By Shashi Kadapa. Art by Natanin Rachapradit
My name is Bheerappa Kuruba. I am an illiterate, nomad shepherd of the lower Kuruba caste from a village in Dharwad district, India. I graze my flock, wander the plains and foothills of the Sahaydari mountain ranges, and pray for fresh water and grass.
I narrated the story of my journey to my daughter, who goes to school, and I hope will become a teacher. She has put my words before you. This is my story of our struggle when the rains stayed away.
I stood with my wife Kamala — or Kamali, as I affectionately call her — outside my small hut in what was once a green valley with streams flowing to join the Malaprabha River. We gazed, worried, at the fiery orange sky watching for a puff of rain-bearing cloud. Summer was sweltering, lingering, unwilling to go, and monsoon was due. At this time, we nomad shepherds and our flocks would set out to find pasture.
In the past, farmers welcomed us as they set up bamboo enclosures in their fields for our sheep to settle. Sheep droppings are valued as natural fertilizers. We were given paddy, and jowar, and feed for our flock as payment.
This year, the harvest was poor as it had been the previous years. The soil had turned sour, and rains scanty. Ponds and rivers dried up fast, leaving serrated mud flats. Summers were searing, and unyielding. Unseasonal rains and hail wreaked havoc with the scraggly standing crops.
Some said goddess Yellama cursed us for our lack of faith.
My son Bhimappa and I started before the sun rose. My neighbours also joined and we banded our flocks together since safety lay in numbers. My daughter Irawwa and my wife waved from the doorway of our hut.
A lump formed in our throats, and silent tears flowed.
“Do not go, Bheera,” my wife implored. “Some sheep will die on the road and I cannot bear to see your agony. I fear hailstorms and lightning.”
“No Kamli, I have to go. The sheep will certainly die here for want of fodder. Out there, they at least have a chance.”
Our route varied and we made occasional detours when we spotted a green hill. For this journey, I decided to take a route which I had not attempted for several years. We usually covered around a hundred kilometres in a round trip lasting some three months.
As we crested a hill that rose in front of our house and looked over the horizon, barren waste met our eyes, filling me with deep trepidation. Dusty fields with stunted withered crop stood in mute testimony to truant rains. Behind in the valley was my family and comfort. Ahead was uncertainty.
The thin topsoil came out in puffs as our sheep plodded on the trail raising a dust cloud. There was nothing underneath, no moisture to hold the mud.
Ominous scenes unfolded. We expected harvested crop — threshed, packed, and ready for sale — and ploughed fields. But we saw only parched, shining, dry earth, with deep cracks. Ponds that once held water and where birds flew had traces of stagnant, foul marsh.
Specks of calming green could be seen in patches. A tenacious farmer had managed to find some water for the crops.
Thorny Jali trees with tiny leaves mocked us. The thorns prevented the sheep from eating the leaves. Dry, powdery dust came up in choking gasps as we hacked down a few branches with our axes and tore out the leaves for the sheep.
Near Hebsur village, we approached the farm of Sankappa Goudaru. We had stopped here in the past. Fresh water and butter milk, hot bhakari or jowar rotis, vegetables, rice, spicy rasam, and pickles awaited us.
I remembered Gowdaru as a giant of a man with flowing moustache, confident smile, and a boisterous manner. As he came to meet us, I saw that he was a skeletal reminder of the grand person I knew.
It was not old age that bent him. It was helplessness. It was not disease that made his voice quaver, but the loss of confidence.
We squatted on our heels and looked up at him as he sat on a cot. “Namaskar Gowdare.”
He gestured with a shaking hand, asking us to remain seated. We greeted his wife, Akkavaru, as she entered, bringing a pot of water and jaggery. We ate the sweet and drank deep and full, thanking them for the kindness. I waited for Gowdaru’s offer.
He began: “Ah Bheera. We live in very miserable times. This is the third year that rains failed us.”
