There were no trees where they lived. They thought about leaving town. They couldn’t stay there anymore. Their homes weren’t much. They had nothing. Flowers didn’t bloom here. Their trees died. Their lives weren’t much. Some days, their toes resembled the earth: singed and scorched. Like figurines, they sat still in crowded streets where children leaped from one corner into another chasing an army of ants through little rows of split stems and weeds; they ran in front of them through alleyways where stood old structures with the walls falling apart. Sometimes, in their faces, in their furtive eyes, they saw her…
Women clapped their hands and sang in praise of their god. A few men accompanied them with the dhol. They went from one lane to another singing their arrival to homes that remained shut for the year. Heavy locks hung on these doors. “Temple function,” said the khakhi-clad men as our gaze followed the crowd. They walked slower at first, and then quickened their pace before disappearing into winding streets.
A middle-aged farmer stood amongst the gathering behind us. He held a book in his hand. He wore white like most elderly men in the village. We caught glimpses of their crooked smiles, slight as they were, every now and then. You could spot them all from a distance. His forehead creased with worry but his eyes held compassion. That was the first time we met him.
Months later, Sattar Patel gave us a call. It was late in the evening. Farmers were on the streets protesting against the government. They had stopped supplies of produce entering the city braving stretches of road they never set foot on with people they barely knew. They stood beside each other. When the farmers were shot years ago during a protest, he stood with them. They remained united until they were all broken. “It was bound to happen,” he said a few weeks ago. He was in a car crash and had barely survived. “They know we’ll give up. They know we will have to return home at some point. So, they wait till we have nothing left within us to carry on the fight. We make national news. We bleed and then return home.”
“In his courtyard, a farmer sits with fruits and vegetables that rot away with every season. Why don’t those urban dwellers ponder over wastage of food then?” he asked us sitting alongside farmers in some pomegranate plantation fields a few days later.
“When the helpless take to the streets, they have a lot of opinions on how things could be done differently?” said another rubbing sand on his toes.
“What will it take for them to understand our plight?”
Sunk in the grass were tiny pomegranate seeds. Dead and shrivelled.
He picked them up and tossed them side. He glanced at Sattar as he spoke in an awry whisper. We called him dada-ji. He hadn’t spoken in a while.
“Death,” he said smudging dirt on his fingers. The others heard.
But like most, they weren’t surprised.
“She was very young,” whispered the young man walking ahead of us as Sattar led the group to a street. Yogiraj Sakhare was the Vice President of BJP, Latur. There were many more that joined him.
“This was an unfortunate incident,” said another.
They slid into silence, soon after. A few bolted towards the small door to our right. The steps were high, far too high for anyone to climb. A sullen dread hung in the air. That was the beginning. They felt it too from the moment we set foot in the hall. When the men first spoke, they looked down and nodded. Through the door streamed amber rays of the summer afternoon. Between galloping thoughts and shadows that flitted across the room, their voices could barely be heard.
“They don’t understand Marathi,” Sattar explained to them, “So, I will help.”
“Mazha Nav Pandurang Maruti Bhise ahe,” he said fidgeting with his fingers. His wife Kontabai sat on the floor adjusting her veil. Her eyes were moist. She knew why we were here. Aniket and Nikita stood by the door to a room that was both the kitchen and bathroom.
“Mohini,” said Kontabai fixing her gaze on the wall. “Her name was Mohini. I found her there…”
“Four of us live in this house. I have three daughters and one son. My eldest one Anita is married. The daughter who killed herself was my second child,” he said looking at everyone. The nervous banter died down as the father spoke. He had a dazed look in his eyes.
They were used to visitors.
Broken promises and splintered hopes: that’s what we are left with; Sattar’s ominous warning rang in our ears when we left days later.
They own 44 guntas of land. Men spoke in tandem on their behalf. Some yelled from the door; others entered their home and sat before us. Everybody had something to say.
More footsteps followed.
Pandurang looked harrowed when a few elders intervened and asked the group to leave. “For the past four years, there has been nothing growing in my fields. It is completely dry. There’s no water. So, what will I cultivate here?” He worked as a pygmy agent for the bank earning commissions on every collection made. He earns Rs 900 to Rs 1800 per month. It doesn’t count as salary. It doesn’t count for much. But they survive with whatever they can.
Kontabai works as a labourer. “Main doosron ki khet main kaam karti haoon,” she said wiping her tears, “I earn Rs 100 per day. Women get paid lesser than men. They get Rs 200 per day. I feel we should be paid equally. But who listens to us. We do the same amount of work but we are paid far lesser than them.”
