Translated into English by Arunava Sinha, Anita Agnihotri’s The Sickle illuminates a series of intersecting and overlapping crises — female foeticide, sexual assault, the violence of caste, feudal labour relations, farmers’ suicides and climate change in all its manifestations — through the lives of farmers, migrant labourers and activists in Marathwada and western Maharashtra.
The following are excerpts from the book.
The sun-scorched farmland and dried trees along the way had observed with melancholy and envious yellowed eyes the passing of the train with long whistles and no stops anywhere, their thirst increasing while they watched. So much water, and yet the train wouldn’t offer a drop to any of them. The calculations of politics were different. Arriving at the town of the leader of the opposition, the train would flex its muscles to announce that only we can do it. The chief minister hadn’t been able to make it, his deputy had rushed to flag the train off. The roads were overflowing with police jeeps, ambulances and vehicles with red beacons. Right next to the station was an ancient stepwell – hundreds of years old – named Haider Khan Baoli. Roshanara Begum stood in a new printed sari, her burqa drawn over it. An old woman from a family that had been looking after the stepwell for generations. Apparently, it didn’t dry up even in times of extreme drought.
The train had brought five lakh litres of water, but none of it would go to the villages or district towns. The Haider Baoli had been cleaned and emptied out, it would be filled with the water, which would then flow through long and wide rubber pipes into a 1,000-foot-long cement pipe being set in place hurriedly. This water was meant for the different neighbourhoods in the town. The train would go back, be refilled, and return with more water from far away – the cost would run up to several crores of rupees within a week, a sum too large for Terna or Datu to understand.
Latur was drying up. This district town of Marathwada used to get its water earlier from the Manjira dam. There was no more water in the dam now after three years of drought. The municipality had 1,000 borewells in the town, besides 15,000 bore pumps. Latur town had sucked its mother earth’s breasts dry and then rejected her; still it was the recipient of the prize handed out by politics. It would get the water, while 20 lakh villagers in the district would watch the train pass by slowly without getting a drop. Two tractors and a small truck stopped on their way back from the shanties to the village. Terna, Datu and their children were in the vehicle bringing up the rear. It would have to wait, since the level crossing gates were closed. The little girl clung to Terna. She had been refusing to let go of her ever since the incident at the canal. Like a bat attached to a withered branch. The boy had a schoolbag on his shoulders. He had carefully packed all his books from the shanty.
‘What’s in the round compartments, ma?’ His eyes were wide with surprise.
‘Water, baba, it’s water,’ Terna was about to say, before she clamped her lips shut. They had no water to drink on the way. They had stopped once for a drink at a tap, along with tea and pao bhaji. What if the boy felt thirsty if he was told the train was carrying water, what if he wanted some?
After all, there was an entire river inside Terna once. Where had it vaporized?
From Valley of Death
Yashwant’s father had not been destined for a peaceful life. A Bhumihar, he had fallen in love with the daughter of a Ghasi, whom he married defying the objections of his family. The bride came home, but Yashwant’s grandparents didn’t accept her. Yashwant’s father lived with his mother in a small separate house. They had land to farm, cows and oxen and goats too, and earnings were not a problem. How much could a four-year-old remember anyway? Still, Yashwant could recollect his mother’s constantly tentative ways, her slow speech, her attempts to make herself almost invisible behind the end of her sari drawn across her face. His grandparents and aunt would tell him his mother was from a different caste, a ‘low’ one. Yashwant had travelled somewhere near Ranchi with his father and uncle to attend the wedding of a relative. They hadn’t taken his mother along, his grandfather had said they couldn’t go with her, it would be an insult to their caste. Had Yashwant’s mother wanted him to stay back with her? She had dressed him in new clothes before he left, putting the ritual black dot on the side of his forehead to ward off the evil eye, and had held him tight in her arms. When they returned a week later, the small house had burnt down completely; the smell of burning was everywhere and ash was still flying in the air. Apparently, the bamboo strips beneath the thatched roof had caught fire from the oven while his mother was cooking. She wasn’t found alive. Her parents’ family had cremated her charred body. They had come in full
force with their sticks, but most of them had stopped at the fence. The Ranvir Sena may not have been as formidable in Hazaribagh district as in central Bihar, but it wouldn’t take them long to show up if sent for by Bhumihars.
