Muffled sounds broke the silence. Someone had broken in. In scorched earth, they looked for dead cinders. The flames were long gone: vanished as if they never swirled in the midnight breeze, as if they never sputtered in the dead of night. It was a dog, muttered the older women under their breath. There were footprints everywhere.
Days turn endless, and nights didn’t last long…
Where drifted dead leaves in the morning, there stood an old man staring into the woods. “They dug a borewell for the settlement,” said Dhan Singh as he accompanied us to the car, “But we don’t have any electricity. So, our fields don’t get any water. However, there’s enough water in our well. It hasn’t dried up yet. If we get electricity, we could run the motor to pump water into our fields.”
An old lady slept on the floor. Her grandchild hung in a cloth cradle. Flies swarmed around garbage stacked in the corners. They would be burnt in the evening. In passageways that led to the forest, smoke rose and settled in corners. Some boiled water in large cauldrons while others swept the ground. They all have roles: wives and mothers. “We wouldn’t survive a day without them,” said Vasanth, “The women work very hard.”
Dhan Singh limped towards us. “There are animals in these jungles,” he said as he ran his hands over the car. “Back in the day, there were a lot more of them. They couldn’t survive. Not for long. Back in the day, both my father and grandfather hunted down a few beasts themselves. But we can’t hunt anymore. We aren’t allowed to do so. Our ancestors were traders and would travel far and wide to sell salt and other goods. The white people criminalised our nomadic lifestyle. Or was it the kings? I am not sure. We weren’t allowed to move from one place to another,” he said.
Ali didn’t let go of Shyam. He kept tugging his hand. “Eh Kothi,” he said with a wide-eyed grin. Some days, they didn’t get along. But Shyam didn’t mind him. We dropped him to Chincholi today. He spends Rs 100 every day. He would walk all the way to his village if he could.
“I have three daughters,” he said as we waited for the traffic to clear before us, “They are all married. For the eldest one, I paid 1.5 tholas of gold and Rs 51,000 as dowry to get her married. If I couldn’t meet their demands, then they would refuse my daughter. For my youngest daughter, I had to arrange for 3.5 tholas of gold. I still owe people Rs 61,000 and hope to clear my debts soon. My middle one suffered the most. Her husband abandoned them. She has two children. She now lives in Bangalore with a family of doctors. And, they treat her very well. Her eldest daughter is studying in Tumkur while the younger one lives in Chincholi.”
Her husband lives in Bidar. One day, he decided to sell their one acre of land without her consent. There was a wedding in the family. “She is very strong,” he said staring at the fields outside.
He lit his beedi and smoked it with great care. Like most days, his shift ended at 9.30 am. Trembling noises from factories nearby chased us everywhere we went. Workers walked towards them. In scattered lines, they disappeared into fields that held no charm. They weren’t farmers: one could tell. The muddy paths led them there. Smoke rose in a distance from grey structures that stood against the skies; a fading whistle summoning them all. “My daughter got a stay order against them,” he whispered. His eyes traced the clouds. At times, the factories obstructed his view. But he didn’t mind them. “My son-in-law borrowed some money for the wedding. He hoped to pay his debts by selling off their land. However, my daughter fought against him. He refuses to give her a divorce but doesn’t want to do anything with his family,” he said with a worried smile.
After breakfast, we drove towards Kunchavaram. It was Holi today but we barely saw anyone celebrating on the streets. There weren’t any colours splattered on lanes. There weren’t any gatherings smeared in colours dancing their way to the Gods. There was nobody around. A few Banjara women walked towards the bus stop chattering boisterously amongst themselves. Towards the forests, as we drove further, we spotted some men and women filling up potholes on the road. Yet another patch work, we thought to ourselves. Black and grey they altered in chequered patterns as far as one could see. Like all things here, they too would wither over time.
With veils drawn over their heads, they walked beside each other. Their feet were bare, and their shoulders hunched towards the ground. They hid their faces in the car. They ran their fingers over the seats. “The forests weren’t like this before,” said one of the older women to us, “Now it is dry and dead. I carry jowar rotis for the animals usually but I couldn’t today.”
They worked as coolies. They earned Rs 100 per day while the men earned more. At Kunchavaram, we bought some potatoes, okra, daal and wheat flour from a local grocery store. The market was shut for Holi. A magician performed some tricks on the streets gathering a large crowd around him. Bursting into peals of laughter, women stood beside him as he straightened his collar and yelled gibberish at everyone around him.
He stood by the roadside. His crutches barely held him. Beside the abandoned settlement, we found him limping across the road. He held his hand out hoping someone would stop for him. There weren’t many vehicles passing by that day.
“Can you drop me to Pedda Thanda? I can’t walk for too long” he explained with a lazy drawl. He met with an accident 20 years ago. He sat beside the driver in a lorry. They were travelling to a town far away. A tractor crashed into them. “I was rushed to the hospital immediately but the doctors couldn’t save my leg,” he said staring away from us.
The driver was drunk. His hands trembled as he gestured us to stop a few miles ahead. He looked outside as if he were lost in thought. But he wasn’t. At times, he smiled. He could feel the wind in his face, and hear the low rumble of the engine. “Look around you,” he said almost with contempt, “The government doesn’t genuinely want to repair the roads. They are happy with temporary fixes. And, so are we. No one genuinely wants to improve their situation or work towards development of the nation. Corruption is deeply ingrained in our system and the only way we can make change is by changing individually. For the last four years, our farms have been dying. Farming has suffered because of industries. Wherever they have set up cement factories, it has led to the destruction of our environment. We have destroyed our nature. We have killed our earth. And, you can see it all around you.”
We said our goodbyes and never met again. We didn’t intend to neither did we pretend otherwise. Some encounters do not lead to reunions. Some moments don’t last a lifetime. They aren’t meant to.