“Bheera,” he continued “I sold my oxen and cows, since I could not feed them. My sons have left the village and have gone to work in the factory. My fields lie fallow. There is nothing I can give you.”
This was a blow. We were looking to spend a week in his fields. Hesitantly I asked, “Gowdaru, why has this happened? Why does Yellama turn her back on us?”
“Maybe we have offended her by selling our ancestral land to the cement factory.”
“What about it? I heard they give jobs?”
“They give jobs. But the factory has dug bore wells that suck the earth dry. Foul dirt is dumped in the river and on the ground. They cut down the forest and the whole district suffers. White dust from the cement plant smothers and kills our crops and animals.”
“But the big concrete highway? The sahibs said that it will improve our lives and remove our poverty?”
“It was built only for the cement plant — and other factories — for their trucks. We have to pay a toll for our bullock carts. Our children work in the factories instead of the fields and leave us old people here.”
This place was wretched, living in a past of bitter memories that sickened a person who touched it.
We left in the early morning to reach the rocky hills of Saundatti town, when the acrid mist comes rolling in and the dew is still fresh on the grass. Nature’s blessings sporadically peeped from small patches on the foothills of the mountains where meadows sprung and struggled against the fierce sun. Our flocks fed well.
We moved on and settled at a distance from a village under foothills. Earthy smells of soil and grass wafted into our senses. It was pure, fragrant, fertile, and it was life.
Night set in and I looked beyond the cooking fire into the star-filled night. It resembled my dark blanket, the kambli; the stars looked like tufts of white wool, comforting me. I wondered what my wife and daughter were doing. It seemed so pleasant to wander into the dream of my family.
I woke to see the dogs growling and barking at something in the darkness beyond.
I threw some wood on the fire, pulled out a lit stick and held it over my head, moving to the flock. The sheep were uneasy, smelling danger, and it was only our presence that prevented them from bolting.
Glowing eyes of jackals flitted in the darkness, and they started howling. Drought and deforestation had forced the jackals to hunt near the villages. The sheep were skittish, tense, and it would take only one charge from the jackals to stampede them. Then they would be killed.
We stood with staffs ready, shouting reassuringly, and kept them in a huddle. We carry sickles, axes, sturdy staffs, and our courage. No weapons. I picked up a stone, flung it at the leader and hit its flank.
It crouched, fur bristling, coiled to attack.
Twirling my staff and shouting, I rushed at the pack. The first blow hit the leader on the face, and it whimpered. The second got it on the back.
I jumped back. A scratch or bite from the animals was deadly.
The pack withdrew, barked, and howled in anger. The fight had passed.
As dawn came and the sun shone through the mist, we gathered our flock and started moving, stopping to pray at the Changdev Maharaj temple at Yamanur village.
A few eagles flew in the blue sky, their wings spread wide. I ignored them for the sheep were too big and heavy to carry off.
One sheep was limping. A jackal had nipped a leg. My friends Basappa and Ramappa and I examined the animal. “The wound is not deep, but it is festering and the infection will spread.”
A crippled sheep slows down the herd. Carrying the animal was not possible. With great sorrow, I decided to sell it to a butcher.
While my friends waited at the foothills with the flock, I hoisted the sheep on my shoulder and walked to the village. I felt like I was selling my child.
Perhaps, fate carries us like this and we remain ignorant of what the next day brings.
The villagers looked at me and the injured sheep and they guessed the situation. The butcher’s shop stood at the end of the street. I set down my ward, waiting for the butcher to call me. He glanced slyly at the animal, the limp, and he knew I was trapped.
“Hey you, what do you want?”
I gestured feebly at the sheep. “I want to sell it.”
“Sell it? You Kurubas do not sell any animal. Why now?”
I watched as he examined the sheep. “This one is diseased. It will not last for another two days. I will pay you 500 rupees. Final.”
“What! Five hundred? I can sell it at an animal fair for at least 4000 rupees!”
“Ha! You are a stranger here. My final offer is 800 rupees.”
