I am sure you are telling the truth when you say that you have never come across a living home so utterly devastated and desolate—a place virtually transformed into a shamshan, a cemetery, a cremation ground, where restless souls roam around in the hollow, moonless nights. But, then, you must also realise that though we, who go on living in this house, are visibly alive, actually we are worse than dead!

Ever since we have passed through that hell, Bapu keeps lying on his sagging string-cot all day long. At night he gets up and starts trudging around on the roof, as if its surrounding parapet has imprisoned him and he is desperately struggling to escape from that cage.

You won’t believe it, but what I tell you is true. A cage with iron bars is not the only thing that makes a prison. You can have the feeling of being confined anywhere. Even on an open roof.

At last, when my kid sister Bindi’s body was handed over to us, it had been dissected and stitched by them like a gunny bag. But I feel I could still see her anguished eyes dilated with terror; could hear her screams and piercing wails frozen on her pale-grey lips.

Yes, both the bodies were lying together….Bindi’s—Bindi was the pet name of my younger sister, her real name was Salwinder Kaur—and Jiti’s, her friend, whose real name was Sarbjit. The two of them were like a pair of doves. They did everything together: going to school and coming back, reading and writing, spinning and weaving, stitching and embroidery.

Poor girls! Even when death came they embraced it together, and together they lived through the horrendous moments before their death…they…

No, I am not crying. It is some kind of fury which rages within me. A cauldron of anger and indignation boils within me, under which huge logs of wood keep bursting into flames. Crying? No, I just can’t help it…

What I really feel like doing is to pull out a burning log from under the cauldron boiling within me and set fire to the whole world….Get hold of an axe and hack everything around me into pieces.

No, there is no substance in what you say. In this country law does not mean a thing! After having thought over it for long, it is only now that I have understood that there is a basic twist in the law which makes it practically unworkable. You cannot approach a court until you have lodged a report with the police. F.I.R. If the complainant is a weighty person, his report would be written down in the regular and proper way. By weighty, I mean weighty in every way: the person concerned may be the leader of a gang of goons, may be the paternal or maternal relation of a politician, or may have his pockets crammed with currency notes. The F.I.R. of such people too would be weighty. And if the person complaining happens to be a nobody, a powerless nonentity who has neither right connections nor has a godfather, then he is bound to end up in the same position in which both Bapu and Jiti’s father did.

If the F.I.R. is not written, you cannot approach a court…. And barred from the court means being barred from justice.

Well, you do have a point. Where is the guarantee that you will get justice from the court? In a court you cannot give a first-hand report of what you went through yourself. This thing has to be done by a lawyer. So there again you come back to the same vicious circle. In case you have plenty of money you can hire a lawyer who is both competent and clever. But if a person seeking justice belongs to the ordinary rug of people, he will get an ordinary lawyer. And, in the court, the weighty lawyer of a weighty person belonging to the opposite party will vanquish the ordinary out. A judge has no option except listening to what the lawyers say. A judge can neither see the boiling cauldron nor the raging fires within you.

It is a strange, unending rigmarole. A blind alley! The moment I start thinking about it, my head begins to reel, and everything around me—the world, the earth and the sky—goes into a whirl. I can hardly make out what is what!

Bapu does not utter a single word. Mother keeps lying motionless, like someone on the verge of death, and my brother spends all his time in the gurdwara.

I think I did tell you that Bapu serves in the gurdwara as its granthi. But these days he does not stir from his cot. It is my brother who goes there and performs the early morning ritual of reinstalling the Holy Granth after which he keeps lying around there. He comes back late in the night, swallows a few morsels of food and goes to recline on his bed. Again, early in the morning he leaves the house under the shadow of stars.

Actually it is his wife who keeps the household going.

It is for that very reason that I too came from my in-laws to stay here. But even while I am here I am hardly of any use to anyone. The little that I do is what I am doing right now: exchange a few words with anyone who comes to console us. And if the visitor is someone like you, from a newspaper, then I just….And that is how I pass the day. Long, burdensome and tedious day.

At night I often wake up with a start and look towards mother’s cot. Even in the darkness I can hear her intermittent sobs. She does not cry during the day….Why doesn’t she cry in the daytime?… Can you tell me?… Why does she cry only at night?

What a strange sort of death is this! Where one can’t even let out one’s pent up screams….Can’t bang one’s head against a wall… Or beat one’s breast and give vent to the excruciating pain left behind by the one who has departed, whom you loved so much, who was a part of your life, giving it meaning and substance, and who is no more. Gone for ever!

