There’s a story that was once told. In lands, unfamiliar and distant, there lived a man who abandoned his home.
Unfettered by days to come, he wandered the village as if it were his own. It was then he came across a teacher who took him in as his disciple.
The man was Dalit. A madiga.
His teacher, a Brahmin.
Nobody knew his name. Nobody knew where he’d come from.
This was a story that would never be forgotten.
For in his home resided an untouchable. But the Brahmin never knew his true identity. His daughter married the young man, many years later. They lived in the village with their children.
He never told anyone.
They ate together. They lived together. They shared their joys and sorrows, together. He never uttered a word. For his impurity would devastate them. His mother looked for him everywhere. One day, she stumbled upon him in a village far away, away from home.
He couldn’t let her go.
“Mother,” he said, “I have been living here as a Brahmin. No one knows my true identity. For, if they do I will be banished. I will take you home. You can meet my wife and children. I have a family now. But you must pretend as if you are deaf and dumb. Promise me that you won’t reveal who we are.”
She agreed to his demands.
His wife served her sweetmeats. His mother devoured the meals prepared for her. “Oh! It tastes like roast beef,” she exclaimed.
The daughter-in-law was furious. For it was only then she realised they were Madigas.
The impure. The untouchables. The unwanted.
They were low born.
Unworthy of living in their lands.
Her wrath preceded reason. In a fit of rage, she set fire to her house, her husband and her children. All the while muttering curses under her breath. “Madigas should always live in poverty, ignorance and slavery…”
She became the mother Goddess, and was worshipped for centuries by Brahmins, and the Dalits.
This was a story that was never forgotten.
For it belonged to him, the man with no name.
The nameless who defiled sacred beings.
In the abandoned classroom, where the children left their sketches, lay a book filled with such stories. A random page revealed one such tale.
Of a past, a present and a future.
Of unwanted beings in unknown lands.
Of a nobody.
“For 300 years, the struggle between Gowdas and Madigas persisted here, and everywhere. And, it will continue,” said Sunkappa raising his fists in the air. He was mad.
At whom, we wondered.
Was it at them? The ones who dictated terms of their existence;
Who broke faith with their own…
To whom, they bowed down for centuries.
All of them.
“There are 700 homes in this village. Out of which only 15 or 20 own land. Our parents were bonded labourers. So were our grandparents. We can’t own any land here. Because we are from the lower caste.”
“This is our story.”
The women listened in silence. Siddamma brushed her knuckles against her knee several times, that afternoon.
There was nothing on them.
Yet, she rubbed them.
Over and over again.
Galamma sat on the floor. Her eyes yearned for sleep; something she had lost twenty years ago. She raked her fingers through her tousled hair. Head lowered, she stared at the stove in the kitchen. Her eyes darted towards the narrow street beside her house from time to time. And, we stared at her; at the scarlet tinge of her lips, the green bangles on her wrist, and the cracked soles of her feet.
“I was five,” she said chewing betel leaves, her forehead lined with worry, “That was my age when they tied the muthu (pearl) around my neck. I have four brothers and two sisters. I was the first girl to be born in the family. My mother couldn’t speak very well. Her hands and legs didn’t function anymore. So, she prayed to Uligamma,” she said, “She promised to dedicate her daughter to the deity. An astrologer told her it would bring them luck. She kept her promise. But she was never cured. And, I became a Devadasi. It was expected of me to not express my troubles to anyone. This was my reality.”
“I was thrown out of the house, years later.”
There was a sister that couldn’t speak, she told us weeks later. She never got married.
Galamma took her in. For, there was no one who would. “Doddappa and Chikkappa didn’t take care of her. She lives with us now. Amma didn’t abandon her,” Suneetha told us one morning as we sat beside the pond.
It was in Naregalu, Koppal where we first met Galamma. She was late, that day. A little boy stood at the porch staring intently at the ground. His name was Yemmanur. He was Galamma’s son.
Shadows and depth confounded him.
A single bulb hung from the wire above him. Charred beams were tossed aside, behind the house. It didn’t belong to them.
He waited for her.
She never announced her arrival.
“In our culture, girls are treated with cruelty,” said Galamma shooing away roosters in the courtyard. “I had no choice but to accept my fate. It was extremely difficult. If you are married, no matter who you are, you will be considered virtuous. But if you are a Devadasi, you acquire the status of a prostitute. For them, we’ll always be sule, vaishya. We are filth, they reminded us. And, we never forgot.”
From the corner of the room, her daughter Suneetha rocked back and forth. She fidgeted with her long braid as she heard her mother speak. It was a story she was familiar with. “Men came and left as they pleased. Sometimes, they couldn’t provide for us,” said Galamma. “There were days when we didn’t have anything to eat. I felt alone. Perhaps, if I had a husband, we could have shared our troubles. No one should go through what I went through. We can’t change our past. But we can create a better future for our children. That willingness to change must come from within,” she explained.
Suneetha dropped out of school soon after the birth of her little brother many years ago. One day, when we walked to the back of the school, she pointed excitedly at a few trees, and saplings.
They were planted by her.
