‘"The flesh is heavy on my back; she’s my daughter, just turned fifteen. Feel her and be back soon."
This sentence, from Jayanto Mahapatro’s "The Hunger," disturbed me a lot.
It’s about a father aged sixty and a daughter aged fifteen, who struggle in their lives fishing in the sea. The shack they live in at the coast might get blown away even at a slight rainy-wind. The father and the daughter were not dressed adequately. Hers was a miserable plight of not having even a length of cloth to conceal her physic that was beyond her age. She used to accompany her father to the coast everyday. Her daily chore had been to wait for her father till the evening loitering at the coast. She was a burden; a responsibility beyond what the old man could manage. It became impossible for him to make the ends meet. Survival itself was a problem for them. He didn’t have either courage or leisure to think of marrying her off. It’s misfortune that inhabited in their house.
‘He reached back home from the sea. The sky seemed as though it might collapse any time with a thunder. He lost patience to remain standing, as he didn’t have food for two-three days. He was not in a position even to cry. The tears in his eyes seeped long ago. The coast was turbulent like the mind of the old man. As the visitors were hurrying up to leave for their houses, the coast was almost vacant. Each one was rushing in hurry. The university students would visit the shore for fun everyday. Groups together they would make fun jostling and shoving one against the other; they would scream and shout to tumble their sorrow into the waters. Some of them would come over there only to quench their bodily desires. As soon as they reach, they would gaze all eyes at the women folk. Those who could afford would come regularly; those who couldn’t, rarely. The old man noticed several times a youth coming over there for prostitutes to satisfy his desire by making some payment. He was fair and sturdy. He seemed to have hailed from a rich family since he sported a ring, chain and a costly watch. He seemed masculine. He was walking towards the old man dragging his feet in the sand and kicking the shells, complaining that he didn’t find anyone that day. The hopes of the old man that he had nurtured all these days got evaporated. He felt as though the sea that he had trusted swallowed him. He had been defeated in life for a long time; he got defeated only to survive. He would no longer stand the defeat. He had taken a decision only by means of bowing to his defeat. Having bowed to the plight, he called out to the boy. After conversing for some time, he could make out what the boy was looking for,
"Boy! ‘This is my daughter; just turned fifteen the other day.
The flush is heavy on my back; feel her and be back soon.
Look boy! It might rain. It’s time for the last bus too. Go over there, and come back after completing the work," holding back his sorrow, the old man handed her to him, and disappeared from there.
‘The girl’s eyes seemed like the worn out marbles devoid of glow. When seen through her eyes, her bones could be seen. Having followed him disinterestedly, she spread her thighs involuntarily, and surrendered herself to him. The fish in the basket of the old man flickered.’
This poem, which I was teaching in the class, depicts the helplessness of the father who sold his daughter for quenching the hunger, and how an inert girl inevitably turns into a doll being crushed under the masculinity of the man. The poem narrates the fate of those who live by depending on their caste-occupation. While the poem was taught, some of the girls grew somewhat restless, head brooding. A few boys smiled to themselves enjoying amorously. I noticed the whirlpools in the eyes of some students the colors of whose faces changed. We were all in a kind of daze in the class for some time.
I came to normalcy after a prolonged silence when someone said,
‘Sir! The bell rang.’
The pages of the anthology of Commonwealth Poetry seemed to be smeared by the powder of the bones, and the powder seemed to be dribbling along the way. It smelled the whiff of bones. I started for the staff room holding the book in the hand. Some of the people were running helter-skelter as though being chased by someone. They were screaming. I was walking towards the staff room. Groups of the senior students were ragging the newcomers while some others were sitting on the lawns. A few others were munching popcorn. Some were shouting.
The premises of the college were abuzz with the visitors and parents. The welcome banners and hoardings of students’ organizations of various hues added festive atmosphere on the campus. Every student on the campus seemed to me like Jesus carrying the Cross. Amid emotional atmosphere, I reached the staff room, and relaxed in the chair. Yadaiah, a Telugu lecture, sitting beside me greeted,
‘Sunder Raju! What’s the matter? You seem dull?’
