Life Story: The Price Of Tomatoes Fell, We Couldn’t Sleep All Night & My Wife Hung Herself
It was a woman: it read. Crumbled pages lay unattended in the corner. We didn’t know who she was. Neither did any of them. She lived in Bilchod. No one had ever heard of her until a few days ago.
It was her death that caught our attention.
There was no photograph, no mention of her family or her village. Just a passage announcing her death. Was she in her forties, fifties? Did she have children? We couldn’t tell. She was buried in a column like many others before her. The newspapers were filled with such stories. And, they were rearranged every day: these stories of death.
Today, everybody knew her. She was a farmer. She had nothing save her life. That was hers. So, she took it away. That day, death came easy to her. But it was life that betrayed her.
She would be forgotten like the others before her, and the countless afterwards. Nothing would change. Not for a while.
Arun sat cross legged beside us. An old newspaper lay on the floor forgotten. Its edges, now yellow, bore stencil marks. We couldn’t make out the writing. Perhaps, it was a name. We weren’t sure. It was written with vigour. At this time, on the streets, there were no cars or buses. An old lady swept her courtyard as kids sat on the stairs watching her. “This paper is a few days old. It’s hard to begin our day with death,” he said, “May be we can visit the family. I’ll ask Kotaresh to find out more details about her village. He’d know.”
At 12:30 pm, we received a call. We had been waiting all morning. “The family lives in Ujjapparahalli,” said Kotaresh, “But I won’t be able to accompany you today. Take the road to Jagallur. You can ask someone for directions on your way there.”
The route was familiar to us. We had been here before. Where the onion farms ended and began farmlands with lopsided lines, we drove straight ahead. The roads drifted away from our sight the further we moved. The lines appeared again. They ran down the entire stretch from trees to shrubs, corners to roads. Quiet as they were, these fields had no saplings. Just lines. They no longer thrived. And, their absence went unnoticed.
Some were freshly dug. Shrunken hollows appeared field after field. Shadows of birds in flight flitted across them. Missing patches cropped up everywhere we went today. Amidst heaps of brown, pomegranate flowers stirred in light summer winds. We noticed them, so did the farmers.
“This road will take us to Kurudi. We could ask for directions to Bilchod ahead,” said Arun, “That water tank. The one to your right. Do you remember it? We passed by it several days ago. A little away where the road bends ahead lies Thuppadahalli. I spent a lot of my childhood there. I have fond memories of that place. It isn’t the same anymore. The tank has dried up. There’s no water left.”
We crossed a few villages on our way. After a while, paths turned awry. Upon reaching an unknown stretch, it occurred to us that we might be lost. We spotted some men sitting underneath a banyan tree reading the paper. An old man slept with his towel over his face. His hair, coarse and straggling, escaped from his forehead. His feet were cracked. He toiled in the heat all day. The earth was unyielding this year. And, the year before.
Across the tree, women sat on the ground combing each other’s hair while their children were asleep. A bottle of coconut oil lay untouched on their doorstep. They lived there; in the house with white walls. The roof was red, and the doors were shut. All of them. Sticks and stones lay in a neat pile beside them.
“Drive straight. In half an hour, take the mud road to your left,” said an old man chewing betel leaves. His teeth were stained, and eyes bloodshot. He held a packet of arecanut between his thumbs. A little girl played with his fingers. Her grip on his knees tightened as he stood up to leave. Two young boys argued with each other. Her grandfather listened to their dialogue in silence. He hid his smirk underneath his scarf as he walked away. She trudged along.
We spotted a few people ahead standing on the road. They were deep in discussion. Some murmured to each other. We then parked the car and walked towards them.
“Who are you?” asked one of them.
“A farmer died here a few days ago,” Arun told them. “Do you know where the family lives? We’d like to meet them.”
“Yes. You can park the car right here. It’s barely 300 metres away. I’ll come with you,” he said.
“Do you know what happened?” Arun asked him. The smoky aroma of burning firewood wafted in the air. Near stacks of drying hay lay cattle in the afternoon sun. A water hose was left unattended, and a few puppies ran astray.
Tall brown trees caressed the skies. In isolation, they stood beside the empty fields. But not for long. Sometimes, up in the trees, we would catch movement. Perhaps, an animal or a bird. That should certainly be it. It wasn’t. The breeze caught them; as it always does.
“We are not sure. All we know is she was found in the living room,” said the man shaking his head. “Tumba besara da vishaya (It is a very thing).”