Tears give an outlet to the pent-up grief within you.

I agree the wounds never heal… They keep festering for years, as long as you live!

If a person can’t give expression to his pain by crying, then all the accumulated grief gets settled, frozen in his heart, like a solid chunk, hard and weighty, and he keeps getting corroded from within. Just have a look at mother and Bapu!

People, you said? What can they do? All that they can do is to come here for a while and sit around talking over and over again about what happened. Does it help? No, it doesn’t. For pain, as for love, you need seclusion. The deeper the pain, the lonelier you are.

No, I am not casting aspersions on you. You neither belong to this village, nor are you a relation or a neighbour. Your only desire is to expose the anarchy that has come to prevail here. I realise that very well. That is why I want to pour out my heart before you. Otherwise, ever since Bindi and her friend Jiti have died, I find it difficult to talk to anyone, even to my own people.

But with you it is a different matter. If a word from your pen opens the eyes of someone, arouses someone by pricking his conscience, if by what you write those wolves could be exposed, the ones who go about in their well-creased uniforms, concealing underneath their blood-soaked jaws and claws which are sharper than knives, it will be worth it. The dead can’t come back, but they can certainly….Or, can they? I am not sure!

Believe me, they are vultures…outright vultures who gnaw at the flesh of even the living beings.

I beg your pardon. I know I should tell you everything in a simple, straightforward manner. But somehow I lose track of the events and get lost in the thorny bushes and brambles of my thoughts. Thoughts, after all, are not crumpled clothes which can be straightened out by giving them a simple jerk or even by ironing them. They always go zigzag, they move in a whirl. I hope you will forgive me for that.

Now, what was I talking about? Oh yes, those wolves. How come wolves have brought back those hounds to my mind? No, actually this thing has nothing to do with Bindi’s death. But I don’t know why of late, it has started haunting me.

Before my marriage, Bindi and I shared the same bed. She was much younger to me. My brother came next to me. Bindi was the third child in the family. The love between us was one of those natural things, like it is among all sisters.

There were times when she suddenly started screaming in her sleep. Actually the way she cried out, it didn’t sound like a scream. It was more like a terror-stricken groan, as if she was being strangled, as if she was desperately trying to extricate herself from someone’s grip. I used to shake her up, calling her name softly, ‘Bindi!… Bindi…!’ And when she woke up, I could see the terror floating in her tear-soaked eyes. She remained frozen in that state for long, not believing that she had escaped from that dreadful, dark cave, from the clutches of….

I would wipe her tears and try to assure her again and again: ‘Look Bindi, I am here. With you! Were you scared?’

Have you ever seen a person in the vice-like grip of a dream with her eyes wide open? The person is awake and yet he is under the spell of a dreadful nightmare….Lying frozen in-between the real world and the world of her dream, completely inert like a stone… as if the fear embodied in the form of a wolf had come out of her dream, and had kept walking side by side with her, in the twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness.

No, it weren’t the wolves that she saw in her dreams. What she saw was a pack of hounds….Bloodhounds!

When I aroused her from her sleep by shaking her up, uttering words of endearment and consoling her, touching and caressing her head and face softly, the spell cast over her by the nightmare broke, and gradually she came back to the world of reality. The terror frozen in her eyes would begin to melt.

After regaining her consciousness and finding me close to her, she felt secure. I whispered sweet words into her ears, made her laugh and dragged her out of the spell woven around her by her nightmare. It was then that her tears would start dissolving into soft, hesitant smiles. Probably, she felt that she had escaped unharmed from the jaws of death. Now the danger had disappeared. This was her home, with secure walls around it, and the hounds could neither leap over nor make holes in them to come in.

Occasionally she related her dream in great detail: “You know sister, I feel as if I am lost in a jungle. Well, not exactly a jungle, but just wilderness with thorny bushes, brambles and trees. Neither light nor darkness prevails. There are moments when you feel that night has fallen and you hear strange sounds. But even in the darkness of night you can still see the thorny overgrowth. Probably it is daytime and it is only I who think that it is night. But then, while I am dreaming I am fully convinced that it is a pitch dark night.

“I have lost my way in the jungle. I start going in one direction but realise that I am again on the wrong path. Then I turn around, start walking in the other direction, and realisation dawns upon me that even this path does not lead towards my home.