The pile of garbage had grown bigger near the Dargah. Here, in the forests, Holi celebrations were in full swing last night. Vasanth had called us twice already. We parked the car near the defunct school and walked towards the porch where a large group of people gathered in a circle. As per tradition, they sacrificed a goat yesterday. Some men chopped off chunks of meat and set them aside. Ramaji, Vasanth and Sikander sat before the crowd. Beside us, slabs of meat hung upside down. They were tethered to the roof.
“We have just one functional hand pump,” said Sikander as an old woman carried a pot of water on her head, “The government has promised to repair the other two. But it will take time. We have installed a generator that pumps enough water for feeding our cattle. We can also use it for bathing and cleaning. If the hand pump stops functioning, then the women walk to the naala. However, this year, it is completely dry. There’s nothing in it almost as if it never existed. If the pump fails, then we will have to walk all the way to the top of the hill and get water from there.”
A man stood up and walked to the front of the gathering. He then segregated the meat into 27 portions by weighing them on a hand-scale. Across him, in a vessel, the others gathered the blood, insides, liver and kidney of the animal which was then cooked together and distributed amongst everyone. The hooves were chopped off with mighty precision.
In a lone corner away from us, the jaws of the goat were being roasted over fire. A woman broke them into pieces and handed them to children who munched on them for hours. A man seemed miffed with the prices set for each portion and continued to bicker with the men around him for a while. Each household gets a portion while the Nayak of the thanda gets two portions of meat.
“We were supposed to burn Holika today and celebrate the festival tomorrow. However, in Dharmasagar, the villagers decided to celebrate the festival yesterday. These days, we have been given strict orders to wind up celebrations within a day. Alcoholism is a major issue. People get drunk and get into major fights. Earlier, we would make drinks using a flower from the forest. We call it Mahua. It was a lot of work to make it ourselves. These days, you can got to a wine shop. No one would fight after drinking Mahua. They don’t see who is big or small whether or not the person standing before you should be respected or no. Their minds and bodies are tainted.”
In a while, Vasanth asked us to follow him to his house. He had asked his wife to make some some jowar rotis, daal and potato curry for lunch. The wooden cot was brought out to the courtyard. Where the thanda ended and began endless fields, Vasanth had built his home amidst the forests. As we sat at the edge of the house, for a brief moment, we had forgotten where we were. So did he.
Women ran to the tank near the school to fill pots of water for their daily chores. Some toddlers followed them with tiny buckets in their hands. They fought hard and played around till they got exhausted. One of them pinched the others until they all burst into tears. Their buckets couldn’t hold enough water. They weren’t too bothered by it.
Some mornings, they chased peacocks in the courtyard. Others followed trails of monkeys into the forests. Sometimes, they slept on the ground staring at the clouds wondering who could longest without blinking. For now, they had each other…
Two days later, we found Ali stumbling across the room. “I have three sons and two daughters,” he said slurring. He wiped his mouth with his hand. His skin had spots and his eyes looked tired. He hadn’t slept very well. Not for a while.
“One of my sons is studying Civil Engineer. I keep telling him that he has studied for two years and it should be enough. How much longer does he need to study? If he finished the course, it will change his life. At least, that’s what he keeps telling me. I wonder how he is able to construct plans for a building seated at his desk. He studies till 2 am every day. He says Abba tu chup baith mere ko padhne de phir tu dekh main tere se achcha kamaunga. I earn Rs 18,000 a month. It isn’t much but it is enough for us to survive. I drink every day. If I don’t drink I won’t survive,” he said with a sheepish grin.
The next morning we were up by 7 am. We packed our things and left to Chandapura to have breakfast. Ragesh served us with a smile and asked if we would have some more coffee. We bought some bottle gourd, brinjal and tomato from the local vegetable vendor before we headed to the forest.
We crossed the bio-thermal plant and drove straight towards the tiny stall with orange flags perched on its roof. We crossed them again. We tried to trace familiar signs in a sea of unknown. Trees without branches, fields without shrubs. We got distracted and missed the bumps on the road. The car jerked forward. As we took the turn that led to Shadipur, concrete roads gave way to unpaved mud roads.
Ravi, who had arrived the previous night, motioned for us to stop. “The right tyre has lost air. Take a look,” he said parking his bike beside a tall tree. We had to turn around. A few miles away, we found a filling station where a young man decided to take a look at the tyre. He poured some water on it and said, “There is no puncture. The leak can be fixed in no time. ”
We were lost yet again. The forest had features that we didn’t recognise. We couldn’t read the signs. Not as well as those who dwelled in these areas. We followed a trail that led us to another. It split further into smaller paths that led nowhere. There were no settlements here.l
In a while, we crossed paths with some farmers who directed us towards Seribikkanalli Thanda. At the end of the path, we came across a junction that had roads swerving in opposite directions. The left trail had some boards installed at the entrance. We went in the opposite direction. Branches cracked and twigs snapped underneath the tyres as we drove over a bed of dried leaves. Thorny trees and bushes left a few scratches on the car. As the thickets turned dense in the corners, we realised we had taken the wrong trail. We heard faint screaming from a distance when we stopped ahead.
“You should have taken the other route. I asked you to keep heading straight. I turned around and came back because I couldn’t see you,” said the man on the bike. “You will get lost in the forest. The Thanda is that way. There’s a deep ditch ahead. Be careful.” He had followed the dust trail into the jungle to reach us.
In fifteen minutes, we spotted the tiny wooden board that read Seribikkanahalli in Kannada. We parked the car near the school. We noticed the forest department office open today. The temple was under construction. Villagers installed tiles on the walls. Dhan Singh held a tiny bucket in his hands. He spoke to us in whispers as he lit his beedi explaining what had to be done and how pressed for time the village was. “The temple has to be ready for the festival,” he exclaimed.
His hurried steps caught our attention. Pandurang ran towards us. “I have been looking for you. The Forest Department officials want to have a word with you.” Almost instantly, a tall man in a camouflaged jacket and brown hat approached us. His demeanour faltered as he spoke. “Talk to my senior,” he said handing over his phone to us.
