In twilight skies, soared a large flock of birds. Some days, they swore they saw a murmuration of starlings. Most days, they imagined it. One summer afternoon, under the banyan tree, children gathered peanut shells strewn everywhere. Stirring patterns into the ground, they dug up more trash tossing them towards the tree, one by one. Amidst paperbits and colourful strings, were shrubs that surrendered to the heat. They strayed from their path a long time ago.
There will be nothing left of their memories here, said the elders that evening. The rains washed off dust and debris accumulated in their backyard. They floated into cracks where creatures returned at night. In the languid air, moved a cluster of ants gathering remnants of dinner from the courtyard. It was one of those days when nothing stirred in the village.
The shrubs didn’t survive the night.
The evening brought back memories: the kinds one reminisced about on starry nights. Tonight, there were no stars. Winds brought in acrid stench from garbage accumulated in the corner. There were no blossoms this time of the year. There were no blossoms any time of the year, here. “Years ago, there were flowers that bloomed in spring,” said an old farmer to his companions in the afternoon. They didn’t believe him. They never saw them. He seemed convinced that the flowers existed. The men looked at each other as they spoke for hours. Unspoken whispers of denial hung high in the air but they didn’t let it show. Some conversations were like that.
There’s nothing left of them now: trees or conversations.
It didn’t rain after that night. When the last of the kerosene lamps flickered in the night, Vittal’s wife sat before the stove gathering firewood in the dark.
“Will you stay for Gudi Padwa?” asked Sadia earlier in the evening, “It is in two days. You can’t leave before that. You have to eat Puran Poli with us.” She ran away giggling. Children gathered in the courtyard and played antakshari for hours. The boys got into a scuffle with each other over their choice of songs. The toddlers soon lost interest and walked away. A young girl tried to tame her wayward strands of hair as her older sister sang tunes from an era before her.
Ayesha and Sadia refused to let us go. “We’ll lock them up in the abandoned classroom. That way, they’ll never leave us. They can’t go. We’ll lure them to the school after breakfast,” whispered Ayesha. Their giggles went unnoticed until someone spotted them crouching in the bushes behind our home.
Jannat agreed with them. “You can’t go without celebrating Gudi Padwa with us.”
Toddlers collected marbles in their hands. They held closed fists behind their back. We heard soft voices just outside our door. Summer holidays had just begun but their teachers insisted they go to school everyday. “That way, parents won’t have to worry where their next meal would come from,” explained Jannat, “They are extremely considerate of our situation. They keep our children engaged throughout the day and serve them midday meal before sending them home.”
We told them we would stay a while longer. We wished we had more time. Like a dissonant note, memories return in fragments. Memories of laughter in the courtyard, of sorrow in arched eyes and remorse in quivering whispers. Some days, we wonder if they’d remember us when we return.
Goodbyes are the hardest, and one never gets used to them. For, the heart lingers a while longer, we hold each other a while longer, we smile a while longer. Where one journey ends, another begins…
An old man lived in a shed nearby. We had seen him before. He was Rajput. He had migrated to Latur many years ago. Nobody knows where he came from. His son was an alcoholic. “I am not sure if my grandchildren will have a future. I am worried for them. What if this is their destiny? Living under plastic sheets that hiss at night,” he wondered aloud. His voice cracked as he held his stick and limped in circles. He was frail; his feet didn’t support him anymore. His knees trembled as he turned back and walked slowly towards his tent.
In one of the narrow paths that led to the winding roads of the forest where once lived a settlement of nomads, he disappeared. There was his home, said the children staring at him lest he lost his balance.
At the tea stall stood the blind man. He hadn’t the faintest clue who was around him. Perhaps, he did. We couldn’t be sure. He dragged his feet away from us towards places where no one lived.
We walked back home. Jannat held an old woman’s hand as she dragged her towards us. The lady looked down at her feet and left in a hurry. “Her life is a tragedy. Her husband abandoned her and she has been taking care of her children on her own. She needs help. She has been hesitant to talk to you,” said Jannat. We told her we would meet her tomorrow.
