In a bright pink room with one desk and three plastic chairs, Raghu runs his travel agency. On June 28, his young daughter barges in from their home next door, faking frustrated tears over something, nothing. She quickly redirects her energies to more interesting activities, like staring intensely at the tourist speaking with their father.
Raghu melts. The smile he reserves for his girls is so warm, it could liquefy stone—gently. It makes his and my conversation, interrupted by his daughter’s entrance 30 seconds prior, sear with a new brand of horror. It was June 28. On June 29, the town of Hampi had to report to the court of the local government to face the ruling that had already passed: every resident was ordered to leave their houses, businesses, and generations-old community and relocate, without any sort of compensation.
When the eviction notices appeared on doors a few weeks prior, nobody cried. In 2011, similar orders had appeared, mandating that residents and shop-owners along the main market pathway in front of the famous Virabakshu Temple move ten feet further back. The townspeople agreed, asking only two days to move their homes and their businesses somewhere else.
They woke up to find their possessions broken and in the trash. It was over. Families who had lived there for generations, children, the elderly, pregnant women—immediately homeless, and immediately without the tools or stock to continue selling goods or services in Hampi, or anywhere else.
“Everybody was crying,” Raghu said. “I never saw so many people cry. Everybody. Everybody was crying.” In a town of about 1,300, everybody knows everybody, especially because most families have lived there for generations. Uprooting locals is uprooting people who belong to the land as much as the cultural history of the people who lived there hundreds of years ago in the in the last capital of the last great Hindu Kingdom of Vijayanagar.
Raghu still seems in disbelief that it actually happened. “These kind of people . . .” Raghu cannot conceive of how someone would callously throw people out of their homes, but he vehemently believes it will happen again. Even when Smriti (a law friend well-versed in relocation cases in the high courts of India) suggests how to challenge the ruling, Raghu points to 2011. “2011 BAD” he writes and underlines in my notebook, below a diagram of the temple and the evictions.
“We are not crying anymore,” he says. “We have cried too much already.” This time, it seems, the people are steeling themselves for a swift defeat, rather than galvanizing for a victory. They’ve learned from experience to expect no compassion. “We didn’t believe it would happen in 2011, but it did,” he emphasizes.
Asking Raghu to hope for a different outcome from 2011 was a cruel request. On perhaps the last day their town still exists, I, a tourist, ask him to tell me about his grandparents’, parents’, and then his store that he lost six years ago. I ask him to tell me about the gym he used to run, free of charge, and the bodybuilding competitions he used to love to do. I even have the gall to ask him to sit in front of the workout bench that sits outside the bedroom in which I slept—the one remaining vestige of gym equipment that wasn’t broken and removed. He hasn’t touched it since he moved it there. He left his passion buried in 2011, along with his other two family businesses, and his fractured community.
I ask to take his picture in front of his home, because I have some romantic notion of documenting the moment when his home is still his.
And he patiently walks me through it. Just as Gowda, our tour guide a few days prior, had told us stories about playing among the ruins as a child, an ancient, sprawling playground ignored by the west and the east until UNESCO certification in 1986. Gowda charged 1,200 rupees total (less than 20USD) for an 8 hour tour across the major ruins of Hampi, sharing the history he learned growing up, and the history he learned at school getting certified to tour-guide. He was, arguably, more thrilled with the landscape in front of him than we were. The splendor of his home was not lost on him, even after walking for hours and answering a thousand beginner’s questions as he does for a living.
He grins at the views constantly. He is content to lie flat on the grass with us and breathe in the afternoon sky above the elephant stables. And at the sunset viewpoint, overlooking the Virapakshu Temple, the town, and the whole of Hampi, he happily sat down with us on billion-year-old rock, just looking, for as long as we wanted. He didn’t charge extra for the quiet, long moments of exhausted awe at the end of a long day. Gowda stayed with us—even though we could have easily walked the 20 yards back to town by ourselves if he needed to go home. No meter was ticking.
As we finally stroll back down to the town, Smriti and I noticed a gathering down below, to the side of the temple: a meeting of dark South Indian figures against the ivory of ancient stone.
“What’s happening?” I ask.
“The town is having meetings about the court. They’re trying to figure out what to do,” Gowda says. He’d already told us about the eviction notices earlier that day. “Good for ruins, bad for people,” he called the whole ordeal. Those were the only moments his goofy grin became lost in a quietness of expression. I can’t imagine what moving the tiny town away would do to better preserve the ruins, when autos and motorbikes and tourists would still be crawling the territory—even more so, when tourists suddenly cannot walk from humble guesthouses to temples, and instead must drive for 30 minutes from the umbrella town of Hospet.
When we bid farewell to Gowda, he turns to catch the tail end of the meeting. “See you around! Let us know how it goes,” we told him, but we don’t see him again.
It isn’t until our final hours in Hampi, when I go to pay the remaining balance for the guesthouse, that I think to ask Raghu (who rents 6 guest rooms above his travel agency and home) on my way out the door, “By the way, how did that meeting go, about the court case and everyone moving?”
