‘I never set foot in the temple. From the day I was born, I was told not to. Because I am Dalit…’

I never set foot in there. From the day I was born, I was told not to. So, I never thought about it…

“Why is their God better than ours?” asked Renuka as the men bickered amongst themselves on tradition, revolution and broken faith. Yemunappa shot her a glance.  His gaze seemed unkind, at first.

But it wasn’t.

His thoughts turned distant. Startled by the hurried conversations around him, he craned his neck towards her as she spoke. There was agony in his eyes. He fiddled with his stick that lay beside him. Tossing his towel aside, he moved closer to us.

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Yemunappa striking a conversation with other villagers gathered around him

His vest had holes in it. But he didn’t notice them. His soles were cracked; his slippers barely held together. He didn’t notice them. His tea had spilled.

He noticed nothing.

We saw him sitting all alone, a few hours later. His eyes crinkled as his gaze turned blurry. The village was deserted. A group of people walked in the alleyway that led to settlements where he didn’t belong. They drew closer to him. Or so he thought. Noises ebbed and rose in tandem. Steadily, they walked arm in arm. Towards him. Away from him. He couldn’t say.

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Caste-based discrimination is still prevalent in Neregalu and other villages in Koppal

 

 

There was no honour in questioning faith, he told himself.

“I have faith. I do. But I don’t understand why Galamma, Yellamma, Kenchamma are inferior to their Gods? Why is there a hierarchy? We deserve to worship their Gods. I refuse to believe that they are superior. You never went there. That’s alright. But what about your children and grandchildren. Don’t you wish there comes a time when they’d be able to set foot in those premises?” asked Renuka.

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Yemunappa remained silent.
“Why do Dalits live in keri while the upper caste families reside in the ooru?”
“No one has stopped us from building our houses near them,” he told her.
“They won’t let us do that. They will object to our presence in their space.”

It didn’t leave them. It lingered like faded memories, like the stories they had heard as children; the ones they never forgot. His reality differed from theirs. They didn’t understand how and why. Some days, it filled them with agony. Each time it returned, it left them with a void: one that couldn’t be filled with empty promises or broken settlements; one that led them to believing there was no hope for those who despaired. For, it was in the void that they sought answers. Answers that no one had.

Our reality was different, they’d tell themselves. Just like him.
Their memories of his struggle grew more distant as they spoke.

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A lady taking a stroll in a deserted alleyway. Here, the Dalits reside in keri while the upper caste settlement is called ooru

A bike whirred in the distance. It came to a halt just before the house. Two middle-aged men walked towards us striking conversations amongst themselves.We had never seen them before.

Mudakappa Vosamane didn’t live here. Not in this lane.

“Our status is worse than that of street dogs,” he said slapping his knees. He didn’t choose his words with caution. But there wasn’t any need for courtesies. Not here, not today. “The problem persists everywhere. This is the state of Dalits in Karnataka, and not just Koppal. Caste-based discrimination against Madigas and Cheluvadhis go way back. If you visit any Dalit settlement, you will realise that they don’t have proper homes to live in. They don’t get electricity. They don’t have access to clean water. They live in such horrible conditions. It is inhumane.”

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Mudakappa Vosamane (right) shares thoughts on the current status of Dalits in Koppal and Karnataka

With every passing emotion, his features changed. His speech wasn’t refined and therein lay a side of him that one rarely got to see. He rebelled against ancient traditions that dishonoured their existence. There were several uprisings in his lifetime. He had organised some, and partook in some. It was uninhibited: his thoughts, movement and opinions. Hardships had changed him. Perhaps, he was a different man when he was younger.

We couldn’t know. For, we met him then. At a time when uprisings were a rarity but problems persisted. The men spoke of samithis meant for Dalits. They were operational on both zilla and taluk level.  But no one has visited them. No discussions were held so far. They tried to coax the sahibs into facilitating yojanas that would help them move ahead. “Our lives haven’t improved. Little successes don’t account for fundamental change in our social status,” he said with a stern expression.

