Friday, March 21, 2008

Who is Sarpanch Agamma?

Moving off a lane, rutted like the matted locks of a possessed woman, our tented vehicle came on to a road, smooth as the combed model of a hair oil ad. As yet, the city's shops had not opened their eyes. It slumbered like a child who had wept herself to sleep. The occasional vehicle squeaked like a pup "kui, kui", as it went on its way. To a mind numbed and irritated by hours in the city's din of traffic; shops, people, markets and irritated noises ... Oh, seeing the city at four in the morning was like walking out of the blazing afternoon and washing one’s face with the cool water of the ranjan pot.
Sangeeta is my good friend. She is angry that I stay in the old city.
"Can't you escape from that risky and tense place?" she scolds me. "It may be all right for you, but: to get in touch with you is an exhausting business", she grumbles. Sangeeta is a city girl. She is a person with many good views about society. She not only thinks, "Society is not good yaar, change karna padta hai”, but also has a desire to document' unrecorded cultures. My other friends marvel that she is a sincere woman who, reacts in a responsible way with social work. Sangeeta is doing a project- on Dalit women in Panchayat Raj. She interviews many people as a part of that project. We are now going to Bobbalonipalle,' near Eturunagaram in Warangal district.
"Ey, will you accompany me please? This whole district is yours - ye poori aap ki estate hai na Rudrama, please come yaar, please?" When Sangeeta is either angry or feels loving to me, she calls me Rudrama.
As she teased me and boosted my ego in different ways I said, "I am not Rudrama, I don't have that scene", consenting to go with her. I felt that with this excuse, I could say "Hi" to my district, and see the beauty of its furrows, its yellow tangedi flowers, its fields and its thumma trees again.
Eturunamagaram is perhaps a hundred miles from Warangal. If we count three hours from the city to Warangal, two hours from there to Bobbalonipalle, and add an hour for
refreshments on the way, it totals six hours. Agreeing that if we start exactly by five, we could reach there by eleven, we planned to leave Sangeeta's house in Nallakunta by that time. During the day, it would take an hour to travel from the old city to her house in the traffic. There wouldn't be traffic on the road at four thirty, and so I asked for the vehicle to come to my house at that time. Breathing in the lights; darkness, heat and cool exuded by the city like a budding flower - Wah kya mazaa a raha hai! I had scolded Sangeeta unnecessarily, "There is no question of waking up at four as long as life is in my body!" In the end, for Sangeeta, for her project, and because of my interest, I had relented. But I had not imagined that the city in the star-studded morning would be so pretty. "Useless sleep - I would have missed all this, let it go", I thought.

With Sangeeta and me the vehicle got out of the city and ran among the towns and villages. Oh, that cool breeze, chatting with Sangeeta, the trees lining the highway, the, ripening crops waving 'ta ta', crossing sunbeams like tender leaves, we reached Eturunagaram. We refreshed ourselves. Sangeeta readied her camera and tape. We went on to Bobbalonipal1e, which lay five kilometers on.
"Why is the name of this village Bobbalonipalle, do you know anything?" asked Sangeeta, whose project pulled apart and dug up everything.
I related the story that I heard in my childhood, with the confidence that this area was mine. "This village was in the forest till recently. It is a village that was given shape by clearing the forest. There were only SC and ST people in this village. These were the only two communities for marriages and quarrels. They had a gudamba still in each house. When the police and excise officials would raid the village, the cowherd would shout 'le le le le le vo voo ...' to signal, 'the police are coming, beware!' When the villagers heard this they would disappear into the forests. Since they were saved by this babbling yodel, the village got the name Bobbalonipalle. Now, there are all castes in the village, and it has become a normal village", I said, looking out through the window glass.
"Not only that, an SC woman has become a sarpanch now", said Sangeeta as the vehicle entered the village.

Passing brick houses plastered with lime and having Mangalore tiled roofs, we went on between houses with country tiles - the road was a bare metalled road, there are heaps of murram on both sides. Stopping near the country-tiled houses, Sangeeta got off, saw two lungis and a pair of trousers sitting on the culvert, and asked, "Where is the village sarpanch's house?" with her half-baked Telugu.
"You have to go ahead and turn left", replied a lungi.
We stopped at two more places - '''Sarpanch is it? You must go further" said people a little surprised. By now, houses with thatched roofs were also there among those with country tiles.
Stopping here, "We have to go to the Sarpanch's house", I asked a woman who was washing clothes near the borewell. .
"Sarpancha? Where does he live here! He lives in Hanamakonda" she said squinting.
"How's that? If the sarpanch doesn't stay in the village, where will she stay? Also, a sarpanch is a woman isn't she? Why is this silly woman saying 'he lives ... '? She must say 'she lives' isn't it?" we said to each other. "This village is an SC woman's village isn't it? Ey, have we come to the right place?"

As we went ahead, we saw a man carrying a buffalo-calf and Sangeeta asked him, "Aiyya, where is the sarpanch's house?"
"The sarpanch's house, look - see the house in the distance - the last house, that is the one", he replied, pointing.
"Why take the vehicle that short distance", we thought and walked past women holding sickles and carrying a cloth on their shoulder to work.
"Who are these new women, and whose house are they going to?" we heard them ask among themselves, gaping at us as never seen before.
"Someone who wants to go to the sarpanch's house", said a woman who came carrying water from the borewell.
"Sarpancha? Why will the sarpanch be found here? He lives in Hanamakonda doesn't he?" said one of the women in the group.
Sangeeta and I looked at each other. "What is this? Is there some mistake in the district list? These people speak of the sarpanch as a man. Have we come to the wrong place?” Sangeeta looked at the list. I had heard that the sarpanch of this village was an SC woman. Anyway, it will be good to verify it I thought and phoned my relative in a nearby village and asked him, "Is the Bobbalonipalle sarpanch a man or a woman? What is his or her name?"
He replied, firmly "The name of the sarpanch of that village is Agamma. She is an SC woman. No doubt at all!"

