“After many years, a girl was born in the family…”

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…”

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***

“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.

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“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?”

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“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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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…)

Rest of My familyis a non-profit social-work-through-art project. If you like our work, and wish to support it, you can help us continue by donating here.

Through  ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help.

‘Men leave their wives as they please. Sometimes, they need a younger woman. Sometimes, they need someone to bear them sons…’

She walked through barren lands. In the wandering scent of dead teak trunks, she looked for broken twigs and branches. Trees dried, and died where they stood. Save the unrelenting brown, there was nothing that stirred here. Neither the forest nor its creatures. She tripped on the root of a large teak tree; her feet bare, her phetiya torn to shreds at its edges. Mangli bai steadied her pace, one last time. She had walked these paths before.

That was the first time we saw her.

“She never had any children. She couldn’t conceive. Her husband married another woman. Someone, he thought, who’d give him a boy. She too couldn’t give him a child. He is dead now. His second wife died, years later. Mangli bai has no family left. She lives all alone. Even today, she works to feed herself,” said Vasanth, the young man we first met at Seri Bikkanahalli Thanda.

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Mangali Bai

“Let me tell you the story of Lambanis,” said an old man. His toothless grin caught us unawares. Some afternoons, we would find him in the courtyard shooing roosters away from the grains. He was alone. His sons lived in the city.

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It was in 1576 AD when the Lambanis fled into the mountainous regions of the North with the defeat of Rana Pratap Singh at the hands of Akbar. Fearing a Mughal invasion, the tribe lived in the forests for centuries. While clans of nomadic gypsies returned to where they belonged, the Lambanis stayed on.

Their migration to the South began in 1630. They speak Gor Mati and their settlements are called thandas. They never reside in the village. They weren’t allowed to do so.

We had heard these stories before. But we listened to him again that day.

“Many years later, our ancestors turned to dacoity. They did whatever they could to survive. We don’t encourage such practices anymore,” said Dhan Singh, another elderly man we met on a stroll through the forests one evening. Days later, we would find him in the temple laying tiles on the floor. Everyone lent a helping hand. Here, alongside the Chikkalingadalli reserve forest, between skeletal structures of trees that stretched for miles, there were several such thandas where lived people of a forgotten era.

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We don’t have electricity. That’s why we listen to the radio. The ambulance doesn’t come to our thanda for the fear of being stuck. We have no choice but to walk. The nearest hospital is in Kunchavaram. If there’s an emergency, at night, we carry the patient to the hospital. Nobody owns a vehicle here,” said Soni bai sitting on an old wooden cot outside her home.

In the deep jungle, as wild thickets gave way to fields of jowar, we came across a group of men jostling from one corner to another tracing a running herd of cattle, that morning. “We made our living through farming and hunting back in the day. But we aren’t allowed to hunt anymore,” she said frowning, “Our ancestors were traders and would travel far and wide to sell salt and other goods. Later, it was the British who criminalised our nomadic lifestyle. We weren’t allowed to move from one place to another. So, we settled down wherever we could.”

Beside her home, an old grandmother sat near her doorstep stitching an ornate blouse with a needle that had seen better days. Her fingers moved feebly against the fabric. Her eyes focused on the crease as she straightened every fibre that attached the katli (mirror) to the garment. Her chotla (hair jewellery) dangled on the sides of her face; her buria (nose ring) bobbed against her nose. The parting on her hair had widened over the years. “It happens with heavy jewellery,” explained Kamla bai rubbing tobacco between the palms of her hand, one afternoon. She gathered the remnants and laid them on a piece of cloth.

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Her cracked soles peeked through her saree. She was unlike the rest we had met. “Men and women don’t get paid equally. We get Rs 100 in the monsoons while the men earn Rs 200 per day. But men don’t go to the fields. It’s just us. All agricultural work is done by women in these forests. If we work on constructions sites, we earn far lesser than them. Mehnat toh aurat log bahut karta. Kaam bhi zyaada karta hai par hum bai hai humko itna hi paise milega. Marad ko zyaada dega. Even if we demand equal pay, we are denied that right,” she said.

Two girls bound their ankles together, and hopped from one lane to another. Within moments, they tumbled to the ground leaving the elders in splits. Seated beside us, Vasanth lowered his head to his knees. “Women work much harder,” he whispered to us days later near farms where the solar grid was to be installed, “They farm, walk great distances to procure firewood and water, and are expected to do all the household chores by themselves. Men usually take breaks in between work, smoke their beedis, and nap in the afternoons. Women are constantly working and grossly underpaid for their efforts. We don’t look after our girls. But this is nothing new,” he said.

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***
We saw her again. This time she had a little girl in her lap. It was her granddaughter, she told us, barking instructions at someone to fetch us glasses of water. “I was born and raised in Ningampalli Thanda. I must be around 80 years old,” said Mangli bai pointing at a young lady, “This is my daughter. I am too old, and I can’t work anymore. My hands hurt. I have some land that I rent out to farmers. They grow a few crops and share some of the produce with me. That’s how I survive.”

It was Thukribai’s granddaughter who sat on her lap. She considered them family. There were many like her: women who were abandoned by their husbands. It was a common practice in these settlements, they told us. Hirabai moved a pile of clothes from the courtyard and took long strides towards us. “Mangli bai’s old man worked as a guard with the forest department like Pandu: the man you saw earlier,” she explained and gestured animatedly at the children gathered around her. She had just returned from Bangalore, a few days ago. Her work, she said, involved preparing cement-concrete mixtures and carrying large stones.

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Braving the heat, one afternoon, the women gathered in a circle, away from the village centre. They spoke of abandoned wives and fatherless children, of old fathers and mothers longing for better lives. Some men marry three women, one of them exclaimed. “Yes. Such practices exist. Why? I do not know. Men leave their wives as they please. Sometimes, they need a younger woman. Sometimes, they need someone to bear them sons. Sometimes, it’s because the other woman belongs to a richer family. One man married a younger girl because he needed more people to look after his farm,” she said bursting into a fit of giggles.

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But women can’t marry other men. It is forbidden. They chuckled at the thought of choosing another partner, of leaving everything behind. How could we? they asked in defeat. “How could we leave our children, our elders? It might be easy for men but we could never do that. We live in their homes. So, we must follow their rules. Otherwise, we will be thrown out. Where do we go then? Besides, who would want to marry a middle-aged woman with children? If a woman dies, a man can marry someone else while we are expected to remain widows for the rest of our lives. Some days, we wish we were never born as women,” said Mangli bai rubbing her ankles.

Her name was Chandi bai. And, she belonged to a different thanda. After Mangli bai’s husband’s death, they lived together. They took care of each other. They never quarrelled. Not once. For, they were both betrayed by fate. Chandibai is dead. “And, I have no one left,” said Mangli bai before walking away.

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Kamla bai looked on wearily at the others. She hadn’t spoken in a while. She had three boys and one girl, we discovered later. Her husband abandoned her for a younger woman. She was too old for him, he declared that morning when he left. She takes care of his parents while he is away building a life with his new family. “In our society, girls aren’t allowed to step out of the thanda. They are married off early. Poverty makes us choose between our children. Some get to live better lives. Some don’t. If our girls get an education, and become independent, they wouldn’t have to depend on a man to survive. For now, we have two girls going to a school in the city. There’ll be more joining them. Soon,” said Kamla bai with a smile.

Yes, soon.

***

It was almost 4 pm when we left the thanda. In the forests where the farms begin before the endless sightings of dead trees, an old autorickshaw struggled to drive through these roads. At Shadipur, he waved his hand at us. An old Lambani man and three children alighted from the vehicle.

“They were going to walk to Chincholi,” he said pointing at the children, “They are collecting their scholarship money from school today. Each of them are supposed to receive Rs 500. Since I am driving in the opposite direction, I told them I would request someone to drop them.”

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The three girls giggled profusely as they stared at us. Their eyes showed no signs of fear. For them, they had set off on an adventurous joyride. They hadn’t realised they had to walk through the jungle and that it would take them many hours to reach Chincholi. They had each other, and that’s all that mattered.

“We are from Chennanur Thanda,” said one of them to us. Her tiny hands held our shoulder as she struggled to maintain her balance in the vehicle. “I am from Kunchavaram,” shrieked the girl near the window.

“My mother and father work in a hotel in Chincholi,” she said staring into the woods.

“Did you plan to walk the entire way?” we asked them curiously.
“Yes,” they yelled.
“Do you know how far Chincholi is?”
“Yes, far,” said one.
“Far,” repeated another.
“Do your parents know that you whad planned to walk through these jungles alone?”

They looked at each other almost unsure of what to say. “Yes, they know,” they whispered. They would return home with a few villagers who were at the school. Everyone was expected to arrive there shortly. At Chincholi, there were several parents who accompanied their children to the bank. The girls spotted a few people they knew. A middle-aged woman held their hands and led them to the cashier.

“Don’t worry,” said the lady to us when we lingered longer than we intended to. “The girls are safe here…”

(to be continued…)

Rest of My familyis a non-profit social-work-through-art project. If you like our work, and wish to support it, you can help us continue by donating here.

Through  ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help.

‘When you tell our story, tell them what you saw. Tell them we are good people. Tell them the truth…’

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Clamped to the centre of the hall were faded photographs on a calendar. Pages fluttered in the breeze. Their corners had worn out. Shyam Rao adjusted his gold-rimmed spectacles and read the newspaper. He looked at us with weary eyes. Like most mornings, his blue slippers hung loosely from his feet.

Some days, we spoke in many languages. For, we couldn’t speak his, and he couldn’t speak ours. We sat for hours beside each other stringing words we knew into phrases he understood.

A smile lingered on his face when no one walked these halls.

“I have a son. He works as a coolie,” he told us one morning. Horns blared in the heat, and three vehicles came to a screeching halt outside the bungalow. It was 9 am. Some men emerged from one of the rooms reeking of alcohol.

“They want your room,” whispered Srinivas to us.

