So, they left.
They don’t live there anymore. They work as labourers near the dam. They live in a tent now. There was nothing left for them in Bhise Wagoli. The forlorn streets, the high walls, the ceaseless crackle of dead twigs, vacant stares, the empty promises: they left them all behind.
“They think it’s better to live in a city,” said Sattar that afternoon. “They can’t survive here.”
A year later, their house remained shut.
In daylight, the cracks were visible. Sudden winds made the windows rattle. Kontibai glanced at them. Dust settled everywhere here. Her eyes caught everything: the peeling paint behind the table, cobwebs that formed patterns in the sun, the rattle of the pot that held water.
“Sugarcane destroyed us. I lost everything because of that crop: my farm, my life, my daughter. Everything,” said Pandurang. A bitter smile crossed his face. He seldom spoke impulsively.
Her death changed him.
There was no wedding that year. Or the year before that. Farmers refused to give their daughters to farmers anymore. “Why would we?” asked Sattar as we walked away. “Why would we kill our own daughters?”
They fetched us cold water from the tea stall nearby. As we walked towards the entrance of the village, the men stopped us. “There is another family,” they said reluctantly. “A farmer committed suicide last year. They are now surviving on the older son’s income.”
Pandurang and Kontibai stood on the road. Their children waved at us. Their faces were blank just like the skies that day. From somewhere came the dust, and it reminded us of their pain.
No one returned here.
As time went along, people took less notice of their absence. The family who lost their little girl was forgotten. They were replaced by others those who lost someone.
Here, death came in plenty…
There was another home in the village where lived a woman with her children. Her husband killed himself a year ago. We walked to the courtyard where men gathered in hordes waiting for us. The woman hadn’t spoken a word. We left.
Some stories are better left untold. Some grief may never be understood.
Some moments needn’t last any longer.
We stopped at a small restaurant on the roadside before heading to Latur. “Mohini’s father was an alcoholic,” said one of the men as he served us some jowar rotis. His farms were dead. His village had no water. The city, he hopes, will give his family a chance to survive. Like the rest, he wasn’t certain if they would. “Not all families are eligible for compensation. The government has laid out strict rules that must be followed in case of farmer suicides. Dowry too has claimed many lives here. If a man doesn’t ask for dowry, then people assume there must be something wrong with him. This is the unfortunate reality of our society,” he said shaking his head.
At night, there were murmurs of an uprising unfolding several hours away. They called it a victory for humanity. Women activists had set foot in the sanctum sanctorum of Shani Shingnapur temple debunking a 400-year-old tradition that forbade them from doing so. Days later, the Sabrimala Temple Board’s controversial decision to install machines to scan menstruating women was questioned again. The presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, was a celibate and the presence of women would apparently affect the sanctity of the temple.
“Below ten and older than 50,” said one of the representatives on a local news channel. “That’s the age group of women who will be allowed to visit the temple.” During a press conference three years ago, they claimed: These days there are machines that can scan bodies and check for weapons. There will be a day when a machine is invented to scan if it is the ‘right time’ for a woman to enter the temple.
While heated discussions ensued on the purity of women, a news ticker across the bottom of the screen read ‘Latur to receive water tankers’.
A few days later, we called Sattar Patel and asked him if he knew anyone in Ausa. “I knew you would call me. I realised you’d want to speak with us alone… without the government officials,” he whispered.
“Get in touch with Ganesh Madje. He will help you…”
We packed our bags and left the guest house. The manager hoped we would return some day. There weren’t too many familiar faces that lingered in Latur. He had been living there for 30 years. This was their home.
As we drove towards Ausa, we stopped for some breakfast on the way. The state highways in these regions were poorly maintained. Shoddy roads would last forever and the eateries seemed shut throughout the day. Some days, whilst driving through dusty towns, we went without food until nightfall.
Most of the places were shut, this morning. In Ausa, we spoke with Ganesh who suggested we meet him near the police station. Upon asking a few locals for directions, we realised we weren’t that far away. Compared to Latur, this was a smaller city. The roads wound into lanes where potholes and pebbles made it difficult to traverse through them.
The air heavy with kerosene fumes and peeled vegetables brought in stench of rotting waste not far from where we are. Stray dogs lay on the ground still as the morning. A few men clutched packets of milk to their chests as they crossed the road. Sudden winds brought dust that cast a gleaming shadow on the landscape. A tiny ball of paper strings floated alongside the road. Everything moved slowly: animals, cars, people and time.
Dattu Tipe wasn’t an ordinary farmer. His son had an unfortunate accident, someone whispered to us weeks later. He hasn’t been the same since. “Masrudi,” said Ganesh sipping some ginger tea. “Dattu is from Masrudi. Half the village has migrated to cities due to water shortage. They have gone to Mumbai, Pune and other towns in the South.” His eyes darted from side to side. Setting his cup aside, he placed his hands before us and spoke for a while.
There were 3,000 people residing in his village today. On September 30, 1993, at 4 am, Latur experienced one of the deadliest earthquakes that Maharashtra has ever seen. Ausa was in ruins. More than 10,000 people died while 30,000 were injured. “After the earthquake, the village was divided into upper and lower regions. Families settled in different parts. The epicentre of the earthquake was in Killari. It is around 35 km from where we are. At that time, the village got split into three parts. While the government helped those residing in lower regions, the upper region was left to fend for itself,” said Dattu.
Residents were crushed to death. At that hour, no one knew what had struck them. There remains a crater at Killari even today. There were no plate boundaries here. There shouldn’t have been an earthquake. The Deccan was seismically stable. Years later, scientists continue to remain baffled. Some claimed the existence of fault webs caused the damage whereas others believe the construction of the Terna reservoir led to fault lines.
