Definitions of Hindi words may be found in the glossary.
A haze of shock and terror swam before the eyes of everyone in the village. Women began to shriek. A look of outrage welled up in some pairs of eyes. Jaws clenched in anger. Even those whose elderly eyes had gone dark felt something untoward had happened. The village erupted in chaos. Kabootari’s cries of distress were drowned out by all the noise.
This very village, which until today had not so much as seen Kabootari’s face and had heard no more than the gold bangles jingling on her wrists, had now seen her naked as the day she came out of her mother’s womb. Her husband’s younger brother, mother, and sister had gathered there. The children from the neighborhood, and the elderly and young men and women too. Most of the women who saw all this had shrieked and run away. A few were peeking out. Mothers had rushed to hide their own daughters. They had closed the doors in their homes and fastened the chains. The procession coming toward them was led by a gang of good-for-nothings and bums. As they watched, each person’s eyes revealed a range of emotion. From shame to a heightened awareness of their own fascination. Mistrust and even outrage boiled up from inside. In everyone’s eyes it seemed as if Kabootari’s body had started to melt like ice. Each part of her was laid bare. Her self-respect lay broken apart and scattered.
Eighty-year-old Hariya heard the noise and stared, rubbing his eyes. He made an effort to recognize the hazy silhouette. This indeed was Chamiya, his grandson’s wife, the one everyone called Kabootari. There was not a shred of clothing on her.
But how had she become naked?
His elderly eyes wrinkled even more in his astonishment.
Four of the thakur’s lathi-wielding henchmen stood nearby. And the thakur’s middle son sat close. Hariya’s head lolled. His whole body began to quiver in outrage. He was like an old, worn-out horse whose body was being whipped over and over but still refused to run. His old bones had become paralyzed. He looked up at the sky, eyes brimming with tears. The sky was still there. Just as it had been. He imagined that it might fall to earth. And shatter. But the sky did not fall. Nor did it shatter. The tree was still there in its place in Dhuliya’s meeting square. Just as before. Not a single leaf stirred. This was a study in the language of terror. Chamiya in the front and the henchman behind her, those good-for-nothings and shirkers. The procession of the naked was headed in his direction. Expose someone’s naked body, in the end you only expose the nakedness of your own mind. He listened. One of the henchmen was saying, “Salo, Dhedh Chamaro, you strut around, staring us down.” Another henchman took a turn, “Now you’ll have to shit and piss in all of your own homes, Sasuro.”
Then the thakur’s middle son roared: “We’re going to expose all of you women like this Kabootari. It’s the only way to set you straight.”
Now they had marched quite close. Hariya planted his lathi in the ground, hoping to stop them. The thakur gave this upstart a curse and shoved him, “Out of the way, old man, I’m going to rip you a new asshole with this lathi.”
Seeing Hariya fall to the ground, Kabootari shrieked, “Dadduaa . . . !”
But her shrieks were drowned out by all the noise. Hariya was her husband’s grandfather. She paused for a moment. She looked at Hariya lying on the ground with tear-soaked eyes. But they continued shoving her forward with the lathi. The procession of the naked had moved on. The dalit basti was left behind. The thakur’s midde son held a rifle in his hand. He fired it two or three times. As soon as the bullets flew everyone hit the ground. The smell of gunpowder filled the air.
The procession meandered through the entire village. This was no display of freedom on parade but a living embodiment of the feudal elite landowners’ naked morality. She was crying and they were laughing, spitting. Not upon the immodesty of their own culture stripped bare but upon this delicate woman. She was the Lakshmi of their homes, the Sita, the Parvati, the Saraswati, and innumerable other goddesses. In each of their homes they did puja to these clay figures but were mocking the living Chamiya, who was sobbing and distraught. Their women stood at their windows and doorways looking at the solitary woman whose very self had been torn apart. Inside themselves they had neither pity nor qualms. Because they themselves shared the same savarna caste as their men.
As evening fell, Kabootari returned home. Her body naked as before. The door of the house was open. There sat her husband’s mother and father, next to the cold stove, wrapped in a blanket of grief. In the earthen courtyard, her husband’s sister had dug up a pile of dirt with her big toe. Her husband’s brother lay inside, facedown on a cot. And her husband’s grandfather was alone, still in turmoil, muttering tearfully in his small room. Terror-stricken eyes watched Kabootari come inside, but no one possessed the courage to meet her gaze. Everyone lowered their eyes in shame. Kabootari had been marched naked through the village while they all watched and no one had been able to do anything. The bonds of family and the instinct to protect one another, where had it gone? They’d all become mere gawkers. And as gawkers, they were powerless.
After Hariya, Harphul was the head of household. He was Hariya’s eldest son. What would he manage to say to his own son in the end, when he returned from the city?
The stove was cold and the coals that lay inside it were already dead, and Harphul’s whole body had also gone cold. It was the fiercest month of summer and his body was growing cold! The sound of Hariya coughing and muttering could still be heard coming from the inner room. Not a single lamp or candle had been lit in the house. Darkness spread slowly. And with the darkness, silence.
The night was half over, but there was no sleep in Kabootari’s eyes. Over and over she could feel the fingers and palms of rough hands touching her body. She still felt naked, even after she had dressed. It was like the skin on her body had become her clothes and vultures were ripping it apart. Chunks of flesh in their strong talons and their beaks smeared with blood.
She remembered how a week earlier an order had come from the thakur’s haveli. “Your husband went to the city, taking five hundred of my rupees with him. Now you pay down your man’s debt by working in our fields.” At the time she’d talked with her husband’s brother and been forbidden to go. One day passed without incident. The next day she’d gone outside the village to collect firewood. She’d hoisted a bundle onto her head and was walking back home when the thakur’s son saw her alone in the road and stopped her. He was on horseback. Sultan Singh drew his horse close and said, “Look here, Kabootari! Either you come straight to our fields and get to work right now . . . or else we’ll get the work out of you the way we always do from you Chamars. After all it was your husband who borrowed from us. True, the principal is his, but you’re the one who can pay back the interest.”
She knew quite well what the thakur’s son wanted from her. Sultan Singh had said things to her before on the walk back to the village. A sudden fierce strength came into her legs. Like a deer, she bolted. Her body was suddenly soaked in sweat. When she got back to the house, she threw her load of wood down on the earthen floor and went into the inner room, where her sweat-soaked body collapsed in a heap on a bare cot. Under her weight, the cot let out a groan. But who could hear the voice inside her? It was ready to scream. Her eyes filled with tears. She wanted to cry her heart out, but who could she talk to here? It had been three weeks since her husband had gone to the city to look for work.
That night she had strange dreams. Sometimes a writhing python held her body tightly in its grasp. Sometimes the snake hissed at her unendingly. Sometimes it seemed like heaps of scorpions were crawling over her body. Sleep flew from her in terror in the middle of the night and she remained awake until dawn. In the morning her husband’s sister asked, “Bhabhi, what were you murmuring in the night?” What could she tell her about what she saw in her dreams, the python, the snakes and scorpions? By midday she’d already forgotten about the terrifying snakes she’d seen the night before, but at the thought of leaving the house to collect firewood outside the village clouds of apprehension began to gather. She vigilantly looked up and down the road. As she walked, she’d come across people walking alone or in pairs. As soon as she saw someone, she’d cover her face with the end of her sari. It was almost eleven. The sun above, hot sand below. She was wearing rubber sandals on her feet and those too were hot. The wild area was a full two miles outside the village. When she arrived, the wind was blazing hot. The area itself wasn’t anything special. There were only a few dozen trees left scattered over twenty or so acres. Most of them were neem trees, then there were some mango and jamun. Most of them had been burned up in ovens. The branches and the dried-out cow patties billowed smoke as they burned. There was scarcely a stove or any gas to be found in the village. Not even in the thakur’s house.
The shadow of the trees blocked the sun’s rays. It felt good. It was a little less hot in the shade. A little way off she could see a woman grazing eight or nine cattle. Seeing her alone in the wild gave Kabootari some courage. She set down the head ring used for carrying loads and began to collect dry twigs under the tree. Of course how could two women avoid gossiping and chatting with one another in the lull of the afternoon heat? The woman who’d been grazing her cattle nearby saw her and came near. Kabootari heard her footsteps on the dry leaves and looked up. The woman was standing right there. For a few moments, they just stared at each other. Both were fair-skinned, with sharp eyes, but there was a difference in their ages.
“Whose wife are you, girl?” There was an air of superiority in her voice. Kabootari was quiet, unsure what to say. After a few moments the woman asked again, “Why won’t you tell me the name of your husband?”
“Sampat,” she said finally, with difficulty.
The woman standing across from her repeated, “Sampat!”