Children pointed at tiny dolls hung above every house. It was tradition. After breakfast, they’d gather in large groups and examine all the dolls in the village. They’d choose the best of them all. In whispers, that were perfectly audible to the rest of the group, some’d declare winners. The others’d disagree.
For if they all agreed, the game would end.
And, they weren’t ready to go home. Not yet.
“It gives us a reason to celebrate,” said Vittal glancing at them. He planned to sell some tamarind the next day to buy some groceries. “We have to eat Puran Poli. Since it is a festival we partake in, we celebrate however we can…”
At night, we sat outside their home. It was quiet tonight. Trees glistened in the light drizzle. Vittal’s sister came to visit them with her granddaughter Swamini. She wrapped a long gathi around her tiny fingers and nibbled on the sweets.
“Did you see the media van today?”
“What did they ask you?” inquired Vittal.
“They wondered why we chose to stay here. They asked us what we had learnt in the last few days, and if there was anything interesting that we could tell them.”
“Did you tell them anything?” asked Vittal’s sister chuckling.
“We told them to observe what is happening around them instead.”
“They told us about the list. We don’t know who’s on it and who isn’t. Nobody will say these things aloud. They fear the ones who didn’t make it would treat them differently.”
They never noted down Vittal’s bank account details. He didn’t make the list. The radio crooned old compositions that held discordant sounds. It was odd, and yet it didn’t seem to bother them. There were stories of lost land, distant dreams and unrequited love.
Vittal’s father sliced arecanuts into pieces as his toes swayed to a rhythm that was all too familiar to him. He was waiting for them. Minutes went by, and the bus was nowhere to be seen. The bus driver and conductor arrived shortly. They greeted each other warmly and ate their meal in silence. For 18 years, they spent their evenings together. They watched their children get married, grow up and struggle together. For eighteen summers, they fretted over wilted flowers and dead trees.
The winds changed course and branches crackled as trees swayed violently all at once. We slept on the floor staring at the skies. We stayed there for long listening to the sound of the streets: an open window, a closed door, a rattling photo frame that once held memories…
Dadaji smoked his beedi. Thin wreaths of smoke rose in the air and disappeared soon after. Circling the tall grass were a swarm of insects that appeared overnight. His daughter-in-law cooked some rasam, daal and roti. After breakfast, we headed to the old man’s house near the forest.
He fetched an old mat as soon as he saw us. His son stood beside him. His eyes were bloodshot, and his gait faltered when he tried to walk. His toes curled inwards as he sat on the plastic chair. It was barely 10 am. We asked him if he had a job.
“Who are you to ask me that?” he asked us, “Have you ever sat on a bullock cart? Do you know how hard it is to farm in these wretched lands? The soil is cursed. The sky is evil. Why do you want to know if I work?”
He was offended. We apologised and explained why we wished to know who he was.
“He refuses to work,” his father confessed to us when he was gone, “He gets drunk everyday. I am too old and my days are numbered. What will happen to his family?” His eyes held concern as his son returned a while later. He circled the house looking for something. He couldn’t recall what it was.
“My name is Mohan Singh. And, I am 80 years old. There are six people living in my house, whatever is left of it. This structure is what we call home. It doesn’t have a door, and in some seasons, we don’t have a roof,” he said adjusting his large turban. He owned five acres of farmland. For the last five years, nothing survived in his farms. “Like everybody in the village, we have taken several loans. It all adds up to Rs 300,000. It put food on our table, and ensured that my grandchildren don’t starve. They live with their aunt in Ausa. I sold both my oxen too. We borrow money from whomever we can to pay their fees. The last two years have been especially hard on us. I am out of money. I have nothing left. No one does any labour work in my family. We don’t work as agricultural labourers. I would if I could.”
They grew sugarcane three years ago. That year, they had a good harvest. They earned Rs 200,000. His son refused to work in other’s farms. He refused to beg for work. He got defensive every time we struck a conversation with him. For three years, he hasn’t set foot in his own farm. “You need to help people like us,” he said slurring. He rubbed his temples over and over again. The heat worsened his headache.
