Kura scurried into the courtyard with his bucket and his broom. In the predawn gloom he could barely see the cobbles under his feet, but he could feel them, slippery and cold as ice. He swept up, trying not to shiver in his thin dhoti. All the garbage, and Kura himself, had to be gone before the sun touched the horizon. With luck, he would be out of the gate before Ram Sharan Babu’s voice boomed through the arches. If her were unlucky, he might glimpse Ram Sharan Babu’s huge body looming up out of the shadows, and if it were going to be a really bad day, he’d feel a sharp cut from Ram Sharan Babu’s stick before he got well away from the gate. This was the most terrifying part of his day; after this, he would only have to clean out the family lavatories, which he was always very careful to do when there was no one about. The doors that led from the closets to the outside would be unlocked once the sun had risen, while the inner doors would be locked. He would clean up and leave. Then Bari Mai would relock the doors as usual and sprinkle holy water everywhere.
Precautions were particularly necessary in Ram Sharan Babu’s household: he had three daughters, as if the gods wanted to cancel out the good fortune of his three sons and present him with a zero balance sheet, and moreover only the eldest girl was married. He would have had five daughters if the gods had had their way, but the dai had her orders. Kura had seen the bloodstained cloths in the garbage, but no one cared what he thought anyway. He knew one of the daughters was unruly, because quite often as he swept the outer perimeter he would hear shouting, and crying, and a scream or two, and heavy blows, a monotonous thump, thump, thump like threshing grain. But all he would feel was a vague relief that Ram Sharan Babu was tiring his arm out on someone else for a change.
Kura understood all this now, about blows and transgressions and how they went together. Once, when he was very young, he had come early for his lavatory cleaning routine and had raised his hand to open the door just as Bari Mai opened it from inside and peered out. His hand had come within inches of her breast. She’d screamed as if a viper had fallen on her, and Ram Sharan Babu had come roaring, his stick making the air whum as it whirled. Kura had collapsed under the blows into a tiny ball of pain — towards the end he must have passed out because afterwards he couldn’t remember how or when it stopped. When he awoke it was burning noon and his body had been thick with flies. He’d crawled home and washed his wounds with a pot of the family’s precious water that his mother walked five miles to fetch, and his mother had wept.
He was now long past tears. His sixteen-year-old body had curved from an early age into a habitual crouch, so that most people thought he was a dwarf. This ingratiating hunch forced him to run with his legs turned out, like a crab. Doubled over like that, he carried an invisible packet of hate clutched perpetually to his chest. His stick like arms, his bowed head, his skinny rib cage hid it from view. Only once every day, when the sun was a fiery line on the western horizon, he would straighten up and stand like a man. That was when, his work done and his path home to the sweepers’ village open, he would pause and stretch, half hidden by the palisade around Ram Sharan Babu’s house, and his body would suddenly tauten like a bow, his arm would scythe powerfully over his head and a stone would whir out of his hand to smack into the plaster of his torturer’s house. Thwack!
Just one stone every day. And then he would drop down into his simian, subservient crouch and scurry away again, unseen, unheard, unmarked.
Until one day he slipped at the moment of release and the stone flew wide of its mark; higher than he had ever aimed before, and at the same instant he heard the wooden shutters of the first floor room fly open, and the crack of impact, and he looked up in horror, forgetting to crouch, and saw suddenly the face, and the blood and the pain, and for that one moment he forgot to hate.
Many years passed. Ram Sharan Choube grew old. With time he was able to forget the shame of his youngest daughter Nilima’s disappearance. She had always tested him sorely, and one day he had locked her up in the grain store to teach her some manners. When he’d opened the room that evening and peered inside, it had been empty. And when a bundle of clothes had been found by the river, the usual conclusions were drawn. The putative shame of her death (for that was the outcome everyone thought most likely) was more than balanced by the relief of not having to stump up yet another dowry. No one puzzled much over how she had got out; she was gone, and the gods remained to be thanked for their inventiveness.
