Grinding grain, singing songs: The life, work and legacy of women in rural Maharashtra

GenderAnd Culture: What the Grindmill Songs Project tells us about the struggle of rural women in India

You were pampered so much as a darling daughter,
That your brother gave you a betel-leaf plantation

That is an ovi or a couplet, just one from a collection of 1,10,000 in the Grindmill Songs Project. When Konda Sangle, of Nivanguni village in Velhe taluka of Pune district, sang this over two decades ago, the Marathi transcript was written down. The ovi, like many others in the collection, is a reminder of unequal land ownership. Women by themselves owned nothing. Anything they have is in the form of gifts given by the menfolk-father, husband or brother, the singer says.

The ovi is an overwhelmingly women-centric poetic form. It spans an astonishing range of themes – from unequal land ownership to caste oppression; from childbirth to the loss of a child; from marriage and family to poverty, history, religion and politics. There is even one on Ambedkar’s writing of the Constitution.

The ovi as a musical form evolved as women created and sang these couplets while working on the grindmill, crushing grain to flour. The crushing was, and is in many village households still done by a hand-driven stone device, even as the motorised version has replaced it in many parts. For thousands of women, this was a creative space, a personal zone of free expression where the only sounds were their own voices milling with that of the two stones of the grindmill. This form is called the jatyavarchi ovi, or the grindmill song–one of two major forms of the Marathi ovi, a poetic metre. The other is found in the poetry of the Bhakti tradition.

This article was originally published in The Indian Express on December 8, 2017
Read the full article here

Dayaghana : O Merciful



का तुटले चिमणे घरटे ?

उरलो बंदी असा मी

अरे, जन्म बंदिवास

सजा इथे प्रत्येकास

चुके ना कुणास

आता बंदी तुझा मी



दहा दिशांची कोठडी

मोह-माया झाली वेडी

प्राण माझे ओढी

झालो बंदी असा मी




बालपण उतू गेले

अन्‌ तारुण्य नासले

वार्धक्य सांचले

उरलो बंदी पुन्हा मी




O Merciful,

Why did the tiny nest break?

I remain fettered like this

Listen, life is imprisonment

Each one endures punishment

None can escape

Now, I’m your prisoner

O Merciful


Ten directions make the cell

Temptation, attachment rages on

Pulls my life breath

I am fettered this way

O Merciful


Childhood spilled over

And youth, spoilt

Old age accumulates

I remain fettered again

O Merciful


Lyrics: Sudhir Moghe

Translated by: Namita Waikar


साँप !        अज्ञेय

तुम सभ्य तो हुए नहीं
नगर में बसना
भी तुम्हें नहीं आया।
एक बात पूछूँ–(उत्तर दोगे?)
तब कैसे सीखा डँसना–
विष कहाँ पाया?

दिल्ली, 15 जून, 1954

Snake!        Agyeya

Neither did you become civilised
nor could you ever learn
to live in a city
may I ask–(will you answer?)
so how did you learn to bite–
where did you acquire poison?

Delhi, 15 June, 1954

Translation: Namita Waikar
Pune, 6 October, 2016


Sachchidananda Hirananda Vatsyayan ‘Agyeya’, popularly known by his pen-name Ajneya.

There were four she-birds

चार होत्या पक्षिणी त्या

                – कुसुमाग्रज 


चार होत्या पक्षिणी त्या,
रात होती वादळी
चार कंठी बांधलेली,
एक होती साखळी

दोन होत्या त्यात हंसी,
राजहंसी एक ती
आणि एकीला काळे ना,
जात माझी कोणती

बाण आला एक कोठून,
जायबंदी  हो गळा
सावलीला जाण आली
जात माझी कोकिळा

कोकिळेने काय केले?
गीत झाडांना दिले
आणि मातीचे नभाशी
एक नाते सांधले

ती म्हणाली एकटी मी
राहिले तर राहिले
या स्वरांचे सूर्य झाले,
यात सारे पावले

There were four she-birds 

                        – Kusumagraj 


There were four she-birds
and the night was stormy
Bound together by a chain
around their necks

Two of them were swans,
one a royal swan
And one did not know,
what kind of bird she was

An arrow darted unawares,
wounding her neck
The dark one thus realised,
‘I am a koel’

What did the koel do?
She gave her song to trees
And bound the earth forever
to the sky above

That I am alone, she said,
matters not a bit
My song is the sun, and that,
gives me everything

Translated by:  Namita Waikar 


मोचीराम        धूमिल

राँपी से उठी हुई आँखों ने मुझे
क्षण-भर टटोला
और फिर
जैसे पतियाये हुए स्वर में
वह हँसते हुए बोला-
बाबू जी सच कहूँ-मेरी निगाह में
न कोई छोटा है
न कोई बड़ा है
मेरे लिए, हर आदमी एक जोड़ी जूता है
जो मेरे सामने
मरम्मत के लिए खड़ा है।

और असल बात तो यह है
कि वह चाहे जो है
जैसा है, जहाँ कहीं है
कोई आदमी जूते की नाप से
बाहर नहीं है
फिर भी मुझे ख़याल है रहता है
कि पेशेवर हाथों और फटे जूतों के बीच
कहीं न कहीं एक आदमी है
जिस पर टाँके पड़ते हैं,
जो जूते से झाँकती हुई अँगुली की चोट छाती पर
हथौड़े की तरह सहता है।

