He ran, fixing his shawl, towards the stall where gathered men in hordes amidst structures that barely stood up. Grey sludge seeped through the settlement; froth gathering at its corners. Here, some spaces were overcrowded. Some were sordid.
And, they were stuck in between.
Nobody remembers what they wore that morning. They don’t remember if they had eaten. There were several of them. They walked hand in hand amidst a valley of eyes following their footsteps.
It wasn’t a quiet day.
The tea stall had a separate structure — the kind that wouldn’t stand out every so often. Chapra, they called it. Every place had one. Its heathered grey walls and thatched roof held tumblers and plates on makeshift racks. They were kept aside for them. No one could touch it save them. No one could wash it save them.
The chapra was meant for them. The Dalits. And, no one else.
“We slashed our wrists, and entered the stall with bloody arms,” said Sunkappa frowning his brows, a late evening. “This was years ago. We wanted to show them it was similar: the colour of our blood. That we weren’t different. We told them we wouldn’t pollute their vessels. That we could eat together. We told them over and over again.”
But no one listened.
Everybody knew what they were called. They never refused to call them anything else. They despised them, at first. Their presence made them distraught. But no one knew why.
“Things changed after that. Steel tumblers gave way to plastic cups. Everyone used plastic thereafter. So we used them and threw them away.”
And, that’s what they settled for.
It was constant: their struggle for oneness.
But here, they wouldn’t find it.
After breakfast, we sat around and spoke about our lives. A staccato rattle of birds rose steadily from somewhere above. Laxman smiled. Stretching his arms behind his back, he nodded slowly. A few toddlers ran around repeatedly pretending to look for their books. Some threw rocks at each other. Saraswathi stood in the corner glaring at the younger ones. They didn’t pay any heed to her.
Shivanna dragged a sack towards the fields. He walked in silence. Behind the kitchen, there were seedlings and plants that required his attention. His frail figure hovered over a few shrubs. He examined them closely. A year later, we saw him hunched over saplings planted by children, that morning.
“Brinjal,” he explained pointing at the ground, “The kids love to plant flowers, fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, they take good care of them.” A hint of pride crossed his face as he leaped from one plant to another.
In a village nearby, a young man struggled with his ox along the edge of a lake. The skies were hazy. Open fields were now stacked with tall blades of jowar; their shadows lost in the ground.
It was a bull, some said. But we never confirmed. It stormed into the water first dragging him all the way in. He held up his rope for a while but struggled to maintain his balance. He had never learnt how to swim.
Nobody knows what happened.
“Two men saw it all. They didn’t save him because they couldn’t swim,” said Yusuf hours later. His eyes turned distant and forlorn, at once.
“They belonged to the upper caste,” he whispered.
“It doesn’t matter. They didn’t know how to swim.”
“They didn’t know,” he repeated himself.
Shivanna’s relatives tried calling him all morning. They never got through to him. A tree separated him from us. We couldn’t see his face. He remained calm as he emerged a few minutes later. He took long strides towards the empty path that led to the hall.
It was his nephew.
“Owing to casteism, the society has disintegrated further into chaos. We quarrel over our dissimilarities. We have forgotten to connect with love and compassion. We are divided in every aspect. And, we will continue to be that way until there’s nothing left of us,” said Laxman walking towards the stage. Tiny strings cinched under their waist, the girls followed him.
He married against his family’s will. His wife Chandrakala is a theatre artiste. It was unacceptable, at first. For, they belonged to different castes.
It didn’t bother them.
“You can’t escape it,” he told us with a warm smile. “Caste follows you everywhere. Even in the field of art, literature, theatre and cinema, it lurks underneath the layers. I have borne witness to lower caste being shunned in all spheres.”
Months later, on a rainy afternoon, we met him again. Behind him, on a small blackboard, a few dialogues were written in Kannada. Words faded but the story was told, nonetheless.
“What is it about?”
“A mother and a child. It’s their arduous journey fighting poverty and struggle. The play also explores distinctions of class and ideology.”
