“To understand their world, you have to visit their past,” he said, that day…
There were many pasts. And, they were of many kinds: some forgotten, some changed, and some vanquished to unknown depths. But everybody had one.
Or several, as some would recall.
The women remembered them all. A few felt trapped in it, it seemed. In a past of many sorts. Sometimes, they’d talk about it as if it weren’t their own, as if they wove memories from stories they told themselves; as if it didn’t belong to them: their past. Sometimes, we’d find them in their recollections. Sometimes, we wouldn’t.
In pensive silences, they revealed everything. And, at times, nothing. But we searched for them everywhere. In words and phrases, in glances that averted our gaze, in unfinished tales…
“They are known by different names,” said Nazar walking back to the pond, “Here, they are also called Basavi. Unlike regular Devadasis, Basavis are believed to be closer to the Goddess. They are revered like the priest. So, they are entitled to special privileges and occupy a higher position. They even take up the responsibility of identifying children that must be dedicated to the Goddess.”
The center didn’t complement the corners. She shifted them over and over again. Right, left and above went the layers. Some were left behind. There were colours that didn’t match, and rows that refused to align. Mala scratched her head for a while. Tossing the rubik’s cube aside, she then trotted towards Padma and Bheemakka. Into the classroom they went, hoping to finish their assignment. Far ahead, Basavanna scampered away from the road staring at the skies.
“For the longest time, it never stopped…”
“The dedication,” explained Nazar as he gestured Nethra to sit beside us. To our right, where children occupied the classroom, we heard noises. Someone hummed a tune. It was a familiar one. “People always found reasons to uphold the practice. If there’s a Devadasi in the family, there must be a follower. If someone suffers from a grave illness, the daughter will be offered as ‘harake’ to the deity. If she is physically challenged, she becomes a Devadasi. Who will marry her, otherwise? If the girl is ‘manglik’, then her fate has been decided for her, like the rest. If she is a single child, she will be dedicated to the temple. For, the parents will need someone to take care of them when they grow old. But what would become of her? No one ever thought about that.”
Here, everything stood still. The trees, the buildings, the tall grass where lurked creatures of the night, the pond. Everything. In the mourning stillness of summer, there were times when we’d find ourselves grieving in spaces bereft of winds. It was a strange grief. One that had no beginning, nor any end.
Every year, the children wrote letters, we were told.
To no one, and to everyone.
In it, they’d write their dreams, their desires, and their worst fears. A few longed to meet their fathers someday. Some wrote of moments when they realised they were different, and wished they weren’t. One wrote about her siblings. They were dark-skinned. She was fair.
‘How come your siblings don’t look like you?’ her friend asked her. She didn’t know. Her mother told her she chewed betel leaf when she was pregnant. Perhaps, that’s why she was fair. She didn’t believe her.
‘Your mother is a Devadasi. You have many fathers,’ she was told. It devastated her. She looked for him everywhere. In disappearing alleyways, in markets where old men sold bangles and trinkets on wooden carts, in vacant streets with collapsing structures. He was there but he never looked at her. She sought remorse. He held none.
A man returned home, many years later. But he wasn’t her father. Now, I don’t want to be fair, read her letter.
The letters held hope. They held grief. The kind we’d never understand.
They wrote these letters to themselves.
“A few mention temples they weren’t allowed to enter. Because they are Dalit. ‘I’d like to see it at least once in my life,’ wrote a girl. If you ask them, they’ll say it’s over. They’ll say it doesn’t exist anymore. Discrimination is in the past. We are all one,” said Nazar walking towards his bike, “But it does exist. Even today, Sunkappa won’t enter their homes. Those that belong to upper caste families. I remember once, a long time ago, we were walking around the village with him. We came across a huge house, and wondered to whom did it belong? We entered the building. Sunkappa stood at its entrance. He waited for us to come back.”
‘Why didn’t you accompany us?’ he asked him later.
“We don’t enter this house.”
“You don’t wish to come in?
“No. We can’t go there…”
He was forbidden.
He was never told but it was understood.
At this hour, the roads are deserted. The clouds remain scattered. Dusk fell rapidly, and Nazar had to leave. When we walked back to the hall, we saw Rekha standing beside the classroom. Several drawings hung on its walls. Some lay on the ground where the girls sat every evening. Her eyes scanned the table; the one that was crammed with jars and chalk sticks. She stared at it longer than usual.
Leaning against the wall, was the blackboard. It was blank, that day.
So, were her eyes.
Inside, insects hovered around the tube light. They cast strange shadows in the corners. They had patterns that revolved. The windows were shut but they always found a way in. In time, they hummed against the walls. The girls hummed their lessons. And, it went back and forth: the humming.
