Hariya had thrown his chappal at Titli. “Karamjali”, he yelled, bearer of bad luck. But Titli jumped over the flimsy stick fence and ran off into the fields not stopping to listen him say, “This girl is the problem of my existence.”
She ran as fast as she could till she was surrounded by high, tall brown stalks of barley all round. She bent down panting and rested her hands on her knees. She knew Hariya wouldn’t follow her here. He would not enter the fields at night and be accused of trying to steal the crops which were ready for harvesting. But she could enter the fields easily without being detected. She smiled that she had escaped a beating today. She knew it was Bhairu, the watchman of the haveli, the mansion, who had complained about her to Hariya. Bhairu had caught her trying to steal raw mangoes from the mango tree in the haveli’s garden. He had hit her with his stick and her left thigh still hurt a little. After she caught her breath she wandered off down the hill towards the stream. She would not go back home till Hariya had left to drink at the toddy shop.
She passed the tall eucalyptus trees standing like sentries alert into the night. Their smooth pale barks were covered with dark brown patches at places and the auburn leaves littered near their base like a decorative carpet. She liked to hear the crunching of the leaves under her tiny feet. The stout Kikar trees with their rough bark, compound leaves and dried pods, took over from the eucalyptus trees near the bank of the stream. Beyond the stream was the Bir Bara Ban forest, known to be full of wild dogs and jackals. Titli never crossed the stream. If her mother had known that Titli had wandered near the forest at night, she would have been in trouble. But her mother never asked where she went, it was as if her mother understood that she had to be away when Hariya was home. He always found some or the other reason to beat her. Yesterday it was because she had forgotten to tie the goat properly and a day before that, she had been seen loitering near the temple, where she was explicitly forbidden to go.
The times she feared most were when he would come home drunk. Sometimes he would pick her up and place her on his shoulders. “My princess,” he would say, “see one day you are going to marry a thakur, a landlord, and live in a big haveli.” He would hold under her armpits and throw her in the air and catch her back till she laughed uncontrollably. And some nights he would pick Titli up only to fling her to the ground and start kicking her, “chudail”, witch, he would scream as his feet landed into the soft parts of her stomach, onto her tiny legs and her thin chest, “you ate my son but you are not going to get away with it.” Then he would pick up a stick and start thrashing her. She raised her hands to shield herself but his blows would swing past her hands and land on her flesh like a whip, a sharp pain ensuing in her bones when the stick made contact and leaving a burning sensation on her skin along with long black bruises. Those nights Titli would sleep curled up near her mother on the ground, with moist eyes and silent sobs.
She liked to go to Puniya’s hut and play with her goats and chickens. Puniya was a shriveled old woman with dark, leathery skin and wrinkled face. Her hut stood a little apart from the rest of the huts in the community. Titli had never seen Puniya leave her hut or anyone visit Puniya. She knew Puniya’s hut was forbidden territory, she didn’t know why. Her mother knew that she sometimes went to Puniya’s hut to play with her goats, but never said anything. Once someone told Hariya that Titli was in Puniya’s hut. He came looking for her and stood outside the hut calling her name. He stood there for a while reluctant to come inside and shouted various threats to her if she did not come out that instant. Titli could hear the violence in his voice and was so paralyzed by fear that she crouched behind a metal trunk in the hut and sat still until Hariya came in and dragged her home by her hair and beat her till her buttocks ached.
“Visiting a chudail’s house?” Her father had scowled, “I know you too are a chudail, like her. She is your true mother, she planted you in your mother’s womb and you ate up my son. But at least wait till I die before you go and practice your witchcraft with her. I don’t want to be cast out from the community as a witch’s father. Next time I find you anywhere near her house I am going to slice your throat and throw you in the river myself.”
Titli walked along the stream for some time before starting to walk back towards the village. She liked to come near the stream in the afternoons when the forest floor was carpeted with mosaic of light and shade. It was her island of tranquility and freedom. Here she could chase butterflies carrying vibrant colors on their tiny wings and sit with her feet in the stream, listening to the chirping of sparrows, an occasional soulful cawing of peacocks or the mechanical tuk tuk tuk of the coppersmith barbet. She could sit by the roots of a sturdy shihsam tree observing the line of ants going up and down frantically or she could climb its branches and peer around till she would witness the magnificent display colors in a peacock’s courtship ritual or catch a glimpse of a nilgai or a chital. She would lie under the eucalyptus trees and look at distant treetops through which sun sometimes shone like a dazzling golden dew drop suspended from a branch high above.
