Siddharthya Swapan Roy goes looking for a story about farmer suicides in Vidarbha region and finds people who weave unfounded dreams and want to lead normal lives.
The time at which I left Pune had been way too early for breakfast. In fact afraid I’d wake others up, I’d decided to even skip making tea. But I had just about piled the camera, tripod and sack near the door when my insomniac mother came out and, with the morning cold sending a shiver or two through her frail body, insisted I not leave home “without putting something in the mouth”. So sitting down to a glassful of unsweetened black Darjeeling leaf tea, our family addiction, I briefed her about what I was out to do. Five minutes into the briefing a “missed call” announced the arrival of my lackeys (former college mates) who would accompany me on the trip.
The blue night-infused dawn gave way to a brief bright orange morning which, rubbing off all traces of cold moisture, rapidly turned into the inferno typical of summer days east of Sahyadris. Ignoring hunger and thirst for tea, we hurtled down the highway to our destination: Buldhana. It was a long way off and our plan was to cross Ahmednagar before the traffic caught on.
But a little past 8, and coincidentally in front of a hotel with a large signboard advertising “ready breakfast”, our stomachs rose up in loud protests against deprivation. The place was not a good one. The tablecloth had cigarette burns and stains of gravy and amber liquids and the numerical side of the menu card made us stick to just one round of everything – one serving of eggs with toasted bread and jam for lackey 1, idli-chutney for lackey 2 and dosa for myself.
Cursing how the place had been heavy on the wallet and light on our stomachs, we resolved to stop only after we were well out of the clutches of Puneri prices — and at no place that was beyond one storey.
The first stop to fit the strictures was a couple of tin shops beyond Ahmednagar sitting on waterless shadeless fields beside the highway. Some Marwadis traded sev there. On the side lines of their wholesale trade, armed with vessels of finely chopped tomatoes mixed with coriander, onions and a smaller one with chopped chillies and a disinterested boy to collect money and swat and shoo flies, they catered to frequent retail eaters like us.
A couple of notes bought us three plates of mixed sev — some hard some soft, some more yellow others more crimson, some outright bland some infused with garlic and ajwain. The boy noted the look of disappointment on my face and added a dash of green chilli paste, some dry mango and jeera powder. Though it didn’t turn me into a sev connoisseur, I raised the spoon in appreciation and the boy smiled.
Our journey to Buldhana included a detour at the Lonar crater. Just before entering the premises of the Lonar crater, we stopped at a raucous market square and using the logic of “lesser evil is better” we zeroed in on an eats shop. Ignoring the less than inviting sights and smells (see “Faith in the senses” The Hindu Magazine November 3, 2012) in the vicinity we sat down at a table. In making his courtesy known to the different looking customers, the shop owner gruffly commanded an emaciated chappal-less fellow to wash the glasses well before serving us. The rigorous efforts of the server notwithstanding, stains of servings past remained like indelible history.
Tea was a thick sugary brown syrup and we held it close to our noses for the refreshing smell of mashed ginger. Lackey 2 ventured to order some batter-fried onions and lackey 1 seconded the motion eagerly. I resented the idea of eating in a place as dirty as that but when the hot fries came in I, predictably, decided to be nice and “give company”. True to my Marathi Manus credentials I tore a bun open, flicked off a couple of ticks that had tunnelled inside from the edges, stuffed the fries in and took a bite along with a bit of oil fried, salted, green chilli and soon enough concerns of hygiene receded with the familiar comfort of chaha-bhajji-paav.
Having gone through the day’s schedule our host, a retired librarian, suggested we head to this place that served good vegetarian meals. “Why vegetarian…” a slight murmur of dismay arose but when the host said, “today’s Saturday…you’ll get nothing but vegetarian” we resigned to the motherland. “It’s all-you-can-eat,” he added in a bid to add cheer.
The eatery was a large hall that looked more like a mess in a boys’ college than a restaurant. A huge bellied man sat behind a small desk with a small black slate and stingy pieces of chalk instead of pen-paper for billing. Our host introduced us to the benign eatery despot as “special guests”. Despite his best attempts his face didn’t quite resemble a smile but he made up for it through a series of grunts and nods indicating a warm welcome. With a loud booming voice he commanded his most experienced man to wait at our table. Soon came steel dishes (the size of which convinced me that ogres form a good part of regular patrons), nearly a dozen bowls (that indicated all-you-can-eat was a superfluous idea) and a beaten and bent spoon (declaring there was little need of it for the kind of food we were to have).
Soon came giant-sized unleavened jowar bread with a layer of warm butter on them, an assortment of seeds cooked in broths, vegetables chopped and spiced beyond recognition but supremely aromatic and delicious, curd beaten and mixed with sautéed mustards and red chillies, pickles of three kinds, pulses of two kinds — one sweet with tamarind rind sticking out and the other savoury with coriander in it, and some more stuff.