Her long braid swayed as she flailed her arms in the air. Rekha explained a Hindi poem to those gathered around her. She described in Kannada. The rest nodded and scribbled away in a hurry. From one page to another, words chased verses. A few found meaning. Some were left behind, lost in translation…
We saw her again. Her curls always stood out. She walked beside a girl, and stared at us but not unkindly. We waved. She ran away. She stood behind a tall plant hoping she wouldn’t be seen. We noticed her but pretended not to. Her tiny fingers held the leaves and stalk aside, as she peeped from time to time. Her eyes turned curious. She held her gaze for a while before chasing moths away in a distance.
Her name is Ashwini. She is five-years-old. And, she has many friends. They were of all shapes and sizes. Some crawling, some trotting, some buzzing and some hopping. Some had two legs. Some flapped their wings. One had a long tongue but it never spoke. A few lived in the walls, and many in the pond. They had petals, she told us, one night.
“They open them every morning. Now, they are asleep…”
They all occupied her world. Just as she dwelled in theirs.
And, in perfect harmony, they lived: them and her.
“Do you miss home?” we asked her as she chased frogs and tiny insects into the pond.
“Sometimes. But I won’t miss it anymore.”
“I am going home. I won’t come back…”
She didn’t answer. Her little fingers rubbed against the edges of the pond.
She would come back. She always did.
“Akka, P.U.C Anna, good morning…” They announced their arrival early, the next day. The older girls greeted us before heading to school. The toddlers were yet to commence classes. Not quite in a hurry, they dragged their feet towards the classroom. Nothing had begun yet. Many rang their bicycle bells from the main road. It had a sharp sound, each one different from the other.
Gratias and Anusha waited for us at the dining hall. Laxman joined us shortly. Sounds of broken anklets emerged from corners. Ricocheting off the walls, were other sounds; those that seemed urgent but not agitated. Here, clattering plates merge with muffled conversations. At this hour, the hall was crowded. Always.
“Art and philosophy are essential to one’s life,” said Laxman as toddlers looked on curiously, “Through art, one could understand humanity. I have seen it, felt it. It has a profound effect on one’s journey. For, it helps raise the right questions. The Dalit Movement has given rise to several outstanding work illustrating the perils of a casteist society, and a society seeped in regressive ideologies. In many ways, art offers freedom from the shackles of society, from exploitation. True freedom. Not just the idea of it. Or the illusion sold to us every day.”
Yaarige bantu, yellige bantu, nalvathallera swaathantra? Badavara Manege Barlilla
Belakina kirana tarlila; Golina Kadalanu Battisalilla; Samatheya Hoovanu Arallisalilla
Yaarige bantu, yellige bantu, nalvathallera swaathantra? wrote Siddhalingaiah in one of his poems.
[For whom, and where, did the freedom of ’47 come?
It did not come to the houses of the poor
It did not bring the ray of light
It did not lessen the sea of misery
It did not let bloom the flower of equality
For whom, and where, did the freedom of ’47 come?]
He wasn’t alone. There were many like him; those who never forgot. In every word, every song, every prose, and every act, they all sought freedom. In collapsing structures, and broken illusions, they fought for themselves. For their people.
They sang of the nameless, lest they were forgotten. They wrote of atrocities, of grief that lasted a lifetime, and many lifetimes over. They spoke of a time when they felt broken from within, when their existence became a curse, lest they were forgotten. But how do we forget those unworthy of remembrance?
Their shadows defiled the earth, they were told. The air got murkier in their presence. Swarming around cinders, they gathered ashes of shame. Their living were singed, their dead cursed. They were impure, claimed the caste-men.
So, in defiled lands, they named their nameless, lest they were forgotten…
The girls sat in circles. ‘Ondagi baluvevu… We are raised as one.’ Yes, one. They sang their prayer every morning. There were many such circles in the hall. And, each one belonged to a circle. A few had more than one. Some days, it expanded. Some days, it collapsed.
“Eyy! Swalpa Chutney Kodri,” demanded Ashwini. The older girls took turns serving rice every day. Everyone had to help. After breakfast, some girls stayed back to sing another song, this time. It was different. It spoke of dreams, and dreamers. In their midst, sat the little ones.
Kanasugararu Navu Kanasugararu
Kanasugararu Navu Kanasugararu
Kanasu Manasu Maduvantha
Nazar arrived soon after. We chatted for a while about issues persistent in the locality. Towards sunflower fields, where tar roads end and begin muddy swatches of land, there lies a village hidden in clusters of several others called Hire Shindogi, he said.
“You must meet Shobha. She used to work with us. She was a Devadasi. But she is married now, and has done tremendous work in rehabilitating girls from the village as well as spreading awareness in the community. Yusuf can help you with directions,” he said gesturing him to sit beside us.
