Honour by Ajay Navaria, Translated from Hindi by Sudarshan Purohit

‘She’s coming, bhaaya!’ Badan Singh came over quickly, but spoke very softly, almost whispering. Jaidev’s eyes lit up in anticipation. Badan Singh’s eyes were alight, too, but only with animal lust. Jaidev clapped a hand to Badan Singh’s shoulder and said, ‘Go now. Don’t let her see you.’ Jaidev picked up his bag and went into the dispensary. Turning around, he said to Badan Singh’s disappearing back, ‘Make sure you come over as soon as you get Sukhvir’s call.’


The searing heat of May was all around. Gusts of burning air felt as if they had passed through burning embers. The birds remained in the shade of the trees. Usha pedalled with all her might. She had almost forgotten that she was two months pregnant. Sweat and dust coated her face. Occasionally a drop of sweat rolled down her nose, landing on her lips, leaving a salty aftertaste. ‘Salty…’ her thoughts went to Sujan. She smiled.


Another glance at the watch. It was still ten minutes to five, which was a relief, but she kept pedalling with the same intensity. Her breath worked like a bellows. It had been a quarter past four when she left Bisalpur village. This narrow road from Bisalpur had been built just last year under the Prime Minister’s Sadak Yojana, but already it looked as decrepit as if it was hundreds of years old. It joined the main road making an ‘L’ shape. She looked again at her watch as she joined the main road. ‘Seven minutes left,’ she muttered to herself, ‘and there’s no sign of the bus, either.’


Her feet slowed down. The five o'clock bus was the only one that connected Rohanpur to other villages nearby and to Mirganj tehsil. Mirganj wasn’t a small tehsil. Its population was about as much as that of a small city. This bus started in the morningfrom Mirganj and, joining all the villages together, went up till Kanaka Dham. In the evening at five, the bus would travel back, pushing the villages apart and reaching Mirganj at half past six. The necklace was strung together in the morning; scattered in the evening. And then the villages, including Rohanpur, turned into isolated, self-sufficient islands that in their loneliness became as vicious as wolves.


Sarrrr, charrrr….The pedals of the cycle began to turn freely. ‘Oh, damn it,’Usha mumbled. She forced the cycle to a stop by dragging her feet, and put it up on the stand. Hurriedly, she began to fix the chainback into place.


‘You bastard, Jaidev, hope you get stomach worms…’ she cursed under her breath as she climbed on and began pedalling furiously again. ‘Still two minutes,’ she told herself, glancing at her watch again. In the distance, she could make out the white roof of the Primary Treatment Centre. Relief, like a pigeon, settled on her shoulder.


‘Kaka, I’m off!’ She yelled as she leaned the cycle against the wall and left it there. She knew that Ghanshyam kaka would wheel it into the dispensary before locking up. She snatched up her bag and ran towards the road, where the bus would stop.

It had been a year since Usha had come to Rohanpur as a nurse. She’d got the job as soon as she’d completed her course. She’d grasped the intention behind Jaidev’s glances immediately, but had kept her mother’s advice in mind. ‘Men are cowardly creatures, beta. If the woman keeps her eyes red with anger, they become like jackals, never venturing forward. But if she opens the door by laughing and talking freely, they become wolves, and will invade her home and drag her away.’ Usha was in ninth standard when her mother said that. She and Kalli used to go to school together. One evening, while coming back home, they’d been cornered by some sons of the Zamindars. Usha was strong of body, and she’d pushed the nearest boy down and made her escape. When she reached home, she’d told her mother everything, and her mother had had that advice for her. But after that day, Kalli stopped coming to school. She began to be sick a lot. Four or five months later, Kalli died. Usha had tried to meet her several times, but Kalli’s family never let her. When Usha finally managed to meet her, the events of that day in the fields, which had till now felt like a forest-dark secret, filled her with a spine-shaking dread.


But Jaidev was no wolf. He fluffed his neck like a pigeon, prancing and cooing as he stepped towards her. ‘Come, Usharani, let me worship, I mean, welcome you with flowers!’ Just two or three days after joining her job, Jaidev had tried to advance towards her. But Usha had turned warning eyes towards him and he’d quickly changed the topic, as if afraid that his flimsy talk would burn under Usha’ fiery gaze. He still held a few genda flowers, but didn’t seem to have the courage to say anything more.


‘Why take the trouble, compounder saheb,’ Ghanshyamkaka, seeing Usha’s distaste, stepped in to help her. His work ranged from everything to sweeping the place to doing watchman duty in the night.


