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Kosmopolis Institute Publications Day 6: We’re on our way, our way to Byatha’s farm

Day 6: We’re on our way, our way to Byatha’s farm

 [...Title inspired by the popular children’s song ‘Our Way to Grandpa’s Farm’ – one of my favourite sing-a-longs on bus rides during school picnics, which is what our bus journey to Byatha village felt like – little groups in the bus chatting, singing, laughing, sleeping away the 2 hour ride]


In the morning before we left, Jagadeesa - human rights advocate in Bangalore, alumnus of the Monsoon School 2005, resident of Byatha village, and our host for the day – gave us a brief background about the village, what to expect from the day, and also answered questions raised by the participants relating to caste and gender hierarchies which are still an inherent part of village life, despite the general perception that these practices are fast disappearing in ‘modern’ India. Interestingly, Professor Ram pointed out that although urbanisation has squeezed out visible differences and discrimination stemming from these practices in cities like Bangalore, the effect is merely sponge-like: when the sponge is released, they come back in the same form as before. Caste, in particular, seems to have been more resilient in India, than even religion, and has survived for decades, in rural and urban areas alike. While invisible from foundational texts like the Constitution of India and expressly prohibited under other legal dictates, identity politics based on caste are seen widely in practice, affecting public life in areas such as access to housing and education, in elections, etc.

 

Upon our arrival in Byatha village, we were greeted with warm welcomes from Jagadeesa’s family and the most delicious rounds of tea, followed by deliciously sour gooseberries (a kind of fruit). We roamed around the village at leisure, gazing in wonder at the Emu (a bird kind of like an ostrich) enclosure (a new sight for several of us: Investing in emus for hire for a year to sell their eggs is seen as a lucrative livelihood option), talking to the locals in a mixture of broken English with a few Kannada words thrown in and plenty of sign language. We peppered conversations abundantly with important questions like ‘how are you-what is your name-what is your village-what is your fathers name-mothers name-grandmothers name-grandfathers name-sisters name-brothers name’! The village children were a delight, and plenty of handshakes, smiles and names were exchanged. Curiosity was apparent on both sides, with the villagers stepping out of their homes to peer at our motley group and engage with us. They offered us raw corn to munch on, which seems to be a popular snack in the village.


Byatha is a small village, but sharply divided into the ‘upper caste’ and ‘lower caste’ areas. The differences between these two parts are apparent in the quality of houses, the cleanliness and the health of the people. While everyone in the village is Hindu, the temples of worship are different for the upper and lower caste people, and the latter are not allowed inside the upper caste temples.


We met a woman who was a member of the local panchayat or village council, who said that while infrastructure development such as cementing of roads and introduction of constructed toilets has taken place over the last few years, much is still to be done, most especially in relation to construction of quality schools and hospitals which are adequately staffed. Our group also felt that sanitation facilities in the village need to be improved.


After our walk around the village and a brief huddle under the awning of a local temple due to rain (it is monsoon good and proper, here in Karnataka!) we were directly on our way to the farms. Accompanied by roughly a hundred excited children chattering non-stop with us (language no bar), we walked through green village fields under a vast expanse of open sky. We breathed. Somewhere deep inside, I think most of us found a deep peace and connected with nature.

 

Our host led us into the grape farms owned by his family, and invited us to munch on bunches of fresh juicy black grapes plucked then and there – what a treat! Some of us even tried sugarcane bitten off with our teeth: Tim and Justine in particular, proved to be quite the champs at this!


Later, our host family provided us with home-made dinner, and we ate with our fingers in the traditional Indian way, sitting cross-legged on mats on the floor. We were first served ‘Ragi Balls’, made by mixing ragi (a type of millet) powder with hot water over a fire with wooden sticks, a process which a few of us had the opportunity to watch. This is a staple food in Karnataka, and is eaten with Sambhar. It is meant to be swallowed whole without chewing, which was difficult for most of us! We also ate some delicious home-cooked biriyani with raita and a home-made sweet for desert, followed by another round of delicious chai. As you might imagine, we were stuffed to bursting point, happily tired and sleepy after an eventful day.


Before leaving, we were invited for an informal discussion with some village elders. Jagadeesa told us the story of the goddess in whose honour the temple in whose compound we were sitting was built, and this is a story through which the pervasive caste question can be looked at – She was a Brahmin (upper caste) Goddess who fell in love with a man and married him, only to find out much later that he was Dalit (lower caste). In anger she cursed him to be a buffalo in his future lives, whose tongue and ears would be cut off and offered to propitiate her – a practice that is carried out in the present day in the village. The goddess is worshipped largely by the Dalit community (as her caste identity after marriage became Dalit) and the priest in the temple is Dalit. During the discussion, the villagers also shared some of their problems with the group, such as their loss of faith in the Government – one gentleman shared his anger that no matter which political party was in power, it was only his own hard work that would earn him his livelihood, and he could not depend on the Government to improve his conditions. In response to a question by one of the participants, we were told that while inter-caste marriages are not generally permitted, marrying a cousin or a niece is allowed in the community. Interestingly, the villagers were divided in their response to the question of whether caste is an issue in the village. The lack of ability of every villager to opine freely in public on this issue itself speaks volumes about the existing power structures in the caste hierarchy.

  


...even as I left, a group of children who had been coaching me all day, made me repeat my Kannada numbers 1 to 10: ondu, eredu, muru, nalaku, aidu, aaru, elu, entu, hombattu, hattu! (I’m sure there are a few mistakes in there, and I can almost hear them giggling at me!)


Vaneesha Jain is an Indian advocate by qualification, and a nomad at heart.