“Just then I hear the sound of barking dogs. I think of hiding myself, but suddenly all the shrubs and bushes seem so diminished and dwarfed and wide apart that it seems impossible to take cover behind them. I run hither and thither, but the dogs keep running towards me. Now I can clearly see their open jaws, with their tongues hanging out, their sharp teeth, panting bodies and bloodshot eyes. I can see everything. They keep coming nearer and nearer, throwing a ring around me. I can neither find a way to escape them nor a place to hide. I scream, they pounce on me….I scream….”

After that she would begin to tremble. Not quite the same solidified terror, but a strange sort of fear would begin to peep out of her eyes.

I gathered her in my arms and embraced her tightly, “Silly girl! Where is the sense in being scared of dreams? Actually reality is just the reverse of what you see in a dream. If you happen to see your dead body, you live longer.”

I don’t know whether she believed me or not, but still lying in my arms she would slowly sink back into sleep.

It is only now that I have begun to think that the dogs of her dreams were no different from the ones who closed in on her and Jiti in broad daylight; on the canal bank where ancient acacia trees and cacti, thorny brambles and bushes, jand and karir grow.

If I can get a gun from somewhere, I will shoot those dogs down!

No, I am not crying. It is just that….

Yes,…I will tell you…tell you what happened on that day.

It was a Sunday. Early in the morning, Bindi’s friend came over. Both of them sat down to study and were busy doing so when mother said to them, “Listen girls, I want to remould this chulha. If you have a break and bring me some soft clay from the canal bank, I can get onto the job and finish it.”

Taking a bucket, they left laughing and cooing like doves. Filling it up with soft clay from the canal bank they brought it back. Mother saw it and said, “What marvellous clay! One can sit down and mould a human being with it.”

Bindi said, “Then better make a talking human being mother.”

Everyone kept laughing over it.

Who? Me?… No, how could I be here at the time? I was in my husband’s house. It was my brother’s wife who told me everything later. Mother refuses to utter a single word. The only thing she did was, that on the day when they cremated Bindi and Jiti, beating her breasts she kicked the chulha with her feet and smashed it into pieces.

After that she went back into her shell. And now she seems to be glued to her cot.

While she was kicking the chulha, she uttered such heart-rending screams that it seemed as if someone was rending her apart, slicing her from the middle with a blunt saw.

After emptying one bucket, both of them went back to fetch another. Later we traced that very bucket lying on the canal bank. But the two of them were to be found nowhere.

It was not yet time for the midday meal. Must be around eleven when they left. Later when it was time to eat, mother and my brother’s wife kept waiting for them. Mother casually remarked, “These girls are crazy. It seems they have gone to Jiti’s place and settled there forgetting everything else.”

A little before dark Bapu came home. Mother told him that the girls went out to bring a bucket of clay in the morning but hadn’t returned ever since. Bapu immediately turned back and set out for Makhan Singh’s house. Jiti’s father, Uncle Makhan Singh.

The girls were not there.

Bapu turned towards the fields. Collected Makhan Singh from there and together they kept looking for the girls on the canal bank, kept calling them….

‘Bindi…i…i…! Jiti….i….i…!’

And then they found the mud-spattered empty overturned bucket lying by the side of the canal.

They picked up the bucket and came back home completely bewildered, on the verge of tears.

Members of both the families kept enquiring from each other if the girls had any other friends, and also if anyone knew where else could they go to.

Both families kept looking for the girls till late in the evening… till the nightfall, at their teachers’ houses, at the homes of the headmistress and their class fellows. A couple of teachers came from the neighbouring villages. They even made the round of their houses, but found no trace of them.

You know, while going from our house towards the canal, there is a bazaar. There too they enquired from everyone. Most people had not, but some people had seen them carrying a bucket.

First time when they had brought back the bucket full of clay, Ruldu, the grocer who owns the corner shop, had seen them. Holding it from either side, in order to balance the weight, the two of them were carrying the clay-filled bucket swinging between them. Jokingly he had questioned them, “Aye girls! You still play around with clay?” To which Bindi had replied, “No uncle… mother asked us to fetch it…from the canal bank…soft clay to remould her chulah.” “Oh, I see! Good girls always help their mothers like that,” said Ruldu, and then blessed the two of them in his own simple-hearted way.

My Bapu being the granthi of the gurdwara, almost everyone knows us here. In fact, people give a lot of respect to every member of our family. Unfortunately, it was the time when everyone was engaged in his own business.

