Her hands trembled a little. Shadows under her eyes had deepened. Some nights, she read her lessons with agitated breath, turning back pages to recollect what she had forgotten. Occasionally, her face broke into a crooked smile. As we walked back, Padma turned her gaze to the birds. For the longest time, she kept looking; searching for them everywhere. In shrivelled barks, in dishevelled homes and broken farms. In window panes where some struck their beak all evening.
She didn’t speak of her sister again. Nobody ever did.
Shame erupted in moments, on days, when their wrath faltered.
Everybody knew what had happened; what they’d done to her.
Her place wasn’t at their side.
A part of them died that day.
But one couldn’t tell.
For the grieving never spoke.
Their saplings had names. The girls named them. Everybody had to plant one, and look after them every day. They weren’t allowed to die. But they always perished under their watch. It was inevitable. In fallen petals, they looked for patterns. Sometimes, they buried them. Sometimes, they glued them back together.
In the garden, the girls strolled past their saplings every morning. They all fled at once. It was breakfast time. The older girls brought out large vessels containing rice. Ladles were placed aside as they waited for chutney. The girls turned impatient while the cooks stirred the last batch.
“We are visiting Madinur today. Nethra’s family resides there. Maybe you should join us. You can meet her grandmother,” he said with a warm smile. Nethra nodded coyly behind him. Dragging her stuffed quilt across the campus was a little girl who barked instructions at someone beside her. She unrolled it clumsily at the wash area. Far away from the noise, was a young girl who counted numbers on her fingers. Tipped back in her chair, she almost let her book fall from her hands.
Ashwini slipped past open doors, yet again. This time she ran to the back of the hall where no one would look for her.
She dropped her pencils near the kitchen.
She never returned to pick them up.
We’d find her limping across the hall in the evening; her feet smeared with mud.
In an hour, we drove towards Madinur. It was one of those days when there was no respite from the heat. The trees stood still. The skies had no clouds. The fields wore brown in perpetuity. There were no farmers here. None that wandered into farms at this hour.
But everyone sought respite from the heat, from the land. Some, from their lives.
The view was forlorn. But empty spaces had no views.
We were drawn to it, nonetheless.
To the Emptiness.
Nazar parked his jeep before a small house. The kids bolted from the vehicle and ran towards their homes. Their mothers waited for them. Meetings were rare, these days. Underneath a tree, an old man placed his head on the ground. His quivering arms looked for his cloak to cover his face.
He couldn’t find it.
A swarm of flies hovered over him.
Roosters pecked at his feet while he drifted off to sleep.
This was her home. Nethra lived here. It was a traditional house with a small roof. The hall led to the kitchen. Hidden in the corner was the bedroom. It had a blue door but the walls were white and brown. A steel suitcase stuffed with woven blankets was left unattended behind us.
The ceiling had holes. And, the rays made odd patterns on the ground. Dust swirled in its beam, rising on occasions. Large bundles of groundnut were hung in the corner.
In the morning light, the cracks on the walls were visible.
Nethra rushed to the kitchen to help her sister. Gangamma was a few years older. They have different fathers; we were told later. An old lady sat on the floor and gestured Nazar to sit beside her.
Her name was Yemanamma.
“If I don’t visit her every now and then, she gets upset,” said Nazar as ajji chided him playfully. Her yellow bangles slipped down her wrist as she spoke. Her walking stick lay beside her. Wisps of grey escaped her braid as she straightened her knees to fetch us some buttermilk.
“I am 70 years old. I have assisted in the birth of 50 children in my family,” she said draping her veil over her head, “It’s 52 in reality but I rounded off the number to 50. It sounds better, that way.” She guffawed at her own remark while offering us some kara mandala stuffed with spices and burnt garlic pods.
She has six daughters and one son. Each of them have six or seven children. She couldn’t remember their names. Out of her seven children, only one daughter was dedicated. “Nethra’s mother,” she explained, “Neelamma was dedicated when she was very young. I don’t recall her age at that time. It was a long time ago. My son never took up any responsibility of running the household. He didn’t wish to look after us. So, we decided to dedicate Neelamma.”
When Nethra was three months old, Neelamma was electrocuted. She went to work in the fields one afternoon. She was cutting maize crops with her sickle. Something tugged at a loose lock of her hair.
She raised the sickle above her head to cut away the strings entangled in her hair.
“There were two wires that ran loose that day. People later said they were main electrical lines,” said Yemanamma. Her forehead creased with concern. “Her body was badly burnt. She barely survived. We took her to a hospital in Hubli. She was there for three months. She lost her right hand. There was nothing we could do. We sent Nethra to Halavathi for two years. That was a difficult time for us.”
Nethra’s brother lives in Bangalore now. He was their everything. But he doesn’t wish to come home anymore. “Neelamma earns Rs 170 per day. It isn’t much but coolies don’t earn enough, you know. The men get much more, I hear. It is unfair now, isn’t it? Women work harder. Men smoke their beedis and rest whenever they please but women don’t rest. Yet, they aren’t paid what they deserve.”
“If you work from 6 am to 2 pm, then you earn about Rs 120. If you sit at home, you earn nothing. Even if she earns Rs 60, we can buy some tea and betel leaves. We then split the rest amongst ourselves.”