“You’ve come from the dalit basti, then?” was her next question.
Kabootari could only manage a small “yes” in reply.
“Aha, I see, that chamar who has ten books?” Her voice was getting louder.
“Yes,” Kabootari confirmed in a near whisper.
“The one who took five hundred rupees from the elder thakur and moved to the city, you’re his wife,” she concluded.
Kabootari felt as though she had a boulder on her chest. “Yes,” she replied in a wounded voice.
The silence between them lasted for a few minutes. Kabootari started sorting the larger and smaller twigs.
“Do you know”—her voice was getting louder again—“how Thakur will collect on his debt?”
Kabootari heard the suggestiveness in this mysterious question and retorted, “How will Thakur collect his debt?”
The woman smiled faintly and said, “Thakur won’t let any of the capital or the interest go. He’ll extract every last paisa out of his debtor. Starting with his new wife, before anyone else.”
“What?!” burst from Kabootari’s mouth.
“Yeah, haven’t you understood yet? Has Thakur called you to his house to work?”
Now there was no superiority in her voice. She asked the question slowly.
“Thakur sent a messenger,” Kabootari finally blurted out.
“Did you go?” was her next question.
They both inched closer to one another. They started to talk openly. There was no coldness in their conversation. The woman said, “How long can you hold out and not go? How long can you stay in crocodile-infested waters without . . . ? You know, I also said ‘no’ for a long time.”
“And then what?” Kabootari asked with growing interest.
“Then one day I started saying ‘yes.’” Her voice came from somewhere deep inside. “Since then I’ve been the half-wife of the elder thakur.”
“Half-wife . . .” Kabootari’s mouth hung open in surprise. Her eyes teemed with unasked questions.
“Yes, half-wife.” Her voice was getting stronger.
“My husband had taken a loan from Thakur five years ago to buy a bullock. But God had another idea. The bullock died after a month, it was even said that Thakur shot it.”
“What?!” Kabootari was shocked.
“Yes, just four or five days later Thakur sent a messenger ordering us to pay back our debt. But how could we pay it back now? So Thakur put us both to work. Me in his house and my man in the fields. How long could we have held out?”
“So Thakur went after you . . .” Kabootari managed to ask her first question.
“Yes,” she answered and after a few moments asked, “But your husband hasn’t found any work in the city yet?”
“It’s been twenty days. There’s been no letter, I don’t know what has happened,” Kabootari said in a worried voice.
It was the hottest hour of the afternoon, the sun was on their heads. Kabootari had by now gathered a bundle of dry firewood. First she folded a piece of cloth into a head ring, then lifted the load of twigs on top. “OK, sister, I should go now. My sister-in-law will be waiting for me at home. It’s time to make roti.”
It was two miles from the wilds back to her house. She set off on a dirt road. Each time someone on a bicycle would ring his bell behind her, she would move to the side. There was no one else on the road. She’d gone about half a mile when she heard some familiar voices behind her.
“Hey girl, stop.”
She turned and looked behind her. She saw Thakur’s middle son and four of his buddies. She froze. Now they’d come close to her.
“Why did you refuse to come and work in our fields?” Thakur’s middle son bellowed. He had a rifle on his shoulder.
Kabootari lunged to run away like her feet were on fire, but he caught her hand.
“Let me go.”
Gripping her load with one hand, she tugged her other free. Her bundle of firewood tumbled to the ground. “Why won’t you let me go?”
She bent to pick up the firewood but the thakur’s son grabbed her again and said, “Move along. Starting today you’ll work in our fields. What, you’re not going to pay off your husband’s debt?”
“I didn’t take a loan from anyone! The one who borrowed it will pay it back.” She moved again to leave. The boy’s buddies surrounded her and laughed shamelessly.
“I’m telling you again to go to our fields to work or else . . .” He grabbed her arm again.
“Or what will you do?” Kabootari retorted and pulled her arm free.
“A chamari mouthing off to a thakur, you bitch?” Suddenly he swooped down on her like a hawk. The thakur’s son fell on her first, but there were five hawks and she was alone. In a moment they had ripped the clothes off her body. She screamed and cried, but they stripped the clothes from her body and left her there naked in the middle of the desolate road. When she tried to run she was blocked by a lathi.
“Go back to Lahana now. When people see you like this they’ll spit on you.” The thakur’s son roared like some kind of wild animal.
When she heard him say the name of their village her heart rose up to her mouth. Dark shadows clouded her eyes. She sat with a thud in the middle of the road to the village. What could she do? How could she get away from them? Where could she run? For a while, she just sat right there. Then they all started prodding her body with their lathis.
“Come on, get up, otherwise we’ll stick these lathis into you,” thundered the thakur’s son.
“I bow at your feet and pray to you. Please give me back my clothes.” With these words Kabootari cried a river of tears. She started wailing. Her naked body was being scorched in the heat of the afternoon, but her fine hairs stood on end. Her whole face was streaked with tears. But her heart was just like stone. It was frozen. The thakur’s buddies laughed and prodded her body with their lathis. Finally they got her up and forced her naked body on toward the village.
First they came to Johar, then Bitore, then Lahana. They paraded her naked body all around her village. A few followed behind them like dogs. They forced her to perform this show until nightfall. The thakur’s middle son prodded the strange procession along and when evening came this woman who’d turned to stone managed to slip home.
The neighbor’s crowing cock signaled dawn. Chamiya hadn’t slept at all. Her eyes were bloodshot and her limbs heavy her mind full of fury and her body still swollen with pain. But it wasn’t only Chamiya who was in such a state. So was everyone in the house. They couldn’t even manage to speak one word to one other. They were each one utterly alone, having retreated inward. Everyone wondered how another day could have dawned. At least in the darkness they wouldn’t have to show their faces to anyone. If only the dark of night would return and the village remain enveloped in a blanket of blackness.
“Bau . . .” Chamiya heard a voice. It was her mother-in-law, Santo. She was still lying down. She had fear in her heart. What if Chamiya had done something to herself in the night? Then, suddenly coming to her senses, she went toward Chamiya’s small room. There was a sliver of the dawn’s light there.
She quietly called out again, “Bau . . .”
She came close and peered. Chamiya was prone, her eyes open. Santo hesitantly moved a little closer and called out again. Chamiya was silent, her eyes trained upward toward the ceiling.
“Bau, what happened to you? Say something, won’t you? Curse us, throw your shoes, gouge out my eyes. We all saw you stripped naked; we witnessed your shame.”
As she said this, Santo’s voice became thick with grief. Her voice was husky, and her eyes full of tears; then she started to sob. Seeing her mother-in-law cry, Chamiya sat up. How long would she continue to block the flood of tears? Finally, the dam broke. The sound of the two of them sobbing first reached Chamiya’s sister-in-law, then her brother-in-law. Both cast their eyes downward. Seeing Chamiya and their mother weeping, they too began to cry. Outside, her father-in-law’s and grandfather-in-law’s eyes were also wet. But for now they gathered the strength to keep their tears from falling.
As the sounds of this collective weeping grew, panic broke out among their neighbors. Everyone knew what had happened the day before; some had even seen it all with their own eyes. What if something unthinkable had happened in the night? People came running to the house with this thought. Hariya and Harphul were speechless. A crowd was forming in the meeting square; first came the women, then the men, then the little children and older girls. The same words were on everyone’s tongue. “What happened yesterday was terrible. Nothing like that has happened in the village before.”
Now all the women were trying to squeeze into Chamiya’s small room. Those who’d already gone in were crying, and the eyes of the women and girls who were still outside started to fill as well. There was a lot of chatter among them.
One old lady was saying to another old lady, “Kabootari must have done something.”
“No, Auntie, she’s very courageous,” slipped off another’s tongue. “If she weren’t, by now she’d have drowned herself in the well.”
“But something bad has happened to her,” said a third.
The sound of weeping still emanated from inside. A young girl spoke up—
“I bet no one ate anything last night.”
“Go, have a look at the stove,” an old woman responded quickly.
The girl dashed off to the verandah and took some of the ashes from the stove into her hand; they were cold. There was no wood, nor any dirty dishes nearby. Tongs, bellows, and a griddle were leaning against the earthen wall. The girl ran back to the others and said in a saddened voice,
“No Auntie, they haven’t cooked anything.” Then the old woman asked ruefully, “Then what could they have eaten?”
Someone else spoke up, “Who can even think about swallowing food at a time like this?”
“But they should have some roti now. They’ve gone hungry since yesterday,” said the girl once more.
Some women who’d been in the room came outside. All of them emerged with wet eyes. They gathered with the others near Harphul and Hariya. Most of them were offering consolation. Suddenly, a young man blurted, “But how long will this go on? Yesterday they stripped Sampat’s wife, today they’ll parade someone else’s wife or sister naked around the village!”