Remorseless grunts led to slurred threats; hoarse whispers turned into a faded whirl of abuses when we heard them pleading with the men. We rang Hampanna and informed him of the situation. He arrived shortly apologising for what had happened. He had informed the nearest police station and officers were on their way to the Inspection Bungalow.

In an hour, we heard a feeble knock on our door. It was thatha. His lips quivered; he bowed his head down as he spoke. “They left,” he said hesitantly, “You can come out now.”

“They called me Sulemaga. I am as old as his father, and he called me names,” he said his voice cracking. His ran his fingers across the cracked walls with peeling paint.

“That’s what they all do. They are unkind people. They have nothing left in them,” he said rubbing his knees.

He had three daughters, he told us when we drove him to Chincholi that night. It was too late for him to walk alone. “All my girls are married. My son earns Rs 3,000 per month,” he said scratching his forehead, “I have 0.75 acres of land. It was my mother’s farm. I couldn’t grow anything last year. It didn’t rain. We waited but it never happened…”

***

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At 6:30 am, nothing stirred in the fields. Farmers stood beneath the tree. Still as the air, they looked ahead; blisters on their feet visible in the morning sun. A few more men joined them a while later as they lit their beedis underneath the banyan tree. They followed each other aimlessly in the heat. Some walked unheeded. We stopped there for a while wondering how long they would stay.

At 10 am, Thukappa waited for us near the market. “Beside the bus stop, there are several stalls set up by the villagers. All the Lambani settlements visit the santhe every week. They are just setting up their stalls right now. In a few hours, you won’t have any space to walk,” he said asking us to park the car near the office.

Dressed in their traditional attire, women walked around the bazaar gazing at plastic toys and edible sweets displayed by hawkers at the entrance. Here, everyone knew Thukappa. “Saar banni illi,” they called out to him. Some arranged paan leaves in symmetrical designs while a few set up handmade soaps in their stalls. Old women sold vegetables stacked neatly in piles.

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In the corner, a man struggled to push his cart towards the entrance as he placed two glasses of sherbet on its opposite ends. Lined in the back, towards the end of the santhe, were meat stalls. Butchers lifted their knives in the air as they skilfully chopped up pieces of meat and wrapped them in plastic bags.

Some even sold old trinkets and embroidered clothes. Chatting boisterously amongst themselves, a large group of Lambani women walked in tandem towards vendors that sold tobacco, dry fruits and coconuts. An old woman passed by us with a deep frown as she took a gander at fresh vegetables on display. A man sliced open a melon and handed it to her. She wasn’t impressed.

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In two hours, we left from Kunchavaram and headed towards the forest. “Do you remember this abandoned settlement?” asked Thukappa as we drove past a colony of houses, “They were built to rehabilitate a village nearby. However, the area and houses did not suit their needs and they couldn’t live there anymore. Moreover, this particular settlement wasn’t struggling in comparison with the rest. Eventually, the project led to a complete waste of resources and time,” said Thukappa.

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***
He picked up her shoes and ran waging a battle against those in the courtyard. His hair had gold streaks in them. His feet were bare. He hid behind the red and white house: the abandoned one in the alley where lurked no one at noon. Crouching behind the wall, he waited for them. They didn’t bother running after him.

At a stall, plastic tins of sweets lined the shelves. Some were soaked in syrup. Some were wrapped in paper. In the corner, sacks of potatoes lay unattended. There were packets of spices piled on old newspapers. On the porch sat farmers sipping tea from glass tumblers. They came here every day. At the counter, a man used old rags to keep flies off the shelves.

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“Do you know where the family lives?” asked Thukappa as the men stood up to greet him. They knew who he was. They had spoken before. “They tried to sell their girl,” he whispered when they didn’t respond. It caught their attention. They nodded to each other and led us into a tiny alley where goats ran astray. The men followed us. Some more joined them.

A decade ago, Thukappa explained as we walked alongside the farms in the forest, one late evening, child trafficking thrived in Kunchavaram and Thandur. Families sold their children to brokers from Hyderabad. The trafficking racket was operational between the areas bordering Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Childless couples in the cities were easy targets. “They were desperate. Some were willing to do anything to adopt children. Little did they know, what it meant for those living here,” he said.

Yaaru evaru?” yelled an old woman, “Are they from the government?”
“No. They are here to meet some family,” said a young man walking behind us.

The house had no rooms. The kitchen was outdoors. In this structure, the entire family slept, ate and survived. There were children trotting about from one corner to another. It didn’t look any different from the rest in the alley. Its roof was broken, and the walls crumbled at several edges. Men, women and children sat in the courtyard. An electric fan whirred softly in the corner. Where one home ended, and another began we couldn’t tell. Where one family left, and another lived we couldn’t see. Such was the state of this thanda and the rest in the forest.

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An old man stood before us with a perplexed look in his eyes. He wiped his forehead several times and disappeared into the house. He knew why we were here. Two little girls stared at us dumbfounded and giggled when we introduced ourselves to them. They were his grandchildren — Karishma and Reshma.

We heard long wails coming from inside the house. Gayatri was distraught. She refused to come out and fought hard to free herself. Her grandfather held her tight. He dragged her to the courtyard when the men around us yelled all at once, “Ye hi hai woh bachchi jisko bechne ki koshish ki gayi thi.”

“Many people come to visit us. She is terrified of cameras,” explained Bheem Setty, the president of the Gram Panchayat. He walked in moments ago asking the women to fetch us a jug of cold water. “When the incident came to light, hordes of cars lined the streets all the way into the forest. Everyone important was here. Ministers, higher officials, and officers – they all came to the village to visit us,” he added.

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Gayatris’ parents no longer live with their children. Vittal and Kavithabai moved to Sangha Reddy in Telangana which is 50 km away. They both work in construction as labourers. She is raised by her grandparents. “We look after their children,” said the old man, “We have no choice. Someone has to take care of them. If they don’t work, we’ll starve. All of us. If we leave, the children won’t survive. So, here we are…”

Quite a commotion ensued as the women urged Seethabai to sit beside the children and grandfather. She staunchly refused to move. She yelled at us in Gormati. She was miffed with our presence. “If they’ll give me some money, then I’ll sit with everyone. Why should I get my photo clicked if I am not going to get anything? There were several like them who’ve come here before. They know the story already,” she said with spite.

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Her scowls didn’t go unnoticed. The others begged her to stop. Her husband seemed hesitant to talk. He cleared his throat several times. His neck was stiff, that morning. He hurt it a few days ago, he said carefully running his hand over it. “My name is Shivaram. And, I reside in Ontichinta Thanda,” he said, “I have one son and four grandchildren – three girls and one boy.”

He drew a long breath. “It happened three years ago. A few minutes after her birth, an offer was made. Her mother was still in the delivery room when a nurse asked her if she wanted to keep the baby. Her name was Seeta. She was Lambani too just like us. Toh baat chedne par, in logon ne bhi socha theek hai chalo de dete hain. They then came to an arrangement,” said the old man looking sideways at his wife. There was fear writ all over his face, and anger smouldering within her.

“How much money did they offer?” we asked them. At this point, the men shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

“They didn’t go through with it. So, it doesn’t matter. This isn’t a problem within our community alone. You have to understand that such situations arise owing to adverse poverty. Perhaps, this will showcase the weakness of our community. It was desperation that drove them to taking such a drastic step. Her mother was vulnerable and they took advantage of her. It was only later when the situation came to light that it was blown out of proportion since many higher officials came to visit us. With the parents gauging their inability to pay dowry, they resort to such measures. Shaadi karne ko problem hota karke, isliye humara logaan ye karte hain. This is the state of our world, sahib ammavare. That is the only reason that a boy is preferred. He will earn for his family. A daughter will have to leave this house someday so might as well give her away now.”

The grandmother stood up. Her gait was unsteady. She balled her hands into fists and lunged forward. “Rs 200,000,” she spat in anger, “That’s how much she fetched me. What are you going to do about it?  All of you have come to destroy the reputation of our family and community. Everyone comes here asking us these questions.” People around her rushed to pacify her. She sat down muttering to herself.

“Maybe you shouldn’t have tried to sell her then,” whispered a young boy to another as they sniggered at her. The elders shooed them away.

“This wasn’t done as a part of any business arrangement. Isse humari kamzori sabko samaj main aayegi isliye woh gussa ho gaye,” repeated Bheema as he had done several times that afternoon.

We told them we understood their plight. We didn’t. We told them we didn’t judge them. But we did. For, we could never understand what it meant for a mother to let go of her child forever; what it meant for a father to see his children starve. What drove them to such madness, we’d never understand.

The weather turned rogue almost mimicking the gathering before us. “Someone had told them that their child would live in an ashram. That’s why they considered the option. Ten to twelve years ago, there were several cases of families selling their kids for money. Each child was sold for Rs 500 or Rs 1,000. A voice was raised on a national level against this practice,” Bheema said with a nervous cackle.

Our emotions betrayed us at this moment. We didn’t stay hidden anymore. There was no ashram. And, they knew it. So, did we. Nobody gives a child to the ashram as soon as they are born, said Thukappa later that evening. “Dr Gaffar was the attending doctor that day when they tried to sell Gayatri. The nurse would have gone through the deal when the news spread to the police station opposite the hospital,” he recalled, “They conducted an inquiry and accused the doctor of partaking in the racket. That’s when the nurse spilled the beans. The family then decided to cooperate with the officials. This was a huge deal since everyone was under the impression that such incidents no longer occurred in Chincholi anymore.”

For days thereafter, authorities visited the thanda and conducting meetings to control the situation. They also hoped to put rehabilitative measures in place to improve the condition of such families. “They were given some compensation by the government. But what’s the point? You have returned a child to a family that is incapable of surviving on their own. Besides, there have also been cases of nurses exchanging babies in the hospital at the request of parents. Those who want boys will pay them handsomely. Money will not solve these issues.”

“It was a mistake,” said the grandfather holding his head in his hands, “No parent will ever abandon their child. And, there are many like us. We aren’t the only one.”

