The scent of petrichor reminded him of his childhood. His tiny pouch had areca nuts cut neatly into shards. In another bag, betel leaves were arranged lengthwise. They were tied to his waist. Shortly after the rains stopped, he heard the bus.
He twirled his moustache as he waited for them. They were friends. For years, they stopped by every night come rain or storm.
They grew old together.
The rich odour of burnt wood wafted in the air. Summer winds gathered force in the forest. A scattering of yellow lights gleamed on the ground. In the dim light, the puddles shone.
“Dinner is almost ready,” said Vittal an hour ago. A group of people sought shelter from the rain across the road. An old man walked in the distance. He, alone amongst them, found his way home in darkness. The rest waited for the rains to stop.
Vittal’s house was made of mud walls and thatched roof. The ground was wet. His son and nephew joined us soon after. They lit kerosene lanterns and placed them on the floor. Beside us sat another man whose feet were covered in mud. They didn’t say who he was. We didn’t ask them.
The walls were worn out from the weather. The light from the lantern illuminated the corners from where cobwebs glimmered at night. Children stood before it arrested with delight as a cloud of smoke rose with the winds. Vittal’s father had gone to a neighbouring village.
“My mother had some ancestral land here. So, we migrated to Masrudi. I didn’t study at all. I never went to school. I regret it, you know. Two years ago, I paid Rs 7000 as their tuition fees. They told me I don’t have to pay anymore. I want my children to prosper. And I hope, education is the answer. Even if they become farmers, they must know how to read the names of pesticides and fertilisers. They must have a decent education,” he said glancing at his older son. He wiped his hands on his trousers and strolled towards the door that led to the kitchen.
He couldn’t afford to pay for their bus passes. It cost him Rs 1100 per month. “I borrowed from someone in the morning and sent them to school,” he said to us, days later. The bank lent him Rs 150,000 last year. And, his family has managed to survive thus far.
“Vittal Madhav Teepay,” he said to us breaking the dreaded silence that befell our conversation. “In case you were wondering what my full name was.” He has three brothers who don’t live with them anymore. He owns 3.5 acres of farmland. Years ago, when rainfall wasn’t a rare occurrence, he would earn Rs 50,000 per year, “Now I barely get Rs 3,000 from my crops. I have to spend at least Rs 40,000 per year on school fees, running the house and feeding my family,” he admitted with defeat. His shoulders drooped as he picked grams from the floor.
He works as a construction labourer. Some days, he doesn’t find work anywhere in the city. It has been one year since the last job. He is out of money. His family doesn’t know. Or maybe they do. We couldn’t be certain. The bank keeps sending them notices. Vittal reads them first, and keeps them in the cupboard.
“Bol rahe hain wapas karo, kahan se karoon main wapas…”
He sold his oxen two months ago. He couldn’t afford to feed them anymore.
One morning, he rummaged through his boxes and bags for loose change. He found Rs 400 in his pocket. He borrowed Rs 700 from a friend who lived nearby and sent his older son to school. “They refuse to let him board the bus. They aren’t wrong. How else would they survive if we don’t pay the bus fare? he explained.
His wife works as an agricultural labourer whenever she can. She earns around Rs 100 a day while men earn Rs 200. “She is paid half of what she deserves. Mehnat barabar hota toh bhi aurat ko kam paise dete hain. A man and woman must be paid equally. However, in our case it doesn’t matter for none of us get paid on time,” he said bursting into a fit of giggles.
“If we don’t have food in the morning, we can always arrange for some in the evening. But if these children don’t go to school, they will suffer for the rest of their lives. I refuse to let them sit at home. They want to study. They are quite hard working. If it doesn’t rain this year, I can’t even fathom the difficulties I will have to go through to survive. It hasn’t rained for almost four years. I am just taking it one day at a time,” said Vittal.
The low rumble of an engine came to a staggering halt as Vittal waved at them. The driver and conductor had become good friends with his father. For 18 years, they stopped by their home at night. The boys ran to them with a torch. They offered them some water and betel leaves.
“They won’t come home today.”
“Why?” we asked Vittal.