“But what can poor people ever do?” an old man asked, sitting down next to Hariya.
Then a middle-aged man said, “We can do a lot together, if we all want to.” This emboldened the young man, who now shouted in a louder voice, “We should go to the police and file a report!”
“Don’t go to the police. This is a village matter. We’ll settle it here,” advised another.
“Let’s get the community leaders together and decide what we should do. It’s not good to act in haste.” A few spoke up who agreed with this. Further discussion was put on hold. But everyone’s minds were burning up with rage. The young ones clenched their fists. The old ones urged them to have patience. A little while later the crowd began to disperse. Even though none of the men had thought to pay any attention to the matter of roti, in the meantime a few women had gone back to their homes to light their stoves to cook food for Chamiya’s family.
Once again they were alone in the house. It was as if broken glass coursed through their veins. Hariya was still in his room. He was not in the mood to come out. How much strength did the old man have left? How long had he been rambling around the whole village on these legs? He was the oldest person in the village’s dalit basti. His old eyes had seen the most deaths. Whose bier had he not hoisted with his own shoulders? How many eyes had he wiped free of tears, how many had he offered consolation? But today he could not so much as console himself.
Harphul was even more distraught. He was only twenty years younger than his father, but the events of the previous day made him want to sob like a child. When the son reaches adolescence he becomes his father’s equal. Harphul often sat with his father and smoked the hookah. He’d spoken his own mind and listened to his father’s opinions. But just a few days after the birth of Sampat’s younger brother, their parents had died in an accident. Since then Dada Hariya had always managed to buoy his spirit in the face of countless challenges, but this time who knows why it felt as if his heart could not sustain the shock. He remembered just two years ago, when the older brother had married Chamiya and brought her home. At the engagement ceremony in front of a full courtyard, Harphul had said, “Sampat, I’ve just seen a pretty little kabootari bird for you. Such a fair-faced bride.” And from that day, Chamiya’s name had become Kabootari. Not just at home, but outside as well. The neighbor women too would call out, “Kabootari!” when entering the house. The brother and sister-in-law teased her roundly. But that’s how Chamiya was. She had come, anklets jingling, from her maternal home. You could hear the sound throughout the village. Distant aunts and uncles teased Sampat, “Look dear, a pretty bird has alighted in your hand! Don’t let her fly away!” Sampat just listened to everything and stayed quiet. At home he’d spice it up when he’d repeat everything to Chamiya. Hearing all this, Chamiya’s face would redden with embarrassment. When she’d leave the basti, her jingling anklets would attract everyone’s attention. Today there was no jingling, only silent tears.
A little while later the neighborhood women came, bringing food. They went inside and tried to cajole everyone into eating something. But no one so much as picked up a single roti. Finally, defeated, they left the roti sitting there and returned to their own homes.
Then, a little while later, the men returned to the house. Mostly the elders. They kept trying various ways of making sense of the situation. Some women sat near Chamiya. They kept trying to explain high-caste versus low. Over and over, they told her the story of village tradition. From the very beginning the thakur’s family had thrown their weight around in the village. They did not avoid talking about this either. Insults were soon streaming from one or two mouths—“The worm-eaten old motherfucker won’t even leave his eldest daughter-in-law alone . . . he’s hardly a man. He’s an out-and-out devil reborn as a man.”
Chamiya was listening quietly to what they were saying. Now and then a sob escaped her. Her eyes were bloodshot from so much crying. “Here, daughter, eat a little roti,” someone said. But Chamiya had no appetite, nor did the older brother and sister-in-law, or anyone else in her family. She hadn’t so much as had a drop to drink. It was as though her body’s connection with hunger and thirst had been broken.
The afternoon passed amid a constant state of agitation. People kept coming and going from the house. Many people offered the same advice: Sampat should be called back from the city. But Harphul forbade it. “What if as soon as he came back he started a fight with the thakur? His blood is hot, fanned by the winds of the city. How would he be able to tolerate this? We are the ones who live in the village, and we understand village customs. We’ve learned to stay silent. We continue to tolerate even the cruelest atrocities. But he would not be able to stand by and watch all this silently. There would surely be trouble when he got back.” Most of the other elders agreed with Harphul. But the young people did not. Over and over they argued that they should send a message to Sampat calling him to come home right away. Arey, all this happened to his own wife and he won’t even get the news? This was definitely an atrocity, punishable by law. After Sampat came back, they could decide how to respond. But first he had to be given the news. The pressure on the elders to call Sampat back from the city was mounting. They were weak, this was true. But they shouldn’t just acquiesce to all of this. They were uncertain about what to do. Fear and rage filled their hearts.
By nightfall they had made a declaration: “We are going to fast. We will undertake a hunger strike. Our samadhi will be constructed right here. We will not eat even a single grain of wheat.” People in the village would take up their cause only after they were dead. They had endured the tyranny of the thakur for generation upon generation. No longer. This was their call for unity.
The news spread throughout the village. It was on the tongues of all the children. Furrows of worry sprang up on the foreheads of the elderly tucked away in their rooms. They dejectedly clamped their mouths down on the hookah pipes, but the hookah tasted astringent this time. The elderly women remembered their youthfulness and chatted among themselves. After the previous day’s incident none of the daughters-in-law nor any daughters in their prime were allowed outside. There was no one in Dhuliya’s meeting square. Darkness had fallen. No lights or lamps were lit there. Today it looked haunted. The door to the sitting room, to which Dhuliya had the key, was locked shut. And Dhuliya was lying in his room. In front of his eyes was swimming a picture of the tyranny of three generations of thakurs. It would be difficult to find a single man whose back had not been scarred by the whip of the thakur or his agents. These scars were testaments to their ferocity.
There were very few women of their caste who had not been summoned by the thakur’s lathi-wielding henchmen to visit the haveli. One by one each body endured all that was unwanted. That was why they had the girls’ palms slathered in matrimonial turmeric and sent to their in-laws at such a tender age. The girls who came to this village from outside as daughters-in-law had to endure this twisted, dire fate for the first two or three years. This was the tradition of the village from the beginning.
The news was bound to reach the haveli by nightfall. Each and every man living in the haveli came to know that there would be a hunger strike in Hariya’s home starting the next day. But this had absolutely no effect on these people. For their part there was nothing but heaps of abuse tossed in the direction of Hariya’s family. The agents and henchmen mocked them.
At ten o’clock the silence in the village was rent by shouts, “Sampat has arrived! Sampat has arrived!”
As soon as the youth in the neighborhood heard this, the embers buried in their hearts suddenly blazed anew. A crowd gathered inside and outside Hariya’s home. Just then another thought occurred to them, that yesterday’s incident had been published in the newspaper, and when he read it he would of course have come racing home. They were all desperately eager to see the newspaper. But Sampat had the newspaper and Sampat’s family surrounded him. On the one side were the women of the house and the other side was his grandmother Ma; Mangali and Suresh stood facing him. Harphul’s eyes were still downcast. Everyone was weeping, ever so gently.
The crowd poured into the house. Someone from the neighborhood brought another lantern. Hariya couldn’t take his elderly eyes off Sampat. He was the one who told Sampat the most about what happened. Sampat realized that no one in the house had so much as torn off a single mouthful of bread since the previous day. The roti on everyone’s plates had gone stale. Seeing and hearing all of this, Sampat lost control.
“If you let yourselves die, what difference will it make to the thakur? There won’t be any less food in the dishes on his table. There won’t be so much as a single damaged brick in his haveli.” No one interrupted him with even a sigh. Everyone understood Sampat’s pain. What Sampat said next was only fitting. “And the truth is that that you people have been dead all along. If you weren’t already corpses, how could you have just kept staring at my wife’s naked body?”
Hariya’s voice could be heard rising up, “My grandson is right. We are all dead.”
Several voices cried out. “Sampat’s thinking is fine for the city.” The crowd erupted in whispered debates.
There was still the question of roti. Birmo Tai scolded them again, and everyone acquiesced. It was not long before the crowd began to dissipate. Two or three women went to their homes to make food once more. It was the middle of the night. The cook stoves were warmed up again. There were expressions of happiness and satisfaction on the faces of the women cooking. Someone brought onions, another vegetables, and someone else sugar. Twenty-five or thirty roti were done in no time. Everyone sat down together and ate.
Much of the night had passed. But there was no sleepiness in Sampat’s eyes. Chamiya was the same way, lying beside him. No sleep came over her. The kerosene in the lantern had been used up. It went out all by itself. It was dark everywhere. Sharp claws emerged from the darkness and he was fighting, grappling with them. But the number of claws kept growing all around him.