Walking to the last house, we wondered, "Why are these women switching gender in their talk". The house was not like a house. It was like a hundred foot long shed. The walls are only half the height. The door was like a wicket gate: The yard was sprayed cow-dung water that was green to the eyes and cool to the feet. We stood in front of the door and Sangeeta asked politely, "Is this the sarpanch garu's'house?”, addressing a woman sitting on a sagging rope cot.
"Aa? The sarpanch's house? Why would this be so? “It isn't", she replied, muttering to herself as she got off the cot.
"Aiyyo! Isn't it? They said it was", I said disappointed.
"He doesn't stay here. He only comes occasionally. Only his mother stays here", she replied somewhat fearfully.
"This village's sarpanch is not a man, amma, she is woman, no?" asked Sangeeta to clarify her doubts.
The woman didn't understand Sangeeta's anxiety. :'Yes, my husband's younger brother, he is the person who does all the sarpanch's work", she said haltingly.
"Then who is the sarpanch?" asked Sangeeta. "Ye kya yaar, kya chalra idhar;”, she said looking at me, wondering how, with this search, with asking so many people, with this much going on, it was still not yet clear whether this village sarpanch was a man or a woman. Her project was Dalit gender - wasn't it, and since this didn't get clear, and I saw her becoming dheela, I took the initiative. "The sarpanch's name is Agamma, isn't it?", I asked. “Yes, she is my mother-in-law", she said doubtfully, wondering what would happen. She wasn't able to say "My mother-in-law-is the sarpanch Agamma".
"Amma, we are not authorities. We haven't come from the MROs or Collector's office. We came to speak to SC women sarpanchs", I explained so that her fear would go. I made her sit on the cot and sat myself beside her. When I asked her for water to set her at ease, she went ahead to a pot near the wall and dipped out two tumblers full. Both of us drank the water and talked about this and that. Her fear and anxiety subsided.
"Your mother-in-law is the sarpanch Agamma, isn't she?" Sangeeta asked again. "Aa, yes", she stared back. "Will you call her", we asked her, looking around the house. There were no signs that she was there.
"She isn't at home. She has gone to that church", said the woman, adding, "Some foreign Christian pastors had come to preach".
We went to the church. The church was not among the houses. It was far away.
The church was brimming with people. Unable to bear the crowding, many children were crying. Some tried to pacify the children in the hall; others brought the children out to soothe them. There was a pile of chappals at the door. Near that pile, some old women sat, grumbling, "What is this din, woman? We can't listen to what they are saying? Why did you bring the children?" We moved the chappals out of the way and craned into the door to locate the sarpanch. There was a small stage on which there was a group of worthies in foreign garb, but we couldn't see any village face. We peeled our eyes to see if there was an old woman on the stage, thinking if there was she would be a sarpanch. But there was no woman from that district on the stage. All the people had faces like white chapattis, wearing high heels, midis and lipstick. "So the sarpanch is not on the stage" we sighed dismayed. Not only her daughter-in-law, also the people outside the church said she was there, and she should have been on the stage. We wondered where she was. I asked a man soothing a child, "Is sarpanch Agamma garu here?"
"Sarpancha ...? Agammaa...? She is sitting here in the church" he replied haltingly.
"Where is she sitting? We have come to meet her. Can you call her?" we pleaded. "She was sitting at this door till now, may be she went inside just now", he said. We went to the old women at the door and asked them, "Is sarpanch Agamma garu here?” .
One old woman called out, "O Agamma, some one has come for you", and told us she was sitting by the door.
We were saddened, confused and anxious. How was it that she sat in a comer, near the shoes, anonymous? A sarpanch, without any sign of authority, sitting with the others in that state, was a bitter sight for both of us. We had hoped for more, and looked on the stage ... why would she be seen there? How could we imagine that the woman sitting by the door was the sarpanch? We lost confidence in this situation for a moment.
Recovering, we took her out of the church with difficulty: She was probably sixty. She was dark complexioned and tall. There were rings at the top of the ears, studs halfway down. She had a white thread on her neck with an iron key holding on it. Her wrists had silver clasps on them. She wore an old rough saree that came down to her knees and was tucked behind the back: She saw us and asked, "Who are you? Why did you come? What work do you have with me?", staring at with an expression of fear, innocence and anxiety.
"We have come from the city, avva", we said; changing "amma" to "avva" to set her at ease. "We have come to find out how SC sarpanchas work, what their difficulties are. We came to speak to you. Shall we go to your house? Or away from this din and sit under that tree?" I said pointing to a tree and holding her hand.
What the Bobbalonipalle sarpanch Agammaguru thought, we don't know. "Avvo banchen! I don't know all this. My son only knows everything. Ask him", she freed her hand and hurried back into the church.
"How sad yaar" said Sangeeta, completely defeated, with her head on my shoulder.

- Joopaka Subhadra

Translated by Srivats

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