She would talk aloud to herself lying down. Sometimes she would pretend to be another girl and had a conversation. She wished she had a friend. But there were no girls in the village. What she did not know was there was not a single girl in sixteen villages around her. All the girls who would have been her friends were buried in the backyards of their homes. Killed by the horrified parents who expected a boy and got a girl instead. The boys from her village would not let her play with them so she came to the edge of the forest and made friends. First she tried to be friends with the birds but they flew away. So she made the trees her friends. She gave them names. There were the fair Chutki, Jhilmili and Ginni, the three eucalyptus trees that grew close to each other and there was the dark skinned Kikar tree, she called Puniya and the small thorny acacia she called Karamjali. She knew the last one was not a name, but Hariya had called her Karamjali many times so a girl could be called Karamjali, she did not know many girl names. She would come to the stream and talk to her ‘friends’. She would tell them about her day and then she would answer on their behalf, making stories about how their day had been. Ginni told her that a sparrow had made a nest in her head and laid eggs in it and Chutki told her about very strong wind that was blowing in the forest in the morning which, Chutki thought, would blow all their leaves away. Jhilmili would always complain about one or the other thing and Puniya spoke very little, like the Puniya in her village. Karamjali was the naughtiest, she told how she pricked a wild cat with her thorns or how a baboon who had grabbed her went away with a bloody hand. Sometimes Titli told them about the beating she received at home.
“Why are there no girls in the village?” She asked her mother.
“Because they send them away when they are small.” Her mother replied shooing her away from the stove.
“Then why did you not send me away with those girls?” Titli asked innocently and did not understand the emotion in her mother’s eyes.
“Because we love you and did not want you to be away from us.” Her mother said.
“But I get bored all day.” Titli said with credulous puppy eyes that only small children can make with their naïve innocence. “Why don’t you send me to a school.”
Her mother looked up with an alarmed expression, “don’t let your father hear you talking like that. He will give you a good thrashing. Girls don’t go to school.”
“So what do the girls do?” She persisted.
Her mother caught her by the elbow and pushed her out of the hut, “Go play somewhere till I finish making dinner. Don’t bother me with your stupid questions.”
Once Titli had heard her parents fighting. “I should have listened to my mother and made you get an abortion. The dai had warned us that it was a girl.” Hariya had said. Her mother had said nothing in response. Most of their fights ended in Hariya pushing her mother to the ground and kicking her or hitting her with his ‘chapal’, raw leather slippers. Titli would shut her eyes tightly as if to transport herself away from her mother’s screams. After some time the screams would stop and her mother would come and lie down beside her, with a hand over Titli’s cheek. Titli would keep her eyes closed knowing well of her mother’s gaze. She wanted to open her eyes once and to search her mother’s eyes, to find out whether her mother looked at her with love and admiration or hatred. But she never had courage to open her eyes and meet her mother’s. She laid there with her eyes closed till sleep took over. Somewhere deep inside, young Titli knew, she was the reason for her mother’s misery.
She walked past the lone gulmohar tree standing like a night guard in the middle of a field and came to the Kheturam Ka Khandar, literally translated to ‘Kheturam’s ruins’. The ruins were a part of a 18th century garrison built by the Surajmal Jat, the 18th century ruler. Kheturam was the last commander of the garrison. It was destroyed by the Rohillas and later by the British. Now all that remained was a crumbling boundary wall covered with yellow-green lichen and large cracks. Inside, the forest had reclaimed the land and the remnants of the walls and pillars with trees and creepers growing over every surface. No one from the village entered the ruins. It was said that the ruins were haunted by the ghosts of the soldiers who once lived there. Titli felt shivers down her spine as a cold gust of wind blew making whoosh whoosh whoosh sound. She started running towards the village and only stopped when she reached near the banyan tree which marked the boundary of Chowdhary ki basti, colony of the Chowdhary, which was the central part of village.