I told him that there was nothing specific, and took out a sheet of paper to make notes for the seminar to be held in the evening. When I was searching for my spectacles,
‘Here, sir your specs,’ a student by name Shyam handed them to me. Being the in-charge of the student’s welfare, I knew a little about every student.
Yadaiah said, ‘Shyam too seems to be presenting a paper in the seminar?’
He added, ‘Shyam is a good student; he takes active part in social activities.’
I was the in-charge of the hostel. I saw him first at the time of admissions when he came with a bag in one hand and an old suitcase wrapped in a rag in another. The handle being broken, he found it difficult to hold it. Though his hair was unkempt, and wore worn out sandals, there seemed a sense of determination in his eyes. He came into my room with very little luggage. I had learnt about him then. After completing the formalities of admissions, he left for his room.
Shyam was an orphan hailing from a remote village at Palamuru, known for migrant labor. His father used to sew sandals. His mother died of anemia a few months after his birth. He lost his father too who died of ulcer having dragged on life without food. He underwent the trauma of hunger, untouchability, insults and hatred. Having been an unwelcome inmate in the welfare hostels, he used to live in the hostels by eating stale food and drinking water in the streets.
He could reach the university braving the difficulties. I could learn these details about him because of the interest that he evinced in studies. I thought that it was this kind of background that made his eyes welled up in the class while teaching the poem. Thinking so, I immersed in making notes again. I didn’t feel like having lunch. I managed with tea, and continued to make notes. It was getting five in the evening. My colleagues were getting ready to leave. When my colleague asked me if I would accompany him for home, I said that I would participate in the seminar on the literature of the suppressed castes. I invited him should he be interested. When I started, I saw Shyam at the gate of the collage. I asked him, ‘How do you go to the seminar?’
‘I’ll go with friends, sir.’
‘It’s OK. But come to my house some time tomorrow,’
I caught the bus. The bus was overcrowded as some of the passengers were hanging on the footboard as though being chased. It got late by the time the seminar ended. A few prominent poets gave their messages. The seminar ended with the address of the vice chancellor. I started for home.
* * *
I read Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man late in the night. He portrayed emotionally the last moments of a man who was sentenced to death and about be hung shortly. I didn’t quite know when exactly I fell asleep.
I awoke when the sunrays fell on my face. The bed was full of papers and books. My eyes turned red these days because of sleeplessness. I came out of the house brushing my teeth. The women at the public tap were quarrelling among themselves. Some of them were returning with empty brass-pots. I washed my face, and switched on the TV. There was a panel discussion among a few editors of new papers; they were shouting on some issue. An editor, who seemed to be a Brahmin, was speaking on the freedom of editors that they didn’t have an agenda for themselves but to carry forward the agenda of the owners. As the discussion sounded lousy, I browsed through the newspapers that were full of routine news. Then there was a knock on the door. When I opened the door, it was Shyam.
‘Come on young man, how are you?’
I gave him some literary magazines for reading, and went into the kitchen to make tea. After a wile I came back with a bottle of water and two cups of tea. We watched the discussion on the TV while sipping tea.
He commented, ‘What do they mean by freedom?
Do they mean the freedom of journalists or owners? One is being pitted against the other.’ We turned off the TV as the discussion was lousy.
‘Sir! Where is madam? What are your children studying? Shyam asked me.
‘Nothing of that sort; I am not married so far,’ I continued,
‘How is your study going on? How do you find the hostel facility?’ He answered briefly. His attitude seemed as though he had come to discuss a big issue. Taking liberty he asked,
‘Sir I feel like knowing about your background. Please tell me about yourself,’ he asked. Though his question was not curious, I began so as not to discourage him. When he asked about my past, forty-five years of my life was running like a reel before my eyes. My eyes were streaming. The throat was getting parched. Yet, I overcame a bout of emotion, ‘There’s nothing great to tell about myself; I underwent travails like you. Having been born into a poor family from one of the remote villages, I faced acute hunger and the problem untouchability in my childhood. I can’t narrate artistically. Whatever I have to speak or write about my childhood, it is inevitably about hunger and untouchability.