“My daughter does whatever she can. And, she manages to feed us…”
“Even if she doesn’t have a good hand.”
They spoke of a wedding, and debts they incurred. Ajji was concerned they wouldn’t last the year. The young man belonged to a neighbouring village, they said. But the girl was young, far too young to be married.
“It has been two months. Neelamma borrowed a lot of money for the wedding. Everything is expensive, these days. People asked her not to go ahead with it. They begged her to wait for a few more years. I have no choice, my daughter told them. There’s nothing more I can do. We have no money. We can’t survive. She is better off there.”
So, they got her married off early.
It was her time, they said.
They had no choice.
Neither did Gangamma.
But she was young to understand it all.
Far too young…
In October, 2009, a massive downpour and unprecedented flooding led to Tungabhadra and Hagari rivers sweeping away homes of millions of villagers residing in the district. It lasted six days but the devastation caused by the floods lasted them a lifetime
Nothing escaped the fury of the rains that year.
And, the Dalits remember well.
“After the floods, lower caste communities were allocated homes far away from the village. Demarcations appeared within the settlements and there’s a clear divide today. Some never received their compensation. The babus demanded bribe. How can the homeless afford to pay bribe? The entire community was isolated. Not just here. In neighbouring districts too, you will hear similar stories,” said Sunkappa sipping his tea.
“There were several atrocities committed against the Dalits that year.”
“Just like the one before. And, the year thereafter.”
“In the name of flood rehabilitation. And, they got away with it.”
It was late. A horde of children gathered at the door. Annoyed by their antics, ajji chased them away using her walking stick. They giggled and teased her as they ran away. She gave them a toothy grin and waved her stick in the air.
They came back. They always did.
“Stay for lunch,” she said as we stood up to leave.
“We can’t. We have to leave soon.”
“Come again, then.”
“You must come back, someday…”
We didn’t go back.
We had seen her before. Beside Nethra’s home, standing against the wall. Her crimson saree couldn’t go amiss. She was frail. Her eyes were closed, and her face wore no expression at all. Her neck was bare.
Ningamma spotted her in the midst of a dispersing crowd. She bowed her head at us, before leaving for home.
She was a Devadasi.
Here, houses had no boundaries. Just small pathways that opened into courtyards. A few shared their walls with crumbling structures. Some faced the roads. Sewage water seeped through tiny channels that ran all across the settlement.
Ningamma’s home was no different from the rest. She has three sisters. There was a brother that they occasionally spoke about.
“I have five children,” said her mother as she sat on the floor fussing over the plastic mat.
It had gnawed edges. She tried to straighten them.
Fetching a plate of boondi and puffed rice, she dusted off bits of paper from the ground.
“Four girls and one boy,” she declared setting the plates aside. “My eldest one was married a long time ago but her husband abandoned her. My younger daughter’s husband died a while ago. There are six of us living here. I don’t know what to do to better our condition. I work as a coolie. So, do my daughters. But we don’t make enough to survive. I have tried everything but nothing seems to work.”
“We are struggling, and have been struggling for a while.”
“That’s all we do. That’s all we are good at: struggling.”
“I have nothing save this house. It was given to us for free.”
“So, we live here. All of us, and the old man. What else can we do?”
“Who is the old man?”
“He is the father of my children. He can’t hear very well. So, we call him muduka,” she said bursting into a fit of giggles.
He was an alcoholic, and never bothered about them. Not now, not ever.
His drinking never stopped.
And, it wouldn’t for the longest time.
A young girl walked past us. Her bright yellow skirt shone against the sun. Her name was Kamalakshi. She was Ningamma’s older sister. Upon entering the kitchen, her mother asked her to brew a fresh pot of tea. She nodded.
“She is getting married soon.”
“How old is she?”
“Fifteen…. No. She is eighteen. Yes, eighteen.”
We weren’t certain. Neither was she. We tried not to judge them. Some days, we failed. In these lands, judgement came easy. To the mother who was deprived of choice, she chose to survive.
And, they all did, despite their despair.
Kamalakshi didn’t speak to us. Uncrossing her ankles, she’d close her eyes sometimes and lean back into the wall. Startled by a loud disturbance from the road, she leaped from her chair and sprang outside.
There was no one around.
In the evening, Siddamma entered their house alongside other children waiting near the courtyard. Her daughter Manjula stood beside her. She sat on the floor placing her hand against her knee.
“My brother was mentally unstable,” she said while sipping her tea, “My parents had no one to look after them. So, I was dedicated at a young age.”
“Amma and appa died years ago. My brother lives with me now.”
“I take care of him.”
Every Tuesday and Friday, the Devadasis roamed the village singing for the villagers. Some offered them rice, sweets or anything they could spare those days. The women accepted whatever was given to them.
Everything was shared.
Siddamma crooned two lines. It wasn’t a song we had heard before. They composed it for the rural women collective themselves, we were told.
She sang beautifully.
Her sons graduated high school, she said. They have two autorickshaws that carry goods and supplies.
Unlike the other men, they didn’t abandon their family.
She wasn’t a burden. And, they weren’t ashamed of her.
She was a Devadasi, yes.
But she was their mother…
(to be continued…)
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