“This was all a forest, earlier,” she said twirling a blade of grass between her thumbs
“At least it felt like it. There were snakes everywhere. We had to be careful. At first, we were just 25 students. We cleared the entire campus, and turned this into a garden.” She said staring at the plants behind us.
“Do you like it here?”
“Don’t you miss home?”
“I do. But I have a family here too.”
“It was here where I first learnt how to read and write. I have been here for seven years. Before that, my life was very different. I didn’t think I would ever go to school again,” she said softly.
A puppy crashed into the haystack piled neatly behind her. In the now vanished fields, farmers go by quietly. The raging winds are lulled into a slumber. Like all days, in the summer, there ought to have been shelter for their cattle, and there was. But today, there were none roaming these fields.
“I am fair and my sisters have dark skin,” Suneetha confided in us, that afternoon. She wiped her brow ceaselessly. Her voice trembling, she continued, “We don’t have the same father. As a kid, I often wondered why I looked different. At times, people in the village would pass hurtful remarks. ‘Why don’t you look like your siblings?’ they’d ask.”
“You should look like your mother. But you don’t.”
“I have a different father, I’d tell them as a joke.”
“I didn’t know.”
She sobbed for a while. And, we let her. “Houdu, nanna Amma Devadasi,” she said wiping her tears. “An astrologer predicted that her husband would die if she ever got married. So, the elders decided to dedicate her. But she will always be my mother.”
“I don’t know much about the time my mother gave birth to us. The troubles she went through…”
“I am not sure I really know how I was born.”
“Amma,” she said her voice trembling, “She must have been alone. We had nobody. Some days, there was no food. After school, akka would work in the fields with amma, and they’d earn enough to feed us. Sometimes, it wasn’t enough. Despite all the hardships amma went through, she continues to fight for women.”
“All of us went to school. Because of her.”
“Because of her…”
“Today, akka is a teacher. Anna studied till tenth grade, and works in a bakery. We have 1.5 acres of land, and we grow our own crops. Amma constantly encourages parents to educate their daughters, to make them more aware of their rights. She has immense strength in her soul,” she said staring intently at us.
“And, I couldn’t be more proud of her.”
Her mother bled for days after giving birth to her brother. It didn’t stop. Not for a while. And, Suneetha remembered it all: her going to work with a swollen belly, the baby being born, her falling sick. Everything. There was no one to take care of them. No one they could call their own. “I too have dreams,” she declared that afternoon, “When I grow up, I want to be a nurse. There aren’t any doctors or nurses in our village. People are sick all the time. And, they don’t get any help. Many die. May be I can help them. I hope to do that someday.”
Jaggery, coconut oil, turmeric and medicines, whispered Galamma. Pregnant women were offered them, she said looking forlorn.
“By their husband. By their family. But I didn’t get anything. My stomach was empty. I was alone. I had to deal with several men in my lifetime. But I had no one by my side. I have lived through several such moments; when I hoped that it would end. That I wouldn’t last. Yes, I thought about it too.”
Sometimes, we had nothing to say to each other. But this wasn’t one of those times. Yet, we said nothing. In her silence, we sensed shame. For, hers was a story of betrayal. She almost betrayed herself, that day.
For days to come, we spoke with her. Our conversations never lasted. But we didn’t prolong them. We didn’t need to.
She never conceded defeat.
This was our first encounter with the undefeated; one that we would remember for a while. One that helped us piece together stories of the despaired.
We were wrong. All the while, we knew it. But we couldn’t understand why.
For, it wasn’t shame, it was forgiveness.
She forgave herself.
“Some days, I thought it would never end. Some days, I wished I was born in a different time…”
“But time doesn’t work that way now, does it?”
No, it doesn’t.
“I couldn’t keep them healthy and happy. I would borrow money and take them to the hospital. I never abandoned them. Why would I? They are my children. When I was unwell for a month, there was nobody to look after them,” she said looking outside. In the courtyard, roosters and hens pecked the ground while children threw stones at each other. Her son sent Rs 10,000 last month. “I bought gifts for everyone,” she said with a smile, “And, I used the rest to clear my debts.”
“I still have plenty of them…”
Mahalakshmi fiddled with the stove in the kitchen. A few days later, she explained to us that caste-based discrimination was deeply embedded within the Devadasi structure. The continuous oppression of Dalits by the upper caste members had left an indelible mark on their identity. For, they were unable to differentiate between normalcy and unjust behaviour.
“Even today, we are prohibited from entering temples meant for the Lingayat community. But I broke that tradition,” she said with pride. “Everyone stared at me dumbfounded, that morning. What was a Dalit girl doing here, they wondered. They kept looking at each other. They all knew who I was but made no attempt to throw me out. Discrimination exists, no doubt. When I was young, it was rampant in our village. Maybe it isn’t as dire as it was decades ago. I remember it all. But it’s there and it will take a while to eliminate it completely.”
“In school, we can sit with them: the children from the upper caste. We still can’t enter temples as per our will.”
After a while, she became indifferent to them. There was, however, contempt hidden in her words. It was then, in exasperated moments, she revealed her anguish over what was done, and what was meant to be.