“Many people come here and question them. So, she gets upset,” said Bheema pointing at the Seethabai crushing tobacco in her hands.

“Despite being poor, we will continue to fight hard and live our lives,” said the grandfather interjecting the conversation here and there. “It doesn’t matter what happened in the past. We will still move ahead. I try and keep faith alive in my heart. But poverty can make one question their faith and even morality. In the face of hunger, there is no right or wrong. It’s just survival.”

People don’t have much land now. There was a time when their grandfathers did well for themselves. Even they came from decent families, they said with pride. They had everything at one point. Everything that one could ask for in these forests. Soon, the population grew and there were more and more people to look after. Their lands deteriorated and the climate changed. Their lifestyle dwindled. “We lived off the jungle. We would procure flowers, fruits and vegetables from the forest. But now it’s impossible for us to continue practising our ancestral lifestyle. We can’t even enter jungles these days since they have been declared as protected zones. The only thing we are allowed to do is gather firewood. Neither can we take anything from the forest nor can we live in these spaces. So, we have to migrate to cities to live. In the monsoons, we invest in a few crops and spend close to Rs 10,000 to 15,000. We are unsure if it will yield us a good harvest since we are completely dependent on the weather. But we try, year after year,” he said.

“Nowadays, we have been receiving a lot of help from the government,” said one to another, “We get crop loans.”

“The government doesn’t pay us on time,” said the others beside him shaking their heads vehemently at his suggestion, “Moreover, if we wish to take larger loans, it is impossible for us to do so since our land has no value nor do our houses. This entire area belongs to the jungle and here’s where we are expected to make a living. So, our only option is to do construction work. In one village, if we have at least two people who are doing well for themselves then the community will improve. Humara koi sahara nahin hai idhar. Even if you go to the others residing in neighbouring settlements, you will get similar responses from everyone.”

“Everyone is poor. Not just us,” said the women adjusting their veils.

“At one point in history, we used to have a malik in Andhra Pradesh who would lend us money and then we would procure crops for our farms. It still exists to an extent even today,” said an old man rubbing his feet. He listened to everyone before him and nodded in agreement. We all have different perspectives on life and different ways of dealing with situations, he said to them.

“Acha ya bura, kamzori ya majboori, insaan ko tab hi ehsaas hota hai jab woh khud ye zindagi jee raha ho. This is what I have understood so far,” said Bheem Setty to everyone, “This is my family. I too have to make ends meet. We are not different from one another. We are all related by blood. We don’t live differently.”

They remained silent; their poignant pauses interrupted by peals of laughter emanating from the corners. Children ran hither and tither chasing each other with pebbles.

***
There is no hospital here. A few women were entrusted with certain responsibilities to aid in delivery and pre-natal care. These are medical representatives who help women throughout their pregnancy. They also spoke of schools that barely stood up and teachers who never visit the thanda. We wondered aloud if they ever raised a question on their continued absence. “It has been eight months since I assumed this position. According to the strength of our school, we need four teachers. We have one. We are currently waiting for these positions to be filled up. Hopefully, by June this should be resolved. Ye kaam karna humara farz hai. It is only through education that we can improve our economic condition. This will affect our future generation. We are trying everything we can. We have a few graduates in our thanda but most of them can’t afford to put their kids in hostels,” said Bheema.

He graduated twelfth grade in 1984. But he cannot afford to send his children to school today. For, expenses have increased exponentially. If they can’t pay the fees, children return home. A few boys have managed graduate high school but the girls haven’t been able to do so. “People only study till 12th grade. If a child fails, then he or she is expected to drop out. We have to send our kids to Chincholi or Gulbarga. And, many return home. If they score well, then the government and the school will accommodate them. However, if they fall out of the system, then they are doomed. They start working in hotels or become masons. Some have gone to Mumbai and other cities. There are many such students in the thanda. Apne sahara apne hatheli se jeene ke liye bohat se log hain aise,” he explained.

***
They held hands. In an hour, we’d find them walking into the forest in silence. Something had happened here. And, they knew it. But they never asked him. Their grandfather had enought to be worried about. Every time, Gayatri broke down they giggled at her. It amused them to no end that the presence of others caused her such distress. He walked behind them slowly. We stared into the woods for a while until they disappeared.

“There are many who come here like you. They give us tonnes of advice. But that amounts to nothing. Our life continues to remain the same. We have many representatives in the government too. And, people keep trying to elevate the status of their respective communities. But things don’t happen at the pace we hope they would. Humari asli bimari yahan par bole toh jeena ka zariya nahin hai. We have to become self-reliant and independent. We are still 1000 years behind with respect to awareness and education. Our children and grandchildren will live in different worlds altogether. During the British Raj, the situation was quite different. Svatantra bolke naam ke liye hai hakeekat ke liye woh svatantra ka mazaa nahin le sakte. Aur yehi humara dard hai,” said Shivaram as we stood up to leave.

In the dead of winter, months later, nothing would change. Gayatri’s parents would continue working in cities building structures for people they didn’t know. There’d be many like them in those places. The ones who hope to go home someday.

“You won’t come back here. Nobody ever does,” he said wrapping his hands around him.
“When you tell our story, tell them what you saw. Tell them we are good people…”
“Tell them the truth…”

(to be continued…)

Rest of My familyis a non-profit social-work-through-art project. If you like our work, and wish to support it, you can help us continue by donating here.

Through  ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help.

‘The government built them structures not homes…’

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“Our fields have no fencing around them. In two years, we might not have a home. We will lose our farms, and everything we have ever owned. They want us to move away. But we belong here. In the forest. The soil is fertile. And, we can grow our own food. They don’t understand these things. Everybody wants to save the forest. What about us?” asked Ramaji chewing some tobacco.

She poured a jar of water on the ground where sat old women and young children huddled against the walls. They clicked their tongues and shook their head from side to side. She just stood there looking everywhere. Her eyes gazed at nothing; they were empty. She attracted miffed glances from everyone around her.

Water dripped everywhere.
It amused her.

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Not a single grain was procured from these farms this year. Their crops were eaten by wild animals. They wished to leave the forests ten years ago. They didn’t. They weren’t certain if they could survive. So far, the forest department has conducted 50 meetings with the village elders in the past one year. “They make a note of our suggestions, and our names. But nothing has happened so far…”

“It isn’t their fault, you know,” said an old man clearing his throat. His hands had freckles, and his forehead creased with worry.
“We can grow our own food. What about them? They are dying.”

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Curious eyes followed us everywhere we looked. An old woman leaned away from the walls in the corner. There was pain in her eyes. Around her cracked sole, were anklets of strung copper and silver beads. Hooked to her bag were tiers of metallic pearls that pooled at the edges.

Some had escaped. Many changed colour.
Some gathered dust over the years.

Bijli zamane se nahin hai, said the old woman picking betel nuts from her bag. She had heard someone say it before. Her buria bobbed against her nose as she swayed back and forth murmuring under her breath. Her granddaughter threw herself on the wooden cot beside the courtyard. In summer, everybody slept outside.

“We have been asking the sahibs for years. But nothing ever happens here. They connected a road from a nearby village to Dharmasagar. Soon after, this area was declared as reserved forest. Now, we aren’t allowed to use the shorter route that connects us to the town. They even laid electric lines and had completed 75% of the construction. Years later, it was decided to give us solar power,” she said shaking her head.

“So many projects. So many promises.”
“They keep coming and going. Nothing happens…”

The roads disappear in the rains. In those months, the forest doesn’t glimmer. It breaks and sighs. In the languid air, one often heard them: their rippling whispers cracking through dawn. There are moments when its creatures fled towards lands beyond the horizon. It set them free; free from the dread of decay.

They never found their way back again. They never returned.
There were no witnesses. But there were remains.
Of their past. Of themselves…

Ambulance drivers refuse to come here, said the villagers in unison. They fear they’d get stuck in the forest. “So, we have no choice but to walk. The nearest hospital is in Kunchavaram. If there’s an emergency at night, then we carry patients on our shoulders. Nobody has a vehicle in the thanda,” said Ramaji.

“We are all stuck here,” said another picking threads off the floor.

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***

He sat at the edge and frowned. His curled his toes as he spoke. “Discrimination doesn’t exist. Not in these forests,” said the young man to the older men seated behind him, “We don’t have a village attached to us. We all belong to the same caste. So, everyone considers each other as family. We don’t have a separate caste or sub-caste within our community. We are all Banjaras. There is no hierarchy. Outside, we are treated differently. They point at our women and laugh.”

“Here it doesn’t exist,” he repeated himself.

But it did. In households where bulbs stayed lit longer than theirs, in rooms where lay vessels larger than theirs, in homes where lasted lives longer than theirs, it lurked everywhere. Even in solitude.

Their population is lower than the other villages, they complained. They couldn’t make themselves heard. “We are just 200 in all including the kids. Even if we fill an entire tempo with our men and go to their offices, nothing will ever happen. If we lived in Dharmasagar, perhaps we would have been able to do something. Ye thande se nahin hoga,” he said.

A young boy and girl sat beside Ramaji as they stared at him intently. He ran away from his parents in Pune, and came back to the thanda on his own. They didn’t know how. He didn’t like it there. Neither of them could read or write. He worked as a coolie. His sister worked in the fields. She never looked up. She licked the corner of her mouth, and turned her head away from the crowd.

“Another thanda will never lend us their support since they have their own problems. Even if they do, the officers will recognise members from a different thanda and inform them that they already have all the facilities,” he said with spite.

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In summer, they don’t have enough water to drink. Women walk great distances to fill water in pots and utensils. “Our kids don’t have a school to go to. The master comes once in a few weeks, fills his tiffin box with food and heads home. He hasn’t taken a class in years. The children wander in the jungle all day. I fought with the teacher once. This was a long time ago. He then asked me if I had any kids going to school. If not, then it is none of my concern,” he said frowning.

He grimaced and rubbed his temples. The others remained silent.