Legend has it that 45 families migrated and settled in Hire Shindogi. Every woman born in this village is a Devadasi. “For generations, girls were dedicated to the temple. A few years ago, the situation was quite devastating,” said Nazar, “This is one of those stories that is told over and over again. It’s hard to forget. Some stories are like that…”
At Kinnal, we bought some drinking water. The road to Gadag led us to fields of banana plantation and paddy. At this hour, the farmers returned home. The sky was stripped of colours. There was none that day. Neither above nor below. Just endless paths of barren lanes leading to villages unknown to us. The loneliness, here, was palpable; one that never receded…
It never left us.
Shobha was nowhere. Towards Halegiri beside the SC/ST hostel in Ramalu Colony, was her home, she said. “The road should lead you to it. It is situated just behind the school…”
We couldn’t find it. In a while, after driving in circles, we spotted her on the roadside, waving at us. She was dressed in a blue and white saree. We didn’t speak much. We followed her home. The lanes turned narrow. Every now and then, she’d turn towards us with a wide smile.
The house was old, and it had a blue door. Faded walls built its story. It spread far and wide. It had character, this house. It wasn’t much but it was hers. It was home.
Radha fussed in the corner. She was fast asleep. Shobha spread a mat on the floor, and asked us to join her. She cast a look around as if she were looking for something.
In the morning sun, her features turned sharp. But her face revealed nothing. She spoke with a grace that defied her age. “My mother was a Devadasi,” she said pouring some cold water into steel tumblers, “I was a Devadasi too.”
She paused. We didn’t beckon her to continue…
“It was an ancestral tradition. Something that we had to uphold,” she said folding her arms, “If the girls weren’t dedicated to the Goddess, tragedy would befall the families and the village. They all believed that. Everything had a consequence. The purohits performed all the rituals. Nobody questioned the practice for they feared it might invoke the wrath of Yellamma. I was in third grade when it happened to me. I was very happy, that day. I remember. They gave us new bangles and took us to the temple. I was far too young to understand what was happening. A thaali was tied around my neck before the lord in presence of my family, and others. A ceremony was all it took to change our lives. It ended, and we went home,” she said.
Another pause. They’d be several in the next few hours. Sometimes, she’d stop talking abruptly. In melancholic silences, there were moments when she revealed what words couldn’t. Despair.
“But I escaped,” she said with a beaming smile. “I fell in love. I never had to practise any of the rituals. I have two children. I never thought I would find someone. If I weren’t a Devadasi, maybe I would have led a normal life. Sometimes, it makes me sad that we were different. Sometimes, we were filled with regret. We longed to have a family. A normal one.”
In schools, they ask for our father’s name, she said. Many of them dropped out. They couldn’t explain anymore. For the longest time, Shobha refused to attend classes until one day, someone came along and changed her life. “If it weren’t for Saar, I wouldn’t have studied. I would have struggled to earn a living. I finished twelfth grade. I contemplated leaving school altogether. Every time, they asked me for my father’s name, I felt ashamed. There were many like me in the village. But not everyone found a way out. I was lucky. So, I decided to help as many women as I could. We have now managed to eradicate the Devadasi practice from our locality entirely. We went to every village and educated them on the perils of continuing such traditions. Recently, there was an incident. On the fifth of last month, a woman was rescued, and we conducted a beautiful wedding ceremony. Her husband graduated high school. And, his family doesn’t have a problem with her past. It took a while but we managed to put an end to the tradition one home at a time, one village at a time. I am 28 years old today. We are the last generation of girls to have been dedicated. Never again will a daughter go through this atrocity.”
Shobha’s grandmother wasn’t a Devadasi. But all her daughters were offered to Yellamma. It was tradition. Shobha doesn’t have any siblings. There is no one to look after her mother. “Amma is physically-challenged,” she said. A look of concern furrowed her brows. “And, my father lived in Hospet. We barely know each other. Sometimes, it didn’t feel as if he were my father. He would visit us whenever he pleased and when he didn’t want to be around us, he’d leave. He never looked back. In schools, I’d always write my mother’s name on all official records. I never wrote his name. Not once…”
Radha stumbled across the room looking for her mother. Shobha carried her to the bedroom. The floor was dark but not unpleasant. Its colours had worn out in places. But they had an unusual depth in the corners.
“Have you heard the story of Hire Shindogi?” she asked cradling Radha in her arms.
“It’s true, you know. Every girl born here was given to the mutta. For generations, they continued this practice. There are 800 Devadasis residing in our village. Around 300 of them belong to my generation who managed to break free while a hundred women are younger. Some are married. Some are waiting. The rest are older Devadasis…”
“What happens to them?”
“Nothing. When your physical appearance withers, nobody wants you. After a certain age, the women lose their appeal. They are left to fend for themselves. And, they can’t break away. Not now. Not at this age. From the moment the muthu is tied around your neck, you will remain a Devadasi until your last breath. So, they wait…”
“For their end…”
(to be continued…)
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