This place being a village after all, a few people did see them and a couple of them even talked to them. Just imagine, if it had been a city, no one would have known anything about them. There, even the nextdoor neighbours don’t know each other. I know it because of my husband who happens to work in the city.

No, not in an office. He teaches in a school.

Even Jiti’s people are held in high esteem in the village. No, the land owned by Uncle Makhan Singh’s family is not all that much. You are right. Honour and respect in a village goes to those who are either big landlords or those who belong to the leading families. Actually the two things go together. Apart from such people, respect is conferred on those who strike terror in the hearts of people. For example, take the police inspector. When he barges into the village for some investigation, everyone stands before him with folded hands.

Well, investigations, as a well-informed person like you must know, have now become a matter of routine. Ever since the beginning of disturbances in Punjab, someone or the other is always here to do that. There are occasions when the whole companies of uniformed personnel barge in and go about shouting, threatening and abusing everyone without any provocation. They kick the old and aged people out of their homes. They have neither any deference for grey hair nor manners to behave properly in the presence of a sister or a daughter.

It seems they don’t have any sisters or daughters of their own! Or even a mother who gave birth to them! They have descended straight from the heaven with their uniforms on!

I know. It is no use being angry. Once anger takes possession of you, it burns you up. It singes the core of your soul. When the proverbial pot boils over, it only burns its own edges. Actually what I am trying to tell you is that from the last seven, eight or nine years these creatures just don their uniforms and rush into the village like bulls gone wild. And once they are on a rampage, anything can happen!

What have we done to deserve that? You want to know our fault? It would be better if you ask them about that. Sometimes they say that we have given shelter to the terrorist youth in our village. At other times they say that such and such persons had their meals and spent the night here. ‘Who were those guests of yours? And, why had they come here? They must have come here after unleashing violence and murder somewhere. Why did you give them food? Why did you provide them with a cot to sleep on?’

Sometimes they round up the village youths and take them away without any fault of theirs, and then beat them up mercilessly. When, weeping and wailing, their parents go to the police station to bring back their sons, they give them a thrashing as well; and then take away from them all the money they can grab. Harassed parents come back after which everyone thanks the Lord that his son has come back home alive.

And the variety of uniforms that you see around here these days is simply amazing. My husband has often tried to tell me the difference between one and the other, but somehow I always forget. I can’t distinguish one uniform from the other. They all look the same to me. I mean, the wolves underneath all those uniforms. They all seem to be the same to me.

Oh yes, I was telling you about Jiti’s father, Uncle Makhan Singh. No doubt their landed property is not much, but in the village they are looked upon with respect. After all, the nobility of character is not something that can be ignored easily!

This girl Jiti was studying with Bindi in the same school. She used to say that after completing her education she would take up teaching in a school, and if she secured better marks she would put on specs and teach the college girls, earn money and place it on the palm of her Bapu. She used to say that she did not want to get married. Both Bindi and Jiti were scared of marriage. Their only desire was to achieve something after completing their education.

No, I am not crying. Actually I was thinking that, in the end, everyone has to die. Whatever has been moulded by that great Potter will, one day, come apart…will be shattered to pieces. But then this was not a death like any other! At their age, girls play around and laugh without a care in the world! On the threshold of youth those two little ones were torn apart and devoured by those bloodhounds!

What a way to die!

To cut a long story short, the search was still on when night enveloped everything in darkness.

Everyone spent the night in great agony. The whole village was caught in the grip of anxiety.

After getting up in the morning, Bapu, Uncle Makhan Singh, my brother, Jiti’s two brothers, and some prominent persons of the village left for the police station at Hargovindpur to lodge a report.

No, our village Bhim has no police station of its own. But no one knows which police force had stationed a picket of its men here for the last so many months. In fact that too moved out last month. Actually it is the village people themselves who got it removed by making innumerable complaints and dozens of requests to the higher authorities. All those four-five policemen who were stationed here roamed all over the village the whole day long, grabbing free meals, roasting stolen poultry, and created a rumpus after getting drunk at night. At least two of them were like overfed bulls. They kept ogling the young daughters and sisters of the village folks, passed lewd remarks and whistled at them. They simply had no sense of shame or propriety.

Ogling and whistling at a girl by someone belonging to the village is unimaginable! Such a thing can’t even be thought of ! All that is a part of city life. You are right. I too live in the city with my husband but basically I am a village girl. I hardly go out of the house on my own.