‘By then, the Lal Bahadur canal of Nagarjuna sagar was yet to be dug. My village used to be reeled under severe draught. The Madigas of my village used to work as the annual field-laborers in the fields of farmers. One of such laborers was my father, Lachaiah. The villagers didn’t ever address him by his name. They used to address him ‘Lachchiga’ derogatively. Had he been born into a touchable caste, they would have perhaps addressed him Laxmaiah gaaru adding a respectable epithet. He became Lachchi gaadu only because he was born into an untouchable caste. I am the last of the six children in my family. I am the only one to have learnt the alphabet in piecemeal. We don’t possess even a cent of land. Amma and ayya, mother and father used to work as laborers.
Our folk used to divide the houses of the upper castes into shares for rendering caste-services to them. Our folk used to work in their families during festivals and other celebrations too. They used to remove the carcass of the dead animals, and keep guard of the pyres if someone died in the upper castes. The Madigas had to remove shit from the dry lavatories manually. I didn’t use to understand their ethics of assigning the menial work to us.
‘My folk used to spend their lives in the agricultural work. What they ultimately used to get in turn was the left over grains in the threshing ground. At the most, they used to dole out a few measures of grains by means of alms. However hard they might have worked, they used to be bestowed with the empty grains mixed in the soil. I never used to understand as to why they did never fight for their share in the heaps of grains.
‘My childhood was spent most dreadfully. There were days when I used to pick the discarded betel leaves at the shacks, roast the tubers, roast and pound the millets, and eat by the side of the trenches. There were days when I used to gather grains by gleaning, bundle them in a shoulder-cloth, bury it in the ground, and have it cooked by burning twigs over ground. Though semi-cooked, I used to eat the same because of hunger. I used to gather raw grams for eating. Half of my childhood was spent in gathering nuts and wild fruits. After the school hours, we used to assemble at the main junction of my village. We used to fish in the rivulet and trenches, and bring home sundry varieties of fishes.
Most of the days we used to eat this kind of stuff. There never used to be curds or curries available in my house. If at all anything was available, there used to be dry bullock meat and cucumber. We didn’t own a cent of land; affection among our folk used to be the sole asset. In fact the poor are capable of great love. If there is anything to speak about myself, it is but love and affection. Annayya, my elder brother was fixed for the annual field-labor right in his childhood. He used to eat his food at the landlords. On many an occasion, he would eat his morning-food, and hand me the lunch in the school, skipping his own lunch. If I were to write about the hunger that I underwent, the ink in my pen may not be sufficient to pen it. I feel like turning the blood that dripped from my eyes, into ink and write!
‘I told you already about the dry bullock meat. Several people didn’t allow us near them because we used to eat bullock meat. What’s wrong in eating the meat of the dead cattle as long as one does not kill the human beings for one’s selfish needs? In this country, the fourfold varna system had eaten the people alive. While they were arrogant, we at the dead cattle only to be alive. There is nothing wrong in it.
Another incident worth remembering in my life is selling the dry bones of the cattle. It used to be difficult to collect them. When an animal died, they used to throw it far away from the village. Our houses used to be away from the village too. The carcass of the animals used to be dreadful even to look at. Having been putrefied, they used to smell. When it rained, the carcass used to swell. It used to be very awful even to go near by them. In spite of the smell, the white-warms used to swarm on them. As though competing with them, some red worms used to pound the bones. Eagles and vultures used to prey on them like the capitalists who suck and turn the economy of this country into pulp. One didn’t know how, but the moment an animal died, they would arrive timely. They used to eat away the flesh of the animal with a lot of understanding among themselves. They are more disciplined in eating than the human beings. We used to be in need of the bones left out by the vultures and the dogs.
