“There are no more stories here. None left to tell…”;
Creaks on the walls resembled twigs, here. One broken end reaching out to another. Shadows flitted across the room; their ashen arms stretching far and wide. There was a stillness, this afternoon.
It went unbroken for a while.
Bhushya stuck his fingers in his mouth. That wasn’t his real name. His eyes glared at the toys hidden in the corner. His shirt was tattered, and his shorts had seen better days. There was dust in his hair. He loitered around the village, all day. Sometimes his friends joined him. He refused to go to school.
These lanes were his, and no one could spot him.
Every now and then, he’d be forced to return.
But he always found a way out.
Meenakshi masked her disapproval with silence. She walked away, muttering sullenly about outsiders and promises. We weren’t one of them. We could never be. Her voice faded into a scowl as she entered home. Weeks later, she’d wonder why we had returned…
“You kept your promise,” she said with a smile.
“Nobody comes back, you know. They all say they will. But we never see them,” she’d say.
“Why are you here?”
“We want to try and understand what it means to be a Devadasi.”
She looked at us with a bemused smile. She couldn’t help but raise her head, and stare at the others.
“Our young are shunned forever,” she said pointing at a few girls gathered outside, “And, our old are left to die.”
“That’s what it means.”
It restrained her, at times. Her unsullied faith in betrayal.
But that day, she let us in…
“The girls can go to cities and earn for themselves,” she explained, “They can move far away from this place. They have their entire lives ahead of them. But what about the older women? Where will they go? What will they do?”
“They are nobody. And, they have nobody…”
“Idu nyaaya na?”
In Gadag, the Devadasis had formed their own okkuta, Asha told us one morning. More than 280 women united to take care of their own. An elderly woman, she said, took them in: the ones who couldn’t care for themselves. Many of them were sick and dying. She was their leader. “They plan to start an old age home for Devadasis. We asked her why was she doing this. There’s no one to take care of us, she said. I have to do something. Nobody deserves to die like this,” explained Asha.
Her name was Durgamma.
She was a Devadasi.
On the porch, she sat holding her veil with her fingers. She chewed on the ends where threads gathered in haphazard forms. Behind her, the door was shut. There was no one home.
Her sister walked ahead. She looked wearily at her cracked sole. They’d meet later in the evening. For years, they walked these lanes wandering into fields where grew sugarcane and sunflowers; into places where they didn’t belong. Their presence violated them all: the fields, the water, the temples. Everything. They witnessed their loved ones turn against them.
Some left town, a long time ago.
They watched each other suffer in silence.
They were dedicated, together.
She was born with radial club hand. The doctors said it was a birth defect. She couldn’t work in the fields. Not for long…
Her son Badri stood with the bicycle, a few yards away. He didn’t call for her. She didn’t know where he was. He just stood there, waiting and watching. His lips twitched into a frown as he fiddled with the bell.
“He was out with friends, one afternoon. They got him drunk and beat him up. I don’t know why. Since then, he hasn’t been himself. The doctors say he isn’t normal anymore. Before the accident, he’d earn enough to feed us. Now, he can’t do anything,” she said leaning her head against the wall.
We forgot her name. We had written it down in a book somewhere. Months later, we looked for it. We couldn’t find it anywhere. Perhaps, it disappeared with the missing pages, we’d tell ourselves. Some afternoons, we’d recall her; her frail figure huddled on the porch, her hair cascading down her back, her dismay at her son’s silence.
We left Hire Shindogi and returned, many afternoons later.
We never saw her again.
It was tea time. Basavanna walked from the fields towards the road. He did this every day. Some days, he spent hours sitting outside the classroom. With his arms crossed, and knees drawn to his chest, he’d listen to old songs, by the pond.
Endendu Ninannu Maretu Badukiralare…
Sometimes, he’d play them all night.
Across the dining hall, we spotted Padma with her books. She was alone. Hidden in the corner were faded scarlet strings that caught her attention. She didn’t examine them but we did. They were crumpled shoe laces discarded by someone. In the muddy trash, lay other things: paper clips, and pencil shavings. There were signs of spilled tea, here.
She trotted towards the room where the rest did their homework. All around, withered flowers were thrown into the garden. The little ones placed them at the roots. It helps the soil, they’d say.
“No, it doesn’t. We have to bury it.”
“We’ll kill the plants, then.”
“May be. But we still have to try.”
Near the kitchen, where utensils were stacked into a heap, the older girls oiled their hair and pulled them into tight braids. At the wash area, Ashwini threw bits of paper at someone and ran away. Her toothy grin alerted those looking for her. She couldn’t escape them this time. She scratched her curls as her older sister dragged her away from the pond.