All of them reached the police station at Hargovindpur to lodge a complaint about the disappearance of the girls in broad daylight! But the police inspector did not register the report. Probably the reason was that they told him that their suspicions fell on a couple of policemen who belonged to the picket removed from the village last month. The name of one of them was Purshotam Dev, but they were not sure what the other was called. This very Purshotam Dev had come to the village last week riding a cycle. He just roamed in the village without doing anything, and then went away.

The inspector did not write down the report, but sent them all back with an illusive expectation by suggesting that they should continue looking for the girls on their own, try and find out if their relatives knew anything. In the meantime the police too would keep searching for them.

Every morning the entire panchayat and some other prominent persons went to the Hargovindpur police station along with Bapu and Uncle Makhan Singh, and time and again named Purshotam Dev as the prime suspect. Obviously, nothing was to happen and nothing did. The complaint, as usual, remained unregistered.

On the fourth day, the inspector said to them, “Now that you gang up and come here every day, let us go to Purshotam’s village and see if we can find out anything. Go and bring a taxi.”

Now tell me. Is that the way the police performs its duty? Are the very people who are already down and out expected to mobilise taxis for the police investigation?

Anyway the taxi was brought. Bapu and uncle got into it along with the inspector and a couple of constables.

Purshotam was not to be found in his village. The only thing that the inspector did was to go to his home to enquire if he was there. Obviously he was not there, so all of them came back.

Is this the way an investigation is conducted? Anyway I leave it to you to decide it for yourself.

It seemed that the inspector already had inside information and knew everything, and that was why the report had not been registered.

It was the fifth day,

To call it a day would be a travesty of truth. Every day that came was like the doomsday, and every approaching night proclaimed the end of the world. The whole village seemed to be completely paralysed. People had forgotten to do their daily chores. After all it were their girls, young and innocent, so sweet and simple, who had disappeared from the vicinity of their own village. It was nothing less than a dreadful calamity for them.

It so happened that on the fifth night some policemen barged into the village around midnight. They informed that they had found two corpses, right on the canal bank, but about twenty kilometres away, lying in a deserted area. “Come and see whether they happen to be your girls,” they said.

People from all over the village, must be about fifty of them, got together. They told the policemen that recognising the corpses would be difficult at that hour of the night, especially when you tell us that they are lying at some distance from the roadside.

“Let us wait till the morning. So many days have already passed, a few more hours won’t mean much. It is already two past midnight.”

But the policemen did not relent. They told them that if they wanted to come, they should do so straightaway. Otherwise the people from the municipality would cremate them as unclaimed bodies.

Unclaimed! No one could stay back after hearing that word. They could be their own girls! So about sixty odd people immediately got into the truck of the village Sarpanch and headed towards Hargovindpur.

When they reached there, they saw two bodies lying stark naked in a small mini-bus. It was pitch dark and the corpses were stinking. To make out anything was difficult. So all of them approached the inspector and said, “We would be able to do that better if you manage a torch for us. How can we recognise them like this when we can’t even see their faces?”

“Am I running a torch factory over here?” thundered the inspector, hostility spilling over from his words. And then turning to his men ordered, “Come on, Harnamia, start the bus and take them to Batala for postmortem. It may be light or darkness, I am sure a person can certainly recognise the members of his own family if he wants to!” And he said to Bapu and Uncle Makhan Singh, “Probably these are not your girls after all. That is why you are finding it difficult to recognise them.”

Everyone decided to accompany the mini-bus to Batala. They reckoned that by the time they reached there the day would dawn, and then they would be able to see them properly.

But the inspector was trying to avoid taking them with him. As far as he was concerned he had completed the formality by offering the bodies to them for identification. Now he could declare the corpses as unclaimed, and have them cremated by the municipal officials without any complication.

After that, what could anyone know from a heap of ashes?

Twice or thrice he ordered them in a harsh voice, “Go back to your village. If we come to know anything we will automatically call you over. Haven’t we done that this time? Police force is not lying idle after all! It is only for people like you that we keep running around day and night.”

But all our village people kept standing there without uttering a word.

I feel, if only Bapu and Uncle Makhan Singh had been there, the inspector would have had their thumb impressions affixed on a statement saying, “No, sir, they are not our girls.” And the formality would have been completed. But, perhaps the presence of sixty odd people deterred him from doing that.

All of them decided that they too would go along in their truck.

