Walamba-An excerpt from a Vaddar autobiography-English Translation

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This is the English translation of an excerpt from a Vaddar autobiography, very recently published by Bhoomi Prakashan, Latur. The author is today the principal of a school.

Walamba (The Plumb) , by Shivmurti Bhandekar

“You were crawling when the well in our basti was being built; you see” Amma used to say.

“And what age must I be when crawling?’ I would ask.

So she would give a little thought and say, “Must be seven-eight months of age, you see. Quite hard like a stone!” And on being asked in which month I was born, she would say, “It must be some fifteen days after Diwali. One such Sunday, quite early is the morning you were born. Here you came out, and there it got somewhat brighter toward the east; you see!”

She would always and her speech with a ‘you see’. Coming from Kannada region, her customary Kannada usage of ‘nodu’ would take a Marathi guise in her speech.

She might as well be able to tell me where I was born. But how could this illiterate mother tell me what my birth-date was? The Vadders-Patharwats, camping at some open space at the outskirts of a village, or nearby some farm, staying in temporary tents and shelters, surviving somehow by making grinding stones and slabs, mortars and pestles, how could they even know of any education? Had they been literate, wouldn’t they write down the date and time of the birth of their children, carefully and accurately, like the Banias and Brahmins! It’s not just about me; it has been happening with almost everybody from the backward castes, it seems.

Ba didn’t like this roaming forever for survival, said Amma. He would wish to stay at one place, somewhere. He had understood that his roaming will never end if he continued to hammer out the grindstones and mortars. Our girls and women used to go without a blouse. Young girls taking the grinding slabs to village to sell would get extremely shameful treatment. Wayward youngsters would get extraordinarily enthused; feigning to look for the grindstones and mills, they would stare lustily at the half-covered, semi-bare young breasts. Some lone girl would face even a worse bargain. “Want to pound grain; wouldn’t you give a mortar?” - was a common vulgarity. Due to such and many other things, Ba stopped making and selling grindstones, mills and mortars. He went and stayed with a well-known mason at Shirol near Akkalkot to learn the skills of chiseling and joints (ghadai-judai). He stayed there for almost two years. In this period, he learnt the skills of chiseling out stones and forming joints with all their minute details. Now he had acquired the skills of construction. He could now build even stone-carved gates very beautifully. His construction of rock-walls and wells was really quite enviable. Now with this kind of skill in his fingers, what was wrong with settling in some fine village for good? This thought would come to his mind very often now. Finally, he chose the village Alur for that.

At that time, Alur was barely a town of a thousand population. There flowed a small yet all-seasons stream beside it; called Amarja. It flows even today, at the east of the town, toward the south. On both sides of the stream, fields flourished till far. They would be quenched by the water from the wells. Chilies, lesser wheat, sugarcane, jowar, horse-gram would be grown there, and the rustic sugarcane variety which could be peeled easily with teeth and consumed. The town had a large farmland. Soil was black and fertile. So the harvest of toor, udad, jowar, groundnut would be huge. Every household, be it a farmer’s or a labourer’s one, would be filled with grain and cattle. Alur seemed to be a small place, but it bloomed with life. It was a happy and content village. The twelve servicemen (balutedar) and all the residents were well-fed, and contented. That is why Ba had liked this place so much.

At ten kilometers from Alur, there is a bigger place called Murum. It had a big market place. There used to be a big weekly market there. People from all the surrounding villages would throng to the market in large numbers. Large financial turnover would take place there. Yet, Ba chose little Alur for settling permanently. There was yet another reason for this. To keep a watch over the nearby villages and to keep a check and control on burglars and dacoits, Murum had a police station of the police of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Vadders and Patharwats were called Criminal Tribes then. So the Nizam’s police would always be after this people. Not just guys and men, even women and children used to be taken to the police station and beaten up. Every person of this community carried a ‘pass’, with the seal and sign of the village Patil, to roam about in the village. Without that pass they couldn’t move from one place to another. Therefore, each one of our people would care for this pass more than his life. Wherever he went, he would show this pass to the village-Patil or Deshmukh or Desai. With that, he would enlist and register each person in his family and each of the cattle he had. In case he didn’t show this pass, he would, along with the entire family, be locked up in a stable for the cattle. For two to three days together, they wouldn’t be given any food. Women and children would cry and yell, would beg to the Patil-Patwaris with their heads at the ground, their rags spread out before, to free them from the lockup. But these village administrators would have no pity toward them. Glancing with contempt at them and grinning, they would go and sit at their administerial seats. In case these people actually had the pass, on the allegation of not showing it in time, they would be punished with a compulsory show-up (hazeri) for morning and evening. If they didn’t turn up for the hazeri, lockup and beating was a certain fate. Whatever little cash they had on their body was also taken away by force.

