It was an old, dilapidated home. In this village, where the men and women sat in the courtyard all afternoon, where the wide dusty road led to settlements just like theirs, where the rains seeped through the cracks, and water pooled in the halls, there lived a family of seven. In that place, where clouds of dust rose as buses whirred by outside their home, they raised their children.
They sat on the floor. A few boys shelled peanuts and popped them into their mouths. Some leaned on the charpai beside the door. A middle-aged man offered us some cold water. His name was Laxman Devarao Lokhande. His wife sat at the doorstep away from him. In the front yard, a group of people gathered behind us muttering under their breath. Yet another group of strangers. Yet another sign of hope, perhaps. An elderly man stood near them. He was Laxman’s father.
“I own 20 acres of land. Nothing has grown in it for the past few years. It once gave me food and today it stares blankly at us. I can’t afford to grow anything there. Even if I try, there isn’t any water. My older son gave up his education and is now working to support the family. He was studying engineering. Today, he drives a JCB in Baramati. My younger one is in college. Together, we are doing whatever we can to make sure that he doesn’t drop out. He is studying computer engineering in Pune. I hope he doesn’t struggle like his brother. Like any of us. He deserves a better life. All of us do,” he said wiping his forehead.
His wife hadn’t eaten anything that day. It was Ekadashi — the eleventh lunar day of each of the two lunar phases. “She is fasting for us. For a better life. Usually, they break their fast with some fruits. But I couldn’t buy her anything to eat. I can’t afford to buy fruits for her. Not today. Not for a while,” he said narrowing his eyes. The air turned heavy, and they surrendered to it. Rattling in the corner was an old gilded frame. It was broken. Some nights it shone from afar like a flickering candle.
Outside, an old stool gathered dust in the heat. It lay forgotten for a few days. The children are long gone. So, are their parents. The elders remain. They had nowhere else to go. Not at this hour. There will be nothing left of us, they’d quip some mornings as we strolled around roads shaded with tall trees: the kinds that you wouldn’t remember, the kinds that barely lasted a storm.
They can’t work anymore. There’s no need for agricultural labourers. Their son sends them Rs 5,000 every month. But their debts pile on every year. This year too, they sought help from sahukars and private money lenders. “10,000,” he whispered as he looked on warily lest the rest heard him, “For my youngest son, we pay Rs 19,000 every semester as his fees. He works too. We can’t do it on our own. The banks don’t lend us any money. Not anymore. We are worthless. The rich, the corrupt, the morally inept: they all manage to receive help from these financial institutions. A poor farmer is worth nothing.”
Laxman ran out of money just before the sowing season. He fears his farm won’t survive this year. They get ration every month through government schemes but it isn’t enough. Some days, they sleep hungry to make their grains last. “We eat vegetables occasionally. We can’t afford to eat them every day. Humare naseeb main sirf daal aur roti hai,” said Laxman’s older brother.
Years ago, there were whispers of suicides floating around Masrudi. There were some that they knew, and others that they had heard of. There hadn’t been any deaths off late. Most of the families have migrated to bigger cities. There hasn’t been a wedding in the village for a while. All celebrations were put on hold. They couldn’t afford to feed their guests. There was no water left in the ground. “Our roofs have holes in them. If we don’t repair them before the rains, it might not survive the season. Then again, it didn’t rain much last year. But we must be prepared for disaster always. Home is all we have left,” said Laxman much to the dismay of the crowd before him.
His older brother looked at the walls for a while. There were cracks and lines that traced every groove. They were falling apart. He wondered if he should have left along with the rest. It had to be as far away from here as possible. His sons told him of such places.
He never left.
The mandi barely thrives in these regions. Those living near the water source managed to harvest crops on a good year. What once held 10,000 sacks of grains and vegetables now barely gathered 400 or 500 sacks a year. He spoke of times when days were longer. Times when nights didn’t seem weary. He spoke of such memories. Of dreams that remained unfulfilled.
“There is an unwritten rule here,” said a young man standing behind us. His name was Rajkummar Garad. “We aren’t allowed to sow our seeds anymore. Nobody made that rule. Yet, we wonder if we should follow it. Why should we bother knowing fully well that it is going to bring us more misery? Apart from loan waivers, they should provide farmers with long term solutions.”