यहाँ तरह-तरह के जूते आते हैं
और आदमी की अलग-अलग ‘नवैयत’
बतलाते हैं
सबकी अपनी-अपनी शक्ल है
अपनी-अपनी शैली है
मसलन एक जूता है:
जूता क्या है- चकतियों की थैली है
इसे एक आदमी पहनता है
जिसे चेचक ने चुग लिया है
उस पर उम्मीद को तरह देती हुई हँसी है
जैसे ‘टेलीफ़ून’ के खंभे पर
कोई पतंग फँसी है
और खड़खड़ा रही है।

‘बाबूजी! इस पर पैसा क्यों फूँकते हो?’
मैं कहना चाहता हूँ
मगर मेरी आवाज़ लड़खड़ा रही है
मैं महसूस करता हूँ- भीतर से
एक आवाज़ आती है-‘कैसे आदमी हो
अपनी जाति पर थूकते हो।’
आप यकीन करें, उस समय
मैं चकतियों की जगह आँखें टाँकता हूँ
और पेशे में पड़े हुए आदमी को
बड़ी मुश्किल से निबाहता हूँ।

एक जूता और है जिससे पैर को
‘नाँघकर’ एक आदमी निकलता है
सैर को
न वह अक्लमंद है
न वक्त का पाबंद है
उसकी आँखों में लालच है
हाथों में घड़ी है
उसे जाना कहीं नहीं है
मगर चेहरे पर
बड़ी हड़बड़ी है
वह कोई बनिया है
या बिसाती है
मगर रोब ऐसा कि हिटलर का नाती है
‘इशे बाँद्धो, उशे काट्टो, हियाँ ठोक्को,वहाँ पीट्टो
घिस्सा दो, अइशा चमकाओ, जूत्ते को ऐना बनाओ
ओफ्फ़! बड़ी गर्मी है’
रुमाल से हवा करता है,
मौसम के नाम पर बिसूरता है
सड़क पर ‘आतियों-जातियों’ को
बानर की तरह घूरता है
गरज़ यह कि घण्टे भर खटवाता है
मगर नामा देते वक्त
साफ ‘नट’ जाता है
शरीफ़ों को लूटते हो’ वह गुर्राता है
और कुछ सिक्के फेंककर
आगे बढ़ जाता है

अचानक चिहुँककर सड़क से उछलता है
और पटरी पर चढ़ जाता है
चोट जब पेशे पर पड़ती है
तो कहीं-न-कहीं एक चोर कील
दबी रह जाती है
जो मौका पाकर उभरती है
और अँगुली में गड़ती है।

मगर इसका मतलब यह नहीं है
कि मुझे कोई ग़लतफ़हमी है
मुझे हर वक्त यह खयाल रहता है कि जूते
और पेशे के बीच
कहीं-न-कहीं एक अदद आदमी है
जिस पर टाँके पड़ते हैं
जो जूते से झाँकती हुई अँगुली की चोट
छाती पर
हथौड़े की तरह सहता है
और बाबूजी! असल बात तो यह है कि ज़िंदा रहने के पीछे
अगर सही तर्क नहीं है
तो रामनामी बेंचकर या रंडियों की
दलाली करके रोजी कमाने में
कोई फ़र्क नहीं है
और यही वह जगह है जहाँ हर आदमी
अपने पेशे से छूटकर
भीड़ का टमकता हुआ हिस्सा बन जाता है
सभी लोगों की तरह
भाषा उसे काटती है
मौसम सताता है

अब आप इस बसंत को ही लो,
यह दिन को ताँत की तरह तानता है
पेड़ों पर लाल-लाल पत्तों के हज़ारों सुखतल्ले
धूप में, सीझने के लिए लटकाता है
सच कहता हूँ- उस समय
राँपी की मूठ को हाथ में सँभालना
मुश्किल हो जाता है
आँख कहीं जाती है
हाथ कहीं जाता है

मन किसी झुँझलाए हुए बच्चे-सा
काम पर आने से बार-बार इंकार करता है
लगता है कि चमड़े की शराफत के पीछे
कोई जंगल है जो आदमी पर
पेड़ से वार करता है
और यह चौकने की नहीं, सोचने की बात है
मगर जो ज़िंदगी को किताब से नापता है
जो असलियत और अनुभव के बीच
खून के किसी कमज़ात मौके पर कायर है
वह बड़ी आसानी से कह सकता है
कि यार! तू मोची नहीं, शायर है
असल में वह एक दिलचस्प ग़लतफ़हमी का
शिकार है
जो वह सोचता कि पेशा एक जाति है
और भाषा पर
आदमी का नहीं, किसी जाति का अधिकार है
जबकि असलियत है यह है कि आग
सबको जलाती है सच्चाई
सबसे होकर गुज़रती है
कुछ हैं जिन्हें शब्द मिल चुके हैं
कुछ हैं जो अक्षरों के आगे अंधे हैं
वे हर अन्याय को चुपचाप सहते हैं
और पेट की आग से डरते हैं
जबकि मैं जानता हूँ कि ‘इन्कार से भरी हुई एक चीख़’
और ‘एक समझदार चुप’
दोनों का मतलब एक है-
भविष्य गढ़ने में, ‘चुप’ और ‘चीख’
अपनी-अपनी जगह एक ही किस्म से
अपना-अपना फ़र्ज अदा करते हैं।