It doesn’t matter now, whispered the men around us. Their farms are dead. There’s nothing left.
“Rukhi sukhi roti hai, usi se kaam chala rahe hain. Kabhi bhooke pet soye toh kabhi kuch khaaye. Usi main ghar chalta hai,” she said crossing her legs; her eyes fastened on the empty tin cans in the corner. She has diabetes and suffers from high blood pressure. “I work hard every day. I never rested not even for a day.”
On January 20, Pandurang left for work early in the morning. Kontabai went to the fields nearby and toiled in the heat till she couldn’t anymore. When she returned home, she realised they had nothing. There was no flour left in the sack, and their lentils wouldn’t last a month. She went to her neighbour and asked them for some wheat flour. “Humain jo ration milta hai woh kaafi nahin hai. We get 15 kg of wheat flour every month. We need at least 30 kg. The food isn’t enough. The water isn’t enough. Nothing is,” she said shaking her head.
She found her limp body hanging from the roof. Her dupatta (scarf) was lodged in a wooden beam on the ceiling. By the time her mother returned, Mohini had killed herself. Her feet dangled in the air. Some nights, Kontabai cries herself to sleep. These walls have memories. And, they carry hers within them.
Five years ago, things were different. They earned Rs 50,000 from their fields. Crops didn’t rot in their homes. Their trees stood tall. They were a few that survived the drought. Rains were kinder that year. “Look at where we are now? Jeeyenge kaisa aur dawa khaaneka kharcha uthayenge kaisa? Ye bada mushkil hai,” said Kontabai. Pandurang remained silent. His children stood behind him staring at us curiously. But their eyes weren’t unkind.
“She was going to get married this year. But every proposal was rejected. Nobody wished to talk any further once they realised we had nothing to give them. We couldn’t afford to pay dowry,” she said offering us some water.
One late night, when the children went to sleep, Pandurang and Kontabai discussed amongst themselves on what had to be done. They decided to sell their land to pay for the wedding and dowry. Mohini was awake. She heard everything.
They didn’t know.
It could work, they thought to themselves. They could rid her of her misery, misery they brought upon the child by raising her in lands where they struggled for food and water. She could have a better life. “Bachchi ne humari baat sun lee. She must have thought to herself that her brother will remain landless if they sell our farm; that her parents are sacrificing everything they have for her. What is the point of living, then? And, that’s why she killed herself. If only I had known,” said Kontibai in tears.
“If only I had known…” she said over and over again.
They had to pay Rs 25,000 as dowry. It was decided by the groom and his parents. They would have had to spend Rs 100,000 on the wedding. Baraat aayegi, mehmaan aayenge, rasme poori hongi. In sab ka kharcha humko uthana padega, they said.
It had been two months since Mohini had committed suicide. She was 18 years old and had finished her twelfth grade. From a cloth bag, they fetched her photograph for us. She was clad in a lavender saree and had her mother’s striking features. Her father couldn’t bear to look at the photograph while her mother clutched the corner of the frame tightly. Her siblings’ vacant stares followed us all afternoon. They had nothing to say. They were far too young to understand what has happening, assumed the elders.
They needn’t be told what it meant to lose a sister.
Mohini never confided in her siblings. Nor did any of her friends know. If anyone had an inkling of what she was about to do, they would have stopped her. She always kept to herself and barely spoke to anyone.
“We went to the bank and asked them to lend us Rs 200,000. We told them we had to get our daughter married and didn’t have any money. They refused to give us what we needed and gave us Rs 20,000 instead. They said we didn’t have enough land,” explained Kontabai.
“Banks don’t cooperate with farmers.”
“If our land is worth Rs 20,00,000, we get Rs 20,000 as loan,” said an old farmer.
“These government policies work against farmers,” said the men gathered in the hall.
“The price of everything has risen save our crops. The value placed on an industry is far greater than on a farmer. He has no value in the system. He isn’t even eligible to mortgage his belongings since they aren’t of any value too,” Sattar explained as the rest nodded.
“Dahej ke bina shaadi hi nahin ho sakti idhar. They assume something is amiss with the boy,” said an old man standing near the door.
“Those who demand ask in silence and those who succumb to such demands pay in silence,” said another. “Both need to be punished. Harsher laws must be implemented in these regions. No one dares to say it aloud. No one admits to their mistakes. Iska asli shikaar kisaan hoga, ” he warned everyone.