No one noticed that around the same time, they had also got a new sweeper for their yard and toilets: one crouching sweeper looked much like another to the family. Ram Sharan Babu only glimpsed the new boy’s face some weeks later, and learned that Kura wouldn’t be coming any more. He heaped some curses on the boy’s head on general principles and thought no more of it. Some time later, Kura’s family also disappeared from Bhangi Basti, the sweeper’s village.
By then Ram Sharan Babu had his hands full dealing with all the new changes in the world. Like the time his son Sanjay came home with a little box and two car batteries. He unwrapped the marvel and set it on a stand: it didn’t look like much, and Ram Babu was about to let out a terrific snort when the box began to sing. They all stared in awe as the gyrating figures of filmstars waved at them from the box, pulsing with colour and bad transmission. Once her initial shock wore off, and having watched a Dharmendra starrer from start to finish on the new gadget, Bari Mai declared her son the best and most dutiful of boys. ‘There will be cable too, next year,’ Sanjay said. ‘Vishnu Sethiji is buying a dish. And soon we won’t need car batteries either, we will get electricity!’ That proved optimistic: the electricity when it came always elected to be elsewhere when Bari Mai’s favourite soaps came on, so the car batteries were kept to suck up current during beneficent times against the darkness. Ram Sharan Babu soon found that he, who had always been the centre of Bari Mai’s world, was now a presence to be registered only during ad breaks. After a certain amount of fruitless scowling and storming, in time he too discovered a wider world in that box, for the TV allowed him to see big cities and important people without paying a paisa. And of course, it could only enhance his standing in the village, although in any case he was already at the top of the pile.
Once in a while, as he flashed past an English news channel, he would see a face that slowly came to haunt him. It was a young news reporter, with smooth round cheeks and unremarkable features. He would see her every so often, in a war zone, a disco, a factory, a forest, a desert. He didn’t understand what it was all about, but the face disturbed him. It gave him a twinge, almost, of unexplainable remorse. But since he never watched English news channels, he didn’t let it bother him.
More change came. An electric pump, a water tank. Flushing toilets. Ram Sharan Babu’s sons told the sweepers their services would not be necessary. The next day the sweepers turned up at the harvest, asking to work in the fields. Ram Babu quickly made clear he didn’t want their filthy hands on his grain, and the sharecroppers pelted the sweepers with stones: they knew who would suffer if the sweepers worked the fields. Ram Sharan Babu stood and chuckled as the sharecroppers chased the sweepers back to their huts and, just to make sure they got the message, burned down a couple. Maybe their high spirits led them to do a few other things, but Ram Sharan Babu knew when to turn a blind eye. It went on for a few hours, then they went back to work. Afterwards he had sweets sent out to them in the fields.
Some days later the daroga came to say, apologetically, that some of the sweepers, badly burned and carrying their dead, had walked all the way to the district town and lodged an FIR with the help of some meddling NGO. Twelve of them were now in the district hospital being treated; five were in the morgue. Two of the young girls and one of the grannies had been persuaded by some wily activist to say their ‘modesty had been outraged’. But of course everyone knew they hadn’t any in the first place, haw haw. The FIR was fifteen pages long and full of fabricated crimes, lies, all sorts of nonsense. All the same, he had had to drop by because of it; his superiors were feeling the heat, ahem, but nothing to worry about. It would all blow over soon enough.
Ram Sharan Babu called his overseer and yelled at him for not making a clean sweep of everyone. ‘Haven’t you got the brains to pour kerosene on them first? How long are you going to remain in the dark ages?’ Then he went back to watching his TV. Since he now needed reading glasses, he didn’t see the name of his village, half of which was his own name, on the ticker at the bottom of his screen. Had he done so, he might have felt a perverse pride. Or he might not.
