Monday, January 13, 2014

Where Widows are For Sale


Stoic. That is the only word I can think of to describe Nagamma. After my first hello to her just outside the bus stand, then sharing a short auto-rickshaw ride to her colony, then listening to her life story with two dozen family and neighbours milling around in a small igloo-shaped hut, till after I wave my goodbyes, I cannot find another word after stoic to attach to how I find her.

When in her mid-30s, Nagamma became a widow and was sold off to a rich man. Nagamma had four daughters who she refused to leave behind. And with that one defying act, she changed the ways of her colony in the small town of Pavagada, 170 kilometres from Bangalore. With that and many, many interviews and hassles behind her, I don’t expect anything but stoicism from her. There is too much in her past for niceties and social graces to have remained intact.

To the outside world, Nagamma is the poster woman for the Kunchi Koracha or Koravanji Koracha community, a section of people that are too low in the social pecking order for any politician, any neta to pay any serious attention. The people in the community rear pigs, make brooms from a local tree variety, sometimes beg for their lunches and where articulate enough, offer to tell villagers their fortunes. They also sell off their widows to richer landlords, sometimes as second wives, more often as labourers and, or “keeps”.

I am in Aapbande, a small hillock of rough stone at the end of a residential area in Pavagada, an island of a town under Karnataka jurisdiction, surrounded on all four sides by towns that report to Andhra Pradesh. It has taken me five hours in a local bus from Bangalore. The ride is educative though, over the curvy rough roads and rougher driving; many fights break out among the passengers and I hear an all new vocabulary of Kannada cuss words.

There are about 50-60 houses in Aapbande, all igloo-shaped, though more elongated. The floor is hard, cold stone, the roof is of bamboo, covered tightly with clothes and some plastic. I settle down on a charpoy to listen to Nagamma’s story, narrated to me by her brother-in-law Sunkanna and my local contact Thimmaraju, a journalist and farmer. Nagamma speaks only Telugu, the language of her community; she understands snatches of Kannada but cannot answer me in my tongue.

A mother’s fight for her daughters

Nagamma isn’t sure how old she is and guesses she must be 35. One of her four daughters, also named Nagamma, after the maternal grandmother, shushes her. Being a Sunday, several neighbours are in their homes and have squeezed themselves into the hut, pushing me to the edge of the wire cot. They all offer their opinion of how old she must be; collectively, we agree she must now be in her mid to late 40s.

By the time Nagamma’s husband died a few years old, she had had four daughters. After his death, her father-in-law decided she was not useful enough to remain a part of his family and agreed to sell her off to a man in Narpala village in Andhra Pradesh. A sum of ₹42,000 was to change hands and she was expected to leave her daughters and her old life behind and go with this man to be his second wife. Her consent to go away would have meant that she would probably never see her daughters again, for these deals don’t include children from the woman’s previous marriage accompanying her. For the buyer, a second wife or a mistress is a status symbol that he will pay for; he wouldn’t want her children and add to his household expenses. The woman has to cut all ties with her children, her in-laws and often, with her parents’ side of the family as well. In return, she may be accorded the status of a wife. Not that there are ever any documents for the first, second or the subsequent marriages.

The prospect of never seeing her daughters again was what gave Nagamma the courage she needed. In an unprecedented case, she refused to go with the man who bought her. The council of elders, the Panchayat, heard her appeal and let her stay back at Aapbande, her mother’s colony. But it came at a very heavy price. Nagamma tells me that the council of elders made her pay back nearly ₹ one lakh, including interest, to the man who she had been sold to. Her story hit the headlines almost overnight but after the newspapermen went away, she was left to grapple with the huge loans she took from her brothers to pay off the debt. And pay off she did, she tells me.

Sogadu Venkatesh, a member of the community who is now a local social worker and a municipal councilor from that area gets to know I am there to talk to Nagamma and calls me up. He goes on a rant against the government, telling me that she has never been honoured for her bravery, that the government had promised her a house but it has never materialized. Nagamma’s daughter Nagamma tells me there is a small piece of land somewhere but she doesn’t know where it is located. There was apparently a government job as a helper in a hostel that fetched her ₹ 2000 a month. Nagamma stuck around for a year before she left; she doesn’t give me a reason why she quit, only saying that she preferred making brooms instead and that it fetches her ₹ 10,000 a year.

She is gruff with the neighbour’s kids, but a degree softer with her own grandchildren. She has gotten all her daughters married off, two live in the same colony, two others are married to men in Andhra Pradesh. Nagamma, the third daughter, cradling her third child on her lap, tells me that they are all happily married. Did their mother’s activism come in the way of their alliances? She says no. She has a daughter, but refused to carry the name Nagamma into another generation. She has named her children Sumathi, Santosh and Shreesha.