Farmers are willing to commit suicide because they can no longer afford to pay for a daughter’s wedding. We have now reached a point wherein farmer’s daughters are committing suicide. This is a serious situation for our country, said the men in unison.
In 2015, Mohini was eligible for the Auxilliary Nurse and Midwifery Course. She wanted to be a nurse. However, she didn’t make the list.
“Twice,” said Yogiraj Sakhare.
“I pleaded with them twice but it didn’t work out. She scored more than 70% in her twelfth grade. She was a bright girl. Maybe she would have had a future, if things were different,” he whispered to everyone’s surprise.
Pandurang leaned back a little and closed his eyes. He rubbed his forehead several times until he straightened his knees. His wife shot Yogiraj an incredulous look. Long after he spoke, they murmured amongst themselves. Three sheets of paper were passed from one to another until it reached us.
It was stamped by the police indicating they were now a part of the evidence. It was Mohini’s suicide note. “She said it doesn’t matter if I didn’t get to study make sure ani and niku go to school,” said Kontibai breaking down profusely. Pandurang’s eyes turned moist when he placed his hand on her shoulder. “Aisi gareebi kisi ko bhi na lage deva,” she said between sobs. “Poverty is all we have and own till we die…”
“She had wisdom beyond her years,” said a middle-aged man whom we saw much later trudging down the road when no one was around.
He held his head in his hand as he raised his knee and leaned towards us. “We live in a country that takes immense pride in destroying the dreams and hopes of a little girl,” he said clearing his throat several times before looking at Pandurang. “She wanted people to learn from her death. She hoped her death would put a stop to this social evil that has destroyed many lives. No one would ever go through this. No father would ever bow his head. No daughter would have a price on her head,” said the man in a breathless voice…
At the farthest end of the village, we found him sitting all by himself rubbing his knees with his hands, that evening. They trembled every time he bent forward to examine his feet. Wincing at the pain in his foot, he turned to the right and saw us leave. He smiled a toothless grin as we waved at him.
“My Mohini is gone but no other daughter should suffer a similar fate. I hope one day we live in a world where dowry no longer exists,” said Kontibai folding her arms, “Whoever loses their child will know what it means to live with the weight of sadness drowning your heart every single day. I don’t know if I am alive or dead. What will I do being alive? For my children and to honour Mohini’s last wishes, I continue to find my strength and move on. No one should ever experience sorrow the way we have. My child shouldn’t have died. No family should ever live in despair. We should help one another. If you aren’t struggling, help someone who is poor. Maybe then children won’t die.”
“Maybe, we can save a Mohini somewhere else…”
The air got heavy with the simmering heat. On a particularly hot afternoon, children peeped through the doors flicking away flies and sticking their thumbs into cracks that had appeared on walls. There were several such afternoons these days when all sank into the ground making impassioned sounds to one another waiting for the day to end.
“Papa, don’t drink alcohol anymore. Whatever I have done to myself is because of dowry. Never once did I think there would come a day when I am forced to do this. Guests that enter our home to see me ask how much dowry will we be able to pay them?
Papa, whatever I am about to do, please know I have nothing but happiness in my heart. I am happy to know that what would have been spent on my wedding will now be saved.
Papa, why does anyone demand dowry? Ye jo pratha hai, ye jo rivaaj hai, ye jo tareeka hai ye isko thodna hai. Why does a girl’s father have to bow his head? That’s why I am committing suicide.
After my death, don’t perform any of the rituals that will bring me peace. Don’t observe anything. Don’t do anything for me. That will give me peace. Don’t mourn my death. Our home reeks of gutter. Do something about it. Ask didi to live with you for a few days. Tell jeejaji, Mohini has said ‘My parents don’t have anyone’. He’ll understand.
Papa, tell ma not to give niku any work. Don’t burden her. Let her study.
Don’t Cry for me. I will be happy if you don’t, papa.
That evening, we read her letter over and over again. Their debts were piling up. Her siblings couldn’t go to school anymore. She saved them all.
Her life meant nothing, she said.
But her death mattered.
A year later, there was another death in Bhise Wagholi. Her name was Sheetal. She jumped into a well. They found a note beside her slippers. Scribbled on the sheet was a word all too familiar to the inhabitants of Latur.
Their sorrow came in circles. Some days, they sifted through the scorched earth in search of signs of life.
“We’ll survive,” said Sattar sitting in the courtyard that night. “Girls will hold pens not ropes. You wait and see. That day will come.”
“Maybe not in our lifetime. But it will happen, nonetheless…”
(to be continued…)
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