There was the house. It looked new, almost inviting. The walls were intact. The paint hadn’t worn off yet. A coat of white that gleamed in the afternoon sun had an army of ants walking in tandem. They would all gradually enter the crevice, one by one. It was a slow march but a deliberate one.
Inside nothing crumbled, save emotions. No one lurked outside. Today, the door was wide open and there were slippers of all shapes and sizes in the courtyard. Scores of them scattered everywhere. Guests, well-wishers, relatives had thronged the village. But there was no celebration in sight. Nor were there flowers or incense sticks. A dreaded mourn rustled the leaves in the courtyard.
“Banni,” said an old woman leading us to a place mat. They were seated in a circle. No one smiled.
“Oh! Hemanna, nodi yaaru bandidare.”
A frail man walked into the hall. He dressed his wayward crop of hair in a manner that spelled untouched. He didn’t care much for them. His eyes watered from fatigue. From time to time, he rubbed his temple. He hadn’t slept for days. Anybody could tell.
His fingers trembled as he folded his hands. “Namaskara.”
Arun explained to him why we were there. Hemanna smiled. A young boy with downcast eyes hid behind him. He refused to speak. Tears trickled down his face as his fingers drew patterns on the ground. It didn’t stir him one bit. Neither the tears nor the crowd. In stolen glances, everyone looked at him. They were worried. He was lost in this thoughts. His feet had blisters. But they didn’t bother him, for now.
He refused to look up.
His name was Dinesh. He was Hemanna’s youngest son. He glanced at the girl stepping out of the kitchen. That was the only time he looked up. She was his sister. Her aunts offered her water and made her sit beside them.
She had been crying for hours.
It had been a long time since Leelavathi had slept. Days, perhaps. Her eyes were quiet and forlorn. She held her head in her hands as an old woman consoled her. There was nothing left of her mother, save her memories. She tried to run away from them; she tried to keep them alive. Like most people, she was conflicted. And, that’s what tormented her the most. Memories.
Every tear, every word, every person reminded Leelavathi of her mother’s loss. But it wasn’t loss that caused her pain. It was remembrance; remembrance of their helplessness encountered over years; of their defeat in the hands of struggle. By collapsing silently into remorse, that day, she accepted her defeat. And, it broke her…
Outside the walls of the house, there was little happening. The lonely fields were swathed in patches of brown and green. For a while, the emptiness crept back into them.
We heard faint footsteps. They are here, we heard someone whisper. More relatives had arrived. Some took the morning bus. Others walked. The news had spread far and wide.
“Would you like to have some tea? You must be tired,” said Hemanna looking at us as his sister accompanied the guests.
He was unfamiliar with us. We were unknown to him. Yet, he was concerned if we had eaten all day. For a while, he stared at us but not unkindly. Unlike the others in the room, he masked his agony well. In that moment, when he spoke to us he took refuge in courtesy.
“I have two sons and one daughter. Ramesh is married and has two children. I am a grandfather,” he said with a broken smile. “He has done a course on health inspection and is now waiting for the government to sanction him a job within the department. We are all waiting,” Hemanna said poking the floor. He continued poking for some time. He got caught up in them; those invisible holes. His fingers settled awhile before he started speaking again.
“My daughter is married too. She was very bright in school. She completed her SSLC,” he said smiling slightly. “I couldn’t afford to send her any further. She would have excelled in college. I am certain. Dinesh, the youngest one, works in the fields with me,” he paused to glance sideways, “Many years ago, I met with a terrible accident. I fell asleep under a tree in my farm. A lorry sped close by and the driver ran over my legs. This happened three days before Dinesh’s board exams. I couldn’t handle everything on my own. And, we needed an extra pair of hands in the fields. So, he decided to drop out of school and help us.”
“I had to,” murmured Dinesh. “Appaji couldn’t work for a while. And, I couldn’t abandon them when they needed me.”
“Do you want to go to school again?” we asked him once he fell silent.
“No. How will my father survive if I go to school?”
It was a long time before Hemanna spoke again. We looked at him, closely. He spun his fingers in lofty spirals. Round and round, they went. But he wasn’t aware of what he was doing. Others stared at him. Many spared a glance at his children. They were worried for them.