He dropped out of school a while ago and decided to return to Masrudi. He couldn’t afford to stay there. He barely managed to eat everyday.
“It’s because I gave up on my dreams of attending college that my family can now eat…”
His house, another crumbling structure, was locked a few days later. They had gone to the market to pick up supplies. They returned quite late, that evening. He accompanied us some evenings as we walked through the village.
Clouds gathered with vengeance. Hazy skies shrouded in grey. Signs that would bring joy to cities. Here, they spelled doom. “This will give us some respite from the heat but it will destroy farms that have managed to survive. It shouldn’t be raining. Not now. Ye nuksaan karega. Farmers have now begun to sell their animals. They are helpless,” said Laxman.
For the last ten days, they had been worried about Sunil. They hadn’t raised enough money to pay his fees. Once he gets a job, they hope their lives would get better. His sister wore a grim expression. She didn’t even raise her head as her brother spoke. She was ill. They spent Rs 1000 to Rs 2000 on medicines some months. She gets pension twice a year. “Why don’t they send it every month?” they wondered aloud. They knew why but they didn’t tell us.
There were settlements scattered all along the vast stretches of dead farmlands. There were locked doors beyond our reach. We paused to look at some of them. Houses were strewn all over. Its inhabitants stood outside waiting for us. They were used to our presence. Strangers who came to them, who caught a glimpse of their lives. Sometimes, they returned.
They were all left behind.
Some roofs were thatched, and some had holes in them. Women carried soiled dishes to their front yard. They were looking for water.
“There are two that work,” they had said.
A few toddlers ran all over the place chasing ants and digging in the dirt looking for tracks deep down below the old banyan tree.
Rajkummar led us to his home. A young woman offered us some water. Perhaps, she was his older sister. We didn’t ask. We couldn’t make out her features. She sat in the dark. The halls didn’t have any light. There was a portrait that hung in the corner. We couldn’t be sure. “That’s my mother,” he said as he gestured us to sit beside him outside his home.
“Five of us live here. See, how small the house is. That’s all we have. I have two brothers and I am the oldest. I used to study. Now, I am just sitting at home. I was in Osmanabad. I was attending classes there. I didn’t have any money to stay, eat or even pay for tuition. It was quite a struggle for my parents to pay for my education. So, I decided to give it all up. My parents did not even build a house for themselves. We are still living in this small house that is falling apart,” he said with bitterness.
It had been two years since he quit school. He works in the farms, these days. His siblings go to the government school just around the corner. They will never reach college, he whispered one afternoon as we sat under a tree. “Maybe if I had studied, I could have gotten a job. Maybe then, my siblings wouldn’t have suffered as much as we do. If I had a choice, I would go back to school. No one volunteers to toil in the heat,” he said.
They own four acres of farmlands. Nothing survived the heat. They borrowed money and decided to sow their seeds, one last time. “We hoped we could harvest enough crops to keep us alive this year. But nothing came out of it,” said his mother standing at the doorstep.
She was frail, and her lips quivered as they spoke. Her name was Archana. We never saw her after that. She barely left home. They had debts looming over their heads. In all, they had to return Rs 150,000 to the banks and Rs 25,000 to the sahukars. Her husband met with an accident recently. They haven’t earned anything in a while. “We spent 150,000 on his treatment. He had a bike accident, and had fractured his foot. His bones never joined the way they were supposed to. He never recovered. Yet, he works as an agricultural labourer in fields that managed to survive. They pay him Rs 200 per day. Once in a while he brings money home. Some day, we will have enough to build a house. Houses don’t get built every day you know. But we have made a home here. For now,” she said.
Balasaheb Garad earns Rs 1000 per day. He did odd jobs. They managed to eat peanut chutney and rotis on most days. Lentils were expensive. And, they rarely bought oil. He borrows money almost every month. Sometimes from people that Rajkummar had heard of. Sometimes, from those he wouldn’t know. “I ask him where the money comes from. He never tells me,” he says clearing his throat as he folded his arms, “Tujhe agar pata chal gaya toh tereko tension aa jaayega… he said a few months ago.”
“I never asked him after that night.”
“I didn’t want to know…”
(to be continued…)
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