Each of Us Killers by Jenny Bhatt

If you are traveling along the Kodinar-Amreli Highway or the Khambha-Samter Highway on a rare day clear of the billowing smoke from rattling trucks, tempo vans, and motorcycles, you might spot our village, Saakarpada, hidden between the farthest fields. Then again, you might not. We are so small and distant from all major highways, there is not even a sign pointing in our direction. In fact, a week after the Una protests, when Vishaal Parmar drank a bottle of acid and killed himself, even the police could not be bothered to find their way to us.

The anonymity suits us fine. Our seven Dalit families have served in the fields of the thirty-strong upper caste families for generations. We have always honored the long-time, invisible borders keeping us to our side of the village and them to theirs—till the recent tragic events, that is. Still, our Panchayat leaders are descended from long lines of Panchayatis themselves, so we do not need any outsiders to tell us how to manage these affairs.

On a wet mid-August afternoon, when an outsider suddenly shows up at Premji's tea and grocery shop, it makes us as restless as the marshland frogs jumping around in the downpour. Some say the stranger is a court officer from Una. There is talk of him being a big politician’s son come to talk about the upcoming district elections. And, finally, someone suggests he is a reporter with an Ahmedabad newspaper. It was like when a movie star’s car had lost its way somehow and punctured all four tires near the dry bed of our old river. Only, that had been a happier time and we had all been innocent as young, new brides.

In the early evening, after our day’s work, we men gather outside the shop. The soft drizzle has stopped and the heady smell of wet greenery and muddy soil rises thickly as we squat and crouch together. The memory of our last gathering together under very different circumstances makes us shuffle and shift in our places, wanting to be anywhere but here. 

Keshubhai, our man on the Panchayat, has also hurried over. His short, white stubble grows sparser by the day and his tall, thin frame stoops more as the years pass. His son, Premji, is his mirror image without the stubble or stoop. Between them, they get the story straight: Naveenbhai is a Dalit writer for a Mumbai magazine and wants to know about the several acid-drinking suicides across these parts after the Una incident last month.

Premji and his nephew, Tapan, pass around hot cardamom tea and spicy onion bhajiyas. This generosity, while as welcome as the warm sun escaping the clouds, makes us squint at each other with furrowed brows.

Keshubhai sits on the charpoy next to the young man. “Naveenbhai, there isn’t much to tell from Saakarpada. We were not involved. Vishaal Parmar went to one protest in Amreli town, where the poor head constable was stoned to death. Somehow, Vishaal swallowed that bottle of acid and died in the hospital. I—we—are still in shock.”

We inspect Naveenbhai. He may be low-caste like us but he is a city man—clean-shaven, well-groomed, and dressed in well-pressed shirt and pants. Probably the same age as Premji.

“I’m not doing a newspaper report. I am writing a magazine story about the families of those who died. I want to interview Vishaal’s family. That is all.” He keeps clicking his pen open and shut as he speaks. And, though he utters almost the same language as ours, his tongue is different. 

Keshubhai, our man on the Panchayat and our Masterji, nods his large, shiny, bare head—a back and forth movement like he is erasing something on a blackboard. “Beta, Vishaal has no other family here. Our community—all of us—we are his family. What is this about interviews? Vishaal was like a son or brother to all of us. Let us discuss together, haan?”

Since Keshubhai was elected to the Panchayat’s single Dalit seat, he teaches less but debates village matters for long hours with any of us willing to sit with him—matters which, we know, never make it to the Panchayat. Yet, having our man there with the upper castes is better than the alternative. And, as one of the few educated among us, he is also the only hope for our young children, who are not allowed into the nearby schools, to read and write.

Naveenbhai glances around at us, scratches an ear with the pen, and sighs. Putting his cup of tea down, he opens his notepad. “Fine. Okay. In the news, it was reported he was 19 years old?”

“Yes, he was my age. And he owned this grocery shop next door.” Premji measures out each word like individual grains of rice. “We combined it with my tea stall after the Panchayat gave permission.”

Naveenbhai checks his notepad. “He was of the scavenger sub-caste?”

