By Mohd Salman
Everyone was happy when the Thief died.
It was the postman who had found her, sitting in her armchair behind the unlatched main door, eyes closed as if asleep. In that peaceful tableau, a reign of terror had come to an end.
For sixty years, the Thief held sway over Bijliya, a little hamlet of barely a hundred houses. Over the greater part of three generations, shopkeepers learned to put locks on their cashboxes, dhaba (roadside eatery) owners chained their plates and tumblers to the tables, landlords prowled the orchards, and families took care to not let on that they had money and valuables to spare.
This was not easy. The Thief operated in broad daylight, her identity known to all. Secondly, you couldn’t keep her out. In a place as tiny as Bijliya, she was practically family.
Her name, though, was not thief-like. Shehzadi. Princess. But wasn’t it thieving, plunder, pillage and murder that made people kings, queens, princes and princesses in the first place?
Generations came and went as Shehzadi pilfered money, food and valuables. The world outside changed over those sixty years. So did the façade of the village and the interiors of the houses. But out on the street, the Thief was a constant. At the stroke of midnight on 15 August, 1947, as the world slept, Bijliya awoke to picked pockets. In 1962, when China crossed the border into India, the first sethh (rich businessman) of Independent Bijliya noticed a rupee missing from his day’s earnings. When Bangladesh was born in 1971, so too were new grudges for the travelling Kashmiri salesman who found a rug missing from his cart. When men, women and children in Bijliya cheered the World Cup win in 1983, they didn’t notice the vanishing cartons of mangoes from the local market, the mandi, as they huddled round the Seth’s radio. When the villagers tuned into the Indian version of ‘Who wants be a Millionaire?’ — Kaun Banega Crorepati — in 2000, Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone masked the sounds of chickens being stolen, umbrellas disappearing, and plates of drying chillies and papads vanishing into the night. Every few years, the clergy of every religion practised in the village would be at each other’s throats. But in their hatred of the Thief, they were all united.
There was little they could do about it, and the people of Bijliya could not put a finger on the exact reason. A mild fear festered in the hearts of the men sent to beat her up that slowly bloated into sheer terror as they got close. It left them rather gentle behind their robust heft for the rest of their lives. When the Thief walked into a house or a shop, its occupants felt an absentmindedness descend upon them, an inability to resist her demands. After she left, the superstitious totems they strung over their thresholds looked worn, as though they had tried, but failed.
There were other rumours around the Thief too. Whispered stories of a mysterious skill in healing ailments, of bringing health back where modern medicines failed. But they came from people you didn’t listen to if you lived in a pretty little village home in a row of similarly pretty homes. There was a word for women who had Shehzadi’s alleged powers, but they did not like to speak it. Evil followed that word where it was spoken, or so their ancestors said.
And now she was dead. “Good riddance!” said Bijliya’s notables. But the joke was on them, you know. Bijliya was a place of tradition. The Rules required children to bear the tyranny of their parents and eventually become tyrants themselves. There were Rules for what you could eat and what you couldn’t, how you greeted people, what you said about India’s neighbours, who you could marry (and who you couldn’t) and who could (or could not) build a new pretty house among the rows of other pretty houses. The people of Bijliya followed these Rules to a fault.
On the day the Thief died, an inconvenient Rule reared its head. It required every person in Bijliya to be given a funeral, funded by the community. Every single one. There was no way out of it. It had to be done, and it had to be done with dignity and respect.
The Pradhan ( headman) ordered a collection, going round the village himself, carrying a square wooden box with a little slit on top. The villagers reluctantly parted with a few notes, each remembering their reasons to hate the Thief.
“She took a quart of milk from me every day! Thirty years in a row, not a day missed! And it cost me twice as much, because she’d take it fresh, before I could take the bucket to the tap!”
“She preyed on my feelings to extort from me. Twenty rupees to carry one letter to the sethh’s daughter. Each time! If my dhaba didn’t do well, I would have become a pauper before we were even married!”
“Twenty? You got off cheap, Uncle! The love letter service is a hundred rupees a letter these days. I don’t know who will replace her, but I will not spend a rupee more than ten.”
