She walked through barren lands. In the wandering scent of dead teak trunks, she looked for broken twigs and branches. Trees dried, and died where they stood. Save the unrelenting brown, there was nothing that stirred here. Neither the forest nor its creatures. She tripped on the root of a large teak tree; her feet bare, her phetiya torn to shreds at its edges. Mangli bai steadied her pace, one last time. She had walked these paths before.
That was the first time we saw her.
“She never had any children. She couldn’t conceive. Her husband married another woman. Someone, he thought, who’d give him a boy. She too couldn’t give him a child. He is dead now. His second wife died, years later. Mangli bai has no family left. She lives all alone. Even today, she works to feed herself,” said Vasanth, the young man we first met at Seri Bikkanahalli Thanda.
“Let me tell you the story of Lambanis,” said an old man. His toothless grin caught us unawares. Some afternoons, we would find him in the courtyard shooing roosters away from the grains. He was alone. His sons lived in the city.
It was in 1576 AD when the Lambanis fled into the mountainous regions of the North with the defeat of Rana Pratap Singh at the hands of Akbar. Fearing a Mughal invasion, the tribe lived in the forests for centuries. While clans of nomadic gypsies returned to where they belonged, the Lambanis stayed on.
Their migration to the South began in 1630. They speak Gor Mati and their settlements are called thandas. They never reside in the village. They weren’t allowed to do so.
We had heard these stories before. But we listened to him again that day.
“Many years later, our ancestors turned to dacoity. They did whatever they could to survive. We don’t encourage such practices anymore,” said Dhan Singh, another elderly man we met on a stroll through the forests one evening. Days later, we would find him in the temple laying tiles on the floor. Everyone lent a helping hand. Here, alongside the Chikkalingadalli reserve forest, between skeletal structures of trees that stretched for miles, there were several such thandas where lived people of a forgotten era.
“We don’t have electricity. That’s why we listen to the radio. The ambulance doesn’t come to our thanda for the fear of being stuck. We have no choice but to walk. The nearest hospital is in Kunchavaram. If there’s an emergency, at night, we carry the patient to the hospital. Nobody owns a vehicle here,” said Soni bai sitting on an old wooden cot outside her home.
In the deep jungle, as wild thickets gave way to fields of jowar, we came across a group of men jostling from one corner to another tracing a running herd of cattle, that morning. “We made our living through farming and hunting back in the day. But we aren’t allowed to hunt anymore,” she said frowning, “Our ancestors were traders and would travel far and wide to sell salt and other goods. Later, it was the British who criminalised our nomadic lifestyle. We weren’t allowed to move from one place to another. So, we settled down wherever we could.”
Beside her home, an old grandmother sat near her doorstep stitching an ornate blouse with a needle that had seen better days. Her fingers moved feebly against the fabric. Her eyes focused on the crease as she straightened every fibre that attached the katli (mirror) to the garment. Her chotla (hair jewellery) dangled on the sides of her face; her buria (nose ring) bobbed against her nose. The parting on her hair had widened over the years. “It happens with heavy jewellery,” explained Kamla bai rubbing tobacco between the palms of her hand, one afternoon. She gathered the remnants and laid them on a piece of cloth.
Her cracked soles peeked through her saree. She was unlike the rest we had met. “Men and women don’t get paid equally. We get Rs 100 in the monsoons while the men earn Rs 200 per day. But men don’t go to the fields. It’s just us. All agricultural work is done by women in these forests. If we work on constructions sites, we earn far lesser than them. Mehnat toh aurat log bahut karta. Kaam bhi zyaada karta hai par hum bai hai humko itna hi paise milega. Marad ko zyaada dega. Even if we demand equal pay, we are denied that right,” she said.
Two girls bound their ankles together, and hopped from one lane to another. Within moments, they tumbled to the ground leaving the elders in splits. Seated beside us, Vasanth lowered his head to his knees. “Women work much harder,” he whispered to us days later near farms where the solar grid was to be installed, “They farm, walk great distances to procure firewood and water, and are expected to do all the household chores by themselves. Men usually take breaks in between work, smoke their beedis, and nap in the afternoons. Women are constantly working and grossly underpaid for their efforts. We don’t look after our girls. But this is nothing new,” he said.