Mochiram    by Dhoomil

The eyes rose from the anvil
Glanced at me curiously for a moment
And then
In a choking voice
He laughed and said –
Mister, to tell you the truth – in my view
No one is smaller
Nor anyone bigger
For me, every man is like a pair of shoes
Waiting in front of me
To get repaired

And the truth is that
Whoever he may be
however, wherever he is
No man is bigger
Than his shoes
Even so, I understand that
Somewhere between the professional hands
And the torn shoes
There is a man who is stitched up
And bears like a hammer on his chest
The pain of the wound on his toe
That peeps out of the shoe

There are all kinds of shoes here
And reveal the distinct features
Of men
All have different faces
And their differing style
For example there’s a shoe:
It’s not really a shoe but a bag of tatters
When a man wears this shoe
That seems infected with smallpox
And hope hangs, laughing impudently
Like the clatter of a kite
Dangling from a telephone pole

‘Mister! Why do you throw more money on this?’
I want to ask
But my voice is feeble
I feel from within
A voice urging me – ‘what kind of a man are you?
Spitting on your own caste’
Do believe me, at such times
I stitch up my eyes in place of the tatters
And with great difficulty I sustain
The man engaged in this profession

There is another kind of shoe
Into which a man jumps and
Goes for a walk
He is neither sensible
Nor punctual
Greed lurks in his eyes
A watch glints on his wrist
He has nowhere to go
But his face holds
An expression of great hurry
He may be a grocer
Or a general trader
But he is so oppressive, as if a kin of Hitler
‘Tie this up, cut this off, hammer in here, rub it there,
hit it here, polish the shoe, give it a mirror shine
….. uuff! It is so hot here’
He fans himself with a hanky,
Forgets his humanity
And ogles like an ape
At females passing by
He demands work that lasts an hour
but when its time to pay for the labour
turns about like an acrobat
‘You are looting decent people’ he roars
Throws some coins
and walks away

Startled suddenly, he jumps off the road
and steps on to the footpath
When the profession is so hurt,
Somewhere lurks a secret nail
And is dormant until
It grabs the opportunity
To rise up and stab a toe

But that does not mean
That I have any false impressions
I am always aware of the fact that
Somewhere between the shoes and the profession
There is a man who is stitched up
And bears like a hammer on his chest
The pain of the wound on his toe
That peeks out of the shoe
And Mister! The truth is that
Unless there is a right reason to live
It doesn’t matter how you earn a living:
By selling cloth that has ‘Ram’ written all over it
Or by making money as a pimp
And that is the place where every man
Stands apart from his profession
And merges with the crowd
Like everyone else
Words bite him
and the weather torments him

Now consider this spring season itself,
It stretches the day like a taut musical string
Hangs from the trees in the glorious light

Of the thousand sun soaked red leaves
At such times, to tell you the truth
Holding on to the anvil
Is the toughest thing to do
My eyes dart in one direction
The hands in another

The mind, like an irascible child
Repeatedly refuses to come to work
It feels like, underneath the decency of skin
There is a jungle that attacks man
And this should not surprise but provoke us to think
But the man who measures life with books
Who between experience and reality
At the weakest moment of his attitude, is a coward
He can very easily say
Friend! You are not a cobbler, but a poet
In truth he is the victim of a very interesting
He thinks that profession is a caste
And not all men but a caste has the right
To use words
While the reality is that
Truth, like fire,
Singes all and burns through everyone
There are some who have found words
Others who are blind to them
They bear in silence every injustice
And are afraid of the fire in their bellies
Whereas I know that
a scream full of resistance
Or a sensible silence
Both mean the same thing –
That in moulding the future,
The silence and the scream
Both in their separate ways
Only do their duty.

Translated by Namita Waikar



Suraj set down the earthen pot of his wife’s ashes and crouched next to it outside their mud and brick home. The cracks on his bare heels seemed like the rudiments that grew into the fissures on the hardened muddy surface they pressed underneath. Raising his eyes to the walls of his home he recalled the number of times they had been reinforced with a fresh plaster of mud by his wife. The chink-chink of her red and green glass bangles reverberated in his ears, tormenting him with memories of their conjugal life. Sighing, he stood up, dropping those thoughts and suddenly feeling much older than his fifty-eight years. About to go into the hut, he paused facing the doorway, his numbed mind prodding itself to think. He turned left and slowly walked about four feet on the right side of the entrance to the house, scratched the surface of the earth with his toenail, making a mark. Walking around to the back of the house, he picked up the axe lying there on the ground. He returned to the mark he had made moments ago and brought the axe on to it. Within minutes, there was a hole in the ground, just large enough to hold the contents of the earthen pot, which he then poured in slowly. The ash, dutifully fell into the hole. The lightest particles rose up and hovered in the air, cheerfully like laughter.