It was to avoid this harassment that Ba had chosen little Alur for settling down. The village was a prosperous, flourishing one. So there was no shortage of work there. And the village Patil had no objection to our living there permanently. He was ready to take care of all the matters. He had only one condition; that the well in his field was to be constructed properly, with rock-cut blocks. The stone required for this, he was going to arrange for. Compared to the hassles of roaming around constantly, and to facing the harassment and extremities of the Nizami Police, this was a much better bargain. Ba agreed to build up the well for the Patil. But his relatives and kins where not very comfortable with the idea; they were habituated to keep moving all the time. They could not bear the concept of staying at one place all the time. Ba’s distant uncle, Tippanna, insisted that they will never settle at any place. Ba tried to persuade him and the others; told them the benefits of staying at one place; also explained to them the drawbacks of being constantly on move. Even after all this, when Tippanna and company remained adamant upon not settling down, Ba gave an ultimatum,

“Pondi, khushal pondi. Sachchtamu ankuntar ante vaddu annetudu ninu evvadu? Pondi, sachchi pondi. Ninu mataram ravanu….. If you are bent upon going, do go away. If you are endearing death, who am I to stop you? Do go, and die. But I am not going to leave from here. I will think you are dead and are no more...” On hearing this ultimate note, all of them gave in, and finally agreed to stay together and at one place.

Ba went to the Patil and actually acquired the piece of land. It was towards the west of the village; quite adjacent to it. Systematically, everybody was distributed a plot. For this allocation, Patil himself was present. In the allocated plot, each one raised his own hut; all made out from the wheat-husk, toor-sticks and the crush of sugarcane. Those who had spent their lives in tents and shanties had now got a piece of land of their own, a complete hut of their own. Ba had got it for them. Women and kids, all were thrilled with the sense of having ones own space and one’s own homestead. Men were exultant, too. Now that almost all the huts had been built up, sindi (a kind of liquor, an intoxicant brew), ten-twelve can-fulls of it, was asked for from the Sindikhana of the village. A goat had been purchased already in the afternoon. At nightfall, the goat was sacrificed and thus all the huts on the new land were collectively sanctified.

“In the name of Tamma……. Chaang Bhalaa…!” With this toast, all the cans of Sindi were gulped down the throats. Tamma was the name of my Ba. “Tamma has brought this good day to us.” Saying this, everybody consumed the mutton curry to his hearts content. It was late now. So everybody returned to his hut, one after another. For first time in life, they could sleep through the night with their legs stretched straight! Till now, they had always had to couch in the tiny tents!

Beside the basti, a sewer stream flowed. In its vicinity but at a little distance, a ditch was dug up collectively. As the stream flowed constantly, the ditch too was always filled up with water. The basti started drinking water from the ditch. For bathing and cleaning-washing, too, the same water was used. However, at the onset of monsoon, it became difficult to get drinking water there. As people who kill and eat pigs and rats, the villagers wouldn’t allow our touch. To go to a village well to fetch water was equivalent to endearing death. So, the basti-people were forced to drink water from the ditch only. Thus the monsoon invariably brought along dysentery and diarrhea. Some herbs and roots used to be taken as medicine. But invariably there used to be one or two casualties. Everybody would be anxious whose turn it might be this year!

This was the condition in monsoon, and in other seasons there was yet another trouble. There was a large incidence of Naru (a horrible water-borne disease in which a white threadlike germ actually lives within the lower leg) in the basti. Legs applied with the leaves of Ruchki, tied with cotton bands was a common sight. Naru is an infection of the muscle of the limbs. This germ looking like a long whitish thread had left many a limb limping. Dozens of patients suffering from Naru would be found in each village. Now the disease has been brought under total control, just like the smallpox.