They were disappointed. All of them.

“The situation in Neregalu is far better in comparison with other villages,” Renuka chimed in, “After numerous strikes and protests, we managed to bring it to this level. Upper caste families have access to clean water whereas we use soiled water accumulated at the bottom. We don’t use water meant for them and they don’t use water meant for us.

 

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Seeking respite from the heat, villagers relax under one of the trees in the village

 

For the first time in weeks, they spoke of old incidents. Stories that were passed on from one place to another. Belur and Beechanahalli, they whispered amongst themselves. People opposed the Dalits protesting against atrocities. They had no right, they were told. A year later, nothing had changed. Wells were poisoned, lands were demarcated and the assault never stopped. In many places, they lived in constant fear of being killed. Some walked on embers partaking in a test of purity as condoned by members of the higher caste. Some were fed excreta. A few paid their debt to Udusalamma by drilling metal hooks into their backs. They were suspended from trees. It was a spectacle to watch, said one. The Gods will be pleased. Legend had it that one of their ancestors was caught stealing paddy. They had to repent for their sins.

And, so they did for years.

Baayige beega required Dalit women to pierce their mouths with metallic hooks. It was tradition. Everything was. Year after year, they’d gather in villages. Performing rituals that were never theirs, believing in myths that were never theirs, amongst people who were never theirs.

On July 1, 1987, a report was submitted by the Karnataka Legislature Committee for the Welfare of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes based on their visit to a village called Ginagera in Koppal. Dalits were prohibited from entering tea shops and barber salons, it read. Daily wage workers and labourers were boycotted by upper caste farmers. On June 14, 1987, a woman named Sunkamma died in the village.

Upper caste Hindus barred the Dalits from burying their dead. The burial ground belonged to all, they were reminded.

Except the untouchables, they told them.

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Dalits are not allowed to enter the temples meant for the upper caste

 

“Nothing has changed. We are outnumbered,” said Mudakappa shortly after Renuka spoke, “They are 500 in all while we barely have 50 or 60 people fighting for our cause. Moreover, most of our families are poor. We can’t do anything save dance to their tunes. We got our freedom in 1947. But Madigas aren’t free. We’ll never be. The government refuses to step in and help us. Madigas and Cheluvadhis were eligible to receive a site and housing facilities. How many of us could claim them in the last decade? If we don’t learn to help ourselves, how can we expect others to fight for us? If I go away fighting our battles, who will take care of my family? How will they eat? The ones reaping all the benefits are rich. But we can’t go protesting against our own now, can we? We don’t have homes. We don’t have fields to work in. I have to return to those I protest against or my children starve.”

“It’s a matter of choice really. One that we have to live with for the rest of our lives…”

Perhaps it was religion that fuelled the separation of castes, set a social hierarchy in place and deterred them from fighting for what was rightfully theirs. The government may not be the sole body to blame.

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Lower caste families don’t have access to clean water here

 

“There’s a saying in our village,” he said with a smirk. His face shifted in a moment that went unnoticed by many save us. The words rang in their minds like a dull echo. “I’ll translate it for you. Upper caste folks take bath in clean water that flows upstream while the Dalits wade in murky waters that flow downstream. Ambedkar spoke of equal rights. But our current situation remains dismal. Since the upper caste continues to ostracise us in the name of religion, we are now fed up with belief and faith. I’d rather leave Hinduism and practise some other religion. We didn’t get nyaya or neeti here. Hindu dharma isn’t doing us any good. And, it never will.”

Yemunappa arched his brows before he interrupted the young men once more. It wasn’t anger that made them brave the conversation against the Gods, that afternoon. It was helplessness. It crept through the crevices of their mind from time to time, galloping in depths where lay hidden undesirable thoughts; those that provoked questions from within.

He will prepare his children to continue the fight, Mudakappa declared. For, one mustn’t quit the battle for humanity. As he rose to leave, he tugged at Piyush’s arm and pulled him aside.

