Author’s Note: It is now 60 years that India got its political independence. Surely, there has been economic development in the country. The per capita income has gone up, child mortality has decreased and literacy percentage has increased and so on. These are but statistics bolstered by government slogans like Garibi Hatao (Poverty Alleviation), India Shining, Bharat Nirman and many more. The reality is that life has not changed much for the rural poor. Distribution of wealth in the country has been acutely uneven. Stark poverty still exists amongst millions who have neither shelter over their heads nor are they fortunate enough to have daily meal and it is a deprecating irony that in this very country there are privileged few spending millions on personal amusement and recreation.
In the sands of Great Indian Desert in the Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan, there is a small village called Gotaru. The dusty outskirts of the village now form the international boundary. The population is a mix of Bhils, Gujjars and Meenas, the backward castes among Hindus and Muslims. They are however identified by their professions such as cobblers, carpenters, masons, blacksmiths and other such trades. Lure of money has now added occupations like pimping, stealing, bootlegging and smuggling to the list. However, the most unfortunate development in the past half century has been the division of the people on religious basis, which the old men and women say didn’t exist in the pre-independence days. The divide is the gift of politicians, the modern destiny makers of the poor people.
In fact, in good old days, religion for the people of Gotaru meant following a few common rituals on the occasions of birth, marriage and death. Id, Holi and Diwali were celebrated collectively by Hindus as well as Muslims. Firewood being difficult to get, even the Hindus buried their dead. Survival in fact was the essence of life.
There is an earthen mound on the east-end of Gotaru. The mound has a cave facing east. Perhaps it was a temple since the half-buried and withered pillars have yakshas and Kinners carved on them. No one knows when the structure was constructed and by whom? The people call it mati-tillah. In the past, the cattle and children of the village soiled the place, and there never was any feud over its ownership. Instigated by politicians and religious leaders, today it has become a bone of contention between the two communities.
Hakim Sah is an old man of the village. He is one of the five panchs of the village panchayat. He doesn’t know his age.
“I may be seventy, may be eighty, may be less, I really don’t know and really come to think of it, how does it matter?” He says feebly.
Hakim Sah was a tall man with broad shoulders, which were now drooping because of age. In his young days, he had a camel and was engaged in ferrying goods. His entire life is a saga of oppression, exploitation, persecution, hunger, pettiness and crime. He has killed strangers for few silver coins and he has acted as a pimp without any compunction. But today, he is infirm and helpless, unsure of his next meal.
Pherumal is a contemporary of Hakim Sah. Both of them have spent their years in and around Gotaru. Pherumal was a blacksmith by profession. They were close friends who had shared happiness, pain, sorrow, liquor, stolen booty and prostitutes.
Pherumal is no better than Hakim Sah in terms of health and worldly possession. He lives under a perforated tarpaulin stretched between two mud walls, secured to a Neem tree on one side and a keekar bush on the other.
1942 was the year when Congress Party workers wearing white khadi had come to Gotaru. It was the year when Quit-India Movement had stormed the entire country. The party workers were carrying the tri-colour flags. There were Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in that group. All of them were shouting Inquilab. The people of Gotaru don't remember the details. They only remember that the group talked of freedom from the British rule and that they promised better life for every Indian after the white men were driven out of the country.
Hakim Sah squints when you ask him the difference in his life after the white men had left. His face gets distorted with the wrinkles. He is circumspect, perhaps flabbergasted by the relevancy of the question.
“What change? A Raja is a Raja and the Praja is Praja always. The former is born to rule and the later, to be ruled. What difference does it make whether the Raja had a white skin or brown skin? We will always remain the Praja, the servile,” he laments.
The year 1947 changed the course of the history of the Indian sub-continent. It was a difficult year for the people of Gotaru. They were told that half a mile away, from the other side of the village nullah, a new nation of Pakistan had been created. The people of Gotaru could never conceive the prudence of the decision. In fact, the Tangia, a village on the other side of the nullah with identical population composition was now part of Pakistan. Apart from poverty and hunger, which were common on either side, the people of Tangia and Gotaru were related to each other by marriage. Besides, the masons from Tangia and the carpenters and painters of Gotaru worked in both the villages and even beyond. The division of the country had curtailed their movement, making life more difficult.
Hakim Sah was once caught and severely beaten by the border police. He thereafter discontinued going to the other side of the nullah. Over the years, his body strength drained out and he could not bear the treachery of the sandy tracks.
Hakim Sah had two children, a son and a daughter. His daughter, Sabina was married to Sahnawaj, a camel rider from Tangia village. Sahnawaj unfortunately died in a clash with his own people over a land scuffle leaving behind a daughter, Sakina of two years.
Life became difficult for Sabina and her daughter. Sabina was in her early thirties and when an elderly cousin of her husband proposed to her, she married him even though her new husband had six children and two wives. Sabina was not welcomed in the new family. The senior wives of her husband often insulted her and her daughter Sakina was always last to get meals. About a year later, her husband's amorous interest in her waned and he considered Sabina to be an unnecessary additional mouth to feed. One day he took unsuspecting Sabina to Karachi and sold her off to a brothel keeper.