It was suppressed laughter, released slowly, that one could only hear from very close. Meira was watching him twirl his grey moustache in the barber’s mirror, sitting on the high blue chair at the corner of the street that sloped off a bustling wide road, the Ballygunge Phari in Calcutta. It was the only time they had left their village for a short visit with their two sons, who worked in the city as construction labourers. The barber had run off to answer nature’s call. Suraj had been eyeing that almost throne-like chair every morning as he and Meira passed it, on their way to the food stall. The stall was frequented at mealtimes during the day by rickshaw-pullers, taxi drivers, auto-rickshaw drivers, workers, labourers and others like them, who could afford to buy freshly cooked delicious food only at one of these stalls that dotted the street corners in many areas of the city. The barber’s mirror was large and rectangular and hung from a black iron nail jutting slightly upward from the tree trunk it had been nailed into. The branches of the neem tree spread out generously giving shade to the customer sitting below in the chair and letting in stray beams of sunlight through them to aid the barber’s neat work. The barber had found a spot for his business that was made for him. Finding the chair unattended, Suraj had given in to his desire of occupying it ever since he had first noticed it. But his indulgence lasted barely three minutes. Soon, noticing the barber ambling back to the spot, Meira released a tiny shriek of fright, pulled at her husband’s sleeve in quick warning and ran to the food stall while Suraj slipped down from the chair, as the barber stood in front of him, with a threatening look in his eye.
‘Ssaalaa’ hissed the barber at Suraj’s back.

Through out that day as they worked, husband and wife, side by side, Meira bit into the edge of her saree releasing that suppressed laughter. After some time when he stopped sulking, Suraj joined in the laughter too. Until the stall owner, irritated by their non-stop laughter yelled at them to be quiet. After that, all they could do was look into each other’s eyes and share their silent mirth.

When all the ash had been poured into the hole, Suraj gathered mud from the heap dug-up earlier and spread a handful of it over the ashes. He left a few inches of empty space above it. Then he walked to the woods nearby; his bare feet instinctively avoided stepping on sharp ends of twigs and unwieldy stones jutting up from the grassy undergrowth. Mango trees resplendent in their spherical spread of branches and leaves, a pair of tall palms leaning eastward, a casuarina standing by herself, amid stocky shrubs and bushes were witnesses to his silent mourning. Among the grasses underneath the foursome of tamarind, amla, fig and peepal, there were tiny heads of daisies – white, blue and yellow – dancing at random. Suraj walked through them, crushing some heads under his feet as he found what he was looking for on the other side of the stretch of grass; a leafy branch of night jasmine that he snapped off with the twist of an expert hand. He was pleased he had found it and would have smiled under more pleasant circumstances. Retracing his way back to the house he planted the bare end of the branch in the hole and filled it up with soil. He sprinkled water around the sapling and washed his hands as he did it, moistening the soil. He was tired. Reclining against the wall of his home he stretched his legs out. The last drops of water dripped off the new plant as it danced in the breeze that rode the amber rays of the setting sun. Suraj plucked out a blade of grass and nibbled at it as he remembered how Meira would blow air gently on his temples and forehead when their hands ached from shaking the hand fans on hot summer nights. She was with him even now, all the time. Their life together replayed in his mind continuously like the progression of day into night into day. Meira had always been beautiful. Her frailty was an indivisible part of her beauty. Like all marriages in their village, the elders in their potter community had fixed their match too. Meira’s parents had given their daughter to Suraj, six months after his parents had died in the devastating floods. Business was slow for a potter and the loss of his parents had brought sorrow in young Suraj’s life. His meagre earnings were just enough for sustenance. After he got married, Meira’s beauty brought in all that was missing in his life until then. The inside of their short and tiny brick home turned into a dream world, a paradise, the first time he held her in his arms and noticed her long eyelashes. The dark brown eyes that looked into his, enticed him from that moment. She had closed her eyes when his hand touched her neck as they slowly stretched themselves on a straw mat, made gentle love and consummated their marriage.

He had worried about her health when she gave birth to their two sons within the first few years of marriage. Soham was their first born and had inherited his mother’s laughter and beauty. Mohan, born a year after Soham had grown tall and rugged like his father. Ten years ago, still in their teens, the sons had left the village and migrated to Calcutta. There was nothing in pottery they had said. They worked on construction sites in the enormous city, plastering bricks with concrete mixtures of cement and sand.

Suraj and Meira had visited them a year later. They enjoyed a little while working in the food stall, working side by side throughout the day. But that work lasted for barely three weeks, until the two men who worked there regularly returned from their emergency visit to their hometown. After that, Suraj and Meira could not get any work there. Staying at home all through the day and eating off their sons’ earnings was not something they enjoyed. Life in their tiny, shanty home in the Calcutta slum was suffocating. They missed the vast green grasses and the open fields. The fresh country air and fragrance of burned earth, as they baked the pots. Within a month, they had returned, leaving the sons behind, back to their own world. The coming back home was like a second lease of their youthful days. Their passion was rekindled and they found newer, untried ways of sharing pleasures. Their own surprise at finding themselves again in each other’s eyes and mouths, ears and necks, arms and legs, backs and chests and fingers, toes and lips multiplied their love for each other, with each other and for their togetherness. They lived in a new world, a dream world, rebuilt within their small mud and brick home. In the evenings they walked in the woods, sometimes like children, sometimes like lovers. It was in those days that Suraj and Meira found their night jasmine. The tree of their love, the queen of the night, Raat ki Rani, that showered fragrant flowers on to them as they lay in embrace under it.

