When the lane was electrified, the circle of his life suddenly became wider. A little beyond the Shivala was the well, and a little beyond the well, the lane turned to the right. A little beyond the turn stood the neem tree. Till then, whenever he had gone to bathe at the well, it was only with mai. The occasion to go to the Shivala came only rarely and then too only with mai. He usually played near and around the neem tree. Partly because a few homes near the Shivala belonged to kahaars, who were water-carriers, palanquin bearers and washed dishes, and Rajgeers, who were skilled masons, and a few grown up boys over there bullied and frightened the younger children, snatched their play things and even their money if they got a chance, robbed them of their share of eatables and to keep their commanding positions were constantly beating them. They were divided in groups and kept fighting amongst themselves and anyone not belonging to their groups was beaten jointly by all.
But when the pole near the Shivala was fitted with bulb, the children from the compound collected there. So did the grown-ups, but they went their separate ways after a short discussion on the advantages of electrification. The children, however, kept dancing for a long time. When something of the grown-ups’ discussion came to their ears, they too began to wonder how, after all, did the bulb light up? Most of the children stood around Kisana because it was he, who had informed with full authority that electricity was a very dangerous thing. If touched with a naked wire even an elephant dies writhing in pain, then what chance would a man have? Things went a little awry when someone asked if the rakshas - the demons too were killed with electricity? When Kisana said they did, a debate ensued on whether or not Lord Ram had slain the demon king Ravana with an electric arrow? Rajee had witnessed the slaying of Ravana in the Ramlila, wherein the life of Lord Ram was enacted. She testified in Kisana’s favour saying how Lord Ram’s arrow had caused Ravana’s body to go up in flames. But Ganesh had heard a story from a Pandit at his grandfather’s house that Ravana died only when hit by an arrow in the navel. Ganesh was the same age as Kisana. He countered Kisana saying demons gobbled up electricity. Also threw out electricity. The debate halted at this point when Nanku threw a poser, ‘but how does a bulb light up?’ Kisana threw one glance at Ganesh to see if he would say something. But Ganesh had nothing to say. Then Kisana spoke with some pride that the English people knew of such a science that, whenever there was lightening in sky, enabled them to capture and trap it. That was the reason why the electric wires were covered with rubber – to stop electricity from escaping. Then the English carried it in the wire and lit up whichever place they wanted to.
There was silence at this for some time. The English people and their science was outside the purview of everyone. What everyone knew was that the English were absolutely white, didn’t believe in their gods and were the government. Kisana had once seen a black - perhaps Baloch - platoon going on road. There were road blocks and people had stood on side-walks. A few English sahibs too had passed at the time in their motor-cars. Kisana had only seen red faces at the window. But Rajee said when she had gone to watch the ‘Ramlila’, she had seen a ‘sahib’ in khaki uniform riding a horse.
Billo too, was there that day. Usually, she stayed inside the rooms, and was seen only at times, washing dishes. She was also the most stupid, always staring wide-eyed at everything. That day when children collected, she too, stood at one side. The children were making a din but she stood on a side, staring with her eyes wide open. And then the children began to play. Since there was not enough space to play ‘hide and seek’ or ‘up and down’, they formed a circle to play the game of ‘korra jamal sai’. Ganesh took off his shirt and twisted it in to korra – a whip, and so took the first turn. There were quite a few children and when they formed a circle, Billo too became a part of it. She too, sat in the circle, but the instant the shivalewali called – 'Basantia! Where the hell are you?' Billo got up without a word. Then came the sound of her loud howls but the children didn’t stop playing. Billo cried loudly when she was beaten by her mother. It was only then that one heard her voice. But only for that long. She stopped crying the moment her mother’s hands stopped.
All the boys in the lane called her Billo - the cat. Goodness knows how and when she came to be known by this name. It was perhaps because she was forever staring quietly with wide eyes. Sometimes, when she sat outside her room washing dishes, her eyes followed anyone, even children, who passed by till he or she went out of her vision. As if each was a wonder to her. But, if angry, Billo’s mother, the ‘Shivalewali’ always called her ‘Basanti’ or ‘Basantia’. No other child in their lane was called by his or her proper name by their parents. One was Pillu, one was Hollar, another Mangu, Khacheru or Takaiya. Perhaps some of them had only these names, or had their names distorted. But if Takaiya was actually Tekchand, no one in the lane, except for his parents knew of it, perhaps not even he himself and definitely not the boys his own age. He himself was called Ghaseeta, his mother Ghaseeta’s mai, his father Ghaseeta’s bappa. But when caught the first time and asked his name in the police station, he gave his name as ‘Dharamdas’, son of Chhedilal, resident of Hata Saith Ramdas - For some reason both the names, his own and bappa’s, which he had almost forgotten – surfaced at that time. But this happened much later.