When Hakim Sah came to know of it, he went to Tangia and brought his grand daughter, Sakina to Gotaru.
Hakim Sah's son, Aftab didn't like his father. The dislike was mutual. Aftab disliked the look of a camel and refused to accompany Hakim Sah on his business errands. Aftab became a rebel and finally turned in to a petty thief and a bootlegger. He was caught, beaten up by the border police several times but the habit didn't die. Whenever he got some money, he spent it on liquor and prostitutes. Today, Aftab is mentally and physically diseased. Children tease him and you can see him loitering and begging in Gotaru and adjoining villages.
Pherumal too had a daughter and a son. The son joined his father when he was eleven. Working on a furnace in the blazing desert is understandably a very tiring job. Pherumal after day's work would find relief in a bottle of country liquor, which he often shared with Hakim Sah. Pherumal’s son soon adopted his father's passion for drinking and smoking and in the prime of youth he became a victim of tuberculoses. He often suffered chest pain followed by vigorous bouts of coughing. On such occasions, Pherumal would give him liquor to bear the pain. The battle didn't last long. One day when pain was acute and he was heavily intoxicated, the young lad vomited his lungs out. Life deserted him with black fluid oozing from his mouth. Pherumal's son died at the young age without any descendent.
As time passed and Pherumal got over the grief of losing his son, he became sad for not having a male descendant. Pherumal wanted to have one, at any cost. One night he entered the hut of his son's widow. The young widow resisted but failed and capitulated to Pherumal's irresistible desire to have a male descendent.
Pherumal was happy over his triumph. His wife as well as his daughter-in-law had succumbed to his desire. Everything was working to his liking, unaware that the widow but had her own plans. One day, the young widow left the village for some unknown destination. Pherumal was disappointed, not for losing his daughter-in-law but for losing all hopes of having a male descendant.
Pherumal's daughter, Kajari was married to a young man from the adjoining village, Tanot, which was a tehsil of Jaisalmer district. Kajari’s husband was in the service of Thakur Kripal Singh, the landlord of Tanot village. The Thakur owned five hundred acres of land tilled by bonded labourers. Apart from money, Thakur Kripal Singh also liked wine and women. He had more than a dozen Goli-maids in his harem to satisfy his carnal desires. Kajari was initially employed as farm labour. One day Thakur Kripal Singh saw her and he was stuck by her bewitching beauty and figure. He immediately ordered that Kajari be added to his harem as his new Goli.
It is the duty of a Goli to serve the master and to satiate his sexual desires. A Goli's husband has no right over her body and it was sacrilegious for the husband to touch or desire his wife. The Goli and her husband were however duty-bound to accept the children sired out of the companionship with the master but children from a Goli had no right over the property of their biological father.
Over a period, Kajari was pregnant and was removed from Thakur's service. To her ill luck, one evening she was seen in the company of her husband who could not resist the charm of his wife. The inevitable followed. Kajari was paraded nude in the haveli and beaten till she fainted. Thakur Kripal Singh then ordered to throw her outside his haveli.
No one ever saw Kajari's husband. The story goes that he was hacked to death by Thakur's men and pieces of his body thrown in to a dry well.
Pregnant Kajari came to her parents who refused to accept her. Living behind her parents' hut, one night she gave birth to a son. Two weeks later, Kajari kept the newly born son below the cot of her father and left Gotaru in search of a new life. Nothing was heard of her thereafter.
Pherumal reconciled with his fate and accepted his grandson from Kajari. He named the young child, Panna.
Pherumal and Hakim Sah had grown old and infirm, unable to continue their profession. Pherumal’s family inherited a little knowledge of herbs. Unable to work at the furnace, he now practised as village quack. The two friends would sit together in the evening and talk of the bygone days and their miseries. Hakim Sah would bring his hookah. They would make a small fire out of dung cakes and smoke hookah, coughing phlegm now and then. In the winter months they would sit on the mati-tillah whole day, smoking and lazing around in the sun.
Young Panna, the grand son of Pherumal, was extraordinarily sharp. He didn't want to be a blacksmith. When eleven, he ran away to Jaipur and got the job of a dishwasher in a road-side restaurant. A couple of years later, he was employed by a retired army officer who had turned to politics. There, Panna had the opportunity of observing sly, deceitful, lascivious and hippocratic lives of the political leaders. He was amused watching politicians changing colours faster than the legendary chameleons. It was a training ground for Panna and he learnt the art with amazing alacrity.
Panna often went to his village and gave some money and small gifts out of his savings to his grandparents. Pherumal was very proud of his grandchild.
Panna was distressed to see the pathetic living conditions of his people in Gotaru and around. He felt that the upper caste landlords were ruling the country, exploiting the vote bank of the poor and down trodden. Pherumal and Hakim Sah were worried by Panna’s views, which he propagated openly. They always advised him to lie low. “We are Praja, destined to be ruled; they are Rajas.”
