Red and white.
They hung around her neck. A basket with betel leaves, ash and vermillion lay beside her. It was wrapped in white cloth. “She could be a Devadasi,” whispered Renuka as she walked towards the school. A thin veil of white hung in the sky. Dust swirled in the winds, that afternoon. Specks of brown dotted the horizon amidst the white as if they rose from the ashes from far away, as if they came from nowhere against all odds.
Her name was Yemunamma. She had three children. “Two of them are married,” she said flashing us a grin. Her teeth were crooked and stained like many others seated behind her.
“Adlige,” she said pointing to the basket, “I carry it with me to the temple every week.”
Not a Devadasi, we heard them whisper around us.
She isn’t one. They are different.
He moved so slowly as if he never intended to reach us. His eyes darted across the road. He had heard everything. He was curious, we could tell. We didn’t look at him. His eyes bore into our backs.
She held the plastic bag gingerly on her knee. She ran her hands on her head and removed her veil. Her hair was matted; her dreadlocks neatly tied in a bun. “The Devi would visit my body every now and then. The jade grew longer, and longer,” she said with a sheepish grin.
Her husband passed away years ago. She is a jogamma, Renuka explained to us later in the car. “After his death, the Goddess kept coming back,” she said hesitantly, “My hair changed. Soon, my health started deteriorating. So, they tied the muthu around my neck. Soon, all my problems vanished.”
She was distraught after her husband’s death. She had lost her peace. Her sons visited their grandmother and told her about Yemunamma’s condition. It was there that they decided to take her to the temple in Uligi.
The next morning, we said our goodbyes. It was time to leave, we told ourselves. But it never felt that way. We promised them we would return some day. Perhaps, we’d sit by the pond once more chasing frogs into the water, watching lotuses bloom, and sharing stories of mystery and valour at night when the moon rose high. Perhaps, we’d hear the sound of anklets and hushed murmurs at night. When we had returned, the girls remembered us.
A year later, a lot had changed. But they remained the same.
When we passed by the lone temple, we saw him again. We had crossed paths with him months ago. His legs quivered as his walking stick failed to hold ground. He clapped his hands when we stopped to greet him.
“There must be a reason why we meet like this. It was destined,” Hanumappa said rubbing his arm against his body. We talked for a while about birds and tigers, about animals that once roamed these lands.
“I had a daughter just like you,” he said when we rose to leave. “She met with an accident, one day. It was the worst day of my life. She had a deep gash on her forehead. She never made it. Maybe, it was time for her to leave us. We can’t question these things.”
He sat on the bench beside the giant tree. It wasn’t there the last time we were here.
He looked at us once more.
“It feels like you are one of my own when you call me thatha…”
“Be happy wherever you go,” he said walking away.
He was smiling. We couldn’t see but we knew.
We drove north.
At many a desolated path, rocks were stacked high on the roadside. There was no one ahead of us, and no one behind. These roads were dangerous, many told us. Dacoits roamed these regions. Those were different times. There are no dacoits in these lands anymore, they’d tell us weeks later.
At a tolling booth, one afternoon, a man ran towards our car selling knives and sickles. He had a sack on his back. There was dust in his hair. He held a scythe in one hand, and a machete in another. He held a nonchalant gaze towards the vehicles lined up at the booth. He wouldn’t find a customer here. Not today.
The landscape changed in places where isolated settlements built homes that barely stood up. An old woman sat on a wooden bench outside her home. Her eyes were lined with Kohl. Beside her, a child rolled on the floor raising his knees to his chest. She had jewellery in her hair. Her lehenga had mirrors.
There was another woman like her carrying a plastic pot on her head. They wore veils that touched their feet.
They lived in thandas.
Legend has it that they were the key exporters of essential commodities across the country. Some claim they were salt merchants and sold bullock from one community to another. Their language was different, and they were far evolved than the rest who occupied lands they traversed.
Lambani, they were called in these parts, and Banjara in the rest. In some places, they were identified differently. Their names differed. Their language changed. Their identities were altered. But they all had a story to tell. They were wanderers much like us. Their songs spoke of a history that could have been, a history that defined who they were. Wanderers who lived in the forest; migrants who moved from one place to another.
“When Prithviraj Chauhan was defeated by Mu’izz ad-Din Muhammad Ghori, our ancestors fled to the jungles. Our ruler didn’t survive. Many returned to their villages. But we stayed back in the forest. For, that was his last command. We were faithful to him,” said an old man we met some days later. His eyes were glassy and he wore a turban. He didn’t remember them anymore. Stories of his ancestors died with the elders, he said with a heavy heart.
Prithviraj suffered a staggering defeat in the hands of the Ghurid dynasty. Despite evading earlier attempts, it was the second battle of Tarain in 1192 AD that led to his downfall. The Rajputs had a battle tradition of fighting from dusk to dawn. Mui’zz attacked them at dawn. He placed no value on their traditions, insist the forefathers. The Rajput king’s banners and allies who pledged to serve him arrived late. Some historians believe it was Prithviraj’s continual neglect of stately affairs, and him waging a war against neighbouring rulers that eventually cost him his kingdom.