These used to be Naru specialists in each village. Especially the barbers used to be experts in this task. The limbs infected with Naru would be swollen, like an abscess. This would actually be the tip of Naru. This part would be incised a button-width with a razor. A small white spot would come up at the opening. Held tightly with tweezers and slowly pulled out, it would seem like a thick white thread. When this thread would come an inch or two out of the body, it would be wrapped up around a thick needle. Holding the tip of the Naru thread and pulling it out very gently with a rubbing motion would never be an easy task. It always required a lot of concentrated, skilful effort, which lasted till the thread was completely out of the body. It would invariably take at least a couple of hours to wrap the whole thread onto the needle. In this duration, the patient would get an extremely burning sensation. Pulling the thread out gently, rubbing it constantly would blaze the patient’s body from inside. Not able to bear the pain, he would shout and yell loudly, would moan and cry. But the one who pulled out the thread would be helpless as well. It was absolutely necessary to do all these things if the thread was to be pulled out. Without rubbing gently, the Naru wouldn’t come out. One had to be extremely cautious in this. Any movement by the patient was not a bit permissible. With the slightest movement of the limb, the thread would break and creep back into the limb muscle. And this would very certainly cripple the limb permanently. Therefore, the patient would be held tightly by several persons during the treatment. After two to three hours of relentless effort, the entire thread would be wrapped around the thick needle. Now it would be dropped in water in a bowl. The moment dropped in water, the thread would twist and turn like a snake. After this, the Ruchki leaves were heated on fire and tied to the opening of the wound.

One of my cousins, Annappa, had turned lame due to Naru, and so were many others. Adjacent to our basti was the Brahmins’ lane. A temple of Nrisimha was being built in the lane. My Ba, my uncles and a few others worked there to make stone blocks, corners, supports, slabs, etc. Looking at the bandages applied to the legs of two among these, one day, Nagorao Kulkarni asked curiously, “What’s the matter, hey? Bands seem to wrapped on your legs.”

Both of them told they were afflicted with Naru.

“Which water do you drink? Asked Nagorao.

“There is deep ditch near the basti. That is from where we all take drinking water.” Ba informed.

“That’s why! Look, if one drinks water from a built-up well, one doesn’t get afflicted by Naru. Stop drinking water from that ditch. If that is not possible, at least build it up properly till well above the ground. And don’t leave steps to get in. If you start drinking from such a well-built well, Naru will vanish from your basti.” Nagorao gave full information.

It was for the first time that Ba and the others came to know, due to Nagorao alone, that they wouldn’t get infections of Naru and many other diseases if they would drink water from a well built up till above the ground and with no steps to get into the water!

As the sun went down, Ba put his hammer and chisels in his tool bag, and throwing the steel angle and the tool bag over his shoulder, he took straight to home.

Amma was not at home. She had become late to return from her work. Ba put down the bag and the angle at the door. Beside it there was the barrel full of water. Ba took the water from the barrel with a bowl. Sitting beside, he washed his face, hands and feet, stroke his hair with the wet hands, dried his face with the end of his dhoti; then looked around for some child. As he located one, he called out, “Hey, Danya, look, come here for a while.” “Go, give a call to Vasarga and Fakirya, Tell them I’ve called.”

Vasarga and Fakirya were both my mamas - my maternal uncles, elder brothers to my Amma. Six feet in height and hard at their work, they were very calm and quiet in nature. They also had another younger brother. He was equally tall and well built too, but a bit wayward in nature. He was a companion of Ba.

As they got the message, both the mamas came to our hut.

“Why did you call, Bhavji?” Actually, Ba was younger in age, yet mamas called him Bhavji respectfully.

“There was a little work..” said Ba.

“Now what have you brought up, my dear?” Fakirya mama asked, in bafflement.

“There is something. But won’t you sit down, or do you want to be told everything while standing like this!” Ba hit back.