It had gone this way for ten years now, with him battling the village traditions the thakur and the brahmins had banded together to make up. The temple and the haveli were the main symbols of these injustices in the village. The temple belonged to the brahmins and the haveli to the thakur. The rest of this village was in the clutches of the Banias, Kayasths, Yadavs, Kurmiyas, and Rajputs. And the dalit basti was divided up so all of them had control over some part of it. The prosperous castes bequeathed upon themselves the right to turn each and every man, woman, child, and old person into a commodity. A commodity they used whenever they wanted and discarded when they were through.
As soon as morning came Sampat had one conviction. There was a police report to file. He kept saying to Chamiya, “Hurry up, go to town. Tell everything to the police at the station there. What the thakur’s middle son did with you. The name of each and every henchman should be in the F.I.R.” And Chamiya, terrified, got ready.
Outside in the bare-earth courtyard Harphul was explaining: “Sampat, remember someone will just rewrite your ‘report,’ and even if your report is taken down by some decent ‘inspector,’ you think it will ruin the thakur? I’ve heard the thakur’s reach goes all the way to the chief minister.”
Sampat exploded in rage. “Bhaiya, the thakur’s reach could go to the chief minister or even all the way to the prime minister. This is tyranny we’re living under and her report needs to be filed with the police.”
Hearing the argument from his own room between father and son, Hariya grabbed his lathi and came running. There were several folks with him. Harphul protested once more. “But who owns the police? They belong to those in the village who have strength in lathis.”
“The police are to serve everyone. They have the responsibility to keep every single person safe.” Sampat had scarcely finished speaking when Hariya cut in.
“Yeah, Sampat, you should definitely go get a report filed.” Hariya minced no words in making his decision.
As soon as Harphul heard this it was as if his body had been lit on fire. He retorted in a loud voice, “So now grandfather and grandson are going to start a revolution?”
“The revolutionaries today fell asleep when they got into Parliament and the Legislative Assembly. We only want to do something against the tyranny and injustice clamped down on us.” There was still anger in Sampat’s voice. At which the crack in Harphul’s voice only became more pronounced.
“Those who are weak cannot do a thing.” He wanted to say something more.
“Bhaiya, how much longer are we going to remain weak? How much longer are we going to live as slaves? You don’t know what Dr. Saheb Ambedkar has taught. You have only heard his name. We have a program in his honor every April 14. He has said, ‘As soon as the slaves sense their slavery they will break the chains of slavery themselves.’”
Chamiya sat inside ready to go. She was smoldering inside. Sampat’s nephew Suresh was also ready. Santu was quite apprehensive. Harphul’s mind was entangled in a dilemma. Six or seven of the people gathered in the bare-earth courtyard were ready to go to the police station. Of them four were youths. The rest were middle-aged. Despite not wanting to, Harphul had had to prepare himself, and despite wanting to, Hariya could not go. The reason being that the police station was in town, and the town was a full eight miles from their village. He did not have the strength to make the full sixteen-mile trip there and back on foot.
A bone-quaking furor rose up in the village’s dalit basti over the matter of all of them going to town to file a report against the thakur. Only Birmo did not object to her son going. She herself was willing to go along with him. She was a widow, and he was the only son in the home. The thakur had had Birmo’s man killed ten years earlier. She had not been able to file a report against him. But today she was ready. The report would be written for the past and the present. Old memories had been stirred up from someplace among her long-dormant wounds.
Two villages fell on their way. When they saw so many people heading toward town in such a hurry some people asked about it. Without hesitating they said, “The thakur’s middle son stripped our womenfolk naked. We are going to town to file a report against him.”
They started staring at the three women trying to discover which of them had been stripped naked. Chamiya was in the front, and after her Birmo, and then Ramkali.
Now it was ten o’clock. The rays of the sun shone down like liquid fire. The sand beneath their feet was becoming hot. The breeze had disappeared. They were covered in sweat. There were a few “tubewells” along the way, but no one touched a drop of the water. Everyone was driven by the same fixation: get to town as soon as possible and file a report against the thakur. That mad obsession had become a source of strength. They were not one or two or three, but thirteen. A fire had been lit in them, inside and out. The sun inside them that had dawned when Sampat returned from the city had now grown even stronger than the sun outside, and it made them restless.
The police compound was in the center of the town. Underneath a tiled roof were bare walls, splattered with ugly red paan stains. There were bloodstains too, here and there. Somehow the walls had turned black. Ahead of the police station was a bare-earth courtyard with plants and trees, where a temple had sprung up around some stone deity. Just in front of that stone image stood someone with head bowed, his fleshy frame clad in a uniform. Facing him to the north another body in a uniform was lying facedown on a bare rope-strung cot. In a room as large as the courtyard, a third uniform was berating someone across a table. A fourth uniform was standing in the corner shoving dark ras gulla sweets from a clay cup into its mouth. Facing south, a fifth was peeing into a gutter. All in all there were five officers posted to the police station in this town and of them one was in a chair. And he was fully discharging his “duty” to scold some rustic sitting across from him. When that police officer looked up suddenly and saw eleven people entering the police compound he bellowed, “Arey! How did they get in here? This is a police station, not a stable!”
Sampat was the first to enter. So he replied, “We have come with the understanding that this is a police station and not a stable.” Hearing Sampat’s retort the officer was a bit thrown. “OK, OK, tell me what brings you here.”
They all began to file into the grand room, which at their arrival suddenly felt small.
“We have to write a report,” Sampat said. At this the uniform was even more thrown. “But what happened? Or is it that you’ll just write a report?”
Now Sampat grew heated. “We are not going to write it in the wind, we are living under tyranny.”
“What tyranny, hurry up and say,” the officer said impatiently. In the meantime three uniforms entered the room, shoving people aside. Seeing that the inspector had entered, the secretary rose to his feet. Now the inspector sat down in that chair and began cross-examining. “What is the issue?”
“Inspector Saheb, we have come from the village of Lahana.”
“Is that so,” the inspector said softly.
“This is my wife,” he said, gesturing in Chamiya’s direction.
“Be quick and explain why you have come here, bringing your whole household along with you.”
The inspector was also starting to get annoyed.
“The middle son of the thakur of the village of Lahana stripped my wife naked in front of the whole village,” Sampat spat out at last.
As soon as he heard him name the thakur of Lahana, the inspector’s eyes began to twinkle. Suddenly from his mouth came a question.“What caste are you?”
“Then what do you want us to do?” the inspector asked in a mocking voice.
“Take down our report.” Sampat requested again.
For a moment the room was silent. Suddenly the inspector’s voice boiled up. “Get out of here! Go back the way you came! No report is going to be written for you here.”
Sampat and the others had not expected to receive such a reply from the inspector. Nevertheless, Sampat said with a restrained voice, “Inspector Saheb, the thakur’s middle son has committed an atrocity against us under the law. Please write the report on our behalf.”
As he was saying this, Birmo’s son blurted, “Inspector Saheb, you have to write the report.”
Once he heard this the inspector fumed, “And who might you be?”
Birmo stepped forward from the crowd and said forthrightly, “He is my son!”
The inspector raised his eyebrows.
“And which field did they dredge you up from?”
“We are not from any field, we live in the village,” Birmo replied flatly. The inspector seemed completely jolted by this. He looked at each and every person in turn. At last his gaze came to rest on Chamiya.
“You are his wife, no?” the inspector asked, gesturing to Sampat.
“Yes,” Chamiya answered.
“The thakur’s middle son stripped you naked. Now you want to be stripped naked again?”
“Inspector Saheb, what kind of nonsense is this?” Sampat interrupted.
“Inspector Saheb, our daughters are being stripped naked and paraded around the village and you . . .” This time Harphul spoke up. He couldn’t bear the way the inspector’s talk was flitting about like a renegade kite.
“So now you, too, have to butt in. Divan-ji, kick these blackies out of here.”
“Inspector Saheb, this behavior of yours is not right.” Sampat flared up.
“Who are you to start teaching me about my behavior?”
“Inspector Saab, you need to fulfill your ‘duty.'” Birmo’s son stepped forward, his temper flaring.
“Saab-ji, you either lock us up or take down our report.” When did Birmo ever hold herself back?
At this point the inspector’s temper had completely boiled over.
“Divan-ji, bring me my stick. I’m going to have to bring these sisterfucker Chamars to their senses. ” As soon as he said this he rushed at them. Then a second official came at them with his fists. The remaining three picked up their sticks and ran to strike them. By this time all the commotion woke up the fifth uniformed man. He saw all the fighting going on in the compound and leaped into the center of it like a monkey.
