Years of hiatus ended abruptly when I was compelled to visit my village in North Karnataka. Compelled I was because nothing else but only my uncle’s death could have taken me back there. A monstrous 10-wheeler truck had run over him and he had died with his eyes open. It felt as if he stared at death and slid into a world of his own.
The local government hospital saved us the horror of seeing the chaos from his neck down. Yet, the blood oozing out from his body draped in a white cloth refused to spare the dirty details of a horrifying end.
From the hospital premises, his body was taken to our village and placed in the temple frontyard.
Many cried, shed tears. Some honest, some not.
My village had changed little over the years except for some men who sported fake Nikes and Lees. I saw the same forlorn houses lined up in a forbidden milieu like unwanted memories that haunt a deserted heart. The temple and the mosque boasted, small houses beckoned and the huts sighed. From a distance, I am sure my village would have looked like a quilt patched together in a hurry with a tenuous thread. Poverty and casteism had lent it their own designs, hues and texture. As for the small concrete buildings here and there, it felt as if the weary quilt-maker had mistakenly picked out a few multi-coloured rags and weaved them in.
The deathly paleness which I disliked as a child was still hanging over the village. I remember that more than the poverty, what I disliked most was those people who told me not to touch the ‘untouchables’ so as not to invite swarms of scorpions and snakes into our house. I hated men who smothered women’s voice, including my mother’s. The streets marked out for the ‘lower’-caste people were still intact. I am sure some ‘upper’-caste potbellied men still visit these dark alleys in the thick of night to sate their deepest fantasies. It’s these men who once spawned a Hindu-Muslim riot and erased whatever the residual love I had for the place where all my childhood memories still lay buried.
From this horrifying realm, my uncle set out on his last journey towards the history-haunted Tunga banks. During my childhood, silent springs of solace used to come to life from this riverbed. But this time, our journey was for a different reason. A grave was already dug and after a few rituals, my frail aunt—devastated overnight—threw in a few handfuls of soil into the grave. Finally, his eyes closed.
Seconds later, it was time for the torch-bearers of widowhood to march towards my aunt and strip her of all the signs that hitherto bound her to her past, childhood and everything else.
My protests yielded little. All mangalsutra-wielding women turned their face from her. I somehow helped my aunt to the car. That’s where another horror was waiting for her. Two of her sisters, when they sensed she was approaching them, suddenly got off the car and refused to spare a glance at her. My aunt collapsed on the seat and buried her face in her soil-laced hands.
If you think it was grim, I can narrate many grimmer tales that my village has spawned over the decades. I still remember how every woman after her husband’s death was made to sit by the grave till dark with a black shawl, or in some cases a gunny bag, thrown over her. Only after nightfall did other widows escort her home. On her way, she used to walk with her head down while everyone shut their doors and windows.
When I compared this devilish childhood memory with what my aunt went through, a sense of bewilderment gnawed at me. I did not know if faint winds of change were blowing across the Tunga. Or if it was simply my desperation to see a change that wasn’t there at all.