So they sat down, Ba gave them water to drink, and had a little himself. He was thirsty since afternoon, hadn’t got water to drink. So they gulped down a pot of water, then he took out the bundle of bidies from the pocket. He gave one bidi to the elder mama, and took one for himself. Fakirya mama didn’t use to smoke. He lit up a cotton ball using the chakmak stones. The lit-up cotton he put onto the end of mama’s bidi, and then on his own, and then both started smoking the bidies. After a puff or two, Ba brought out the topic in his mind.

“Vasarga Bhavji, Naru has made deep roots in our basti. Almost every household is afflicted by it. Why, Bhavji, isn’t your own son, Annappa is crippled due to Naru?”

“Yes, true it is. But what can one do about it?” said the elder mama.

“There is; there certainly is something we can do!” Ba exclaimed excitedly.

“Nagorao - that Brahmin - has showed me its remedy. It’s a very effective remedy, really!”

“And what’s that remedy that Brahmin has given?” Fakirya mama got curious.

Ba started explaining to them, like a schoolmaster quite.

“Fakirya Bhavji, what water do we drink? Isn’t it from that ditch? That is the real cause of Naru, they say! Nagorao Brahmin has told me so. Look, do those Brahmins get this infection, any of them in their lane? They will never catch it, because they don’t drink from such ditch like we do. They drink from well-built wells, taking the water out with pots tied to rope. That is why, they will never get infected with Naru, nor will even have dysentery in monsoon, like us.”

He halted for a while; drank same water from the pot beside. Perhaps his throat got dry, due to speaking so much. And our people watched him with astonishment and listened to him with concentration.

Ba started again, “On the other hand, look at us. Everybody gets into that ditch, women, children, all; dip their limbs into that water. And the same water we fetch and drink. What would it result into if not in getting Naru, dysentery, cholera, and all such?”

For a while it was quiet. Everybody was deeply in thought. Both the mamas had caught what Ba had said. Now, the elder mama asked,

“So, what do you say we do?”

“I mean, let us dig the ditch further in depth and circumference. Once dug up enough, let us build it up from all sides, with hard rock slabs. Let the wall come up above the ground, say, up to waist level; then the outside dirt and used water will not enter back into the well. Then we, too, will be able to drink sweet potable water, like that from the coconut. Just like the Brahmins’ lane, from our basti, too, Naru and dysentery will run away and vanish forever,” Ba ended his speech.

“Your proposal seems good. We are also quite agreeable. But, will it be possible for us to build a well?” The elder mama expressed the hesitation in his mind.

“It we decide for it, what would be impossible for us? Every thing is possible!”

Ba was really optimistic. And now, he had really made up his mind.

“Tonight let us call everybody. We will put up the proposal to build a well before all. Is that alright? I think it would be very good.” Mama opined.

So it was decided to call up everybody at night.

It was a norm for us to call a Jat Panchayat and take a decision about any matter, be it a common affair or somebody’s private quarrels and scuffles. This has been a long-drawn tradition among us. It is only after taking everybody’s opinion that a common or public affair would be chalked out. Even in personal quarrels, it was only after considering all relevant aspects that the verdict used to be given; however, this norm is getting obliterated these days.

After the night meals, everybody gathered in front of our hut. All were there, including women and children.

Ba explained everything in detail - Why should we build a well, why the water has to be pulled up by a pot tied to a rope, how this would eventually prevent diseases like Naru, dysentery, diarrhea, cholera…?

“Malla, yem cheshadi? Bawi katyadadi yemu?..... So, are we going to build the well?”

Ba questioned in anticipation.

Everybody nodded.

The elder mama stood up and addressed, “Look, you all. Tamma has undertaken a good task, for all of us. He intends to build the well, for us. So everybody should contribute somehow for this task. It is not his own personal work; it is for all of us.”

“Yes, you are talking of digging up a well and building it up, over and above! Wouldn’t it require a lot of money?” Fakirya mama was somewhat uneasy for some time; now he spoke up.

“We build wells and mansions, gates and temples for Uttamma. In return, we get from them, in cash and in kind; that is on what our households run. But here, we are going to build a well for ourselves. So, how are we going to get money for that? We only have to contribute in constructing our own well. Therefore, I have a plan. See if it is agreeable to you all.”

