by Francis Baartmans mhm
The Mysterious Trail of the Tamarind
Voices from the Margin
In a recently published book Fr Francis Baartmans mhm presents a fascinating account of the Dalits of the Nagwa Basti in Varanasi, India. Extracts from this study are being serialised on this website over the coming days/weeks. (Instalment 4)
The story of Lakhpati – the ‘Millionaire’
Lakhpati lives round the corner from me. How old she is? She doesn't know. From what she tells me I guess she's about 80.
Exploitation, oppression, slave labour on the landowners' fields since childhood and other hard work sucked the blood from her body. Her skin is dry as leather. She's as thin as a rake, but tough as bamboo. Her eyes sparkle behind her thick glasses.Determination and courage are carved into her features. On a whisp of tobacco she seems to chew away setbacks and misery. Her teeth are gone. We started redeveloping the neighbourhood 30 years ago. The people could make use of micro-credits. Lakhpati's hovel was pulled down. A brick room was built instead. Friends ofLakhpati's in The Netherlands, the Nagwa Foundation, later built a second room in front and another room on top. With a veranda upstairs, facing the lane, the house looks in fact the prettiest in the Basti. Lakhpati shares her house with her son Somnaath and his wife and five children. The eldest, Nitil, is 18. "Im not going to die until they all have a home", Lakhpati declares. She's happy the children go to school. "It's just as well my sisters died young".
Lakhpati was married at the age of ten. At the time, she still lived on the other side of the Ganges. Five years later she was brought to her husband's home in Nagwa Basti. It was the first time she set eyes on him. "And the dowry?", I ask. Her parents had gone to a moneylender. "It's just as well my sisters died young", she says, looking away. Lakhpati had four daughters and one son. Her husband died young of tuberculosis. When did he die? She doesn't remember. What do dates matter?
The sun rises and sets, what difference does it make? Her daughters are long since married.
"I had to find a husband for each one. "And the dowries?" "I had to find money, borrowed it. I had no idea how and when to give the money back. Terrible."Kya kare?" Who would want your daughter without a dowry?"
Then, casually almost, an afterthought, she says: "The eldest was beaten by her husband and his family almost every day. The dowry had not been large enough, they said. They wanted more. They continued maltreating my daughter until one day she couldn't take it anymore. One morning she jumped into the well. She wanted to die" I swallow. Lakhpati is silent a while. "They pulled her out of the well and she came home. After a few months she wanted to return to her husband, but he refused. A lawyer ruled that he had to take her back" I look at her. "You don't understand. What would the neighbours have said if she had stayed with me? How would I have supported her when I had hardly enough to eat myself?"
"You can put it right here in my hand"
Her son, who still lives with her isn't in the best of health. He suffers since long from tuberculosis, can't do any heavy work. He's a trained tailor. That work too, he can't do any longer. He hasn't got the strength. Actually, his employer told him to leave. He might infect others. During the tourist season and for rich people's weddings, Somnaath skillfully carves lifelike animals from papayas, cucumbers, pumpkins, carrots and potatoes. He takes them to the more expensive hotels where they are put on ice and used to decorate the dinner tables. If the hotel owner finds a figure beautiful enough, Somnaath receives around 100 rupees on average. The price of the fruit has to be deducted. To earn a little more, he sits in the evening on the busy street leading to the university selling plastic toys. Ifhe's lucky, he'll sell a few at a profit of 50 cents each. Sitara, Lakhpati's daughter-in-law, earns 800 rupees a month as a servant in a wealthier family.
Lakhpati receives a widow's pension. It contributes to the family's income. Fortunately, it was raised to 300 rupees a month three years ago. If all goes well, she should receive the lump sum every six months on an account set up especially for registered widows. She wouldn't be Lakhpati if she didn't go straight to the bank manager to get her due. "I'm here for my pension. You can put it right here in my hand: 1800 rupees. You won't have to write anything down. That makes it easier for you, Sahib"
"We're not going to put up with it anymore"
Lakhpati was the first to become a member of the Nagwa Cooperative Family Garden and Teaching Centre more than 20 years ago. She had the considerable sum of 200 rupees ready for her membership fee. Her plot was the best kept. It still is. Lakhpati's daughter-in-law now looks after it. Soomnaath is too weak to work the plot, and the children are in school. Lakhpati used to proudly carry a sack of potatoes, cauliflowers or onions home.
She's too old now. Moreover, she broke her hip almost two years ago. The doctors can't do anything about it. She's been on her bed at home since then. She suffers but doesn't give up. Her mind is clear as always. When the first house came up next to the garden plots, the owner used to throw the household waste into the garden from the rooftop, plastics, paper, napkins, food left-overs, an old toothbrush, broken glassware and more. Those working in their plots gathered the waste and put it in the garden bin. Several times they requested the owner not to dump it in the garden. All they got as a reply was a sneer. It went on and on until Lakhpati had had enough.
"That man may be a sahib, a landowner, but we're not going to put up with it anymore". "How? What will we do?" the women and a few men asked. "How can we, chote loog, lowly people from the Basti tell him, a sahib, to behave?"
Lakhpati persisted. A week's load of rubbish was collected in baskets. Lakhpati marched to the man's front door with most of the women and a few men in her wake. When the man opened the door and before he could say a word, Lakhpati emptied her basket onto the doorstep at his feet. The other women followed her example. Fearlessly, Lakhpati looked the owner straight in the face: "Sahib, why do ….. " She had wanted to give him a piece of her mind. He didn't wait for her comments and disappeared into his house. That was the end of the rubbish dumping!
The garden women came to the front and took charge of the struggle. They had been there from the garden's beginning, were thought of as harmless – meaningless, but now there was a whole group of them and they took the neighbour Sahib by surprise, and their own men too. They had not thought of women as autonomous and as an important social base for the garden as a 'movement'.
"In Nagwa we had to work on the land of the Thakurs the whole day. We received only a few cents", Lakhpati continues "Twelve hours or longer. If you rested for a moment you were beaten and young women were not safe. They were often raped in the fields. Want and hunger gnawed at us like a woodworm in a door. We ate the meat of dead animals and saved the fat to cook with. We drank the dirty water of the Ganges. The arrogant Thakurs didn't allow us to come near the wells. They think they can bum an oillamp with their urine! The infamous Satnu Singh used to drag us to the fields.
When one day a labourer took a handful of ears of corn home he was beaten with thorny twigs. I braced myself, looked him in the face and told him what I thought of him". Lakhpati stuffs a little tobacco in her mouth.
"My nickname became "Andhee". That means Storm. That's still my name. But because I never had anything and neither did the others, the farmers made fun of me to humiliate me and called me 'Lakhpati', the Millionaire.
People still call me so. 0 yes, that tyrant Satnu Singh. He lived a little way off, outside this neighbourhood. When he once again maltreated us and yelled at us, a group of men decided to get rid of him, and they did. They threw his body far away and none of his family ever found it. You can ask others here, they know. Fortunately, our standard of living has improved. When Nehru came to power, he tackled the landowners. Now there are houses in the neighbourhood instead of fields and our women are safer. There are better provisions for the Da1its and the children go to school. Finding work is still difficult, however.
We haven't got there yet, but we will eventually”.
Francis Baartmans mhm