“You can’t shy away from your responsibilities. You need to take care of your family first,” we told him. His resentment grew with every passing moment. He harboured no ambitions save escaping his current life. Sometimes, we feared he may leave and never return.
They grew quiet soon after. There was nothing more to say. Caressing his left arm, Mohan leaned forward as if he wished to tell us something. He hesitated for a bit and straightened his back instead. His wrists hurt today, we could tell. The stick was crooked and barely offered him any support.
When we walked away, his son paced back and forth in the courtyard. He muttered curses under his breath. Mohan sat still and looked the other way. All these years of struggle and angst left within him a void that this lifetime couldn’t fill. He lived for his grandchildren. He couldn’t do much for them. He tried, nonetheless.
Govind tapped his toes on the ground. He held a tiny piece of paper in his hand when we saw him. “Come home for tea. You must be tired walking in the heat,” he said with a warm smile. From a distance, a coat of silver gleamed in the afternoon sun. His house had tin sheets protecting the roof and walls. They were green and undecorated. Some portions were smeared with colours that didn’t belong there. Specks of brown and red adorned the edges where large white sacks were stacked in the corner. Above us, just below the ceiling, where the wooden shelf was nailed to the walls, was an old television.
“I had a decent harvest this year,” he said asking his wife to fetch us a pot of tea, “People own farmlands on both sides of the road. My farm received more rainfall this year in comparison with those situated on the other side. The problem lies with the land. Across the village, above our settlement, lies a pond. If it doesn’t rain, it dries up. It has been three years and it has now turned into a wasteland. Seeds don’t sprout without water.”
Unlike the rest of the farmers in the village, he treated his seeds with rhizobium and rhizobacteria. It improves efficiency and output of plant growth, he declared with pride. “I use fertiliser and natural farming ingredients in equal proportions. I treat my seeds before every sowing season. I don’t have to worry about them later. People don’t adopt these methodologies. If they made changes to the way they farm, they’d see results. No one even knows of these techniques. We should be aware as farmers. We should make an effort to learn more about our craft.”
In a country that is fundamentally reliant on agriculture, development and progress still imply acquiring jobs that pay dearly, explains Govind. “It isn’t anyone’s fault. For, everyone wants to lead a good life. The uneducated, downtrodden and helpless resort to farming in our country. And, there lies the problem. No one knows anything about organic farming. That’s why we suffer year after year. We have generations of villagers embroiled in debt. There is no way out,” he said as his older brother looked on wearily.
His son stood beside him tugging on his shirt. He spilled milk all over his clothes. His mother fussed around him hoping he’d listen. His eyes were transfixed by the wooden cart in the corner.
“We are being exploited by everyone. No body wants us to commit suicide. But nobody wants us to survive either,” he said playfully grabbing his son’s leg.
Despite drought-like conditions prevailing in Masrudi for the last five years, Govind managed to harvest 20 quintals of soyabean and 50 quintals of gram this year. On a good day, when the rains don’t wreak havoc on his farms, when the sun doesn’t burn the last of his grains, he can procure upto 250 quintals of produce every year. “I have taken a loan of Rs 500,000. But I am not too bothered by it. I know I can repay the bank. I’ll fight this through and I’ll survive. I used the money to buy farming equipment: sprinklers and motors,” he said.
He couldn’t afford to go to college. They tried everything they could but it wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t worth starving his family to attain a degree. “I scored 76% in twelfth grade, you know,” he said with a hint of pride, “Whatever little knowledge I had gained over the years, I applied it all to farming. I am not ashamed of my profession. I spent the rest of my years learning and getting better at what I do.” He attended events where gathered farmers from all over the country, and researched on new techniques in his spare time.
“In the beginning, they all made fun of me. Nobody believed me. No one has the time or patience to do what it takes to be a good farmer. Everybody wants instant results. Some of them now regret not listening to me all those years ago. We need more educated farmers: those know how to alter farming techniques based on weather patterns. Our needs have increased over time but our income continues to be the same. We have to be equipped with the right resources,” he went on.