“Because father isn’t here. They eat their meals together. Tonight, they will eat in the bus. They never come out if he isn’t here.”
The flickering light sent shadows darting across the room. She sat in the corner with a veil over her head. We couldn’t see her face. She wore glass bangles that shone in the light. The kids placed mats on the floor. They served us some jowar roti, daal, potato curry and some cucumbers. We hadn’t eaten anything all day. We didn’t tell them. Vittal’s wife seemed concerned throughout dinner.
“Have they eaten enough?” she whispered to her husband. “They barely ate anything.”
“Don’t be shy. Eat as much as you can,” she told us with a warm smile a while later.
When we returned, the empty barrel was now filled with water. Gajanan was waiting for us at our doorstep.
“I have a functional borewell,” he told us. “I let everyone take some water whenever they run out. If we don’t help each other, then who will? I don’t know how long it will last but for now it is helping us survive.”
The windows rattled all night. The tarpaulin sheets placed on the roof swayed in the winds as the dull murmur of a summer storm lingered in the skies.
“Wake up,” yelled Gajanan through the window. “It’s almost time for breakfast. The clouds disappeared in the morning. The sun laid its gilt strings across the empty hall. Specks of dust danced against the beam of light streaming through the window.
Jannat offered us some black tea. Sadia walked up to us and dropped some jangli jalebi on the ground. “Eat the white bits and throw away the seeds,” she said and ran away. She wouldn’t stop waving until she reached the school. In the evening, we found her drawing patterns on pavements with Ayesha. The older children taught them few games.
“Sadia demanded that I made some kurudi (from wheat flour) for you,” said Jannat handing us a plate. Vittal stood behind her striking conversations with everyone in the courtyard. Morning tea was a ritual they all cherished.
Women walked with pots on their waists looking for water. They managed to fill some from the borewell. Some children tied pots to their bicycles and cycled to the well. There was barely any left.
“I’d rather sit at home than go to the cities in search of jobs.”
“Why? we asked Vittal”
“Because if I don’t find anything, then I would have spent a lot more than I bargained for.”
“I have hard choices to make.”
Amongst parched fields, we spotted a herd of goats bleating in the distance through clusters of weeds growing in tandem. The shepherds had travelled all they way from Shignapur. “We see them every year. They have been coming to Masrudi for the last 25 years. They travel 300 km on foot. They are nomads in search of food and water for their animals. And, they live in tiny tents made of tarpaulin and plastic. Just like us,” he said frowning.
After breakfast, we walked around the village hoping to meet the shepherds who came from lands beyond. But they had moved on, continued onward on their journey at the break of dawn. We walked until we spotted a frail man standing outside his home. It wasn’t much but it stood tall compared to the rest. Their doors barely creaked and their walls didn’t crack. His name was Apsar Pathan.
He led us through a narrow lane beside the house we were living in. His wife stood in the courtyard. Open vessels lay abandoned on the ground. There was food stuck to its edges. There were pale blue wrappers scattered everywhere. Some had pictures on them: the kinds you’d seen before, the kinds you’d struggle to remember from memory. Such was the state of Masrudi. On a summer evening, the evening of the rains, she had walked beside us. But we never saw her.
“My name is Farzana Apsar Pathan. See, how small our house is. See, how poor we are.” Their home wasn’t temporary unlike the rest. Their windows hadn’t cracked. Their courtyard was freshly painted. Their porch had construction materials strewn all over. There were iron rods, tin sheets and cement bags kept in the corner.
“What are these?” we asked them.
“Our neighbours are building a house. They keep dumping their stuff on our courtyard.”
“This isn’t ours,” she insisted. We politely nodded our heads and walked away.
Days later, construction work was underway in their home. Apsar instructed the labourers to handle their sheets carefully.
They had lied.
Something seemed not quite right about them. We couldn’t tell what it was. In time, we realised they did and said whatever they could to survive. They didn’t have much. Nobody paid any attention to them. For, having a sturdy roof meant you would survive the year. There were those who were fending for their meals. And, then there were those who had roofs over their heads. Roofs that didn’t leak in the summer rains.
