It was the summer of 91. And, he remembered it well. But it was always summer in these parts, said the old man grunting beside him. His knees wobbled every time he moved in his chair. Across the building, crows sat atop the roof. It hadn’t rained here. Not for a while. Their lands were brown. Their forests were dry; and their fields barren. They had nothing before them.
They were friends. And, they remembered it all.
The man at the counter had freckles on his hands. He counted change every morning. His mouth twitched whenever someone walked towards him. We never asked him for his name. In the slot, he threw coins one after another. Sometimes, they fell out. Some mornings, he picked up an old cloth from the floor and wiped the counter clean.
The middle-aged man held hands with him. They barely spoke but they knew each other. A few men dunked their glucose biscuits into warm cups of coffee. They were expecting us today.
Shyam Rao paced back and forth waiting for Ali to return. He had been gone for a while. “I am not certain of his whereabouts. He disappears all the time,” he said frowning. In moments, Ali walked to the bungalow. His shrieks echoed in the halls. He laughed to himself shaking his head from side to side. There was no one around him. “He is always drunk,” whispered Shyam to us, “But he has a good heart.”
We found him on the couch the next morning. His snores woke everyone up. He drank himself to sleep last night. The men told us everything. Some evenings, he borrowed money from whoever lurked near him. “Alcohol isn’t free,” he’d tell us smirking at Shyam, days later.
“Nothing comes free.”
We never saw him eat. He barely touched his food. On days when the rest succumbed to fatigue, he’d limp his way to the kitchen ordering the boys to get him more alcohol. This morning was no different. He sat on the floor yelling at his imaginary acquaintances. An irked Srinivas inched his way closer to him with a plastic bottle. He poured some water into his mouth to calm him down. “You will kill yourself someday,” he muttered under his breath. His fury made no difference to Ali who played with his fingers.
“It was only recently that he got his permanent status,” they revealed when he was asleep, “He now earns close to Rs 18,000. His family resides in Gulbarga. Most of the days when he sobers up, we tease him and advise him to give up alcohol. Yet, he will continue to drink until he has no memory of what unfolded the previous night.”
“He drinks to forget,” said Shyam explaining a few hours later.
“His memories, his grief. He drinks to forget them.”
“Some things I know. Some I don’t. He drinks to forget them all…”
“There are five Devadasis who visit the temple every Tuesday and Friday,” said Shyam Rao when we drove him to Chincholi that morning. “I see them every week. I am the priest, you see. They carry their baskets with them. It contains everything they need for their pooja. They walk from one village to another seeking alms from everyone. Some have children too,” he said.
He recalled our conversations from a few nights ago. “It was wrong,” he said shrugging his shoulders. “It should have never happened…”
Ramaji Rathod wasn’t home today. He left to Bidar a few days ago. His daughter had a cesarean section procedure, and the entire family had gathered together to keep a watchful eye on the young mother. We called up Laxman and informed him that we were on our way to Seri Bikkanahalli Thanda.
As we crossed the forest, older monkeys screeched and attacked each other in a distance. Some travellers had left them cooked rice. Everyone was starving and they all had to fight their way to food. They scared away the younger ones hoping to eat a few morsels today. Outside the dargah, plastic waste was strewn all over the courtyard. A trail of garbage led us to the next village where toddlers rummaged through a pile in search of boxes. A little girl rolled downhill in a tiny wooden cart leaving the group behind.
In the blistering heat, no one lurked in these jungles. Laxman left to Kunchavaram to pick up supplies for the week. Vasanth greeted us with a big smile. His little boy hung on his hip hoping he wouldn’t let go. Sikander followed us to the courtyard where sat an old grandmother on the floor fanning herself with a sheet of paper.
“We need fencing around our farms,” said the old woman.
“What about NREGA? Can’t you get fencing done under the scheme?” we asked them recalling our earlier conversations with Hampanna.
“We were told we had to get the raw materials required on our own and that we would be reimbursed after we were done. We can’t really afford to buy them. Besides, what is the guarantee that they would pay us on time?” asked Vasanth with a concerned smile.
“Who told you that you had to buy them on your own?”