A strange din of cries and suffering rose up in the police compound. A crowd gathered around. Word got out that the Chamars from the village of Lahana were being beaten, and anyone in the crowd who was Chamar, Khatik, or Valmiki ran to their bastis.
All eleven villagers had sustained injuries. Their clothes were torn. Birmo, with Chamiya and Ramkali, had not been spared. They had their hair pulled and were beaten without any pity. The most seriously wounded were Sampat, Harphul, and Birmo’s son. All of them were locked in the back of the compound where Divan-ji kept his water buffalo. It was saturated with the smell of manure and urine. They were all inside the pen, and outside the inspector was raving, “Sisterfucker Chamars, now you’ve taken to talking back! If I don’t ram my stick up each of your assholes my name isn’t M. P. Tyagi!”
Afternoon was waning. Those who had left the village had not yet returned. Their statement had not yet been taken. Waves of worry traveled throughout the basti. Hariya was seated outside in the dirt-floor courtyard. A Kisani sent one of the children for news several times, but what could Hariya say? He himself was staring down the road for five of his own to return. How many people had come and gone? Half an hour, maybe a full hour had passed sitting, speaking, chatting. Again and again he’d been surrounded by people who clustered together before leaving alone. His mind became more distressed. Passing the sorrowful hours was more difficult. Whom could he talk to? With the bare walls, the earthen courtyard, or the stove that hadn’t been lit for three days?
He had been born in this village. Reached adolescence and old age, too. Now one day he would also be burned on the wood of this village’s cremation ground. But what did this village offer him and others of his caste? Time after time, living a life of insults and humiliation, he had grown to feel something along the lines of hatred for this village. The thakur’s people continued committing atrocities against people of his caste generation upon generation, treating them like slaves. This morning Sampat had said it best: they’re dead, they’re slaves, and there’s no concern for the welfare of slaves. About half his life had passed before Independence and half after. But this village had seen no particular changes. Same old traditions, same old customs. His grandson had indeed received a pass for the tenth class. But what had happened, what had he gotten out of it? Five years had passed and all he had managed was a pass on ten books. He hadn’t even gotten so much as a peon’s job. Several times he even went looking in the city, but heard of nothing anywhere.
Now take the matter of Birmo’s husband. Ten years back the thakur had him killed. And do you think that to this day the police were able to apprehend the murderer? A far-fetched dream. Ten people from his caste had been allotted hundred-yard plots of land each, and the thakur had worked with the village head to write his name on the deeds. Even before that they had been the thakur’s own purchased slaves, and still were. How many people in the village must have owned land? Neither land, nor a house, nor a well, nor a tank. To this day they had to drink water from the dirty pond. In the village there was not a school, or a dispensary, or even a doctor. In the end, what was in this village? In the end just a haveli and a temple, and they had no use for either of these.
The temple was new, but the haveli was quite old. Hariya still remembered the story, even now, that his father had told him one day. When this haveli had been built, a man from this basti of their caste had been offered as a sacrifice. But the thakur’s oldest boy was as gentle as a cow. He never so much as even glanced in the direction of any of the sisters or daughters of the village. There was all sorts of talk about him. Some said he had become a sadhu, some tell the tale that he drowned in the black waters of the Kali River. He was upset by his dad’s bad habits. The thakur had his own kind of religious devotion, that’s for sure. He’d even mount his own son’s wife. His agents said the oldest son saw this deed with his own eyes. Bas, that was the last straw. He didn’t spend even a single night in that haveli again. The poor thing came by himself and left all by himself. His wife lay down on the rail and gave up her own life. But the thakur’s middle son was following right in his dad’s line. The same thing about the youngest. He studied in the city. Lived in the hostel. The thakur sent him heaps of money so he could enjoy himself in the city. Not that the thakur had any shortage of money. His land stetched across five villages. He was merciless in extracting payments. If you were short just a single cent he’d tan your hide. Like father, like son, and his son after that.
It was now evening. The fog in Hariya’s thinking started to clear. He looked and saw Hukmi standing there before him. He was asking about the matter with his son. Not much after that along came Ramotar asking too. Then the Kisanis as well. And some more folks from the village gathered. Someone brought a glass of chai for Hariya.
Just then a hubbub started up in the basti. The sound of crying could be heard in some of the homes. Everyone stood up and ran toward it, leaving Hariya behind. Hariya stood there in astonishment. Something or other must have happened in town. Could be the police had locked them up. Or maybe the thakur’s people . . .
A peddler came from the town with his bangles. He recounted the whole story from the beating to the lockup. He added plenty of salt and pepper, spicing up the story as though he had seen the whole thing with his own eyes. But he had not seen a thing. Another bangle-peddler he had met buying bangles from the same store had told him.
The villagers spent the whole night awake, contending with the predicament of the eleven villagers who had not returned from town. Along with Hariya’s cold and mournful hearth, now the stoves in several other houses were not lit either. Grief spread throughout the basti. One by one each home was overcome by a strange desolation. If cats started howling or fighting with each other, irritated men and women would immediately run after to hit them. And the fighting cats would sprint off with a great leap, dogs bounding after them in attack. In faraway fields the buzzards called. The dogs were also howling, sending shivers through the bodies of the villagers.
It must have been nine o’clock in the morning. All eleven people appeared. Hariya was alone in his room. One by one he regarded the people who came with Sampat. There were wounds on Sampat’s and Harphul’s hands and torsos. But they didn’t want to talk to Hariya about it. What would be the use in telling . . . Hariya was old. How much his body had already been broken. Hearing about the incident at the police station would only make him sadder. But the question that came bubbling up in Hariya‘s mind needed a reply. Hariya asked no questions. “Bas,” he only said, “I know. Your report was not taken down in the police station.”
Sampat was surprised to hear Hariya say this. He even asked, “But how did you know?”
“I’m going on eighty. I know a thing or two.”
“But Dadda, you were the one who said that we should go.” There was a question in his voice.
“Yes, I said that. Only because we should at least try. Trying is our job.”
Sampat was thinking. What Dadda said was a big thing. Hariya was a complete rustic, and illiterate, it was true, but he was speaking from his eighty years of experience. Whenever Sampat started any kind of work, he always got help from his Dadda. He had not even glimpsed the faces of his mom and dad since childhood. Ever since then his parental love had come from Hariya. Hariya himself had sent him to the city. That very first day he had said to him, “Sampat, now there is nothing in this village. Nothing except unpaid labor and disrespect.” Dadda understood it exactly. What was there for his caste in this village? From the beginning they’d lived on the margins of the village. And it was the same situation even now. Who in the village besides him could read? Who had the courage to do so . . .?
The incident the day before between the people from Lahana’s dalit basti and the officers from the police station in town did nothing to lessen the villagers’ resolve. If anything it had strengthened it. And the outrage against the thakur and the police had grown even more intense. They had found a path for resistance. They had been shut away in the police station since the previous afternoon. Outside in the town people realized that eleven Dalits had come to the police station to file a report against the thakur and were pummeled by the police and locked up inside the compound. There was a sizeable dalit population in town. Few of them were educated. Some were employed as civil servants. Ten or twenty phoned everyone they knew from Lucknow to Delhi to get them out of jail. The head of the opposition party lived in town. And come evening their bail had been posted. By night they were out. Each had received medical attention. There was a demand that the police inspector be suspended. They had left town the next morning intent on doing something to help. A report against the thakur had been recorded.
Come evening the village panchayat had gathered again at Hariya’s home. Everyone who had gone to town the day before was at the panchayat. Birmo even sat there behind her son, the end of her sari draped over her head. The past two days had been holidays for all the servants and wage laborers. Two days earlier it had been Sunday. Four or five people from the village worked as peons in the city. It was decided their advice and suggestions should be sought as well. There had been several incidents in the village involving the thakur, but the panchayat had not gotten involved until today. This time a fierce resentment had boiled up against the thakur. Those people from the city would also arrive from the city the next evening. People had been sent to inform them that very morning. Today Hariya had not said much. Whatever he had to say he felt he should save until all the members of the panchayat were present. He didn’t want to lighten the matter in his mind by talking about it now.
In the morning people came from a newspaper in the city. A boy of twenty-four and with him a girl. Both were wearing jeans. A camera was hanging from the girl’s shoulder and the boy had a long leather bag. For them the village was exotic and for the villagers the two were just as exotic. Especially for the women, as this was the first time they had seen a girl wearing jeans and leaving her hair loose.
