The Long March (An Excerpt)

    by Namita Waikar

    At Lonand, Swati interviewed two police officials and they discussed the security arrangements for the procession during the vaari period: a special team managing the traffic to minimize congestion problems and police constables keeping watch for petty thieves and pickpockets. Swati noted down the officials’ names but they asked her not to use it in the article.
      ‘All this is in service of the varkaris. We cannot leave our jobs to join in this journey. But the varkaris do this every year, so at least helping them is our way of taking part in the pilgrimage.’
      On the twelfth day of the vaari, Sudha and Mallika sat together watching a group of the varkaris singing. Sudha held Mallika’s hand in hers and patted it, ‘I am so happy you came with me.’
      ‘Yes, I am too.’
      ‘Look at them. They are so completely immersed in their devotion of Vitthal. They have left all their worldly worries behind them. Their hearts must be so light.’
      ‘In anticipation of reaching Pandharpur?’
      ‘Yes. But also just being on this journey. The journey is more important than the glimpse of their deity in Pandharpur, you know?’

    There was an eerie silence and spirits were dampened when two men breathed their last during the lunch break on the way to Phaltan. An eighty-year-old man died of heart failure, and the other, sixty-five-year-old, died while taking a nap after lunch. Everyone agreed that the two men were indeed fortunate to have died during vaari, for that means they are already with their beloved Vitthal.
      In Solapur district, the lady sarpanch of Dharmapuri and other officials welcomed the palkhi procession with the same gusto as in the places that they crossed earlier.
      The next day, the procession reached the Dhava-Bavi mound in the afternoon as the varkaris sang the abhanga ‘Sinchana karita moola, Vruksha olaave sakala.’ Which meant that when the roots are watered well, the entire tree is nourished.
      Following the melodious song, the managers called out the dindi numbers one by one and the varkaris ran down the hilly slope chanting, ‘Mauli, Mauli!’
    Professor Bharadwaj turned to Mallika, who was watching everything intently,
      ‘Mallika, folklore tell us that when Sant Tukaram reached this hilly slope hundreds of years ago, he saw the temple dome in Pandharpur, even from this distance. His devotion attained such a peak at that moment that he ran down the slope to speed up his progress. The varkaris now follow this tradition, called dhava, which as you know simply means…’
      When it was their turn, they charged down the slope.
      After that energetic dash down the hill, they rested on the grass in the open countryside where folk artists sang a bharuda with its soul-stirring lyrics tinged with humour and irony. One singer recited scenes from the joys and sorrows of everyday life. Men, women, and children listened in rapt attention. Some women formed small circles and danced gracefully while others sang couplets called ovi, a union of prose and verse. No break is complete without a round of phugdi. So the women paired up and played until they felt forced to break apart and hold their heads to stop the dizzying and spinning feeling. The other women laughed, one of them rather loudly. She was the same woman Mallika had chased after earlier. Mallika went and sat next to her and held her wrist as she tried to get up.
      ‘I remember you. You are Sita Madhe from Kosurla village near Wardha, ho na?’ Mallika asked her in Marathi.
      She was silent for a while and then whispered ‘hao’ in her Varahdi dialect.
      She now sat more comfortably, stretching her legs out a little and resting her elbows on her raised knees. When her sari pallu dropped from her head, she ignored it.
      ‘Have you run away?’ Mallika ask her cautiously.
      ‘Tu kon lagli majhi, asla ichraya?’ Who are you to me, to ask me such questions?
      ‘Chhoti bahin, Savitri saarkhi.’ A younger sister, Mallika told her, like Savitri. At the mention of her sister-in-law, she looked at Mallika. Her eyes flashed angrily, reminding Mallika of the way Savitri’s eyes had raged when they had met her.
      ‘Who are you to ask me anything? What makes you think I can run away from the miserable life back in my village? The perpetual work to heat the hearth, the toiling in mud… The constant need for money and the gaping lecherous avarice of that haraamkhor…saalaa…’
      Mallika silently listened to her abusing the moneylender.
      ‘This vaari is just an excuse for me to get away for a few days. I will have to go back there. I was like Savitri, too, when I was younger. Full of energy and anger, ready to fight any adversity, to work hard and rise against the world. But now I’m older and have seen much more hardship and sorrow than she has.’
      She paused. ‘How can I leave her alone to fend for the children, hers and mine? I will go back. I have not told her anything but she will understand that I have not gone forever.’
      Mallika merely watched her in silence, wondering how to apologize for having offended her.
      In a calmer tone, Sita added, ‘A group of people from my village have come for the vaari. I have come with them. Savitri will figure it out I’m sure, as she knows me and understands our common angst.’
      Mallika felt humbled and regretted asking her the question. Patronizing, yes, that was the tone of my questioning, she thought, just because she is poor and possibly semi-literate.
      Not knowing how to make amends, she simply held Sita’s wrist again, which prompted Sita to ask, ‘Kaaon pori? kaay zhala tula?’ Why girl, what’s happened to you?
      Before she could think of anything to say, Sita asked, ‘Ani tu hitha kaay karun rahili?’ And what are you doing here? ‘I’ve come to see what the vaari is all about.’
      ‘No, I am with a small group. Just like you!’ She laughed. Standing up quickly, Sita walked away, leaving Mallika amazed at her strength.

    Excerpted with permission from The Long March, Namita Waikar, Speaking Tiger Books (2018)

    Elsewhere in this issue An Interview with Namita Waikar

    Namita Waikar is a writer, translator, and the Managing Editor of People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI). She is a partner in a chemistry databases firm, and has worked as a biochemist and a software project manager. She’s most recently the author of The Long March, a novel, Speaking Tiger Books

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