Ba put his plan before them. He said, “Each of us will do whatever seems necessary for this task. We will all work hard. My brother-in-law, Vasarga and Fakirya will supply all the stone required. How much, after all, would a small well require? They will bear that much cost. We will all chisel out the slabs. What remains is the construction itself; I will do that myself. The sand and lime will require some cash; that we will collect by levying contributions. If everybody agrees to do his lot in this manner, we will finish up the construction within a month or so. So, now I ask you, what do we do? Do we build the well?”

“No problem at all. We will do whatever is required for that, but we shall build and have the well.” Old man Bhimsha, a distant uncle to Ba, affirmed.

So much discussion went on there, yet, Tippanna, another uncle of Ba, did not utter a word throughout; he simply sat there with his head rested on his knees. He envied Ba; would always obstruct anything initiated by Ba. It was decided that the work should begin on the auspicious day of Dussehra; and Tippanna straightened his knees, stood up and hastily walked away to his hut. Nobody paid any attention. Slowly the meeting dispersed.

Ba was happy; a good work was to be undertaken soon.

The day before Dussehra was the day to take out the ghatas (the first day of Navaratra is that of ghatasthapana, putting up a sanctified pot as a symbol of the mother goddess, which is to be taken up on the ninth day). Women and girls had got up, bathed and got ready very early; after them was the turn of young children and then the men folk. The young kids ran out to bring auspicious flowers of marigold and Karola, and if these were not available, then simply the rustic yellow flowers growing along the grass. My dada, my elder brother, too, ran out among them.

Here, Ba brought out all the tools and implements. Amma brought a potful of fresh water and poured it in an iron bowl. Ba carefully washed all the implements – chisels, hammers, angle, plumb, the pliers to sharpen the chisel-ends and all other things – with the water in the bowl. The he applied oil to the air pump. He arranged all these tools and implements in a semi-circle, in front of the blower of the pump. They were put up on the cowdung-clad soil, facing the east. The he applied haldi and kumkum onto them. Had there been a rangoli around the arrangement of tools, the place of worship would have looked even more beautiful and auspicious. But, how could our women know of rangoli? So didn’t my Amma. There was neither time, nor any reason for these labourers toiling day and night to go and learn the skill of rangoli. It is a luxury of the well-fed! The haldi and kumkum that was spared after applying to the tools, Ba spread it all in that square of cowdung-clad soil. That design made up of red and yellow spots, it looked even more beautiful than rangoli. Because of that haldi and kumkum, suddenly the place acquired a sanctified auspicious look. Auspicious it certainly was, as Ba had taken up the worship of the goddess of labour!

The flowers collected by Dada and other kids were offered onto the arrangement of the tools. On both the sides, bajra plants with pods were placed. Dada had got a big nice flower of Karola, which Ba placed in the centre of the arrangement. Now the whole thing made a very beautiful sight. Amma had prepared the Nivad – the food for offering. On top of it she placed some rice and a piece of jaggery; and gave the plate in Ba’s hands. He placed two burning coals as well as two lamps made of flour before the implements. He put wicks and oil into the lamps and lit them. As soon as he took out the camphor from the bundle and threw it onto the fire, its perfume filled up the atmosphere. The next moment, Ba placed his knife on the neck of the cock held down tightly by Dada. The red streak of fresh blood got sprayed on all the implements. The cock fluttered for a while, then lay down quiet. Dada’s face and limbs, too, were sprayed with the blood. He wiped it off with his shirt-sleeve. Then Ba offered the coconuts. The shining white broken halves of coconut were placed there, with the cock’s head in the centre. The whole atmosphere seemed mesmerized. This was our own way of worshipping the goddess of labour!