In a stern tone, the man on the other end then informed us that we required a written letter and permission from higher authorities to visit these villages. We knew we didn’t require any letter since we weren’t trespassing areas that were cordoned off by the department. “I was supposed to be there,” he said in hushed tones, “I received a call from the Forest Officer who asked me if I was doing my job. Apparently, someone had informed him that a car and bike were spotted heading into the forest. I am supposed to keep him informed of any vehicles entering the forests. I am just doing my job.” Dhan Singh giggled at their antics.
“Do they trouble you?” we asked him as we walked to the centre of the village.
“No. We aren’t allowed to go to areas they have mapped as protected zones. If we gather branches and twigs that are fallen on the ground, they don’t trouble us. However, during weddings, when we need wood to build mantapas, they don’t allow us to gather wood from the forest. What else are we supposed to do?” he asked.
Unknown faces chased us down the road. There were many of them. We hadn’t seen them before. They didn’t know who we were. Some family members explained to them that we had come here before. “Several times…” whispered a young lady to her husband.
Hirabai sat on the porch swaying back and forth. She smashed some arecanuts to bits before placing them neatly on a betel leaf. “I will leave in 15 days. We all go to the cities in search of jobs. Yes, we go every year. We leave after the pooja and return in the monsoons. All the men and women leave. The elderly folks and children are left behind. I generally do some construction work including preparing concrete mixtures and lifting heavy stones. I would stay back if I could but if we go to the cities, women earn Rs 300 while men earn Rs 400. That way, our families won’t starve.”
She burst into a fit of giggles. We wondered why. She wiped her eyes with her hands and exclaimed out loud, “Even there, we earn lesser than men. You city folks are no better.” Women gathered in courtyards looking for shelter from the heat. We knew them. Some were born in the thanda while many moved to the forest after their wedding. “The rest are asleep,” said Mangala bai urging us to sit beside her, “In the mornings, we go to the forest to gather wood. We go in the evenings too. But these days, we can’t walk great lengths. Summers are harsh in these regions. Since the jungle doesn’t have any water, the journey is far more strenuous in the evenings.”
“Everything is difficult here,” she said bitterly. Her features shone in the afternoon sun. There wer“The government didn’t build me a house. There are others who could get better homes under the scheme but I couldn’t. Do you know why? They told me You don’t have a husband. You don’t have any children. What’s the point of giving you a house? It was Indira Gandhi I think who gave us a home a few decades ago. Was it her? I am not sure. This is the house we are still living in. I don’t have anything left. No family. No home. Nothing…”
Hirabai walked to the goats and tied them up to poles nearby. In a line, they stood bleating their objections in a helpless rage. They wished to be free. They inched closer to the khatiya placed in the courtyard. Vasanth’s wife served us some chapatis, bottle gourd curry and rice. Under the neem tree, we slept for a while after lunch as birds chirped in a distance. The dogs laid closer to the stacks of hay piled in the corners.
At around 4 pm, we took a stroll around the village. Ravi walked ahead and decided to take a nap on an old wooden cot outside the school. A few children followed himwith sticks and stones. On abandoned stone benches outside the forest department, they climbed one after another singing songs they hadn’t heard before.
“It’s all made up. She doesn’t know the words,” said a little girl.
“Neither do you. This song doesn’t exist. So, no one knows the words,” said a little boy as he cleaned his tattered trousers.
“Yes, it exists. I heard it on my uncle’s phone,” she said adamantly.
A few monkeys swung from one branch to another as branches of dead trees crackled in the winds. Akin to ringing bells, the branches swayed in the light breeze and dried leaves were shattered from their reverie as another group of children trotted towards us. They asked us our names and couldn’t pronounce them for a while. They tried to steal our bottles.
None of them went to school. They spoke in Gormati and couldn’t understand us. Shivani nodded everytime we talked to her. “Her name is Looli,” she said pointing at a little girl. “Her name is Looli too,” she said dragging another from the bench. “She is Looli as well…”
“No, it’s Sandhya and Shivani. She is lying,” retorted an older girl as she pulled her hair. A few of them followed their mothers and aunts to the water tank. The toddlers growled at monkeys and shooed them away from the thanda. Their menacing tone earned them scoffs from their older siblings.
Cows munched on cardboard boxes strewn all over the place. Some fed on hay and plastic. We sat there for an hour or so before we decided to take a walk in the village. All the kids ran behind us announcing our arrival to every nonchalant adult who had just woken up from their afternoon nap. We spotted a few farms from Vasanth’s house. Tracing the trails from above, we decided to explore the fields beneath the house. When we climbed down, we were instantly met with acres of barren land that were yet to see a sapling sprout. There wasn’t a blade of grass in sight. Scattering spores of green dotted the landscape but never met our eyes. We couldn’t see them Everything disappeared here before us.
Near a lone tree, in the middle of the fields, we sat on the ground. Its leaves swayed to the tunes of the earth as an orb of sunshine caressed its leaves. To our right, we spotted another giant tree and some broken stone benches.
A man walked towards the tree alongside a few more. He was one of the men installing solar panels for the village which were set up by a private company. He was from Tamil Nadu but he could speak Kannada.
There were some protrusions and veins popping out of his calves. Apparently, the doctors told him that they could be removed surgically. “It doesn’t hurt. So, I opted out of surgery,” he explained with a warm smile, “Why should I cut open my body if it isn’t bothering me? This thanda is located deep in the forest. I have never been here before. It’s nice but I wouldn’t want to live here. Not with them.” He fell silent hoping we wouldn’t ask him why. “These people are notorious. There are several stories about them in these regions. But they have mellowed down over the years. No one has treated us poorly so far. The locals do not have any option but to walk to the nearest town. These days, some of them have bikes but life’s hard here. I’d never live in this village. These forests are unkind, ” he murmured. As the sun went down, we saw a herd of goats running hurriedly towards the village. A grandmother dragged them towards a tiny shed as she adjusted her veil to protect herself from the heat.
“The heat remains for a while,” said the man before walking away. “The nights get cooler in the forests.”
