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It was an unbearably hot afternoon in the village of Ozar. Damu was barefoot, running as fast as he could, soles burning on the scorching ground. The mamledar, a senior revenue official, was visiting the village for a routine inspection and Damu had to herald his arrival. Outpacing the mamledar's horse, he ran until he felt his legs would give way. He ran singing the praises of the mamledar, alerting the villagers that an honorable person was arriving. This was his Yeskar duty.
Later, Damu patiently waited outside the house of the patil, the village headman, to escort the mamledar to another village. He could hear loud laughter echoing from inside. Hours later, they came out. By the time Damu had led the mamledar back, he was tired and hungry. Walking home slowly, he was looking forward to some hot tea and bhakris, homemade millet bread, when a policeman came looking for him.
"Eh, Damu Mahar, I have been looking everywhere for you. Where have you been wandering, you son of a bitch?"
The constable was flustered; a dead body had been found floating in the broken well by the mangroves.
"You will sit guarding the body till the fauzdar and the police party come to inspect the scene and write a report," the constable ordered. "Nobody is allowed near the well. Remember, if anything happens to the corpse, your body too will end up in the well."
Damu told him that he had not eaten since he had met the mamledar's tonga -- horse carriage -- that morning and that he would be back in no time, but the constable would not listen.
"Do you see my baton?" he asked, brandishing it. "I'll stick it up your ass and you will see it come out of your throat. I'll beat you up so badly that you'll forget the name of your father."
Damu ran, stopping only when he reached the mangroves.
It was quiet by the well. Damu looked all around but there was no one in sight and no sound except for the crickets.
Gathering all his courage, Damu hesitantly approached the well and peeped inside, only to turn back in revulsion. It was a ghastly sight -- the body of a woman in white garb, disfigured and swollen, a shoal of fish nibbling at her limbs.
It was getting dark and the stars were beginning to come out. There was no one around, he thought, and it was a corpse after all. What harm would it do if he went home for a quick bite? He was sick with hunger and had not been home since sunrise. It was already midnight; his wife would be worried. Soon, however, he was glad that he had not moved from his post. The constable had come to check on him.
"Damu," he yelled, "I am going home. Be sure to keep a watchful eye and don't let me catch you asleep. The fauzdar is expected to arrive by morning to make his report."
"Saheb," Damu said humbly, "I have not gone home since sunrise...my wife will not take a sip of water without some word about me."
The constable's face took on an angry expression. Damu faltered; no words could form and he stood open-mouthed.
"So what, you bastard? Do you want me to go feed her while you are away?"
Damu cringed; yet without realizing that his voice had taken a sharp edge, he persisted. "Can you at least let my folks know that I will not be home till this body is cremated?"
"Let my folks know, you say. Look at this lout's arrogance! Do you think we were born as messengers for you lowly outcastes? Your woman is not going to die if she does not eat one night. And if she does, who cares?"
Soon, dawn was breaking and the villagers were beginning to come to the fields for their morning ablutions. Damu sat by the well, unseen by anyone. He could hear them as they started whispering. All kinds of rumors were afloat.
"Why did she commit suicide?"
"How do you know it was suicide? She might have been pushed into the well."
"What would you expect when a widow from a high caste gets pregnant, eh?"
"Arre, she was a loose woman. Don't you know her husband died of tuberculosis some three years ago? She must have been in heat and gone under whoever was available."
They all burst out laughing.
"Let the dead lie dead. Who knows, her spirit may be roaming around here and will haunt you in the night."
"Who knows what the truth is? She is dead now, bless her soul. Let's not talk ill about her."
"Why this sudden affection for her? Had she granted you some special favors?"
"That has nothing to do with what I am saying. Why blame the poor woman for being with child? Why don't you talk about the man who committed this act? Is it not his responsibility too? But no one talks about him..."
Damu kept awake by pacing up and down. He drank water to quell his hunger and continued to wait for the fauzdar. The police would draw the body out, the report would be written, and the dead woman would be handed over to her family. Then he could go home after the body was cremated.
Hours passed and the sun was overhead and yet, there was still no sign of anyone official. As Damu looked up at the sun, he felt dizzy. Then he saw someone walking toward him. It was Namya, one of his cousins, clutching a small basket.
"Arre, Damu, everyone was worried about you. Sonu did not sleep last night. You should have at least come home to inform us, or sent word." He handed over the bhakris sent by Sonu. "Sit by that tree and eat."
