these distinctions continue to flourish today. Since they clean septic tanks, they aren’t allowed to sit with you. They can’t touch the glass you use. They can’t enter your homes. They can’t drink your water,” he said.
“You see, they are Dalit. They can’t touch you. It is forbidden…”
“But with Devadasis, the rules are different…”
(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.