The two had to walk an entire eight miles from town to come to this village. They were exhausted after coming all the way by foot. Their throats were parched, and their eyes were caked with dirt and dust. They had to find someplace in the village where they could escape the mud. The pantlegs of their jeans were as soaked as their feet. When they reached the meeting square, they breathed a sigh of relief as if they had summited Mount Everest. Four or five children stood near them, stark naked and bursting with curiosity. A little farther off someone was driving an ox cart, goading the ox’s rear legs. A woman who had come along carrying a load of fodder on her head kept staring at them. The young man who had come from the city was named Anupam and the young woman was called Monika. Both were trainees. Monika had a craving for a cigarette so she pulled out a packet from her bag, found matches, and was just about to light up when Anupam elbowed her, signaling her not to smoke. “Monika, people in the village don’t look kindly on a young woman smoking.”
“OK, Baba, I won’t have a smoke,” Monika said, her face screwing up with a strange expression.
“We were sent to this village to do some reporting on this terrible incident,” Anupam said, all puffed up.
“OK, OK, I know, we didn’t come here on a whim. Oof, Baba! An entire eight miles on foot!”
A faint smile appeared on Anupam’s lips. He added, “You must not have walked eight miles altogether in your entire life!”
“Yeah,” she answered. Then blurted out in English, “Oh no, Anupam, it’s impossible!” Returning to Hindi, she added, “Our newspaper is going to have to open an office in this village if the bureau chief says so.”
Suddenly both of them burst out laughing. The two of them had trudged along for a while, exhausted. By then two or three people had approached them. The number of curious onlookers began to grow. Two or three people came near and so Anupam explained the purpose of coming. After a moment of silence one of the individuals in the group blurted out the question, “Do you people want some water?”
“Yes.” The answer came out of both of their mouths at the same time. A moment later a child emerged bringing water in a lota. They drank until they were no longer thirsty.
The heat from the burning rays of sun had been rising. They both were sitting on a loose cot in Hariya’s bare-earth courtyard. They noticed the cups of chai being drunk out of broken glasses and really felt how poor the village was. By this time other villagers had joined them. Women veiling themselves with the ends of their saris were sitting on the mud walls. Monika took her camera out and started to take pictures, which only increased their curiosity. She took two or three of Chamiya alone. Everyone’s sights were trained on her. There were no rings on Monika’s fingers or ornaments on her ears, nor bangles on her wrists. All sorts of questions welled up inside each of them. Until now Anupam had written down all the questions. He asked, “When did this incident take place?”
“On Tuesday.” Harphul replied. Chamiya sat silent.
Monika asked, “What was his name, I mean who made her” (she gestured toward Chamiya) “naked?”
“The manjhala of the thakur, that one.” Harphul said.
“’Manjhala meaning’ . . .?” Anupam wanted to clarify.
“The middle boy of the thakur, younger than the oldest,” Sampat explained.
“But why did he make her naked?” Anupam asked the next question. There was silence for a moment between them. In the crowd every single person thought: What answer to give? And Hariya replied, “The women of my caste have been made naked at the hands of the thakur since long before. They keep dishonoring them. It has become a village tradition, this.” As he said this, Hariya’s entire face from his wrinkles out began to flush in anger. A curious struggle started up in the shadows of the countless folds on his face. After Hariya finished talking, the people’s buzzing grew. “Absolutely, one hundred percent true,” a few voices called out.
“Was there ever an incident like this before?” Anupam asked.
“Of all the people in this village, my grandson’s wife was the first to be stripped naked. Some of my daughters and daughters-in-law were stripped naked in the haveli. In the light of day and in the dark of night. How many names do you want? The whole village has endured this. We won’t speak the names of the womenfolk, but we all know well.”
As Hariya finished talking a strange silence floated in the air.
Anupam asked the next question. “I heard that your side took out a loan from the thakur.”
“Yeah, took it. A five-hundred-rupalli loan. My grandson went to school from the time he was five years old and passed tenth grade. Because of that, he was sent to the city to work and have a career.” Hariya’s voice swelled once more.
“There’s a school in this village then?” Monika asked the question.
“No.” Sampat answered.
“Courtyard-badi . . . ?”
“A what-badi?” someone asked.
“Where women of the village can study,” Anupam clarified.
“Na,” Hariya spat out the answer.
“Adult center . . .? Where grownups and the elderly can learn to read,” he explained once more.
“No such thing in our village.”
“Dispensary, doctor, . . .?”
“Where would that be here, where man and beast drink from the same trough?” Hariya cut in.
“From where?” Anupam asked.
“From a filthy pond,” someone said.
Anupam and Monika felt completely helpless at the thought of it. What stratum of village had they entered? Broken-down homes surrounded them, with people wearing worn and torn clothing, bare naked children covered in dirt. Women covered in long veils. Monika and Anupam’s astonishment was boundless. Sampat had also given his account of the incident that had taken place yesterday at the town’s police station. They had even taken pictures of those who had sustained injuries. Prior to leaving, Monika had taken Chamiya aside and asked four or five questions, such as whether the thakur’s son had sexually violated her, how many hours she had remained naked, who was present when this incident took place, and so on.
Monika and Anupam also went to the thakur’s haveli. They were going to do this right. One man went with them to show them the way. The ruts in the village roads were filled with water. After a while, the path gave way to fields. Monika was glad to arrive in the middle of these fields after the atmosphere of such stink. The man was walking ahead and she was falling farther and farther behind. Suddenly Monika seemed to be assailed by a memory.
“Why Anupam, don’t you know, it was only last month that sixteen pages of advertisements were published in our paper.”
“Yes, I know,” Anupam answered as he trudged along.
“And all this. In this village not a single change has taken place. It means all these government announcements, advertisements, what is it except . . .”
And Anupam finished her thought. “It’s all been for show, and the truth is what you see right here before you with your eyes. And there’s a real difference between truth and lies.”
“But so many villages?” The question was Monika’s.
“Have you seen anything that justifies the two years you’ve put into reporting? The more time we spend in these villages, the closer we get to the truth. Otherwise it’s just glamour . . . Newspapers and magazines sell nothing but scandal, liquor, ministers’ corruption, the commissions demanded by people like Harshad Mehta and police connections to customs on smugglers like Daud Ibrahim, with everyone feasting on which women were sold where, who stripped them naked, who raped them, how many people did it, the forces of which police and submilitary.”
“There’s that.” Monika agreed as she walked along. Suddently the man who came with them stopped, pointed to an old building, and said, “Babuji, this is Thakur’s haveli. Take care as you go. Downright ferocious that man is, ferocious.” He stood right there where he was and they made their way in the direction of the haveli.
There were about a thousand families in the village of Lahana. The roots of the many traditions flowering here ran as deep as the village was old, their blossoms emerging from branches neat and sturdy as the pads of a prickly pear. One could see that the village and those living in the village were indelibly marked by caste division. The village was split in two parts. In one part lived the upper castes and people from backward castes such as Bahmin, Baniya, Thakur, Rajput, Jat, Tyagi, Yadav, Gujar, Kayasth, and Kurmi. In the other part, the outcaste and dalit groups such as Chamar, Chaamad, Valmiki, Khatik, Taili, Saini, Nai, Julahe, Khatbune and Maniyar. In one part of town silver dishes and long, winding hookahs; in the other, broken-down houses, rope-strung cots, clay hookahs, brass and bronze dishes; the women in one cinched twenty lengths of cloth around their waists into flaring, full-length ghagharas and veiled themselves in orhni with sparkly silver gota borders, while the women in the other part wore old, torn hand-me-downs. There was a Hindu temple and a drinking well on only one side of the village. There was an old, dry riverbed in the dalit part some called a “talab” that was—at least in name—a pool of water. Animals and humans used to bathe here together and would drink the water. The outcastes had no fields to farm. The cremation ground was in both parts of the village. The upper-caste cremation ground was separate from the outcaste as if the dead still observed the birthright of upper caste and outcaste, clinging to caste in their hearts as they returned to dust. Anyone who was born in the village quietly let their children know what caste they were, what their lineage was, what profession, who were on the side of the exploited and who the exploiters.
There were ten Chamar homes in the basti. Their traditional occupation was to remove the carcasses of dead animals. They also ate the meat of those animals. Whenever an animal died in the village, Siriya was the first to hear the news. He was seventy years old, the oldest of everyone. Kisna told him regularly the news right from the start of the evening panchayat. Siriya had heard about the incident four days earlier. This was how the news was sent to all the homes of the Balmikis, Khatiks, Telis, Sainis, Nais, Julahes, Khatbunes, and Maniyars.
From that day on, none of the women went to the thakurs’ havelis. They did not set foot in either the fields or the wilds. It was the children of the basti who were the most excited. They set up imaginary debates to pretend they were taking part in a panchayat like the one that would be held that evening in Dhuliya’s meeting square, using a gibberish language with one another. There was no child in the basti who hadn’t heard the news about the panchayat.