Have you ever seen someone grow old right before your eyes? The light dimming in their eyes, their facial skin slackening into creases, and their neck drooping as if from some inescapable weight placed on it? The surviving hope of this community’s future—our Premji, who we all hope will take his father’s place on the Panchayat someday—wilts from the direct heat of this question from Naveenbhai.

A low, angry murmur rises from us. Yes, it is true we do the filthy work no one else will: cleaning toilets, skinning cows. Yes, it is true Vishaal’s father was a scavenger, but that poor man is long dead and gone. But why ask us this? Why ask us now?

“How did Vishaal get into the grocery line then?”

Exhaling deep, Premji looks at Keshubhai, then at Naveenbhai. “Government compensation money. It was a state bus that hit his father—”

Keshubhai stiffens his back. “The important point is that Vishaal ran this shop very well. Always made sure he had all our daily supplies so we would not have to travel far.”

Several of us make assenting noises through our tea-drinking. It had not been easy in the beginning but Vishaal had persisted in his efforts with the big kiraana shops in Una. He would often make late-night trips on his phut-phuttee bike to pick up items those kiraanawalas forgot to send.

“Was he always political?” Naveenbhai asks, his pen zooming across the page.

Some of us laugh out loud and his hand stops to clutch that pen tighter.

Keshubhai leans forward and puts an arm on Naveenbhai’s shoulder. “Vishaal liked to give speeches. Who knows where he learned it from? Maybe the politicians on TV. Hey, Tapaniya. Show Naveenbhai how Vishaal did a speech.”

Tapan steps forward so we can all see him. Nobody can miss him even by mistake—the oil-spiked hair he fixes throughout the day in his phone camera and the parrot-bright red and green shirts for which we call him “Popatlal.” Though Premji slaps his ears for doing impressions all day long, he is undeniably good with them, especially Vishaal’s.

Tapan rests a foot on one end of the charpoy. With a lot of head-wagging, eye-rolling, and hand-waving, he rushes into Vishaal’s favorite topics: how we still have kuchha lanes and houses without running water or legal electricity, while the upper castes have concrete roads and multistory houses with inside toilets; how the big schools make our children sit separately and bring their own drinking water; how our man on the Panchayat, Keshubhai, has to sit on the ground while the upper caste Panchayat members sits on chairs and cots; how we have to carry our own bowls to the fields for our water and meals; how we sweat blood for more work with less money than anyone else; how our women and children cannot dance garba during the Navratri fair over the hill; how our people are given separate utensils at food stalls; how we have to give up seats on buses for the upper castes; how we have no place in the village to cremate our dead; and on and on.

One of us shouts to Tapan to tell the mustache story. He flaps both his palms in the air and, again acting like an angry Vishaal, describes how a Mehsana teenager had been beaten up by a gang of Darbar youths for twirling his big mustache. The teenager had argued he was simply wiping off the buttermilk he had been drinking. But they had not accepted it and had also beat up his older brother and his 75-year-old grandmother.

There is the odd giggle but, mostly, we are quiet. Any other time, Tapan’s mimicry would have brought raucous chuckles and tears of laughter. Now, we are sobered to see Keshubhai staring into the distance, lips set in a hard line. Premji turns away with red-veined eyes and disappears into the back of the grocery shop.

Keshubhai opens his tobacco pouch and drops a few lumps onto his palm, saying, “Naveenbhai, do not think us bad people for making fun of our departed. It is a way of keeping them close to us.”

What he does not say is how Vishaal’s outrage used to, in a way, lighten our collective pain. The accumulated insults, rebukes, and disappointments of our individually powerless lives somehow became more bearable to us whenever he voiced our concerns.

Tapan thumps his foot down, still chattering. “I can show Bindu too. Naveenbhai, she was the only one of us to start college. So smart. She told us all about how the upper castes use their sacred cows. She would stand there, in the shop’s doorway, like this,”—he put his hands on his hips—“and say: ‘Arré, a cow is not just their mother. Not just dudh-dahi-chaas for drinking or leather for shoes. Its hide is also used in footballs and cricket balls. They make gelatin from the hooves and put it in jams and cakes. You see? The bones are used to purify sugar. Yes, the sugar in the tea you’re drinking. And a cow’s fatty acids are in everything. Everything—tires, roads, soap. All your shirt buttons, glues, fertilizers, paper, combs, toothbrushes? All made from the bones, horns, or hooves. Believe me or don’t.’”

