Translated from the Telugu by K. Purushotham.
My grandmother was sitting in front of her hut chopping palm fruit. I sat by her, breathing deeply as I watched the fruit, glowing red as the setting sun, under grandmother’s knife.
Thatha, an elderly man in the village, came by and asked, “What’s this for, Yendluri Pullamma? Are you going to cook palm fruit today?”
My grandmother’s left hand was in a bandage. She was struggling to cut the palm fruit into pieces with just a hand and a half.
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At the time, my grandmother was a healthy seventy-year-old. “Patti! How do you stay so strong? Even youngsters today are no match for your strength. Is it because of the good food you ate when you were young?” I asked her inquisitively.
The old man sat down next to me. “Those days are no more, naayina! We used to be able to buy twenty-four measures of grain for a rupee. Now it is six rupees for just four measures. What can we afford to buy, what can we afford to eat?”
Jejamma started speaking up. “It is always a struggle to get enough to eat, from the time one is born. In spite of toiling like slaves, we hardly get to ease our hunger. If it rains well, the fields yield some grain. But it has hardly rained at all. The sky has turned barren. If only the sky could grow udders and pour rain like milk from a cow! But with the way the forests are being cut down, where will water come from? Our wells are drying up like the breasts of a new mother who cannot suckle her infant. We have struggled endlessly for want of water, naayina.”
“Neither the landlords nor the government are concerned about us madigas and our needs. We are mere voiceless labourers to the farmers, mere votes to the government people. They care nothing about us. When election time comes around, they appear in our villages, white caps on their heads. The reddys and the nayudus will visit us madigas and speak in honeyed tones, seeking our votes. ‘Pullamma-garu! You must vote for me! I depend on your kindness.’ The president of our village, especially, will come around and sit on our front porches, mouthing honeyed words. What kind of hypocrisy is this? When they spot us on the street or when we approach them with folded hands at times of difficulty, they turn away, stony-faced. When they need our votes, oh, then they speak to us so very kindly…”
I tried to calm her down. “Jejamma! This is not something new—it’s an old story—forget about it. Don’t get all worked up and fall ill.”
“I’m always healthy because I work hard, naayina. I never quarrel with anyone. Recently I was chopping firewood, and broke my hand. I went to Pamuru to get it set. Mala-Guriah bandaged it with raw egg, ghee, jaggery, all ground into a paste. Now the bone is healing. See, I’m doing my work…”
But Jejamma was not done with airing her opinions. She declared that the thought of the atrocities committed by men of the dominant castes made her want to scream.
Thatha laughed aloud. “What’s the matter, Pullamma! You are talking as though you’re Gandhi’s younger sister!” he teased.
“Why shouldn’t I speak out? Should I have the right to speak only if I am Gandhi’s sister? When the minister said that Gandhi swept our streets with a broom, our madigas applauded loudly, hysterically. Actually, our youngsters are mindless. They want nothing more than to be blind followers of these ministers. Do they ever question the ministers?”
“Did our stomachs fill with food just because Gandhi held a broom? Did our status improve in any way because he called us ‘Harijans’?”
Thatha remarked, “Mmey, Pullamma! Finding so many faults with the savarnas? The words are really bursting out of you!”
“They talk a lot about Gandhi. That Gandhi swept the Harijans’ streets and cleaned our latrines. Let the savarna ministers come to our madigavada once. We have no latrines. What is there to clean? Let them sweep our street! Let them eat sankati with us, let them sleep under the trees, under the sky, let them see our huts and the tattered, thatched roofs, so that they know what kind of lives we lead.
“Let them compare our huts with their houses. Then let them judge what’s what. We’ll live a few days in their houses. Let them live in ours.
“Did our stomachs fill with food just because Gandhi held a broom? Did our status improve in any way because he called us ‘Harijans’?
“Now that he is dead, people say he showed a lot of sympathy for our people. In that case, surely he should have known that our vada is separated from the main village? Why didn’t he fight to ensure that people of all castes lived together with equal rights within the village? He could have taken up the matter, he could have reprimanded the savarna folk. He should have undertaken a satyagraha, a hunger strike without food or water, to demand rights for us.’
Thatha was silent for a while. Then he said, “How can we challenge what the village elders say? Mmey, Pullamma! Isn’t your grandson studying in the city? Isn’t that an improvement to the way things were?”
‘Yes, it’s because of Ambedkar that our lives have improved. But for him, our lives would have been even more miserable.’
“I can pour out the agony with our madigas, sharing it. Or I could be silent. Can we share our bitterness with those of other castes? I may not know everything—after all, I am just a dumb buffalo!”
When my grandmother finished talking, Thatha laughed and said sarcastically, “Yes, Pullamma, you’re a dumb buffalo! Alas! And like a buffalo, you cannot talk at all.”
Thatha stood up and went away.
Selected by Mini Krishnan
Reproduced courtesy of SouthSide Books
Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta