When women take to protest, there is no looking back. This time it is the tractors. This time it is a Polydol death. This time it is a disappearance. This time it is a strike for higher wages. This time it is the demand for punishment for a rapist – the issues come and go and come again.
Sometimes their demands are related to women alone, like when they demanded daily wages instead of the weekly wage for women. Or when they demanded their right to take breaks to attend to their infants, because babies left under the shade of trees cried to their death in their makeshift sari cradles, or rolled over and drowned in the mud. Most of the time, they fight for everybody.
Once they smashed pots to protest their poor wages. Once, when the Paddy Producers Association put up its yellow flag in their village, they hauled it down, set fire to it and broke the flagpost. Once they went to the fields to harvest in the middle of the night, saying that they alone would harvest the crops they sowed, and that the landlords had no business employing outside labour.
They are arrested for such transgressions, and because the police are such a benevolent force, they arrest the infants, too.
The jails are full of fighting Madonnas. They are not afraid. They are not afraid of arrests. They are not afraid of hurt. On any given day, they can outweep the wailing police sirens. The women are adept at all of this: for the last three years, they have been stopping every job-stealing tractor in its tracks, standing in front of it, screaming the choicest abuses.
The landlords punish these shrill-voiced women by stripping them almost naked and tying them to trees and whipping them in front of the whole village. The police punish them by making them kneel and walk a few miles on their knees until they have no choice but to crawl. But nothing breaks them. They are bold beyond the bruised skin and the bleeding knee.
Since the stage is set, the stuntmen move in. The fear of violence makes the people of the cheri flee. The landlords lead from the front lines. They take turns in their attacks, a code of honour that allows them to swap and circulate their rowdies and create uniform dread. They select the poorest cheris in their spheres of influence and pillage them. When they are on the rampage, they see no shame in looting from their own servants.
They take away the goats and chickens and the brass vessels and all the small scraps of paper money that the women have carefully hidden inside. They steal all the stores of paddy. Sometimes, just out of spite, they burn roofs and clothes and they even spill the little salt they find. When the people of the cheri return, they are forced to start all over again.
When such things happen, the knee-jerk reaction of the people of the cheri is to go to the police. But they know that the policemen also practise untouchability: they have seen how the police have filed false cases against them, how the police are nothing but a private army on the payroll of the landlords, how the police are waiting for their own revenge.
The police, as puppets of the ruling classes, will not make the law work for the poor. So the people go to the party. Depending on the grievousness of the situation, the party sends out petitions, pastes posters, organises public meetings and stages protests.
Police raids on the cheri are timed affairs. Pre-dawn heist, operation high-noon, or the late-night show: when the people are unprepared and can be swooped down upon and stashed into police trucks. Today the vans of the Madras Special Police come and pick up all the able-bodied men in this cheri. They will be able to return home three months later.
Today, the Kisan Deputy Superindent of Police at Tanjore decides to send policemen to stand guard on the imported labourers anywhere in the district. Today, the local police handcuff the local Communist leader and drag him through the village as if he were an animal, as if this would frighten the people away from the red flag. This keeps the people away from the police. This draws them closer to the party.
How not to expect militancy from men who wake up before sunrise, wear nothing more than a loincloth, walk in line every daybreak, wash their faces from any puddle of water, brush their teeth with red brick and are the colour of the earth they work?
How not to expect anger from women whose friendliest banter involves swearing to cut off each other’s cunts? How long will a people hold their patience when they earn their daily meal after sunset and have to hurry home to drop the handfuls of paddy into smouldering ash, wait for its wetness to waft away and then pound the grains and cook the dehusked rice into a formless congee that is never enough to douse their endless hunger?
How can there be satisfaction, contentment, pleasure or the pursuit of happiness when women have to wake up every morning with a prayer that there is some tamarind, some dried chilli and half an onion in the home, anything to make the burning, red-hot chutney that can be licked from their fingers to let them tolerate the tastelessness of the leftover rice? Could the sight of a copper coin every week soften these women’s curses?
Just because they are paid kalluk-kaasu, a regular ration for drinking arrack, would their men give up on anger? In a land where the bullock walks of its own accord to the paddy field an hour in advance of sunrise, how long will it take before the men and women decide that they are not cattle, that they can break away, break free from their bondage, instead of hauling them- selves to the field with a lantern in one hand and a sickle in the other?
Could a people be silenced by not allowing them to even store the seeds of their labour, by denying them the yields of their harvest? When starvation stares them in the face, do they forget to speak?
Excerpted with permission from The Gypsy Goddess, Meena Kandasamy, Fourth Estate.
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