Our village is just one among thousands. On the outskirts of our village is the Aithayya Madhigara Hatti, a colony for Madigas, the tanner-cobbler community. In that colony lived a couple with their five Pandava sons and a daughter for a blessing. My parents did not know the comforts of the gentle morning breeze, of shade, of water. To swim across the sea of family life, they slogged on other people’s farms and fields, sweating water and blood, overcoming hundreds of odds day after day, not seeing the snake that bit them or the thief that hit them until they became like besoms of dry twigs. As the years went by, even as they yellowed like leaves, even as their children grew wings, they held their hunger taut like bent bows and went hunting for food before break of day for any kind of work they could find and returned home only when stars twinkled with laughter in the sky. Even before their joys and sorrows, their anxieties and worries could find expression, their fatigue overwhelmed them, robbing them of their half-spoken words.
We could see the sun, moon and stars from inside the hut. Countless rats carried on their family life in the torn thatched roof. Their kiyon-piyon added to the soothing sounds of the wind and the stream, though they fought ferociously at times like the people in our settlement.
Our house was a banyan tree during the monsoon. Just as melodious notes from musical instruments mingle with voices to make an orchestra, the rhythmic thot thot sounds of rainwater dripping at varying pitch into different metal pots blended to provide sweet music to our ears. Quite often, Appa and Amma came home weary, unable to carry their exhaustion. Then Amma took a rag, mopped up the water from the floor, wrung it into a pot and poured it outside before going with a coconut shell from house to house to get some embers. She cleared the fireplace of ash, set the embers in it and arranged firewood over them and blew on them to light a fire to cook a meal. As she blew– oof, oof –into the fire, she also coughed – kuhu, kuhu. Tired of coughing, she put her head in her hands and prayed, “Put an end to this worthless life, O Bhagavanthaa!” Wiping dry the wet grinding stone, she knocked the handles in place, put some ragi into the mouth of the stone, brought her palms together prayerfully and sang as she ground the millet into flour. The lilt of her song and the hunger in our bellies helped us to doze off.
We woke up bleary-eyed, when she roused us to eat the ragi and drink half a chombu of water and lie down wherever we were, however we were.
Appa and Amma would get hold of a hand and a leg and drag us on to mats woven with toddy palms. Thanks to the bedbugs, lice and mosquitoes, we slept fitfully, scratching ourselves all through the night until the first round of cock-crowing around three in the morning. We could drift off peacefully only around the second round an hour later, and we hardly heard the cocks crow again at five. As the sun rose, the bugs left us to clamber up the walls, glistening and heavy with our blood. We squished them, one by one.
“Knocked about here and there, my son was shaped into a grinding stone”, so goes the saying. Even so, I grew up playing games with the boys of our colony, hunting rats and birds, catching fish and crabs, eating wild fruits like dates and custard apple, and going around with farmhands who grazed cattle, sheep and goats. My baby talk made way for fluency, but my runny nose lingered. Amma cleaned other people’s bathrooms and pleased them enough to beg for clothes for us. To us, those worn-out shorts and shirts were silk brocade. We wore them and paraded all over the colony, prancing and laughing with the sheer joy of having clothes to flaunt.
Once, when Appa and Amma had gone to work to fill our bellies, someone got me admitted to the village school. That school was in the area where the Gowdas lived. Sometimes, when the old teacher did not come, a new teacher gathered all the students together inside the closed porch of the Marammathaayi temple, but we had to sit outside. With the blessed sun staring at us relentlessly, our minds and bodies shrivelled up. When it rained, we raced home.
Somehow, I managed to enter the third grade. We had a Brahmin master. Most of his head was tonsured, leaving a tuft of hair at the back. He made us Madigas sit in a row behind the Gowda students. He had two canes to punish us, a short one to punish those children of the agricultural caste and a long one to reach us in the back row. Quite often, the zing of the cane, as it landed on our tender skin, nicked off a bit of flesh and left us bleeding and, later, scarred. He would not let us anywhere near the black board like the previous teacher. When he gave us dictation, he would not touch our slates. We had to place our slates on the floor and stand a little away. He ground his teeth as he looked at them and then hit us with the long cane. I passed the fourth grade and went to the Government Boys’ Middle School, Basavanagudi. It is in one corner of the Krishna Rao Park. Our class teacher was Kamala Madam. We referred to her as KSK Madam. She was like the rain, wind and sunlight; she brought me goodies to eat sometimes.
Once, there was a memo: Students are required to get khaki shorts and white shirts within two weeks. They should participate in the drill on Saturdays without fail. I told Appa and Amma about it. A month went by, two months went by. There was no way my parents could afford to get me a pair of khaki shorts and a white shirt.
The drill master Shrinivasaiah, who was also our English teacher, slapped me every Saturday for not being in uniform. I showed my parents my swollen cheeks and wept.
“Then, don’t go to school, Maga. If you have life, you can somehow survive by selling salt at least,” Amma comforted me. That khaki chaddi and white shirt put paid to my studies.