For children like this, the panchayat was nothing but a thing of wonder. They maintained a healthy curiosity about which older folks did what. Sometimes at panchayats there would be jokes and fun. Women and children were not allowed to take part in the panchayat but sat quietly listening nonetheless. Sometimes they would make the excuse of filling a hookah or of serving water, but today at the panchayat no women were turned away, nor were any children. It was because of this that the children had become even more excited.
Just as night began to fall, people began gathering in Dhuliya’s meeting square. Space had been arranged for women to sit on one side, and men on the other. Two lanterns had been requested, filled with plenty of oil. Four or five hookahs had been set out as well. They put cow-dung cakes in the clay oven and lay a burning ember on top. It did not take long before the cow-dung cakes had been lit.
First Harphul got up and spoke. “Panchayat members, that daughter-in-law you brought here three years ago from Hingna Village on Tuesday was stripped naked in front of the whole village by Thakur’s middle son. Now that the esteemed members of the panchayat have gathered, you need to tell us what we should do.”
Just then Kisna spoke up, “Harphul, she’s not only your daughter-in-law, she belongs to the whole village. Her honor is the honor of the village, the whole community.”
“The whole village considers her honor to be our own, so why did such a thing happen?” someone said.
“Yes, this is true,” some people agreed, and whispering broke out among the women. “That’s right, it doesn’t matter whose house our sister is a daughter-in-law in. That dog rubbed the honor of the whole village in the dirt.”
Birmo sat in front of them. Angrily she muttered, “The old guy’s taken a torch to everyone. I’m seething so much I could take a sickle to father and son.”
At this, there was a general uproar across both the men’s and women’s sides. Kisna’s voice could be heard from the middle of it, “Stop all this racket so that we can make a decision!” The Panchayat quieted down after that.
“In my opinion we should strip naked his womenfolk too!” said Hukmi, who was sitting in the corner.
“Stop talking nonsense, Hukmi! Are you crazy? What is so different between our womenfolk and their womenfolk?” Hariya spoke up from the middle.
“The old man is right,” a voice rose up from among the women.
Suddenly Birmo spoke in glittering anger. “We should set fire to the crops in Thakur’s fields.”
Hariya flashed again. “So we’ll destroy all the grain too? And then what?”
“Then what else should we do?” Ramotar stood up and asked.
This time Siriya spoke up. “We cannot act rashly. Whatever we do, we’ll agree on it as a panchayat.”
Now the head of the Kisanis spoke. “We should go at night, and burn down Thakur’s haveli.”
“Oh, so we’ll all just get away with it then?” Harphul retorted.
“We should take his animals to town and sell them,” someone else said.
“That would be stealing,” a voice emerged from among the elders.
“We should poison those useless, half-starved animals of his,” shouted someone, in a near frenzy.
“That’s an even worse idea,” said someone else.
“Then what should we do, Bhaleramji?” Girdhari Valmiki stood up and asked.
“Drown ourselves, old man.”
Hariya’s white mustache quivered.
“What is there left to do but to drown,” said another voice.
“You useless kambakhts! You call yourselves men! We stood there watching while our daughter-in-law was stripped naked! Didn’t you feel the slightest bit of shame? Now no one should say anything at all, no one. If we had set everything ablaze would anyone have stopped us?”
Silence descended on the panchayat, hearing what Hariya had to say. It was as if each person had become a statue. The tobacco placed in the bowls of the hookah had burned up. Outside, the burning cow-dung cakes in the clay oven had turned to ash. No one had smoked the hookah that day. Both the lanterns had burned out. A feeling of panic spread among the men and women in the panchayat. The lanterns were swinging to and fro, and there was no more oil. But no one, man or woman, left.
Everyone just kept sitting, like before. Hariya burst forth again, “No one move from their spot. I don’t care if it’s dark. We don’t need to see anyone’s faces.”
After some silence, Parsa made a suggestion. “We should go to the city.”
“But what will we find in the city?” Chidda interrupted him.
Harphul finished Chidda’s thought. “What’s there for you in the city? No suitable work, no place to live. You’ll live in slums, you’ll wallow in the garbage like pigs. Kaliya’s boy went last year. It was a disaster.”
Sampat had been quiet until now. Suddenly he stood up and exclaimed, “There is a lot of opportunity in the city, but not everyone makes it. But we should try making our way in the city.”
“Look at how much you tried, son. Tell us, what did you make of it?” There was anger in Harphul’s voice.
“But bhaiya, there’s no untouchability, none of this caste business in the city.” Sampat made his case again, which seemed to convince the people his age.
“The caste sickness is everywhere. In the village—and in the city.”
“But it’s not as bad there as it is here,” Birmo interjected in a sweet voice.
Then someone suggested, “We should hear Chamiya’s thoughts on the matter, shouldn’t we?”
“Yes, that’s right. That poor girl must be the most upset,” someone said from the darkness.
Chamiya burst out crying. Her sobs rang out and pierced the blackness, rattling the hearts of everyone there, men and women, young and old. Hearing Chamiya cry, Sampat’s heart became heavy.
Birmo and Ramkali tried to console Chamiya, but the more they tried, the more she sobbed.
Her voice sounded soaked in tears and dejection. “Bhaiya . . . there’s no one here in this village to stand by me. The thakurs stripped me naked and everyone just stared . . .”
It was as though everyone had been bitten by a snake. No one spoke for a long time. Then Hariya made an ultimatum that turned the mood around. “Now stop all this crying, that’s over now. Everyone has said their piece. If I say something, will you all agree?” Hariya was quiet for a while. He was the eldest in the village, and today he’d been made head of the panchayat. He spoke again in the darkness as though reaching out for the beating hearts of his people. “If I say something, tell me, will you all agree?”
“Yes, we’ll agree!” All the men and women sitting there called out in one voice, like a cry of victory.
Hariya finally made his decision. “Then we should move to our own village.”
“A new village . . . our own village!” everyone repeated, shocked.
Silence spread through the panchayat, as though people had had the wind knocked out of them all at once. No matter how ramshackle their homes and land, how could they leave them? Hariya had thrown them into a strange ethical predicament. Silence descended for some time, but Hariya finally broke it. “So now you’ve all lost your tongues. Look, if we stay here we’ll just keep on living as slaves. After all, you can’t pick a fight when you live in the same water as the crocodiles. What else can we do? We have no other choice. The bones of half the people in our basti have grown old and brittle.” Hariya paused for a moment. A few coughs echoed.
“We need to get out of here. The rest of you do as you please. Now that is my intention. There is no point in living in a place where no one respects any of us.” Hariya said this and no more. After that, the panchayat was full of whispers. Everyone started offering their own pieces of advice and counsel to the panchayat.
Just then Birmo’s voice swelled. “My old man is saying it right. We all need to get out of this place. There’s nothing sacred about staying in such a place.”
Half the night had passed. It was pitch black darkness in every direction. But the people heard Hariya’s decision, and as they got up from the panchayat it was as if there was suddenly light wherever they looked. What a curious thing it was! An eighty-year-old man had shown everyone the path of revolution. The same man who for eighty years had honored every single tradition and custom.
The next day the sun rose, touching the door of every house. The darkness had faded. They felt possessed by a new strength. They had to look for new land by the Kali River. It was four miles away. And then the town was four miles beyond that. The highway was another mile. It was a desolate place. But they would have to settle there.
The villagers spent two days in turmoil, deciding which things to sell what and which to keep. Most people had taken out a loan from the thakur. Some had borrowed a hundred rupees, another two hundred, others fifty. Some borrowed from the moneylender in the village. They had to repay him too. A mud hut with dirty walls. An empty seed sower. An empty broken-down box. A pile of cow-dung cakes. One person had a calf and another an old bull. Not a single cow or bull could be seen in any doorway. Certainly there had to be chickens, goats, donkeys, and dogs. This was near the dalit basti. Whoever they sold something to took this into account.
Two days were spent in this kind of hustle and bustle. The dealing commenced. The village’s moneylenders arrived first. Then two henchmen from the Rajputs. The people in the basti kept a watchful eye on them, as if they would try to buy their women. Some of the Kayasth families tried bargaining. But there was no reluctance in the minds of the dalits. Hariya was the first to make a deal on his home and storeroom. Now there should be no doubt among people in the basti. No one should end up thinking he had made a decision and then gone back on it.
