From Places of the Heart, a New Order

Letter from India, The International Herald Tribune

My friend R. Sathyanarayan Reddy likes to talk about all the ways his world has changed. Sathy, as he calls himself, is 45 years old. He grew up the son of a local zamindar, or landlord. His family owned thousands of acres of land. They were effectively feudal rulers, “controlling” — in Sathy’s word — more than 75 villages.

Sathy grew up like a prince. During festivals, he would ride with his siblings in a chariot to the village temple. Only when they arrived could the ceremonies begin.

His father owned one of a handful of cars in the district. When they drove through the area, villagers on the roads would bow down.

Shortly after independence, in 1947, the Indian government passed a series of land reform laws that limited the amount of property an individual or family could own. Sathy watched his family’s land holdings being whittled away. They still own a couple hundred acres, but it’s a far cry from the vast expanse that used to stretch across the fields, from the highway outside Molasur to the gray mountains on the horizon.

Other things have changed in the village, too. Men and women whose parents once worked as indentured laborers for Sathy’s family have educated themselves, started businesses, grown wealthy. With that wealth has come a new assertiveness. Many residents of Molasur, especially the younger ones, don’t stand up anymore when Sathy walks past.

All of these changes Sathy has learned to accept. Time moves on, he says, and India needs to develop. Although his own status has been diminished, he is proud of the progress his country has made.

What Sathy finds harder to accommodate himself to is the way the physical contours of his world are changing. He’s trained as a lawyer. He could be working, and earning a lot more, in a city. He stays in Molasur because he’s attached to the land — to the wide-open fields at the edge of the village, to the tile roofs and mud-brick houses that line the meandering alleyways where he grew up.

To an outsider, those alleys have little meaning: They’re just a jumble of houses and satellite dishes and stray dogs and kids playing in mud. But Molasur is, in fact, highly organized. The village layout is a reflection of society — and, now, of a social order that’s disappearing.

The upper castes of Molasur live in the ur, a settlement of about 500 houses set on higher ground. The Dalits, the caste formerly known as untouchables, live in the colony, where the houses are smaller, many with thatch roofs, and packed more tightly together.

Even within the ur, streets and neighborhoods are segregated by caste. Sathy’s caste, the Reddiars, live on the main artery of the village. Another street is populated by a caste of carpenters. There is a neighborhood of washermen and barbers.

This type of organization goes back centuries, even millenniums. It’s rooted in religion and Hindu cosmology. Archaeologists have found similar patterns in the Indus Valley settlements of Mohenjo-daro, built more than four thousand years ago.

For Sathy, Molasur’s layout represents stability, a form of continuity with the past. Sometimes, when he talks about his village, I feel that its geography gives his life a framework. As that geography changes, he seems to be questioning his own place in the world.

On a recent afternoon, a cool interlude between monsoon downpours, Sathy took me for a walk through Molasur. We started on Reddiar Street, the narrow road that runs outside his house. When he was a boy, Sathy told me, this was the “posh street” of the village, populated by eight Reddiar families.

Over the past couple of decades, other castes — first a Naidu, then a Vaniyar, and now a washerman and maybe even a Dalit — have started moving in. Sathy showed me one building, which he said was the first house to go. It was sold to a man from the Naidu caste about 15 years ago. It bothered Sathy, and his mother was especially unhappy. But what could they do? By then, Sathy said, they no longer had control over the village.

He showed me another building, about three houses from his own. The owner had recently died. Now the son was talking about selling it to a Dalit. Sathy considered himself open-minded. I could see he was embarrassed to admit it, but he had to confess that the idea of a Dalit on his street made him uncomfortable.

Sathy walked me around the village, showing me how Naidus had moved into the carpenter neighborhood, and how Vaniyars had moved in with the barbers. Then he took me to the edge of the ur, which lined a highway.

He walked me to a two-story pink house, with glass paneling on the walls and a garage that housed a white jeep. It was the house of a Dalit who had made a fortune in real estate. He’d grown up in the colony, but then escaped to the ur. “He’s a clever chap,” Sathy said. “He’s moved ahead in the world.”

We started walking toward the colony. On the way, Sathy stopped at an open stretch of land. It was a no-man’s land that separated the ur from the colony, the upper castes from the untouchables. Recently, some speculators had bought the land and plotted it out. Sathy laughed — bitterly, not mirthfully — at the yellow stones that marked individual plots.

In five years, maybe 10, he said, this part of the village would be unrecognizable. Strangers would have moved in, the gap between ur and colony would be erased.

The whole village would be different. He’d probably sell his land and move to the city. There would be nothing to keep him here anymore.

He told me a story about farming on the land that was now being plotted. Twenty-five years ago, he said, he was lying right here, in the thick grass, shooting pigs that were eating his crops. The story seemed to cheer him up. “They were the golden years of my life, Akash,” he said. “Golden times.”

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