She didn’t know.
We had never met her before. Her mother carried bricks on her head. Sometimes, she worked in the fields. “Amma was a coolie,” she said shrugging her shoulder; her demeanour speckled with nonchalance. Her eyes scanned the dirt on her toes. She sighed as she rubbed her cracked soles against her slippers.
Environmental issues bothered her. Many years ago, she had participated in street plays on social issues along with a troupe. “We had to do something. We started performing in neighbouring villages to educate people and spread awareness on climate change,” she said smiling to herself, “It was in Bidar where I found out about this place.”
Rajeshwari was six years old when she first arrived. She was the oldest in her family. “There are ten people living in my home: amma, chikappa, chikamma and my cousins. I have two brothers and two sisters,” she said.
They would take her to the farm. She couldn’t go to school. Not yet, they’d tell her. She watched her mother pluck weeds and plough the farm every day. Some days, the heat bothered her. Some days, the cold numbed them. When it rained, they found shelter beneath the trees. “She was exhausted all the time. Amma found it difficult to raise us. She was always working. That’s how I remember her. At first, there were twenty of us living under one roof. Then, we split. But ten of us remained. Amma was married young. It was a child marriage, they said. There was no one to look after her. I don’t have a father,” she whispered quickly under her breath.
Her mother was a Devadasi. She never got married. It was forbidden. But Rajeshwari didn’t understand the difference. For, she was very young when she left home. Here, in the schools, she had heard stories of tradition, of unspoken beliefs and struggle, of fathers who abandoned their family…
She didn’t know.
We didn’t tell her.
“Women have nothing much to do,” said Shobha when we visited Hire Shindogi a week later. She offered us some cold water. At her doorstep, her little girl wailed helplessly. Clothes piled in the corner lay forgotten. Her boy wasn’t home.
Meenakshi stood in her courtyard waiting for us. She opened the door, and stood smiling. They led us into a small building. The hall was barely lit. It wasn’t a large place. But nothing was large in these places.
It was her home. Women gathered at the porch waiting for the rest. Mats were placed on the floor while some rushed to get us a pot of cold water.
Shobha and Meenakshi spoke in circles. “They do nothing and everything. Whatever helps them feed their families. If women earn, they will be able to run their household, send their children to school, and take care of their family. Many attended training programmes in the past but it never resulted in anything. Shashikala here attended a workshop where she learnt how to make agarbattis. What was the point? She had to travel to another village for work. At home, they refused to let her go. Women don’t just loiter around the village. They work in the fields all day, every day. And, what do they earn? Nothing,” she said raising her knees against her chest.
Hunched down across the hall, Radha waited for her mother to finish. She stared at Shobha as she spoke. She stuck her thumb in her mouth. Crawling next to the women, she placed her head against their lap, and stared at the ceiling. Her eyes rolled in patterns. She sketched them in the air. Over and over again.
“My name is Shobha too,” said a frail woman sitting beside us. She looked older than she was. She looked happier than she was. Her eyes held apprehension. She was an ASHA worker. We hadn’t seen her before. Her epithets, dripped with reluctance, reminded us of stories we had heard before. Some forgotten. Some relived.
She has three children. They live in a small house at the end of the road. There was no one else with her. We asked if her husband worked in the city. She had made no mention of him in her conversations. Not once. “I am a Devadasi,” she muttered under her breath.
When she was young, she recalls, her family didn’t have much. “No. We didn’t have anything. My mother didn’t know, you know,” she said playing with a small silver band on her toe, “That my life would turn out this way. She dedicated me to the Goddess. And, they all abandoned me. I was six or seven years old. I don’t remember much from that time.”
“I don’t want to…”
She doesn’t like living this way, she confessed later that afternoon. If she were married, her husband would have shared her burden. Her children would have had a father. They would have had a last name, she laments. Where blank spaces remind them of a life they could have had, of unfulfilled promises, they shed silent tears that don’t go unnoticed.