Angrily, I hoisted the sheep and walked away. A few hundred meters down the road, I saw a Mosque and knocked on the door of a big house. A watchman opened the gate. I told him of my predicament.
The owner of the house walked over and listened to my story. I suppose my breaking voice moved him. He dug into his kurta, pulled out a sheaf of notes, and counted 4000 rupees.
“Take this, my friend. It is a fair price. We will cure the sheep, and then sacrifice it on Bakrid.”
I thanked him and let go of the animal.
“Go in peace. May Allah guard your flock."
As I walked to our camp, my son came running, bursting with news.
“Yappa! One of the ewes has given birth!”
The lamb was drinking its mother’s milk. I knelt in silent prayer to Yelamma for her mercy. She took one life and gave another.
As we moved over the rough terrain, the ravages of humans were apparent. Tracts of woods had vanished. Only stumps remained. Vast acres of farms had given rise to housing colonies, shops, and factories.
The area was barren. Underground streams had dried: blocked, or made to flow through drain pipes. Water did not enter the ground and the meagre streams were choked with debris. There was no sign of rain clouds and nothing for the rain to sustain, only concrete.
I remembered an old banyan tree, tall and wide in a clearing on the route. Kurubas and other travellers would rest under the tree, drink from the adjacent well, and sleep under the outspread branches.
I was shocked to see that the branches had been slashed, the prop roots torn and a concrete road ran around it. The road contractor had tried to uproot the tree, but the roots were very deep and so they let it be. The well was long gone, filled up with mud and debris.
The shorn tree looked at me in mute agony with torn limbs, dried sap and bare stumps. It felt as if someone had hacked at the limbs of my ancestor and made him stand, mutilated. The tree seemed to cry to me.
“Ah Bheera. Look at me. All my branches are gone, I do not bear any fruits, and birds do not sit here. Where will you rest and drink water? I pray that I die in dignity and that my trunk does not fuel a furnace or a funeral, but lights the hearth of a poor farmer.”
With the lack of rains, summer dragged and the heat seared. It was time to return home.
We set out along a stream, the Tupri Halla that flowed into Bokyapurkeri. The stream flowed in spate during the monsoons, and strongly even in early summer. Streams from the lake joined the Malaprabha River, creating a wide network of water bodies.
In the years gone by, this stream and the lake fed the farms and harvest was bountiful. We had marvelled at the lotus that bloomed in the lake, and it was a pleasure to sit and watch water fowls play. The stream often overflowed, depositing rich, black soil. Farmers never used fertilizers to sustain the crops.
The stream was now a small trickle meandering sluggishly into the almost dried, empty lake, filled with plastic and garbage.
We visited Lord Hanuman’s temple: our monkey-faced god who helps devotees in times of need. I stood with my son at the threshold, uncertain of the reception.
The kindly Brahmin priest beckoned us to come inside and pray. I bowed down in front of the idol, my forehead touching the floor, my tears trickling.
I did not have any offerings except my humble and fervent prayers. I knew that the way back would be even harsher, with no water and pasture for my flock.
As I stepped out, unseasonal rains started. A few drops first, then a scattered pouring that swept across the horizon, breathing the dry earth with moisture, cleaning the evil toxins, washing dust away from leaves, giving them a chance to live.
Had nature, Hanuman, Changdev Maharaj and the countless deities and forest spirits heard the prayer of this poor and illiterate devotee?
The return journey was uneventful. With water and fresh grass sprouting, the flock fed.
We crested the hill and I stopped to look back. A couple of months ago; I had looked over the horizon and seen a bleak wasteland. Now it was beginning to fill with greenery, and hope. My wife and daughter ran to meet us, laughing and shouting with joy.
I wish this moment lasts forever.
Based in Pune, India, Shashi Kadapa is the managing editor of ActiveMuse, a journal of literature, and the 2021 International Fellow of the International Human Rights Foundation, NY. Please follow this link to review his works.