We soon reached Vasanth’s house and decided to rest for a while. The tiny shed opposite his home was open. Laxmanji, Pandu and another man with a thick moustache sat on the floor sipping on some tea while the radio crooned some old hindi songs. Ravi walked in to buy beedis and we could hear Laxman yelling at him asking, “Why are you people here? What is the point of you guys talking to us? Has anything happened since the last time you were here?” he asked expressing his discontent over the fact that we hadn’t done anything since the last time we were here. Many have come like you in the past and nothing has happened. Many promised to do great things for our thanda and yet no one came back. Many like you told us that they would make our situation better. No one has ever come back,” he said.
We agreed with him. For, he wasn’t wrong. We told him that such unfortunate situations could have occurred in the past. But we do not intend to leave them with false promises. He didn’t believe us. He had no right to do so. For, we were strangers and we would remain that way for a while.
We gave up talking to him. He refused to listen to us. So, we decided to walk away from him. We were sipping our tea in the corner where goats ran astray when he came to us yet again and asked, “When are you leaving?” We asked him if we should leave right away and he replied with a nervous cackle, “No. No. I was just wondering when you plan to go home” We told him we will return to Bangalore in a year once our project is done.
“Oh! You’ll be away from home for a while. That’s strange.” With a perplexed nod, he then left towards his home.
In a makeshift shed, they built a stall that sold tea and biscuits. We sat next to two middle-aged men who were listening to the news on the radio. The stations toggled between English, Hindi and Telugu. They also spoke of the India-Bangladesh match that had a nail biting finish in the end. Dhoni managed to lead India to victory by just one run. Pandu was listening to the live commentary of the match on the radio and jumped with joy.
“He doesn’t listen to anyone.” said an old man sitting near the door, “Laxman is stubborn. “If he has made up his mind towards believing in a particular ideology, then no one can convince him otherwise. He thinks everyone will exploit us.”
The conversations veered towards caste and religion. Dalits and other members of the SC/ST communities who are continuously exploited by members of the higher caste in the name of religion and other baseless societal distinctions continue to suffer in these regions. “Caste-based discrimination is prevalent in these regions too. There have been many instances in the past where we were ostracised simply because we did not belong to their society. At some point in history, they told us we were unfit to become members of their society. Throughout history, this has been the situation. However, based on my personal experience, people of Andhra Pradesh especially those who occupied the higher stratum of society have been far too unkind to us than those in Karnataka or Maharashtra. They are far more aggressive in comparison with people from here. Perhaps, such practices are predominant in the villages. Maybe it is lesser in the cities these days. People are much more aware and are educated, I hear,” said Dhan Singh.
He was wrong. A year later, there were stories of men, women and children being lynched on the streets in towns where resided people who claimed to be superior.
“There’s another story,” he said crossing his feet, “Perhaps, you should hear it.”
A group of villagers from the thanda went to a neighbouring town for work. Over a few weeks, a local man who dwelled in the town fell in love with one of the girls accompanying them. “We couldn’t find her one day. She hadn’t returned home from work. We went upto him and asked him if he had taken her home. He flatly refused. We took him to his house and found her locked up in his home. Things got out of control that day. He was beaten up until he couldn’t stand. He was bleeding profusely and his clothes were soaked in blood. All the villagers from his village supported us until they saw him. Upon seeing one of their own battered and bruised, they decided to stand against us. They said it was wrong for us to beat up one of their own especially when we had come to the village for work. We told them it was wrong to kidnap one of our girls. People were extremely angry and passed comments like let us tie both the guy and girl onto the railway tracks and let them be killed by the train. She was eventually married off to someone from another thanda. Nonetheless, people decided to back someone who had committed a crime simply because he belonged to their society. He could have been killed that day had we not stopped everyone. And, that is the unfortunate reality of our situation. Many a times, we have found ourselves in situations where we have been looked down upon simply because we belonged to particular sect of a society that is deemed unfit for the cultured civilisation. Back in the day, the Lingayats and Reddys wouldn’t allow people into their homes but now things have changed. We can invite them to our homes and we too are invited to theirs. Things have changed now. Perhaps it can better in the future,” he said.
We then spoke about the massive migration of rural folks into urban areas owing to farming suffering a devastating blow due to weather fluctuation and the unmitigated water crisis in Chincholi. We also spoke about poverty in both the urban and rural realms. The discussion veered towards the plight of those who living in the urban sectors. While the poor in the villages have certain means to grow their own food and at least procure their daily meals; for those in the cities life is a constant struggle one that requires them to work day in and day out hoping that someday their fate might reign in happiness.
“At least we can cook our own meals and don’t have to worry for our food just yet. However, if the weather continues to deteriorate the way it has for the past four years, then our plight wouldn’t be any different from those struggling to survive in the city. Our soil is rich only if we can protect our fields with fencing and get water to our farms will the thanda be able to survive otherwise we will have to migrate to other cities or towns in search of coolie jobs,” said the man with the moustache.
We also spoke in length about the ongoing issue of casteism and its detrimental effects to society. After some tea, we decided to head to Vasanth’s house. It was getting dark so Piyush and Ravi decided to head to the car to keep all our equipment in there.
I decided to lie down on the Khatiya and was playing with my phone. Some kids stood behind me wondering what I was doing. I played them a few songs till my cell phone died. Light from the solar lamp flickered in the tea stall as women spread mats and bed sheets on the floor. Some decided to lay down while the children giggled and chatted with each other.
The skies were star studded and the temperature had considerably. The jungle had offered us some respite from the heat. The skies shone bright as a multitude of stars twinkled in unison. The cosmos celebrated the union of dusk and night. The horizon was bathed in hues of mauve and indigo. Birds chirped in a distance signalling their mates to head home. The quiet rustle of trees were now replaced by a dull murmur of creaking branches and crackling twigs. Breaking my reverie as
“Didi are you bored,” asked Vasanth’s younger brother’s wife. I told her I was just resting for the day. “Everyone has been asking why you guys are here,” she told us with shy smile. I then explained to her what our project was about and how we intend to help the thanda. “Yes, our situation doesn’t change or alter in any way with just people writing about us. What use it to any of us if we do not get any help?,” she asked. Another older women sat beside us on the khatiya and agreed. “One of the biggest issue we face today is that none of our children go to school. They can’t read or write. What will they do once they grow up? I fear they too will struggle with coolie jobs like us. Everyone mimics everybody,” said the older woman.