“My wife. She is gone now. I am not sure what we’ll do,” said Hemanna pausing indignantly. His voice quivered. He was doing fine until he saw the faces around him. Young, old, familiar, and even the ones he didn’t recognise — they all sat behind him. The façade was now broken. He could no longer hide behind pleasantries. Not anymore. An older woman placed her hand on his back; he didn’t feel it. He felt nothing that day. For, it wouldn’t bring her back. Neither the smiles nor the sympathies. And, he knew it. Every now and then, he would look up and respond to questions posed by Arun. His mind was conflicted but his words were polite. Always. Everywhere in that house lay memories, reminders of her, of them as a family, of happier times, and of times that tested their resolve.
“I own 11 acres of farmland,” he told us, “I grow onion in 6 acres, maize on 8 acres of my own farm, and 9 acres in contracted fields. I need at least 25 packets of seeds for corn. And, I have to pay the land owners Rs 3,000 per acre. If my plants die, I earn nothing. If the rains don’t come, I earn nothing. If the water dries up, I earn nothing. But I have to pay for them all – seeds, land, fertiliser, water. Nothing comes free, you see. It has been difficult for a while. The past few years were especially tough on us,” he explained.
“What happened last year?” we asked him.
He didn’t answer. His face was contorted in grief. He cleared his throat several times and after what seemed like minutes, he murmured, “We had a severe spell of drought for many years. Gradually, the whole region turned arid. But last year, we received excess rainfall just before harvest. All our crops were destroyed. Nothing grew. The fields were filled with grass. It was a terrible sight. The kind that a farmer dreads his entire life. It poured with vengeance. It wasn’t supposed to rain that month. And, that triggered it all…”
“The family has been cursed with the worst luck for years,” said Renukamma to his surprise. Her tall figure hovered near the door. As she walked towards Hemanna, women moved aside to let her sit beside him. He didn’t look up.
“Nanna akka,” he introduced us to her.
“No matter what they tried, they couldn’t succeed with farming. Debt piled up year after year. And, their crops failed. What could they do?” she asked.
The banana plantations never bloomed. Two acres of cultivated farms turned dry. The plants were stricken with disease. All of them. Hemanna had procured seeds from Tamil Nadu. He was told they would give him a higher yield. However, they failed to take into consideration that climate variations may alter the characteristics of the crop. There wasn’t a sapling that survived that year. In a few months, they ran out of water.
“I dug six borewells in my farms. Five of them failed. Each cost me more than Rs 50,000. They had to be dug beyond 500 or 700 feet. We don’t have much water in these regions. Only one well survived but it turned useless a while ago. The motor broke and it failed beyond repair. We had planted some arecanut trees in the fringes of my farms but most of them died. Onions didn’t yield anything too. It is a labour intensive crop and I spent Rs 100,000 to keep them alive. But nothing survived the drought. And, this had been going on for a while,” he said dejected.
That month, when the rains washed away the last remains of brittle saplings, after much deliberation, the family decided to invest Rs 20,000 to grow tomatoes in 1.5 acres. Farmers who sold their produce a few months earlier had made great profits. “When they reaped their harvest, they earned in silver. The rates had shot up, and every farmer in the region was elated. Months later, the rates fell. I remember that day vividly,” said Hemanna.
He took a deep breath and continued, “We sent Dinesh away in the morning to inquire about the price of tomatoes. We were excited. We were certain that it would earn us enough to clear out debts, and start over. We could have earned Rs 300,000 or may be more. It was our last chance. When Dinesh returned that evening, and broke the news to us, we were devastated. We didn’t sleep very well. My wife was very worried. She was heartbroken, that night. She kept saying: We can’t grow anything. It won’t get better. It never will. What did we do to deserve this? No matter what we do, we will never prosper. She lost hope,” said Hemanna.
On February 7, at 3:30 pm, Vinodamma was found hanging from the ceiling fan. An hour earlier, a small group of party workers passed by the village to campaign for the upcoming elections. The rally had barely crossed the fields when Hemanna ran hurriedly across the road to see them. Like most gatherings, this one too conveyed rushed promises of a better tomorrow, of new beginnings. Like most mornings, these days, everyone went to hear them. And, like most days, their repugnance went unnoticed.
That morning, Dinesh left early to inspect the tomato plants. They were ready to be plucked. Vinodamma was alone at home.
“Ten minutes,” said Hemanna looking up, “I was away for ten minutes…”
“I found her first,” he said staring at the discreet flecks of yellow that had begun to take shape in the corners. “In the living room. When I came back, she was gone. She killed herself. It affected her – the rates falling, debts piling up, the constant losses. All of it…”
Hemanna mortgaged 4 acres of land that was registered in his wife’s name and received Rs 85,000 in return. He also borrowed Rs 30,000 as crop loan, and another Rs 300,000 against a part of his farm. Three years ago, he borrowed some more to build his home. And, it never stopped: the borrowing. Today, most of his debts remain unpaid.