“A man from Dharmasagar,” he replied. He fell silent for a while. “There could have been some misunderstanding between us and them,” he confessed to us much later, “Perhaps, if we talked to them directly, we could understand the arrangement better. Most of our crops have been destroyed by wild boars, deer, monkeys and peacocks. It isn’t their fault really. Look at the forest. It has been dead for a while. These animals are doing everything they can to survive. But we need to survive too.”
Their children can’t read or write. The anganwadi has one teacher. But she doesn’t teach children at all. For, that isn’t her job. Someone else must be assigned such responsibilities. Sikander reminisced about years growing up in the thanda when he had hoped that he could fulfil his dreams someday. “Some dreams aren’t meant to be. There was a time when I thought I could go to college. Perhaps, I could have become a government employee. Things changed after that. We lost a teacher. Soon, we lost our school. And, one day, before I realised what had happened, I lost my dreams,” he said with a forlorn look on his face.
A large group of women, dressed in their traditional attire, took long strides towards us. Holi was around the corner and they hoped to earn some money today.
“They are family not outsiders,” said Vasanth with a scornful smile, “Don’t ask for money from them.”
A quarrel ensued amongst the women and men. Some demanded that they we pay up. We politely refused. Within minutes, they formed a huge circle around us. They sang a traditional tune in Gormati. We couldn’t understand what they meant. We spoke different languages. We caught a few abuses when one phrase ended and another began. Sometimes, they giggled at us. Occasionally an elderly woman would yell at a younger woman. “Eh chori chal aa…”
For a few moments, we forgot where we were. Their tunes were ancient like their grief. For a few moments, they forgot who they were. After they made up stories of our travels, a few more joined them.
In those moments, we stood beside each other forgotten and lost.
In rhythms that resembled folkore, they danced to the tunes of their ancestors.
In half hour, Mangala bai walked towards us fuming and almost impeding the proceedings before the gathering. “You must pay. You can’t just sit there and watch. It is tradition for people like you to pay us. And, we dance,” she said. We gave the women Rs 500 as the men chided them and beckoned them to sing a few songs.
She couldn’t pronounce our names. So, she called us whatever she pleased. Our names didn’t matter to her. Sikander asked a young boy to fetch us some water before we left to Chincholi. “There’s another route that you could take to Kunchavaram. It goes through Shadipur. When the old man leaves, you can follow him,” said Sikander leading us to his home where his uncle, aunt and grandmother sat on the wooden cot in the courtyard.
A few months ago, he moved in with his brother who lived in Bangalore. “I learnt how to drive a JCB there just like him. He has been living in the city for more than 20 years. There are many of us who can drive the vehicle now,” he said sitting on the floor. “I earn enough for my family. We will survive. I got married recently, you know,” he admitted with a shy smile. “It was a love marriage. And, that’s her,” he said pointing at a young girl fast asleep on the floor, “My wife.”
A little girl snatched her grandmother’s veil off her back and bit her neck with vengeance. The woman held her hip and tickled her for a while. She was stubborn and refused to eat. They fed her some mashed bananas. She spat them on the floor. “She is our naughtiest grandchild,” said her grandfather with a warm smile. “After many years, a girl was born in the family. She has been spoilt rotten by all of us. No one scolds her here. She lived with her parents in Pune for a while. There, they taught her Hindi and Marathi. We thought if she lived here she could learn to speak Kannada. So, we asked her parents to send her back.”
“I’ll take her to Bangalore with me,” declared Sikander bursting with pride. He poked her belly and swung her around. She let out a peal of laughter before running away from him. “She can go to an English school there. If she studies well, it will be good for our family. Maybe she could even become the first IAS officer from our thanda.”
“Yes, that would be something now, wouldn’t it?” asked the grandmother chewing betel leaves and rubbing tobacco in the palms of her hands, “A government officer from here. That too a woman. I’d like to see that someday…” Her nonchalant gaze caught Sikander’s attention. It wasn’t a story that she believed in. For a while, he stared at her.
“We couldn’t live our dreams,” whispered Sikander in a daze. “Maybe she can…”
(to be continued…)
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