We lived in a tiny village, in the northern drier part of Karnataka. There were three rows of houses; actually they were a set of huts. There were all caste groups located in pockets of the village. Most of us were all related in some way. Our hut was adjacent to that of my Doddamma. She had four girls and we were two sisters. We formed a group of six naughty girls, you may say, we were all in the same age-group, a one-to-two year difference made us close enough; we laughed, we danced, we fought, and by the end of the day we went home looking forward to tomorrow.
We did not seem to have owned the hut we lived in, for my father and mother were constantly harassed to pay money, money for what, I did not understand, for I was little, only later did I realize that it was money for having lived in a hut whose owner was a crafty, cranky old man, who lived down the lane, and seemed to have owned many more huts in the village and never forgot to terrorize us in many ways.
Actually he was a good looking man, especially, when on a festive occasion, he dressed in a white dhoti, white shirt, and a colored angavastra, casually thrown over his shoulder. He had his pepper-and-salt long locks oiled, combed into a knot. And his clean shaven face with a fierce looking mustache, thick eyebrows and big eyes, his forehead marked white and red sindhoor set in between his eyebrows, made him very attractive.
I was so young, but to this day, I am fifteen now, I visualize him as a strong person, good to look at, but fierce enough to keep even we little weaklings afar. His presence, set in an aura of fear and silent respect, kept in abeyance any sort of communal tension.
He was, after all, as my father would voice out once in a way, when he was in a good mood, having earned enough for all of us, and my mother cooked a tasty dinner, a good soul. Concerned for all the children in the village, especially, we children who lived in the huts he owned.
It was his habits to allow his children play with us, even though they belonged to a higher caste; to share the tasty snacks he bought for them from the expensive store, where my parent did not have enough money.
Come! Come! Narayani, Kalyani and Suhasini, come see what I bought for you today! Nice and fresh! This is for you. And where are your playmates? Call them! They must be hungry too! There is more time for their Amma and Appa to return from work, share a morsel with each of them.
O! Shiva, Shiva! My feet ache, after the long walk, barefoot, from the town in the hot afternoon sun. Let me pour water from the earthen pot left near the entrance and cool my feet.
As children, we were quite tickled when the drums were beaten; different beats indicated differing purposes for which the Village Headman conveyed to our elders to assemble at the Aralli Mara right after the sun sets and after we had had our last meal for the day.
That day, ten years ago, neither did Doddamma and Doddappa nor Amma and Appa return home from their usual hard day’s work in town at the usual time. Our natural sense of ‘fullness’, this is what one feels when everything at home seems normal and the routine sets a pace of ‘fullness’ appeared to strain into loops of ‘emptiness’.
What happened! Kanne? My cousin sister exclaimed, ever so many a times, in a span of, I think, an hour? Why have they not returned? What happened? Oh! Loki! Ride up the tree and see if you can spot them, I think my Amma has worn a red sari, go! Go! Quickly, before it turns dark, the parrots are still returning to their nests and the crows are still cawing. Come! Come! Climb up and stand on my back, first put one foot on my knee then knee yourself up, stand on my back, and hold on to that thick branch, so as not to slip and fall, be careful, climb on to the think branches.
As we were trying to gain balance to step on to the branch of the drumstick tree, Mada, the Headman’s son, came running, gasping for breath, and muttered in confusion.
We were taken aback. Mada is too bossy in school, and here he is again, trying his pranks with us, especially when our parents aren’t around. All of us looked at him in annoyance!
Listen! Listen! By the way, what are you all up to, trying to climb the tree at this hour, can’t you see, the sun has sunk, and it is inauspicious to climb trees at this hour!
But he seemed to have been sent on a mission.
All we gathered was that, his father, the Headman, yes, the Headman, was coming to meet us.
That drove us into a state of dread and fear. What! Alarmed! We sisters, in unison, asked, but why?
Your father! Coming here? To our hut? But, Why?
Why is he coming here, when our parents are yet to reach our hearth?
His expression, his eyes, his body language lent in a sense of fear, my heart beat ran, like a waterfall stomping on rocks with a thump, and when he bowed his head, that stream of body language told us all. We had been orphaned.
We were too young to fully understand what the next step was. Why did this happen? Why both sets of parents were called away by that God in the temple? Where will we go? Who will we stay with? When will we be fed? What will be our future? Too young to grasp, but these thoughts did float through our minds.
Sheer exhaustion put us to sleep. But in the middle of the night, the elder of us, sat up and thoughts just flew out of her mind, whispering, she said, I wish it did not happen.
As bodies of our beloved lay out in the courtyard of the temple, weeping and wailing, tearing out hair, we knew not where darkness would lead us. The night was dark too! Ammavasya, I heard an elder whisper, what a day to take them away, and she burst out and cuddled me.
Wood was lit in front of our front door, to signify death, in the particular household. As members sat through the wait to take the final path to light the piers, discussions, were on, who will light the pyre? Our Maama would do so was the voice in unison with the Headman. There was no other responsible family member, besides him, we, the six sisters, sat stupefied.
In this darkness of sorrow, we did not have electricity, so in the midst of emotional and nature’s darkness, stars in the distant sky twinkled. Lying on the ground, looking at the distant stars, I realized the silence, the crickets’ hiss, the still leaves rustle, my sisters asleep but there I lay awake staring at the twinkling stars, till morning set in, and the birds began to chirp, the prayer from the mosque and the distant church bells chimed in to set the day apace with things to happen.