“I feel ashamed some days. They have no father. If life were any different, I would be living in my husband’s house. My identity will never change. Wherever I go, I will first be identified as a Dalit. Then, a Devadasi. People assume that we could be used however they want, however they require. ‘We can do whatever we want to them. They have no value.’ Some days, they pass hurtful remarks,” she said frowning her brows.
She sends her children to school. It’s the least she could do for them. There were moments when we wondered if the father helped her at all. Did he care about them? Did he wonder if they needed help, if they had eaten that day?
If they were alive?
Did he think about them at all?
“No. I had to do everything on my own. Besides, he couldn’t even if he wanted to.”
“He is dead.”
She has no one. No brothers. No parents. No uncles or aunts. No family she could call her own. She had a sister who died years ago. “My oldest child isn’t mine. She is my sister’s daughter. After her parents’ death, I decided to adopt her. Today, I have three children. They are my blood. They are my family. It gets hard some days. I question everything when I am alone. Why was I subjected to this injustice? My mind is never at peace. Will it ever change? I can’t say. As of now, I am able to provide for my children. That’s all that matters,” she said.
The only way they can get rid of the practice, they believe, is if their children get married. Until now, three young Devadasis have been married to men who went against norms; men who fell in love with them.
Shobha didn’t own any land. But she had a house. Today, she has a job. Let them all get married, she said to the younger Devadasis.
They can’t survive unlike her.
“There’s a lot of field work involved. First, we identify women who are in the initial stages of their pregnancy,” she said wiping her face with the ends of her saree, “We ensure that they get regular check-ups done. We give them ID cards. They have to be administered two tetanus injections. Every month until they deliver, we accompany them to the hospital, and even drop them back home. We arrange for ambulances during delivery. Once the baby is born, we visit the mother and child for 42 days ensuring their health is stable. So far, I have looked after more than 50 women. It has been more than six years since I have been working in this field. I hope to do more. I don’t ever want to quit,” she said.
Her parents died when she was young. Her older sister who took care of her. The elders in the family decided to dedicate her to the Goddess. They all agreed it was a wise decision. For, she could earn for them.
And, she couldn’t break free.
They didn’t want them. It tormented her for a while. She never said it aloud.
But she knew. She always did. The words ran in her mind in a loop.
She called them her family.
But they never looked at her that way.
When the last of the children had gone, she called out to the youngest lurking in the corner, and asked him to return home. Their mothers must be waiting for them, she said. Dipping his feet in a murky puddle, he lingered for a while before paying any heed to her. His stick was broken. His stones didn’t match. There was no one around him. Then, the dogs came. On a stained mattress in a corner, lay a litter of puppies. Drooling over fences, they barked at one another marking their territories.
Everything was marked here.
His footsteps left no trail behind. It was in that summer, perhaps when he turned eight or ten, when the ground was far too baked to keep such memories alive. Save cracks. The cracks always remained.
“I hope they grow into beautiful human beings, “ said Shobha breaking our reverie, “My children needn’t suffer the same fate as I.”
In our village, she says, no one discriminates against us. Everyone treats them right. We asked her if she could enter their temples.
“Can you enter their homes?”
“But this has never been the practice for decades.”
The children barged into their home all at the same time. It wasn’t really the sounds that drew them to the hall. They were curious. Their cream-coloured shirts now brown and tattered. They were looking for us. They questioned one another for a while before being shooed away by the elders.
“In the cutting shaap, they don’t touch our hair,” she said perplexed. Her eyes were distant as if she were recalling memories trapped within them. “Our utensils are kept separately,” she spoke softly, “We can’t enter their homes. But I do.” A look of pride crossed her face. “I have to. I take care of all pregnant women regardless of their caste. If they don’t let me in, I have to report them to the authorities.”
Human beings created caste, she said sipping her tea. Our blood is similar. There’s just man and woman. Everything else was created by us, she said of discriminations and distinctions.
