Vajesinh Pargi: A life of despair, and worse

An Adivasi from Gujarat, Pargi wrote powerful poems about hope, hardship and hunger

Vajesinh Pargi (Photos: Umesh Solanki)
Vajesinh Pargi (Photos: Umesh Solanki)

Pratishtha Pandya

All my life / I have been rowing this boat day and night / with no shore in sight. / That is how vast the ocean is / and then the storms; nothing here tells me that / I will reach the other side. / But I can’t / just can’t put these oars down.

And he did not, not even in the last moments of his life when he was fighting a losing battle with lung cancer. Vajesinh passed away on 23 September.

It was painful. He often had difficulty breathing and his joints were aching. There were issues of anaemia, weight loss, and more. He could not sit for long without feeling absolutely drained. But Vajesinh Pargi agreed to meet us in his hospital room and speak to us about life and poetry.

A life that was never kind to him from the time he was born—1963 according to his Aadhaar card—in a poor Bhil Adivasi community in Dahod’s Itawa village.

Summing up his experiences of growing up as the eldest son of Chiska Bhai and Chatura Ben, Vajesinh repeats just one word, like a refrain, “poverty… poverty”. A brief pause. He turns his face the other way, rubbing his sunken eyes, unable to get rid of those images from his childhood darting across his vision like stubborn floaters. “There was never enough money for food in the house.”

Life will come to an end / but not this daily rut. / The radius of the roti / is way bigger / than that of the earth. / No one but those / who live with hunger / know how much one roti means, / where all it takes you.

“I should not say that, but we had parents we could not be proud of,” Vajesinh confesses. And his already frail frame shrinks even more under the weight of deep anguish and shame. “I know I should not be saying such things, but it just came out, I guess.”

His old mother, about 85, sitting on a tin stool in one corner of the small room in Dahod’s Kaizar Medical Nursing Home is hard of hearing. “I only saw my parents struggle. Mother and father worked in the fields as labourers.” His two sisters, four brothers, and parents lived in a small, one-room, brick-and-mud house in the village.

Even when Vajesinh left Itawa and came to Ahmedabad in search of employment, he lived in a little rented hole in the wall in Thaltej chawl. A place even his closest friends rarely got to visit.

If I stand / I hit the roof / If I straighten up / I hit the wall. / I somehow spent a lifetime / here, confined. / What came to my aid / was the habit / of curling up inside my mother’s womb.

The story of deprivation is not Vajesinh’s alone; it is an old and common one in the region where the poet’s family lives. About 74 per cent of the population in Dahod district consists of Scheduled Tribes, with 90 per cent of them engaged in agriculture. But the small size of plots and low productivity of the land, largely dry and drought-prone, does not ensure an adequate income. And the poverty rate in the region has remained the highest in the state at 38.27 per cent, according to the latest multidimensional poverty survey.

Ghani takli kari ne mota kariya se e lokone dhandha kari kari ne,” says Vajesinh’s mother Chaturaben, speaking about her life as a mother. “Majhoori karine, ghernu karine, bijhanu karine khavadyu chhe. (I have done hard labour. Worked at home, worked at other’s homes and somehow got them something to eat).” They have lived on only jowar porridge at times, have gone to school hungry. It was never easy to bring up the children, she says.

In the two-part memoir he wrote for a 2009 issue of Nirdhar, a magazine dedicated to the voices of the deprived communities from Gujarat, Vajesinh narrates the story of a large-hearted Adivasi family. Jokho Damor and his family stay hungry to feed the young boys they were hosting that evening.

Speaking of this incident where five of them were caught in the heavy rains on their way back from school and had sought shelter in Jokho’s house, Vajesinh says, “Bhadarvo was always the month of starvation for us.” Bhadarvo is the 11th month of the Hindu Vikram Samvat calendar, usually coinciding with September in the Gregorian calendar.

“The stored grain in the house would run out; those in the fields would not be ready yet, and so, to starve even when the fields were green was our fate. It was only in some rare houses that you would find the hearth burning twice a day in those months. And if the previous year had seen drought, many families would have to survive on boiled or roasted mahua. Dire poverty was a curse that our community was born into.”

But unlike the present generation, says Vajesinh, people those days would rather wilt and die of starvation than leave their home and their villages and migrate to Kheda, Baroda, or Ahmedabad in search of labour. Education was not much valued in the community.

“Whether we went to graze the animals or went to school, it was all the same. Even our parents and teachers only wanted one thing—let the kids learn to read and write. That is all. Who wants to study more and rule the world here!”

Vajesinh, though, had dreams—of flying into the trees, chatting with the birds, flying on the wings of the fairies across the seas. He had hopes—of the deities rescuing him from troubles, of witnessing the victory of truth over lies, of finding God on the side of the meek, just like it was in the stories Grandfather told. But life turned out to be quite the opposite of a fanciful tale.

And yet the hope that / Grandfather sowed in my childhood – / something wonderful is possible – / remained firm. / That is the reason I live / this unbearable life / even today, everyday, / in the hope that / something miraculous is about to happen.

