Daylight would die. Darkness would reign.
We at our hut’s door. No single light inside.
Lights burning in houses around.
Kitchen-fires too. Bhakris beaten out.
Vegetables, gruels cooked.
In our nostrils, the smell of food. In our stomachs, darkness.
From our eyes, welling up, streams of tears.
Slicing darkness, a shadow heavily draws near.
On her head, a burden. Her legs a-totter.
Thin, dark of body…..my mother.
All day she combs the forest for firewood.
We wait her return.
When she brings no firewood to sell we go to bed hungry.
One day something happens. How we don’t know.
Mother comes home leg bandaged, bleeding.
A large black snake bit her, say two women.
He raised his hood. He struck her. He slithered away.
Mother fell to the ground.
We try charms. We try spells. The medicine man comes.
The day ends. So does her life.
We burst into grief. Our grief melt into air.
Mother is gone. We, her brood, thrown to the winds.
Even now my eyes search for mother. My sadness grows.
When I see a thin woman with firewood on her head,
I go and buy all her firewood.
Translated by Priya Adarkar. Source: Poisoned Bread Translations from modern Marathi Dalit literature., Ed: Arjun Dangle
This is not a long ago memory of somebody we may have passed by or met in the market, hunger is a reality in so many homes around the world. And doesn’t seem to go away with all the progress we make, all the discoveries, the inventions, the committed investment in trying to understand how the very Universe works. Yet, we don’t seem to have the will or the capacity to solve the most basic human need, no answer to why some people go to bed with a hungry stomach! That most of us manage to go through life without pausing to know how things are so wrong for our people, is a strangeness of being that seems a harder reality………a concrete truth.
This poem gets to me at so many levels, not just the loss of a parent or orphaned children that we can image powerfully, but the complete failure of a system/s in which a hardworking, female provider survived and died due to an accident at work, leaving her family with nothing. An entire nation with me in it, failed this woman and her family and will continue to fail for million other such women……….
In Maharashtra, Bhakris, a flat bread, is eaten as a complete meal in many households; ground bajra or jowar flour, salt and water are all that goes as ingredients, prepared by flattening the dough between palms and cooked with no oil over a flat pan for a few minutes and then directly roasted on the flames. This meal can be prepared with little firewood almost anywhere, can be stored for a few days when wrapped in cloth. Side dish in most poor homes would be crushed green chillies. As in the poem above even today this minimal meal is available only as smells and aromas from neighbors homes, as regions of Maharashtra reels under crop failures, debt, suicides, starvation and high infant mortality. Though the same state produces movies on colossal budgets and weddings of the rich lasts a fortnight.