She was Born to be Free
Kalia, the watchman was feeling a vague sense of unease. He looked around at the snaking road and the bleak landscape. He looked at the ruins going around the tomb of the beautiful Mughal queen. There was no change. Everything looked the same as it was yesterday, or the day before that or as far back as he could remember. Then why did he feel that there was something different? Why did he feel so sure about it?
“I must be getting old,” he thought. But as he attempted to shrug away his weird feeling, he suddenly heard shrieks and then he knew that his instincts were right on target. For accompanying the hysterical screams of women, he saw something that he could not have imagined in all the 60 years of his life. Not even in his dreams. He stared horrified, at the gruesome scene. Lying dead with over sixty savage stab wounds each were Badal and Dulal, the two huge and notorious musclemen of Motilal, the moneylender. The dead men looked ghastly as their hard bronze faces were frozen in a shocked grimace. Several pieces of black, orange, red and green glass bangles were lying near the bodies and a woman's red skirt and green veil hung on an overlying shrub.
Word travelled as fast as the whining winds and seemingly out of nowhere emerged about half a dozen women dressed in saris with bright tribal prints. The village women looked stunned and silent. “Ram, Ram,” exclaimed Yamunaben, grandmother of Lakshmi, “a crime right here in Belampur. These things happen only in big cities where the goondas live. Such things would never happen in my time,” she said, shaking her head. “Well, why are you all standing and staring? Go get the constable if he is awake,” she ordered to no one in particular. Shaka, the village urchin, was dispatched to the small police station, more like an outpost than a regular station. It had only two cops, Amar Singh, a burly Sikh who was over six feet tall, and Thambe, the meticulous note taker. Shaka dashed into the little maroon building, excited and breathless, shouting at the top of his voice, “Khoon, khoon, come quick.” Amar Singh sprang to his feet, put on his cap and rushed to his jeep.
By the time Amar Singh reached the scene of the crime, most of the women had left except Yamunaben and a couple of friends. Kalia hovered about the scene offering his services. Amar Singh took notes and photographs. “Don't touch anything and don't remove anything. Shaka, go get Motilal,” he said. Shaka reached Motilal's house and called out loudly to Rupa, “Amar Singh wants to meet your master.” Before Rupa's curiosity found expression in a volley of questions, Shaka excused himself and ran.
Amar Singh got into his jeep, and drove to the police station. He waited for a while, his face in deep thought. Finally, he called for forensic and extra help from the nearest unit about ten kilometers away and asked for some tea. He sipped his tea slowly and pondered about the strange murder. The girl whose bangles and skirt were strewn near those goons, who was she? “Thambe,” he suddenly called his assistant who promptly woke up and rubbed his eyes. “Did anyone report a missing girl or woman?” he asked.
At this point Motilal walked in with his characteristic swagger. “I want justice, I want those culprits. How dare anyone lay hands on my faithful workers,” he shouted livid with anger. Unfazed, Amar Singh replied calmly, “First tell me what happened. A skirt was lying beside your men. Do you know who the girl is and why were her clothes lying beside your men?” And Amar Singh looked very fierce. He looked so fierce that Motilal was taken aback. “A girl,” he thought as a frown took hold of his pudgy face, “and murder!?” He looked shaken and his manner was less belligerent. He mopped his brows, answered all the questions, and left abruptly swearing under his breath.
It was around 6 p.m. Amar Singh looked out of the window. A priest at a nearby temple began his ritual chanting. He looked at the assembly and the patio in front of the temple where Mohan Kumar used to counsel the villagers about crop rotation. Suddenly, he thought about Mohan, the social worker who had come from Mumbai three months ago. Several scenes flashed across his mind -- Mohan learning ancient ways of conserving rain water from the village elders, Mohan teaching village girls how to read, write and count, and most importantly, Mohan experimenting with homemade sprays.
“Thambe, I'm going to see Mohan,” said the Sikh constable and rushed out. There were no lights or sound in Mohan's small pink cottage at the edge of the village and the door was locked. Amar Singh walked around the porch, then around the compound. He kept looking for any unusual happenings when he heard a parrot screeching, “Take care, I'm going, take care, I'm going.” And then it struck him. The parrot was repeating the last words of Mohan Kumar. Mohan had gone.
Every quarter, Mohan made the trip to the rural development center in Nasik to report problems and settle accounts. This time he felt satisfied at the progress made in Belampur. He looked out of the window of the bus at the changing pastoral scenes and relaxed. He closed his eyes and let his mind wander. Thoughts, events, emotions danced merrily on the memory lane of his mind and stopped at a gripping moment of a hot and humid night in early May.