We saw her again. This time she had a little girl in her lap. It was her granddaughter, she told us, barking instructions at someone to fetch us glasses of water. “I was born and raised in Ningampalli Thanda. I must be around 80 years old,” said Mangli bai pointing at a young lady, “This is my daughter. I am too old, and I can’t work anymore. My hands hurt. I have some land that I rent out to farmers. They grow a few crops and share some of the produce with me. That’s how I survive.”
It was Thukribai’s granddaughter who sat on her lap. She considered them family. There were many like her: women who were abandoned by their husbands. It was a common practice in these settlements, they told us. Hirabai moved a pile of clothes from the courtyard and took long strides towards us. “Mangli bai’s old man worked as a guard with the forest department like Pandu: the man you saw earlier,” she explained and gestured animatedly at the children gathered around her. She had just returned from Bangalore, a few days ago. Her work, she said, involved preparing cement-concrete mixtures and carrying large stones.
Braving the heat, one afternoon, the women gathered in a circle, away from the village centre. They spoke of abandoned wives and fatherless children, of old fathers and mothers longing for better lives. Some men marry three women, one of them exclaimed. “Yes. Such practices exist. Why? I do not know. Men leave their wives as they please. Sometimes, they need a younger woman. Sometimes, they need someone to bear them sons. Sometimes, it’s because the other woman belongs to a richer family. One man married a younger girl because he needed more people to look after his farm,” she said bursting into a fit of giggles.
But women can’t marry other men. It is forbidden. They chuckled at the thought of choosing another partner, of leaving everything behind. How could we? they asked in defeat. “How could we leave our children, our elders? It might be easy for men but we could never do that. We live in their homes. So, we must follow their rules. Otherwise, we will be thrown out. Where do we go then? Besides, who would want to marry a middle-aged woman with children? If a woman dies, a man can marry someone else while we are expected to remain widows for the rest of our lives. Some days, we wish we were never born as women,” said Mangli bai rubbing her ankles.
Her name was Chandi bai. And, she belonged to a different thanda. After Mangli bai’s husband’s death, they lived together. They took care of each other. They never quarrelled. Not once. For, they were both betrayed by fate. Chandibai is dead. “And, I have no one left,” said Mangli bai before walking away.
Kamla bai looked on wearily at the others. She hadn’t spoken in a while. She had three boys and one girl, we discovered later. Her husband abandoned her for a younger woman. She was too old for him, he declared that morning when he left. She takes care of his parents while he is away building a life with his new family. “In our society, girls aren’t allowed to step out of the thanda. They are married off early. Poverty makes us choose between our children. Some get to live better lives. Some don’t. If our girls get an education, and become independent, they wouldn’t have to depend on a man to survive. For now, we have two girls going to a school in the city. There’ll be more joining them. Soon,” said Kamla bai with a smile.
It was almost 4 pm when we left the thanda. In the forests where the farms begin before the endless sightings of dead trees, an old autorickshaw struggled to drive through these roads. At Shadipur, he waved his hand at us. An old Lambani man and three children alighted from the vehicle.
“They were going to walk to Chincholi,” he said pointing at the children, “They are collecting their scholarship money from school today. Each of them are supposed to receive Rs 500. Since I am driving in the opposite direction, I told them I would request someone to drop them.”
The three girls giggled profusely as they stared at us. Their eyes showed no signs of fear. For them, they had set off on an adventurous joyride. They hadn’t realised they had to walk through the jungle and that it would take them many hours to reach Chincholi. They had each other, and that’s all that mattered.
“We are from Chennanur Thanda,” said one of them to us. Her tiny hands held our shoulder as she struggled to maintain her balance in the vehicle. “I am from Kunchavaram,” shrieked the girl near the window.
“My mother and father work in a hotel in Chincholi,” she said staring into the woods.
“Did you plan to walk the entire way?” we asked them curiously.
“Yes,” they yelled.
“Do you know how far Chincholi is?”
“Yes, far,” said one.
“Far,” repeated another.
“Do your parents know that you whad planned to walk through these jungles alone?”
They looked at each other almost unsure of what to say. “Yes, they know,” they whispered. They would return home with a few villagers who were at the school. Everyone was expected to arrive there shortly. At Chincholi, there were several parents who accompanied their children to the bank. The girls spotted a few people they knew. A middle-aged woman held their hands and led them to the cashier.
“Don’t worry,” said the lady to us when we lingered longer than we intended to. “The girls are safe here…”
(to be continued…)
‘Rest of My family‘ is 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.