That dream world had now ended. It was consigned to the small plant that would grow over her ashes. There had been a typhoid epidemic in the village and Meira had been severely ill. Suraj had taken her on the distressing journey of over five hours to the nearest town hospital from their village of Beralpur. Their village was near Gaya in Bihar, but not near enough to reach easily and quickly. So the villagers traversed a long and torturous route to reach the nearest town of Beralganj which had a government hospital. The road to Beralganj went through the mountainous Beral hills. It was a long distance and a longer ride on the state transport bus, during which, Meira had succumbed to the rising fever. After she was gone, life was completely altered for Suraj. He had given up making pots. He went for long walks through fields and the woods, avoiding the paths that he had walked on with Meira in the years that she had lived. Wandering deeper into the forest, aimlessly, he tried not to think of what he could have done to save his beautiful Meira’s life. He could have got her to the hospital faster, had there been no range of hills standing obstructively between the village and the town. But such was nature’s way, nature’s justice. Man had to abide by it, he told himself. In the forest, Suraj spent hours watching birds build their nests; weave their abodes from nothing but bits of grass, twigs and leaves. Early one morning, he watched a mongoose pounce on a snake that was going about its winding way through grass. The fight went on for several minutes, making Suraj crouch closer to the combatants. The mongoose finally held the serpent by its neck, in an unwavering grip, until the snake stopped undulating. It then carried the carcass in the bloodied grip of its mouth and went into a hole, burrowed into the ground from the side of a large muddy lump between a rock and the earth. Suraj sat up, amazed at how nature had shown him the way. It was also the only way out of his growing despair.

He knew now, that there could be a path. There could be a faster way to reach Beralganj town, to the hospital in time of need, if only that path came into being. In the village, he spoke to other men, who dismissed his idea as the mumblings of a grieving man. He spoke to them again after some days and they shunned him completely after that, as a mad man. He was then on called pagal Suraj, the man who had gone mad. Children called him Pagal Chacha instead of Suraj Chacha. Young women hid their giggles in their saree ghunghats as they passed him by. Only Roshanbai, the old woman who lived in a hut some distance away from his, probably understood him. They had never before talked much to each other. But one morning, she stood outside his house as he sat there, squatting and looking into nowhere. She scolded him.
‘What are you staring at, you buddhau?’
‘Nothing, buddhima. What work do you have with me? Leave me to my madness.’
‘Madness? Arrey wah! Who talks of madness to a mad man?’
Asking that question in her loud, gruff voice, she laughed. Suraj looked up at her then. The old woman stared into his eyes, purposefully, and her eyebrows rose up in question. Noting that Suraj had fallen silent, she went on.
‘And who has stopped you from chasing your madness? Show the world your full madness or show them that you’re not mad. Show them something. Do your work. Don’t sit there in your yard all day like a crybaby. Pagal!’

Suraj decided to enquire with the government authorities if a tunnel could be built through one of the hills. If it was, he thought, if ever the need arose, others would be able to get to the town hospital faster. The first time he approached the district collector’s office, he was shooed away by the policeman at the gate. He went there again the next day. The policeman shooed him away again, this time, he also swore he would arrest him if he saw him there again. But Suraj went once again only to be driven away. Then he went there a week later. He found a different policeman on guard and hoped to be allowed to go inside. Suraj stood in front of the policeman and folding his hands asked to be allowed to go inside. This policeman struck his legs with a baton.

Suraj went back home, limping a little and slept through the rest of the day. The next morning he woke up with a new energy. He took out the pickaxe from his gunnysack in the corner of the hut and rubbed it gently on a moistened stone. Rubbing it repeatedly, for over an hour, he sharpened his pickaxe and walked to the hill. He stood there motionless for what seemed like hours, but what were in fact, just a few minutes. He fixed his eyes on a spot and unfurled energy into it. So began the digging of the hill. At the end of the first day, as the sun descended in the west, Suraj watched his own shadow darkening the cove he had dug. The disappointment at the smallness of the entire day’s effort was reduced a little by that extra depth added by the shadow. For the first time since his wife died, he slept well that night and woke up next morning to the chikketi-chakketi of birds. There was no time to cook. Instead he made the easiest meal. He first took sattu, the mixed grain flour and stuffed it into a glass bottle. Then he stuffed small lumps of jaggery into it. He added some water to it and shook the bottle to make a watery paste of the contents. This would be his meal and drink for the day. As an afterthought, he added a pinch of salt and grabbed four dried red chillies from a bowl covered with a clay lid. He broke the chillies and pushed them into the bottle. Biting on a chilli used to make Meira more eager and their love making more fervent. Wiping his lips, he erased the trail that thought would take and walked into the morning. It was early hours yet and Suraj kept at his digging for several hours before the sun spread its heat on his head and back.

