That summer was different. Green bangles dangled on her wrist. She never wore bangles. They didn’t buy her any. One late morning, they gave them to her wrapped in an old newspaper. The women smeared ash on her feet. They combed her hair. Petals were strewn all over her back, and floor. It was jasmine, they told her. The older women had strung them together. She pulled them apart.
She sat in the middle of the floor. She didn’t know why.
They took long. Very very long. An old man approached her. His feet were bare, and he wore threads. He murmured shlokas under his breath.
Bells tolled in a distance.
It was done.
“It was a long time ago,” said Shobha walking around the pillars. Her fingers traced its patterns. Some had faded. Some survived. “The Devadasis of Hire Shindogi were dedicated here. In this temple.”
It all looked normal. The walls. The ground. The people. The priest.
As if it didn’t happen.
We never went there again.
They sat wherever they could. Nobody uses toilets here, exclaimed Renuka as she chuckled behind us. It was 7 am. Men carried tumblers, children used plastic bottles and the others walked into empty schools. Women stood near hand pumps with plastic pots waiting for their turn. Renuka watched them for a moment, and said, “Women suffer the worst. They have to get up early, and look for isolated fields. Farms don’t have large trees anymore.”
We crossed a narrow stream. It was a different route. Here, there were trails left behind by tractors that had passed by us moments before. Large puddles gathered dirt beneath their tracks. Uncovered barrels lay abandoned on the roadside by men who arrived early to get roads done in time. At the first spell of rain, there would be no one in sight.
Sunkappa waited for us at the entrance of the village. “Let’s walk to Doddappa’s house,” he said giggling at the older women gathered near his courtyard. We stared at an image hung upside down in the tea stall. It lay forgotten amidst old crockery and a rusted tea pot. Wreaths of smoke rose behind a dilapidated structure; one that remained unoccupied since we had first arrived.
Yemunappa was born here. “And, I will die here,” he murmured. Beside him, an old lady sat facing north. Just outside, in a chequered lungi, a young man stopped in his tracks. His toothbrush dangled in his mouth while his thumbs typed away furiously. His phone buzzed several times before he disappeared into an alleyway we had once stepped into many weeks ago.
“Idu Hosa Ooru,” explained Yemunappa, “In 2009, after the floods, we lost our homes. Most of us were left with no homes. Our belongings were washed away. It rained profusely for a few days. Water had filled up to the brim. The dam couldn’t hold it anymore. People from neighbouring villages came to help us. When the farmers called for help, all the important people came to our rescue. Coffee, food and shelter was provided to every man, woman and child. A makeshift camp was built for everyone. We lived there for almost 20 days.”
They were given homes that didn’t last long. Roofs leaked and some withered over time. Eventually, they left. But a few remained for they had nowhere else to go. In roofless homes, they lived and survived. They belonged there, they told themselves. Over and over again.
The old man lowered his head into his hands. He scratched his ear, and let out a deep sigh. A young girl walked cautiously towards him. Her hair was damp; and her knees bruised. She buried her face in her hands, and ran away when they asked her to sit beside us. She came back a while later but had left her slippers.
It was small and bright: the halls here were unlike the ones we had seen in the village. It stretched sideways into the walls. Dishes piled on the floor next to the fireplace.
“When I was young, we would get beaten up by them: people of higher caste – Reddys and Lingayats. No one would talk to us. But things are different now. No one fights us anymore for they are afraid. Of whom I wonder sometimes. Perhaps, they are afraid of being taken to the police station. Casteism doesn’t exist anymore. The only problem we have today is water. And, that’s a huge problem.”
There’s no water.
But there was. It wasn’t clean enough for them. It would never be. Not for the ones residing in the keri.
“Not for Dalits anywhere,” said Sunkappa, later that evening.
The younger men shook their head. They disagreed with Yemunappa.
But they never said it aloud.
“In those days, jeetha padatti (Bonded labour) was practiced in almost all regions. We all had to go through it. The upper caste men would torture us, and lock us up for no reason. Every time we asked them to pay us for our work, we would get beaten up. Violence and injustice thrived in those days. Now, there are no differences or discriminations anymore. We visit each other, talk to each other and even walk beside each other.”
While we were baffled, everyone around us maintained a stoic expression. Nobody refuted him. For, he had seen far worse, suffered far worse, and perhaps lived a life far worse than them. It wasn’t unfamiliar, this moment. Wrath surged underneath their expressions. And, we saw it all.
They ran most of the way. From one alley to another, they leaped in pairs. Nobody stopped them. Not this time. The girls disappeared before our eyes clutching polythene bags in their tiny hands just as the large crowd gathered around us.
He has mastered the art of diplomacy, sneered a young man behind us. It was probably fear that held him back, remarked another. Sunkappa said nothing. His silence bothered us, and those around him. “The man has suffered,” he whispered to us, “Long enough for him to remember.”
“For us to forget…”
Everyone uses plastic cups these days, declared Yemunappa. In Koppal, they can get a cut and a shave. The village might not have adapted to changing times. It didn’t bother him unlike the youngsters. “We don’t go to the temple that belongs to the upper caste. We offer our prayers from outside. They don’t say anything nor do they forbid us from entering but shouldn’t we be scared of God? After all, it’s a big temple and it houses a big God. Out of fear, our people don’t go there and I advise against anyone entering the temple,” he said earning disgruntled sighs from those around him.