Where women are auctioned to the highest bidder

The Koracha community has another 8-9 sub-castes, apart from the pig rearing Kunchi Korachas. Amongst them are the Dabbe Koracha, Melada Koracha, Ooru Koracha who trade in plastic items, Aggada Koracha who make ropes for a living and the Gangedlu Koracha. Their predominance is in parts of Andhra Pradesh. Those in Pavagada and other bordering villages are mainly migrant labour families and former nomads. There is no inter-marrying within the sub castes, the local journalist Thimmaraju explains to me.

Though the context to the world was derived after Nagamma’s case came out into the open, it was hardly an aberration. The sale of widows has been a practice for as long as the elders in the community can remember. In case of incompatibility in a marriage, or in case either of the parties was involved in an affair, the council of elders would discuss the issue before the rest of the community. If the paramour could afford to pay the decided amount of money to the husband, he was free to marry the woman. The men in the community tell me it is entirely up to the women; they can end the marriage and go away with another man if they want to. In such cases, she has to buy her freedom from her husband. The skeptic in me wonders if it can ever be so easy. To me, the practice of selling widows and the freedom of choice somehow don’t go together.

I am curious as to how the price for each widow is agreed upon. No one has a satisfactory answer. All they say is that the Panchayat decides the amount. I wonder if the price is determined by how young or old the woman is. But there is vehement denial all around. Sometimes there is much demand for a widow and that’s when a bidding war starts. Prices then reach one or several lakhs of Indian rupees. Does selling broomsticks and rearing pigs fetch such high incomes, I wonder. “There are landed people in our community too,” says Nagamma’s brother-in-law. Plus being able to buy women is a status thing; there have been cases where a man has had three wives in his harem as well.

Nagamma’s daughters do not see her as a heroine. They don’t have any opinion of the old practice that they say is no longer observed. The protests seem to come too much and too quick to me. Almost no one studies beyond the first few grades. One of Nagamma’s daughters wrote her public exams in tenth grade. The highest educated so far are two of Nagamma’s nephews, Venkatesh and Sunkanna who are in the final and second year of graduation in commerce, respectively. They are both called in to offer their views. Venkatesh is openly aggressive, asking me why I am there and what ill I will write about his community, until he is led away. Sunkanna insists that he knows nothing about the practice of sale of widows. The others prompt him to say something but he shakes his head. I ask him what he will do after he graduates and he finds his voice then. “I don’t want to continue in the community’s professions of pig rearing and broom making. I don’t like it and I cannot work as hard as my father. I don’t mind even if I earn ₹ 1000 a month, I will go to the city and find a job,” he says.

Though electricity lines go above the heads of the Koracha community’s bunch of huts, they have never lit a bulb in their houses themselves. Drinking water is a walk of some distance away. There isn’t much distinction between where they keep their pigs and where they sleep at night, so hygiene is an alien concept. Sometimes the men might hunt with nets, when a farmer calls them to rid his fields of wild pig menace. They roast the pigs in the open and have a feast then. There is one Veeerabhadrappa who says he works with the Dhan Foundation in Pavagada. He and some others are forming a committee “to fight for the rights of the community.” The day I visit Pavagada is when they are scheduled to have their first meeting.

I want to meet others who have seen or been part of this practice. Almost unanimously everyone gathered there insists there are none others at Aapbande. They tell me that the practice is prevalent in parts of Andhra Pradesh where several members of their community live, mostly in Ananthapura district, Dharmavaram, Kurnool and Nagarjuna Sagara. I go to another small colony a few miles away, looking to see if there are any cases there. People are welcoming and smile when I pat a little kid who is playing with a makeshift doll. But they remain tightlipped about the practice. There are older women in the colony but it is indicated that I am not welcome to talk to them.

It is almost as if they have let only Nagamma be the public victim at the town square, to be pointed at, whispered about and privately stoned for having a voice. It is hard for me to believe that a practice that was never seen as demeaning or wrong for generations would suddenly disappear in a couple of years’ time. I have a feeling the community is merely more careful now. They let the stoic Nagamma speak, that buys the rest of the community the silence they seek.

I can only hope I am wrong.

2 comments:

Samuel Gnanadurai said...

Such a sad story of the so called " 21st century" India! Ther is so much anger in me after reading this Deepa. Nice work this

Deepa Bhasthi said...

Thank you Sam!