Vasanth’s sister-in-law then explained to us that the older lady was in fact her fufi. “I belong to a thanda near Shadipur. My family still lives there. My brothers go to school and one of them finished college. He is now in Hyderabad undergoing some bank training after which he will look for a job. I studied till ninth grade and was in SSLC when my father fell ill. They then decided to get me married off. I wanted to study further but circumstances were such that I couldn’t anymore. It has been three years since I got married and I have a beautiful baby boy. We actually live in Hoskote, Bangalore. Once my son is old enough, I will enroll him in a decent school. It is very difficult for everyone residing in the thanda to travel using these shoddy roads to the main town and village. My family in Shadipur keeps asking me how we manage without roads in case of emergencies. Ambulances hesitate to come to us in the monsoons and we have no choice but to walk all the way to the town and back,” she said.
Her fufi agreed with her and further added, “We need roads and we need our farms to be fenced. If our farms are protected then, we can somehow manage to get water and start growing some crops. Most of the animals have nothing to eat in the jungle. You will see scores of peacocks walking slowly towards the house in search of water in the mornings. They wouldn’t come so close to our homes or the thanda if they had enough for themselves. The forests cannot provide them with food anymore. We had lot more animals back in the day. Perhaps, they have all migrated to other forests or hills in search of food. The government keeps telling us that they will shift us to some other place but we flatly refused. Where else will we get such fertile lands for our crops? It would be foolish to do so.”
In conversation, they also mentioned to us during festivals such as Holi, everyone comes back to the thanda no matter where they are. “The atmosphere is quite festive then. The whole thanda gathers together and we have a great time. We cook, celebrate and talk endlessly for hours. However, when everyone leaves, the thanda feels deserted. You will only find a few children and older men and women sitting in their solitary corners staring into oblivion. Sometimes, our hearts are filled with loneliness. Those left behind are lonely and those of us who move away to distant lands in search of jobs are lonely too. In the cities, the skies disappear. We don’t get to see the stars and the air smells of smoke. At least in the forest, we get to appreciate the heavens and breathe clean air,” she said with a wry smile.
Her kid walked upto her and stared at her with such wide eyes. He kept giggling and luring her to go with him. He then lost interest and ran to one of his cousins as one of the ladies beckoned them all the kids to lay down.
Meanwhile Piyush and Ravi were back. They had been gone a while and we began to wonder what was taking them so long. Apparently, on their way to Vasanth’s home they bumped into Manu bhaiya who was more than willing to share with them the locals’ conundrum with NREGA and their refusal to cooperate with the government officials in facilitating a project that would not only allow them to build a fence but also earn daily wages through NREGA.
“They told us that the budget for the entire project is estimated at around Rs 25,00,000. And, that we will require at least 300 job cards to facilitate such a project. We are just 50. Where do we look for 250 people? Even if we get our relatives to register and get the work done just by ourselves, what is the guarantee that they will give us the money that is credited into their accounts? Moreover, the funds required for fencing materials is credited directly into the account of the dealer. We have no say in anything and cannot really be sure if all the funds are going in the right place. In order to get job cards done on time, we also have to pay them bribes from time to time. Everything is seething with corruption these days. Earlier, we had to convince them and plead with them to provide us with electrical lines. When the work was nearing to an end, the forest department said we weren’t allowed to do so. Now, they are providing us with solar equipment. Hopefully, that will enable us to have our homes lit up at night. However, what we really required was fencing for our farms and electricity to run the pumps to use the borewell. Ye roshni se khaan thodi girega? That way, we didn’t have to migrate to different cities throughout the year. Now, our homes will be lit but I fear it will another monumental struggle to get that done. We even told them to use these solar panels to pump water through the borewells. However, they said these panels cannot produce enough electricity to run these pumps. At least if we had water, we could work on one acre of land and grow our own food. We don’t need anyone else and can work on our own. For the past three years only 25% of the land has been giving us produce. 75% of the land doesn’t fetch us anything. I put some tur daal in two acres of land. I spent close to Rs 4,500 on maintenance, fertiliser, pesticides, etc. After harvest I earned just Rs 2,500 from the produce. I suffered losses worth Rs 2,000 and all my hard work went to waste. Toh aage kaise aata aadmi? Paani nahin hai. Ab jaake dekho lo wahan us taraf logon ne taraki daala tur daala, sab sukh gaya hai kheth. Jungle toh kab ka gaya. Kya kaarein? If this continues for the next two years, the jungle can’t be revived. Things are happening at a snail’s pace. It’s not like the government isn’t doing anything. They are trying everything they can but it isn’t happening fast enough. We need our farms to be functioning more than anything else. Corruption is another major issue that the entire society is grappling with and since we belong to the bottom of the hierarchy, we suffer the worst. We don’t know any way other than bribes to get around. There has never been a situation where we haven’t been asked for bribes. The person sitting on top might have good intentions and work towards the betterment of the society. However, the middlemen mess it up for all of us,” said Manu to them.
