Living with hunger

Published : Nov 08, 2002 00:00 IST

On why the Musahaars of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar constitute a community which lives simultaneously at the edge of both hunger and anger, which is dispossessed and shunned but seethes with a fierce pride.

For the past several years, much of Bhagmania's days are occupied in a relentless search for food. The aging widow scours the harvested fields of the landlords with her broom and bamboo tray, to glean stray grains of wheat and paddy that may have fallen unnoticed during reaping. She follows field rats to their burrows, and is skilled in scraping out the grain stolen and stored underground by these rodents. After each weekly village market ends, she collects in her sari edge grain that may have been spilt inadvertently by the traders while vending to the customers or discarded rotting waste vegetables. In the cruellest months of hunger, she even sifts through the dung of cows for undigested grain. A whole day's search yields, if she is lucky, a palmful of foodgrain, which she cooks with salt and turmeric in a large earthen vessel of water. For years, this is how she has valiantly staved off hunger from her home. But only just.

Bhagmania belongs to the community of Musahaars, who are among the poorest and most oppressed people in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Despised as the lowest of the low within the caste hierarchy, they are a community which lives simultaneously at the edge of both hunger and anger. Utterly dispossessed and shunned, they still seethe with a fierce pride. Musahaar literally means `eaters of rats' but some people point out that `musa' also means flesh and traditionally they are hunters. It is believed that they once ruled the dense forests of the Gangetic delta. But as the British cleared the forests for settled agriculture, the rich alluvial land was transferred into the hands of large feudal landlords and the Musahaars were dispossessed even of their homesteads.

Neither Bhagmania nor any of the hundred householders of the Musahaar hamlet of Hanumanganj village in Khushinagar district of eastern U.P. own even the land on which their tiny thatch and leaf hutments are perched. Near the banks of the spectacularly picturesque river Gandak, the Musahaars of the village live on a narrow stretch of land between the fields of land-owners. They say that it is like being trapped in a jail, because their children are thrashed and their chickens shooed away if they stray onto the land-owners' fields, which lie on both sides of their severely circumscribed settlement. They once cultivated common lands on the banks of the river but these too have been transferred into the hands of the upper-caste farmers of the village.

Although the lekhpal's records confirm that the land on which their homes are located belongs to the government, they hold it only at the mercy of the local zamindar. Bhagmania herself toiled in the fields of a zamindar for 12 years, in the hope that he would one day arrange for her to receive title rights over her homestead. However, she continues to share a common fate with the estimated 15,000 Musahaar households that exist in four districts of eastern U.P. Khushinagar, Mehrajganj, Deoria and Gorakhpur. Even today, most of these households do not even own the land on which their sparse homes are built. Whether the land belongs to landlords or to the government, they live under the constant fear of eviction.

Bhagmania was born in Tinphadia Bazaar, a village in Champaran district in Bihar. Her parents and many of her siblings were decimated by a cholera epidemic that devastated her village. She remembers being very sick herself but someone tended to her, gave her water and food and she survived. Her uncle brought her up and married her off when she was 10 years old to Dhebar, a teen-aged cowherd who grazed around 100 cows owned by the local landlord.

Another death-dealing epidemic some years later took Dhebar away. He left Bhagmania with an infant son. People of the village arranged another marriage for Bhagmania, because she was still very young, this time to an older man Mangaru, who had abandoned his first wife. Their village, located on the opposite bank of the Gandak from where Hanumanganj is located, was washed away in a flood and the couple shifted to Hanumanganj, where Mangaru's sister was married. They lived at first with his sister, sharing her scanty home, but eventually begged their landlord Ramlal Yadav for a patch of government land for their own home. He relented and in return Bhagmania worked for Yadav for 12 long years tending his cattle, sowing and transplanting paddy, weeding his fields, collecting cowdung and toiling at domestic chores in the vain hope that one day he would secure the title of the land for her. Mangaru also died, probably of kala-azar, leaving Bhagmania twice widowed, pauperised by medical expenses to the local quack and with two more small children to bring up.

Work was increasingly hard to come by. Ironically, technology and the growing wealth of the countryside only deepened the poverty of the Musahaars. Dependent mainly on agricultural work for sustenance, they regard as their biggest enemy the second-hand combine harvesters brought in from Punjab. These machines can harvest as many as 25 acres of standing crop a day. Earlier 40 people would have laboured to reap the crop on each acre of farmland and therefore the Musahaars calculate that a combine harvester can displace as many as a thousand person-days of agricultural wage work everyday. No wonder that in every Musahaar hamlet we visited, people railed against what they called the `barki machine' (big machine) or `compine'. Ghoruru of Koileswa village said: "Why do they not run the compine over us? At least then we will not starve this way."