‘Shut up, you cobbler-born!’ Jaidev turned on Ghanshyam kaka. ‘You don’t know anything of high caste customs. High caste people welcome each other with flowers.’Jaidev’s voice still held some heat. But he felt better after doling out this insult to Ghanshyam kaka. Ghanshyam kaka shut up. He began to look pointedly out the door. Outside, two or three patients waited under the banyan tree. A woman sat hunched up a little way away, her sari veiling her face. A baby, sitting near her wailed, unheeded.


‘Bhaisaheb, I too am a Bairwa1,’ Usha said with a mix of pride, anger, and hate. The words, sharper than a knife, fell into the room in the dispensary, or perhaps they just pierced Jaidev and Ghanshyam kaka’s minds. They’d thought she was, at most, some backward caste, not as low as a leather-worker.


In Jaidev’s astonished eyes, a longing for Usha’s well-formed body and dark colour grew. His attention wandered from her large, kajal-lined eyes, which he’d been admiring for two days. Ghanshyam kaka, on the other hand, felt a surge of familial affection for her. Jaidev’s mouth was still open. He looked from Ghanshyam to Usha and back again. In between his glance fell on the patients waiting outside.


‘Don’t breathe a word of this to anyone, Usha rani!’ he moved towards Usha in his enthusiasm, but she took two steps back. ‘If anyone knows about this, who’ll accept medicines from your hand, my dear?’ His tone held insolence now. ‘Let’s keep this thing between the three of us.’He turned towards Ghanshyam kaka for agreement.


‘Are my hands dirty, that someone wouldn’t take medicines from me?’


‘Not your hands, Usha rani, it’s the minds of the people here that are dirty. This is a village, after all.’ Jaidev moved forward, putting a hand softly on her shoulder.


‘Keep your distance, bhaisaheb,’ she said, violently shrugging off the hand. ‘These high-caste people, all full of themselves,’ she murmured, more quietly.


Time went by, aloft on tiny wings. A long year passed, unprotesting. Not that Jaidev was quiet after the incident. Usha’s shapely body, honed by hard work, kept stinging him like a wasp, but her rage-filled red eyes kept him subdued. When he would come into inadvertent contact with her body, her fingers, the fire within him burned ever brighter.


Jaidev wasn’t the only one with teeth sunk into thoughts of Usha. These days, the village patwari, Sukhvir Singh, would drop into the dispensary at every chance he got. Sometimes he would bring buttermilk, sometimes fruits, sometimes sweets. At first, Jaidev bristled at his daily visits. But Sukhvir had no complaint about this animosity. He would just sit watching Usha as she came and went, bustling about her work. Sometimes he’d send fruits, or sweets, or something else, at Ghanshyam kaka’s hands.


The relationship between Jaidev and Sukhvir was like something between two male animals in the presence of a female. But slowly, a friendship developed between the two men. After all, they were both pointedly ignored by Usha.


‘I feel like poking her eyes out, the way she looks as me, as if she’d devour me,’ Jaidev confided in Sukhvir one day.


‘They all behave like this in the beginning. Reach out and grab their hand, they’ll be in your control.’ And Sukhvir began telling tales of his manliness. They all had the same point: that every woman wants the man to take the initiative. ‘Whoever picks her up, the woman is his/ What makes her happy is this.’ Sukhvir recited fractured poetry.


Jaidev felt a little emboldened. ‘Do you think I’m a eunuch?’ he said. ‘One afternoon when Ghanshyam wasn’t around, I grabbed hold of her. The whore gave me such a push that I almost fell over. Before I could recover, she ran so fast out of the dispensary that…’ Jaidev was making up this story, perhaps to save his pride in front of Sukhvir. The truth was that Usha’s burning eyes had set up a Laxmanrekha that he had never dared cross.


‘You have a point. Honour is important, what do these whores know about it,’ Sukhvir was slightly taken aback by the story. ‘You know what they say, if she laughs, she’s yours, if she smiles, she’s in your pocket. But I’ve never seen this whore smile or laugh.’


‘Oh, let it go, Sukhvir, she laughs plenty. The moment she sees other women, she’s all chatter-chatter.’ Jaidev’s frown deepened. ‘She does whatever she wants, without caring for others.’


The two would share thoughts this way often.


‘Usha rani, do me the honour of garlanding me with the aala, dear,’ Jaidev would never let a chance like this go. He said the words so theatrically that everyone present laughed, including the middle-aged woman on the stool in front of him.


Usha was cut to the bone. Without a word, she took out the aala – the stethoscope – from the drawer and set it on the table. As she was placing it on the table, Jaidev craned his neck forward, as if awaiting a wedding garland. The patients all laughed again. All of them wanted to be in Jaidev’s good books, so that they could get medicines free when they needed.