“What is your caste?” he asked.
“I don’t associate myself with any caste. But I was born in a Brahmin Family.”

He smiled. “Those who understood true wisdom based on knowledge were defined as Brahmins,” he said walking away from us. “Not the ones who performed poojas or ascertained authority over others…”

He left in haste.
We never met again.

***

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Sunkappa lead us to his home after our discussion with a few villagers

At Sunkappa’s home, bowls of avalakki bath were laid out for us. His wife prepared some tea. She rarely spoke. Her son looked for her everywhere until he caught a glimpse of her sarree in the kitchen. After breakfast, we took a walk towards the settlement where resided the Lingayats. Sunkappa, Mahalakshmi and Renuka accompanied us.

It was a long walk. And, they stared all along. They didn’t walk beside us. They were content watching us from afar. Minutes later, a few more appeared. They sat beside Yemunappa contemplating the conversations that ensued earlier.

Women cleaned soiled dishes piled outside their homes. The courtyard was filled with them. A young lady stood up to greet us. Clad in white dhoti, the older men appeared at their doorstep. They were waiting for us. “Banni Banni,” said one of them gesturing at Sunkappa.

Stacks of old books and newspapers occupied most corners. It was bigger than most homes we had seen so far. A young man carried an old table fan to the wooden bench in the hall. They weren’t rich nor were they poor.

Some years, they barely survived.

One of the men sat beside us. He resembled his uncle. He stared at us longer than usual. “Appa will be here shortly,” he said rubbing his chin.

The father arrived. Everybody stood up. Renuka sat beside us. Sunkappa and Mahalakshmi sat near the door. He was not a man of strong personality. He looked like any other. If they stood beside one another, one couldn’t tell the difference. Neither Lingayat nor Dalit, just a villager who lived in Neregalu.

The women poured us some buttermilk. We were served in glasses. Sunkappa and Mahalakshmi who refused to climb the platform were served in plastic cups. They were placed on the floor. We asked them to join us.

They didn’t.

“I entered the house of an upper caste family. I sat in their chair, and drank from their cups. I questioned them. I have never done that before,” said Renuka bursting into a fit of giggles later that night.

He stopped working a long time ago. He had developed cataract on one eye. His vision had turned cloudy.  “I have four sons and 15 acres of land. I was born and raised here,” he said placing his hand on the chair.

 

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An upper caste man sitting outside his home in Neregalu

 

There were barely any conversations that held our attention. Words were exchanged here and there; questions answered with a curt nod. Nothing exists anymore. All that was in the past, they said in unison. They were cautious and guarded. They would be. For, they had never seen us before. Not in this part of the town where the ‘others’ didn’t live.

“Everybody should unite,” he said. His voice, barely above a whisper, faltered for a while. “Otherwise, there’s no point. Who will fight for us? Villagers are struggling everywhere. We all must come together regardless of our caste. Everyone lives in harmony in Neregalu.”

They don’t.
For, they were not their people.

“But Dalits aren’t allowed to enter the temple,” we pointed out.
“Yes, they are. But they don’t come. Nobody stops them. Such practices existed in the past. We go to each other’s homes. We invite them to ours too.”
“The barber refuses to cut their hair,” we informed him. Sunkappa looked at us and held his gaze for a while but he said nothing.
“No. He cuts everyone’s hair. No such incidents have occurred here. When I was young, perhaps these practices were prevalent. But not anymore.”
“We need them to survive and they need us…”

“When the Devadasi practice thrived in these regions, did you ever question its existence? Did you oppose the practice openly?” we asked him before leaving.

He seemed startled at first. He cleared his throat several times before muttering, “It should have never happened. These women suffered a lot. The practice has been abolished now. Women were abandoned by men. They had to raise their children on their own. Our ancestors both Dalit and Lingayat upheld these traditions for centuries.”

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“Not anymore,” he repeated over and over again.

He never answered our question.
We didn’t ask him again.

(to be continued…)

Rest of My familyis 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.

Through  ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help.

 

 

 

 

 

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