“That is a deep rooted fear instilled in you by the upper castes. They are the people who have made the rituals establishing their superiority. No other society anywhere in the world has such discrimination. It is time that we revolted against social persecution,” Panna often told the young boys and girls of his community.
Panna knew that democracy was the virtue of multitude. He wanted to harness this power, which he knew rested in his people. But the response from his people was far from encouraging. Centuries of servility and impoverishes, ridden with domineering rituals to respect the upper caste had left them timid and meek.
Panna wanted his people to realise that power belonged to them if they mustered courage. He was undeterred by their diffidence. He cultivated young men and women from his community and developed a network of volunteers to take up people’s problems with the district authorities. In couple of years, Panna became a known entity in political circles and consequently an eyesore to the upper caste political leaders.
The elections for the State Assembly had been announced. Panna was busy running from one village to another with his young friends. He had gained a lot of ground, which prompted almost every candidate in the fray to take him on his side. Panna declined all such requests and sent across messages to his people wait for his word until the eve of the election.
One evening Thakur Kripal Singh who was the District Chief of a political party called him to his haveli. Panna anticipated such invitation.
. "Look, you are a Hindu. In fact, your mother was in my employment. I suppose you understand…. I mean ….. ,” Thakur Kripal Singh was feeling uneasy to explain the relationship. With a little pause, he continued, “Why don’t you join us and work for me? If you garner all Hindu votes, I will surely win and for that you will be amply rewarded,” Thakur Kripal Singh was forthright.
"Thakur Saheb, you have been winning the Tanot seat for last thirty years. Please tell me what have you done so far? People go twenty kilometres to fetch water. There is no hospital here and in the absence of roads, the patients die before they can be taken to district hospital. The school is without teachers and its building is in a dilapidated condition.”
Thakur Kripal Singh was not prepared for such outburst but he didn’t want to precipitate the situation.
“Look, I promise to bring all these facilities to the villagers. I do realize that I should have been more attentive to these problems of the people but I assure that hereafter these public demands will be my priority.”
“Thakur Saheb, I see no specific reasons in your change of heart. The fact is you have been exploiting their ignorance, miseries and poverty. And now you are playing communal card. I want to tell them that if they remain united, the power belongs to them. I want them not to be swayed by your communal propaganda. I want to tell them that irrespective of our religion, all of us belong to the oppressed caste.”
The Thakur was infuriated. It was an outright insolence. It was an insult from the man whose mother was once his Goli.
He left the meeting in a huff.
"I don't want to talk to that bastard. Keep a watch over him and find out his weaknesses. Do something to keep the son of a bitch silenced," he told his cronies.
Panna continued with his campaign relentlessly. Slowly he was getting the attention of his people. The number of people coming to hear him was increasing. Thakur Kripal Singh was getting the alarming reports from his party workers. He decided to remove the thorn once for all.
One evening Panna and couple of his friends went to Tanot to attend a marriage. The host treated Panna and his friends reverentially and served them liquor in a separate room on a lavish scale. The drinking spree came to an end with Panna and his friends vomiting blood. A couple of hours later they died writhing in pain. The police declared it a case of death caused by consuming spurious liquor and closed the case.
For Pherumal it was a stunning blow. He could never recover from it. Hakim Sah was sad for he loved Panna but he couldn’t muster courage to go to Pherumal to offer his condolences.
Thakur Kripal Singh once again won the Tanot seat. Years have passed by without anything changing for the people of Gotaru.
It was the month of June. Sun was at its nadir. The wells had dried. People had to go long distance to fetch water, which was highly contaminated. There was an outbreak of cholera in the region. Death stalked every home. Children were dying every other day and those alive, were worst than the dead, their famished bodies looked awful.
Thakur Kripal Singh, the MLA had no time to come to Gotaru. He was in fact busy mustering support to stake his claim to become a minister.
In Gotaru, people's strength and courage was failing. There was no succour coming from any quarter. The government dispensary was twenty miles away. The village road made by the government agencies had vanished under the sand dunes.
The villagers all went to Pherumal for he was their last hope for some treatment of the dying. Pherumal had no children left in his family after Panna had died under mysterious conditions.
"Why have you come to me? What is left of my family that I should treat your children?" He shouted in anguish but his heart told him to save the children.
Pherumal had seen children dying in last few days. After every death the village was getting re-united. Everyone went to the bereaved family irrespective of its caste and creed. Pherumal with his shaking hands was administering the herbs to the children, writhing in pain and dying.
Pherumal remembered Panna’s words, “Our strength lies in our unity. Remember, no one will come from outside to help us.”
After six decades of independence, Gotaru is still a cluster of dilapidated huts. Withering mud walls supporting tattered tarpaulins mark the landscape. Children with running noses and perennial layers of dust on their body play with chickens, goats and dogs. The school, six miles away from the village is mostly inaccessible due to scalding sand or marshy patches during rainy season. The doctors seldom remain the in the dispensary, which is twenty kilometres away from Gotaru. Men in the pursuit of livelihood cross the border and are often caught, beaten and at times maimed or even killed.
The life of the people of Gotaru still remains a tale of unmitigated miseries, poverty, neglect and oppression in modern India.