“For how long, doddappa. How long shall we continue to claim that we are too small to visit the Goddess?,” asked Renuka.
“Dodda devasthana dodda devaru avaru… We can’t compare ourselves to the Lord,” he mumbled under his breath. The rigidity in his face had returned. His eyes never left the ground; the lines on his forehead turned deeper in the morning sun. He continued to speak for a while against the bystanders who disagreed with him.
“No, we aren’t equal,” explained Sunkappa to his uncle. “How can we be? We aren’t allowed to enter their temple. Even if we want to go, he won’t allow us,” he said turning to us, “Because we never went there as kids, the practice is supposed to continue even today. Idu nyaya na?”
“Are you treated as equals?” we asked Yemunappa as he bent down to pick up his towel.
“Who?” he asked without looking at us.
“Brahmins and Dalits.”
“How can we be equal? They consume what they think is appropriate. We eat what we think is appropriate. But no one treats us badly. We avoid going to that temple out of our fear for God.”
He was content with what he had. He didn’t need any more unlike the rest. He belonged to a time when it was forbidden for them to have any rights, to live with basic human dignity, to have a voice. Never in his lifetime, had he imagined that a Brahmin and Dalit would stand beside each other, would share the same space in his village.
“Back in the day, we were supposed to drink tea in coconut shells. We weren’t allowed to use cups like the Lingayats. Today, because of plastic cups, we can sit and drink chai together,” he whispered, “Those days, life was difficult. I was beaten up for asking my salary, for raising questions. It was unjust. I don’t remember otherwise. Today, they can’t do anything to me. To us. For, there will be consequences. Such things were unthinkable in the past. We couldn’t make them accountable for their actions. Nobody could,” said Yemunappa with a warm smile.
As conversations progressed, Sunkappa and the others pointed out to him that a lifetime of struggle did not necessarily imply freedom or ‘change’ within the societal realms. Not always. Ostracisation in the name of caste and religion continues to thrive unhindered in these parts. “We are and will always be looked down upon,” he said to us.
Did they ever step into their homes? we wondered aloud. Homes that belonged to the upper caste men. Did they ever sit alongside someone who was revered in the community? Did they have discussions with them on important matters and perhaps take a decision collectively? Together. Regardless of class and their social status, were they ever treated as one?
“Yes, I visit them. But I never enter their homes. We will sit where we have to and they will do whatever they have to do. We don’t go inside their house. Some people do. But they won’t be questioned by them. Nobody will say Don’t come in. You are not welcome here. We should sit where we are supposed to. One mustn’t step outside their boundaries. We should know our limits,” said Yemunappa to the youngsters as they vehemently opposed his views much to his amusement.
They never set foot in their homes when he was younger. However, a few educated Brahmins would sit with them. On some days, they shared their meals. Other days, they were beaten up for questioning them. “It was during gowdru kaala that jeetha paddati thrived in full glory. The poor were tortured and several died. Even the women and children weren’t spared. Moreover, even if those ‘big’ people perpetuated such atrocities, they were the ones who pronounced judgements based on their system of justice for the entire village. How could anyone escape then?” he asked chuckling at the crowd.
One must be scared of God. We cannot enter such places, he repeated once more in an ominous tone to his nephew. To those who did not harbour such fears, he advised against breaking traditions that would hurt their abhimaana. “These days, Dalits especially the younger generation manage to enter these temples during jatras and festivals. For now, we are allowed to step into the courtyard near the gate. Gradually, after a few years, we might reach the doors. There will come a time when we might be able to sit with the upper caste folks and partake in festivities. With time, such changes will occur. No doubt,” said Sunkappa stepping sideways. His arguments were compelling but the elders seemed unconvinced. Some of us weren’t born equal, they’d tell him.
During the jatra, Dalits aren’t allowed to marry in temples. They were to marry in towns instead. However, they could have their meals in the temple premises. “We can’t tie the thaali there. It isn’t allowed. Tradition forbids us from conducting Dalit weddings in the temple premises,” said Yemunappa.
That bothered him. Casteism was the root cause of all struggles.
And, he knew it. Some days, it broke him.
“Is it like this everywhere?” he asked us abruptly hoping we’d deny its existence.
We didn’t answer.
“You must come back after your journey, and tell me what you saw, how you lived and whom you met along the way….”
We promised him we would.
A year later, we saw his wife sitting in the courtyard just as we had first seen her, that summer. She was alone. There was no one around her. Not even the neighbours. She cupped her chin, and sat there for a while staring at the ground. At nothing. She glanced at us but didn’t remember who we were. She raised her head several times before standing up to leave.
He wasn’t there.
We’d meet later, we thought to ourselves.
Morning slipped into afternoon, and there was no sign of him anywhere. All that time, when we spoke to the rest, we hoped we would catch a glimpse of the old man with white hair; the man who’d never set foot in the bigger temple. Not once.
In November, Yemunappa breathed his last.
Some moments were never meant to be…
(to be continued…)
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