“We are in recovery,” said Ganesh smirking behind his glasses, “First, it was the earthquake. Then, came the drought. There will be something else soon enough. Either something kills us, or we kill ourselves.”
He owns six acres of farmland. Both his borewells failed a while ago. They were dug upto 700 feet. There was no water. The government forbids farmers from digging more than 200 feet. “These are old. They were installed a while ago,” he said and went on for a while. “There were many reporters who came to cover water issues in Latur. However, everyone stopped at the roadside and asked farmers about their situation, and wrote about them without spending any time in the barren fields or villages for that matter. They can afford to give just one minute per taluk. That’s all. They don’t have time to understand how the farmer is struggling to feed his cattle. No one has any time to understand the situation of farmers fundamentally. We are not that important,” said Ganesh.
He was looking for promises. We weren’t certain if we could keep them. So, we didn’t promise each other anything. We must become each other’s strength, he said raising his head towards Dattu. “For the longest time, the farmer has only seen despair and struggle. We have to believe that we will see happiness too someday…”
He has two brothers and a sister. On April 19, his sister was getting married. They were struggling to make ends meet. They earned nothing from their farms. In five years, there were no crops that survived. “I didn’t get even Rs 25 from my farms. What can I do if there is no water? What can anyone do?” he asked.
“Aatma hatya karne ke baad hi paise denge kya? Jab tak main zinda hoon mera koi value nahin hai,” he said raising his fists in anger. If he dies, his debt will be forgotten. His family wouldn’t have to suffer any longer. “At least, they will have something to eat. If a farmer owns one hectare of land, how can he procure water? Neither can he buy anything, nor will he be able to sell anything. Death is inevitable for him. During sowing season, he doesn’t have any money to buy seeds. How will his farm survive? How will his family live?”
It won’t get any of them out of the situation they are in, Dattu chimed in. A quintal or a tonne of produce won’t make a difference either. The troubles that befall them can’t be measured in any form. “Har din ka ek hai, har lamha ka ek hai. There is no way we can anticipate the nature of our struggles. There’s no way we’ll ever know when they’ll arrive and if we can survive them at all.”
Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana put forth a condition before the Maharashtra government several years ago. One member from every family who practises farming for a living must be offered a job. “If their sons or daughters are employed, perhaps they won’t kill themselves. They won’t starve to death. If they earn Rs 5,000 a month, it will give them hope. Banks aren’t lending us money anymore. We are worthless. I need Rs 200,000 for my sister’s wedding. I must arrange for dowry too. Who else will? I don’t know what to do,” he said dejected wiping his forehead several times.
“How much have they demanded?” we asked him.
He didn’t reply. He shook his head and cracked his knuckles several times before whispering to us: one to two lakhs depending on what could be arranged.
“I know what you are thinking. And, I agree with you.”
“Ground reality is quite different in rural areas,” Dattu chimed in.
“People will refuse to marry our daughters. And, even if you refuse them, they will be many others who are willing to shell out as much as they need. We are all a part of the cycle and it can’t be stopped,” said Ganesh.
We didn’t judge him. We couldn’t have. We had neither experienced his grief nor lived his life. If the wedding was called off, she’d never get married again. “I can’t destroy her life. We come different worlds: you and I. We don’t have the luxury of judgement here. Just survival. That’s all we are fighting for,” he said; his voice barely above a whisper.
In the afternoon, as stall owners returned home, we sat beneath tarpaulin sheets where rattling tables were no longer occupied by travellers. A few plastic chairs were left abandoned beside the road collecting dust and debris.
There was a small village in Nilanga, narrated Ganesh fetching us a bottle of water. Tensions brewed between the upper caste and Dalit. They had two wells. One of them dried up. So, the Dalits were asked to leave. “This happened a few years ago. When Ramdas Athawale visited the village, he asked both the communities to make peace with each other. Now, we are all equals. There’s no discrimination between the communities. Both are dying. Both don’t have any water,” he said tapping his feet on the ground.
Two years later, 300 people were detained by the police and over 16 FIRs were registered against those in connection with violent clashes that broke out between the Dalit and right-wing Hindu groups. It all began a few days earlier when millions of Dalits gathered to attend an event commemorating the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon which was fought in 1818 between the British East India Company and the Peshwa faction of the Maratha Confederacy. The battle represented victory for the Mahar community who largely comprised the British forces.
The Peshwas were upper-caste Brahmins, and Mahars were untouchable. There were stories of brooms being tied to their backs so that the dust of their footprints may not taint the town, stories of pots being tied to their mouths lest their saliva pollute the ground. There were many more stories of bloodshed and violence. And, they were never forgotten. The Koregaon obelisk represented their triumph over years of caste-based oppression. Some called the celebrations ‘anti-national’ — a term that made its appearance on numerous occasions thereafter. As protests intensified in Bhima Koregaon over days, Nilanga was in flames yet again.
“Kisaan chahe dalit ho ya Lingayat sabki haalat kaafi buri hai idhar. Discrimination might still exist. I am not denying the possibility but I haven’t witnessed such a thing. It was rampant a decade ago. Earlier, they couldn’t walk or cast their shadow on anyone else. It was forbidden. If anyone from the higher caste passed by them they were supposed to stay hidden…. away from their sight for they were considered impure,” said Ganesh.
It was wrong, they whispered nodding occasionally as they glanced at us. They spoke of hope all afternoon. “We are all human beings and have to treat one another with equality and compassion. I don’t discriminate against anyone regardless of what caste they belong to,” said Ganesh as he stood up to leave leading us to the main road.
“Their blood is red and so is mine…”
(to be continued…)
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