There was a dissonance, today. In the way they moved. In the way they held their discussions. Unlike other evenings, the older girls didn’t gaze at the skies after sunset. They didn’t lay down next to each other tracing the sound of crickets. Fuzzy triangles weren’t drawn in the air. Underneath the lamp, they sat reciting poems. Some old, some new.
Some didn’t have any authors.
“Who wrote this?” we asked Rekha as she scribbled into her notebook.
“Someone had to write it.”
“But there is no name.”
So, it was written for you and me, we declared.
For us, by nobody.
There was no one in the fields save an ox. It loitered there, amidst trees, until a farmer drove it away. Padma accompanied us to the open ground. There’s a giant tree in the middle, she said. Her anklets clanged against her slippers.
“I am 16 years old,” she whispered upon reaching the tree.
She sat underneath it; stripping grass on a bed of fallen dried leaves.
“I am from Vasalli in Gangavati taluk. Have you ever been there?” she asked us.
“No, we haven’t.”
“It is nice.”
“I have two brothers and a sister. Durgesha, Megaraja and Annapoora…”
“I had two older sisters. One died when I was very young. I don’t remember much about her. She was sick, I think”
“The other one,” she said hesitantly, “She died in 2011.
“Because of other reasons…”
“What happened to her?”
“She was 17 years old. Almost my age, today.”
She looked everywhere else as she dug her toes into sand. The rocks bit her feet but she didn’t flinch. The winds rustled the leaves beneath her. Each time they swirled in the air, they left pieces; some broken, some shattered. They flew everywhere.
Until there were none left to gather.
Her quivering smile stayed all evening. But it never lasted the night. At dinner, she seemed aloof. We let her be.
“Her name was Durgamma. They got her married young.”
Something had happened. We didn’t know what or why.
It seemed unwise to ask.
Padma’s mother was a Devadasi. So, was her grandmother. Mariamma dedicated Shekhamma when she was very young. “It was the will of our family Goddess Kanegiri,” she said. We had never heard of the name before. The Goddess had several names.
“You are the son of this house, Ajji told her. You can take care of everyone when I die. Then, they tied the muthu around her neck. Amma didn’t really have a choice,” she said bowing her head. She rested her chin on her knees as her fingers drew lines on the ground.
Her father abandoned them. When they got older, he walked out of their lives. He never looked back. I don’t need you anymore, he told them. He was married to another woman. And, he had to look after his children.
Padma and her siblings weren’t his ‘own’, he said.
For, they belonged to the Devadasi.
“His wife was furious. Amma wasn’t his wife. That’s why, he couldn’t be with us. So, he left. We decided to look after each other. Why do I need such people? Amma thought to herself, If I wish to survive, I will work hard despite all the difficulties I face. I will take care of my children. She then got a job in a village nearby. Ajji lived with us too. She had no one else. So, amma took her in. And, we survived. Amma lived her entire life as a Devadasi. No child should ever go through what she went through. Today, amma is contesting in the local elections.”
He would take them out when they were young. She recalled of times when they were happy. Now, there is no one around her. It has been more than ten years since he walked away, that morning. Some days, she is filled with grief. She wonders of a life that could have been; of moments that she was denied; of a father who never stayed…
“I keep spotting him in the village. He lives nearby. Sometimes, I talk to him. And, he buys me things. Otherwise he doesn’t speak to me. He doesn’t even look at us. He belongs to the upper caste,” she said wiping her forehead with her shawl.
“He is Lingayat. He can’t be seen with us…”
“Now, I don’t have a father.”
In 2008, she was rescued by Yusuf and Sunkappa. She was seven years old then. But she remembers it all. Her life before school, as she recalls. She’d work in the fields all day. Some days, it burnt her skin. Some days, it rained all along. They’d fall ill: all of them. But they always returned to the farms.
“Akka was slightly older,” she said.
“The one who passed away. She worked as a maid, and washed dishes for a family near the village. They were from Andhra Pradesh. They weren’t good people.”
“Did something happen there?”
“They were violent. They’d beat her up, on several occasions. Once akka hit puberty, she stopped going there,” she explained, “Instead, my family sent me to do their household chores. I was afraid. Their house was far. I had to walk 6 kms every day. It was tiring.”
“And, I’d go alone. What if something happened to me? What if I had to cross the road? What if I got hit by a bus? I’d be filled with these thoughts,” she said guffawing at her own remarks.