There were vegetable hawkers who gave the woman a lifetime’s supply of greens, orchard owners with seasonal mango donations that amounted to many crates, and (allegedly) tens of thousands of rupees in lost coins and currency notes.
Shehzadi’s reign of terror had followed the same pattern, day after day. Her plunder timetable was as much a part of Bijliya’s culture as dowry or the caste system.
She would walk out of her house when the clock struck eight every morning, empty jute jhola (tote bag) in hand. First she visited the pretty houses, no more than three in a day. She kept a roster that allowed families a month to recuperate between extortions. Having collected some food and occasionally, clothes and money in her jhola and the latest gossip in her head, she headed for the bazaar. If it was Monday, she would go to the sethh, who owned the big store and the bus that did the daily run to Hardoi two hours away. She always arrived when the store was at its busiest, and always sat next to him at the counter.
The sethh hated her. The old pestilence saw through his conniving, cheating ways, knowing well that he charged the villagers more than what his goods were worth. It was either that or the bus to Hardoi (fifty rupees a ticket, with a bonus bone rattle from the awful ride), so the villagers put up with it.
The sethh always had four boys at his shop. They helped him service the steady throng of customers and keep an eye on shoplifters. But Shehzadi was always too quick for them. He’d be a few hundred short at the end of the day, and no one could understand how. He had once installed a CCTV camera, but voltage fluctuations blew it up. Modern security cut no ice with Bijliya.
The Thief would then spend some of her loot at the dhaba, buying a cup of hot, sweet tea to wash down the food collected in the morning, lingering over the meal as cars, jeeps and buses sped past on the highway. Travellers leaving Bijliya after a quick bite would realise later that somehow the bills never quite added up. There was always the odd note or coin missing.
After lunch, Shehzadi would rest under the pipal tree that practically covered the entire village square. There she would sit and watch people go by, occasionally talking to the children who played in the cool, comforting shade. Sometimes, the candy-seller from the next village cycled past. On those days, every child got a toffee. Bibi-Amma, the children called her. Their children did the same, and so, eventually, did their grandchildren.
As the blazing white sun mellowed, she would start walking through the main street, where an improving life over the years had led to long rows of tiny but well-appointed houses, each painted in bright, cheery colours. Young women and men with cameras came from as far as Lucknow and Delhi to take pictures. Model village, they called it.
The Thief herself lived half a kilometre beyond the edge of the village, in a two-room cottage at the centre of an unkempt patch of land surrounded by a waist-high mud fence. A forest grew within this little patch, its trees exploding with sound as the starlings came back at the end of day.
Shehzadi would not stop here. Not yet. She would walk a further half-kilometre to a dishevelled cluster of houses, completely opposite to the beautiful main street of Bijliya. This place was the Dalit basti (settlement). It was home to those who did those jobs that no one in the main village wanted to, and were thanked with discrimination for their pains. What Shehzadi did there was a mystery. No one dared ask.
“Perhaps she steals from them too,” the sethh used to say. “No discernment.”
His shop boys, who lived in the basti, would smirk and say nothing. They had heard the stories. They didn’t fear her or her antics when she came round to the shop. They weren’t the ones worried about hidden evil powers lying in wait, eager to strike.
You could set your watch by the Thief’s movements.
The Pradhan’s collection box was heavy by the end of the day. He’d covered all the houses in the main village. A gold ring in his left ear sparkled as the setting sun set it aflame.
“You haven’t been to the Dalit basti,” his deputy said to him. “They might have a contribution to make.”
The Pradhan grimaced. “I…don’t go there. You know I never do.”
“Shehzadi did, sir. You’re sending the wrong message. She was part of their lives.”
“I am not! Not in the way she was, at any rate. I am mindful of the people I am seen with.”
They spent a moment in uncomfortable silence.
“You’ll still get some money from them, you know.”
The Pradhan glared at her. “Why?”
“It’s coming to you.”
They looked up at an elderly man walking to them. Gaunt, slightly bent, difficult to identify without his grey uniform, which he had discarded for a worn but neat lungi and kurta.
“Dhaniram, what brings you here?” the Pradhan said.
The village’s oldest sweeper joined his palms in greeting.
“I heard you were collecting money for Bibi’s funeral, sir. We waited for you.”
“You know I…cannot come.”