Farzana sat near the doorstep of her bedroom. It led to the hall and kitchen, all at once. “We were six people living in the house,” she said staring at us, “Two of my girls married. The other two are studying. One is in eighth grade and the other one is in fourth,” she said.
“How much did you spend on your daughters’ wedding?”
She hesitated. The numbers changed every time she shook her head.
“For the older one, we spent Rs 200,000.”
“It was lesser,” whispered her husband.
She ignored him.
“For the younger one, it cost us around Rs 300,000. In all, we spent close to Rs 100,000 as dowry for our daughters. And, we have a few more.” She slapped her forehead as she spoke in short staccato bursts.
Apsar refused to look at us. Not until we broke the silence, a while later.
“How did you arrange money for dowry?” we asked them reluctantly.
Apsar sat beside Farzana. He poked her elbow, and they spoke in whispers. A tall man roamed in the corners. Leaping in the corner, were a group of children who had followed us from home.
“We spent Rs 100,000 in all,” said Apsar, a while later, “It has been a year since they got married. The drought made it worse for all of us. If things were any different, maybe they could have gone to college.”
He owned 3.5 acres of land. He sold 1 acre for Rs 150,000 to pay for his daughters’ wedding. When the rains weren’t scanty, he earned around Rs 70,000 from his farmland. Now, he barely earned Rs 15,000. “I took a loan of Rs 100, 000 from the bank. This was during the wedding. I could not pay it back so I decided to renew it four months ago. I now have to pay them Rs 130,000,” he said.
Their stories changed over and over again. Our silence made them nervous. We could tell. That night, the moon barely rose. Amidst clashing branches and broken twigs, creeping into shadows, were trees that didn’t survive the night. Some hung to the others, the rest lay still and lifeless on the ground.
He doesn’t farm anymore.
It has been a while since he went to his farm. He tried to grow soyabean and jowar but the crops never rose. He fed the saplings and whatever was left of the plants to his animals.
“I go to neighbouring villages for work.”
“They pay him Rs 300 for a day’s work,” said Farzana clapping her hands gently.
“But it has been a year since I got any work,” he said looking away. His eyes turned distant as he spoke. Some days, he worked as a repair man. He fixed broken pumps.
His children go to school. “They provide everything including books and uniform. So, I don’t have to spend much on them. Once my son finishes high school, I don’t know what to do. So far, we are surviving on ration and free education. Most of us send our children to school because we can’t feed them at home. If they go to school, at least they won’t be hungry. Why has Allah brought us to this state? I don’t know.”
They always exaggerate their struggles, the others sniggered late at night as they spoke of them. Their roofs don’t leak, they kept saying to each other.
We saw her once more: the tall woman whom we crossed paths with in the morning, whose face we never saw. She wrapped the edge of her veil around her frail fingers. She stared at us as Farzana explained to her who we were.
“Salaam walekum,” she whispered.
“Wa Alaikum Salaam,” we replied.
It started raining again. When we left, we saw them pacing back and forth in the courtyard.
Jannat and Sadia stood outside their home. They were counting stars. They followed us home all the while asking if we wanted some tea. Sadia slept on her lap while Jannat pushed a few strands of damp hair away from her forehead.
“No one is keen to send their girls to school. People are generally ignorant and unaware. No one wants to fight for them. Not like they would for their sons. If you have a 13-year-old girl living in the house, the villagers ask you if there’s something wrong with her. Some pass remarks like Send her off or someone might do something to her. Apsar’s daughters got married when they were in 9th grade. He didn’t have to do it, you know. But he did. The main culprit is poverty. Not them. If people were doing well, perhaps they could work towards giving their children a decent education. My eldest daughter is in Padoli with my parents. She’s very bright and has won numerous awards. One day, she received a marriage proposal from an engineer. We didn’t have any money. So, we refused them. My brother has warned us to not interfere with her studies at all. No one treats girls right here,” she said.
“How could they?” she scoffed carrying Sadia in her arms.
“What choices do parents have?”
“It’s easier for them to send her away. She is somebody else’s problem now.”
(to be continued…)
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