“Akka and I worked day and night while anna went to school. He was the only one studying. Today, we all go to school…”
Her brother forbade her from working for the family. She readily agreed. In weeks, she found herself a new job at a factory, a few yards away. It had a small restaurant run by an old man and his wife.
“My friend Renuka and I went there regularly to do the dishes. It was better than working in the fields. We didn’t have to toil in the sun all day. At least, here, we’d get to eat. But this place was strange. And, everyone in it behaved strangely,” she said; her chagrined gaze immediately seeking the leaves gathered at her feet.
“Why were they strange?”
“Sometimes, the men made me uncomfortable.”
“Did something happen there?”
“They’d come too close. Some would whisper ‘I love you’ while handing us soiled dishes. Once, a man even winked at us.”
“I’d feel helpless. No matter what they did, I never encouraged them. I should only do what I’m meant to do: I’d tell myself every day.”
“Didn’t you complain to the owners?” we asked her.
“They were no better. One day, uncle took Renuka away. She was forced to sleep with him. That day, I was scared. I didn’t want to be there anymore but I had to. For my family. I couldn’t speak Telugu. But Renuka could converse in Telugu and Kannada fluently. No matter what they called her, she’d always go to them. But I never went anywhere. I didn’t involve myself in their affairs.”
Because of my mother, she told us later. “I might have been young but I understood Amma’s struggles. I saw what she went through every day. Even if someone betrays us, we shouldn’t be unkind to them: she’d tell us.”
“So, for her sake, I never made the wrong choice: one that I’d regret forever…”
One evening, as Padma piled on dishes in the corner, the old man walked towards her. “We called him uncle. But he never behaved like one,” said Renuka with spite. He asked her to take a break and join him elsewhere. She refused. He grabbed her hand and dragged her out forcefully.
“I hit him and ran for my life. I kept running for a long time. But I returned to work, a while later. I had to. Our family was starving. He didn’t touch me after that day. One evening, I confessed everything to his wife. I asked her: Why don’t you tell him something? Why do you let him do this to us? She was shocked. And, she confronted him that evening. He hit her. Over and over again.”
“The next day, she told me: Your uncle isn’t a good man. Don’t go to him. I’ll take care of you. From that day on wards, I helped her take out the trash. I’d also serve tea to villagers. Once, a jug of hot tea spilled all over my arm. I was badly hurt. I recovered in no time but I couldn’t work there anymore. So, I left and returned to the fields.”
“Back to where it all began.”
“Nobody escapes the sun here,” she said giggling.
In Hospet, her great grandmother, uncle and aunts lived together. Her grandmother wrote to them, one day. She couldn’t bear to see Padma working anymore. She begged them to take her away.
Away from here. This place was cursed, she wrote.
In its misery, thrived none. And, it left no one behind.
“She was a teacher,” said Padma clearing her throat, “She studied till fifth grade. But she wasn’t that old. My great grandmother was married quite young. That was the norm, back then. My grandmother and mother didn’t study at all. So, they let everyone do odd jobs. To survive, mostly. I lived with them for a while. I’d look after chikkamma’s baby. Yusuf saar and Sunkappa saar found me there. If it weren’t for them, my life would have been very different today. I go back to my village during summer vacations. Most of my friends are married now. Some have two or three kids. They call me aunty.” She tossed back her head, and laughed.
They weren’t dedicated. So, they were married off to men older than them. It was a better life, they were told.
For whom, we wondered.
“Lesser of two evils,” we heard Nazar tell us, that evening. “It doesn’t matter if the girl is half his age. Here, marriage is acceptable.”
“That’s the choice they make…”
For themselves, and their children…
In her village, she was Harijan. To some, she was Dalit. She didn’t understand the difference. Neither did they. Here, amongst them, in villages bespattered with mud cracked roads, where gathered around trees where shrubs that once blossomed, where bull herders crossed paths with trucks every evening, there lived many like her.
“There wasn’t any discrimination at all in my village. I would play with everyone. Nobody treated us differently,” she said perplexed.
“Could you enter the big temple?”
“No. We weren’t allowed to do so. Maybe in other villages, we could.”
“Why not in your own village?”
“That temple is meant for Lingayats.”
“Why can’t you go there?”
“I am Dalit.”
We study her face as she falls silent. Her mind raced in all directions. She scratched her forehead several times. It befuddled her: these questions. She was never asked them before. Her fear, belated by denial, unveiled her suspicion: one that she had nurtured for a long, long time.
There were scattered moments when she felt it: a loss so profound, and unheeded.
It was an unwept loss. And, she remembered it well.
She wasn’t treated differently, yes.
Nor were the rest.
For they were all where they belonged: in shadows of the unwanted.
