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Bant stood leaning on his cycle so lost in thought that he had forgotten he had some work in another village. His reverie was interrupted by the sound of an approaching motorbike. He turned and waved when he saw his namesake, Beant Akali, the friendly Jat landlord who had always stood by him. The motorbike came to a halt and Beant Akali shouted out in his usual brusque manner, ‘O Bant, what are you doing standing by the fields. The wheat will not grow faster under your gaze. Or are you composing some new song?’
‘No Bai, I am going to Burj Dhilwan for some work. I just stopped for a while.’
‘Carry on and finish your work. I am going to Joga to meet some people. I hope those boys are not troubling you anymore. Come and see me tomorrow and we will discuss matters,’ Beant said, kick-starting his motorbike.
Bant heaved a sigh and started pedaling. When he reached the vehra at Burj Dhilwan, he learnt that the friend he had come to meet had gone off on an errand somewhere. Bant sat down to talk to his friend’s uncle, Seva Singh, and the latter’s wife Gurjeet Kaur rushed off to heat some sweet, milky tea. This Dalit family was very grateful to Bant because he had freed them from the shackles of a debt to their landlords which the poor people had thought would end only with their death. Perhaps not even that, for their children would continue to be saddled with the burden. Some fifteen years earlier the couple had taken a loan of five thousand rupees for the wedding of Seva’s sister. For the next eleven years they kept paying back the five thousand rupees and would have continued to do so for the rest of their lives. They had paid fifty-five thousand rupees in all but were still in debt because the Jat moneylender had two relatives in the police and the labourers were afraid to protest. Finally the Party intervened and, through Bant’s negotiations, pressurized the moneylender into letting Seva Singh and his family off.
Bant had just put down the tumbler after drinking the tea when Seva, who was now one of the members of the Mazdoor Mukti Morcha, came home.
Bant hailed him with a laal salaam. ‘Where were you? I have been waiting here.’
‘Bai, I had just gone off to get some medicine for the old man. He has been coughing a lot of late,’ Seva said and called out to his wife to bring some milk for the visitor.
‘I have already had milk, don’t bother,’ Bant said, getting up, and added, ‘we better get going. It is quite late and we have a lot of work. We have to distribute these pamphlets and then get some khoya from the gurudwara. Your sister-in-law needs it to make sweets for Lohri.’ Seva wrapped a shawl around his shoulders and the two friends set off on the bicycle.
It was already six when Bant neared the fields around his village. He was happy because the pamphlets had been distributed and he was taking home two kilos of excellent khoya. Carrying it in his shoulder bag, he pedalled quickly. Harbans is a simple woman, he thought, who is always worrying about me. He was lucky to have found such a wife. His mind went back to the lovely round-faced bride she had been. She had looked so pretty in her flowery magenta suit and the matching dupatta covering her head. Time and illness had taken their toll on her. Her face was now gaunt and her body frail, but her love for him was as strong as ever.
Humming a line from a song, he turned into a narrow path between the fields. A little ahead he saw a group of people. ‘Now what is this meeting that is happening so late in the evening?’ he asked himself. He soon realized that these were the same boys who had attacked him twice earlier. ‘The past few years have been more than difficult,’ he thought, ‘although difficulty dogs every step of a poor labourer’s life.’ Soon after the second assault he had stopped the boys from entering the Bania’s house next door to his, where they had come to ogle his daughters. This had led to yet another quarrel.
Bant Singh’s humming was cut short because he understood that the boys had probably come back to settle scores. They must have seen him leave the village and were now lying in wait for him. He stopped and counted; there were seven men in the group. His anxiety mounted: there seemed no escape and there was no one else in sight. He prided himself on his strong body, and he could have fought off one or even perhaps two men, but how could he deal with seven young men hell bent on teaching him a lesson?
Quickly throwing his bicycle to one side of the path, he started running through the fields. But the youths had come well prepared. They followed him on their scooters and jeep and surrounded him. ‘Why are you after me? Let me go, or you will suffer,’ he shouted loudly, hoping to frighten them away. But there was no scaring them that evening. They had come well-armed and their hatred was emboldened by the country liquor which they had poured down their throats. They wanted to silence Bant for all time to come and make him an example for all the other Dalits who dared to challenge them. The boys had done their homework well. Since they didn’t want to attract the charge of culpable homicide—which using sharp weapons would bring down upon them—they had brought along blunt weapons: the curved metal handles of handpumps.
Four of the boys dragged him to the edge of the irrigation canal. There they put his legs on the embankment wall. A rough cloth was thrown on him as four of the men pinned him down. Two raised the metal handles and brought them down with all their strength on his shins. The pain stunned Bant but he still tried to raise himself and shouted, ‘What are you doing? What have I done for you to hit me?’ One of the boys struck him with even greater force and hissed, ‘We are just doing a job that has been assigned to us. Today, you will not get away!’ Blow upon blow, and the bones of Bant Singh’s legs were splintered beyond repair. Then, sure that Bant had been irretrievably incapacitated, they swung him about and began attacking his arms. ‘So you won’t let us enter the vehra… Does the village belong to you?’ said one. ‘You will decide where we should play badminton?’ said another. But they did not raise their voices, and the silence of the dark night remained undisturbed. Bant soon stopped feeling any pain. ‘No one will come to save you,’ said an assailant and they drove away into the darkness.
Bant Singh recalled later, ‘I remained conscious all through and, after the first few blows, I had stopped feeling the physical pain. I don’t know why I did not fall unconscious. Was it the hard will of a labourer or was it the blessing of my grandfather Dhanna Singh which kept me conscious? The only thoughts which came to my mind were of my children. What would become of them? The bag with the khoya, which was lost, the sweets that were to be made from the khoya, the Lohri bonfire; nothing came to my mind. I did not even think of Dulla Bhatti. I thought of Harbans telling me not to venture out but there was nothing that I could do to let her know of what had happened. I thought of my children; little Paroche, who slept on my arm, as I lay there under the open sky waiting for no one.’