“I haven’t been able to renew my crop loans for the past three years. I was sent three or four legal notices a while ago. This has been happening for a few months now. One of the bank managers even visited my home. How can I repay them?” he asked.
He spoke in broken verses. Sometimes, they conveyed what he felt. Sometimes, they didn’t. Little by little, he strung together words, phrases and memories. “We haven’t had a good year in a very long time,” he said staring at the old man seated beside him. He had just arrived. He came through the front door, and we ought to have heard him. But we didn’t. He looked at Hemanna from time to time. They knew each other but wouldn’t talk. There was nothing much to be said in that moment. It hovered over our heads for a while: the silence of the old man. Later, we’d see them holding hands, and walking away from home.
“We don’t receive any rainfall unless there’s a cyclone in the neighbouring areas, “said Hemanna, “I can’t afford private water tankers to irrigate my fields. My corn fields are drying up. Half the plants are dead. Many farmers have migrated to major cities. They work in construction sites. Some even work in coffee estates as agricultural labourers. Their fields don’t exist anymore. They have no choice but to migrate. What do I do? I am 58 years old. I never went to school. I have farmed my entire life. There’s nothing else I know or can do. I can’t leave the village. This is my home.”
A part of his land was acquired to lay the Dabhol gas pipeline. Hemanna received Rs 300,000 as compensation. The men told him he could have made better use of his money and resources over the years. He nodded. The ladies agreed.
But he didn’t know how. Neither did they. Besides sowing, tilling and ploughing the fields, he didn’t know much. Their methods were old, we were told. They never tried anything different. For, it was beyond him, and beyond them all. Like many others, Hemanna merely tried to survive. It was survival that led him to where he was. It was survival that brought him to the brink of drudgery. Until just a short time before, he sought peace with what he had. But, that day, he found none. Here, there was no peace.
“The government has introduced several schemes like Krushi Bhagya that has been especially useful in drought-affected areas. Try and understand what the scheme entails and how you could benefit from it. It may not solve your problems entirely but it will help you for now. There are also provisions for goat farming. Since the animals feed on corn husks, raagi and groundnut waste, procuring food for them shouldn’t be a hassle. Perhaps, it’s best you put in a request with the Samparka Kendra. Grow green leafy vegetables in your farm. That way you will become self-sustained. You have to be strong for your children. Seek courage within your heart. Train Dinesh to be a good farmer,” said Arun.
“We can’t do that,” said a farmer seated at the back.
“Our farms are located 1.5 kms away from our homes. These vegetables require constant attention. And, it won’t be possible in this region. They will shrivel and die, just like the other crops.”
Many fields away, where the village ends and begin settlements much like this one, lies a village called Boraganahalli, said Arun. Years ago, their fields dried up, their cattle died, and they lost everything. They had no water left. Nothing thrived there save the aridity. “They got together and worked towards building a better future for themselves. Today, they have an efficient water management system and grow their own fruits and vegetables. Send Dinesh to those farmers. Let him learn the techniques they’ve adopted over the years. Give him a second hand bicycle so he can go to the fields every day. Do it together,” said Arun as the others murmured and discussed if it could be done.
He then turned to Hemanna and said, “Write to the Tehsildar and the manager of Canara Bank. Tell them what happened. Put in a request to consider a loan waiver since you wouldn’t be able to clear your debts. You must talk to people about your problems. Let your family know what you are going through. You are not alone. If you don’t speak up, how will people know of your struggles? How will the country understand the plight of farmers? It is far worse to be in a state of agony and not say something”
In the silence that preceded the conversation, a young man walked into the hall with an envelope in his hand. He stood against the wall, waiting. His hands trembled as the door creaked. No one stepped through. At the curb outside stood a group of men staring at children darting in and out of empty rooms. They were yet to be filled: these rooms. For now, they lay bare.
A few parted ways and headed towards their homes. One by one, they stepped towards the road. Many stayed back. Renukamma stood with her arms against the wall playfully scolding the toddlers. The young man now sat behind Hemanna who glanced sideways. Their conversation was muted, and everyone looked at them; their eyes remained distraught; their words seemed wrung out. But their faces didn’t change. No one spoke for a moment. They were in no hurry. Still, they held hands for as long as they could.
It was the first sound, other than ‘Houdu’, we had heard in a long while. “Saar,” said Hemanna handing over the envelope to Arun.