The cove he was digging grew deeper and taller that day. It was his second day.

‘What are you doing man?’ A passer-by asked Suraj on the third day.
A few more people asked the same question.
Suraj wondered if they were all blind.

A couple passed by and the man asked the same question. Before Suraj could respond, the woman snapped,
‘Can’t you see? He is digging!’
Suraj chuckled.

The hard physical labour had unexpectedly brought back his inherent humour even as Meira continued to preoccupy his thoughts. A week later Suraj realised it was not worth going back home every evening. So he carried in his left hand a gunnysack of grain flour in which he had thrown in a clay bowl. On his right shoulder, he balanced two clay pots of water hanging from either side on a rope tied around the long narrow necks of the pots. That evening he went on digging after the sun went down and fell asleep exhausted just before midnight.

News of Suraj’s activity spread through the village. A week later, at the council meeting of Beralpur, a resolution was passed to make him stop the digging. Bhisham, a small-time contractor said such activity was illegal. It had no government permission. The council members hopped onto bullock carts that afternoon and a couple of men, including Bhisham, rode ahead on their phat-phatting, smoke emitting motorcycles, determined to stop the illegal digging of the hill. When they walked up to the opening, a bevy of humming fleas welcomed them as did the stench of faeces and decomposing rats. The head of the council, an elderly man, covered his nose with the flapping edge of his dusty white turban and retreated. Others followed. Bhisham tried to walk into the deep excavation but a fresh onslaught of fleas and dragonflies made him give up.

The next day, some villagers who sympathised with Suraj decided to send him food.
Malati, Suraj’s neighbour and a friend of Meira, called out to her son who was sling- shooting pebbles into the boughs of a tamarind tree. Bunches of fleshy green tamarinds pelted to the ground. Malati picked up a few while the rest were captured by her son and his friends. She would add it to the fiery dal that evening. Putting her arm around her son’s shoulders she cajoled him to carry a food packet to the hill and put his slingshot to good use.

Packets of thick millet roti, with green chillies and onion tied up in old cloth were flung inside with a slingshot. A day later, four men joined Suraj to clear out the opening. For there was a lot of mud to be brought out of the developing tunnel; the villagers were afraid Suraj would die inside, smothered under the piling heaps. After several hours, the men spotted Suraj at the other end. Digging ferociously. He has gone completely mad they said. The word spread in the village. Suraj had gone Completely Mad. No more Pagal Suraj, he was now called Sampooran Pagal.

The four men pushed the mud and pieces of rock out of the way. But they had their own work to do the next day and soon Suraj was left alone again. It was a long, lonely, almost uninterrupted labour for Suraj. Eventually he returned home after some days. He didn’t know how many days had passed, for he had lost track of time, of day and night, of weeks. Some of the villagers were relieved that he had returned among them into the sane world. Old woman Roshanbai saw him one day, as she passed his hut on the way to her own.
‘Pagal!’ was all she said and shook her head at him. Suraj was beginning to like his title of mad man. He slept all day and walked the woods in the evenings. It went on this way for many, many, days.

But again it came to an end and he went back to his task. He changed his digging routine to suit a new steady pace. Working from dawn to dusk, Suraj returned each day. He took a day off sometimes to sleep all day or swim in the shallow river on the other side of the village. Someone, usually Malati or some other neighbour left him one or two rotis and an onion and green chillies near his door on such days. Months passed and then years and everyone gave up noticing the progress of Suraj’s digging. It was just a daily madness, a strange occupation of a madman. Some of the villagers joked about him. Said he liked to roll in his own faeces. Many laughed at such jokes. Most of the villagers now just ignored Suraj. When he was not digging, he wandered through the woods, digging up roots, plucking fruits, killing bird or rodent with his sickle, anything he could take, to fill his stomach. On one such wandering in the woods he came feet to face with the mongoose. Suraj liked to think it was the same mongoose, the snake killer and nature’s agent, who had shown him the way. He crouched to the ground and put his hand out to touch the hairy friend. But the mongoose, naturally, scurried into its hole, much before Suraj could touch the creature.

In the afternoon of the twenty-ninth day of the month of May, twelve years after his hands had first lifted the pickaxe and hit the hill’s surface, Suraj stood motionless, as a sliver of light darted in through a crack in the rocky surface and pierced his left eye. Minutes that seemed like hours passed, in the wonder of that unexpected moment. At the end of that moment, overcome by a sudden burst of energy, Suraj hit the hard surface, with a renewed vengeance. It took him the rest of the day and half the next, to make a way through the hard rock, the hardest thus far, to reach the other side of the hill. When he did reach it, the sun was at its peak. Shining down from right above him, Suraj looked up at the brightest star of the day sky, the sun god and his namesake. Suraj looked up at the sun and laughed. Laughed wildly aloud like he had never laughed before, not even when his beautiful Meira was living.