"No, I cannot eat now. They will arrive any moment. If they catch me eating, they will beat me." As they were talking, the policemen arrived. One of them struck the ground with his baton.
"What's this fellow doing here?"
Another saw the basket and gave it a blow. It flew out of Damu's hands and the bhakris scattered on the ground. Namya scrambled to collect as many as he could. Damu sat near the well on his haunches and whispered to Namya, infuriated, "Why should I have to be the one to sit around without a meal since yesterday, when everybody else has his belly filled?"
Namya tried to pacify him. "Arre, Damu, these are big people...how can they go hungry? That is for people like you and me. That is the way life is...just accept it, what else can we do?"
Then, feeling sorry for Damu, he whispered, "Come, stand behind me and quickly eat one bhakri. You will feel better."
Damu refused to eat while hiding behind Namya as if he were doing something wrong.
"Why should I hide? Am I any less human than they are?" Damu asked Namya.
The clip-clop of hooves grew louder, and the crowd stood at attention. The fauzdar rode in, cracking his whip arrogantly. He dismounted, tossing the reins to one of the constables, who rushed forward. The constable tied the horse to a tree and ordered Damu to fetch hay and water.
The fauzdar circled the well, intent on his inspection. He stood looking at the broken structure. He went to the side where there were steps leading down. A few stones had come precariously loose and those farther below were covered with green moss.
The sides of the well had sprouted bunches of weeds and grass and the algae on the surface of the water glowed fluorescent in the light that filtered through the thick foliage above.
The well was deep but had been abandoned for many years. The fauzdar noticed that the constable and patil were talking animatedly. He went toward them and they conferred for some time.
Suddenly the constable approached Damu and bellowed, "Eh you, Damu Mahar, why are you sitting and gaping at everyone? Do you think the fauzdar has nothing better to do than wait for you to get the body out?"
Damu watched him, bewildered.
"Come on, move!" he shouted.
"Saheb, we are poor Mahars. Our duty is to guard the dead. I have done that. How can I get the corpse out? The dead person belongs to the high castes. It would be sacrilege if I were to touch the high castes," Damu mumbled.
The fauzdar approached him, twirling his whip.
"Are you talking back to me? Did you not hear what he said? Don't waste my time, get the body out."
Damu bent down as much as he could and spoke with utmost reverence. "Maay-Baap, I was just saying that I will draw the wrath of the dead one's relatives if I touch the body. It is one thing if no one had come to claim the body and disowned it, but -- "
"You motherfucking son of a bitch, do you see this whip?" the fauzdar thundered. "Do you want to see it lashing across your mouth and getting at your tongue? You have my orders. Do as you are told."
The abuses struck at the core of Damu's heart. But he swallowed his anger and pleaded, "Sarkar, have pity on me, a poor helpless Mahar. You have given orders but what will happen when you go away? Once you go, I will have to face the wrath of the entire village."
The fauzdar was in no mood to listen. He cracked his whip on Damu, who fell to the ground.
He raised his head and stared at the fauzdar. "No," he said, his voice barely audible.
"What did you say?" the fauzdar yelled.
"No," Damu said clearly. "I am not going to do it."
Namya rushed to Damu's side, trying to pacify him. He held his hand across Damu's mouth to prevent him from saying anything.
"Damu Dada, don't take these things to heart. This has been the way of our village. You should respect the fauzdar saheb. We are dependent on them for all our needs. Even if they get angry with us and beat us, we have no choice but to obey them."
Damu pushed his hand away and yelled, "Whoever wants to claim the body will come and worry about getting the body out. No matter what, I am not going to do it."
Cursing, the fauzdar struck him with his whip again. "You want to defy my orders?"
Damu had a strong impulse to grab the fauzdar's whip and beat him. Instead, he curled his palms into tight balls.
The fauzdar lashed out again. "I know the reason why you lowly creatures are suddenly meeting our gaze and talking back to us. It is all due to that Mahar Ambedkar. He thinks that just because he has read a book or two, he will suddenly become a high-caste Brahmin from a Mahar. And you listen to his talk and start thinking that by talking back to us, you can get away with it."
Damu suddenly stood up and gripped the half-raised whip, giving it a jerk. Not expecting this, the fauzdar lurched forward. He let go of the whip, lost his balance, and fell. A few of the onlookers could not help laughing.
"Wait until I break your jaws!" Damu roared. Namya rushed forward, yelling at Damu to shut up.
The fauzdar was enraged. He screamed at the constables, "Arre, motherfuckers, what are you looking at me for? Catch him and skin his hide!"