Apparently, based on their daily jobs, sometimes they don’t get paid on time. It all depends on the engineer handling the operations. Sometimes, they’ll release Rs 10 into the main funds to ensure that we get paid for the entire job. Some people don’t even settle the 50% margin. It all depends on whether or not the engineer is a good human being. “ See, now we built the compound wall you se ebefore us using the NREGA yojana. The engineer was a Muslim man. He told us we should do the work well and work hard. So, we took great interest in our work and decided to build a sturdy wall since it was for our thanda. Last week, our turn to go to the office and present them with the bills. The maintenance was minimum ten years. We suffered losses of Rs 30,000. In order to procure the materials, they told us we could get them through the udhyog yojana and we got funds only for 40% of the materials. That was a blow to us. In the forest department, they build something called Hingu gundi. Come March, we had to submit some bills. However, it wasn’t ready on our part. Everything got cancelled and it has ben three years now that we haven’t got paid. What to do? Kisi ko poochthe toh koi kuch nahin kar sakta sab haan bolte hain aur poochthe hain. We don’t have good leaders and even if we approach anyone with our problems, it doesn’t amount to anything. Ek mamooli se hostel warden suna hoga aapne from Gulbarga had 80 lakhs in his house. Agar uske ghar main itna hai toh baaju main kitna hoga? Ek sochne ki baat hai. These people have money but where do our people get money from. Hum khaana ugane ke liye paisa maangte hain woh building banane ke liye paise lootthe hain. These people buy sites, construct new houses, build lodges, etc. Poora samaj main hi brashtachar hai and we are all equally involved. You can’t just pick at any one person. Agar tu sachcha hai aur tumhare saath theen aadmi hain jo wrong chal rahe hain, toh aapko bhi wrong chalna hi padega. Otherwise you will be outnumbered and you can’t survive on your own. Kal parson main ration card ke liye gaya tha, jo aadmi paisa deta unko usi time pai milta jo aadmi paisa nahin deta tumhare panchayat ko aata bolke bhej deta. I knew someone there so I paid Rs 250 for five cards. They gave me two cards and kept three cards with themselves saying they couldn’t do it anymore. I told them insaan ko kha rahe ho ki insaan ke jaan ko kha rahe ho. So, he got offended and said how can you talk to me that way. The one was making the cards called me aside and said you don’t have to pay anything extra, the cards will be ready in no time. Most of the villagers are naive and don’t understand the rules. They will readily believe someone if they tell them there’s no other way. They scare them. If they shifted us to a better settlement near the neighbouring village at least our children will get education. We can do something and earn. We’ll at least be assured that our kids have a secured future. We don’t have anything else. Karza hone do koi baat nahin. Duniya main sab logon ne karza liya hai. Koi karza liya koi dama diya. But we need to survive and let our kids have a better future. If we get fencing done, if our farms have water, we can earn enough to send our kids to schools in Chincholi. We will have money to enrol them in hostels. Some kids leave schools because there’s no one to take care of their parents in the jungle. My kids have their final exams in a few days. They are studying in seventh grade. They refused to give them the hall ticket because I couldn’t pay Rs 3000 as exam fees (1500 + 1500). They are studying in private school. I eventually gave them a call and somehow arranged for my children to appear for their exams,” he said and pointed towards a vehicle driving towards them, “They have just come back from removing sand and mud from the pond. Matti nikaalne ke lye paisa hai par gaon ko sudharne ke liye paise nahin hai. Sab raam se ravan ban gaye, yehi problem hai. Humain Mosa ho gaya,” said Manu.
Ravi then told them that base don the number of panels they have installed in the thanda four solar pumps could be run which is perhaps sufficient for pumping water into their farms. However, the tender taken by the government was purely for the electrification of the villages. They can light up their homes and us TV. However, fans cannot be run. “Meter ka bill bhi bharna hai. Humko ek mahine main Rs 40 minimum dena hai whether we use electricity or not. These are the rules. If we consume more units that assigned per household then we will have to pay more. They are giving us solar but the process is being treated as a normal electricity meter,” said Manu.
Ravi then told them that based on the Rajiv Gandhi Yojana Scheme electricity has to be provided for free. The government handed over the tender to JESSCOM who upon completion of installing the meters will hand over operations to the government. “We told them take Rs 40 or take more but please ensure that our pumps are up and running soon. We need to start farming again, ” he said.
At around 8, we decided to have dinner. We were served rice, sambar and some baingan sabji. We ate our hearts fill and sat beside Pandu who was listening to the radio. We wondered aloud why there weren’t any mosquitoes in the forest. He then told us that unlike the cities, there aren’t any open gutters or spots with stagnant water here. The forests are clean which is why you won’t find mosquitoes here. He also told us that he had gone to Bombay for work. “It was filthy and unhygienic. The living conditions were horrible. The toilets were horrible. At least in the village we don’t have to struggle to live. We don’t have to put ourselves through such horrible conditions to survive,” he said.
In conversation, he also mentioned that he ran the tea stall himself. He always stocked up on supplies and keep some sweets and biscuits at home. He also makes a fresh pot of tea every morning and evening. “A lot of people owe me money. Sometimes, people don’t pay for their tea or biscuits. In all, I have to get Rs 12,000 from everyone. If I get my money, I will be able to do something. However, people are helpless. I understand their problem too. They have no means to earn here,” said Pandu.
After sitting and talking for a while, we decided to head towards the car for a walk. We could see a crimson moon peeking through dry branches that stood tall amidst a cluster of forlorn trees. The skies had a light haze as tufts of clouds shimmered in the twinkling horizon. We spent sometime in the forests and as we locked the car and walked back into the village, a young boy came running to us asking us if we wanted to park the car inside the premises of the schools.
We told him it wasn’t necessary and that we weren’t too worried. We heard a young man mutter in Kannada away from us. He said, “Park it at your own risk. There’s nothing we can do if something goes wrong. At least park the bike inside. We ll lock the gates and it will be safe. Since we are staying in the school, I suggest you park it inside.”
We then decided to take his advise and parked the car and bike inside the school. We then struck a conversation with the young man. “My name is Pradeep and I am from Shimoga,” he said in a wry tone. “We came here almost 11 months ago to install the solar panels, the lines, meters, etc. We were told we would be working for a month only. However, the work lasted almost a year,” he said with a helpless smile. We asked him why it took so long to complete the work which was initiated for a one month timeframe.