Keshubhai gestures for Tapan to stop but the boy turns to him, widens his eyes, and waggles a finger, saying, “You have diabetes, no, Masterji? Did you know more than a hundred medicines, including your insulin, have cow products? It takes 26 cows to make enough insulin to keep you alive for a year. Did you know?”

Bas, bas, Tapaniya,” Keshubhai says sharply. “See, he’s a full nautanki and will perform all day if we let him.”

“Who’s Bindu?”

It is as if a large mud hole has opened up beneath us all and we are sinking into it.

Premji, having returned from inside the grocery shop, asks gruffly, “Naveenbhai, have you been to the other cities and villages whose men died similarly? Rajula, Sodhana, Ankolali, Mota Samadhiyala, Gondal, Khambaliya, Jamkandorna? We have brothers and sisters there also. Many of our sons and daughters are married into those places.”

“Yes, yes,” Keshubhai touches Naveenbhai’s shoulder again. “What he means is, we are all bound by family ties. We grieve for our brothers who died there too.”

Naveenbhai and Premji stare at each other. We watch quietly, unsure of the reason for their silent warfare.

“I am going to some of them,” Naveenbhai answers. Then he asks again, “Who is Bindu?”

Keshubhai says, “Vishaal’s younger sister. She died in a sad accident a few days before him.” He sits back and closes his eyes. “Our clever Bindu. We all thought she would be a lawyer or a journalist. I always told Vishaal, didn’t I, she should do a law degree and become a notary in Ahmedabad or Gandhinagar. All they do is rubber-stamp important papers. And, for that, they get so much money. So comfortable, so easy. The only problem with the girl was, for every one word someone said to her, she had ten to give back.”

Not one among us has ever mentioned to Keshubhai how Bindu would sneer behind his back, her nostrils flaring hot: “All I have to do is work really hard for a law degree, then sit there like a monkey holding a rubber-stamp. So comfortable, so easy.”

“So, no next of kin? Who did the victim compensation money go to? The government gave one lakh rupees to each, right?” Naveenbhai has now filled an entire page of his notepad and turns over to a new one.

“We got Panchayat permission to use it to build our own temple—I can take you to see it.” Keshubhai moves to rise.

But Naveenbhai continues writing and continues asking. “Had Vishaal given any hint or indication he was going to kill himself?”

“He and I were like brothers.” Premji sounds as if his tongue has swollen up inside his mouth. “If I had known—”

Keshubhai raises his voice now. “I always told Vishaal to be patient. Justice, if it is due, will be done in time. Do you know about the Sarvaiyas of Ankolali village? Lost their home, land, and had several family members killed after upsetting the upper castes. Their 2012 case has finally made it to court. Our silence ensures our peace, our wellbeing, and our dignity. I know Vishaal would say silence is complicity. . .”

Premji turns slightly away as he addresses his father, “Bapu, a mob of 500 burned. . . Kalabhai and his family lost everything. For four years, they have been running between government offices in Una, Junagadh, Gandhinagar. Their case will keep going on like the Thangadh one, where the police killed those three teenagers with AK-47s. Such is the justice our people get for reporting on the upper castes.”

Pen in midair, Naveenbhai looks again at Premji, assessing what he has said and, perhaps, trying to gauge what has been left unsaid. When he moves on to ask if Vishaal had been involved in the Una situation, we wonder if he understands how there is always much more at stake for our kind; we wonder whether our low-caste brothers and sisters from the cities do not have that lesson constantly bearing down on them like a suffocating leaden rock.

The evening sun hangs low and we shield our eyes against it. Smoky clouds are gathering again in the distance for another deluge. Tapan is dropping fresh batter into the big pan of sizzling, golden-hot oil. Fat mosquitoes are buzzing around us and we swat them away with rags and bits of newspaper. In the nearby bushes, little wild rodents are scuffling to settle in for the night.