The sound of his laughter ran through the trees and dry grass and over the scorching earth. His laughter would have rung through the ears of the villagers had anyone been around that hot afternoon. But they were all indoors, catching some respite from the heat.
None were around him. And no one would have seen the sky spinning above Suraj, as he stopped laughing and fell to the ground. The villagers slept that night oblivious to their loss. The night jasmine planted on Meira’s ashes had grown into a tree through the digging years. That night the jasmine tree was in full bloom and bursting fragrance. It showered flowers to the ground outside Suraj and Meira’s hut, just like its parent had showered on them in the woods, years ago, night after night after night.

A village stringer heard of Suraj’s feat and wrote about it in a local newspaper. That paper got carried to Gaya and found its way as a wrapper of groceries into the hands of a reporter there of a slightly bigger newspaper. The chain of growth of the news continued spreading, slowly but steadily, until a sub-editor in Patna, the state capital of Bihar, was moved by the achievement of one lone man. He wrote a report about Suraj’s digging feat and followed that with an opinion column two weeks later. Until this time though, all the news of Suraj’s digging was in the Hindi newspapers. From there, it made its way into a local English daily. That progressed into a national English newspaper.

Six months later, even government officials could no longer be unmoved by what was one lone man’s grand feat, especially after a photograph of Suraj and news of his marathon tunnel digging crusade made it to the front-page of two of the largest national newspapers; no small achievement for something that started from a rookie village stringer. Visits and inspections of the tunnel by the Public Works Department followed. Members of the State Assembly constituencies of the region vied with each other in honouring the dead man. Clearing up and widening of the tunnel followed and a road was built through it. That cut down the travel time from Beralpur village to the government hospital in Beralganj from five hours to just over an hour. No less than the Chief Minister of the state inaugurated the new road. Laddoos were distributed in a noisy function, with colourful paper buntings flying in the breeze and children running between attentive adults. When the Chief Minister gave his speech, the children stopped and watched curiously, understanding that the madman of their village had now become famous. But soon, they got bored of the speech and went back to play, stopping only to grab more laddoos, when they could.


This short story was published in the Summer 2016 issue of Jaggery

Ruskin Bond – at Jaipur Literature Festival in Jan 2011

Boys will be boys –  Ruskin Bond                        

Ruskin Bond with Ravi Singh settling down for a Sunday morning story reading session #JLF 2011

Of all the events, the most delightful one was on Sunday morning, 23 Jan 2011 – Boys will be boys – with Ruskin Bond who spoke to Ravi Singh, Editor-in-chief of Penguin India.  Reading  from his book A handful of nuts, the author evoked laughter among the audience as he read the antics of a lady – whose skin he likened to that of a crocodile – trying to seduce a man much younger than her. In deference to the young school going audience, he had to stop short of reading the entire passage! He shared an anecdote about his visit to a book shop and finding his book lying way below in a pile under all the best-sellers. Mr Bond, looking about the make sure the owner wasn’t watching, took his book out from the bottom of the pile and placed it on top. All his care and caution was brought to naught when the book shop owner picked up his book and told him –  unaware that he was speaking to the author –  ye book chalta nahin hain! To refute that, he bought the book, the price of which was a meager Rs 3/-

There was not much of a market for books when he began writing which was about 50 years ago, the author said, calling himself “quite ancient.” There were no festivals or book fairs then. The first book fair was in Delhi in 1968-69.

Pride and the nation

Muzaffarnagar is the district in Uttar Pradesh,India where riots broke out in August 2013.  A chilling account of the monstrous violence perpetrated during this riot was published in a weekly news magazine in December. It was disturbing to read the extent of brutality, bestiality and bloody human cruelty towards fellow villagers simply because they belonged to another religion and community.


What is it that makes men turn into monsters during such situations? How do they gather the nerve to raise a weapon, thrust it through another human, hack the bodies, sodomise them and burn them? It is a cruelty that no other species on earth heaps on their kind or other kinds. And after committing such abominable actions, how do these men live their lives as if nothing has happened. How do they conduct daily acts of labour and love among their families? How do their wives, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, who may be aware of their involvement in the killing and the raping sprees, live with them in peace?


Living in the comforts of my home, far removed from the scenes of these riots, keeps me insulated from a direct impact of the happenings there. But after reading the accounts of the riots, I am disturbed immensely and try as I might, cannot think of anything else. Rapes and riots has become so much a part of Indian society that for years one read about them in the papers and moved on. Until the most brutal of them all woke me up along with the rest of the nation. Nirbhaya’s courage in fighting till the end during her gang rape and afterwards in the hospital shook me up last December. For the first time in my life of fifty years I went on a protest march only so as to calm my nerves and channelize my rage and feeling of helplessness.


My heart goes out to the survivors of the riot: women, children and men in the relief camps who are now braving the cold harsh winter in addition to their already subhuman treatment at the hands of their attackers. Even as many others who have returned to their homes are making the enormous effort it must take to achieve some semblance of normality after such harrowing experience.


It is disturbing that political parties are pointing fingers at each other and rubbing salt in the wounds of the victims. In recent days the entire political class, government machinery and most of the media went into a rage over a woman diplomat’s strip search at the hands of law enforcement agencies following accusations of visa fraud in the US. It is devastating to know that the very same people among the political class, government and media remain untouched by the plight of the riot affected. The pride of the nation is seemingly hurt when an outsider so much as flicks it with a finger nail, but is presumed to remain intact when our own people stab it with knives and batons.