“I think they didn’t realise how difficult the terrain was. The thanda is located deep in the forest. Transporting equipment to the village takes time. Moreover, on some occasions seeking permission from the forest department proved to be a monumental task. Work had to be stopped temporarily on numerous occasions,” he said.
He asked us why we were here and what we intended to do for the thanda. He listened to us with great interest and pointed at two young boys seated on the ground and said, “If these boys get the opportunity to study and do well for themselves, they’ll perhaps prosper and do well for themselves. This thanda is quite backwards and the people are unware. You can’t trust anyone. They will always try to misuse any help that comes to them. You can pass out in the car if you want or on the roof here if you don’t feel safe.”
We told him that wasn’t necessary and that we would sleep near Vasanth’s house. Everyone has only treated us with kindness and love, and there was no need to worry or fear anyone. We also noticed how he had a very guarded perspective almost as if as an outsider he never let them in and looked at them with a certain amount of suspicion. “I have seen enough in the past one year. The men at least go to different cities and villages and have gained some knowledge and experience. The women, however, know absolutely nothing. It isn’t their fault really. The community is in desperate need of upliftment. If they get water to their farms and fencing then they will be able to prosper. They eat a lot of meat because they are unable to grow their own vegetables and it may not be feasible for them to go to towns every other day since they have no proper roads connecting the thanda to Kunchavaram or Shadipur. They have a teacher/master who walks from Dharmasaga and comes to school. It is quite a task for him too. He has his own issues and problems that he has to deal with and the locals don’t understand that. It is no one’s fault really. You can’t blame the villagers nor the teacher. It is the situation that is at fault here,” he said.
Apparently, they were just a few people who arrived initially and were staying in Vasanth’s house. However, as the numbers increased, they decided to stay in the school and not burden his family. “They are too naive and they don’t have any understanding of the outside world. At least if they watched some TV, it would help them look at things with a different perspective,” he said.
He also told us that two cars from Andhra Pradesh had come to the Thanda a few days ago. He asked them to sleep in the school. However, they decided to camp in the jungle. Despite requesting them to sleep in the school, they decided to go to the forests. Since no one knew who they were, the locals decided to inform the authorities and get them removed. “They couldn’t take the chance. What if they turned out to be miscreants who are here to cause some trouble for locals,” he said.
It was clear that Pradeep wanted to leave the village as soon as possible. He didn’t have any attachment towards the locals in his heart. He treated them as an outsider and perhaps he won’t let them in. He was fearful and looked at them with suspicion. He considered them as thugs. As we walked towards Vasanth’s house, we saw some bricks piled outside the temple. We discussed how the locals were willing to spend whatever little they had on renovating the temple rather than focussing on their farms or water pumps. Religion had a strong foothold in their socio-cultural identity and perhaps governed their lives. Perhaps, they placed their faith on their Gods who would show them mercy. Perhaps it gave them hope. We may never know. But they longed for a life bereft of hopelessness and struggle. For now, religion gave them that; a reason to keep their hope alive.
We walked back to Vasanth’s house and decided to lay down. Piyush and Ravi slept on the porch while I took the khatiya. We spoke for a while and discussed what Pradeep had told us. We later told didi that we had parked the car inside the school and she said there was nothing to be worried about. We soon drifted off to sleep. The silence of the forests were soon taken over by rustling of leaves and a light hum of the winds in the distance.
We were woken by dogs barking at each other at around 5 am. Vasanth bhaiya yelled at them beckoning them to quiet down. Dawn hadn’t broken in yet and we decided to sleep some more. The cool crisp air of the mornings had us wrapped in blankets throughout. We were up by six and saw women outside every house sweeping, heating water for bathing and cleaning and preparing breakfast. Alight smoke rose in the air as people lit fires outside their houses. We saw Vasanth’s younger brother’s wife sweeping the courtyard nonstop for about half an hour. The synchronous swishing of brooms filled the air with familiar sounds; one that transports you to the villages of your hometown. Its amazing how everything looked different and yet felt familiar; how no one was related to us and yet they felt like our own. There was no us and them. We were all one surviving together bonding on our joys and sorrows.
After brushing our teeth, we walked to the car to get our toiletries bag and greeted everyone on the way. All around us we could only see women rushing to hand pumps feeding the cattle and goats some hay and getting ready for their morning chores. The women worked far too hard in the villages. A group of them would now walk to the forest to gather some wood. We saw piles stacked neatly on the roadside the pervious day. Since the heat becomes unbearable, they don’t go twice a day unlike the earlier days. The jungle is dry and there is no water left anymore.
We then walked back to Vasanth’s house and spotted the tea stall open. We went in and greeted everyone. Pandu, Laxman and Dhan Singh were seated on the ground. The radio crooned an old Hindi tunes. Vasanth bhaiya entered and had some chai too. Apparently, he reached at 12 last night. He had parked his bike in Dharmar and took a jeep till there. He then rode all alone in the dark through the forests to reach the thanda. “I am used to it. This is my home. I am not scared of the jungle. Besides there’s nothing to loot from us,” he said.
The conversation veered towards the history of the community. They told us how their ancestors would hunt and gather their own food back in the day. “We used to have our traditional shields, a knife and a gun. Our grandfathers wore them with great pride. They had no fear in their hearts. His grandfather, “he pointed at a middle aged man sitting behind us and added, “could tell if the hunter has hit the target just by sound. He would sit in the village and say “Yes he has got his game” or “No he missed the target”. He was a fierce old man,” said the seventy year old.