Dr Giridhar Goyal, dispensary-in-charge, visited once, maybe twice a month. Most of his time was spent at his private practice in the city. In his absence, the compounder Jaidev, aka Dr JD Agarwal had seven villages at his mercy. He’d sit in Dr Goyal’s chair, dispensing medicines to whomever he pleased and kicking out whomever he wanted to. This Primary Health Centre was his personal zamindari.


‘Amma, what’s your age,’Jaidev asked the woman on the stool in a loud voice, putting the stethoscope around his neck. The woman looked uneducated by her clothes and language.


‘I don’t know, daagdar saheb. You work it out.’


‘How many children?’


‘Seven were born,’ she said, raising up as many fingers. ‘Two died.’


‘And the eldest of them all, how old is he?’Jaidev glanced and smiled at Usha, who was looking intently at the woman.


‘Daagdar saheb, the oldest isn’t a boy, she’s a girl.’ the woman said, slapping her forehead. ‘If only he’d been a boy, he’d be old enough to work the plough by now.’


‘Thirty-seven years,’ Jaidev estimated, writing down the age next to the woman’s name in the register. Jaidev himself was only thirty-five, but looked younger due to good food and careful maintenance. The woman in front of him was probably younger than him, but poverty had crushed her, turned her old enough to be called ‘Amma’.


‘What does age mean to us illiterate people, daagdar saheb, write down what sounds right to you.’ The woman pulled the end of her sari to her mouth to cover a cough.


‘Look Amma, I’m giving you this cough medicine, make sure you take it on time. But if your coughing isn’t better, make sure you come back. Your sputum will have to be checked. Don’t worry, even if it’s TB, it’ll just be a longer treatment, but you’ll be perfectly fine, you’ll live long and play with your grandchildren, too.’ Jaidev said, glancing at Usha again. Usha put a bottle of medicine, along with tablets, on the table.


‘Our Usha rani is very smart, she’s started to understand medicines now.’ Jaidev made a point of praising Usha in front of everyone.


This had a good effect on the patients. They were cheered by the idea that they wouldn’t have to return empty handed from the dispensary if Jaidev wasn’t around. For a moment, the praise had its effect on Usha, too, a fact that Jaidev noticed.


‘Bhai saheb, you never checked Amma with your aala,’ Usha said, as the woman began to get off the stool. Usha’s eyes held a challenge to Javdev’s praise. She’d poured cold water over Jaidev’s ambitions – she was not going to be taken in by his praise.


‘It doesn’t look necessary, but still…’ Jaidev said, but he felt cut up inside. He’d understood Usha’s intention. ‘Whore,’ he said under his breath. Putting the stethoscope to his ears, he began pretending to check up the woman.


Usha hadn’t said it on the spur of the moment. Ever since she’d arrived, she’d been keeping an eye on this particular game of Jaidev’s. Whether the patient had back-ache or a foot sprain, Jaidev would ‘examine’ them with the stethoscope at least once, particularly the female patients.


‘He’s not doing this idly,’ she would think to herself.


‘It’s nothing, the rascal is just playing make-believe,’ Ghanshyam kaka said dismissively, when Usha expressed her thoughts to him. ‘He’s a compounder and plays at being a doctor; like a dog’s son plays at being a tiger.’


But for some reason, Usha found herself unable to accept this explanation. Once suspicion has taken root in the mind, then every event, all behaviour, tends to corroborate the suspicion. But Usha was educated, smart. She asked Jaidev point-blank,‘ Is it necessary to check all patients with the stethoscope?’


‘Eh!’ Jaidev’s mouth opened, the way a snake’s mouth opens when its neck is squeezed. ‘No, of course not, but I’m just taking precautions. You know the TB campaign is on in the state, the big doctor saheb has ordered it.’ As if he was declaring himself the junior doctor. ‘We have the responsibility of these, villagers, after all.’ He laughed, shiftily.


Whether or not men understand women’s moves, women catch on to men in a second. Jaidev’s reply sounded hollow to Usha.


Just then a fair-skinned woman, with her head covered with a lugadi stood at the doorway. ‘Doctor saheb, I have a pain in my stomach.’


‘Arrey, Radha, what happened to you?’Usha stood up quickly and went to her.


Radha’s gauna, her ceremonial arrival at her husband’s home, had brought her to the village just four months ago. But Usha already knew her well. She’d been introduced to Radha by Savitribehenji, a social worker who worked at Aangan, an NGO. Savitri was the only child of the village priest, Jagannath Sharma. Her husband had passed away four years ago. Since then, she’d been with the NGO and kept busy with social work in the village.