He grows organic jowar. One day, he hopes to convert his farm into an organic zone entirely. He seemed excited at the prospect of being the only organic farmer from Masrudi. We found his son, a while later, wiping dirt off the ground with his little fingers. Beside him, Govind lay on the floor staring at the ceiling and tracing its vivid patterns.
Rukmini walked with a hunch. She caught up with us and whispered, “Please come with me.” We followed her into an alley where women sat on the ground winnowing their grains. Her house was locked. She placed a bunch of keys on the floor gingerly breaking the stillness lurking in the air. Her heavy glass bangles clanged together as she opened the door to what was once her home.
She was nervous.
There was dust in crevices where lived an army of ants. Rusted iron pots and pans were swept into the corner along with old wires. As she walked around the house, she heard a faint tapping from the roof. It was breaking apart. The house was abandoned but it held memories. She doesn’t live there anymore. “My in-laws took me in soon after my husband left us. I couldn’t manage on my own,” she said fiddling with edge of her sari.
She has two daughters and two sons. Her daughters are married but her sons are still studying. “My husband is in Pune. He married someone else. This happened twenty years ago. I work as an agricultural labourer. So far, I have been managing only on the goodwill of those people who have been helping us with tuition fees. One of my sons dropped out of college since we didn’t have any money left. My daughter’s in-laws supported us as much as they could. However, due to drought they have nothing this year. Their farms are struggling to survive. My sons are smart and they could have flourished had they got help at the right time,” she said.
She was heartbroken when her husband left. But she couldn’t mourn any more than she did. Her children didn’t know where their father was, how long would he be gone, and if he’d ever return home some day. One moment, he was there, and another he wasn’t. Did he see them one last time we wondered before walking away? Does he think of them? Does he wonder what they look like?
She doesn’t think of him anymore. She hasn’t forgiven him even after all these years. She worries for her children. She dreamt of a different life: one that wouldn’t let her succumb to loneliness. “They’ll learn to live with it. They were born with it,” she said breaking our reverie that afternoon.
Kids barged in looking for us. They were led by Sadia and Ayesha into the house. The boys struck a match and blew it out.
“Why aren’t you in school?” we asked them.
“We had oral tests today. Our exams begin tomorrow,” said Sadia sticking her tongue out at her friends.
As we walked back, we passed by Govind’s house once more. We couldn’t go any further. We asked him for some water. There was a rustle of chirping birds near the trees. They had returned in the morning. Save the table fan whirring in the living room, there was no sound coming from the house. “As long as we are alive, we will fight to survive,” he said gesturing a middle-aged man to join us. He was Daulat’s father. “He has five daughters,” Govind whispered shaking his head, “His debts are rising every year. In all, it amounts to Rs 200,000 today. Both banks and private money lenders won’t quit until they get their money back. He isn’t too worried. Two of his daughters are married. What’s the point of living in fear?”
Rukmini walked in a while later. She carried a plastic bag with sheets of paper. Her sons hadn’t done well in school.
“If you take a look at his score over the years, either he has done extremely well or has failed miserably,” she said in a feeble voice.
“The days they could afford to send him to college, he did well. Then, there were those dreadful months when there wasn’t enough for anyone. Those days, he’d come back home and help with chores instead. When they’d earned enough, they’d send him back to school. He scored 81% in tenth grade. He is a bright boy,” said the men gathered around us.
Her older son worked as an electrician in Pune. He was studying electrical engineering before he quit. “He works with generators and transformers,” said his mother, “At least he is doing something he was once interested in. Maybe it makes him happy. I am not certain if he is…”
Once, her younger son came home during the holidays. He never returned to college for months. There was no money for food, tuition or rent. Some days, he skipped dinner to survive the week. “He tried but he couldn’t last,” said Rukmini wiping her forehead, “I’d be happy if my children had a future unlike mine. Drought took away everything we had. There are no farms left where I could toil in to feed my children. When will this end? When will our troubles end? I don’t know. Maybe my sons will have a better life. ”
(to be continued…)
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