‘Due to the prolonged draught in the villages, the people didn’t use to stay in the villages. They used to migrate en mass in search of work. The children and the aged used to be left out in the village. In the process of searching for livelihood, every village used to seem like parched crops. The locked doors used to mock at us. The children left behind used to be divided into groups for gathering bones. Having bound them into small bundles, we used to bring them home. At times they used to slip off the bicycle. It used to be very difficult to re-bundle them as the bones used to smell horrible stink. If the bundling was delayed, the villagers used to scold us. The kind of humiliation I used to undergo while bundling the bones in a hurried manner could only be understood by one’s own experience. The dry bones used to waft sever odor. I didn’t use to understand as to how the buyer of the bones would bear the odor for so long. He used to buy them visiting every village by his bicycle with a couple of gunny bags. He used to eat his lunch on his way at the trench in the outskirts. He would eat with the same hands that held the stinking bones. Gathering them the whole day, he used to sell them in the factory. One couldn’t afford to give up bone picking on the pretext of odor.
There used to be a lot of quarrels, shouting, curses and abuses in the process of gathering them. W used to beat each other at times. The bones used to turn into weapons at times wounding ourselves. The wounds, the blood that dripped and the humiliation we underwent were countless.
* * *
As we felt sultry in the room, we both were sweating, and felt like eating something. There were some sweetmeats sent by Premalatha. We came out with the sweetmeats in the plates. When we were eating, the sky grew cloudy seeming like raining.
‘And then?’ asked Shyam.
‘There used to be a factory of bones just beside our village; it’s no longer there now. It belonged to a Leftist leader. He was one among thousands of people who migrated to our village in search of livelihood. A poor man that he was in the beginning, he has now earned crores of rupees. Either because of his caste or his party, he has earned a lot of clout, expensive apartments and foreign cars too. There might be several of his kind in the Telangana region. Today they accuse us that our ignorance is as big as the sky. To be a millionaire being a Leftist seemed strange. Further he teaches the Leftist ideology himself being in possession of a lot of wealth. The bones that we collected, we used to sell in his factory. The bones couldn’t change our lives; but could turn him into a millionaire.
After a few years the villages of Telangana became barren. The cattle were pushed to the slaughterhouses instead of allowing them die of starvation. How long could the farmers feed them, themselves committing suicide by consuming pesticides that they had bought by mortgaging the thali, the nuptial string of their wives.
‘The flush was heavy on their back.’
The cattle became a burden to them. They had sold out their cattle herds and lorries together holding back their tears. It became a curse to have been a farmer in this country. Having been a cursed community, they became helpless in selling them out. Not merely cattle. The unnatural death of human beings too was usual to us. The pylons raised in memory of the martyrs would stand a witness to the number of people who had died. Then there was a draught of bones in my village. Our gaze, that used to explore the bones of the dead animals, had turned to the graveyards. We had dared to dig the graves of human beings.
We had spent our nights more in the graveyard. The half-burnt logs in the pyres used to be afire at the winds. We used to get scared being reminded of the childhood tales of the peys; we used to get scared at the flames of pyres. But the fear was never a matter in the light of the hunger. We had dug graves for bones and for money because of hunger. So many graves were exhausted but we didn’t cease to search for the bones. Having noticed the difference in the size of the bones, the buyer of the bones once questioned us. Everybody came to know about it in the village, and made it a big issue. The vultures that were knocking away our wealth termed us the thieves. They scolded us and thrashed us. They proposed to excommunicate us from the village. They suggested for the consecration of the village so as to purify the portent that had taken place. But I didn’t really understand who the real thieves were.
‘We heard someone knock the door. It was a postman who delivered a parcel containg Siddi, a novel sent by its author Vemula Yellaiah.