“I realised. So we collected the money ourselves. Please accept this from us.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out an envelope. It was heavier than a ten-house settlement of Bijliya’s poorest should have managed.
“That’s a lot.”
“It isn’t, Pradhan ji. Not for the Bibi.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. I think this will pay for a tiny stone tomb and a nice headstone.”
“It will pay for more than that. This is very generous of you. Thank you.”
“Not at all, sir. One more thing. Can I speak at the burial?”
“Of course. No one else has volunteered. It will just be the two of us.”
Dhaniram bowed his thanks and went away. The Pradhan took the cash out of the envelope and counted.
“This is a lot of money!”
“Yes,” said the secretary, smiling.
“But why? Do they fear extortion from her ghost?”
The next morning, the Thief was laid to rest in a grave dug right outside her cottage. A will was found; she had left the house to the residents of the basti, to use as they saw fit. Many of them shed tears as they whispered prayers under their breath. Shehzadi’s foes did well to keep straight, solemn faces.
Trays of samosas, jalebis and biscuits were laid out on a series of tables joined together in the village school. Bijliya’s notables walked in and seated themselves on plastic chairs while the rest of the village sat on durries spread on the ground. Children distributed little pattals (plates) bearing food. The snacks reached all but a huddled group of visibly poorer people seated at the back.
The Pradhan waited for the hubbub to settle before delivering his eulogy.
“I know our village had a difficult relationship with Shehzadi,” he began, “but she was one of our elders. There is never an easy relationship with those who have seen a time before ours. Such as she was, Shehzadi was part of this village’s soul. There is no memory of Bijliya without her. Some of you may have had…problems with her, but you remember that there was always a laugh to be had when she was around. Nearly all of us remember afternoons made brighter by the toffees Bibi Amma gave us during playtime. Many of us were able to marry who we loved because she carried our letters, even if we may have paid through our noses for them. I ask you today to pray that she rests in peace, out of your sense of humanity if not out of grief.”
A perfunctory murmur followed. The notables in their chairs were speaking most animatedly among themselves, and anger seared through Dhaniram when he saw the word chor (thief) mouthed more than once. He saw the sethh rise.
“Pradhan ji, I believe we must return to our jobs now. It is nice to see us all turned out in solidarity, but surely, we can’t waste a day’s work mourning a thief?”
Dhaniram was in front of the sethh in an instant.
“Pradhan ji,” he said, not taking his eyes off the trader, “You promised that I would speak today. Could you ask everyone to stay until I’ve spoken?”
The sethh glared at the sweeper. This was an affront, but he could only seethe. Times had changed and the sethh could not have hit Dhaniram as his ancestors had done before him.
“Enough!,” he cried, “It seems that Dhaniram has turned blind or worse, but the evil that possessed our village is dead now. None of you has the courage to say it, but I will today. Shehzadi’s thieving was a cover for a far greater evil. She was a witch, a churail!”
“Sethh ji!”, the Pradhan shouted, “It does you no credit to talk like that. Let the man speak.”
“It does nobody credit,” said Dhaniram. “I do not think it matters whether Bibi was a witch or not. There are people who hate her because they are forgetful and ungrateful. And because they do not respect everyone in Bijliya like she did. Shehzadi was the only person who broke bread in every household, and yet I see that it has changed nothing. Here we are, at her funeral, but my people are seated right at the back, not offered food at an event that we contributed the most for, while the holy men and the rich people of this village are seated in honour and fawned upon. In sixty years, she could not get you to treat us like equals.”
“That does not sound like a eulogy, Dhaniram,” the Pradhan interrupted. “Let us remember what we gathered here for, please.”
“I do. Which is why it breaks my heart to see so many of you rejoice her death. I would ask sethh ji and his wealthy friends: did Shehzadi’s plunder dwarf what you yourselves earned by cheating, corruption and violence? But that is a pointless question, is it not?”
He turned to the rest of the villagers.
“The rich and the powerful have their reasons, but what about you? Look beyond the Thief, and the witch, and speak to the elderly among you. Shehzadi was a girl once, and there are those here who remember her with great love. Grandfathers ruling over piles of brick and mortar, who wonder daily, what might have been?”
He smiled as he saw three pairs of eyes moisten.