The combine harvester also leaves no thatch that they once gathered for the roofs of their homes. Chemical pesticides and weedicides have reduced the need for workers to weed the fields. Some kinds of weeds were food for the Musahaars and these have also been lost. Changing cropping patterns, from subsistence food crops, such as paddy, to cash crops, such as sugarcane, again entail less demand for labour. Tractors substitute the manual sowing of most crops except paddy. Wages on private farms therefore have fallen to less than Rs.20 for men and Rs.15 for women.

If Bhagmania and her older daughter Dhanmati still find work, it is thanks mainly to the brick kilns that dot the entire region. The owners of these kilns advance money as `dadni,' an annual system of bondage in which the workers mortgage their future labour to the brick kiln owners. They are paid a hundred rupees for making a thousand bricks, which takes the entire family maybe through a full week. But the owner deducts interest payments from these scant wages at an usurious rate of ten per cent a month. Still the Musahaars are grateful for the work and through this they manage to stave off starvation.

As Dhanmati grew a little older, Bhagmania got her married. For Dhanmati, little changed. In the words of a gathering of Musahaar women with whom we spoke, marriage for them is like a cow being sold from one home to another, the rope with which she is tied is merely shifted to another cowshed. There is no happiness in the fate of a poor woman, whether in the home of her parents or her husband. In both places, she will survive only if she slaves.

Dhanmati had five children and six years ago her husband set off to Punjab to seek agricultural work in the fabled land of plenty. He took with him their oldest son. Both have not been heard of since. They never send any money home, and Dhanmati does not even know if they are alive. Her younger brother, Bhagmania's son and main source of support, also followed them to Punjab, promising to look out for them and also to send home savings from his earnings. There has been no word from him either. Dhanmati has returned to her mother's home and together the two women struggle each day to bring up four children and keep the fires in their home burning.

In the entire Musahaar hamlet, in which not one person owns an inch of land, only three families have been identified by the district administration to be below the poverty line. The households of Bhagmania and Dhanmati are not among these. It does not matter because the ration shop that distributes subsidised grain has not been opened for two years. Bhagmania has also not been selected for the government scheme for payment of monthly pension for widows and old people. Only two widows in the village receive this pension, which they get erratically once every one or two years. Moreover, they get only a fraction of the pittance which is due to them.

Both Bhagmania and Dhanmati have only one sari each. Bhagmania's purple cotton sari is a frayed and deeply faded one. They wash and dry them by night, so that they can cover their modesty in the light of day. On freezing winter nights, they wrap themselves and their children in paddy straw or sleep next to a fire. The soles of many Musahaar people are blackened because they prefer the searing of the fire to the icy chill on their bare limbs.

After I was able to win her trust, Bhagmania took me into her hut to share a secret. She spoke conspiratorially in a whisper, afraid that no one else should hear. "I have some wealth stored away, which I want to show you," she said. It turned out to be an old rusted bicycle, left behind by her son. Her greatest treasure, she had dismantled the bicycle and hung the parts inconspicuously in various parts of the hut, camouflaged amidst hanging brooms and agricultural instruments. "This is how I am saving my wealth from thieves," she whispered to me. I felt great shame to return later to the careless comfort of my own home.

One night during our travels around the Musahaar hamlets, it rained and we took shelter in another home headed by a Musahaar woman. Many other women had also collected and talk turned to how they teach their children to live with hunger.

"Half the week we are able to eat roti or rice with either vegetable or dal. The other half of the week, it is just roti or rice boiled with salt and turmeric. But there are four or five days in a month that there is just no food, and we have no option but to fast. If there is any food at all on such days, we give it to our children, adding a lot of water so as to fill their stomachs. Any more food goes to our menfolk because we women are used to staying hungry."

As they spoke in the flickering light of the kerosene lamp, they mistook the dismay reflected in our eyes for disbelief. "We are facing the south, so we are speaking only the truth," the women said stoutly. They spoke without drama or self-pity, instead with the dignity and resilience of years of experience and an acceptance of all that life gives them.

"But if there is no grain even for the children it is difficult for us to bear their weeping," the women continued. "When the wailing of the children gets too much, we give them cannibus, or `khaina' (local tobacco for chewing), or even liquor. It helps them to sleep with nothing in their stomachs. If they are small, we beat them, and as they grow older, we try to teach them how to live with hunger." It is a lesson that will equip them for a lifetime.

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