Nanja of our village had told me how he had stolen a gold-coloured shirt from the dhobi ghat. That thought kept haunting me wherever I sat, whatever I did. I decided to steal a pair of khaki shorts and a white shirt and went towards the dhobi ghat near the Chinnamma tank for two to three days in a row, lying in ambush among the shrubs between the boulders. I could not see a single pair of khaki shorts. White shirts, lying on shrubs and boulders, dazzled the eye, but they were too big for me. I gave up the idea of stealing.
The python of hunger was swallowing us slowly, bit by bit. Amma and Appa were at their wits’ end. They sent me away to Nanjappa Gowda’s house to work as a labourer. Every morning, as the cocks crowed in the backyard – kokkakaa...ko – I felt as if something had fallen on my head and woke up bit by bit. If anyone grunted, “What is this, lazybones? How long are you sleeping?” I sat up with a shock, as if I had felt a whiplash. I brought my palms together praying, “Swami paramathma!”, slapped my cheeks in a ritual of penitence and got up, turning on to my right side for luck. I imagined the lilt in Amma’s tender voice, “Get up, Maga. You’ll be late for school, won’t you? You have to walk a long way, don’t you? Turn to your right side and get up. Look at the picture of the deity...” and my grief flowed out as tears. I folded my torn blanket, put it away in the loft, tied the cattle outside the barn and swept it clean, piling the dung in a corner and filling the mud pot with urine and pouring it outside. When I carried basketfuls of dung on my head to toss it outside, I felt my neck grow shorter. My throat was hoarse. My feet stumbled. The urine from the dung in the basket trickled down my face, tickling my nose and my mouth. When I cut grass from the meadow and brought it in, the sweat streamed down to my legs.
With tears in my heart, I watched the boys from our colony in white shirts and khaki shorts with bag on shoulder and books in hand, laughing their way to school.
I had worked on the farm for daily wages for twenty-five days. One day, I chopped my left thumb while cutting grass in the meadow and the blood marked my footsteps all the way to the village. That day, we had a heavy downpour. I was drenched to the skin and shivering. “Ayyayamma! Ayyayappa!” I kept groaning. A calf in the barn mourned with me, “Ambaaa! Ambaaa!” The Gowda’s wife grew tired of scolding me and threatening me.
“Go, get lost! Come early tomorrow morning,” she said and sent me packing. I raced home in one breath like a caged bird soaring towards the sky.
Our neighbours ground some herbal greens and bandaged my thumb with the paste. The fever rose as the day waned. I was ill for about ten days. As I was recovering, one morning Nagappa sent for me, “Come back to work.”
“I won’t,” I said, “I’m going to school.” I ran away and hid in the Karegutte. The sun was right above me. I was hungry, my throat was dry. If that heartless Nagappa spotted me, I would be like a frog in a cobra’s mouth. The more I thought of it, the more my head felt heavy. I dozed off. When I woke up, the rays of the sun were slanting. I slunk home stealthily like a cat.
I was manuring the tomato patch in Sunkenahalli Gowda’s farm. I found a pen shining in a bag of manure bought from a store. Somehow, I did not have the heart to write on the palm with it. I wrote on the back of my hand. The writing was dull. I wrote my name on a piece of paper. The letters laughed like stars in the night sky. My classmate Muniswami was walking back from school, happy in his khaki shorts and white shirt.
“Have you left school, Lachma?” he asked me.
“No, Muniya, I’ll come back next year,” I said.
“But you have a pen ready already?” he teased, laughing. I felt as if the basket of manure on my head was laughing at me. I wept.
That night, I had a sweet dream. I was in uniform, khaki shorts and white shirt. My hair was oiled and combed. I was walking to school with that Muniswami. I was in the drill with the other boys. I was playing kabadi, knocking down two boys with one stroke. I opened my eyes happily, but it was dark.
“Amma!” I shouted in fear.
“Why, Maga? What happened?” Amma asked flustered, as she woke up and lit the lamp. The light flickered and died as I narrated my dream to her.
“Maga, let your earnings be with that Sunkenahalli Gowda. We’ll get a pair of khaki shorts and white shirt stitched for you in exchange. You go back to school,” she said.
I had worked for Gowda for three months. The school year commenced after the summer vacation. Gowda gave me a white shirt and a pair of khaki shorts that fitted his son. I put it on and went about everywhere in the locality, announcing to everyone I met, “I’m going to school tomorrow!”
Evening gave way to night. My stomach was full with just half a ragi ball. I touched my uniform from time to time. I could barely sleep that night. When I woke up once, it was still dark. I lay down again, but did not close my eyes. I woke up as the cocks crowed for the second time, brushed my teeth with charcoal powder, bathed in cold water, put on the khaki shorts and white shirt, stood in front of Durgammathaayi temple with my palms together and put some of the kumkum from the threshold on my forehead. By then, the whole colony was aglow with morning light.
My classmates were now in the next higher class. As soon as she saw me, KSK Madam’s face bloomed like a jasmine. The red gulmohar flowers were laughing like my heart. I wrote with my new pen in my new notebook.
Excerpted with permission from Samboli! Beware!, Lakshman, translated by Susheela Punitha, Niyogi Books.