“Amma hesaru Vaslova…”
It was written by Maxim Gorky about the pre-revolution proletariat of Russia, he told us in conversations. It was her son’s discovery of the working class being the formidable force of change in social constructs, of perhaps destabilising the then prevalent socio-political order that led her to embrace ideologies that were once unheard of.
“We are revolutionists, and will be such as long as private property exists, as long as some merely command, and as long as others merely work. We are against the society whose interests you judges have been ordered to defend; we are its uncompromising enemies, and yours too, and no reconciliation between us is possible until we have won our fight… all of you, our masters, are more like slaves than we are. You are enslaved spiritually; we — only physically…” wrote Gorky.
It was a turning point in Russian revolution, some intellectuals argued.
And, they found a voice in his story: these artists and activists.
“We too have a story to tell,” Laxman told us as we walked along the road one night. The moon was crimson. It was a subtle lunar eclipse: we read in the papers the next day.
“And, we’ll continue telling it till we are heard…”
Her eyes darted back and forth. A swarm of insects swirled in the winds. In rhythmic gusts, they rose against the landscape. She swung her stick several times. The haystack was left untouched for days. Renuka sat beneath the trees.
This wasn’t our first encounter.
“At first, it was difficult to work with children,” she said fiddling with her thumbs, “But I am good with them. I learnt that over time. They come to me with their problems, and even share their feelings with me.”
She and her mother lived alone. Her name was Hanumamma. For the longest time, there was no one around. Renuka’s father was married to another woman. They had six children. She was enrolled in a hostel after fifth grade. “I would stay there for fifteen days and return home to work in the fields. I had to work as a coolie to support my family,” she said rubbing her hands together. She sighed deeply looking into the fields far away. The unsparing heat had begun to show signs of aridity in visible corners.
“It took me a while to understand the Devadasi system. Sometimes, in schools, when they’d ask us to sign forms, our teachers would wonder aloud why we didn’t have a father. Someone once remarked: Their mothers sleep with several men. They all live that way. I was enraged. Some days, I’d ask my mother: Why did you become a part of this system? You could have married a blind person or someone with a limp. That way I would have had a father. But it wasn’t her fault. She was never asked. She never had a say in anything at all.”
Hanumamma was three when they tied the muthu around her neck. Her grandmother had a dream where Uligamma descended from the heavens to talk to her.
“You will die soon,” she said to her, “If you don’t dedicate your daughter to the temple, you won’t live. Not for long…”
On the ninth day, they bought her clothes and five pearls (muthu). They took her to a temple and performed the rituals. She didn’t know what it meant. Many years later, once she hit puberty, she was introduced to a man.
Renuka was born shortly.
“We visited my father’s house: my mother and I. When we went there, they told us you are Devadasis. You are unfit to be a part of this family. You can’t stay with us. If you do, we will lose our reputation in the society,” she said looking away.
A wave of grief washed over her as she remembered him. We didn’t know her father’s name. She called him appa. In 2012, he fell ill. His kidneys collapsed. “I remember that night. I was with him. It was 12 am. He was exhausted and felt really uncomfortable. I woke him up and gave him some hot water. He couldn’t sleep. So, we sat and spoke to each other for a long time. Do whatever you can, he said. Make me well. I want to live. I want to see you, your brothers and sisters prosper. I want you to have a better life. I want to see it all…”
Renuka didn’t sleep all night. She tossed and turned in her bed till dawn. They didn’t have any money. They couldn’t afford to pay for his medical treatment. Over the next three months, his health worsened.
“I went to my father’s younger brother,” she said hesitantly, “To borrow some money. We need to take appa to a hospital, I told him.”
“What did he say?”
She looked down. The heat scathed her toes. But she didn’t budge.
She scratched her feet mindlessly; her fingers tracing her nails.
It continued for a while but it didn’t last.
What troubles do you have? he asked her. You are an adult now. So is your mother. Why don’t you sleep with someone every day? That way, you’ll earn enough to support you father. Tears welled in her eyes. But she didn’t look away. Her lips quivered as she struggled to speak.
