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July 14, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Dilip D'Souza

Going Forward, Fighting Germany

Who have you been voting for in the elections, I asked Sikander Kale. In earlier years, he replied, I used to vote for Indira and Rajiv. Now, I don't remember. I did vote in the last election, but I don't remember who I voted for. You see, the sarpanch of my village, or sometimes a man I respect who helped my sons get their jobs, tells me whose symbol to stamp on the paper. I listen to them and do it.

Curious, I asked Kale if he knew who Maharashtra's chief minister was. No, he said with a smile and a shake of his head. India's prime minister? Another smile, another shake of the head. Well, I said then, have you heard of Atal Bihari Vajpayee? Yes, yes! said Kale, recognition dawning. I know that name! He is a military man and has gone to Kashmir to fight against Pakistan. I know because my son will be fighting in the war too.

An intriguing identification job on Prime Minister Vajpayee, no doubt. But then Sikander Kale is an intriguing man. He doesn't quite fit the picture that comes to mind when you think of tribes that are still considered criminals -- like his, the Pardhis. This is a decidedly unusual Pardhi.

Like a lot of Pardhis his age, this burly 65 year old with a large turban and a bushy moustache is himself illiterate. But Kale put his sons through school, or most of it. One son, Khavisen, graduated from the 10th standard and is now a wireman with the Maharashtra State Electricity Board. He earns the princely salary -- in these parts, among Pardhis -- of Rs 4,217 a month. Not bad, for the son of an illiterate Pardhi. Sikander is so proud of Khavisen that he carries his latest salary slip in his shirt pocket, whipping it out to show people he meets. Like me. (Curiously, the slip indicated that Khavisen took home only Rs 23 in June; a Rs 3,000 installment towards paying back a loan and various deductions took away Rs 4,194).

The other son, Ashok, dropped out of school after the 9th standard and joined the Army. He is a commander, said Kale, posted in Jalandhar. He will soon be moved up to the front to fight Pakistan.

Not bad, again.

Sikander and his wife Sushila live in Zat, a village in Maharashtra's Sangli district. I met them in the village of Rajale in Satara district. They had come there to meet some relatives in a small Pardhi hamlet I have been visiting since January. At first glance, the couple from Zat presents a startling contrast to the Rajale Pardhis. Their clothes are better, cleaner; they look tidier and healthier than their cousins. In fact, Sikander is a big, imposing man. Even from a few hundred yards away as I walked to meet him that evening, his bulk and large pheta (turban) caught the eye. And from their description, their home in Zat is clearly nicer than the miserable huts and tents their relatives occupy in Rajale. I haven't seen it, but it strikes me that their home must certainly be surrounded with less dirt -- food waste, bits of glass, rags -- than these huts are.

All a result, Sikander tells me, of one simple decision he took 40 years ago. He stayed put in Zat and took what work he could get. Sometimes, he was hired to guard fields -- usually to ward off other Pardhis. Other times, he was hired as contractual labour, tending fields, working the soil. He worked hard and was often paid in grain. Unlike other Pardhis, his family rarely went hungry. Over the years, he came to own 6 acres of land and built himself a house -- a real one, saheb, not like these huts here! -- in Zat. Settled in that village, he put his children in school and kept them there.

That 40-year-old decision took his children where they are today. Kale knows it and is proud of it.

In contrast, Sikander said and his cousins nodded in agreement, this band of Pardhis in Rajale stayed nomadic. That is why they are impoverished and unemployed today. That is why the younger men here, about the same age as Sikander's sons, are stuck in the dirt around their huts, still doing odd jobs, travelling to Bombay as migrant labour, trapping ever scarcer partridges to earn a few extra rupees, getting harrassed by the police.