The next day, two cars built like little full-Punjab trucks drove up in the village. Ram Sharan Babu’s grandson dropped his ball in the dirt to stare open mouthed at the big shiny monsters. Their wheels were chunky like tractors, but they sure didn’t look like they’d ever pulled a plough. He ran home to tell the family, but he’d barely finished repeating his tale for the fourth time when Ram Sharan Babu’s overseer rushed in. Some of his braggart young men were telling the story of the raid to the city people and their gadgets; they’d been so excited at the sight of the camera that they’d laughed at the overseer’s warnings. Ram Sharan Babu rushed out to the fields but the cars had gone. There were only the young men, prattling about how the cameraman had turned his little screen around for them so they could watch themselves on TV.
‘The district town,’ panted the overseer. ‘They must have headed there.’
Ram Babu’s jaw set. He yelled for his tractor. ‘They can’t have gone far. The road is bad. Hurry up now!’ The tractor came, was loaded with men and roared off, Ram Sharan Babu standing in front holding his stick, his eyes like glowing coals.
They spotted the cars a little way out from the village. Just like in the movies they lumbered alongside, waving their sticks and shouting fearsomely. Ram Sharan Babu saw a young man lean out of a window pointing what looked like a blunt muzzle at him. He swung his stick wildly but just failed to reach the man. There was a crash, someone’s stick went through the car’s windshield; the driver screeched to a halt. Ram Sharan Babu’s men swarmed out of the tractor’s goods trailer. And then a door opened, and a boy – no, a girl, the short hair had misled him – stepped out. It was the young woman whose face he could almost … Ram Sharan Babu’s mouth fell open. ‘Nilima!’
The triumphal yells of his accomplices tangled into a babble. He roared at them to shut up and fall back. Then he ran to the girl. ‘Nilima! Daughter! It is you! We thought you were dead. Your mother …’ He broke off in horror. The young man was still watching him. No, he was looking down at the gun-like thing in his hands which gave off an eerie blue light, and yet he was walking unerringly towards him, as if some spirit directed his footsteps. Shuddering at the sight, Ram Babu raised his stick and smashed it down on the infernal thing.
The young man caught the end of the stick in his hands. The camera crashed onto the ground and split open. The young man grinned, not in a nice way. The men stood around, itching to attack but unsure what Ram Sharan Babu wanted.
The young man smiled. ‘My name is Gautam Siddharth.’ He gently turned the stick away, bent and picked up a small flat rectangle from the open camera, the size of the fake glucose biscuits Vishnu Sethiji sometimes sold in his shop. ‘That’s the last time you’ll ever hit me with a stick.’
And, stunned into silence, Ram Sharan Babu and his men watched the two pick up their gadget, get back into their car and drive away.
So Ram Sharan Babu went home. And at eight o’clock Sanjay switched on the TV and selected the English news channel. There she was, his Nilima, who hadn’t even smiled at him once, speaking calmly over footage of charred skin and bandages in the hospital, wan faces against whitewash, the young swaggerers against lush golden fields, showing off for the camera and the young city lady how they’d thrown chilli powder in people’s eyes and lobbed torches on to thatched roofs. And then the tractor, the yelling and the flying glass, and Ram Sharan Babu himself, face contorted with rage, bringing his stick down on the face of the viewer until the screen went black.
And in his mind he heard the young man’s voice again. ‘You know, old man, I used to hate you, until one day my hate missed its mark and hit your daughter, whom you’d beat when you couldn’t get at me. Then I realised I needed to stop hating and aim better.’
And Nilima said, ‘Forget it, Babuji. We pity you. Go home and watch the news at eight.’
And sitting on his bed from where he had held court so often in that very room, he covered his face as a voice from the TV said clearly, ‘This is Nilima Siddharth with Gautam Siddharth, reporting from Bhangi Basti, Choube Dera.’
He switched off the TV. Bari Mai saw his face and cringed as if he was going to hit her. But he just patted her shoulder vaguely and shuffled away, leaning on his stick.
Dedicated to the victims of Kherlanji