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 5)
Dukhna Devi's Story
Dukhna Devi, in her early eighties, has all these years been my backdoor neighbour. She suffers from asthma and has severe attacks. The searing summer when the 100, trade winds, blow dust from the Ganges to the Basti, and the humid monsoon weather are Dukhna's worst seasons, often leaving her gasping for breath. She struggles through the monsoon months, scrounging armfuls of thatch or fixing a piece of tin to keep the hut she lives in from leaking. I can hear her cough during the night. When it gets too bad, I get up and go and see her.
When, during the day, Dukhna does not feel well and begins to cough, Shepu, the youngest of six children in the house opposite Dukhna's hut comes and calls me, "Jaldi, dadi bimar hai halat bahut karab hai", "Hurry!, dadi is sick, it's very bad". Off Shepu runs. When dadi is sick, Shepu panicks.
Stepping out of her shack, Dukhna, I often had the impression, had always been standing very short in the darkened doorway. She is not very short, just stooped.
A few months ago I went to see her to tell her I was going away for some time to do some work. I wished her well. I told her we would meet again when I would be back. By that time she would have a much more comfortable place to live in. "I am not going away", she said. "This has been my home ever since I came here when I married. I was fourteen then. How can 1 leave this home?
It is not good to go far away from your place. People do not know you, you do not know people. I am not going away. I shall stay in the new house" For Dukhna Devi there was no room in the house of her son Shama, his wife and their seven children. They live only a few yards away. Sadly, the relationship between Dukhna and her son is not what it should have been. He is an experienced mason, but he drinks, although less now. A few years ago while arguing with his son, he poured kerosene over himself and, in a drunken stupor, set himself on fire, wanted to harm his son too. If he had not been cared for by the Ashray Centre's clinic, he would not have survived.
Dukhna will soon live in a better home
Dukhna lived in her hut all her years with her goats on Ramashray's small compound where a new house will soon be built. There will be room for Dukhna Devi too.
Before the interview began, Dukhna Devi, 80 years of age approximately, mentioned the name of her husband, the Late Budhhu Ram, the name of her father-in-law, the Late Mahadev and the name of her mother-in-law, the Late Uda Devi.
Nagwa was the Sasural (place of the in-laws) of my father-in-law who settled here. My father-m-law was a native of a small village, Mohane, near Rajghat. After marrying Uda Devi he settled here. I was married to Budhhu Ram at Nagwa. I was about 14 years old at that time. My mother's home is next to Shivdaspur Manduadeeh.
At the time of my marriage when I came here, there were around 10 or 12 households in Nagwa. My father-in-law was a shoemaker. From Lanka to Nagwa there were only a few houses. On one side there were Dalmiya Kothi, a small sweet shop and 4 or 5 other small shops. There was also a jewellery shop.
After marriage, my husband went to Bangladesh to begin work as a boatman. I worked in the fields of Thakur Sahib and also used to carry sand over a distance of 8 kilometers. When I had time, I used to cut wheat, barley, millet and so on in the field of Thakur Saheb in the morning and evening as well. In the meantime, my husband came back. He was ill.
Whatever we earned we used for running our household. As time went by we had 6 children. We had food to eat only once a day and the rest of the time we had to depend on raw gram or barley ‘sattu’ (coarse flower)
Slowly, my husband recovered. Both of us started working for Thakur Saheb. My husband used to look after his bulls and plough his fields. We received seven rupees and 10 kilograms of millet or barley as our wages for the whole month. On that we ran our household. In those days, you could buy a kilogram of ghee for just 10 paisa and 16 kilograms of rice for one rupee. There were no good quality clothes available, only the thick 'markin' but it was beyond our reach. We used to wear old and torn clothes Thakur Sahib gave us. The Thakurs never troubled or harassed me. Thakur Murli Singh helped me much when my daughter got married. He also provided whatever we needed.
Francis Baartmans talking to residents of Nagwa Basti
We repaid it by doing work at his home. Thakurs treated only those harshly who did not obey their orders or those who tried to compete with them. Otherwise they did not do so. At that time cow dung was used in the fields that made the crops nutritious. People worked hard. Even if hungry and thirsty, they were healthy. They were not always sick.
There are not many fields left now. On those that are left urea or other artificial fertilizers is used to make food crops grow. It not only decreases the crops' nourishing quality but also diminishes the fertility of the fields. Now people are often sick. With regard to the living standard, it is better now than before. But the old times had their good points too. The Basti's 'mahaul' (atmosphere) that one person used to be the Basti's headman, the ‘fukhiya’. The headman equally shared each one's joy and sorrow. He also handled the situation in case something was wrong. He had the authority to punish someone who had done wrong. Everyone followed him.
Earlier, untouchability was commonly practiced. When we worked in the Thakurs' houses, we were not allowed to touch their utensils and so on. The food and water that they gave us we received on banana leaves and in our hollowed hands. They poured the water into them.
I worship all gods and goddesses. In our home we worship Parmeshwari Devi. Whenever we begin with an auspicious work such as a marriage we first worship Parmeshwari Devi. To perform a marriage we used to call a Pandit. Also these days they come. I do not know about Mahatma Gandhi or Ambedkar but I have heard about Ravidas Ji whose temple is situated in Seer. These times are better than the earlier ones. We receive, in some measure, government and non-government assistance. There are schools for the children; roads, cars and trains too. Untouchability has been altogether abolished. Now it is difficult to know who belongs to which caste. These times are better than the earlier ones. I am happy with the way things are".
Dukhna Devi's hut was removed in October 2010 to make room for Ramashray and his family's new house. The house has meanwhile been completed and Ramashray built another room on top. With the removal of Dukhna Devi's hut, the Basti has been rid of what long used to be the Basti's dubious and to some extent true image. The removal of her hut meant the end of an era no one in Nagwa Basti regrets. The housing scheme, initiated by their Dalit political party, encouraged the Basti's residents to fight for equal rights