For a few years, a young woman walked through the forests every day to teach children here. Every boy and girl went to school back then. No child would leave the classroom no matter who visited the thanda. She was re-assigned. “We need someone who loves their job and considers it their primary duty to teach children. We get teachers who are incapable of fulfilling their duties. And, that’s a problem,” said the young man walking us to our car that evening.

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Kids whose parents can’t afford to send them to Chincholi, Kunchavaram or Gulbarga are deprived of primary education.

 

***

“Dalits aren’t served tea in cups. The upper caste treat them poorly,” said Thukappa staring at the foliage outside as we drove through the forests at twilight. “So do the Lambanis,” he whispered with a smile. “Yes, they treat them poorly. They aren’t allowed to enter their homes.”

“Even today…”

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His father passed away when he was young. His family struggled to make ends meet. They had nothing. A teacher would visit his village every day. One afternoon, he convinced Thukappa’s mother to send him away. Let him come with me, he said. He’ll live in a big town. Let me look after him. I’ll send him to a better school.”

He did their household chores for them day in and day out so that he could go to school. “I don’t eat out or drink a drop of water when I am away from home,” he said to our surprise when we offered him some biscuits, “I took this deeksha 20 years ago. I was given two meals a day. And, I am used to that. I can’t eat or drink any more or less. I struggled in my life. I am aware of that. My face has turned dark since I don’t drink enough water.”

“I am stubborn that way,” he said turning away. “I had never seen my father before. But after my deeksha, I have seen his face several times.”

We crossed Dharmasagar when the bill collector we had crossed paths with hours ago asked us if we would like to have some tea before we headed back to Kunchavaram. We stopped near a tree. A large group of men gathered around us.

“Our situation is horrible as you may have already observed,” said Gopal Jadhav, the Zilla Panchayat President. Ever since Anil Kumble decided to declare the area as reserved forest, we have been miserable. Can you please ask them to cancel the order? We do not need a forest here. Our fields are dying and we can’t even go to fill water regularly since the normal routes have been shut by the government. Our women have to walk 10 km to gather firewood. Jaanwar se battar hai humari zindagi. We are not even allowed to gather wood. There are several restrictions imposed in these regions. We don’t have gas stoves and have to completely rely on wood for fire,” he added.

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Cancel karao ye forest ko. Humein nahin chahiye forest, said a young man mimicking Gopal’s solictious reply.

***
At Kunchavaram, the familiar bustle of a market greeted us as hawkers sold fruits, vegetables and coconuts. The air was heavy with the fragrance of flowers and incense sticks. We parked the car outside the gram panchayat office. Thukappa arranged for some lunch. We were served jowar rotis, rice, beans, sambar and some curd.

As we drove back through the endless fields, Thukappa confided in us that it was important that the forest laws were upheld. “If we don’t have any rules protecting the forest cover, then we will destroy them completely. We will kill all the birds and animals and cut down the trees to protect our selfish interests. It is human nature, after all. Yes, some of their issues are genuine and need to be addressed. However, I don’t oppose the forest protection regulations that the government has put in place. They have declared a few areas as wildlife protection zones. Soon, they will start looking after the forest too. Measures are already in place to revive its green cover. However, much like any of the government initiatives, this too would be a slow process. Lets hope the forest doesn’t deteriorate any further,” he said.

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***
In an hour, we saw those clusters again where lived no one, where in their streets wandered no children, where animals did not exist. Their walls had faded, and roofs trembled in the winds. “All these houses were built by the government,” he said pointing at a tiny settlement. It was abandoned. “These people have been permanent residents of the thandas since 1947. They never moved. Earlier, they were nomads. Zameen jahan hai, waheen unka thikana

“In these lands, some settlements don’t have any water. Some don’t have farms.”
“They built them structures not homes…”


(to be continued…)

Rest of My familyis a non-profit social-work-through-art project. If you like our work, and wish to support it, you can help us continue by donating here.

Through  ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help.

They have no roads, no electricity, no hospitals here. In a few years, they will run out of water…

They speak of humanity. But they have none…

“Yes, they sold their girls. It was a huge racket. Everyone from the doctor, nurse and ward boy was involved. Orphans were supplied to childless couples in major cities. Some of them were sold,” said a man in his thirties, one afternoon in Chikkalingadalli forest.

“Many were stolen or abandoned,” another man interjected with a scorn.
“They didn’t have a price…”

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Lambani kids in Seribikkinahalli Tanda
All day, dust swirled in the barren fields across the road. Wisps of smoke rose from factories in a distance. A stray dog strolled in tandem alongside the trees. He paused momentarily in an attempt to run across the road. An impetuous thought, perhaps. Lorries and trucks honked incessantly at one another. They were no roads left for them to conquer.

And yet, they quarrelled by way of sounds.

It was election time, and the Inspection Bungalow bustled with activity. Dressed in khakhi and white, people walked in and out of the building raising their voices, barking instructions at employees, and making room for dignitaries. They were important people, one could tell.

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Chincholi IB

An old man stood up and greeted every passer-by.
Namaskara Sahib, he repeated himself over and over again.

His names was Shyam Rao. He was 65 years old.
They didn’t care.

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Shyam Rao

A middle-aged man escorted us to one of the rooms. His name was Srinivas. He was the librarian. “You can stay here for a while. In a few hours, the crowd will disperse,” he said before disappearing into the hall.

Lingering murmurs and thunderous footsteps engulfed the building. On numerous occasions, we heard men banging their fists on the table. In an hour, a group of people arrived, and barged into our room. “They won’t bother you. They have been here for a few hours. Please let them sit here,” pleaded Srinivas with them.

Nyaya Prakara… Nyaya Prakara… She yelled hoarsely at him. There was a commotion outside. In the halls where men were seated for hours, none looked up wondering what had happened. It was a common sight. The employees of the Bungalow were visibly distraught. Srinivas walked to us and whispered that the NGO sahibs wished for us to be seated outside.

They shut their doors and drew the curtains lest anyone takes a peek inside. A few hours later, as we sat with Srinivas and the other men, he confessed barely above a whisper, “There are many such people who work for the welfare of communities by attending an event once a year and distributing sweets to villagers. Then, they celebrate with alcohol.” He guffawed at his own remark.

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Srinivas (right) with Ahmad

It wasn’t a spectacular sunset that evening. The shadowed skies had nothing to offer. Neither did the landscape. In the silence of the dusk, we found our place somewhere; alone and amongst ourselves.

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***
Jai Hind, said all of them switching on the lights in the hall. Nobody knew why they said it day after day, and year after year.

It was tradition.

His body swayed, and his speech was slurred. He pointed to the fields and traced its loneliness with words that once meant something to him. But it wasn’t the fields that he described. They knew him far too well to comprehend otherwise. Yet, they condemned his actions. He didn’t mind. For, there couldn’t be anyone who didn’t understand.

He was hurt.
And, he feared them: his thoughts. They brought him angst.
He sought answers but never found them.

His name was Ahmed.
His droopy smile never left his face, and his wrinkled hands quivered at night.
The man who refused to abandon his sorrows.

Agar gham bula diye toh bacha kya hai…

We never forgot him.

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Ahmad
***
The next morning we received a call from Hampanna. “Why don’t you visit Seribikkanahalli Thanda today? It is located deep in the forest. Their situation is quite dire. I will ask the PDO of Kunchavaram to meet you near the main market. His name is Thukappa,” he said.

In an hour, we decided to ask some farmers for directions. We were lost. Kunchavaram was 15 or 20 km away from where we were. The fields looked unfamiliar, and the unending roads never left our sight. We took a detour towards paths with ‘red sand’ as the locals advised.

It was 9 am. It was one of those days when the heat was relentless. At this hour, no one wandered these roads. We spotted farms covered in red soil. The odour of smoke and burnt grass wafted through the air. We turned to the left and spotted fields on fire. Amber flames engulfed the patches of farms as winds carried their ashes for miles.

A tractor rumbled in the distance. We asked the driver for directions. “You’ve come far ahead. Head back to the main road towards Chikkalingadalli,” he said chewing some tobacco. The young boy beside him masked his smirk with a frown.

We turned around and drove for a few miles. Several farmers sought shelter underneath a large tree. We stopped to inquire with them once more lest we were headed the wrong way.

“No. You were on the right path all along. Drive straight till you see the forest, and follow the road to the market,” he said much to our dismay.

We crossed paths with the tractor again. The boys giggled as we passed by them this time. One will find several such miscreants in these regions, said Thukappa hours later. Unpaved roads led to paths that were forgotten decades ago. Everything struggled in these lands. The earth was parched, and the forest was dead. Trees stood still like they did years ago; their tangled roots shrouded in a bed of leaves.

A dense cover of brown immersed the landscape. Its soul had withered. On the roadside, a baby monkey rummaged for food; his ribs visible in the sunlight. His tongue was out. A few miles away, families of malnourished monkeys ran towards the sound of rumbling engines in hopes of eating some puffed rice. Some crawled towards trees others barely made it. They were alive but remained lifeless. A few travellers threw bags of bananas and rice at them.

Diminishing rainfall over the past five years has rid the dry deciduous forest of its splendour. Its arms have faded and its inhabitants are on the verge of dying. Their plight was pitiful. An older monkey stood far away noticing the nimble limbs of a younger one as it dragged itself onto the road. He couldn’t help her.

His limbs didn’t move. They were weak.

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In an hour, we came across abandoned brick homes. Once we had been inside them. Stacks of firewood piled around the corners. A few children walked with a herd of goats. They had sticks in their hands, and they laughed at each other. They stared at us for a while longer.

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***
In Kunchavaram, men carried rifles on their backs. We saw them just once that afternoon. “No. No. It happened back in the day,” said Thukappa shaking his head when we mentioned it to him.

“What did?”
“You don’t know, do you? Naxals thrived in these regions many many years ago. But they aren’t here anymore. They were major operations underway in the nineties. The military chased them away. They must have been villagers who carried rifles into the jungles to hunt animals.”

