In town and beyond

Siddalingaiah takes a Chaplinesque view of deprivation and discrimination


This is my translation of the first chapter of Ooru Keri, Siddalingaiah's autobiography.

Siddalingaiah is one of Kannada's two big names in dalit writing, the other being Devanur Mahadeva.

His ouvre includes poetry, two short plays, and a study of folk deities. He is dean of the faculty of arts at Bangalore University.

The original was published in 1996, and Sahitya Akademi, Delhi, published my English translation in 2004. 


"... simple... enjoyable"
Read Dev S Sukumar's review of my translation in Education World




Ainoru's fields

Ours was the last house in the colony. There had probably been a house beyond ours, but its roof had collapsed and its mud walls, three or four feet high, were all that remained of it. Like me, children of the other houses climbed on to the squat walls and peered into the distance for a glimpse of parents going to work. We sometimes called out to tell them to come home soon. Whether they could hear or see us from the distance, we didn't know.

The land owned by Ainoru, our master, stretched out 500 or 600 feet beyond these walls. On that land was Ainoru's beautiful house with a huge well and a pumpset cabin. A pumpset watered his lands. As for the people of our colony, it was a big thing if we got any water to drink. Our people trudged to a garden some distance away and fetched water from the well by its side. I never saw anyone but the dalits fetch water from this well.

One day, when we were standing on the walls and calling out to our parents, we saw a strange sight. A man had fastened a yoke onto the shoulders of two others, and was ploughing Ainoru's fields. It was amusing to watch the two men trundle on like bullocks, while the third followed them swinging a whip and making them plough.

A strange agony gripped me the moment I realised that one of the men carrying the yoke was my father. Some women came to where we were standing and sighed, "What a plight has befallen poor Dyavanna!" This doubled my agony. When Appa returned home after toiling like a bullock all day, Avva heated some oil and rubbed it on his shoulders.

Appa had three bits of land. The land closest to our house was what he cultivated as a sharecropper. The owner was a Brahmin who lived in Magadi town. We called him Ainoru too. This we called the mango tree land. A very old mango tree stood there. We had to cross a giant tamarind tree to get to our land. Beneath the tree was a huge boulder. People used to say there was a ghost up in the tree and that it would clap and beckon passers-by. They were terrified by the tap tap sound the tree often made.

One evening, when I was returning home all by myself, I heard a clapping sound. I was aghast, and fled, stumbling and falling along the way. I caught my breath only after I reached home.

The owner of the mango tree land was very generous. When Appa, Avva and I went to town and stood in front of his house, he gave us the chitranna and poori left over from the previous night. I had never tasted these delicacies before. They were tasty, oh so tasty. A strange gratitude overwhelmed us when we ate them. Occasionally, Ainoru also gave me old, tattered shirts and pants his son had discarded. I was younger than his son, and the clothes fitted me very loosely. Yet I wore them folded up, and looked odd among my companions.

An incident remains fresh in my memory. My father grew flowers and vegetables on a tiny plot by the tank. I had once earned two annas at the Magadi shandy by selling the flowers he had grown there. One day, I returned from the garden and was standing on the embankment. People were at work on either side of the tank.

Someone gave out a yelp, and in a flash, women, men and children started running, at the speed of arrows, towards the Brahmin house with the pumpset. I was scared, and couldn't run as fast as the others. I reached the house later than the others.

Dalits sat in a row a little distance from the frontyard. People from Ainoru's house were giving away leftover poori and chitranna. I was disappointed I was the last to get there,  but was overjoyed to see my father and mother receiving the eats and coming away before all the others.

Clapping ghosts

Our colony had a Mari temple. The priest was an old woman who happened to be distantly related to my family. We celebrated the Mari festival with great devotion. Goddess Maramma would possess this Ajji. We would be scared and bewildered. I was a trifle proud that she was related to us, and sure the goddess would not harm us in any way.

Another goddess in Megalahatti was called Jaldagere Amma. She had many devotees, and possessed a woman on a particular day every week. My mother was a devotee too. We would go and sit expectantly well before the goddess came on. Her gestures were fearsome. When she gritted her teeth, making a nora nora sound, people trembled and broke out in a sweat. Avva used to call the possessed woman Akka. I used to call her Doddamma. She treated us with affection and so I never felt too scared when she was possessed. She was very good. With a nicely filled-out body, she was beautiful to look at. The goddess had started to possess her only after her husband had abandoned her and run away with another woman.

The people of our colony dreamed a variety of dreams. Dead grandparents, parents and brothers and sisters haunted them in their dreams. A dead girl would appear in her living friend's dream. Perched on top of a tree, she would wave out and invite the friend to go with her.

Ascetic with the matted hair

And then there was the Jade Muni, the ascetic with matted hair. Men who returned home late in the night used to say that they had seen the face of Jade Muni, and with difficulty managed to escape the fate of vomitting blood and dying. Women and children who heard this story would be petrified. Spirits clapped, called out and cackled at those walking alone. If you walked on courageously, the spirits would say, "Go, I spare you this time." People took these things seriously. They relied on the gods to save them from such troubles.

Around this time, the Koogu Mari scare gripped the village. It was believed that Mari would stand in front of a house and call out the name of one of the women. If the woman answered innocently with an "O?", she would vomit blood and die right there.

Many women started saying, "I heard a call, but didn't answer because I already knew about it." We came to think of such women as being very intelligent. The villagers had "Come tomorrow" scribbled on their doors, in the belief that Mari would read the message and go away. Some said the cause of all this was the sighting of a comet in the early morning sky. To see if this was true, people woke up early. They sighted a comet, and ended up even more terrified.

At this juncture, a holy man came to the village, and predicted that a rain of fire and a deluge would end the world within fourteen days. Some clever fellows, just waiting for a chance, suggested that people should cook and eat their favourite dishes and invite their relatives over so that they might see their faces one last time. Even the poor feasted in this fear of death. As for the rich, they made arrangements for huge ceremonial feasts. I must say the people of our colony took good advantage of this scare.

When the village was immersed in the comet confusion, the Mysore Maharaja came to Magadi. I don't remember why he came. Most people, even then, didn't know why he had come. A crowd as big as at a fair had gathered to see him. We children climbed on to our parents' shoulders and caught a vague glimpse of the king.

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