It was the day of Dussehra! As decided, everybody gathered around the ditch. The silt in it was to be removed. It was to be offered the haldi and kumkum before starting the work. This task of the well had been taken forward through Ba’s initiative, so they had all thought of giving him the honour to offer the coconut and to take out the first basket. But alas! It couldn’t befit our caste to carry out any good work straight away, without creating obstacles! This is what was known by the term ‘Vadari Kalwa’. It was as if a norm in the caste to not allow anything to proceed straight. Here, there was Tippanna who was forever an averse and indisposed soul, never content and peaceful. He would obstruct anything that was on, even the last rites of a dead. The basti-folk already used to call him Kidsha Tippanna - Tippanna the Rotten! It meant one who would ruin any work, make a fiasco of it. So this Tippanna suddenly got up with his point, “I will make the offering to the well. Why should Tammya get this honour? I am so much elder to him in age; still you are ignoring me, honouring this man half of my age! Don’t you any more respect the elders? Alright, I will also see how you proceed and take out the silt and go ahead with building the well!” Saying this, he went where the baskets and tools were kept and stood there adamantly, with legs stretched out.

Looking at the whole situation, and keeping the furtherment of the task in mind rather than personal honour, Ba yielded. Tippanna was given the honour of the coconut and the first basket. Others, too kept quiet to avoid bitterness right in the beginning. The removal of silt now began.

In two days, the silt was removed. The ditch was not very deep. So it could not contain much water in it. Therefore, it was decided to increase its depth and circumference. Every day, two men and four women would work for this. Each such group would work for two days. As decided, the work was started. In the matter of fifteen days the depth and circumference of the ditch was increased to desired level.

My mamas took out rocks, blocks, chips from the small mine in the waste land, and brought them on site in a buffalo-cart. They placed each kind in a separate heap; this made selecting the piece easier for the one who would chisel it. The old and the youngsters, barely showing up a beard, started chiseling out the stones. Rather than the adult and aged, the youngsters were tremendously enthused. The chiseling work was finished in no time. The actual construction was to be done only by Ba and my younger mama. Others could not do that job.

The construction of the well was started from the hard rock, some one and half paras (purush – the traditional Indian measure of length) deep from the surface. Below that hard rock the well was yet another one and half paras deep. The circumference of the well was kept about five feet, and the construction was started. Just above the rock, the construction was of ‘dry’ or bare block arrangement; with such dry construction without using any lime for cementing, the tiny streams and springs within the soil are allowed to seep into the well. This is how a well has to be built. After this portion, the upper construction is done using lime or cement as fixing element. Exactly in this manner, my Ba and my mama set out on at the construction of the well, with all their heart.

Within a month, the construction came up above the surface. Then the construction of the ‘plinth’ – the periphery wall was started, some ten feet in circumference and about three feet in height. The actual opening of the well was kept at only five feet in circumference. The plinth wall was also call Katta – the wall to rest upon. When the wall came three feet above the ground level, it was given a layer of stone slabs on top.

But the slabs cannot hold the water pots properly. Should they not tilt and spill while filling with water, so some restwholes / restbowls were carved within the stone slabs. Now with these, the pots fitted well. Surrounding this periphery wall or ‘jota’- the plinth, a border of a height of three inches was built. The idea was that the water that was spilt while fetching and filling the water-pots would not spread around beyond the plinth; rather, from the stone slabs topping the well, it should flow into the stone channel specially made for this and reach the low tank beside. The tank was also constructed with stone. It was quite big – five feet in length, three feet in width and three feet deep. Over and above this, a Don – a large bowl was carved and chiseled out of a huge rock, which could contain a few potfulls of water. This bowl was kept at a little distance from the well, so that during the washing of clothes (with the water from the Don), the used, dirty water may not enter back into the well.

If some time the water-pot falls into the well and has to be taken out by getting into the well, the inner surface of the wall had small grip-holes at every two feet throughout; so that they can be used for climbing up or down the wall. Thus, the well got ready within around two months’ time. It was better constructed than any other well even in the town. The plinth-wall and the surrounding border, the topping slabs, the skillful arrangement of collecting the spilt water into the tank through ‘Gomukh’ channels and not allowing it back into the well or to spread around, showed a skill and expertise equivalent to a good engineer. Ba was illiterate, a ‘thumb-signer’; yet, the architecture of the well he designed and constructed was so much praiseworthy!

The last stone was fitted. The well was now ready. On somebody’s suggestion, a stone plaque was put up carving the date of the completion of the construction. I was about seven-eight months of age then, so said Amma.