“You remember that her love wasn’t yours to command. At least you learned, and raised families capable of true respect and fellow-feeling.
“The children seated here have always known a Bijliya that is popular with visitors: a clean, pretty village that they put on postcards. But was it always so? Your parents seem to have forgotten what Bijliya was like, and how it changed.
“If there was witchery here, it was of a very practical kind. Was it not Shehzadi who told you bananas would grow better on this soil than wheat; and are dozens of you not better off because of that? How many of you were a week away from killing yourselves over small loans, only to find that someone had quietly slid enough money under your doors? You promised to keep that help a secret, but did any of you realise how many of you were helped and made to keep the same promise? How many of you were forewarned about illnesses that could have killed your children? And when the hot-headed among us fanned the flames of hate, why did guns jam and swords rust every single time a riot was on the verge of happening?
“For all this, you grudge her the odd rupee, a little food and clothes? Why? How many of the wealthy,” and he rounded upon the ones in chairs, “remember that one big obstacle to their success being cleared away, mysteriously and without explanation? Who remembers that secret loan, that fortuitous meeting, that crucial crop inexplicably protected from the rain? Little mercies for little people, when they had everything to lose. In beautifying and painting your homes you have forgotten where this prosperity came from. You have only to travel to the next village to see how lucky you are.”
Dhaniram stopped to catch his breath. No one moved. He saw tears in many eyes, and shock in others.
“We had a treasure, friends. And today we are poorer. Yet you kept this from the children, speaking only of thieving and witchery. But my basti remembers. We remember that night, thirty years ago, when a group of you wanted to poison our well. Respectable men with happy families, but back then you were just boys…”
“Now, now, Dhaniram, there is no need to…”
“You were among them, Pradhan ji, own up to it!”
“I do! And I will carry that shame till I die.”
“Then stand up and make this village remember Shehzadi as she should be!”
The Pradhan turned to face the village, tears in his eyes.
“You are right. My generation may be beyond redemption, but the children must know.”
He looked at everyone present, his gaze lingering on the ones seated in chairs, every one of them in shock, their eyes imploring him to adjourn the meeting.
“There were ten of us, drinking in the fields one night. One of us had been denied a college seat. We complained about missing opportunities we deserved, when all around us the children of sweepers, leatherworkers and landless labourers topped exams, became officers and got featured in the papers. We decided to punish their kind by poisoning the Dalit basti’s well. The plan raged on within us even after we had sobered up the next day. We passed the word around and found support from many people.”
“Did anyone in the basti know?”
“You found out. We tied you up and hid you in the sethh’s shop, and gagged you so you couldn’t scream.”
“Did Bibi find out?”
“She did, and she asked us not to do it. We drugged her tea that day and locked her in her cottage.”
“Were you able to poison our well?”
“No. The morning before the poisoning, the water in our own well turned brackish. It was the peak of summer, and there was no water nearby. We were shocked. There is no brackish water anywhere in this part of the world. We could not reach out to nearby villages for help. Only the sethh had a phone, which did not work that day. We tried to send the bus out of the village in every direction but the roads had caved in nearby. Bijliya was stranded without water.”
“Without potable water, you mean.”
“Yes. Everyone was reluctant to drink from your well. But when the children’s cries became unbearable, some of us realised what we had done. The others were adamant, but the heat and thirst finally bent them. We freed you and escorted you to the basti. There we asked everyone in the neighbourhood to forgive us and begged that they share their water. You forgave us in an instant.”
“And you’ve kept your hands off us ever since. This village would have fallen to ruin if your plan had succeeded. You stayed human because Shehzadi made it her business to protect everyone.
“Go back to her grave, everyone. And pay your respects honestly this time.”
Dhaniram walked away, to the sounds of a whole village beginning to cry.
Mohammad Salman is a development communications professional and speculative fiction writer who divides his time between Lucknow and Ranchi. His works have appeared in the Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction and other anthologies. Salman counts Terry Pratchett and Isaac Asimov among his inspirations, dreaming of creating a legendarium of his own one day. His home is the dominion of a cat named Alif, who rules over a clutter that he variously refers to as his library and car scale model collection. In his free time, Salman tries to retake control of his home, watch motorsport or go birdwatching.
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