At these words, all hell broke loose. Fury tore at Damu's guts. His senses urged him to flee but he stood still as the constables bore down on him. Damu lay jerking and convulsing at every blow and whiplash landing on his body until, with all his might, he cried out, "I will die but I will not bow down before you. Come on, beat me all you can and kill me. Let the world know that a helpless Mahar was killed doing his duty. See, the entire village is witnessing your atrocities."
The beating stopped immediately. The patil rushed forth, shocked at Damu's bloodied state. He stood in front of Damu, preventing anyone from hitting him further and pleading with the fauzdar, asking him to forgive Damu.
"It seems Damu has become insane," the patil reasoned, saying it was not worthwhile paying attention to his blabbering. Then, turning to Damu, he said, "What have you done, Damu? Do you want to be killed?"
He told Namya to take Damu home. "Go; take him away before it is too late. I will see what to do about getting the body out."
Namya helped Damu up. Damu could tell that even the patil was angered by the fauzdar's behavior. But he seemed helpless. All he could do was to tell Damu in a kindly voice to go home and tend to his wounds.
As Damu staggered away, he heard the patil call out to the family of the dead woman: "Why are you ashamed to come forward? Have you already disowned the poor woman? God bless her soul!"
At home that night, Damu cried out in pain. His throat had gone dry but he refused to take even a sip of water. His wife, Sonu, took an old rag, dipped it in oil, and gently dabbed at the welts on Damu's back. Raghoji, the eldest of his cousins, was angry. "You have tarnished the Mahars' reputation for loyalty," Raghoji growled. "You think you can come back from the big city and behave according to your whims and fancies? You have broken our tradition. Have you no brain? No one in his right mind questions the authorities. And look at you -- you had the audacity to insult him."
Sonu, sobbing uncontrollably, tried to pacify Raghoji.
"Big brother, please forgive my man. He has committed a grave mistake. Forgive us, big brother. Please overlook our mistake. I assure you we will abide by every tradition."
Damu looked around with some effort and found the rest of the family watching accusingly. He shouted at Sonu to shut up. This was a matter between men. A woman had no say in this.
"What kind of a tradition is this that treats Mahars worse than cats and dogs?" Damu yelled. "I spit on these inhuman traditions. I am not going to abide by such traditions. I am a man of dignity and I will not go from house to house begging for baluta. What will you do? Kill me?"
Damu's cousins were shocked. Raghoji growled, "Arre, let me see how you will abandon your duties. In the sixty years of my existence, and from all that I have heard from our forefathers, no Mahar has ever refused or left his Yeskar duty halfway. As long as I am alive, it is not likely to happen."
He looked at Sonu and said, "Put some sense into your man's head. It looks like the whipping has affected his brains. It is late now, we will talk it over in the morning."
Eventually all was quiet, everyone asleep. Silent tears escaped Sonu's eyes as she caressed her man's forehead. He was struggling to sit up. When he managed to get to his feet, he pulled at her hand and led her out of the hut. Scared that someone would wake up, Sonu did not make a sound of protest, or even ask him where they were going. A little distance away, Sonu shuffled to a halt.
"We are leaving this place at once," Damu said angrily.
"In the middle of the night? Where will we go?"
"Yes. Right this moment. We will go to Nashik and look for a ride to Mumbai."
Sonu hesitated. He looked so fiercely determined that she was afraid to say anything. Finally, she said, "Perhaps we should wait till dawn breaks..."
Damu let go of her hand and started walking away, without a single word. Sonu ran after him, horrified that he would leave her. He halted in his tracks and turned around. He gave her a penetrating stare and asked just one question: "Are you going to walk shoulder to shoulder with me?"
"Of course! But -- "
"There are no buts if you have agreed," he said. "Let's go."
It was only when Sonu begged and pleaded that he agreed to wait for a few minutes by the banyan tree.
She ran back home, fear clutching at her heart. What if someone woke up and caught her? What if someone caught her man standing by the tree? What if her man left without her?
Lost in her thoughts, she stumbled against the water pot and sent the pail flying. Her sister-in-law woke up and asked who it was. She hastily replied that she was fetching some water for her man.
She quickly grabbed a few onions and whatever bhakris were left over, tucked a couple of saris and her man's dhotis under her arm, and stealthily left the hut, afraid that her heart would burst. She tied the clothes into a bundle and, holding her breath, ran back.
Together, they started walking toward freedom.
Copyright © 2003 by Narendra Jadhav