Waiters soon sniggered and the despot looked benignly at the city bred who have no appetite worth its name. In fact five minutes into the meal, our city-bred palates burnt in delicious pungency and noses began dripping and frantic calls were made to replenish the water and buttermilk. Even though not in the weekly schedule some shrikhand was brought out of the fridge and served at our table apart from the day’s dessert — sweet flavoured milk. In a tribute to the lasting memory of our meal, we held the soothing cold sweetness of the desserts in our mouths for a few moments before swallowing.
The following morning was a rush. We skipped breakfast and interviewed a local politician. We finished the interview in about an hour and the gentleman asked, “There’s nothing in the home…but give me five minutes,” and asked a fellow to get some tea and sweets.
“We are late actually and have to be on our way back….”
“But that’s impossible…no, no you can’t leave like this…Sir, what are they saying?”
“They didn’t even have breakfast at my place…what can I say…” our host responded
Respecting the man’s insistence, we drove to an eatery in the market area serving tea and snacks. We politely said, “only tea will do” but taking the cue from us looking at plates of seriously oversized potato vadas adorning every table, our new host said “Arrey, even if you don’t eat too many, at least try a few na…oy…” he called out. Soon a man in a stained shirt and a grimy hand towel on his shoulder served us giant hot vadas with a chutney of semi-solid gram paste and red chilli. Throwing politeness to air, we went berserk. Thankfully no one seemed offended at our overeating and, instead, took pride in the goodness of the trademark of their little town.
On the way back we drove through a blinding hot sun and limitless acres of barren earth and rock. At the first large bus station we bought a cache of cold drinks for the sweet toothed lackeys while I balanced the sweetness by alternately sipping plain soda water.
A pretty large fruit market stood by and vendors with nothing but little white kerchiefs on their head sold their stuff. We bought mangoes for our families back home but, thanks to the inviting smells and even better taste, a few lasted the journey.
Well past lunchtime, we stopped at a nondescript dhaba run by a bunch of immensely handsome fair-skinned young men. They gave us lovely rich dal tadka, egg bhurji and tandoori roti. When I asked one of the boys, “All you chaps speak Dogri, eh?”; he grinned and soon all came out to meet a rare customer in this part of the country who had recognised their tongue. When I said, “I recognised your tongue because I have a lot of friends like you” out came some special treatment like good onions, fresh cut lemons, free papad, a bowl of pickle and what no other customer is ever given — finger bowls and a fresh towel. Before leaving I thanked the shy, torn shirt clad “chef”, and held out my hand. He wiped his own sweaty one before taking mine while another young chap ran out with some fennel and sugar.
If the above reads like a good happy travel story, it’s because of the omissions I’ve made. The actual story I’d gone looking for was of farmer suicides set in the cursed region of Maharashtra called Vidharbha. It’s a place where farmer families, denied of their right to earn a dignified living, kill themselves. A place where farmhands don’t kill themselves because, stuck in a quagmire of caste and class, they can’t even pretend to have dignity. It’s a place where hunger and thirst are omnipresent and a merciless sun in rainless skies burns deep furrows into both the black foreheads of tillers and the land they till.
The interviewee mentioned above is a man who can’t stay in his own home at night and doesn’t receive unknown calls for fear of his life. His crime is that he stood up to the powerful and murderous moneylender-cum-elected politicians who run the region like personal fiefdoms.
During my second day, among others I had interviewed a family where the cotton farmer father had killed himself leaving behind a wife in her late thirties, a girl in her early twenties who was now married to another cotton farmer and was expecting her first child and a young boy, who apart from working the fields with his mother, was preparing for his std X exams.
Sitting in their cramped little home, I tried to piece together their tragedy — a mosaic of death, poverty and no escape from fate. But when I asked the young man what he dreams of becoming, he shattered my dark mosaic with a smile and said “I want to learn computers and become an engineer”. He said it with such simplicity that life and escape seemed like real possibilities. And when I dropped my guard and said, “I too was a computer engineer you know”, he just grinned from ear to ear and then rushed out to get some lemons with which his mother made us sherbet. “No, no, you can’t leave in this heat without having something” they insisted.
The footage has been locked inside my camera for over three years and I don’t know what to do with it. From farmer suicides to migrant labourers who live in dank smelly kitchens as servants to hordes of youth working as unskilled low wage workers, all the political analyses and all the statistics has been told. I have nothing new to say about their tragedies and I have a feeling nobody does and these stories are beyond journalism now.
So here I am telling you that we aren’t merely talking about a cursed land with burnt farms but a place with hangouts, eateries, shops and nooks where people like to hang out. We have with us people who not only need compensation for burnt farms and minimum wages but need to have fun, weave unfounded dreams and lead normal lives. And the human tragedy is in us not recognising them beyond statistics and political analyses of tragedy.
I don’t have another story to tell about them or their land.