But there were no animals here.

“I crossed paths with them once. That was years ago. They didn’t harm me in any way though. But that’s a different story…”

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Kunchavaram PDO Thukappa
They entered the forest through the border since Andhra Pradesh was one km away, he whispered moments later. In those days, they had a simple philosophy — never suppress or exploit the poor and teach the rich a lesson. “I haven’t heard of incidents wherein the Naxals troubled the villagers or those residing in the thanda. Most of the times, they would catch hold of those who had committed acts of injustice. They stood up for the poor. We used to hear stories of babus being tied to a tree and taught a lesson. They let them off with a warning,” said Thukappa giggling to himself, “Some nights, they’d even tell villagers about regulations passed to protect local interests. Their philosophy was good but their approach was wrong. Violence cannot be the answer for any problem.”

***
We bought some bananas, biscuits and bottles of water from the store at the end of the road. Once we crossed Shadipur, the car wobbled in several corners. “These roads were sanctioned many years ago,” yelled Thukappa leaning backwards, “When this area was declared as reserved forest, the department stopped all ongoing work. As a result, they have been left unattended. Apparently, construction of roads will have an adverse effect on the habitat of birds and animals.”

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Buying supplies at Kunchavaram market

But the locals believed otherwise. In the blistering heat, some afternoons, they’d confess aloud that the forest department was least bit concerned with the welfare of flora, fauna or human beings. “I have been here for more than twenty years. The forests were thriving back in the day. There was enough for everyone. You wouldn’t see animals on the road at all. They had food, water and shelter. Today, there’s nothing. You will see endless miles of lifeless trees staring at you. There’s no food left for man, bird or animal,” said Thukappa staring outside.

He had been working as a bill collector since 1988. He’d cycle to some of the remote thandas in the forest and interact with locals in the nineties. Back then, he was paid Rs 350 per month. “Earlier, Seri thanda had just 12 houses. Now there are close to 42 houses,” he said with a smile.

The road swerved to the left. It turned narrow at corners where coarse twigs rested on clumps of decayed leaves. In some places, the road disappeared. But Thukappa was calm. He knew these paths well. We wondered aloud if farmers grew anything here. He let out a sigh, and raised his arm to the right. We looked at it, at what he saw in the emptiness of the forest. For in its barren arms, lay nothing.

Nothing ahead, and nothing behind.

Yet, we looked everywhere.

“What will grow here? Everything has dried up. We didn’t have any rainfall the past year. There’s no water left. With no rains, farmers have no choice but to travel to Hyderabad, Bombay or Pune for labour work. I drilled nine borewells in my own land, and all of them failed. The government has planned several schemes for the area and has facilitated numerous programmes. But, we have failed somewhere. Chincholi is perhaps one of the worst-affected areas. They call us ‘backward’. And, they are right. We need to strengthen all measures to improve our social and economic condition,” he said.

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In Ontichinta thanda, his face turned into a scowl. He jumped at the sight of tiny buildings. “It was here when it was first reported,” he whispered hoarsely pointing at a few buildings nearby. “Years ago, a family tried to sell their girl child. They lived in this village. Many men have two wives. They all keep trying till they have a boy. Of course, they are unable to feed their families and in an act of desperation they sell their baby girls to brokers who keep an eye out for such communities or families. Children were then taken to an organisation that ran a racket in Thandur. Eventually, these babies are moved to different regions in Andhra Pradesh. If you ask them why, they say — Yes, I didn’t have any money. So, I sold her. What else do I do? How do I feed the rest?

At Gopi Naik Thanda, the road tilted upwards before swerving to the left once more. We came across a small settlement called Dharmasagar. It had a medical facility and a bus that transports people to Kunchavaram and back. A few villagers walked barefeet alongside the road. They carried offerings on plates for their lord. Some wandered aimlessly. In these lands, one could see the effect of loneliness.

They sought each other in the most unusual moments.

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People at Ontichinta Tanda

“There’s a Badesahib Dargah ahead. There must be a festival or some celebration of sorts today. They usually cook mutton after the rituals. Villagers travel far and wide to offer their prayers here. They have a lot of faith in their lord. Here, everybody is welcome. They don’t discriminate on the basis of religion or caste,” he said.

***

The government spent 10 crores to install pump sets in the region, he told us an hour later. Despite their efforts, the locals haven’t got any respite from water issues. “We need a strong leader; someone with a vision who will be able to transform the situation here. If the higher authorities have a strong voice, then those in the lower ranks will follow suit and engage themselves in social work. If not, then we are all doomed anyways. People will do as they please; what benefits them,” he said.

Water can’t save their fields. Not anymore. Seribikkanahalli thrived back in the day, said Thukappa as we crossed a few barren patchs.  One day, everyone disappeared. Many died and others migrated to different regions. Their land was cursed. The entire belt was plagued with cholera. With no medical aid and proper roadways leading to hospitals, villagers suffered in silence and died. The area was abandoned by its residents. Even today, you will find a few houses buried beneath the landscape. “If you walk towards the patch, perhaps you’ll be able to see some remnants from their past,” he said.

Nobody lived there anymore.

“People from Seri thanda walk upto 6 kms in order to reach Dharamasagar. There are various schemes undertaken by the government that are failing miserably in the thandas,” he said asking us to drive ahead, “For instance, they built 78 toilets in Bikkanayaka Thanda, Shadipur Gram as a part of Swachch Bharat Abhyaan. However, no one uses them. Why will they? They’ve never used them their entire life. Without awareness programmes, these projects are bound to fail”

In about fifteen minutes, Thukappa received a call from someone. She turned out to be a senior official who inquired about his whereabouts and wondered who we were. Why are they here and what do they intend to do?

“Hampanna — the Executive Officer — referred them to me. I am showing them around. We have big Saar’s permission too. You can talk to him if you please,” he told her in a nonchalant manner.

“They are curious. And, maybe a tad bit worried. Saar has come here before. He is a good person, and he want to do good work here. But not many will support him in his journey. That’s where it fails,” he said shaking his head.

Raising his hands towards a cluster of trees alongside the road, he murmured teak. People weren’t allowed to enter protected zones but illegal timber felling continues in these forests. “The common man continues suffer in the name of protected laws and development. Those who exploit these rules and flout them openly. “This is the unfortunate state of affairs in our country,” said Thukappa.

We came across a board that read Seribikkanahalli. The sign was lodged into the ground to our far left. At this point, the unpaved road split into two. Thukappa suggested that we follow the path that bent right. In moments, a few houses appeared in our vicinity. All around them were large trees that swayed in the winds.

We parked the car outside the government school. Men and women stared at us curiously. We strolled past a few houses as Thukappa introduced us to a few men gathered in a courtyard. A young girl took long strides towards us. She gave us a warm smile, and held her hands till we reached her home. “We have nothing here,” she said in apologetic manner, “There’s no electricity. Our farms have dried up and there’s nothing really we can do about it. We can’t grow our own food anymore and do not have any means to survive. In a few years, we will run out of water. Earlier, we had kachcha houses but now the government has given us pakka homes. We got Rs 1,20,000 each. We don’t have proper roads that connect the thanda to Kunchavaram. So, it gets really difficult in case of medical emergencies.”

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She worked in Bangalore, and rarely visited her uncle and aunt in the thanda. She was to leave later that evening. The city was her home now. We walked further into the village when an old man came running towards us. He was furious and mumbled under his breath. He spoke in Kannada. The others shielded us from him. “Many have come and gone just like you guys but no one has done anything. The last time, we had requested those TV men to showcase our interview to the world so that they know the problems we are facing. Yet, they didn’t bother. Our problems aren’t that important to anyone. We don’t matter. Go back. We don’t need your false promises and tall claims. I have seen many like you,” he yelled flailing his arms in the air.

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They apologised to us.

His anger was justified. There had been many before us.
They were accustomed to betrayal.
And, they never got over their broken faith.

They calmed him down, and beckoned us to follow them towards a small house where we sat on the porch and spoke for hours. A large group of men gathered around us while the women stared in silence.

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“My name is Ramaji Rathod,” said a man adjusting his spectacles. He cleared his throat and continued, “There are six members in my family. We all live together. There are 42 houses in the village. There’s no work here. After harvest season, people usually go to Chincholi in search of better jobs. They become coolies,” he said.

Many families don’t own land in the forest. Only nine houses have farms. Over the years, land was divided between family members.

“What do you grow in the fields?”
“Urad, moong, tur daal, and jowar”
“How come only nine houses have farmlands while the rest don’t?”
“The Deshmukh of Chincholi allotted us lands. There were people residing in the forests. The ones who worked in the fields and farms eventually sold them to the forest department. Later, we filed a case against the department and retrieved our ancestral lands from them.”

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We wondered aloud if they they had enough water to survive and what they did if there ever was a shortage. “We have hand pumps,” he replied and added, “There are three hand pumps for 42 houses. They are all working as of now.  We get water in summers too. However, over the last few years, the level of ground water has reduced considerably. If our hand pumps fail, then we have to walk a great distance to get water for household chores. The older generation would draw water from wells but they don’t exist anymore. They’ve all dried up.”

Farmers had taken crop loans from banks last year but they were able to pay them back. They haven’t had any problems with loan sharks so. Not yet. The older generation spoke several languages. The younger generation spoke in Gormati. Their grandfathers could read and write. Their fathers didn’t write very well.

But they never learnt to read; their fingers never picked up a pencil.

“There is a school in the thanda. Par ye sirf naam ke liye hai kaam ka nahin hai,” said a young boy biting his nails. He stood behind us all this while listening to his uncles speak. “Do you know how many from my generation go to school?”, he paused indignantly. “We went to Chincholi to study. I completed 1st year P.U.C. There are some who have done their degree too. The school is technically running on paper. There’s just one teacher for the entire school,” he said with a smirk on his face. were We asked him how many students are enrolled in the school. He furrowed his brows as he thought for a while and said, “Earlier there were many students who would attend classes regularly but now most of them have moved away. They are all staying in hostels. Since we don’t have to pay any fees to the government schools, we are able to manage somehow. However, we do have to take care of the hostel expenses on our own. Actually, there’s just one boy who has done his D’Ed. He is now working in Bombay.”