I was supposed to meet Smriti back at the Mango Tree Restaurant. Forty-five minutes later, when she appeared at the guesthouse, worried for my safety, I was on the roof with Raghu, photographing his warm smile in the last rays of sunshine on June 28.
And then Smriti took the reins and laid out the options for challenging a court ruling, the process, and who to contact. She was recommending the town take action with a particular pro bono lawyer, and an advocacy organization. It would require time, and investment, and likely travel to the supreme court in New Delhi: all of which are deeply inaccessible to people living as simply as the Hampi townspeople.
“That will take 15,000 rupees, and ten hours on a bus, and . . .” Raghu protested, explaining that the town had already tried to raise the necessary funds and couldn’t do it for a case they were sure they’d lose—again. “Our lives are like bubbles,” he explained. “If you touch it, it burns. That’s it. You can’t change it.”
“And,” he reminded, “You would not believe the foreign dignitaries, the tourists, the people who have come to try to change it, to try to help.” The decision is only under the jurisdiction of the local government and, if contested, the Supreme Court.
(The local government is based in Hospet, about 30 kilometers away. If Hampi is removed, Hospet will essentially have a monopoly on the tourism industry of the ruins. Hotels and restaurants are more expensive in Hospet, and transport takes about 30 minutes each way. Tourism of the Hampi ruins will certainly not be discontinued, nor will fewer people wear away the ancient stones. The earning power will simply be removed from the hands of 1,300 actual local Hampi residents, and transferred to the hands of others.)
“Yes. But if you win, you stay. And that’s worth it,” Smriti said. “The high court is sensitive to these cases. It has happened before.” She told us about the massive legal battle over a slum in the middle of Bombay where, now, residents are protected from forced expulsion.
Even though Raghu resisted the possibility of success, pointing to 2011 again and again, he accepted the page of phone numbers and emails Smriti wrote for him.
“I hope he calls,” Smriti said, lying on the bed under the ceiling fan a while later.
“He will,” I said, cramming sweaty clothes into my backpack. “He won’t tell anyone, but he will. He has kids. There’s no way he’s not calling.”
“Our hearts are cement,” said the man whose eyes say otherwise when they see his daughter. “Our hearts are cement,” said the man who proudly dug out his old bodybuilding certificates and first place trophies. “Our hearts are cement,” said the man who yanked open a sliding glass case to reach a collection of leftover “Badavi Linga” statues from his/his parents’/his grandparents’ destroyed home goods store.
When Smriti and Gowda explained to me what the statue represents out among the ruins, I laughed—and then felt the shame of my own religious insensitivity. But I didn’t think about it again until I saw Raghu’s shelf of dusty statues. Suddenly, the destruction of all things evil through simultaneous joint creation of something new seemed overwhelmingly applicable.
Male organ, female organ, joined. Represents Shiva the Destroyer of all things evil.
“This is our home,” Gowda said matter-of-factly. And is that not enough of an argument? I wrote all about the housing crisis in San Francisco (here and here), interviewing various thought-leaders and supporting ballot measures A and A1 for Santa Clara and Alameda counties last September. But I never really understood what it meant to remove people from their home until I walked away from my conversation with Raghu, down one of the five, maybe six small dirt roads that make up the harmless town. The small kids, who had been such goofballs all three days, were playing together, chasing, yelling, some kind of game. The shop-owners, by now resigned to my “No, thank you” only halfheartedly suggested I come shop, instead greeting me casually. At the restaurant we’d tried to go to for lunch earlier that day (only two find two grown men fallen deep asleep on the job), a group of men stood talking while others tried to steer several impressive, charcoal grey bulls away. In the context of tomorrow—in the context of tomorrow, it’s all over, and we see it coming—I got it. The few other low-season tourists didn’t know, but every local did, and had spent the past several days compiling legal papers in a last-ditch attempt to support the town’s case. Meeting at sunset on ancient stone, their home: the continued, living cultural fabric of Hampi itself.
Raghu was right. No one was crying.
I’m kicking myself repeatedly. What was I thinking? Taking pictures of ruins all day? I should have been taking pictures of the people, and the town—the living history. Far more precious than old rocks are these people’s lives. The rocks will be there—until they aren’t. The people? They might not even be here tomorrow, and few will know or care.
When will people’s wellbeing be the uncontested priority? Above economic gain, power security, and the people of empires past. The ruins were some of the most beautiful things I’ve seen, and yet they would be quite worthless without the people of Hampi. The town is not a dead, passive relic, but a breathing history. It is unfathomable to me that local culture only becomes worth protecting once it is 500 years old, and those who stand to benefit are dead and gone. And frankly, the 500-year-olds would probably understand.
An update from Raghu:
On July 29, the people of Hampi were given a stay until July 4th. On that day, they went to court again, and began the process of contesting the court ruling. Right now, they are scrambling to collect the funds to take the case to the Supreme Court. It will be a long battle–and the attackers will probably never stop fighting until they win, whether this year or in 20–but at the present moment, no one is being immediately thrown out.