In distant lands, where wreaths of dust and smoke rose in whorls, near vast oceans where trees bent towards shade, where grey structures hovered in the horizon, people strolled in passageways that led them to a space they called home. These streets held sorrow. A woman’s sobs caught everyone’s attention. Another death, another life lost. Another report, another inquiry…
The television had many such stories that foretold their past and, some feared, their future. White noise crept in every few minutes almost blocking out everything that the news anchor said. Govind’s eyes darted back and forth from the door towards the kitchen. He was looking for his son. He stayed hidden under the table. His muffled giggles gave him away.
Daulat’s grandmother who lived next door had to go to the hospital. Her son wasn’t interested in taking her anywhere. Her pain didn’t bother him. He was numb to their struggles. “You can take her to the hospital,” he said to us with an exasperated sigh, “The doctor knows what she needs. He is a good man and charges meager fees. He is sensitive to farmers in the area. He has seen many of them suffer. Even if you don’t have any money, he will treat you for free. Aise insaan bohat kam milte hain,” he said. Govind nodded his head talking to himself at times murmuring when he needs to head to the market. The rates might fall if he delays any further, he wondered aloud.
In Taka, the weather turned rogue with every passing moment. Shrouded in dust, the streets had cars and bikes lined up all the way to the alley where the doctor sat. A tiny room with patients from everywhere came to our view. A mother held her child as others sat outside waiting for him to arrive. Ganesh parked his bike near the dispensary and jogged towards our car. “I was on my way to Ujjaini. I have to distribute my sister’s wedding invitations. We have relatives there,” he talked excitedly.
There was a storm brewing in Ausa. Masrudi, however, had barely seen any rainfall since last week. “You have to eat at my house. Its Gudi Padwa tomorrow. You have to meet my family and have lunch with us,” said Ganesh to us.
To Sadia and Daulat, the village looked different today. They sat near the window waving at everyone as we drove by from lower to upper Masrudi. Their tiny arms caught sunlight when the fields rose from slumber in the afternoon sun. Golden sheaves were gathered in, and stacked in the backyard. The old men at the stall stared eagerly at us when we stopped for some water. “Have some tea,” said the elders when we got out to greet them. They met every day. They spoke everyday. There was nothing more that had to be said today. So, they sat in silence staring at the road ahead.
The doctor never arrived. He had gone to his village and no one knew when he’d return. We drove back to Masrudi wondering what about the others who still waited outside the clinic. Tangled grape vines gleamed in the sun. There weren’t too many of these farms left here. They wouldn’t survive fall this year.
Jannat and a middle-aged woman sat at her doorstep. They barely noticed us walking towards them. Daulat’s grandmother joined us a while later. We sat in the middle of the courtyard talking about the texture of rice papad and pickles. The woman led us to her house: a tiny structure in the midst of Masrudi where the goats walked astray, where one could see smoke rising from their roof. In this part of the village, where houses aligned with one another, they hardly escaped each other.
Daulat ran to the neighbour’s house and fetched us some sugarcane. A young girl trotted beside her. She shrieked as she dropped her sugarcane. Engines rumbled in a distance and she ran home. She disappeared into the woods through the narrow street. “Her abba doesn’t let her come out to play,” explained Daulat grabbing more sugarcane, “She is not allowed here. Not in these alleys.”
The middle-aged woman, under whose roof we sat, gestured her daughter to serve us some tea. The television played old cartoons in which cities under siege fought back against monsters that spewed hatred. She was young. We wondered if she ever went to school. We didn’t ask her. Her father returned in the evening. He didn’t look at us. She never spoke when he was around. No one did.
As the sun went down, we took a stroll around the village. The old man whose buffalo died in the rains last week sat underneath a tarpaulin sheet beside the road. His sons joined him. A pot of tea simmered in the fire. His wife arranged utensils in the corner. At the heart of the village, women gathered near hand pumps with soiled dishes. A group of children who followed us throughout pointed at the trees beyond the settlement. They knew everyone who lived here.
The men were away. Many of them travelled to Ujjaini to sell their produce. “There’s a mandi where most of us have sold whatever we grew. We don’t have much to celebrate this year,” said Prashanth who had just returned from the market. He looked tired today. His playful demeanour returned when he spotted toddlers running in the street.
At night, Gajanan knocked on our door. He grabbed the stove, a few large vessels and pots that were stacked in the middle of the room. They were going to have a party tonight. “We plan to cook some meat today,” he said with a warm smile.