But things are changing slowly, said Sikander. They are now trying to stay on here in Rajale too, giving up the nomadic life. (Though they complain that the police regularly threatens to push them off this little bit of land). The young men are putting their children in school, as Sikander did with his kids all those years ago. Indeed, the Pardhi kids of Rajale get into their khaki shorts every morning and trudge over the fields to the village school. One generation later than the Zat cousins, but better late than never. For what it's worth, most of them are able to write their names for me, some in English as well, and can slowly read some of the words I'm scribbling furiously in my diary. It's clear that they, and their parents, see benefits in getting an education. Perhaps they, too, will grow up to take to respectable professions like electric wiremen and soldiers.

That's encouraging. Today, Sikander Kale is essentially indistinguishable from other villagers, the non-Pardhis, in the area. He looks like them, earns like them, lives among them. That can't be said of the Rajale group, who live a good half kilometre outside the village limits. But perhaps in a generation that will change too, as it did for Sikander. Children going to school is a start. That's encouraging, too.

What isn't so encouraging, in a time of war, is what Sikander Kale knew about it. Or didn't know. Especially with a son doing some of the fighting.

How will you feel, I asked Sikander and Sushila, if you lose Ashok in this war? Asking that question was like opening the sluice gates on a dam. The words came tumbling out. Well, they said, if that happens it's God's will. But you know, we're just vultures, he's a tiger. And he's a Maharashtrian. We Maharashtrians don't know how to retreat. We are good with weapons and very brave. We Maharashtrians won't leave Pakistan alone till we turn it into mud. We will keep going forward.

So far, so good. But Sikander was just getting started.

That man you mentioned just now, he said, what was his name again? Vajpayee? I asked. Yes, yes, him. He gave this speech in Pune yesterday in which he said we had given land to Pakistan by mistake. He told us we will now get it back. Now he has gone to fight in the war. And since he went to Kashmir, India has got back three districts. See how brave we Maharashtrians are?

You see, saheb, Germany is about to enter the war against us. Germany?! I stammered, completely flummoxed by this nugget that came out of the blue. Yes, saheb, Germany! Germany, Pakistan and China are going to join forces and fight us. But it doesn't matter. We will fight these three enemies of Maharashtra without retreating.

Further bewildered by the minute, I listened to more of Sikander's theories. Here I was, in my anti-war way, wondering about the sacrifice our country might ask of this man, this illiterate man whose tribe's name will still usually mark him as a criminal. It was possible that his son would die in battle, and he was prepared for it. But that would be in a battle he had not comprehended except in the most rudimentary terms ("we gave them land by mistake", "we will keep going forward"); had in fact grossly misunderstood. I found every aspect of this disturbing and sad. And yet this man was at peace with it all. It made some sense to him. Who's to say his simple acceptance, even through the distortion, was any less valid a way to look at the war than my cynicism, my disillusionment? Who's to say it was any less valid than my supercilious notion that a father should at least understand what his son dies for in a war? That a country owes such a father that much?

That man you mentioned, Sikander repeated after a few moments of silence. Vajpayee? I asked again. Yes, yes, Vajpayee. In that speech in Pune, he told us that Pakistan had cheated us.

You poor man, I thought. You poor father who cannot read your son's salary slip, who may lose your other son before this war is over. How do I tell you who else has cheated you, what they have cheated you of? How do I tell you that you don't have to go all the way to Pakistan to find the cheats? That they are here around you now? And who knows -- with these patronizing thoughts I cannot help nursing as I listen to you, perhaps I cheat you most of all.

My mind in a whirl, I wished Sikander and Sushila well and walked home. The thought came to me: because of this one man's determination, his children and theirs will have better lives than he did, than their cousins have now. It was a simple choice he made 40 years ago. But that choice, that determination, has given his children a respect that Pardhis rarely know.

Perhaps that's all that matters, not my worrying about his confused ideas about a war. Perhaps that's the best way of all to "keep going forward."

This article is part of the project Dilip D'Souza is pursuing to study India's Denotified and Nomadic Tribes as a National Foundation for India Fellow for 1998-99.

Dilip D'Souza

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