He was experimenting with a spray he had formulated using several aromatic compounds. Feeling thirsty, he went to the kitchen to get some water and suddenly halted, paralyzed by shock. A woman's frail hand reached in through the kitchen window for something on the counter. He saw her hand move back and forth trying to reach for something. He looked at the kitchen counter and there was nothing worthwhile that anybody would try to steal. Puzzled and mystified by the intruding hand, and wanting to find the cause, he slipped out silently in the dark and slowly moved in the wet grass straddling the kitchen until he was right behind her. In an instant he grabbed her from behind. She let out a startled cry, and tried to disengage herself from the tight grip. She struggled and fought him like a wild beast and managed to bite him in several places. He used all his energy in holding on to her. She fought with her fists, then with her nails. But he just looked at her face and into her eyes and took all her beatings without a sound.
Then something astonishing happened. She stopped struggling and started whimpering and crying and between loud sobs she said, “Babuji, please don't tell the police. I did not come to steal. I just came to borrow a knife. And I would have returned it to you the next day. You wouldn't even have noticed. Please give me the knife,” she pleaded. Mohan did not relax his grip, even though she was crying and pleading. He knew that she didn't trust him, an outsider from Mumbai, and all this crying might just be a ruse to run away. “Why do you want a knife?” he asked.
“To cut vegetables,” she replied. He knew the truth would not come out even if he thrashed her from head to foot. So he tried something different. “Come in, I'll give you the knife,” he said.
She hesitated and shook her head vigorously, looking more like a little baby than a young woman of 22 years. By the kitchen light, he could make out her face. It was pale, and tired. Her blouse was torn a bit in the scuffle. She wore no shoes and her skirt had several patches stitched together. The soles of her feet looked cracked with walking over the jagged stones and hard ground. She looked like she had not eaten for several days. Yet her whole body betrayed anger, hunger, and a fierce defiance.
“Look,” said Mohan gently, “the knife may not work the way you think it will work. You could end up in much bigger trouble. Tell me your problem. Trust me. I am a social worker. I can help. Why don't you come to the class I teach every morning? Come tomorrow and see for yourself.” She kept nodding and staring at him. “I have a 21-year-old sister. She is three years younger than me and you are like another sister, so please talk to me,” he said. She continued staring. He looked forlorn as he thought about his sister and his home in Mumbai. His mother must have finished her dinner and his sister would have returned from her tutoring class. He sighed as if he was in wilderness looking in at a bright cheery house in Parel, Mumbai. His face bore the pained look of an exile.
The girl peered closely at him. “Babuji, you look sad,” she said.
“Yes, I was thinking of my sister and home,” he replied. The girl relaxed. A man who could warm up to home could not be very bad, she reasoned. Besides he seemed kind and had not turned her over to the police.
“My name is Kanta. I'll come to your class tomorrow,” she said and fled.
The next day she was there, and the next, and the next. She learnt to read, write, and most importantly, she learnt how Motilal had multiplied her mother, Smitaben's debt from a mere Rs. 500 to over Rs. 1,50,000. And when she learnt the arithmetic and the treachery practiced on her family, the anger burst out of her like molten lava. She got up suddenly and excused herself. Mohan tried to stop her but she was adamant and said in a quiet deadly tone, “because of this swindling of my family, my father and brother are in Motilal’s lands working without pay, without family, for a handful of rice and the tattered clothes on their back, my mother is being hounded for money, we have no food and our little hut is under repair all the time, let me go, Mohanbabu” she cried. He let her go and she ran sobbing all the way to her house. Her mother looked concerned, and to all her questions, she only said, “I am not going to Motilal’s house. He is not going to have me a bonded laborer like papa and bhayya.” “What, what are you saying. The deed is already done. You are supposed to start in a month,” cried Smitaben in an anxious tone. “I know ma, but I am not going. We do not owe any money to him. His arithmetic is all wrong and unfair. I learned all that in Mohan babu’s class.”
Her mother looked wildly around her. “Hush, Kanta, here even the walls have ears,” her mother warned her with a tortured look. Those two badmash will kill your father and brother,” she added, looking all around her, as if she was expecting them to materialise any time. “Ma, don't panic. They have robbed us. We are only asking for our rightful dues. Can't we go to the police?” asked Kanta.
“It's no use. I can't read and they have my thumb impressions on all the documents since I can't sign my name. They are too wealthy and powerful. They can sway the lawyer and the police. Even if Amar Singh supports us, they can get him transferred. I wish I would just die,” wailed her mother. Big sobs racked her body and copious tears flowed down her withered cheeks.
“Ma, don't worry. Everything will be ok. We will find a way,” she said to soothe her mother’s distress. It pained her to see her mother reduced to tears and her family reduced to beggary. If only she could get a knife, a big sharp knife that she saw in Mohan babu’s house. She could then-- the thoughts trailed off, and all she did was to clench her fists and gnash her teeth in mute anger.