“Some don’t touch us. We are untouchables. They tell us: you belong to the lower caste and I am from the upper caste. Why are you talking to us? Why are you touching us? Some would look at me and say things I didn’t understand.”
“What would they say?”
“You don’t look like a Dalit. You look like us…”
“I want to become a doctor when I grow up,” she said as we walked back to the campus, later that evening. She ran towards the street lamp beckoning us to follow her. She said she could jump up to 12 feet. “I love sports. I used to participate in several events, earlier.”
“I will continue practising every day.”
“Why do you want to become a doctor?” we asked her as we sat down near the pond.
“In my village, everyone is poor. There are a lot of people who are severely unwell. They never get medical treatment on time. They can’t afford it. Many have died. I’ll look after all my patients…”
“It doesn’t matter if they are Dalit or Lingayat. I’ll save them all…”
One day, they were reading Puranas in her village. In the temple where the Lingayats performed their rituals, they went to worship the lord. Her aunt sat beside an old woman. She was furious. Why are you sitting next to me? Don’t sit here. Don’t you know who you are? she asked her.
“So, what if we belonged to a lower caste? The blood flowing in your veins and mine is the same. So, why shouldn’t we sit here, beside each other? Chikkamma retorted. Ajji threatened to complain against her. In a while, my aunt sent me to her. We wanted to see what would happen if she spoke to a Dalit girl. But she didn’t know who I was,” said Padma with a mischievous glint in her eye.
“What caste do you belong to?” asked the grandmother.
“Why bother about all that? Aren’t we happy the way we are?”
“I don’t belong to your caste, ajji. I am different.”
“Don’t come any closer. I am Lingayat. You shouldn’t be here.”
“We are all one. The whole of humanity is one. There shouldn’t be any differences or discrimination between us.
“I eat what you eat. On some days, maybe we consume meat. But that doesn’t mean we are terrible people.”
“Don’t talk to me. Go away…”
If her friends hadn’t called for her that day, the old woman would have never known. “Their giggles gave me away,” said Padma breaking into peals of laughter, “It was only then she realised that I was Dalit. Sometimes, it makes me sad. Why are we untouchables? I asked my mother, once. She told me it was because we ate meat. And, they didn’t. I was confused. It didn’t make any sense to me. Amma says we are from the lower caste. And, it has always been like this. We can’t be touched. Nor can we be spoken to. I don’t know why.”
Some days, when no one is around, her grandmother contemplates with regret the life she has borne witness to. If only, she hadn’t dedicated her daughter, her grandchildren wouldn’t have suffered, she’d confide in her.
It was in sufferance that she questioned it all.
“Ajji and I are very close. She confessed that she shouldn’t have done it. If Amma wasn’t a Devadasi, then she could have gone to school. Maybe we would have had better lives. Akka would still be alive…” Her voice trailed off.
It was the first time in hours that she had spoken about her sister. Her memory brought her pain.
In that moment, her voice faltered.
“My father loved her,” she said looking up, “The one who died in 2011. Before we were born, Amma made a promise to ajji that she’d give a daughter to her son. So, one of us had to marry our uncle. And, nothing could be done about it. When akka hit puberty, it was decided that she was the one.”
He really liked her. But she hated him.
“They say he was violent. Some days, it became unbearable…”
“Chikkamma pleaded with ajji and amma to get her married elsewhere. They didn’t listen. “My mother had given her solemn vow. And, it couldn’t be broken.”
“They didn’t look after her.”
“You are the daughter of a Devadasi. He’d taunt her day and night.”
“Your mother looks so well, even today. Didn’t anyone come for her?”
“You are her flesh. You share her blood. You look so fine. How come no one ever touched you?
She returned home. She couldn’t take it anymore. The village was celebrating, that evening. It was a festival of some sorts, said Padma. But she couldn’t remember.
She killed herself, we knew all along. But we never asked how. We didn’t want to know. Padma said nothing. It had been years since her sister’s death. In that moment, she kept a brave front. We all did.
Their wounds didn’t heal. Not for a long while.
It was much, much late to grieve. But grief isn’t bound by time.
It can never be.
“No. She didn’t kill herself,” she said addressing our unspoken thoughts, gazing at the top of the trees. “It was them. She consumed poison. But they killed her. They took away her life. She was dead a long time ago…”
Some nights, it faded into despair.
Some days, it lingered with vengeance.
It abated. It receded…
But it always remained with them. Their grief.
It was in their loneliest, they felt it the most.
For some things were never meant to be forgotten…
Like the girl who died in 2011…
(to be continued…)
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