He is a construction worker. His family has 0.75 acres of land in the forest. He couldn’t study any further so he moved to the city. His father sat beside us. He never spoke.

“There are six to seven children studying in SSLC right now. There are many who are on the verge of dropping out. The ones who are studying in Chincholi are doing well. Their parents go to Mumbai or Pune. The work as coolies to support them. Everyone in their family works every day to ensure they remain in school,” he said.

***

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Bijli Zamane se nahin hai,” said an old man in conversation, “Five years ago, when Anil Kumble had come, they gave us a small box. They called it solar. Every house got one. We used that for a while. Now, they are setting up a grid to supply electricity to the entire thanda. That is a better alternative than boxes or wires. Also, it won’t damage the forest,” he said. They all pointed at the lamp posts and said it isn’t functioning yet. The collection process was yet to begin. “We have to pay the meter charge which is Rs 40. All the other work has been completed. It will take us 20 days to get the money sorted out. Then, we will have light in our homes, and our village won’t be shrouded in darkness.”

A year later, they were still sitting in dark corners staring at skies illuminated with a million stars, listening to an old radio crooning songs from years gone by.

Light never came.

(to be continued…)

Rest of My familyis a non-profit social-work-through-art project. If you like our work, and wish to support it, you can help us continue by donating here.

Through  ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help.

‘We couldn’t touch their borewell. Because we are Lambani’

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We don’t remember much of her. She wore keys around her neck. She had coins on her fingers. Between homes that leaned against each other, an old woman dragged her black skirt from the ground. Her chin had tattoos. So did her arms and legs. But there were no patterns. For, they had faded..

Like her hair.

Her chotla had coloured beads in them. There were old coins on her phetiya: the kinds one couldn’t find anymore. It was torn. She tucked shreds of fabric into her skirt. A large mirror dangled on her waist.

She walked with a limp.

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“No one studies any further,” said Shekhar the day we left, “After SSLC, almost every child drops out of school. They can’t afford to pursue their dreams of going to junior college or studying science. They have nothing. So, how will they fund their education? Every night, they tell themselves It’s alright. I’ll become a coolie or a construction worker. The relatively rich amongst the poverty-stricken are able to get better jobs and work as government servants. In Bijapur district, however, our community occupies a slightly better position economically. There, they have managed to get jobs as Chief Planning Officer. But here, in our thanda, we still have some way to go. If our children don’t study, how will they get better jobs? he asked parking his bike in the corner where stray cattle wandered quite often looking for water.

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Wrapped in quilts on the floor were two toddlers who rolled into the courtyard. Their brother was furious. Their muffled shrieks gave them away.  He smiled, and left leaving us wondering if they were alone, if he went to the fields like the other children we had met before, if his loneliness crept into his smile on days when rustling leaves remained a faint memory.

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“The Brahmins occupy the highest order in the village. Then, there are the Lingayats. They also identify themselves as Veera Shaiva. Some even claim that they are the descendants of Shivasharane Hemareddy Malamma. Ancestrally, they own a lot of land, money, and today most of them have inherited it from their parents. Upper caste families insist that we must agree to what they say without any resentment or fight. We have seen young men disrespect 70-year-old men who belong to the lower caste. If the old man refuses to concede to his demands, then the boy will hurl abuses at him. Caste holds great value perhaps much more than human dignity in our lives. We can go to their homes only during elections to discuss voting strategies. It doesn’t matter who you are, you sit on the floor,” he said.

“What will happen if you defy them, and sit beside them as equals?” we asked him.
“Nothing. They won’t utter a word. Months later, if an issue requires us to address and resolve it together, they’ll remind us that we sat beside them once. So, we sit where we belong,” said Shekhar with a smirk.

Years ago, there was a clash between the Lambanis and Lingayats. They fought over water. The lower caste were forbidden from using water that belonged to the upper caste. Lingayats wouldn’t allow them to touch their borewells. For, it belonged to them.

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From an unlocked gate, we spotted her climbing down the walls that crumbled in corners. She fled from the centre hoping they wouldn’t catch her. Moments later, she was picked up and swung upwards.

They caught her.

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Owing to shoddy implementation of government schemes, Shekhar believed that exploitation of lower caste communities flourished in these villages. “A few miles away, we have a pump house that was built by the government. Water is supplied from the pump house to the tank. There’s a main pipe installed in between the pump house and tank. Three years ago, an upper caste man made a hole in the pipe and stole water from us. One of our children told him not to take water from our line since it affected the thanda. He asked him to take it from the main supply instead. So, he beat him up,” said Shekhar. He let out a long sigh, and asked a young boy to fetch him some water.

“He was a child…”

A large group gathered at the police station. They begged them to forgive the man. For hours, they spoke until the men decided to resolve the matter amicably. A year later, the boy crossed paths with the man. Away from the village, they stood facing each other again. There was no one around.

“Mere upar tune case lagaya na, main dekh loonga tujhe..”

“He threatened the boy. We live in constant fear. Why? Because we were born as Lambani. This is the story of every downtrodden community. We don’t enter their village to buy supplies. We go to Kembhavi,” he said.

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They ran in the sunlight dragging each other to alleys where no one tread at this hour. They had escaped from their home, from farms, from their lives shrouded in dread. They lay in the mud whispering to each other lest they were found.

For a moment, they had escaped.

***
Ravi joined us again this time. It was in Davangere that we first discussed the plight of farmers in drought-hit areas. The debt-crisis struck Kembhavi decades ago. Many lost their lives, and their families struggled to survive. Some homes had no rice, and some didn’t have any vegetables. Some lost their home. Many fled to cities in search of hope.

They built their lives there, claimed the elders.
But they could never know.
For those who left never came back.

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On the fifteenth, one late summer morning, we packed our bags and left Kembhavi. Lingsugur was an hour away when we stopped beside farms with arecanut trees. We made several stops that afternoon. Piyush’s mother called him that day expressing her concern over the plight of farmers in Bundelkhand. Unpredictable weather patterns and environmental degradation have had a devastating impact on the ecology of the region. A hailstorm had struck parts of Bundelkhand a few hours ago destroying all standing crops in every village.

Farmers lost everything.

Deaths went unreported. Families survived on one meal a day. This was no ordinary drought. Weeks later, we read reports stating that farmers sold blood to survive. Some fed their children roti and wild leaves or salt.

Deaths went unclaimed.

***

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After lunch, we drove to Chincholi where resided a large settlement of Lambanis in the Chikkalingadalli Reserve Forest. At 5:30 pm, there were barely any people on the streets. An auto rickshaw stopped beside our car. A group of men alighted from the vehicle and passed lewd remarks. They stood there for a while staring at the vehicle before they fled into empty alleyways that led nowhere.

It was getting dark. A shopkeeper suggested that we stay at Thandur for the night. The next morning, we called up one of our old friends who knew someone in the Zilla Panchayat. At 12 pm, we met Hampanna outside the Inspection Bungalow situated away from the main town. “I am Lambani,” he said grinning. He led us inside.

There are 26 thandas in all here. They are culturally different from the rest of the communities residing in the region.

“Tandur was quite infamous back in the day,” he said and disappeared into a large room.
“For Rs 3,000, the poor and destitute sold their girl child to adoption centres. Most of them were Lambani…”

(to be continued…)

Rest of My familyis a non-profit social-work-through-art project. If you like our work, and wish to support it, you can help us continue by donating here.

Through  ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help.

‘Dokra Dokri don’t understand our problems. They are content with being oppressed’

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Hum toilet khaane wale log kya karenge…

His left hand looked tensed. Gripping his knee, he positioned his legs behind the chair. He crossed them over and over again until his feet got tired. A ripped plaster hung loosely from his knuckles. “I was diagnosed with malaria two weeks ago. I have to get my shots every afternoon,” he explained. His palms trembled. With his sunken cheeks, and hair straggling into his eyes, we spotted him from a mile away where farms with drab patches of grass stood beside homes that had broken roofs.

“Our clothing changed. Some people are sad about it. But I am not. It’s time we moved on. It is far too expensive and time consuming to make these clothes today. The women made them on their own without any machine. Our ancestors wouldn’t bathe for days. They wore heavy jewellery on their hair and wouldn’t wash it for weeks. We needn’t stick to rules and rituals that were once a part of our culture when we were nomads. The world has changed now and what we view as acceptable or comfortable has changed over the years,” he said with spite.

They shared glances, unspoken words amongst each other. But they said nothing. Their cultural identity had lost its fervour like many civilisations before theirs. But that didn’t concern them.

Only their lives did.

“If it doesn’t work in our favour to wear our traditional attire, then it is time to abandon it. If we don’t, then you will judge us for who we are. That’s all you people do anyways. Even those who occupy important positions in the government belong to the higher caste,” he said in a terse tone.

There were murmurs that followed. They sought a place in the shadows of social acceptance and cultural dilution; a place for themselves where their identity didn’t matter.

They never found it here.

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He refused to listen to us. Words turned into urgent phrases. A heated argument ensued that led to the men rising to their feet. In fragmented conversations, they reconciled their differences. When dust swept plastic wrappers underneath his feet, he stood up to leave. He was overwhelmed. The others tried to stop him.

He was stuck in a limbo of loss and regret. We study his face from afar. Resentment surfaced in every corner. The longer we looked, the lonelier he seemed.

Humare bade bade netaji hain woh hi nahin lad rahe, toh hum kya ladenge. One of our neighbours went to Bangalore in 2002. He didn’t have anything back then. He started some business on his own and built a house for himself. Soon, he asked his mother to join him. He forbade her from wearing our traditional clothes. Today, she wears a saree,” he said with a hint of pride. “If we weren’t treated with inferiority, perhaps this wouldn’t have happened. We feel ashamed of our ancestral identity. Of course, ‘they’ — the sahibs don’t tell us anything today. These practices were prevalent in the past and somehow that fear or shame is deeply embedded within us. The upper caste are unable to let go of their pride and arrogance. This is the problem. Our political representatives too bow down to them. We need to elect better politicians who will be willing to fight for us. But where are they?” he asked balling his hands into fists.

