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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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…)
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