“No matter how ferocious the animal, we would go to the jungles and hunt them down. The meat was shared amongst all. Sometimes, the upper caste would ask us to get them a particular kind of meat. They would pay us some money and tell us, “What you got the last time was delicious.” They hadn’t the faintest clue of the amount of time or energy it took us to hunt down an animal. The hunter looks at nothing around him save the game. His concentration has to razor sharp. Woh jaanwar ke sivaaye kuch nahin dekhega. Back in the day, we took great pride in integrity. We were one in spirit. Today, we are divided. Everyone is just bothered about themselves. We have lost our collective identity. We have gone through atrocities together. There was a time when the upper caste wouldn’t give us a glass of water. We weren’t allowed to sit in the same spot or level as them. They would pour water from above and we were supposed to sit on the ground and drink it. We were served tea in separate glasses. We had to take the glass from a shelf outside the stall. The server would then pour it from above. We had to wash it ourselves once we were done. No matter what crimes were committed against us, if we raised our voice against injustice, they would all unite against us claiming that we had no right to fight back for we were inferior. Humare yahan unko Patil bolte hain. Lingayat, Reddy, ye sab log upper caste hain. It is only after what B R Ambedkar did for us is why we are able to live in the same vicinity as them and are able to sit long with them as equals. He fought for equality and human rights. He fought for those who weren’t allowed to have a voice. Things have improved drastically since then however we still have a long way to go,” he said.
In conversation, they also mentioned how they would smoke their traditional hookah back in the day which was made of coconut husk and bamboo. Dhan Singh explained with animated gestures on how they added water into the husk and placed charred coals over tobacco. They would sit in a circle and take long drags of smoke before passing it around. “That was how we first got to know each other. During weddings when the families meet, they share hookah too. Earlier, our wedding used to take place over days and celebrations would last over a month. I spent three months at my in-laws place before coming back to Seri Thanda. First, members of the girls side would visit our family. They are welcomed with great pomp and splendour. We had to take good care of them. We would then show them four animals and they would choose three. This was considered as a wedding gift from the groom’s side to the bride’s family. The groom’s family had to provide them with gift and other offerings unlike today where the girl’s side is expected to spend on the weddings and pay dowry. Everyone would be armed with a gun and knife in case a fight broke out during the wedding. When I had gone to my wife’s place for the first times, back in the day, we had a custom wherein the groom had to stand and greet everyone. I spotted someone walking towards me and I stood up. I didn’t sit down till someone realised that I had been standing for a while. Our women had to follow the ghoongat system. The young bride would be seated inside while a few elders and the groom could interact with her. The groom would then be asked if he was happy with the partner. The bride would also be asked for her consent. If both the parties agreed, then they would go ahead with the wedding,” said Dhan Singh.
Back in the day, they would hunt everything from peacocks, lions, and bears. They also narrated incidents of the animals attacking their ancestors back in the day. Dhan singh then told us that in order to kill a lion you had to shoot a bullet straight through its head or under its arms. “A clean shot will ensure that the lion is rendered helpless. If you miss a shot, then it will do everything in its power to overpower you,” said Dhan Singh.
We sat there for a while till Piyush and Ravi decided to head behind the stall as a young man asked them to take photographs of peacocks who had come to the thanda in search of water.
I sat with Pandu and Laxman who then spoke about the plight of those living in the thanda. They reiterated the need for fencing and the possibility of getting of water into their farms. If the schools could be functional, then their children won’t be sitting at home in hopes of driving a JCB someday and earning a living.
I then walked out and joined Piyush and Ravi who were deep in conversation with Manu and a few other men who were sitting behind the tea stall. Manu Singh told us how in one of the hospitals in Thandur most of the patients are from the Lambani community. “One of my relatives had a respiratory issue. The doctor said he had to do perform small surgery which would cost us Rs 3,000. I asked him to go ahead with it. However, the next day just before the operation, I was billed for Rs 18,000. I was shocked. I didn’t know what to do. I had arranged for Rs 15,000 and asked them to reduce the cost. I made some calls to some people I knew who got in touch with the doctor and requested him to reduce the cost. Everything has become a business. Even for our NREGA job cards, those who can afford to pay them a bribe can get their cards issues immediately, the others feel it is easier to migrate to other cities and earn a living. Even when we are allotted houses, we are thoroughly exploited. For instance, if four houses have been allotted to a particular settlement, ten people will be informed and asked to wait for their calls. They then start the bidding game. Out of desperation, people will promise to pay them higher than the other person in order to get a house for themselves and their family. The highest bidder then gets the house. The ones in the bottom continue to rot in their misery. They had given us the Arogya Card under which we were told medical treatments could be done for miniscule amounts. However, such policies are applicable only for critical surgeries and anything that costs above two lakhs. Normal treatments aren’t eligible for a waiver. The ones sitting on top may have good intentions but the ones on ground if corrupt then nothing ever reaches us. We have been begging for years to give us roads and electricity to pump water, protection for our fields. In the name of conservation, they cordoned off areas in the forest. Neither is the forest conserved nor its creatures have any respite. Don’t we deserve attention too?” he asked.
We spoke for a while on the ongoing issues and detrimental effects of corruption on our society for a while. We then decided to leave since it was getting late for Ravi. He had to ride to Bangalore and we thought it would be wise to leave right away. As we walked to the car Manu mentioned that they had their ancestral guns and knives which was thrown away out of fear years ago. Had they kept it, it would have served as a last flickering memory of a tribe that once fled the Mughal invasion and reached the forests of the South. He also led us to his house to show what his mother had been stitching in order to make a traditional lehenga. We spoke about their traditional attire and jewellery and how perhaps that could provide them a source of living. He said by the time we come back next year he will ask her to get a traditional outfit ready so that could serve as a sample. Ravi cited the example of Lepakshi and how the entire village transformed their state over the years using their traditional art forms and weaving. “If we can survive through our own skills, then we would be able to evolve on our own. We wouldn’t have to rely on coolie jobs and can use traditional art to earn a living. That would be best for our women. They wouldn’t have to struggle anymore,” he said.
We then bid an emotional farewell to everyone and told them that we stay in touch. We spoke about what could be done in the area and how we could help them.
We drove back through the forests as an orb of gold settled in its heart. The sun had risen and the forests shone in its resplendent glory. We saw a herd of peacocks and peahens running hither and tither in a small patch of land. We crossed the forests and entered Shadipur. We also spotted a few monkeys climbing out of a few jowar fields in search of food. We soon reached the red mud roads that led us to Chandapur.
(to be continued…)
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