B for Basavanagudi

1

The neighbors have been flying kites & on some mornings I see silent blue threads hanging uselessly from the tabebuia tree outside our home. This morning, Appa rescued a pigeon struggling to free itself from one of those threads.

The thread, streaked with blood, was caught in the pigeon’s wings & lodged deep inside the skin, making several cuts every time it tried to get away. Appa held the bird in his left hand in that gentle way that might look rudely firm to an untrained eye. I kept wondering if he’d hurt the pigeon more in the process or if the pigeon would turn around and poke him but Appa was deft with the scissors, making one quick cut after another. When the last loop had been cut, he freed the bird and it flew away with a flutter, making Appa laugh.

Every morning Appa keeps a plate of pigeon peas & two troughs of water on the terrace for the birds. It doesn’t end here. He then stands behind the door discreetly, & watches them, smiling like a man who has just learnt how to fly. In the evenings, he identifies birds by the sound they make when they fly. 

***

Our house & its tree stand flanked between houses that wear thread of a different kind. This is perhaps why Amma was adamant about a house in Basavanagudi, in the heart of the city’s Baman-land. People have their own ways of annihilating caste. This was probably hers – as payback to all those times she & Appa had to swallow insults from Savarna neighbors.

In Basavanagudi where caste is rooted quite fiercely, its illness is visible, audible, & tangible. It began with our milk packets that were first stolen & then hurriedly left alone & untouched after their ‘Dalitness’ was discovered. Yes, milk has caste too.

The old woman & her son who live next-door are close to murdering each other. Their fights are loud, his cries after each fight – louder. He throws plates & glasses at her, she throws insults. He cries because he’s ill. They both are. Caste made them that way. We were unsettled when we first heard the man cry.

We’d never heard a grown man cry like that before. Over time, we got used to it. But Appa continues to listen intently from his bedroom window, not missing a single fight. We were convinced the son is violent but it took a while to make sense of her violence that is less heard than his but lurking just as strongly as the thread across his shoulder.

He tried to break free at one point. He married outside his caste, brought the bride home but something chased her away. The old woman was particular about what was kept where, what she could touch, what she couldn’t, what she could eat on what days, etc and soon the wife ran away. He breaks down more often after that.

One morning, after a particularly nasty fight, the old woman hollered at the neighbours to call the police. He’s trying to kill me, she screamed. Pa called the police but she chased them away when they came. Then the son hurled insults at Appa, swore at him, & in my mother’s words, ‘said a lot of dirty things about us that I could not bear to hear’ 

After that, Appa doesn’t hide his curiosity to know why they are fighting. He stands outside, his hands on his waist to show them that he is listening. When I try to haul him in, he says ‘they can fight openly, I can’t listen openly?’ 

I think of the privacy he gives birds when they eat & drink and love him more than I ever have.

***

In the house behind ours, a 3-year-old child is oiled & washed with hot water every morning. Their bathroom nearly touches our grills & on some days, I can see the steam coming out of there. The child screams his Kannada lungs out – saaakuuu, tumba bisiiii, bedaaaa, nilsuuuuu, ammmmmaaa saaakuuu. It is torture. For us. I don’t know enough to gather if the child has some phobia because that kind of screaming is not just coming from a kid that doesn’t want to bathe. What I do know is that the lady bathing him is not actually scrubbing just physical dirt. Between the mother-son duo & the woman who scrubs the child clean from all potential ‘untouchability’, Basavanagudi is evidence that caste, as Ambedkar pointed out – is a state of mind. 

Its disease is so accepted that sometimes it appears as if ours is the only home that is bothered by these violences that are granted as ok, as shastra, as culture, and cleanliness.

I am glad that the trees & birds here are more ours than Basavanagudi & its people. Give a Dalit man a pair of scissors, & he’ll show you what freedom means like no one else can, regardless of what color the thread is or how long.

Published by

Vj

Teacher, writer, tea-Lover.

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