Yashwant’s uncle and grandfather had expected his father to demolish the burnt-down house and return with his son to his own room, now locked. But Yashwant’s father left home instead, with the meagre money he had. First a bus to Raipur, and from there, after some aimless wandering, Ahmednagar. Finally, it was this small town in Beed district that his father liked enough to settle down in. In Ahmednagar he used to sell puri-sabzi from a cart next to the station. He went on to set up an eating shack, and soon fetched his eight-year-old son from the village. This led to a furious quarrel with Yashwant’s grandfather. His grandmother wept, you don’t even have a place of your own, how can you take him away. Let him stay with us, he’s just started school.
He’ll grow up to be a murderer if he stays here. Yashwant’s father had taken him away almost forcibly. The child was quite pleased. With his father not at home, he wasn’t happy staying with his grandparents, even though school was a diversion. The burnt-down house had been levelled to the ground, but still, Yashwant made it a point to go there, away from the prying eyes of the family, whenever he got the chance. Did nothing remain of his mother? Her body and her bones may have been incinerated on the pyre, but what about the other signs? Household effects? Things in the kitchen, her nose ring, a shard of her bangle? An entire human had disappeared. Not disappeared, she had been deliberately set on fire. The police had not been informed, there had been no trouble. Was Yashwant expected to be brought up by the people who didn’t mourn her disappearance? Was he a clockwork doll?
His father didn’t let him gather his clothes or bedding, saying, you’ll live the way I do. Father and son, we’ll live in great comfort.
It was summer. A small dhaba, whose roof was supported by a single pillar wrapped in tin. The khatia in front emptied out when everyone left, which was where Yashwant slept with his father. During the day he had to wash the dishes, put in some time for cooking, knead the dough for the rotis. Yashwant settled down rather well. The highway hadn’t yet been built, there was only a narrow road of bitumen and laterite. Th e bus to Beed travelled on this route. The land on which the dhaba stood had been empty earlier, perhaps it was a grazing ground for the village of Shirur, or a playing field. Not that Yashwant had ever seen any grass on it. Nothing but gravel, tips of protruding rocks, and black soil that quickly turned bone dry under the sun after a shower. Father and son had worked hard to build the dhaba. It hadn’t been easy; putting up a wall and a new oven took a year. Yashwant hadn’t managed to go to school. The language was different here, they taught in Marathi, not Hindi.
But Yashwant had got hold of books in both languages and had acquired a working knowledge of everything that mattered.
To be able to keep accounts, he had learnt arithmetic with the help of a retired schoolteacher in the neighbourhood – he would have to help his father, after all. And then his father had rented a place, large enough for two, not only to live in but also to cook in when necessary. Yashwant’s father never returned to Kushmunda village in Hazaribagh. The smell of the ash there had snapped his ties to his home. They had burnt Yashwant’s mother in his absence, like a helpless animal tied to a stake – the anguish had never left him.
Everyone in the mohalla loved Yashwant, including those who went to the dhaba. A cheerful, hard-working, lively young man. The faint line of a moustache above his upper lip was becoming prominent, his head was covered in thick hair. A stranger of advancing years would tell his father, you have a good apprentice, Shambhu. It made Yashwant’s father proud. With a twinkling smile, he said, why should he be my apprentice, he’s my son.
Shambhu died abruptly, even before he could be treated for the sharp pain in his chest early in the morning. No hospitals were open at that hour in the small town. And the way he was perspiring, taking him to the district town would be . . . but Yashwant did it anyway, hiring a car to the district hospital. But his father was gone before daybreak.
Twenty-year-old Yashwant stayed on, alone, another face in the crowd, working hard to expand his business, after which Rupali came into his life. Or did she?
Th e first day that Yashwant had tracked down Daya Joshi at her house, his reply to her curious question was, I may not be a mother, but I can be a father, can’t I?
Rupali used to walk along the lane to school, two long plaits hanging down her back, wide eyes, thin pink lips, snub nose – an adolescent Yashwant would gaze at her through the window. Then came exchanges of glances, of smiles, finding out each other’s names, a word or two in seclusion – there could be no greater intimacy than this in a small town. Rupali had taken him home after she was done with school, shown him her books and her harmonium, made him tea. Rupali’s father, Ganpat Rao, an oficer at the district court, had told her in no uncertain terms that friendship was fine, having him over at home was fine, but she must not meet the son of a dhabawala from a different caste outside, and don’t even think of marriage, it won’t work in our society.
Caste. Caste. Caste.
The juggernaut that breaks the country into pieces, mangling human beings till they turn to pulp.