On the fourth day, as the afternoon wore on, suddenly the district legislator, Kureel, arrived. He was also from a dalit caste. But he had become a state minister with the thakur’s help. Everyone looked at him as if a rabid dog had slunk into the basti. No one offered him water or chai. No one so much as said “namaste.” He was left absolutely alone as soon as he entered the village. Two rifle-toting men were with him for security. Two or three dogs were tagging along. Every so often the dogs would look at him and start barking. Beads of sweat glistened on Kureel’s forehead, so he took out a handwoven handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. But just as many beads of sweat reappeared. He emerged from Dhuliya’s meeting square, but those who noticed him continued to ignore him. It was at this very square the previous year he had stood and made a load of promises. He sold the people in the basti dreams of gold. Today he had become a minister, but to the people in the basti he was worth no more than a cowrie shell. The basti folk were looking at him as if they wanted to say to him, “You sisterfucker. You’ve gotten so involved in politics, you’ve forgotten your own people.”
Just then Kureel caught sight of Kisna walking in front of him. He knew Kisna well. This was right where he used to meet the people in the basti during the elections. He called out to him.
“What is it?” Kisna asked in a halting voice.
The esteemed minister had at the very least not hoped for such a thing from him. Controlling his voice he asked, “Is Hariya at home and that Chamiya . . . ?”
“Go and see for yourself,” Kisna gave a two-paise reply.
Kureel took this badly as well. He started muttering, “What has happened to everyone? No one knows how to talk properly.” So he set off toward Hariya’s house on his own. Both rifle-wielding men followed him. When people saw Kureel walking with his security detail toward Hariya’s home they followed after them. When Hariya heard their footsteps, he looked up and saw some politician wearing a sparkling white khadi outfit. He tried making out who it was with his hazy eyesight.
“Who is there, bhaiya . . . ?” he asked Kureel as he stood right in front of him.
“Arey, Dadda, it’s Kureel . . .” the esteemed minister said hesitantly.
“Kureel who?” Hariya asked again. And with that it seemed as if the blood had washed out of Kureel.
He gathered up his courage and pressed on. “Dadda, I am Kureel, B. L. Kureel, the one you elected to office last year.”
“So you’re the Kureel who won the election with our votes and went off to Lucknow.” There was anger in Hariya’s voice. In the meantime, Sampat, Chamiya, Harphul, and everyone else had joined them.
“But now we don’t have anything left. We have sold everything we owned. The only thing we have left is our faith. It wouldn’t be of any use to you.”
Hearing Hariya’s sarcastic words made Kureel’s throat go dry. He swallowed back his saliva and said, “Dadda, the chief minister sent me here to help you people, to see to it that you got justice.”
“The Lord Govennor must have sent you himself. You probably have brought loads of rupees with you. What, to cover the bare-naked body of my daughter-in-law? No, we don’t need any help from the government or the police. We will help ourselves.” Hariya flatly spurned Kureel.
In all his ten years of political life, he had never been so disgraced as he had that day by Hariya. He suddenly felt like he was drowning in shame. These paltry, barely surviving people suddenly had a fire lit in their eyes. He could not meet their gaze and backed out of their home with the rifle-wearing men in tow.
It was Sunday. They just had to forge ahead. As soon as the sun came out it would get hot. Therefore they wanted to complete at least half the journey before sunrise. Everyone had packed the night before. The caravan that would leave this village to build a new one had come together. Today no one had a single goat or chicken. They had broken-down cots and worn-out clothes. The women carried pots and pans and nursing babies. There were little children, gripping the fingers of their uncles and aunts. They had to make the journey as well, and all on foot, on little legs. All the Siriya, Chamar, and Valmiki families were there. The Valmikis had their pigs and dogs with them. No one had bought them. Their women walked in the back. There were also two Saini families and one Badhai. The barber was by himself. He carried with him a steel box with his razors. There were five families of Kumharas. They had ten donkeys. Today the donkeys were loaded down with baggage.
When these one hundred and fifty or so families left the village of Lahana behind and moved toward the Kali River, they had no horses or elephants with them. Nor did they have any carriage or buggy. They had no princess’s litter. They had no supplies. As they came out of the village on the dirt road their footsteps kicked up dust. It turned into a cloud that rose in the air, visible even from the rooftops of the havelis. The thakur and his middle son came downstairs, mocking the caravan. A few of his henchmen and their wives also clattered down from the upper floors of the haveli. The women were vexed and grief-stricken at their departure. Now who would deliver their children and cut the cords? Who would scoop up the cow dung and pat it into cakes for fuel? Who would give them massages? Who would whitewash their houses every year on Holi and Diwali, and who would wash their clothes? The milkmaid who was considered the thakur’s “half-wife” was also among those at the haveli. All the women had come downstairs upset, but she was the most aggrieved and had remained upstairs. Her name was Chanda.
While some people were abandoning the village, other people were celebrating. They sat ready to pounce on the deserted village. They made plans to use the dalits’ mud houses. One person was going to open a chicken farm there, and someone else was going to tie up his livestock. And someone else was going to make a godown for wood and cow-dung cakes. Different people, all with different plans. This is how it must have always been in this country. Invaders have conquered and looted the Shudras and the Dravidians, and now again they would make a new Harappa or Mohenjo Daro in this uprooted dalit village.
The Kali River was dry. It was narrow but stretched for a long way. The bushes cast shadows. The sun burned the earth. Trees were sparse. The ground was uneven, but it wasn’t rocky. They made their camp. There was no sign of shelter, but nevertheless they stopped in this very place to take a rest. Hariya’s old legs were exhausted. Everyone’s bodies were covered in sweat. They were desperately thirsty. Their lips were cracked. Their eyes were burning red from the sun and the heat. Suddenly Sampat’s glance fell on some brick buildings some distance away from them. “Dadda, look over there, there are some brick houses.”
Hariya tried to look. He couldn’t see anything but whiteness ahead of him. But Harphul saw it.
“We should go that way,” said Sampat.
Everyone was ready. Old, young, those in their prime, headed in the same direction, and before long, they had arrived near a work camp. There were twenty or thirty families of laborers in the work camp. They were mostly Parthiyas, who would pile wet earth slurry into molds and lay them out to dry to make bricks. They had come from Rajasthan. There were also a few families of Kumharas, like their own village potters. There were many women and children among them. That day, their boss was there at the work camp, though he normally lived in the nearby town. When he saw the men and women approaching the work camp with their children he couldn’t make sense of it. Hariya, Harphul, Kisna, Ramkali, Birmo, Ramotar all were there. They stopped when they got close to the work camp.
“Where have you all come from, and what is going on?” asked Rahmat Ali, the boss.
“We’ve come from the village of Lahana,” Sampat answered.
“Ya Allah! In this heat!” exclaimed Rahmat Ali, concerned. Then he asked, “Are you all Dalits?”
“Yes, we’re all Dalits,” answered Sampat again.
“It was your woman who . . .” he started to ask, but hesitated.
The villagers were quiet.
“Look bhai, you need work and I need laborers. Could Almighty Allah ever forgive me if I didn’t help you in such a such a situation?”
By now the other laborers in the work camp had gathered. They were staring at the newcomers with a strange expression. They had heaps of questions in their eyes. So many laborers, and without even a summons? The contractor who transported the laborers was surprised as well. Then Rahmat Ali spoke again. “Bhai, from today on they’re going to work alongside you.”
The work camp was set up with water. There were a few hand-pumps installed. The water was brackish from some pumps, and sweet from others. In this heat, both were fine. It may have been brackish, but it was still water. Women had now emerged from each of the huts, which were spaced five to ten yards apart, and stared at the villagers with curiosity. They talked together, then started working the hand-pumps. The exhausted and parched people from Lahana—old and young—pounced on the water.
Now the caravan that had come from the village slowly started to spread itself out around the work camp. Coming here, everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Now there was no thakur anywhere near them. Nor countless haremlike havelis where dalit women would be brought under duress. There was sky above and land below, their own land where they could live with dignity.
Chamiya experienced a sense of freedom for the first time. Open land, where you could sit, lie down, or go to the wilds as you wished. There was a small lake nearby. This place was narrow, not much wider than the bed of the Kali River, with mounds of earth here and there, of various sizes, where the children played cops and robbers. The day that they came from Lahana all the men and women gathered in a panchayat. What were the things a new village needed?
“A temple,” said one person.
Right away someone else cut him off and said, “We’ll need to build a school before a temple.”
Hariya nodded his head in agreement, “Yes, we should build a school. A place where our children can study and become something.”
“What else do we need?” someone else asked.
“The village should have a doctor,” someone else replied. Everyone agreed with this.
They were sitting on a large mound of earth, smeared with dust and dirt, the plans for the future village etched on the palms of their hands. Sweat gleamed on their foreheads. But on their faces glowed satisfaction. Their strength redoubled, returned, and doubled in this new place.
© Mohan Das Namishray. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Laura Brueck and Christi A. Merrill. All rights reserved.