Galamma sat on the floor. Her eyes yearned for sleep; something she had lost 20 years ago. She raked her fingers through her tousled hair. Her eyes darted towards the narrow street beside her house from time to time. And we stared at her; at the scarlet tinge of her lips, the green bangles on her wrist, and the cracked soles of her feet.
“I was five,” she said chewing betel leaf, her forehead lined with worry. “That was my age when they tied the muthu (pearl) around my neck. My mother couldn’t speak very well. Her hands and legs didn’t work any more. So she prayed to Uligamma. She promised to dedicate her daughter to the deity. An astrologer told her it would bring them luck. She kept her promise. But she was never cured. And I became a devadasi.”
We met Galamma in Naregalu of Koppal district in Karnataka. Born Dalit, Galamma also became a devadasi, double jeopardy in her milieu. Even though the Karnataka Devadasi (Prohibition of Dedication) Act, 1982, has waged a relentless war against the regressive practice of dedicating daughters to the temple, the repercussions of the system continue to be felt in these areas decades after their abolishment.
“In our culture, girls are treated with cruelty,” said Galamma, as she shooed away the roosters in her courtyard. “I had no choice but to accept my fate. It was extremely difficult. I have five children. If you are married, no matter who you are, you are considered virtuous. But if you are a devadasi, you acquire the status of a prostitute. We are filth, they reminded us. And we never forgot.”
The next generation
In a corner of the room, her daughter Suneetha rocked back and forth. She fidgeted with her long braid, as she listened to her mother speak. It was a story she was familiar with. “Men came and left as they pleased. Sometimes they couldn’t even provide for us,” said Galamma. “There were days when we didn’t have anything to eat. I felt alone. Perhaps if I had a husband, we could have shared our troubles. No one should go through what I went through. We can’t change our past. But we can create a better future for our children. That willingness to change must come from within,” she explained.
Suneetha dropped out of school many years ago soon after the birth of her little brother because there was no one to look after him. She re-enrolled and today, she is in Class X and lives in Bandhavi, a residential school set up by the non-profit organisation Visthar in Koppal. The organisation has spent decades rehabilitating the children of devadasis by helping them get an education.
“I am fair and my sisters have dark skin,” Suneetha confided one afternoon. “We don’t have the same father. As a kid, I often wondered why I looked different. At times, people in the village would pass hurtful remarks. ‘Why don’t you look like your siblings?’ they would ask.” She sobbed for a while, then said, wiping away her tears, “ Houdu, nanna Amma devadasi .” (Yes, my mother is a devadasi.) “But she will always be my mother. Despite all the hardships she went through, she continues to fight for women. She encourages parents to educate their daughters, to make them more aware of their rights. She has immense strength in her soul. And I couldn’t be more proud of her.”
Her mother bled for days after giving birth to her brother. Suneetha remembers it all: her going to work with a swollen belly, the baby being born, her falling sick. Everything. There was no one to take care of them. “I too have dreams,” she declared. “When I grow up, I want to be a nurse. There aren’t any doctors or nurses in our village. People are sick all the time. And they don’t get any help. Many die. Maybe I can help someday.”
Her older sister Mahalakshmi fiddled with the stove in the kitchen. She works as a teacher, and is one of the few fighting back. Why don’t others, we ask. She explained to us that the continuous oppression of Dalits had left such an indelible mark on their identity that they could not differentiate between normal and unjust behaviour. “Even today, we are prohibited from entering temples meant for Lingayats. One day I broke that tradition,” she said with pride. “Everyone stared at me dumbfounded. What was a Dalit girl doing here, they wondered. They all knew who I was but made no attempt to throw me out. Discrimination exists, no doubt. Maybe it isn’t as dire as it was decades ago. But it’s there.”
As a young girl, she told us, the absence of a father had left a great void. She didn’t know who he was. She didn’t know what it meant to have a father. At times, she felt betrayed. “I was constantly reminded that I have no appa . There were times when I yelled at my mother and refused to speak to her for months. I blamed her for my troubles. ‘ Neenu nanna thaayi alla ,’ (You are not my mother) I told her once,” she said, bowing her head, “I feel ashamed of what I said. I was very young. But she always forgave us. She never abandoned us. We paid a heavy price for what our ancestors did. They condoned a practice that only brought us misery. This should not happen again.”
And it doesn’t. No one dedicates their girls to the goddess anymore, said Galamma, sipping on her tea. She then spoke of times when Lingayat men refused to sit with Dalit men at tea stalls, when people offered her water from a distance, when their wages were thrown on the ground. “They didn’t want to risk touching the hands of a Dalit. Those were the years when we were stripped of our dignity.” She went through all that, and much more. “On several occasions, I wanted to question them, to stand up and fight. But I didn’t. I was poor and worked on their farms. I couldn’t afford to lose my job. Who would feed my children?”
Beside Galamma sat a middle-aged man. His eyes were scarlet. He looked everywhere except at us. At times, he stared at the walls tracing their cracks to the corners. “Mahalakshmi’s father came back five years ago. He wanted to live with us,” said Galamma, pressing her knees. “By then, I had everything. I built all this myself. He has returned but I can’t marry him because it’s forbidden to do so. He is here, but I don’t know if I am lonely. It’s uncertain in my head. And this is the only emotion I am familiar with—uncertainty. This is all I know.”
Mahalakshmi’s father is an alcoholic. He seemed calm but at night, he could turn violent, Suneetha muttered under her breath.
It happened again a few days ago. Suneetha gazed at the trees above her and whispered, “I don’t sleep very well at night when I’m home.” Her voice broke as she said, “ Appa keeps yelling at my mother. I don’t like it. He drinks too much. Sometimes, I reprimand him for his behaviour. I can’t stop worrying about amma .” Then she fell silent.
The writers have travelled 30,000 km across India over the past year for their social art project ‘Rest of My Family’.