‘The dress I used to wear was rather embarrassing since I had to go to the school in the same ragged dress. We used to make use of amma, mother’s old rags both for the bedding and bed sheets. Ever since my childhood I had been wearing torn rags. Baindla Veeraswami used to reside at next door. He used to serve in the shrines of Muthyalamma, Mysamma and other deities. People from the neighboring hamlets used to approach him for exorcising the evil spirits. He used to utter some chanting and make loud shouting. We were not allowed to speak to him. Once when I was roaming in the cemetery, he had flung aside the shroud of a dead body at the time of cremation.
Everybody used to look at it with fear. I saw Veeraswami bring it home. Once I mustered courage, and went to his house. I saw lemons and other paraphernalia of exorcising at his threshold.
I got scared. Having mustered courage I asked him, ‘Peddayya! I want a piece of cloth; can you spare one?’
‘Why do you need it ra?’ he asked me.
‘I want to get a shirt stitched.’
I got a couple of shirts stitched out of the shroud he had given me. I used the shirts for a long time. This incident made me bold in speaking on certain occasions. Ever since, I began thinking rationally. It made me a rationalist. My teacher, Asha Devi helped me in studies after my high school. She made me stay with them for education. They were Brahmins, that too pious Vaishnavas. She had to fight with her family for making me stay with them; spend on my education. They were the chief priests in Bhadrachalam shrine. Having joined as a domestic help to them, I pursued my studies, and could reach up to the university education.
It’s because of the similarities in suffering and ideology between us that made me share my experiences with Shyam. The upper castes showed discrimination against me; and the same kind of discrimination continues against Shyam too. Why does the discrimination continue even after a generation? Why hasn’t anything changed? The intellectuals claim using empty jargon that there is so much of development. If anything, there is a change only in the statistics. But everything remains where it is.
* * *
As we felt hungry, I said ‘Let’s get in. we’ll cook something and eat,’ we entered into the kitchen. I cooked some rice. Then I was reminded of Premalatha, my junior in the university who invited me for initiating maiden feeding to her daughter. Though I didn’t like the convention, I felt like going. I went there considering that it was a chance to pay a visit to them. I took along poornam, an eatable that she liked most. After meals when I was starting, she handed me a neat packet offering dry-bullock meat saying that I liked it so much. I opened the packet and cooked it. After having meals, finally we discussed about the deliberations in the seminar. He seemed a widely read man.
There was a sudden change in the sky. It began to drizzle. The wind was blowing powerfully with lightening and thunder. And then there was a power cut. I took him into the reading room and drew the curtains. There was a little light. Our discussion then focused turned to caste versus class.
‘Sir! One thing is true. In this country there is caste in everything; including a dead body and a cemetery. Why so much. Let the intellectuals cite where there is no caste references. There has been a treachery against the ideas and arts of the sundry castes. The upper caste scholars have been belittling the arts and literatures of the Dalits. What they had dubbed became arts; literature. That’s why there was no place for our arts and ideas. We didn’t record our arts. They created a gulf between the arts of the upper castes and those of the lower castes. There is a great need to bridge the gulf; to create an alternative culture and literature. They discriminated against us thus far. Several intellectuals shed crocodile tears like the hired mourners at the mummies of Emperor Pharos.
If we keep silent, they’ll take it for weakness. They will bury us, and laugh happily. One has to write one’s identity. We could work enough to sow the seeds of self-respect and identity movements. We’ll spread the seeds in all the directions. There’s a need to change drastically the falsified syllabus of the battles that took place for safeguarding the hegemony.
‘Sir! We have been the vanquished for thousands of years; cheated having been vanquished. How long would it last? The winners have constructed history. How I wonder the vanquished were the writers of the history! Our mfolk lived only to be vanquished all these years, one has to battle desperately. Who knows we might win the battle.’
I remained silent for a while after Shyam spoke. The silence seemed strange to me. I looked at Shyam intently for a while. I heard the noise of rattling bones.
Original: (Telugu): konni emukalu inkonni ginjalu
Gurram Seetaramulu EFL University