At 4:30 am, we heard some chatter outside our window. We woke up to the sound of swishing broomsticks and chirping birds. Children were wide awake yelling instructions at one another. It was the day of the festival, and had to hurry before the sun rose. We laid on the floor a while longer listening to the sounds of the street again: a hurried footstep, children wailing, the light breeze that stirred broken branches…
At dawn, when skies broke into a streak of colours, Vittal walked towards our home and invited us for some tea and breakfast later. Every roof had a gudi (doll) adorned in their finest. “Traditionally we have neem leaves, jaggery, saree, stick, vermillion, turmeric and a copper urn. Everything has meaning and purpose,” said Vittal as he drive kids away from the house. “Everyone will ask you to eat Puran Poli with them today,” he said bursting into a fit of giggles, “And, you can’t refuse them!”
Ganesh would meet us in Ausa. In a few hours, we drove towards the town where celebrations were in full swing. People danced in droves all across Ausa. Just as we were about to leave Masrudi, we crossed paths with Govind who returned from the market. “I managed to sell some green chickpeas (young garbanzo beans) today. I got Rs 5,000 per quintal. During the sowing season, the rates were Rs 4,000 per quintal. I got lucky this time,” he said beaming with pride. He sold soyabean in July and refused to part with his produce earlier. He sold them at higher rates than anticipated.
The other farmers stared at his palms curiously. Some even rubbed the chickpeas against their shirts to ensure it wasn’t painted. Amidst peals of laughter, Govind explained to them that they could fetch them Rs 8000 or Rs 9000 per quintal. Bemused at his claims, they remained quiet. Stoic expressions turned sour for they wondered if he mocked them. They didn’t believe him.
Years ago, Vittal sowed jowar and chickpeas together. That was a good year. His yield flourished. “I haven’t grown anything since then,” said Vittal in a forlorn voice, “Things have changed. My saplings grow but they don’t survive.”
Beside the old man with a long white beard sat Dattu at the tea stall. He frowned reading the newspaper. News spelled doom for more farmers, they whispered. Dattu asked us if we were going to leave anytime soon. His eyes turned grim as Dattu shifted his stance while talking to us.
“I hope you stay longer,” he said looking down as the chatter died down. The men turned curious as we walked away.
Ganesh’s family greeted us with open arms. The women covered their head with veils and stood with their arms folded before them. They offered us some water and gestured us to follow them. His younger brother stood at the doorstep and grinned as he saw Ganesh stumble across the room. His mother held our arms and led us into the hall. “She has prepared some special dishes for you,” he said teasing her.
After lunch, his father spoke to us about issues faced by farmers in drought-hit areas. “They have had no place in society. The bottom is no place to be. But farmers don’t know any better. They have always occupied the lowest rank in society. We are ignored, battered and bruised. And, that’s how we will continue to remain,” he said.
Ganesh seemed distracted. He barely spoke or looked in our direction. For the longest time, we wondered why. His indefinite silence was broken by the loud clanging pots from the kitchen. His wife swept the floors. “My sister’s wedding will get cancelled if we don’t pay them Rs 20,000. It is easier for those in the cities to judge us for perpetuating the practice. They are unaware of our reality. If men don’t take dowry, people assume something must be wrong with them. They refuse to send their daughters to such homes. I have no fight left in me. I have been visiting my dead farms for months now. Her fiancé runs a cyber café. At least, they’ll have another source of income. But if I don’t arrange for the money, I fear they might walk away,” he said.
After lunch, we headed towards Masrudi. Amidst faded skies and lonely afternoons, we held conversations of the present. For, the past held misery, and future wore a bleakness that refused to fade away.
There was a house that stood beside the road. It wouldn’t last the rain. Perhaps, it has. We couldn’t tell. The cracks ran deep across the walls. There was nothing inside. No one lived there. The clacking of foraging hens broke the silence that weighed us down. Ganesh looked ahead. His stoic expression had barely changed. He caught a glimpse of the abandoned home. There were many more along the way.
Three years later, he called us one afternoon. “The farms didn’t get any electricity supply,” he said, “All the farmers came together and protested outside the power station. They installed a transformer the same day. Great things can happen when farmers unite.”
Yet again, a train left from Latur. The coaches, this time, were filled with men and women: some old, some young. Poore desh ki bhook mitanewaala annadata kisan bhuka aur bebas kyun hai? read the poster outside.
Many miles away, agrarian riots led to the deployment of more than a thousand policemen on ground. Over 200,000 farmers marched in protest demanding a session of parliament dedicated to discussion around agrarian distress, and the passing of two bills: Farmers’ Freedom for Indebtedness Bill 2018 and the Farmers Right to Guaranteed Remunerative Minimum Support Prices for Agricultural Commodities Bill 2018.
“Phir nikle hum,” said Sattar Patel, “We will continue to fight until our last breath.”
“Maybe this time, they’ll listen…”
(to be continued…)
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