Keshubhai swallows the dregs of his third cup of tea. “ No, no. He wanted to go to the Trikon Baug protest the day after those four chamaars were flogged by the gau rakshak men. But he was—too busy.”

His words remind us all of the video we had seen on Vishaal’s phone that simmering July morning. It was no new thing to witness: our people being beaten by upper castes. But watching it play out like a movie scene had turned us into helpless victims too—as if our flesh had been ripped and our bones had been broken.

Four skinny shirtless men had stood tied to the front of a white car, their hands also tied. A couple of other men, different ones taking turns, had used metal rods and wooden sticks to beat the glistening brown backs of their captives. Near-black blood had been trickling from the forehead of one of the beaten men. Mostly, they had remained mute, faces grimacing, bodies flinching, fear and pain leaching from every pore. All we heard were the verbal abuses that had accompanied each blow as it landed. Several passersby had stood around doing, as usual, nothing. One of them had probably shot the video.

These Sarvaiya men, chamaars of Mota Samadhiyala village, had been doing their job—skinning a dead cow—when they had been rounded up and attacked by the gau rakshaks. The self-appointed protectors of their precious cow mother had accused them of killing a live one. By the time we had seen the video, though, the injured victims had been admitted into a hospital in Una and a police case had been filed with serious charges like “attempt to murder.”

Lost in thought, Keshubhai sits like a stone statue. So many of us have learned to read and write at his feet. Because of him, we know the greatness of our low-caste ancestors: Vyasa wrote the Vedas. Valmiki wrote the Ramayana. Ambedkar wrote our Constitution. Yet, he is also right in his frequent caution to us that, when the upper castes lash out against us, prudence and dignity and respectable ancestors mean nothing.

Not one of us could have anticipated what happened the morning after that flogging, some hours before that Trikon Baug protest in Una. Some of us had seen the Sarpanch’s two sons coming down the little hill separating their part of the village from ours—a short distance that is much harder for our people to travel. The three big men accompanying them with sticks did make us stop in our tracks. Moving closer, we had watched them walk into Vishaal’s shop, tell him the police had arrested some of the floggers, and threaten: “Don’t drag our village into that mess. We don’t want gau rakshaks, or police, or reporters here. Take care.” How they had jeered at the boy: “Nobody knows you at the wedding procession, yet you act like the groom’s cousin.”

Then Bindu, who had been helping Vishaal open the shop that day, had spoken up. Anyone who had known her from childhood knew her to be a firework—ready to set off at the slightest spark. We used to joke that, with her temper and bossiness, she would surely be Sarpanch someday. God save us all then, we used to snigger.

The older Sarpanch boy had smiled at her—he has a predator’s smile, all glistening teeth and red gums. “No college today, Bindu? Come see me if you need some homework.”

They all had made fun of brother and sister, reminding them of their place as filthy scavengers—the lowest of the low.

That had been enough kindling. She had let off such a rapid stream of words, spat out such things you would not hear from a decent woman. In response, they had swung their sticks in every which way—breaking shelves, bottles, everything. In minutes, it had all been over and they had left.

But we do not tell Naveenbhai any of this. And, as we remember Vishaal and Bindu clearing up the mess in a stunned stupor, the ache in our hearts makes our heads bow low.

“The police moved fast on the flogging matter, right? Arrested all five gau rakshaks in about two days?” Naveenbhai chews the end of his pen like a schoolchild struggling with a difficult problem.

“Yes, yes. But the court wanted to wait for the dead cow’s post-mortem report. They wanted a forensic examination to know if it was slaughtered or died due to some other reason. If they had not delayed, perhaps things would not have escalated so much.” Keshubhai wrenches these sentences out as if from some deep hollow inside him.

As if with one voice, we grouse, we gripe, we grumble: no forensic report was necessary to know those five men were guilty of assault; the video was enough evidence; they should have sentenced right away; the law is the law; they would not have delayed if the victims had been a higher caste.