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Hum toilet khaane waale log kya karenge, he said murmuring to himself. He chose his words carefully lest he offends us. Their smiled slipped in moments that led them to believe what he’d just said. It was a term they were familiar with. We had read it before in books that described the plight of untouchables. Amongst corpses and litter they reside, said one of the stories. Written in those pages were grim tales of oppression and cruelty.

“We had a minister who never visited our thanda. We begged him to come here. He said he didn’t have the time. Woh bhi toilet khaane waala aadmi tha. Why did we elect him? Our elders aren’t bothered about these things. They don’t believe we are in trouble. Four months ago, we had the gram panchayat elections. The older generation refused to step down and let the younger generation take over,” he said fiddling with the torn plaster on his hand, “Dokra Dokri don’t understand our problems. They are content with being oppressed. As long as they get to control us politically and socially, they are happy with whatever arrangement is made within the thanda. Our leaders are chasing personal gains instead of working towards community welfare. And, that’s what I have a problem with. Even if I want to fight I can’t. And, we will continue to elect such people in power.”

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Banjaras don’t have a separate caste system within their structure. People from different castes can stay in a thanda but the Lambanis aren’t allowed to build homes elsewhere. There were rules set forth by their leader. If they continue to live their lives based on these rules, they fear they’d be left behind. “Our guru set principles and laws based on what he had seen in his lifetime. But times have changed and so have our lives,” he said much to the dismay of the rest.

His ride had arrived soon after. He had to rush to the hospital.
We would never see him again.

***

The older men spoke of unity that once held the community together for decades. In those days, when there was no television or radio, people gathered once a month in the temple premises. Now their songs have been forgotten, their dances have altered rhythms, and their Gods have changed. Hired singers and electronic drums have replaced traditional musicians.

Humare humare nahin rahe ab. Aaj main hi mahan hoon. Mera hi chalna hai yahan par. Samaj tooth gaya hai. How will everything get sorted out when we can’t sort ourselves out?” asked an old man to the crowd gathered at the stall.

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“He is hurt,” said an old man craning his neck towards the street. “But so are we.”
“We can’t address every situation with aggression like our youngsters.”
“Yes, it will lead to another clash. Bloodshed and violence can never be the answer,” said his companion.

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“We can’t change our past but we can build a better future for ourselves and our children,” Shankar chimed in as the rest nodded. “Let us not fight for dominance. We must nurture a society where we walk beside one another as equals.”

***
She had jasmine in her hair. We heard her anklets from a distance. There were several on her feet. Some intricate, and some plain. Some had lost their lustre. They all found a place on her feet. Her brown eyes bore into our backs as Shankar turned to us and whispered, “Devadasi.”

But she wasn’t one. She was born a transgender. Early in her life, she decided to dedicate herself to Yellamma. “She is my cousin,” he said with a warm smile. The younger kids sneered at her while the elders maintained a stoic expression. She didn’t have a temple for herself. So, they built her one in her home. “Sometimes, God has other plans for you. We accept her for who she is. So, does her family.”

She wore a maroon saree; her eyes were lined with kohl. Her hair was tied in a bun. She walked with elegance. Her every footstep was marked, and every conversation had purpose. “Come home,” she said, “I’ll show you my temple.”

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“Shankar get them to my place or I will beat you up,” she yelled from an alleyway as everyone burst into laughter.

Children gathered around us giggling at each other and mimicking our actions. Some bent their knees and pretended to take our photographs. Our presence amused them.

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A young girl followed us everywhere. Her eyes were light, and her hair had streaks of gold in them. She held our hands and ran from one pathway to another. Cows stood in corners where stacks of hay piled high in courtyards. There was no space here: none for animals, none for humans. Men bathed beneath hand pumps. Bars of soap lay forgotten beside them. A few sat in their courtyard.

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Some dilapidated structures had pink and blue walls. They were torn down from within and outside. The North and South blended in harmony here. Their architecture had memories of the old and new. On a small porch, a grandmother fiddled with pieces of ornate fabric with mirrors and embroidery. She gathered all the loose threads between her thumb and forefinger.

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Beside her another old woman sat upright staring into the skies. A crown of mirrored jewels sat on her hair. She raised her knee slightly as she adjusted her veil. They spoke in whispers. Away from them, another old woman clicked her tongue and waved her stick at a herd of goats.

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“She’s my mother-in-law,” said Shanker pointing at the woman seated on the ground. She ran into the house and fetched us some cold water. A young boy stood beside her gesturing us to follow him inside. “He is an artist. These are his henna designs. Come marriage season, and every bride wants him to paint her hands,” said the little girl accompanying us.

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A foul stench lurked in the air. A rotting animal lay hidden somewhere. They couldn’t find it. One of the notorious dogs had killed a puppy last week. They looked for the corpse for days but couldn’t find it anywhere. Shankar ordered the boy to check the roof again.

Nothing.

“Bhaiya iss Dokri ka photo le lo,” said one of the children.

An old lady resting on the mat seemed startled by our presence. She was frail and had a dazed look in her eyes. She was 101 years old. “Iss umar main bhi inko sona pehenne ka bohat shaukh hai,” said the kids pointing at her nose ring. She gave them a feeble smile and continued to stare into the street. Her hands caressed her forehead as she straightened her veil. There were lines on her face and neck.

Her feet quivered constantly but she wasn’t cold. She doesn’t remember much of her past. She hid her face but she didn’t stay hidden. Her eyes changed when they spoke of lost memories.

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***
The Goddess was adorned with jasmine and vermillion. She had a home here. In her house, they were all welcome. This is Yellamma’s lair, she declared. “I take great care in keeping the house clean and pure. She resides with me. I carry her on my head with a basket of betel leaves, bangles and kumkum. I visit every home during our festival with her,” she said dragging us to a porch away from the heat.

Her silver jewellery glimmered in the afternoon sun. In that place, where her presence seemed disruptive to some, she claimed her liberty unlike none before. “Nobody can wear their hair like the grandmothers,” she said frowning, “The jewellery was quite heavy, and it would take two people to braid their hair. Girls wear salwar kameez and saree these days.”

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A boy sat beside her. He was studying in 11th grade. One of his eyes were damaged. He covered it with his left hand. Someone hit him as a child and it led to complete loss of vision. “Ye mera pati hai,” she said placing her hand on his shoulder earning her a scoff. Everyone teased him until he threatened to leave.

Another boy lurked in the corner. His face twitched, and his fingers turned inwards towards his body. He smiled and clapped loudly every time he heard a noise. His mother was looking for him. We saw her in the alleyway that led to the house with colourful doors. She had a tattoo on her left arm.

She took long strides towards him. He was distressed. His eyes searched for her everywhere. The kids pointed at him and made gestures.

She picked him up in her arms. “He is my son. He was born this way,” she said with a warm smile. She rubbed his back to calm him down.

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***

In half hour, a young boy came running towards us. “Lunch is ready,” he informed Shankar bhaiya who then led us to his home. His wife served us some jowar roti, potato chips, daal, beans, ground nut chutney powder and placed a large tray of fenugreek leaves, carrots and cucumber before us. His children stole glances as we struck a conversation with everyone. Young girls waited patiently for Shankar’s wife in the courtyard. Stitching lessons would begin shortly.

Summer afternoons were quiet. After lunch, we walked to Shankar’s mother-in-law’s house where we’d spend hours talking about everything. A middle-aged man sat on a plastic chair reading the newspaper. His name was Shekhar Yadhav.

“Lingayats control everything. There have been numerous instances of the upper caste beating up someone from the lower caste simply because the latter stood up to them and claimed what was rightfully theirs – human dignity. Back in the day, the village and thanda were notorious for criminal activities too. Even today, no one will mess around with our thanda,” he said chuckling to himself.

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He spoke of several incidents that day. They were never forgotten. Two Lingayat families residing in the village nearby murdered men from another family due to a quarrel that ensued between them. “They have made their peace with each other now,” said Shekhar with a reassuring smile, “These families own around 300 to 400 acres of land and are doing very well for themselves. They have hired agricultural labourers and aren’t struggling. They also undertake contracts to build roads. A lady has been elected to power here in our area. No one in 30 km radius will mess with us owing to our past. However, caste-based discrimination is of utmost concern in the village. And, it is quite rampant here whereas 10 km away in Yevoor Thanda everyone lives in peace and harmony,” he said and pointed at the boy who lost his eye, “Today, he cannot interact with his own classmates who belong to the upper caste.”

Although no hierarchy exists within the Lambani communities, there are numerous roles assigned to people based on their surnames. “There are 12 Rathod families, 12 Jadav families and 6 Chauhan families in this thanda. We also have Powars, and Jadhavs who usually perform priestly duties within the community especially during weddings.

Once, an ongoing tussle between a man who belonged to the upper caste and another one to the lower caste, said Shekhar, led to the latter asking in fury, “Did God prescribe you a caste when you were born? No, it was man who created these distinctions to feed his ego and continue fuelling his incessant need to control and ascertain his power over the meek and helpless.”

Government facilities meant for the thanda never reach them. “From roads to drainage system, ‘they’ get their hands on anything and everything first,” said Shekhar fidgeting with his fingers. According to him, merely 30% of the population relies on farming. Moreover, there is a huge wage gap between men and women. While women get paid Rs 100 per day, men can earn Rs 300.

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“This has been the case for years. Women work very hard and work longer hours. Men work according to their own whims and fancies. They take several breaks, smoke bheedis and even find time to take a nap in between work. During the harvest season, women can earn Rs 200 per day. Men get a little more. These days, families hire contractors,” he said.