In any case hardly anyone in the lane knew another’s name. Even ‘Shivalewali’ was called that because she lived in the small tenement next to the ‘Shivala’. What appeared a little strange to him at times was that nobody ever called her over, nor had he ever seen her visiting anyone. Even at his own place, when mai gave birth to a son (not if she had a daughter) and came out on the twelfth day of delivery, women of the neighbourhood collected at night to sing songs and the next day, mai sent sweet prepared with jaggery and sugar to everyone’s house but not to Shivalewali. He had never seen Shivalewali go any other place except to the well and the latrines built by the municipality next to the trash bin, where a little beyond the neem tree, the lane turned back (it took many more turns after that). When sometimes, Billo went to Masur Maharaj’s shop to make a purchase (the shop was little to one side of the neem tree) she stopped at times on her way back if she saw boys playing under the neem tree. But did not speak. Standing at a little distance she only stared with wide eyes. If a boy said something, or even otherwise, she scampered away after a minute or two.
He had often overheard mai and neighbours call Shivalewali a tart, a whore, a hooker, while talking amongst themselves. And that she was a sinner even though she lived in a temple and the entire lane had to suffer the evil outcome of her sins. Once, when mai gave birth to a son and he died of a swollen stomach, somehow in the ensuing wailing and howling, someone mentioned Shivalewali and the women sitting there turned upon her saying that it was because of her sins that no child in the lane survived. There was no truth in this because Bhagirath’s wife, just like mai, gave birth every year and even though all of them were scrawny, none had died. Five of Bhagirath’s children were younger to him and all of them went about stark naked or clad in just a loin cloth, each bone on their body jutting out, drool and snot coating their mouths. Nevertheless, everyone was always angry with the Shivalewali.
Even though Shivala came much before the neem tree and the lane took a turn in between, the area was so closely confined that any sound spread and echoed within the compound. Especially at night, a sound made anywhere in the lane, a fight or a scuffle in any of the households could be heard all over. And howls and yells were heard almost every evening in at least one of the households. More often than not, there were simultaneous fights in many dwellings. But this had been an everyday occurrence and no one paid any heed to it.
However the noise at Shivalewali’s house was of a different kind. For one, it often came late at night when all others had gone to sleep and there was silence in the compound. And then, there were no fights at her house, only noise. When at times, the noise became too loud and woke up bappa he often let out a barrage of abuses directed at Shivalewali. Once or twice he went to the extent of saying, ‘It’s all because of that ruffian, Bachan Singh: he has given the hustler so much leeway, otherwise the bitch can’t live here even for a day. He acts up only because he is the Saith’s darling.’
Bachan Singh was a goon of Saith Ramdas. He had never seen the Saith, had only heard that he was a big man and owned hundreds of houses. His grandfather had bought this plot of land enclosed by the lane and had got these tenements constructed. The hata - compound - was called Hata Ramdas after his name.
A devout man, he had the Shivala and the well constructed with his own money for the use of the residents of the compound. The government too held him in high regard. That’s the reason the municipality had tin latrines put up in the compound.
The beginning of each month saw the Munim - the Saith's accountant - arrive at the compound to collect rent. He was accompanied by three or four goons. Of all these, he remembered the face of only Bachan Singh because even while laughing, he appeared scary. Goodness knows what he applied on his moustache that made them stand pointedly on either side like two large needles. His eyes were always blood-shot. When the Munim went round house to house collecting rent, the goons sat on the well and putting down their batons, played cards or got high on marijuana.
If ever, the Munim had a problem in collection of rent, Bachan Singh, picking up his baton, went to that side and whichever side he went to had it coming. The moment the defaulter came out, Bachan Singh pulled his hair, knocked him down and sticking the end of his baton into his back gave a few jolts, shouted obscenities involving the man’s mother and sisters and in the end left with the threat that in case he was compelled to return he’d do what not to his wife, sister and daughter! It was very rarely that Bachan Singh had to get up and go and he didn’t remember him ever having to go a second time. None of the Saith’s rent ever remained unpaid.