 

Beta,” Keshubhai says in his slow, musing way to no one in particular, “the law is one thing and our karma is another. We are of low birth. It is our fate to do the low work. We may also get abused and beaten up. What is the use of complaining? Chaitra month will not end and Vaishakh month will not begin. Our lives have but one season.” He peers up at Premji as he says the last part.

Premji is placing kerosene lanterns around us, the brightest one next to Naveenbhai.

“What about the shop damage? Was it reported?”

“As my father said, what is the use of complaining? We all helped to fix it. There were bigger calamities—” In the flickering light, a shadow veils Premji’s face and his mouth seals shut.

Naveenbhai is quick. “What calamities?” He puts a hand on Premji’s arm to stop him from moving away.

It is as if all the air around us has been sucked away, making it harder to breathe.

“Just internal matters,” Premji mutters and pulls away to retreat behind the tea stove.

“It is late.” Keshubhai stands. “Our wives will be angry we are keeping them waiting.” He points to the heavens. “It is going to rain again too. Are you staying the night? Will you eat with us? It is simple food but my wife takes care of guests like they are gods incarnated.”

Naveenbhai’s face, we see, turns the bright red of a ripe tomato ready to burst. We wait to see if he will refuse the old man and insult him before us all. Instead, Naveenbhai places his notepad and pen into his bag and follows.

We remain motionless as the night breeze stirs our troubled souls. Premji sits with us as Tapan cleans up and closes the shop.

Although none of us says a word, we are as one mind and one body in recalling the calf’s severed head found in the Shiv temple the day after the shop’s destruction. Though it was not as bad as the many cow carcasses being abandoned by our Dalit brothers and sisters outside government offices across much of the state with signs like“Your Mother—you do the funeral rites,” for Saakarpada, it was a first open act of rebellion against the upper castes.

That calf’s head had stayed there all day, putrid and infested with flies and maggots. Crows had poked out chunks of rotting flesh. The upper castes, furious as they were, would not touch it. And, till it was known who was responsible, none of our people would go near it for fear of being implicated. Not that we were allowed even on the temple steps.

All had thought it had been Vishaal taking his revenge. In the evening, the Panchayat had their meeting and we had assembled at a respectable distance too. Now, as lightning begins to streak across the sky, scenes of that night flash before us again.

How Vishaal and Bindu had stood and listened to the accusations with a rock-like, hypnotic stillness.

How, when they had begun taking Vishaal away to punish him, Bindu had cried out, “Not him, not him. I did it.”

How we had all been angry at the silly chit of a girl and thought: if this is what came of educating our daughters, it is best if they learned to be useful in kitchens and fields instead.

How none of us had noticed the first rag cloth landing on her or understood till the flames had begun licking up the ends of her kurta.

How several more burning rags had come in rapid succession from dark, faceless corners, making fleetingly visible a raised hand here, a moving torso there.

How she had cried and fallen, writhing grotesquely like a blazing, molten mass.

How it had taken four men to hold Vishaal back, even as he was constantly screaming at Bindu that he was going to save her.

How the stench and smoke of roasting, crackling flesh had choked our throats and stung our eyes making us stagger further away.

How, in those moments, we ceased to be thinking, acting human beings and each became a dumb grain of sand among other grains of sand, all at the mercy of the wind blowing against us.

How the acid that killed Vishaal shortly after continues to ravage the insides of each of us.

How, in this present moment, as the rain drenches us, chills our clammy skin, mingles with our tears, we are still dumb, unable to speak of this corrosion burning away within each of us killers.

 


Contributor Notes

Jenny Bhatt's writing has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net Anthology and has appeared or is upcoming in, among others: The Atlantic, Amazon’s Day One Literary Journal, Gravel Magazine, Lunch Ticket, Hofstra’s Windmill, Eleven Eleven Journal, Hot Metal Bridge, Vestal Review, Jet Fuel Review, Five:2:One, The Indian Quarterly, York Literary Review (UK), The Nottingham Review (UK), Litro UK, The Vignette Review, and an anthology, ‘Sulekha Select: The Indian Experience in a Connected World.’ Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. She is currently looking for a home for her first short story collection. Find her at: http://indiatopia.com