All the upper caste families in the village like Thakurs, Jats, Rajputs, Brahmins and Baniyas had houses in Chowdhary ki basti. On its right was Gujjar ka Tila. The houses there belonged to Gurjars from eastern Rajasthan. Titli was forbidden to go beyond this point. Chowdhary ki basti and Gujjar ka Tila were out of bounds for all the Dalits staying in the village except Jhumri, the old woman who collected garbage and swept courtyards in the village. She was allowed to enter the main village in the mornings to clean the houses and streets. Sometimes, Dalit men would be summoned by upper caste families to do some menial labour like digging latrines or carrying away dead animals. Once a 10 year old Dalit boy had wandered into the village chasing a chicken. He would have hardly crossed a few metres inside the ‘upper caste’ area when he was caught by few upper caste youth. He was beaten so badly that he lost an eye and almost died.
Titli knew about this story when she looked up and saw the well near the small shrine, a few steps away on the other side of the tree. The shrine was just a rock with saffron smeared over it. Titli did not know which deity was the shrine dedicated to. But her eyes were fixed on the well. She was thirsty and the well for the Dalits was outside the village in the forest. It would take her time to reach there and her parched throat was screaming for water. Also she was scared of the snakes that crept up near that well in the dark. She couldn’t go home yet as Hariya would still be angry. She looked up and down to see whether there was anyone around. Finding then place deserted she started tiptoeing to the well, fully aware a Dalit girl drawing water from an upper caste well was a serious crime. It was a sin. But not only she was parched but the trespass and the attached risks made the act somewhat of an adventure. She would tell about it to the trees in the forest and maybe when she grew up and had real friends then she would tell them about her small adventure. As she sneaked towards the well, her heart skipped a bit every time a bat fluttered its wings or a frog croaked. She imagined hasty footsteps behind her. At one point, just a half a dozen of steps away from the well she suddenly froze with fear. She no longer had courage to go ahead but she could neither turn around and walk back. She became certain that the village chief, bade thakur, himself was standing behind her with twenty of his men holding stout sticks. She held her breath till she could no longer hold it and stood rooted there for a while before turning her head slowly to look behind her. She could hear the pounding of her heart. When she saw that there was no one behind her she sprinted the well on her tiny feet. She threw herself on the ground when she reached the well, panting, yet feeling security in the cover that the well provided. She lay there for sometime catching her breath and then got up and peered inside the well.
Drawing water from the well posed a problem. She could not use the creaky wooden pulley fitted on the well as it would definitely make noise and attract attention. She was about to give up and run back away from the well when she found a loose bucket lying around. She needed a rope to tie to the bucket. There was a rope on a pile of haystacks heaped against a fence wall of a house. She ran quickly to pick up the rope before anyone came out and saw her. She grabbed the rope and turned around to dash to the well when she heard some voices. Her curiosity was piqued as the sounds that came from the other side of the fence sounded like a gathering of sorts.
She climbed on the top of the haystacks to peer over the wall. One part of her was afraid of getting caught but the other part of her was curious and the curious part won. As she raised her tiny head over the wall she saw numerous men and a couple of women standing in the dusty compound. Near the door of the house there was a woman weeping. She was being consoled by a small group of women. In the center of the compound a large aluminum tub filled with milk was kept. Titli’s eyes focused on the tub as her mouth salivated. She had never seen so much milk at a time. She thought that all the gathered men and women would now drink the milk. She wished she was one of them, one of the upper castes. There was a priest standing near the tub with a tall man. A woman came from inside the house and handed a bundle to the priest. He handed the bundle to the tall man. The tall man raised the bundle high up in the air above the container. Titli squinted to see what the bundle was and caught a glimpse of a tiny arm protruding from the bundle. It was a baby. The priest muttered some prayers and the man shouted “Dear God, please receive our daughter in heaven.” And Titli stared in horror as the tall man plunged the baby in the trough filled with milk and held it down. The tiny hands and feet fluttered for a while, fighting a lost battle and bubbles rose to the surface. The woman near the door let out a loud wail and started beating her chest. The other women held her arms and tried to steady her. Titli stared on with horror as the tall man lifted his arms and left the dead infant in the tub. One woman came and picked up the tiny corpse. Another woman came with a dry white cloth in which they wrapped a bundle of flesh and bones which had been a living being some time ago. The priest again muttered some prayers and placed some marigold flowers on the corpse. Two men took the corpse from the women and placed it in the shallow grave that had been dug in the corner of the compound. Titli recognized the Dalit man standing next to the grave who began shoveling mud into the grave as the crowd began dispersing. Titli slouched on the haystack and cried. Now she knew why there were no girls in the village.