His capture changed everything. Some stories claimed he was infatuated with a princess. His obsession invoked the wrath of the Gods. His men were massacred, and towns looted. Nothing was spared here. Neither men nor lands. He died in captivity. He was unstable but he had passion. There were several legends written in these areas; some by poets, some by travellers. Some were woven into folklore. Some stories were left uninhibited. They all existed nonetheless. For centuries. For a time that spelled eternity.
At Lingsugur, a stray cow wandered into the streets. She had nowhere to go. Behind her, a young man kept his head down and scratched his arm. Bikers swerved uncontrollably losing their way in lanes that bent both left and right. Forwards and backwards, people walked in those gravelled streets unmindful of the chaos. It wasn’t odd; their indifference. Everything seemed in harmony here: the people, the animals, the vehicles and the chaos.
In stormy gusts, dust rose against steel structures. Everyone moved towards each other, and at times away. At bakeries, they served sandwiches with a cherry on top. The cakes were glossy pink and drinks had a hint of syrup.
The skies were bare. It hadn’t rained much last year. Once on the road, we saw a group of old men in large white turbans and dhoti walking into the fields; a sea of white amidst the brown. Some hailed auto rickshaws headed in their direction. Some stood still as if the heat would disappear before their droopy eyes, as if they could be elsewhere, as if it would all change in a moment. We crossed them in minutes. They were still. Almost arrested in time.
All of them.
Shankar was waiting for us at the market in Kembhavi. We were parked near some old temple structures looking for him. In a few minutes, we saw him walking towards our car. “We were nomads,” he said sipping his tea. Outside the restaurant, children dressed in rags hid behind large trucks. They hopped from one vehicle to another; a dull-eyed excitement lingering on their faces. Beads of sweat trickled down their foreheads. In dark corners, the windows offered us such views.
“We couldn’t live like that forever. Eventually, we settled down in forests or towns. Every Lambani settlement is called a thanda. There are around 350 to 400 people living in my village — Yelagi Thanda. Our people were different. Our work was different. They would hunt wild animals and live in the jungles. Since the beginning, we have been living separately. We couldn’t live with the others. For, everything about us was different – the way we looked, the way we spoke, the way we lived,” he said chuckling nervously. His eyes followed the waiter. In the silence that preceded his story, he heaved a sigh at the confusion that ensued in the market.
They were untouchables. They were always treated that way. Back in the day, they were looked down upon by people residing in the village — those who were ranked higher in the social order. “It is better now. Education has helped eliminate some of these practices. Today, you will find at least forty people who have a degree in my village. We were declared as scheduled caste years ago. That helped us in many ways. Our children can go to schools now,” he said beaming with pride.
After sunset, we retreated to our rooms. Shankar joined us for a while. He lived in Kashmir for a few years. He recalled trips he would take to faraway places. In winter, everything turned white. Some days, it got tough. For my family, he’d remind himself. Winter brought in loneliness. He spent some nights in towns where he had no one he could call his own.
“I met a terrorist, one evening. This was a long time ago. His brother would assist me during night shifts. He had asked me to visit his home. One day, after work, I went there and seated before me in the hall was his older brother. His name was Abdul. We spoke for a while. He then carefully slid an old photo frame above his head. There was a gun lodged in the wall. I stopped breathing. My face turned pale. He assured me that I was safe,” he said wiping his forehead with a handkerchief.
Why do you want to be a terrorist?
You’ve come all the way from South India to earn a living, to feed your family.
You do whatever it takes to take care of your loved ones. And, I’ll do whatever it takes to take care of my family.
Besides, why would I kill you? My battle isn’t with you.
“I didn’t know whom he was fighting against. I didn’t dare to ask him. There’s no need for courage in such moments,” he guffawed helplessly turning in his chair.
He told stories. Like us. That summer night, we shared many more moments. Some stories we remembered. Some we forgot.
That’s how we remember each other.
Once while travelling through Kashmir, Shankar got stranded in the middle of nowhere. It was snowing that night. He came across a lodge and requested the owner to give him a room. Everything was booked and he couldn’t accommodate him anywhere. He told him he didn’t mind sleeping in the hall. For, it was impossible to sleep outside. “The manager went away for a while and returned with bed, blankets and pillows. He offered me a hot meal. I left the next morning. I took his number and called him once I reached home. My brother thanked him profusely. That’s what matters isn’t it,” he said standing up to leave, “Human connection. Not money. Not property. I will cherish that memory for the rest of my life. If that man hadn’t come to my rescue, I wouldn’t have survived. He is in Kashmir and I am in Kembhavi. Yet, here we are talking about him. He will be remembered forever…”
(to be continued…)
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