As a young girl, she told us, the absence of a father left a great void in her life. She didn’t know who he was. She didn’t know what it meant to have a father. At times, she felt betrayed. “I was constantly reminded that I have no appa. I felt agonised. I never said his name. Everyone called someone their father. Whom should I call appa? Nobody had an answer. But they never failed to me remind me that I didn’t have one. Or that I had several. There were times when I yelled at my mother and refused to speak to her for months. I blamed her for my troubles.”
“Neenu nanna thaayi alla, I told her once,” she said, bowing her head, “I feel ashamed for what I did. I was very young. I hurt her. But she always forgave us. She never abandoned us. If it weren’t for her, I’d have been a coolie today. I earned Rs 20 every day after school by toiling in the fields. My life is so different now. My views have changed. I have evolved over time. It was Amma who forced me to study further. We paid a heavy price for what our ancestors did. They condoned a practice that only brought us misery. Never should this happen again.”
Picking up chalks from the table, she placed them one by one by her side. They were white. The coloured ones were destroyed, she declared.
They weren’t. The toddlers hid them in the corner.
She is a writer, she told us with a coy smile. Every little girl in the school reminds her of her childhood. Hers was different, she said.
She didn’t have one.
No one dedicates their little girl to the Goddess anymore, said Galamma sipping on her tea. She then spoke of troubled times, of times when Lingayat men refused to sit with Dalit men at tea stalls, when people offered her water from a distance, when their wages were thrown on the ground. “They didn’t want to risk touching the hands of a Dalit. People working with me were Kurubas. Those were the years when we were stripped of our dignity,” she said. She had gone through all that, and much more. “On several occasions, I wished to question them, to stand up and fight. But I didn’t. For, I was poor and worked in their farms. I couldn’t afford to lose my job. Who would feed my children?”
“I can’t change our past,” she said picking betel nuts from her pouch, “But I don’t want my children to go through whatever I went through. They should be treated with equality and kindness no matter who they are or what they become. The ability to question norms must come from within. My children are getting a chance to learn, gather knowledge and educate themselves today. They should instigate or see a change in the system. That’s what I wish for them…”
Beside Galamma, sat a middle-aged man. His eyes were scarlet. He looked everywhere except at us. At times, he stared at the walls tracing its creaks to the corners. “Mahalakshmi’s father came back five years ago. He wants to live with us,” said Galamma pressing her knees. “By then, I had everything. I built all this myself. He has returned but I can’t marry him because it’s forbidden to do so. He is here but I don’t know if I am lonely. It’s uncertain in my head. And, this is the only emotion I am familiar with — uncertainty. This is all I know.”
He was an alcoholic. He seemed calm in the mornings. However, at night, he turned violent, muttered Suneetha under her breath, a few days ago. She gazed at the trees above her, that afternoon, and whispered, “I don’t sleep very well at night when I’m home. I fear if I do, something may happen to her.” Her voice broke as she said, “Appa keeps yelling at my mother. I don’t like it. He drinks too much. There’s always a commotion at night. Amma’s voice haunts me every day. If she utters my name, I leap to her rescue. I can’t stop worrying about her.” She fell silent and didn’t wish to speak anymore. As she stood up to leave, she murmured, “I call him appa but he is not my father.”
He’ll never be.
Mahalakshmi and Suneetha never shared their emotions with each other. While one rejoiced in the return of a man who was once indifferent of their existence, the other couldn’t accept him as her father. But they never said it aloud. Not once.
“She never told me,” said Mahalakshmi picking pens off the floor, that morning. “We don’t discuss these things with each other. She calls him appa in front of everyone. But she doesn’t like to talk to him or sit beside him. I know,” she whispered looking at us.
“The questions have stopped. Nobody asks me who my father is anymore.”
“But they ask Suneetha. Earlier, they’d corner all of us. Now, it’s just her.”
“Sometimes, people taunt her endlessly.”
“But she has a father, for now…”
“Is the family happy with him?” we asked her.
“No,” she said hesitantly, “Doddappa and Chikkappa have stopped talking to us. They got into a fight with appa. He drinks every day. So, they can’t stand him. They say he can never be my father since he can’t marry Amma. She can’t wear a thaali. She will always remain a Devadasi for the rest of her life. My uncles don’t believe he’ll stay. And, my mother is stuck in between. She can neither accept him nor leave him.”
“And, that’s what it means…”
“To be a Devadasi.”
“She can’t have a husband. And, I can’t have a father…”
“Nobody should be dedicated to the Goddess. Nobody deserves this,” she said wiping away her tears.
“She is my God,” she said between sobs.
Galamma understood their dilemma. She always did. It wasn’t their fault, she told us. In the name of God, she was forced to forfeit her destiny by ordinary men and women. She fought hard, and survived. So, did her children.
In spirit, they resembled warriors. And, there they stood tall and proud in the courtyard, that evening, as we left Naregalu towards unknown towns where resided many more just like them.
Women who never gave up…
(to be continued…)
‘Rest of My family‘ is a non-profit social-work-through-art project. If you like our work, and wish to support it, you can help us continue by donating here.