“I was really hurt,” she said wiping her face, “I didn’t drink a drop of water, that day. Neither did I take the bus or autorickshaw back home. I walked in the heat for hours. I was angry and frustrated. I didn’t know what to do, where to go. After three days, I went to a sangha. Long ago, I helped women organise themselves into groups and use their skills to earn their livelihood.”
There was an old lady in the group. Her name was Jayamma. Renuka shared her sorrows with her, one day. She listened to her patiently that afternoon, and left. In a few days, she returned with Rs 80,000. “Appa owns 7 acres of land. I told her I would return her money gradually. She placed her trust in me and I took my father to a private hospital in Koppal.”
Dr. Mahendra Karge examined the scans. It had been a week since the family had visited the hospital. They came regularly, almost every day. This time, they were late. He mentioned something about ‘second stage’, and that treatment would last the entire month.
They didn’t understand
It would cost them Rs 1000 for medicines and tests, every week.
Days later, Renuka’s brother fractured his arm. One of her sisters went into labour. And, they had no money left. None for her father’s treatment. Hanumamma earned whatever she could toiling in the fields all day. But they were nine of them. “Yes, nine. I didn’t abandon them. My other family. We aren’t related by blood. But they are my family. So, I took care of them.”
Why? we thought to ourselves. We wanted to ask her.
But we didn’t.
We stared at her longer than usual. She noticed. We imagined them huddled together; her mothers and siblings. A flicker of light keeping their rooms lit at night. There they sat, all of them, under one roof sharing spaces in unwelcome soils.
Theirs was a relationship forged out of agony.
But it was love that saved them.
“I wouldn’t wish this upon my enemies. No one should live this way. I returned to chikappa days later. He was rude to us, yes. But that doesn’t mean we leave him behind. I told him I had the money. You don’t need to worry. I just need to take him to a good hospital. I need help. So, my doddappa’s son, amma and appa went to Hubli. They didn’t take any of us,” said Renuka.
Something happened there. Perhaps, the treatment didn’t work. His stomach was swollen. So were his legs and hands. They couldn’t recognise him anymore. I will die if you don’t come and get me, he said to Renuka one day.
See what they are doing to me. I don’t know what to do. This is a big hospital. I don’t what to eat, where to get it from? I don’t want to die here.
He pleaded with her to help him.
Renuka asked him to leave. He hopped on the next bus and reached Hospet in the morning. It was 11 am. On Sundays, there were far and fewer people who travelled these routes. She waited for him.
He walked towards her with short unsteady steps.
“We took him to Venkateshwara Hospital,” she said dusting mud off her feet, “I placed all the documents on the doctor’s desk. No matter what happens, I said to him, save my father. Please give him what he needs.”
The doctor bowed his head. He didn’t say anything for a while. In a concerned tone, he informed Renuka that her father would live for an hour. There was nothing more he could do. “I am so sorry. You have borrowed money. You ran from pillar to post. But I am afraid it’s too late…”
With a sombre face, Renuka hastened forward towards her family; her steps lingering, and mind conflicted. Tears ran down her face. There was nothing left to do. “I didn’t know where else to take him. Nobody wanted to help us. Even my distant cousin who’d borrow money from us for his daily dose of paan parag never responded to our pleas. Amma cried in the corner while I hid in another. What did the doctor say? Appa kept asking me. Are they going to take me in? I didn’t answer. I sat in silence beside him.”
“My tears never stopped. He might have had a hunch.”
She didn’t have the heart to tell him.
A large crowd gathered around them. Women wailed, and they could no longer let them be. Some suggested a few doctors in Bellary. “He needs a dialysis, a man told me. He gave me a number, and said the doctor would help us. We rented a car to Bellary, and reached late that evening. It must have been 7 pm. Appa’s treatment went very well. For three days, he underwent dialysis. His recovery was slow but he was getting stronger by the day,” she said with a gleam in her eye.
Ten days later, they returned home. He wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol or chew paan for the rest of his days. One morning, Renuka decided to visit her mother who had been living in a different village. It had been a week since they saw each other.
