There was a house at the far end. Nobody lived there anymore. We stumbled upon it on our way out. A chance encounter. The building was old, decrepit. It held memories. Gajanan unlocked the door to a room that held heaps of chickpeas and jowar. They weren’t sold yet. It had been a while. They were waiting for the right moment when the prices would surge.
They are still waiting.
Prashanth and his friend barged into the house. They were barely 15. It was quiet when we walked in. They swept the room and placed a mat on the floor. Within moments, they ended their conversations just as they had begun, with a soliloquy. Too many vessels, too dusty. How will they sleep here? Maybe we should find some other place. There are no homes left. They are all falling apart.
We told them it didn’t matter and that the dust didn’t bother us. We shifted our luggage into the room. There were children sitting in the front yard. They nibbled on orange candy wrapped in plastic. Some afternoons, they dreamt of places with a surfeit of chocolate. They seemed delighted today.
Rohini and Sadia sat beside us. One spoke in Marathi, and the other in Hindi. A young lady stood at the doorstep. Her name was Jannat. Her eyes lingered on our faces before she broke into a smile. She was Sadia’s mother. An old woman limped her way across the courtyard. Jannat held out hand her hand to her and pulled her aside.
“Sadia kept bothering me all day. She wanted to meet you.”
They sat for a while talking about Masrudi, about a time when the farmlands thrived. “Everything has been reduced to dust. The humanity within us is dying. If we had respected nature, it would not have turned on us. Everyone is just bothered about himself or herself. As long as I survive that’s all that matters. No one is bothered bout anyone else. And, that is unfortunate. That’s what started it all,” she said pulling her veil away from her braid.
The door opened, and in walked a little girl. Her name was Ayesha. She looked anxiously around the room; her eyes fastened on the old vessel placed in the corner. There were specks of brown and red scattered all over its lid. She took delight in sometimes telling the older children how she managed to climb the furthest branch on the banyan tree in the yard at school.
The old woman spoke of her son and grandchildren. She was Ayesha’s grandmother. She wore spectacles that made her eyes look larger than usual. “My daughter-in-law works very hard. We are all daily-wage workers. We earn whatever we can,” she said wiping her mouth.
We forgot to ask her name. She never asked ours.
When the earthquake struck Latur in 1993, she lived in Masrudi. “I don’t remember much. I am old now. All I can recall is destruction. The village didn’t exist anymore. Our homes didn’t exist anymore,” she reminisced. The grief never left her. It lingered in her heart, years later, as she spoke of the day when the earth rumbled. Underneath the dust and rubble, that night, lay their homes, and their shattered hopes.
“It was 4 in the evening when the ground started shaking violently,” she recalled, “We didn’t know what was happening. We ran out to the courtyard. The mukhiya forbade us from going home. Before our eyes, we saw everything crumble to the ground. The fields we had toiled in, the houses we had built: everything came crashing down. There was nothing left. In a matter of seconds, we were homeless. Soon, we started growing crops in the jungle situated just 2 km away. We rebuilt our lives here. Everyone constructed their home themselves. We weren’t eligible for any compensation from the government since no one died in our village. Koi nahin mara toh aise hi zinda aadmi ko marne chod diya,” said the grandmother.
“It is no different now. Dead farmers are far more valuable than those who are alive…”
She has four grandchildren. Her son goes to a different farm everyday. Not all farms need work. Her grandson walked in looking for her in the evening. His name was Shahid. He sat beside her and held her hand whispering to her that dinner was almost ready. She nodded in return.
“I have two older grandchildren. Both are married. We couldn’t afford to to pay their fees. So, their parents decided it was best to get them married as soon as possible. If girls stay at home longer than they should, people begin to ask questions. For the elder daughter, they demanded a dowry of Rs 50,000 and one tola gold. For the second one’s wedding, we had to shell out Rs 100,000 and another tola. Without dowry, there is no wedding. This is our reality. The younger one is doing alright. They have a good farm and can manage to grow onions and jowar. They have water too. The older one, however, is not doing that well. But they are managing with whatever they can I hear,” she said running her hands over her face again.
The winds made her wrists tremble again. We wondered what she looked like when she was younger. She sat outside her home in the evenings. She owns two acres of farmland but nothing grows there anymore. So, her son grows onions in his landlord’s farm. “If the landlord earns something from the harvest this year, then he will hire agricultural labourers. That way, everyone will be able to feed their families. Bas is baar bhao na gire,” she said.