Elder women in our locale took the bodies, one by one, for their last wash, and the men were busy preparing the last rites.
In our tiny minds, we seemed to chime in unison “where next?”
Funeral over! What next? Elders went their way. Police brought in some women who seemed to be befriending us and were too stupefied to realize what was happening, followed them into a waiting vehicle.
All we knew that orphaned children are children of the State and therefore are to live with other children of our fate.
A few months into that hostel drove ME crazy. I seemed to be clashing with our elders as well as with our age group.
One late morning, I walked out into the burning hot sun. Away from those threatening voices – “Do this”; “Don’t do that”; “Eat this”; “Clean the kitchen”; “sweep the courtyard”. Gosh! I felt choked by that woman’s voice.
That day, when she came to our village, she poured sweet nothings on us, as if we were her world, and proved to the Headman and the Police that we were her world.
And, look! Now, she treats us like filth, smacks us, and under feeds us, no water to clean ourselves. What a world! From the world of clean air, green hills, small ponds full of little fish we used to catch, what a difference!
And now! Having left the tastelessness of a woman bereft of motherly love, here am I, on the streets of an unknown world, with wanton feeling, looking for someone to love me, hoping against hope, for small pleasures.
Please, sir, I am hungry and thirsty, please give me some food. He gave me a curious look, took me by my hand and dragged me to a house, which looked so different, men with sticks, and guns on the rack, a man shouting over the telephone, this terrified me.
But the man who talked on the phone, looked at me, invited me closer to him, patted me on my back, and said, little girls like you need protection, come with me, I will take you to a home. They will give you good food; send you to a good school and from there on you will grow up to be a beautiful young girl. Come! Come with me.
I then began to wonder what had happened to my cousins and sister. Where were they? Can’t I ask to be sent back to the place where we were all together? But, how can they? I don’t even know the place, or the name of hostel or the name of the woman who took care of us!
Here am I in a new place, a woman who seems kind enough, because she talks to us with lots of concern, and a school with new friends. But I realized that I was too different from the rest in my class. They seemed to be younger than me, cleverer than me, because they answered all the questions, the teacher posed before us, and here I am, too confused to know what to say and what not to.
Time is a great healer. Over the last two years, I have learned the run of going to school, listening to the teacher, learning something, often confusing, writing tests, which, often enough my classmates help me, realizing that I am a first generation learner. And posing before my fellow residents in the home that ‘I too’ am getting the kind of marks they get, and from the looks of the elders in the home, I seem to be on track with others.
One rainy day, when we returned from school, there was some hammering on the walls, happening, we were all curious, as to what was being nailed, and what was to be hung.
They began taking out framed pictures of previous residents of this home. Some we knew, some we did not, and ‘lo and behold’, this took me by real surprise, a photograph of four girls. And do you know who they were? My own cousins! From back home, in our village, in distant north Karnataka! Aha! Aha! With glee in my heart I ran around the home in circles, my fellow sisters thought I was mad.
I was stunned to silence. I wanted to ask, but afraid to, what if….. sometimes one gets the feeling that photographs are often of people of the past, this fear, kept from asking about them. Yet silently, every night, unawares of others knowing, I tip toed to the wall where their photograph hung, removed it, and in my bed, would talk to them. Sometimes, others in the room, thought I was crazy, that I talked in my sleep, they also thought that I sleep walked. But they did not know my secret.
I nursed this silent thought for years. I did tell one of my teachers, that these four girls are of my own blood, they are my cousins, but she never thought twice to ask further questions and I continued to nurse this raw feeling I want to meet them.
As usual, most often, the time we left for school, our house mother would say, come back quickly, we are expecting visitors, and they wish to meet you.
That day, she did repeat the same chant like verse, and this time, there was a inner excitement that kept nudging me during school time, ‘hurry back’, ‘hurry back’ and I did hasten back, panting with anticipated gusto.
On my way home, pulling the little sister I was responsible for to bring home, I walked into to find five girls, stylishly dressed, four seemed like us, one looked too different. As I walked in further into the house, I found this foreign couple animatedly talking to our housemother.
Curiously I looked around, one girl was sitting with a plate talking to one of our Trustees on the staircase, the girl looked at me and I looked at her, there was a silent acceptance and recognition, but we kept it in.
I was called into the office, and asked whether I could remember the names of the four girls in the photograph I slyly took every night to my bed. To the surprise of all in the room I told them the names of the girls as well as the names of their parents.
And you know what Uncle did. He said, come close, let me give you a hug and tell you the truth. These four girls in the photograph are the same girls you see here with their adoptive parents and their little sister.
Tears started rolling down my cheeks. Tears of joy!
We tried to talk to each other. However, language kept us apart. And they had to leave, to meet up with their time schedule. We parted in silence, our eyes met, tears welled up in my eyes, I turned around in a quick swerve, ran to my bed and wept till sleep took over.
To know and yet not know, that they are mine and I am theirs, and, time and space will forever keep us apart, yet the silent joy of meeting, not knowing, will we? Or will we not? Meet again, keeps the thread tied in our hearts.
Hope is all I have to cling to!