He gathered his strength to walk outside. His friends were waiting for him. They walked together to their usual spot. Or perhaps towards unpaved streets where lurked fewer men at twilight.
He drank for a while.
“He got worse,” whispered Renuka. It was reckless to seek solace in her past. And, she knew it. It wasn’t invisible: the sorrow in her voice. In collapsing silences, that afternoon, she revealed it all.
“The doctor yelled at us. He said appa wouldn’t survive this at all. But he seemed alright for a month and a half. No matter what you do, you can’t save him, the doctor repeated several times that day. My uncles arrived shortly. But they didn’t care for any of us. They refused to acknowledge the struggles we had to go through to get there. They ignored me. Everyone hurled abuses at them. Despite having money and owning property, they did nothing for their own brother.”
In the dead of winter, one November night, her father stopped passing urine. Renuka and her mother rushed him to the hospital yet again. “Go home amma,” said the doctor to them, “How long will you women run around? Take him home. There’s no hope left here. None for him, none for you…”
They got him discharged and left the premises. Numerous voices drone on but nothing captures their attention. They walked for a while till he collapsed on the floor.
“Appa eddelu appa, I said to him over and over again…”
He didn’t respond. He just sat there on the ground.
They couldn’t lift him. He was a tall and hefty man. Renuka ran to the main road to get them an autorickshaw. She explained to the driver what had happened. Swalpa help maadu anna, she begged him. They reached the bus stand in a few minutes.
“Appa couldn’t walk to the bus stop. He sat on the ground once more,” she said weeping, “I don’t know how to explain this to you.”
“There was a man with a kasa bandi (garbage trolley)…”
“I placed Appa in it and pushed the trolley to the bus stop. He has a brother, a sister, a family. And, I had to carry him in a garbage cart to the bus stop.”
“In his last moments, that man had nobody he could call his own.”
“Jigupse Aagbithide Nanige…”
They reached Hospet at 8 pm. There was no one around. They couldn’t carry him anywhere. So, she found another one by the roadside: an abandoned garbage trolley. She pushed him for the longest time till they found a vehicle that took them to her aunt’s place.
The next morning, they met Dr Mahendra Kharge again. Upon his instructions, they gave him an injection. Renuka stood beside him, all the while. She refused to let go.
At first, she didn’t notice it. It turned red, and it spread gradually. His veins didn’t look normal. Neither did his legs, his arms or his face.
Why is my father bleeding? she asked the doctor. He pulled her aside and told her to accompany him outside.
“What for?” asked Renuka perplexed.
“He must have done something right in his previous life to have a daughter like you. Your struggles went in vain. He won’t stay alive.”
In the end, it was all for nothing.
Within minutes, her father called for her. He hadn’t spoken to her in a while. He couldn’t. Renuka rushed to his side at once. Pour some water into my mouth, he whispered to her.
A steady bellowing whistle, a rumbling engine, the heavy whir of machinery. Sounds intermingled with each other, that afternoon. Wailing sirens faded in a distance.
It was in autumn when he fell ill.
In winter, he left home.
Thus, they laid him to rest; the man who lived two lives.
“If you saw my mother crying that day…” her voice trailed off, “It felt as if the earth and sky were on fire. There was no one beside us, no one with us. Appa left. He was no more. It then dawned on us that we’d never see him again.”
“I couldn’t cry. I didn’t know what happened to me that day.”
“I felt nothing for a while…”
Three days after the funeral, they performed some rituals as per tradition. They had to feed their relatives. There wasn’t a grain of rice in the house. And, no one stepped forward to lend them a hand. “My father had siblings. But no one wondered if his children had eaten, if they had anything left. I was anxious throughout the day. I woke my atte and maava, and told them there was nothing at home…”
They stared at her blankly for a while unsure of what to say. Renuka rushed to the bookshelf as they looked down.