When the police driver tried to start the mini-bus carrying the corpses, it failed to move. It is difficult to tell what went wrong with it. Actually this bus had been grabbed by the police from somewhere, free of charge. In the meantime the inspector was giving vent to his frustration by going after the driver, and the latter, shaking with terror, kept checking the structural framework of the engine, saying “What can you do with a machine like this? It simply refuses to budge when it wants to. I am doing whatever I can, but my hands don’t stop trembling.”

Both Bapu and the Sarpanch told him that if that bus refused to run, then he was free to load the corpses on their truck. “We will take them to Batala,” they said. But the inspector simply wanted to keep them at an arm’s length and in reality had no intention of showing them the bodies properly. So he did not pay any heed to what they said.

Just then they saw a bus coming down from Batala. The inspector stopped it, ordered all the passengers out of it, and asked the driver and cleaner to take out the bodies from the mini-bus and load them into their bus; they were to be taken to Batala.

By then the sky was getting pale grey with a distant dawn. While the corpses were being dragged out of the mini-bus, Bapu recognised both Bindi and Jiti. Uncle Makhan Singh and Bapu stood where they were, completely bewildered, their eyes like frozen pools, their mouths slightly open, their arms dangling by their sides like dead wood.

The corpses had become so bloated and stiff, and their faces had become so horrifying that it was difficult for anyone to recognise them.

Bapu uttered a heart-rending scream, took off his turban, tore it off from the middle, and covered both the corpses with it.

Please forgive me for this long pause. All this time words simply refused to come to my lips. You say, why do I cry haltingly?… Letting out a sob every now and then….You say that unrestrained weeping lightens the heart’s burden….What you say is right. But then, do you hear the groans of Bapu, sprawled on his cot out there? … He too only cries in his dreams.

We are all dead people. We don’t weep during the daytime. At night we get up from our burning pyres, wander around, and weep.

When the inspector heard the piercing wail of Bapu, which tore the hearts of earth and sky, and then saw him tearing his turban and covering the corpses, he changed his tactics. He took the Sarpanch aside and said, “Look, if these girls are yours, I am awfully sorry. What was ordained by fate has come to pass. But the fact is that no one really knows the circumstances in which they lost their lives. Now people are going to say something or the other, and everyone will have his own version to give. The whole village will earn a bad reputation. You are all respectable people, with families of your own. Sardar Sahib, believe me, I too have sisters and daughters. I understand everything. That is why I am advising you that so long as the postmortem is not performed and the cause of death is not established, it would be better for all of you to keep quiet. Otherwise you are free to follow your own wisdom. As far as I am concerned I am already doing my duty. Regardless of the fact whether you claim these girls as your own or not, the postmortem on them, in any case, has to be performed. I have to do all that my duty demands. Now it is up to you.”

“What do you expect us to do?” asked the Sarpanch.

“I would advise you to be discreet. After all, it is a matter of honour! I don’t want the name of your village to be tarnished,” the inspector advised.

“And how do we explain why we are running around with you?”

“That is hardly a problem. Just say that you came along to help the police. After all, it is the duty of every citizen to help the police, isn’t it?”

In their naive innocence, the sort of trusting innocence with which all the simple villagers are imbued, they all agreed. In their anguish and bewilderment, and the calamitous storm that raged in their hearts at the time, they were not left with any sense of judgement to know that this too was a police stratagem, a trap.

Police was bound by law to have the postmortem done. The inspector’s plan was that by declaring the corpses unclaimed at the time of the postmortem, and getting them cremated by the municipal authorities, he would easily destroy all the available evidence.

Anyway, all of them reached Batala. Postmortem was done. When they asked for the bodies to be handed over to them, the concerned doctor said, “These corpses are unclaimed. That is what the police told us before leaving. They can only be handed over to the municipality for cremation.”

There was no trace of the inspector anywhere around. Having completed all the formalities he had disappeared from the scene.

I repeat, had all the fellow villagers not been there, the things would have gone exactly the way the inspector had planned.

Now they had only one option left, and that was to take permission from the S.D.M. for the bodies to be handed over to them. So Bapu and three or four others left to see the S.D.M., while others stayed back to keep a watch over the corpses.

The inspector had done a thorough job, leaving no way open for them. Hardly had some time passed when, without having been approached by anyone, the municipal employees reached there with their cart for carrying away the dead. The inspector must have made all the arrangements before making himself scarce.

