I’ve told this story in a book of fiction, now I’m telling it like truth. This really happened 33 years ago and nothing has changed, neither have I. I’m still that boy, straight out of college, planted like a weakling seedling on my father’s farm. Although farming is what I’d studied for five years, farming is what I knew least of all because farming isn’t exactly about farming. It’s anything but growing of crops, it’s the growing up and going down in evolution perhaps.
I had seen many shades of immorality, inhumanity and the opposite of generosity and kindness. Farm life is shown like a painting, like a song and like a dance in frilly costumes straight out of the washing machine. You don’t smell the sweat or taste the blood when the thresher lops a finger off. You do see landlords in old movies thrashing peasants with exaggerated comical laughter, but you don’t see the stuff that makes you want to change your skin and leave your beliefs down a dry well.
Did you know that a trade route extends from east-most Bengal right up to the western border? It goes through the poorest parts of our country and its poorer conscience. These are regions where flood and draught are parents and herds migrate to shanties in the cities, and people in cars wonder why they live the way they die. The truth is quite simple: they are happy they no longer have to eat mud baked in the sun. I’m just telling you what I know to be true.
Did you know Famida? I did. She was 15 when one of our sexagenarian farmhands married her and had four potato-coloured children from her in three years. One day far away she came floundering and fell in a heap at my feet. She pulled up her petticoat displaying lacerations made with a whip or something equally sinister on her thighs. I knew not where to look. I was only 23. I asked my father what to do when such disturbing things reveal themselves.
“They’ve seen worse,” he said, “just look the other way. They forget fast. Don’t think too much or you’ll make enemies with sleep.” And sure enough that evening as she cooked in a cloud of smoke, Famida listened lovingly to her husband play the steel flute, the very instrument he had beaten her with. She probably came from a place where daughters were hot-branded and not merely beaten. But this is not Famida’s story, she is a casual diversion.
In early November that year, I was in the field watching coriander being sown. A slight drizzle the night before had cleansed the air and I could see snow on the distant hills. My Walkman played Chris Rhea forcing me to hum along. Two figures emerged from the mango orchard and headed in my direction.
It was Sukha, and his tail was a girl in early teens. She wore a checked frock and a ton of kohl. On her feet were red sandals just bought, and snot she kept pulling back every few seconds.
Her ebony skin and hair glistened in mustard oil. Plastic earrings pretended to be rubies. She hid behind Sukha like he was her father on the first day of school. He had three daughters who worked on the farm. The youngest would have been eight years and much tinier than the girl before me. In those days it was okay for kids to wield the sickle at one-third the wages of men. This cruelty was a sort of kindness then.
Sukha pushed the girl between us. Her bones poked through the thick cotton. Moisture welled-up in her dark eyes. Her snot dangled and she wiped it on her shoulder.
“Buy her,” Sukha said in a low voice.
I wasn’t sure I heard right.
“Buy her, bhai saab,” he repeated.
“Buy her? Your daughter?”
“She’s not mine,” he spat, “she’s Bengali.”
“How much?” I asked against my will.
“Two thousand what?” My voice quivered.
“Rupees,” he smiled expecting to close the deal.
The girl watched the men broadcast coriander seeds in the field. One of them had his eyes on her. Famida’s husband. Some things became clearer. Where did Famida come from? Why didn’t she run away?
“What if she runs away?” I asked Sukha.
“Thrash her and she won’t. Feed her and she can’t.”
I was only a boy then, but that afternoon has lived with me ever since. What could have happened had I bought the girl for peanuts? I went and wrote a book about her. A work of fiction.
Several years later I was in a car at a red-light in Delhi close to midnight. There was a knock on the glass. An eight-year-old tribal girl peered at me, saying something I couldn’t hear. I rolled down the window.
“Aye babu,” she said, “want to take me home?”