“I have had this habit for years. I always kept some money in between pages of my books. I found two Rs 500 notes that day. I then went to the market, and bought some rice,” she said breaking her knuckles, “After his death, I went to work. I would sit with my family and tell them Appa may have passed away but we will continue to live our lives and survive. You all know the situation we are in. I told the youngest one to go to school. Everyone else had to go to work after school. If we earn at least Rs 400 per day, we will save Rs 1200 per week. I gave everyone hope.”
It has been six years since her father passed away. Today, they have cleared all their debts, and built a house for themselves. They have everything except a fridge, says Renuka with a smile.
“I have forgotten those times. They are behind me now. We have managed to build a life for ourselves. Together. Our family was broken, years ago. Today, we are one. My brother has a government job and earns around Rs 5000 per month. My akka has two children. So, does my younger sister. My brother is studying, and the rest are working. My uncles and I have made our peace with each other. I was 20 when appa died. I may have lost him. But today I have a big family. So, I tell my kids in Bandhavi there will always be a path to happiness. We must find it. For ourselves, and our families.”
“Ishte nanna kathe…” she said smiling to herself.
“How did you have hope?” we ask her.
“I am a Devadasi’s daughter. I wanted to set an example by taking care of my other family. People assume Devadasis and their children sleep with several men. That we don’t have any legitimate relationship with anybody. But that’s not true. None of it is.”
“Sometimes, our own family may treat us with cruelty.
“That happened to me,” she said, “So, I did what I thought was right.”
“I forgave them.”
Casteism will only hinder us from progress, she said slapping her knees. It is one of the reasons holding us back. She spoke of Dr B R Ambedkar, of his struggles, of what he envisioned for them as a community.
“He is a great human being. He has done so much for us — Dalits. It is because of him that we are able to sit alongside other caste folks, and eat with them today. People in the higher classes use politics to decide what we should study, what we do, and what we eat.” she said catching her breath.
“They are Dalits. They shouldn’t study. They should continue practising bonded labour, they tell us.”
On some days, her mother visits some homes asking for food; homes that belonged to the Gowdas. It is a ritual that has been upheld for many years. Renuka forbids her from going there today.
They don’t need to sweep their floors anymore.
For, they earn enough to keep the stove lit at night.
“If I pay them Rs 700, will they clean my home? No. They won’t,” she said flailing her arms in the air, “Such kind of caste-based distinctions need to end. Why do you require women from the lower caste to continue the Devadasi tradition? Why don’t you dedicate your own daughters to the temples? Our shadows are impure by the day. At night, you have no problem sleeping with us…”
They come at 11 pm and leave at 4 am. Their reputation would suffer a devastating blow at any other time if they were to be seen with a Dalit woman.
Her caste doesn’t bother them at night. This kind of behaviour is rampant everywhere, says Renuka. “My brother has taken a keen interest in politics. On several occasions, I’ve told him – Go to the temple that belongs to the upper caste. Enter the garba graha and light a diya. Then, I will agree you have great strength within you. Then, I will accept you as an equal.”
That wouldn’t be wise, he told her.
Why not? she would retort.
He’d never respond.
“They have sisters too. But have any of my brothers slept with them? she asked no one in particular. “In daylight, our faces irk them. But they require us in the dark. ”
There are many children here who tell her they see him almost every day; their father who refuses to acknowledge their existence. All they wish for, every year, is to call him appa. But their mothers tell them not to.
“We don’t have the right to do so.”
“It isn’t allowed. We can’t call him appa before others. It might tarnish their reputation. We are treated with such cruelty. And, we are expected to follow what has been told to us. Always..”
“One person can’t end casteism. It should start with every individual, every house, and every village. We can’t do it alone. We should do it together. Only then will we see progress in socio-economic realms,” she said pacing up and down as we walked towards the dining hall.
A year later, we crossed paths again.
She was dressed in white. She trotted excitedly from one shrub to another stopping momentarily before the tree where we once sat together. “We must make our voices heard with peace,” she said that night as we sat near the pond.
“Atrocities cannot be met with more atrocities.”
“We aren’t unwanted.”
“And, we will never be…”
(to be continued…)
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