Sometimes farmers are more worthy dead than alive, he told us without any remorse. That way, his family can eat for a few months. Starvation leads to such thoughts. Some claimed that families don’t receive what they are promised. “Half the compensation has to be paid to the authorities. Moreover, the government only takes into consideration loans that are registered with banks. They do not consider those given by private money lenders. Sometimes, people have just Rs 50,000 in bank records whereas they owe 7 to 8 lakhs to these money lenders. The wives, children and next of kin are then tortured for money. The dalals have no choice but to recover these loans from them. The system isn’t efficient. I don’t think they want to solve the issue fundamentally and are more than happy providing a surface-level solution to all,” he added.

In an hour, we decided to head back to Kembhavi since the day was getting progressively hotter. Most of the villagers had gone home. There was no one in sight. Shops were shutting down and kids returned to their families. We spotted the grandfather we had met at the tea stall when we first arrived.

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“Why do you wear a black Gandhi cap instead of the white turban?” asked Shanker to his amusement.
“This was a gift from the British. I have been wearing it ever since,” he said chuckling in response.

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A young girl sat in the corner. There was dust in her hair and her feet were muddy. Her salwar had holes in them. She worked in the fields every day. Her lessons suffered. She wasn’t a bright student. “She’s in fourth grade,” said the grandfather to us, “But she can’t read or write. She has no time to revise her lessons. She is a good girl and she helps her family.” He tapped her head several times and stuck his tongue out at her. Her giggles caught our attention as we walked away.

On a moonless night, we sat near the window thinking of her: the little girl with dirty feet; her matted hair, her distraught eyes, her silence. That night, we heard nothing but the winds howling against trees and structures that barely moved.

“If she doesn’t go to the fields, her family will starve,” said Shanker breaking the silence between us. “There are many like her here.”

“Their childhood died a long time ago…”

(to be continued…)

Rest of My familyis a non-profit social-work-through-art project. If you like our work, and wish to support it, you can help us continue by donating here.

Through  ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help.

‘It was never chronicled. Those who died took our history with them.’

There were two of them.

It was an ordinary day. Perhaps, the streets were crowded, and fruit carts remained immobile. The vendors set up their stalls right before the alley where old vehicles stood: their paint worn out, and doors dented. Perhaps, it wasn’t any different than the day we arrived. Were there pallid faces roaming around the corners wondering if they could have known? We imagined them there, and everywhere: faces fraught with grief.

For, we couldn’t know. We knew of their places but little of their memories. We knew of their stories but little of them. We had some questions, and fewer answers. There was only so much we could gather from their tales.

Where the Naranyanpur left bank canal ends, the town begins. The water hadn’t risen. It was one of those days. A little girl sat near the walls washing her feet.

The boy stood atop staring into nothing.

The canal wasn’t filled.

“They were neighbours. Those kids grew up together. I knew them,” said Shankar averting his gaze.

She held onto the walls for as long as she could. The water levels rose with fury. Her back slipped first dragging her deeper into the water. She screamed for help. He jumped in to save her.

“It was awful. When I received the call, I went blank. I rang everyone I knew: the assistant engineer, chief engineer. Everybody. I told them that two of our children had fallen in. They couldn’t help,” he said scratching his head, “They mustn’t cut the supply abruptly, they told us. It would affect the overall pressure and water supply to neighbouring villages. With every passing moment, they reduced the pressure considerably. In the morning, we found them floating face down in water just a km away from where we were. It was a terrible tragedy. They were such beautiful children. Maybe, their time had come. It was God’s will. What else could it be? The media was cruel to the family. To us. They tried to concoct stories and twist the truth as if there was something going on between them. The incident shook the entire village. For weeks, everyone mourned their loss.”

Those poor children, he repeated shaking his head over and over again.

His wife never went to school. She taught herself tailoring and stitching. She now trains several girls in the village. They have two daughters and one son. “I take care of my brother-in-law’s daughter. She was living with her family until recently,” he explained one morning as we walked alongside the road that led to Yelagi thanda. “One day, during a festival, some people approached my sadu. They really liked his daughter. She was in tenth grade. They wanted to get her married to their son. He called up his wife and said Get her ready after school. They are coming to visit us. When I found out, I hurled abuses at him. I told him I’ll take care of her, and send her to school. I’ll give her the life she deserves. We must not enforce our decisions on any child – boy or girl. We can’t take away the will of a human being.”

***
The school bus never comes to Yalegi Thanda. There are barely any students enrolled in the English medium school. Shankar spoke to a few families and convinced them to send their children to better schools. A bus was then arranged for them.

“I did it for my children. A few more joined them,” he said beaming with pride, “I am selfish that way.” The crinkles around his eyes shone in the sun.
“No matter what life throws at me, I won’t let them suffer.”
“Has it been difficult to survive?” weask him.
He pondered for a while but he had done it before. It was difficult. It has always been and he feared it would remain that way for a while. “I haven’t earned any money. But I have earned ample relationships,” he said tossing his head backwards.
“That is how a human being will be remembered at the end of the day not by his bank balance but by the nature of help or guidance he provided to another human being. That’s enough for me.”

***
The next morning, crouching behind a crumbling wall, we saw a little girl peek into a stall that sold breakfast. Weeds preened at the railings of a dilapidated building where right off the corner stood an old vendor selling juice. We saw a few of them waiting for someone to turn around. A young boy lurked near our table. He stood there staring at us for a while. His feet were dirty, and his hair changed colour in the dark. His shoe laces were undone; the other pair didn’t have a sole. He looked at us rubbing his nails over and over again. We gestured him to come over. His parents lived nearby, he said to us looking down. His clothes were tattered and his pants had holes in them. We ate breakfast in silence. He thanked us, and left.

It was quiet like most summer mornings in these parts. Leaves died without grace while barks shrivelled before our sight. Some days, nothing remained. An old man sat on the road. His pupils were luminous. Swirls of smoke rose from his lips as he held his beedi with both hands. The silence was everywhere. Like a forgotten companion leaving its footprints on sand, it followed us. It was in such absences that we felt it. But it wasn’t an odd realisation: the presence of a quietude.

We parked near a temple. A group of people approached us wondering if we were lost.
“Where does Shankar live?” we asked one of the older men who stood beside us. They pulled out their cell phones and rang him up. They then ushered us into a tiny tea stall that sold orange sweets wrapped in plastic. A young boy with a lock around his neck ordered the grandfather to hand him some milk. He earned a tap on his head as he ran away.

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“Our God is different,” they declared excitedly raising their arms in the air, “Seva Lal gave us order. He laid down rules for the Lambani community. These are laws that govern our lives.  Every Banjara follows them. He taught us how to stay united in spirit and soul. Did you know that Gormati comprises 13 languages? When our ancestors migrated from Rajasthan, our language evolved along the way. You won’t be able to learn my language. But I can speak yours with great ease.”

The thanda is more than 120 years old, said an old man cracking open a box of peanuts. They knew everything that had happened since 1947. Those who knew of earlier times had died a long time ago. They took their history with them. It was never chronicled. They don’t remember anything save their struggles. Those were passed on from father to son, and mother to daughter.

Struggles were never forgotten.

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“We didn’t ask them,” said an old man wiping his face with a towel. His hands shook with every move. He had freckles under his eyes. “Like us, nobody listens to stories anymore. No one wants to know where we came from. It doesn’t interest us anymore.”

The priest disagreed. He shook his head vehemently turning his gaze to the men gathered beside him. Wreaths of smoke curled up towards their faces as they lit their beedis one after another. In a plastic box, cheap cigarettes were thrown into one corner, and loose change into another.

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Hum ek sanchari jeevan jeete the,” said the priest, “And, that’s why we were treated poorly centuries ago. We kept moving from one place to another. We didn’t have proper clothing or food at times. In reality, we belonged to a higher caste. But we were the forest-dwellers who never stayed. May be that’s why they considered us inferior. We were uncouth. Sometimes, they called us savages.”

They were running away, and we could see it. From a past that maligned their identity, from cruelty, they ran away into realms where they could find none – no malice, no hierarchy, where paths led home, and not structures that bore the burden of their poverty.

They carried memories with them. In doorways, in homes, in open courtyards and windows where they drew patterns, they remained for centuries. Years ago, when we first set foot into the deserts of Rajasthan, we had seen such sights and heard similar stories. Everything stood still in these regions save time.

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“Our appearance would give us away. The men wore dhoti and turbans which resembled anyone from North Karnataka while the women’s attire made them stand out. They thought it was best to keep us out of their villages. They confused us for adivasis who lived in the forests. But we were nomads. Not adivasis,” said the priest frowning.

We told them it didn’t matter. These social distinctions rose with the need to exploit those who were helpless and deprived of basic human dignity.

They were ashamed of their identity but they never admitted it.
Not to us. Not to themselves.

In 1947, many families settled down in these areas. They built homes outside villages that refused to let them in. “Before independence, we didn’t get many facilities from the government. People didn’t send their kids to school. The situation was quite dismal. However, over time, as we got educated, the economic condition of our community improved. We are no longer considered backward by society,” said Shankar slapping his knees as the others joined him.

Most of them rely on farming to feed their families. Some go to the jungles and others do labour work to earn their living. “Some have government jobs. We will do anything and everything to make ends meet. Today, we have engineers and doctors within the community. Isn’t that something? Who’d have thought? We were called ‘junglee log’ at some point in our lives. Not anymore. Now, we are cultured. And, we live amongst the cultured lot.”

Ab hum achuth nahin rahe…

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(to be continued…)

Rest of My familyis a non-profit social-work-through-art project. If you like our work, and wish to support it, you can help us continue by donating here.

Through  ‪#‎RestofMyFamily‬, we will focus on highlighting social issues and human interest stories, documenting the triumphs of the ordinary man despite all the hardships they face constantly, and help these stories reach a larger audience and wherever necessary extend support to the individuals and communities that we write about. We hope to make a direct impact to the lives of those people we meet and find suffering due to various social issues; to connect the ones who need help to the ones who can help.