The people ofIndia, all of them – which ever class, caste, region, political affiliation – need to realise that the honour of our whole nation is violated when some of us turn into beasts and brutalize our women, children and men. Neither any attack by terrorists in current times nor invasion by armies of other nations in our long history has injured our pride or hurt our humanity more than our own pathetic inaction towards our own people’s attacks on their fellow citizens in the name of religion and/or caste.


The “Bharat Mata” we so reverently hail on each national occasion or political rally is engulfed in sorrow and shame over the brutal conduct of some of her people through decades since our independence. There have been riots and brutalities all overIndiasince 1947 till date. Some of us with intellectual attachments to different political ideologies or affiliations to different political parties like to compare different riots through the years in terms of scale and extent of brutality. Debates are conducted and columns written about which riot was bigger, more heinous, lasted longer and who is more to be blamed. A kind of “your riot is worse than mine” argument and often political game. The details of extent of damage, number of victims and position of people who instigate the riots are important and legally to be handled to see that the perpetrators are punished. But the damage done to our nation and its so-called pride is equal whether one person is brutalised by another in the name of religion or caste or gender or if 200 or 1000 people are brutalised. The extent of damage is more but the hurt to the nation is never less because a lesser number of people are affected. Unless we realise this and accept this we cannot change anything.


Every time we hail the mother who symbolises our nation and say “Bharat Mata Ki Jai,” the wounds on her body aggravate in pain, for our words are in complete divergence to our deeds. Those among us who brutalize others share a big portion of the blame. But the rest of us, who watch helplessly without raising our voices against such inhuman abominations that go unchecked and unpunished are almost equally to be blamed.

It is high time we Indians made serious efforts to inform and educate our own people to join hands and together fight against this beast of riots that is let loose by chance incidents or cruel machinations of a few against the vulnerable amongst us. It is time we formed a movement not unlike the movement against corruption: a movement for prevention and containment of riots. For only when we make efforts to stop the beast and neuter it forever can the social and spiritual health of our people and the pride of our nation be slowly repaired and restored.

Got the nerve?

This morning I read a quote by Margaret Atwood
“You Need A Certain Amount of Nerve to Be A Writer” It drew me in and I clicked on the twitter link (courtesy AdviceToWriters, Jon Winokur) to read the whole thing.

“You need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer, an almost physical nerve, the kind you need to walk a log across a river.”

So true and a bit scary. Quite a bit scary I would say. There are times after I finish writing something that I get this feeling. Is it really me writing this? What nerve? I have often wondered if other writers have ever felt this way and there, Margaret Atwood has answered that question.

Its almost a year since my last post which was on the second day of the nanowrimo 2011. At the end of the challenge (yes, I did win, for those curious to know the outcome) I felt quite exhausted. It took me nearly a month to start writing again. Now as August moves slowly towards September, I already have that feeling at the back of my neck, am I ready for the challenge a second time? I find that I am going to take the 2012 challenge.

And I agree with Ms Atwood. Completely.

The NaNoWriMo Challenge

For those trying to figure out the mouthful – NaNoWriMo  – It is a challenge that writers the world over take up every November to write each day and complete atleast 50,000 words of a novel length work in the month. I have taken it up for the first time this year.

It started in 1999 in San Francisco and come November, a quarter of a million people turn into “Wrimos.”
Details are available on the NaNoWriMo website.

In India, there are writers in Pune, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Delhi, Kochi, Kottayam, Ahmedabad and possibly others who have joined in.

Why did I take the challenge?

It took me over 10 years to complete my first novel. It started in June 1999 and was my first attempt at writing. I went through much of writerly angst, self-doubt, self-ridicule, insecurity, frenzy to be published, writer’s block, the list is long. Learning about the craft of writing was possible by reading articles on the internet, interviews of published authors, publishers, agents and subscribing to writing newsletters. It was also during this period that I finallly accepted writing as a long term vocation that I will work at along with my career in business and project management and running a home.  Finding my writing voice happened somewhere along the way. I dabbled in poetry and short stories. I wrote monthly articles and features on India for a magazine published in New York that nobody in India ever got to read. Except for a few colleagues and associates who spotted my writing by catching the magazine on a flight or a hotel in the US. When they told me about it, it was a great high! I had got my desire to be published channelized by these writing gigs.

But the novel remains central to my writing existence. The first one is almost complete and I have started to submit to publishers and agents. With the NaNoWriMo challenge, I have kick-started my second novel. It is an idea as yet undeveloped. But the book will emerge now, as I write everyday of this November. I want to do in a month for the second novel what I took years to do for the first.  Its audacious, over-ambitious. But I am raising the bar higher on myself and want to reach it if I can. I am going to try my hardest best to reach it. For, during these years of struggle with the first book, I discovered the joy of writing. A line or a turn of phrase or a paragraph even, that brings a smile to my face as I go to sleep. A turn of phrase that pleases me.

Writing is the one thing that I hope to keep doing until the day I die.

But let me not get carried away with all these happy thoughts. There’s writing to be done.
So now,  back to Day2 of NaNoWriMo 2011 !!