(Part IV of a four-part series)

My reverie was broken by a couple of people who came up to our car and enquired where we were from. I told them we were from Pune and I was Damu Anna’s great granddaughter. Their expressions changed instantly from curiosity to respect and within no time, they were telling me stories of the school and the family.

“This is the renovated building,” they told me proudly. “We also have a computer now.” And sure enough, there was a computer peeking out of one of the rooms.

“This entire land belonged to the family, stretching right up to that fence near the river bank over there,” one of them pointed  far away; I squinted and I saw two white poles and some barbed wire in the distance. “Half the farm land, near to the river, is still with the family, the rest half, they gave it to the school and to us rayats.”

Rayats. Subjects.

I froze at that word and a cold discomfort crept up my spine, but there was no way I could pretend I did not hear it. Meanwhile, they continued merrily, “we rayats are quite happy here, rains are good and the harvest is too, and we get a good price for our produce.” I asked them where the family was.

“Most don’t stay here. They have moved out… to Gadhinglaj, Kolhapur, Mumbai,” one of them said, and then added with a smile, “just like you moved to Nashik and Pune.” “But you can check out the old house in Brahman Aali (lane),” someone added. They also mentioned where the family was currently staying, but I couldn’t catch the exact location, and I didn’t ask them to repeat as I was not going to visit. At least, not this time.

One of them invited me and Amogh into his home for tea; I started refusing, but Amogh told me to go along. Over the sweet and strong tea, the man told us about his kids and wife. We chatted with his kids who were, surprisingly, quite outgoing, and complimented his wife on the tea; she merely smiled as she spoke no Marathi, only Kannada. I was acutely conscious that I had nothing for his kids, neither on me nor in the car – not even a packet of biscuits – and I admitted so apologetically, but he laughed and told me that it was completely his pleasure to serve us tea and he expected nothing return.

The rest were waiting by the car. As we got in, each of them bowed with a small salute and a namaskar and told me to “come back and visit my zameen”. I felt terrible, terrible about the status quo, so much so that I burst out with an instinctive “no, no, you till it, its yours, I am far away, I do nothing”. They were startled, but kept smiling. I realised I had nothing to give them – or the school – as well; I wasn’t sure if giving cash would be the right thing to do. In fact, I realised I was completely ignorant about the dynamics of and behavioural norms in such situations and had possibly messed up completely. So I simply bowed back with a namaskar and a heart-felt dhanyawaad and we drove away.

At the main temple of the village, a few more people pointed us to Damu Anna’s house in Brahman Aali – “fourth on the left”. Ignoring my persisting discomfort about the open casteism, we drove through the Aali. We slowed at the fourth house and I looked up at the two-storeyed, crumbling structure. The windows remained shut but could not conceal their age, and chunks of walls had fallen off and moss and creepers grew on some of them. It could have been a mansion in the past, with sturdy wooden windows and doors and perhaps a nice terrace. My mind’s eye saw dhotar-clad men working at desks and doing poojas, and nauwari-clad women bustling about, cooking in the kitchen. I saw people thronging the courtyard, during festivals, ceremonies, harvest seasons, village gatherings… I saw a thriving household which, with time, had dispersed and adapted to India’s modernity, leaving this piece of life locked in time.

We drove on. Hitting the highway, its green signboards overhead, and fast cars brought me back to the world I knew, the world I was comfortable with.

The culture shock which I faced in Nool now gave way to a certain sense of fondness; I knew I was coming back again, and hopefully, with something for the school and the village people.

We met the Hiranyakeshi again; together, we entered Karnataka, and she veered off into the countryside. I knew we were getting close to her confluence with the Ghataprabha river. With Google maps at our aid again, we got off the highway. The mountains had faded into the west and with barely an hour of sunlight left, we decided to take a short cut to reach the confluence.

However, things went downhill from there. As villages gave way to small, scattered settlements and solitary temples, a bumpy road slowed us down. To make matters worse, a sugarcane truck broke down in front of us and it took quite a while before we could drive around it. And finally, we discovered that the road ended abruptly – all dug up, with a JCB digger sitting squarely in the middle of it. As the sun set, Amogh looked at me with a questioning glance. It was my call and I decided to turn back.

As we drove back to Belgaum along the wall of the Hidkal reservoir, I reminisced about the day. The pretty river, beautiful landscapes, my village and my roots, our efforts to reach the confluence, and our unfinished journey – my camera was unable to capture most of them, but they made a firm imprint on my mind. I had not seen the Hiranyakeshi, her waters, farms, villages and yes, her buffaloes, in their entirety. My journey was incomplete. And just as Nool pulled me to itself despite the years and miles that stretched between us, I was sure the Hiranyakeshi would, too. I would be going back.

(Read Part I of the four-part series here, Part II here, and Part III here)

Gauri Noolkar-Oak

Gauri Noolkar-Oak is a transboundary water conflicts researcher and has studied river basins in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. She is also a co-founder of The Tilak Chronicle.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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