Those goons were always sprawled at the well during pay-up time but Bachan Singh visited often, even otherwise. If it was a little early in the evening, he sat down pulling up a cot outside the Shivala. Taking off his clothes he wrapped a tehmad - a length of cloth - which he pulled out of his bag, round him and then, sitting at the well and putting his finger down his throat, he hawked up loudly and washed his hands and face. Shivalewali was not on talking terms with anyone in the lane, but for Bachan Singh, she took out a cot, served meals and he too talked to her laughing in a strange manner. He was frightened not only of Bachan Singh but the Shivaliwali too, scared him a little. He understood neither what bappa nor what mai said about her but somehow had to come to believe firmly that Bachan Singh was an evil man, that Shivaliwali was an evil woman. He had seen once or twice that when Bachan Singh talked to Shivalewali, sitting on the cot, Billo stood close by, staring with wide eyes and had wondered how come she was not scared of Bachan Singh.
The days were extremely cold when one night, wrapped in a kathari, he woke up due to the extreme cold ... or perhaps also due to some commotion. For there was still some noise when he woke up. He thought of getting up and going to bappa or mai but at the same time didn’t feel like getting out of the covers. Suddenly the noise grew sharper and it sounded as if Shivalewali was screaming abuses in a shrill voice. In between, one could hear some other strange sounds as well. He was beginning to feel very scared when suddenly bappa had spoken from his bed, ‘who knows what crooks the bitch calls over, it is difficult now for straight people to live here’. Bappa is awake. He had become a little reassured with the knowledge. Suddenly a scream rose piercing the noise and then, a little later came a thud – as if a rope pulling up a pitcher full of water had snapped and the pitcher had gone crashing down to the water in the well. He saw bappa rise and sit up. For some time now there had been sounds like an animal being butchered. And then, all at once, there was silence. But sounds from a while ago seemed to echo in his ears and suddenly he felt terrified. Getting up quickly he went and cuddled against mai. He found that mai too was awake. She held him to her and slowly began to run her hand over his back.
Both bappa and mai were up and out by the time he woke up in the morning. He found himself alone. The earthen stove in the house had not been lit. When he went out, the lane too was deserted. A little further down he heard muffled voices coming from the direction of the well. The moment he reached the turn, he stopped in his tracks.
Eight to ten policemen stood near the well and the Shivala. The police had arrived quite some time back. Two or three men from the lane were trying to fish out the dead body of Shivalewali by dropping down a hook. All the men and women from the lane stood here and there in clusters. A havaldar - police sergeant -, baton in hand, stood near the Shivala and close to him stood the two money lenders, bappa, Bhagirath and a few other men from the lane. Near the door of Mahaadev’s dwelling stood mai along with a few women. He too, went to stand behind the children who stood huddled close to a wall. Listening to snippets of people’s talk from here and there he gradually came to piece together the whole incident.
Last night, some three or four goons of the Saith had visited Shivalewali. All completely drunk. And one had suddenly happened to catch sight of Billo, asleep in a corner. Leaving Shivalewali, they had caught hold of the ten year old Billo. Shivalewali had fought hard, had even had a scuffle, but they had beaten her up and turned her out. She had kept screaming abuses and beating at the door with fists and when Billo had cried out, ‘Oh mai’, from inside, had jumped into the well.
Shivalewali’s body, when it was fished out after some attempts, was put in a cart, covered with a cloth and taken to the police-station by the policemen. Billo had already been taken away by the police, whether to the hospital or the police-station, it wasn’t known. People said she had been found lying unconscious and soaked in blood and chances of her survival were remote. The police had written down the details in front of witnesses, taken down the statements of the neighbours – the woman was of easy virtue. She was often visited by ruffians. She gave them shelter in her house. We have no idea of the incident last night. Neither do we know who was with her. We heard no sound of any kind.
For many days after the incident the lane lay submerged in a strange fear. There was less of noise, less of fights. Even the children were less quarrelsome. But no one said anything about Shivalewali. That night was talked about only as an ‘incident’. During these talks he heard that the visitors that night hadn’t included Bachan Singh (some said they had) but that other goons had brought over a relative of the Saith, some others said that it was this relative who had caught hold of Billo. (He wondered how they had come to know of this, but one of the goons might have said something later.) No one talked of Billo either. He had heard vaguely that she hadn’t died and that police had sent her to an orphanage.
Bachan Singh did not come to the lane again. When the Munim came to collect rent he had other goons with him. Bachan Singh always used to sit with others at the well and went anywhere only when the Munim asked him to, and then too, alone. But these goons went round with the Munim from house to house. None of the Saith’s rent remained unpaid even now.