“May be it still exists in our village. Who knows?”
“May be I’ve gotten used to it.”
On the day after the Panchayat elections, roads were littered with colours and confetti. Here, celebrations lasted days. No body remembered who won or lost, a year later. Nonetheless, people smeared colour at each other. Alcohol and chicken was distributed amongst the locals.
In Hire Shindogi, Bhushya hid in the alley away from his home. His knickers slipped below his knees. His cap bore the Congress symbol. He didn’t know what it meant. He found it, that morning, discarded on the side of the road.
Asha and Akshaya accompanied us, that morning. An old grandmother sat on the courtyard beckoning us to join her. She was beautiful.
We told her.
“No, Look at my wrinkles. How could I be pretty?” she asked coyly.
She was an agricultural labourer. She earned Rs 200 per day. “I visited Bombay, you know. It was a very long time ago. Long before everything changed. It must be different now,” she said adjusting her nose ring. It was a gift from her husband, we were told. Basavanna gave it to her when she was ten years old.
Songs, games and dance ensued for hours. They all clapped to the rhythm.
Some joined the children. Some sat far away.
An old grandmother covered her mouth with her hand. She sat upright counting threads gathered at the seams. Lying in a small heap at the edge of the room were clothes discarded from the day before. The children dragged them to the corners.
They held hands sometimes: both women and children.
One of them whispered to the other. They spoke of young girls and jobs. “There are at least 20 of them. These young women need a job. They can’t work in the fields all day. They are ready to do anything. They need help. Here, people look down upon us. But you already know that. If they become self-sufficient and independent, they can get away from all of this,” said the women in tandem.
One by one, they all agreed. At the doorstep, sat a woman looking at her feet. Her toes were wrapped in silver rings. She pinched the top of her nail and swayed her body back and forth. She partook in some conversations that were never had before. This was one of those times when they spoke to each other about themselves.
“Some of our children wish to study. Sometimes, they don’t clear their papers. We are asked to cough up Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 as bribe to ensure that they pass in the re-test. Adu lancha. This holds true for both SSLC and P.U.C examinations. I myself am a victim of this situation,” said Shobha, “I could have pursued nursing but I couldn’t because I haven’t cleared two subjects in SSLC. This was in 2004. Some of my friends borrowed money and paid the officials. But where do poor people get their money from? Everything has a price these days.”
Another old woman limped across the room. She sat beside us; her cloth bag dangling around her waist. Inside, she placed a plastic pouch with documents and IDs. Her voter ID and doctor’s age certificate stated that she was 45-years-old. They told her she wasn’t eligible for compensation. Not yet.
“They made a mistake,” said Meenakshi, “Her son is almost 38-years-old. How can she be 45. She has been running from pillar to post begging authorities to help her. But no one listens to her plight. They all tell her to come back when she turns 60. She is almost 70 years old.”
They giggled. Perhaps, it was her ageless beauty that confounded the officials, yelled one of the women. The grandmother guffawed at her remark.
“What will you do now?” we asked her.
“I’ll wait. That’s all I’ve been doing my entire life anyways.”
“Could you get us some grooms?” asked a lady chewing betel leaf whilst offering the rest to others around her much to the chagrin of the younger women seated beside her. The youngest Devadasi in Hire Shindogi is perhaps 23 or 24 years old. “Nobody wants to marry us,” she said staring outside, “Men fear it might bring them bad luck. These are educated men who live in the cities. They are afraid of the Goddess, of the village, of their families, of everybody. Children of Devadasis too suffer the same fate.”
Some demand dowry. The amounts turn obscene every year. We tell them such partners are unworthy of their heart and soul. They agree.
“Nobody wants us. And, yet here we are. Our girls are lovely but who will marry them?” she said rubbing her thumb against the palm of her hand. She moved slowly towards us.
“Get us some men. Men who won’t abandon them. Men with integrity….”
“Yes, our girls deserve that much…”
(to be continued…)
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