She sits in the hall every afternoon guarding the onions from rain and dust.
The rates fell that year.
“We are all one big family struggling to survive,” said Jannat as she stood up to leave. “No matter what religion you belong to, you are struggling. There is no distinction between Hindu and Muslim here. Haven’t you noticed? You won’t be able to tell us apart. We are all poor. And, we all look the same.” She guffawed at her own remark. She looked outside the door almost expecting to see rain. She seemed disappointed.
There was a lingering smell in the air. It faded with the winds.
We couldn’t tell what it was.
Gajanan and Prashanth returned a while later.
“Let’s go to the cowshed. Gajanan stays there.”
“The owners of the house you are staying in migrated to the city a while ago. Since they built a bathroom and toilet, we thought you would be comfortable staying here.”
“Gajanan takes care of the house now. Farmers store their grains here.”
Ganesh and Dattu waited on the roadside for us. It was getting late, and they had to return home. They asked the villagers gathered beside them to take care of us while they were gone. We would see them a week later. “There’s no stove or choolah where you live. Vittal will take care of it,” said Dattu as he waved before leaving.
Dattu spent the whole day with us. He lost Rs 200 that day since he didn’t go to the fields; a loss that he would recover that week. We contemplated if we should give him some money. We didn’t. It would upset him.
Children followed us everywhere. Our rainbow umbrella amused them. A gust of wind brought the rains with it. We walked quickly at first, and then slowed down. Every now and then, we would stop to admire the fields. A little girl accompanied us. She kept her head down as we walked.
“Paos aala, paos aala,” Prashanth yelled in excitement as the others followed suit. Sadia, Rohini and Ayesha giggled as they stuck their tongues out at him. The young girl we met earlier looked at us shyly when she walked past everyone and grabbed our hands.
“Daulatabad,” whispered the kids to us as she took longer strides towards the shed.
Her name was Daulat.
A few oxen sat lazily chewing their cud as we walked past them to the charpai. Gajanan fed them some hay. The shed had two cots. One of which was placed in the corner. The roof leaks when it rains. “They are my companions and I am their protector. We have already started ploughing our fields. Every year, we hope it rains enough, enough for us to last. So far, all our hard work has gone to waste. I have ten acres of land and I procured three bags of soybean. I would earn 70,000 to 80,000 from the produce. That’s what I thought to myself. Gradually, it reduced to 50,000 and this year I earned Rs 15,000. I had to spend at least Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 on the land. And then, there are labourers. The list of my troubles is endless.”
This is the state of farming everywhere, quipped Prashanth as he swayed back and forth. We asked him what he wants to become when he grows up.
“A police officer,” he said.
“Because, he is really lazy and doesn’t want to do anything in his life,” said Rohini, his sister, as everyone burst out laughing.
He held his tummy and laughed till his eyes turned moist. Everyone teased him. The kids asked us to stay here forever. We told them we would.
The haystack was now destroyed in the rain and would rot over the next few days. It was meant to last the month. They spent Rs 20 per kilo to feed their cattle.
“Now we’ll have nothing for the cows and oxen,” said Gajanan rubbing his forehead.
The sun went down, and we walked back home. The air was damp and heavy. Lightning struck all night. There was no electricity until the next day. We sat in darkness most of the night. As ants and nocturnal insects stumbled across hidden crevices in broken walls, the winds changed course. It turned violent at once. The shutters clattered and the roof leaked.
Sadia and Jannat visited us after dinner. Her exams were underway, and she didn’t seem too worried. “Only time will tell how they have fared. All they do is play with marbles every evening.”
She spotted groceries near the water cooler.
“I will cook for you today,” she said.
“No, that’s ok. Vittal has asked us to eat with his family.”
“It’s no trouble at all.”
She smiled, catching her reflection in the mirror, and fell silent while the children repeated their questions several times over.
She was ill. There were no toilets here. Every morning, women walked great lengths to find shaded spots that would offer them some privacy. There were hardly any trees left. She bled some nights. No matter what they tried, the treatments never worked. She barely ate anymore.
“You shouldn’t have come,” she told us, a few weeks later. Tears streamed down her face as she walked away
“Why did you come to our lives when you knew you would leave some day?”
“Who will fill the emptiness in our hearts now?…”
(to be continued…)
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