The next day, she had asked Mohan for the knife again, after telling him the whole story. “The knife may not do what you think it can do,” said Mohan. “But this can help you more,” he added. And he then showed her the homemade spray that could knock a man senseless for an hour. “Go ahead, try it on me,” he volunteered as she looked skeptical. She did not budge. “Oh, all right, here I'll spray some on myself.” She saw him pass out and lie flat on the ground.
“Babuji, wake up, please wake up,” she cried in panic. And when Mohan woke up after an hour, she asked for two bottles of the spray.
Mohan walked in front of the blue and white building that catered to all the rural development projects for the northwestern districts of the state of Maharashtra. He was happy with the work and the progress of his village. He was ruminating about starting a small library with a few classics of the world. He was thinking about bookstores when his eyes fell on a sari clad woman just getting out of a bus from Belampur. Something looked familiar about the figure. It was the same scrawny girl except now she looked a little older. And then it hit him like a thunderbolt as he exclaimed – “Kanta!!” She whirled around, “bapujji, so glad to see you. Have you heard the news? I heard it from the blaring radio at the tea shop. Badal and Dulal are both dead.” He noticed her relief at her tormentor’s death and a spark of light danced on her somber and severe face. He frowned and wanted to ask her the question, if she was involved in any way. However, he changed his mind and allowed her to savor the thought but continued gazing at her, wondering if she was angry enough to try something. He wanted to get into her mind and read her thoughts, because he felt he had to know one way or another. Finally, he broke the silence, took her aside and asked in a low tone, “How did Badal and Dulal die? Did you…?”
“No, no, babuji. How can you even think like that? It is true I took the spray and went home. But Badal and Dulal were already at my house threatening my mother. They were asking for me. I told them to stop and that I would go with them to become a bonded laborer to Motilal. They allowed me to pack a sari and blouse. I concealed a spray in each of my skirt pockets and followed them looking so meek and timid that they relaxed their guard. I waited till we came to a bend in the paved road. I saw no one and the place looked deserted. Quickly, I reached into my pocket, pulled out the spray and sprayed the contents on their unsuspecting faces and hid myself in the bushes. I discarded my peasant outfit, a skirt and veil on the bushes, changed to sari and blouse, broke my bangles, flung the pieces around and walked away quickly. I took the next bus to Nasik with the money I got after pawning my silver anklets. Motilal will assume that his goons killed me and will stop harassing my mother.”
Mohan looked amazed. The girl had a fantastic brain. What great potential lies buried in these seemingly common folk. How much of this talent is lost and buried in the dark, cavernous caves of injustice? He now felt glad that the fight with his nitpicking boss one year ago had led him to quit his job in a huff and turn his energies to social work. The rewards were immeasurable. “Chemical Engineering? No more of that,” he thought to himself, which quickly became a frown as he wondered aloud, “Who murdered those men?”
In Belampur, the question was on everyone's lips. Sitting morosely in his office, Amar Singh felt the heat in more ways than one. The village had seen no murders, not even a fight in over 100 years. He had to do something. After some hard thinking, he picked up his cell phone and called his friends in the Crime Branch. “They have fancy gadgets and high tech stuff that could solve the problem fast,” he thought. In two days he got the answer.
Two prisoners, Jaggu and Ranjit, had escaped from a maximum-security prison near Goa. They had been sentenced to hard labour two years ago, courtesy Motilal and his henchmen. Howling with revenge they completed their chosen mission and were caught while escaping to Mauritius. The village was relieved and happy and after a few days, things resumed the normal pace of a soothing and rustic life.
Poor Smitaben finally got justice through the lawyers of the rural development center. Kanta’s father and brother came home. The little family was united and Kanta finally found peace. Mohan came with sweets to celebrate. As he sat on the floor, he was struck by the austere and spartan house stripped to bare necessities. The thatched roof was still holding. The mud floor was rent in many places. And the rains often flooded the small room. Outside, it was a dark and dreary night full of echoes and sounds and pierced by howling winds. But that did not matter. The little house radiated joy and Kanta’s eyes shone with gratitude. She asked Mohan, “Can I teach at the temple. I may be of some use to a hungry soul.” He hesitated, “Kanta, I think you should lie low, maybe even go to relatives in another village. Motilal can still hurt you,” he warned. She would not listen. Mohan, knew it was useless to protest and reluctantly agreed.
After lying low for a couple of weeks, she started teaching at the patio near the temple. Her star pupil, Shaka, later on became a postman. Old Kalia refused to learn. He said it interfered with his ability to commune with the dead queen. But Kanta plodded on, and reflected her burning light to several toiling men and women tormented by their masters for no other reason than their being poor, illiterate, and in debt. By every syllable that turned into an illuminating spark, the men, women and children of Belampur learned that they were born to be free. And nobody can take away that knowledge, ever again.
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