Rucksack on my back I stepped down at the Tirupati railway station early one morning last week, and found that something was amiss. I ought to have heard the passenger ahead of me, peaceable until now, break out into a full-throated Govinda, Govinda! slogan by now. At this time of the year, the station is normally packed with devotees either going to the Venkateshwara temple on Tirumala hill or returning from from there. But the platform was sparse with the odd peasant family from the interiors lolling on a bedroll on the bare floor and bleary-eyed returnees picking up their luggage and briskly making for exits. Even the man at the kiosk outside the station yodeling to passengers to buy bus tickets to Tirumala was not being very successful. Was this the demonetisation effect, I wondered.
After refreshments, I drove out of town into Rayalaseema's parched hinterland of hillocks and precarious rock formations that threaten drama but never deliver. Rayalaseema lends itself to both cynics and poets. The former call it Rallaseema (country of rocks) and latter Ratanalaseema (country of rubies). The cynics are winning right now. A timeless drought has taken grip of this region, enveloping everyone, businessmen, small-time traders, farmers, students, poets, cynics, in an indolent stupor.
I first stopped at Srinivasa Mangapuram, which lies on one of the two routes taken by trekkers to reach the big temple on Tirumala. This town too is sacred, having its own temple to the same god, but presented as the Kalyana Venkateswara. Hymns recited by priests in the temple wrapped the area in a spiritual aura. The first man I met said he was a tailor from Keelapatla, a village 75 km in the interior. He and his family had walked the distance to go to the Tirumala temple and decided to do the mandatory Srinivasa Mangapuram detour. He said he wasn’t happy. “I have had no business in the past two months,” Prakash said. “We are going to Tirumala to pray so that we may have something to live for. My family needs at least Rs 200 per day. I’m not making even that.” As proof of his determination, Prakash showed me the blisters on the soles of his feet. They had been trekking for two days with a four-hour break at Kanipakam, another holy stopover on the Tirumala pilgrim circuit.
I stepped over to a juicer’s stall to see if he had it any better. B Guravaiah repeated to me the tailor’s story in much the same manner, doleful but hopeful at the same time. “I am not making even Rs. 200 a day,” said the vendor. “The devotees are coming but no one comes to me for a drink.”
I continued my journey along the ghat road skirting the Seshachlam forests, home to rare red sanders woods and smugglers of the wood and hunters of the smugglers. In 2016, the troika made for a dysfunctional ecosystem that kept journalists like me busy reporting their skirmishes but now as 2017 beckoned, the forest was an inviting diversion. The scene from the window of my taxi was sylvan and the green canopy seemed to awn over all the difficulties of the past two months.
When soon the woods parted company with me, I decided to break at Bhakrapet and walked over to a group of youngsters on bikes who had stopped by the roadside. They were students of Sri Venkateswara Ayurvedic College in Tirupati. They were on their way to Talakona to see the waterfall there. How had the past year been?
“It was good. In fact, very good. My sister and my brother got married in May and August. And I’ll get married in 2017,” said one of the happy boys.
Does he love her? “Oh no, my parents settled the match. I believe in arranged marriage,” he said, breaking out in titters.
He said his name was Balakrishna and his home was Mahbubnagar, Telangana. He is studying for an MD degree in ayurvedic medicine and his hope for 2017 was to set up a practice in his native town.
Another of the bikers, Dr Chakaradhar, said he was looking forward to his wedding too, next year. “I’m engaged. And after marriage I will set up a clinic at home in Kadapa,” he said.
A few miles out of Bhakrapet, I was back in the droughtscape of Rayalaseema with the happy conversation with the bikers still on my mind. At Kalagada on the Kadapa-Chittoor border, I stopped to eavesdrop on a roadside argument. It was a farmer cursing strangers passing by. After the assembly had dispersed, I asked him his name. Riaz Ali Khan was a tomato farmer. He said he had lost seven lakh rupees on his last crop. “I sowed three acres. Last year I sold for Rs 500 per box. Now they are offering me Rs 30 per box. I’d rather let the fruit rot on the plants. I won’t throw them on the road because I have respect for tomatoes,” he said to me, still indignant.
“If it is your livelihood, you should respect the crop, right?”
Back on my route, the Veligalla reservoir suddenly appeared on the horizon and I looked for a tinge of green in the landscape around me. The land was barren. I stopped to talk to a farmer on a farm adjacent to the canal. He was working a kerosene-fuelled pump to irrigate his eight-acre groundnut crop. “I’m quite happy,” he said to my surprise. “Last year was fine. And the new year promises to be good too.”
How had demonetisation affected him? He managed, he said. “I have a problem in getting small notes to pay my labourers, though. If I get good crop, I’ll get a good price. I invested Rs 40,000 per acre and I should easily get Rs 80,000.”
He had a vermilion teeka on his forehead, so I asked him about Narendra Modi. “If he waives crop loans, it will be good.” he said.
I moved on to Kadiri in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh’s drought district, as dusk descended. The town was dusty and the lights had not come on in the shops. I stopped to ask a watch repairer if there was a power cut. “There is supply, sir. But traders are not switching on the lights because there is no business for them,” the man said.
His name was Zebi and he wanted to talk. “Show me one shop with any customers. Look at my shop. It’s only 5.30 and I am getting ready to close. Everyone wants to save money on power.”
Kadiri, in his telling, was a cursed town: no industries, no rains and no crops. We get drinking water for one hour once in three to four days and it has very high flouride content. If they don’t do something, this town will die,” Zebi declared.
I then ducked into a basket weaver’s shop on the main street of Kadiri. Eshwaraiah did not have great expectations for the new year either. “Bamboo baskets are on the way out. People are buying plastic baskets and tubs. Many basket weavers have moved to Bangalore to work as labourers.”