Jiti’s father and all the sixty-odd people of our village protested vehemently. When you have nothing more to lose, your protest rings out loud and clear.

In the face of so much opposition from so many people, the corpse-carriers disappeared.

After some time the inspector reached the hospital along with all his retinue in toe. He abused all our village people, threatened them, and beat up Uncle Makhan Singh in the hospital corridor itself, and that too right in front of everyone, “You bastards! You can’t keep an eye on your girls. And when they take to the streets, and illegitimate worms begin to crawl in their wombs, and they go and commit suicide by jumping in the wells or canals, you create problems for the police! Hasn’t the police anything else to do? Is it the job of the police to keep your daughters under control?”

When the Sarpanch opened his mouth to say something, the inspector did not spare even him and dug his elbow in the Sarpanch’s midriff. “Listen, oye Sardar! You may show your authority when you go back to your village! This area comes under my jurisdiction. Just imagine! I offered you the best possible advice, telling you that the more you expose yourself the more vulnerable you will be! But ignorant fools that you are, you hardly understand anything.”

When some of the young boys started getting restless, with dark anger and indignation welling up in their eyes, the inspector and the other policemen accompanying him virtually pounced on them, shouting, “Don’t you show us your temper and try to jump out of your clothes! These days the government has made such laws that once you are put behind the bars, no one will know whether your mothers ever gave birth to you!”

Uncle Makhan Singh, almost on the verge of tears, came forward and said, “Why have you become so inhuman? Absolute power has corrupted you absolutely. We have lost two daughters. Two innocent, young girls! And you don’t know anything else than threatening us! Is this your way of protecting justice? Can’t you do anything else than just crushing us with your uniformed authority?”

“Who knows you might have killed them yourselves and dumped them there! You know if you keep talking like that, I can arrest you on a charge of murder and put you behind the bars. Many jats have been doing that, killing their daughters who go astray. There is nothing new about it.”

Just then Bapu came back with the letter of authority from the S.D.M.

The inspector handed over the bodies to them but kept on threatening them, “I know everything. I was only trying to salvage your honour. The girls have either drowned themselves or you have murdered them. If you want to avoid further investigations, you must cremate the bodies here in Batala. I can’t allow you to jeopardise and vitiate the peace of the village by taking them back home.”

So the bodies were cremated, and the two families came back with bags of bones and ashes.

Bapu must have recited the couplets of the Ninth Guru umpteen times at dozens of cremations. I have told you that it is he who performs all the religious duties as the granthi of the gurdwara. But when fire rages in your own breast you forget everything, even your God!

I keep wondering how he would have performed the last rites in the cremation ground. Did he do it himself ? How does a father perform the last rites of his own flesh and blood? Did God cry in his heaven? Did the earth shake?

Well no, the report has not been registered till now. The entire village banged its head against the walls of authority everywhere. They approached the Deputy Commissioner, senior police officers, and even the Governor at Chandigarh. From everywhere they received the same reply, “No, the situation in the country is not as chaotic as you think. You don’t have to worry about it. Rest assured, we will have the matter investigated.”

And at the time of investigation everyone says the same thing, that there is no witness.

It makes me so angry that I want to get hold of each one of them and ask them, “You wretched goons! Who can bear witness to the fact that you are the children of your own fathers! Where is the evidence?”

Evidence indeed!

Nearly a month has gone by since the day when Bindi and Jiti went to the canal bank to fetch a bucket of clay. Time does not stop, it goes on and on. But I tell you the truth when I say that those moments have frozen inside our hearts like solid rocks.

That point of time refuses to recede into the past. It is still here, butchered and bleeding, with its own ghost hovering around it.

Yes, what you just heard was the anguished groan coming out of the hoarse throat of my father. When you hear it, you feel as if someone is slitting his own throat with a blunt knife. Engulfed in a dead stillness he occasionally lets out a hoarse croaking sound which is neither a scream nor a howl, nor anything else. You feel as if he is being sawed into two pieces.

The moment he sinks into a fitful sleep, he begins to groan like that.

In the beginning it used to give me fright. But now I have got used to it. I am sure he will keep doing that as long as he lives.

Every man remains confined within the four walls of his own misery, a dark zone, where no one else can enter.

There are times when I think that those bloodhounds of Bindi’s nightmares have now entered Bapu’s dreams, to gnaw at his flesh for ever!

(Translated by A.S. Judge and the Author)