It is this hope that made him struggle for his education throughout his life. Once he was on the path to education, almost accidentally, he pursued it with passion. Even when he had to walk for 6–7 kms to reach school, or stay in a hostel, or go to sleep hungry, or wander from house to house asking for food, or buy a bottle of alcohol for the principal.

He was bent on continuing it even when there was no higher secondary school in the village, no modes of transport to commute to Dahod, no money to rent a place in Dahod. He did it even when it meant doing construction work to meet the expenses, spending nights at the railway platform, sleeping and waking up hungry, using the public bathrooms to get ready before appearing for the board exams.

Vajesinh was determined not to be defeated by life.

Often while living / I feel giddy / the heart skips a beat / and I collapse. / And yet every time / rising inside me is / the lively resolve to not die / and I find myself back on my feet /ready to live again and again.

His real education, the part that he enjoyed the most, began when he joined Navjeevan Arts and Commerce College, for a B.A. in Gujarati. He completed his Bachelor’s degree and registered for a Master’s. However, after the first year of M.A., Vajesinh quit, having decided to do a B.Ed. instead. He needed money and he wished to be a teacher.

Vajesinh’s relatives mourn his death.
Vajesinh’s relatives mourn his death.

Just after he cleared his B.Ed., Vajesinh was caught off guard in the middle of a fight, a bullet ripped through the then young Adivasi’s jaw and neck. The accident proved life changing as Vajesinh’s voice too suffered as a result of the injury from which he never recovered, not even after seven years of treatment, 14 surgeries, and an insurmountable debt.

That was a double blow. Born into a community that had little voice in the first place, the one he was personally gifted with was also now seriously damaged. He had to give up on his dream of becoming a teacher and turn to labour, contractual work in Sardar Patel Institute of Economic and Social Research, and later to proofreading.

It is in his work as a proofreader that Vajesinh was reunited with his first love, bhasha. He got to read a lot that was written over two decades.

And what were his observations?

“Let me tell you very openly what I think about language,” he says speaking with gusto. “The Gujarati literati are completely careless about language. The poets don’t show any sensitivity toward the use of words; most of them only write ghazals and all they care about is emotion. They think that is what is important. Words are all right; they are there.”

It is this nuanced understanding of words, their arrangements, and their power to express certain experiences that Vajesinh brought to his own poems, compiled in two volumes that remained unappreciated and unrecognised by mainstream literature.

“I guess you need to write more consistently,” he rationalises on why he has never been considered a poet to reckon with. “If I write a poem or two, who is going to care? These two collections are recent. I did not write for fame. I could not write regularly either. I did not even write very seriously, I feel. Hunger was woven into our lives, so I wrote about it. It was just a natural expression.”

He remains self-effacing throughout our conversation—unwilling to apportion blame, unwilling to open old wounds, unwilling to claim his share of light. But he was fully aware that:

Someone has certainly swallowed / our share of light, / for we keep burning / ourselves out along with the sun / for a lifetime / and still nothing ever gets /illuminated.

The prejudice, the undervaluing of his skills, and the differential treatment marked his professional life as a proofreader. Once, after clearing an entrance test with an ‘A’ grade at a media house, he was offered a position on a pay scale considerably lower than the one offered to those who passed with a ‘C’ grade. Vajesinh was disturbed; he questioned the principles behind such a decision. And in the end, refused to take the offer.

In Ahmedabad, he worked on small contracts with different media houses for a pittance. Kirit Parmar was writing for Abhiyan when he first met Vajesinh. He says, “In 2008, when I had joined Abhiyan, Vajesinh was working in Sambhav Media. Officially he was a proofreader, but we knew that when we gave him an article, he would edit the copy. He worked with the content to give the piece a structure and a shape. He had an amazing way with language as well. But that man never got his due, no opportunity that he deserved.”

He earned barely Rs 6,000 a month in Sambhav. The money that he made was never enough to take care of his family, the education of his brothers and sisters and to sustain a life in Ahmedabad. He started taking on freelance work and worked from home after a long day at the office.

“He was my father more than my brother from the time we lost our father,” says his youngest brother Mukesh Pargi, 37. “Vajesinh bore all the expenses for my education even in the most gruelling times. I remember him staying in a broken little room in Thaltej. On the tin roofs above his room, we would hear dogs running around all night long. The Rs 5000-6000 that he earned was barely enough to look after himself, but he did other work so that he could pay for our education.”

With all his talent and capabilities, the world still remained a hostile place for Vajesinh to live in. And yet he wrote of hope and resilience. He had given up on God long ago.

I am born with / hunger in one hand / and labour in the other, / Tell me, where do I get a third hand / to worship you, O lord?

Poetry often came to replace God in Vajesinh’s life. He published two volumes of poems, Aagiyanu Ajwalun (The Light of the Fireflies) in 2019, and Jhakalna Moti (Pearls of Dewdrops) in 2022, and a few poems in his mother tongue Panchamahali Bhili.

At the end of a life full of injustice, discrimination, and deprivation, his poems bear no sign of resentment or anger. There are no complaints.

Through poetry Vajesinh found a way to rise beyond individual circumstances and connect with the real truth of the human condition.

[Courtesy: People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI)]

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