“On the eleventh day, after the death of a loved one, we perform a few rituals,” he said in broken whispers, “Please come. Ellaru banni.”
He straightened the crease on the envelope before placing it on the floor. Leelavathi’s shoulders heaved. But it wasn’t the crying that we heard first. It was the long breath that she drew before. Her aunts rushed to her. She didn’t push them aside. They wiped her face, straightened her hair and fed her some water. She didn’t move. They asked her if she had eaten since morning. She didn’t answer. An old woman held her; their shadows caught in jarring afternoon light swimming across the room. She didn’t ask her anything. Nor did she let go. Leelavathi broke down like she had done several times before that day. But this time, she didn’t hold back.
A young girl ran to Hemanna and sat on his lap. “Thatha,” she called out to him affectionately. She was Hemanna’s granddaughter. She grabbed the invitation and bit its edges. He held her legs in place as she began stomping the floor. “Thatha,” she said once more biting chunks of paper. She spat them out much to her aunt’s chagrin.
“How much did you spend on the funeral?” asked Arun.
“20,000,” said Hemanna reluctantly, “We have to feed everyone who comes home. All other arrangements need to be made.”
“Don’t spend anymore. Serve the guests some rice, curry and payasam on the day of the ritual. Don’t do anything elaborate. You will have to make wiser decisions from now on,” he said.
“Houdu Houdu,” said Hemanna. The others agreed.
It was noon, and we had to leave. As we stood up, we asked Hemanna if he had any photographs of Vinodamma. He grabbed the hem of his lungi and tugged it aside. From his shorts, he pulled out a small photograph. The colour was fading, and we could barely make out her features. That’s all he had left of her. He clasped it in his hand but he didn’t look at it.
“Vinodamma,” he said handing it over to us.
His shoulders drooped. Standing on the curb, he looked out again before walking in. He paced back and forth, and he didn’t know why. The walls were empty. There were no photographs of her or the family.
There was nothing left for him. He felt defeated. “She was a very strong person,” he said. “She never let go of hope in her heart. But she couldn’t take it anymore. She gave up.”
“I failed her.”
Dinesh walked towards him and held his waist. The others trudged behind. We didn’t speak. Neither did they. They walked us to our car. “I thought about it, a few years ago. About ending it all. Our debts increased every day and I couldn’t face the dalals or my family. She gave me courage. She’d say everything will be alright. We mustn’t lose faith. She left me. She left all of us. What do we do now?” he asked bowing his head.
Leelavathi followed them. She was quiet. A clump of her hair hung beneath her neck. It didn’t bother her. They walked with each other. In loneliness. They roamed everywhere beside the road; the weight of loss still heavy within their hearts. The fields were lined with shrubs that were pulled up, shrubs that were cut off at their roots, and shrubs that died a long time ago. Everything stayed still. Nothing stirred the trees that afternoon.
We held her hands as she looked back. “Don’t lose hope,” we told her. She nodded.
“Be strong. For yourself and for him,” Arun whispered. He told her it would get better. Her face turned blank.
It wouldn’t for a long time, he’d confess to us later that evening. In all likeliness, the family will continue to struggle. So, will her children. They might never get over Vinodamma’s death. “How could they? It’s tough to overcome helplessness. And, that’s the story of every farmer, “he said conflicted, “We’ll forget them eventually. We will move on. Their lives won’t change. We failed them, you know. All of us. She had the right to live. They all did. And, it was taken away from them.”
“I hope the family pulls through,” he muttered fading into silence, “They have to. What other choice do they have?”
There were many like him, he said: lost and forgotten living their lives unclaimed. Their problems were familiar; their names unlearnt.
“They must survive…”
Hemanna saw us leave. Tears brimmed in his eyes. They walked away together. That afternoon, as we drove to Kurudi, we caught their silhouettes chasing open fields. Down by the road towards lanes that led to a house with walls as pale as the summer skies, we saw it again: the silhouette of a farmer who lost his wife, a daughter who lost her mother, and a son who lost his childhood. All headed home where lay memories of happier times, of sorrowful times, of moments that led them to despair; where they’d build their lives once more, one memory at a time. In a few days, Hemanna will go back to the fields. Dinesh will accompany him. Leelavathi will leave for her husband’s village. Their corn will survive, and so will the bananas. Arecanut trees will stand tall. And, their tomatoes will be valuable next year. So will their lives.
For now, we chose to believe that.
We had to…
Submitted By Akshatha Shetty & Photos By Piyush Goswami
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