We don’t remember much of her. She wore keys around her neck. She had coins on her fingers. Between homes that leaned against each other, an old woman dragged her black skirt from the ground. Her chin had tattoos. So did her arms and legs. But there were no patterns. For, they had faded..
Like her hair.
Her chotla had coloured beads in them. There were old coins on her phetiya: the kinds one couldn’t find anymore. It was torn. She tucked shreds of fabric into her skirt. A large mirror dangled on her waist.
She walked with a limp.
“No one studies any further,” said Shekhar the day we left, “After SSLC, almost every child drops out of school. They can’t afford to pursue their dreams of going to junior college or studying science. They have nothing. So, how will they fund their education? Every night, they tell themselves It’s alright. I’ll become a coolie or a construction worker. The relatively rich amongst the poverty-stricken are able to get better jobs and work as government servants. In Bijapur district, however, our community occupies a slightly better position economically. There, they have managed to get jobs as Chief Planning Officer. But here, in our thanda, we still have some way to go. If our children don’t study, how will they get better jobs? he asked parking his bike in the corner where stray cattle wandered quite often looking for water.
Wrapped in quilts on the floor were two toddlers who rolled into the courtyard. Their brother was furious. Their muffled shrieks gave them away. He smiled, and left leaving us wondering if they were alone, if he went to the fields like the other children we had met before, if his loneliness crept into his smile on days when rustling leaves remained a faint memory.
“The Brahmins occupy the highest order in the village. Then, there are the Lingayats. They also identify themselves as Veera Shaiva. Some even claim that they are the descendants of Shivasharane Hemareddy Malamma. Ancestrally, they own a lot of land, money, and today most of them have inherited it from their parents. Upper caste families insist that we must agree to what they say without any resentment or fight. We have seen young men disrespect 70-year-old men who belong to the lower caste. If the old man refuses to concede to his demands, then the boy will hurl abuses at him. Caste holds great value perhaps much more than human dignity in our lives. We can go to their homes only during elections to discuss voting strategies. It doesn’t matter who you are, you sit on the floor,” he said.
“What will happen if you defy them, and sit beside them as equals?” we asked him.
“Nothing. They won’t utter a word. Months later, if an issue requires us to address and resolve it together, they’ll remind us that we sat beside them once. So, we sit where we belong,” said Shekhar with a smirk.
Years ago, there was a clash between the Lambanis and Lingayats. They fought over water. The lower caste were forbidden from using water that belonged to the upper caste. Lingayats wouldn’t allow them to touch their borewells. For, it belonged to them.
From an unlocked gate, we spotted her climbing down the walls that crumbled in corners. She fled from the centre hoping they wouldn’t catch her. Moments later, she was picked up and swung upwards.
They caught her.
Owing to shoddy implementation of government schemes, Shekhar believed that exploitation of lower caste communities flourished in these villages. “A few miles away, we have a pump house that was built by the government. Water is supplied from the pump house to the tank. There’s a main pipe installed in between the pump house and tank. Three years ago, an upper caste man made a hole in the pipe and stole water from us. One of our children told him not to take water from our line since it affected the thanda. He asked him to take it from the main supply instead. So, he beat him up,” said Shekhar. He let out a long sigh, and asked a young boy to fetch him some water.
“He was a child…”
A large group gathered at the police station. They begged them to forgive the man. For hours, they spoke until the men decided to resolve the matter amicably. A year later, the boy crossed paths with the man. Away from the village, they stood facing each other again. There was no one around.
“Mere upar tune case lagaya na, main dekh loonga tujhe..”
“He threatened the boy. We live in constant fear. Why? Because we were born as Lambani. This is the story of every downtrodden community. We don’t enter their village to buy supplies. We go to Kembhavi,” he said.
They ran in the sunlight dragging each other to alleys where no one tread at this hour. They had escaped from their home, from farms, from their lives shrouded in dread. They lay in the mud whispering to each other lest they were found.
For a moment, they had escaped.
Ravi joined us again this time. It was in Davangere that we first discussed the plight of farmers in drought-hit areas. The debt-crisis struck Kembhavi decades ago. Many lost their lives, and their families struggled to survive. Some homes had no rice, and some didn’t have any vegetables. Some lost their home. Many fled to cities in search of hope.
They built their lives there, claimed the elders.
But they could never know.
For those who left never came back.
On the fifteenth, one late summer morning, we packed our bags and left Kembhavi. Lingsugur was an hour away when we stopped beside farms with arecanut trees. We made several stops that afternoon. Piyush’s mother called him that day expressing her concern over the plight of farmers in Bundelkhand. Unpredictable weather patterns and environmental degradation have had a devastating impact on the ecology of the region. A hailstorm had struck parts of Bundelkhand a few hours ago destroying all standing crops in every village.
Farmers lost everything.
Deaths went unreported. Families survived on one meal a day. This was no ordinary drought. Weeks later, we read reports stating that farmers sold blood to survive. Some fed their children roti and wild leaves or salt.
Deaths went unclaimed.
After lunch, we drove to Chincholi where resided a large settlement of Lambanis in the Chikkalingadalli Reserve Forest. At 5:30 pm, there were barely any people on the streets. An auto rickshaw stopped beside our car. A group of men alighted from the vehicle and passed lewd remarks. They stood there for a while staring at the vehicle before they fled into empty alleyways that led nowhere.
It was getting dark. A shopkeeper suggested that we stay at Thandur for the night. The next morning, we called up one of our old friends who knew someone in the Zilla Panchayat. At 12 pm, we met Hampanna outside the Inspection Bungalow situated away from the main town. “I am Lambani,” he said grinning. He led us inside.
There are 26 thandas in all here. They are culturally different from the rest of the communities residing in the region.
“Tandur was quite infamous back in the day,” he said and disappeared into a large room.
“For Rs 3,000, the poor and destitute sold their girl child to adoption centres. Most of them were Lambani…”
(to be continued…)
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