‘What happened, Radha?’ Jaidev was almost salivating as he said her name. Jaidev would heat up with lust whenever he saw a woman’s shadow, and Radha was more beautiful than most other women.


When Radha repeated her complaint, Jaidev asked her to lie down on the cot in the inside room. She lay down quietly. Usha, suspicious, stayed close to her. Jaidev could not think of a way to get her out. He went on stroking Radha’s stomach for a while, sometimes pressing below the navel, sometimes above it, asking where the pain was.


‘Get the aala, Usha rani,’ Jaidev said, and Usha rushed to get it and come back. He made a show of examining Radha’ chest with the stethoscope. When he’d done so to his satisfaction, he prescribed some medicines and sent her off.


The event was all but forgotten. Several days passed, and even Jaidev didn’t think about it any more.


‘Arrey Usha rani, you’re coughing a lot. Don’t ignore it,’ Jaidev said one day, when he saw Usha coughing. ‘I told you in the beginning itself to do something.’ There was hunger in Jaidev’s voice. ‘Arrey Usha rani, sickness and rogues should be vanquished at the doorstep, if they get into the house, they’ll leave a stain forever. Come, let me check you.’ He had been eagerly waiting for this chance, but he showed admirable control now. His face had the same shine that a pandit’s face gets when he sees a wealthy, gullible, patron after a long dry spell.


What could Usha do? The medicines she’d taken were having no effect, and who knew when Dr Goyal would visit. But she made sure Ghanshyam kaka was nearby when she sat down to be examined. Jaidev tried many ways to make him go somewhere else, but he stood his ground.


‘Deep breath,’ Jaidev said, positioning the stethoscope near her shoulder.


‘Deeper, don’t stop, keep taking deep breaths.’ Jaidev spread his fingers, touching her skin softly. His courage increased and he moved the stethoscope across her shoulder.


‘Turn around.’ He said, and set the stethoscope over her breast. Next he moved it to the lower half of her breast and pressed it in. He felt some satisfaction, but this satisfaction destroyed his peace. He touched the delicate skin as gently as if touching a flower, but Usha felt as if a rough tongue was brushing her.


Usha realised Jaidev didn’t care about the TB going on the state. She stood up hurriedly.


‘They’revery good.’ Jaidev said as Usha stood up. Of course, he said the ‘they’re’ much more softly than the rest. The word had appeasement, appeal, desire in it.


Usha couldn’t talk about it to anyone. What could she say, after all? She kept burning inside from the insult. The weight of the insult kept growing heavier and heavier inside her, the way dark clouds gather and become as colossal as giants.


‘Radha, if you won’t take my name to anyone, can I tell you something?’ Usha asked Radha. When she nodded in assent, Usha continued, ‘The moment I saw you, Radha, I could tell you’re from a high class and faithful to your husband. Tell me, if someone has a stomach ache, does she need to be touched by a stethoscope to her chest? A loyal wife shies away from a strange man’s touch, and that useless Jaidev, he… if your husband hears of this, how bad he’d feel!’


This had an immediate effect. Radha rushed to the fields, and going to her husband Badan, told him how Jaidev had tried to touch her chest. She didn’t take Usha’s name. Badan was twenty-two. It was unbearable to think of anyone touching his wife. The hot afternoon stoked the fire further. He rushed straight from the field to the dispensary, barking curses all the way. Radha was frightened, but what could she do? The arrow had left the bow.


‘Arrey, I’m killed, Choudhary saheb!’ Jaidev began yelling after he received two or three blows to the face from Badan, and he rushed towards the village choupal. But Badan’s anger showed no signs of abating. Even as he ran, he rained blow after blow onto Jaidev’s back. The patwari, Sukhvir Singh rushed in, trying to separate the two, but Badan was out of control. He threw Jaidev to the ground and began to kick him repeatedly. Several people got together to pull Badan away, but this took some time.


Jaidev did not stay quiet after this beating. He used every trick to bring Sukhvir Singh, and the sarpanch Heera Singh to his side, and got a panchayat session called two days later.


Sukhvir Singh pushed away his hookah, and began the panchayat. ‘This sort of thing can’t happen here, Jaidev is a government man.’


‘And all that Jaidev is doing, that is allowed?’Badan stood up, glowering at him.


About sixty or seventy men had assembled for the panchayat. There were maybe twenty-five women,who stood in the sun, faces veiled.


‘Arrey Badan, have some respect for the panches, the entire clan is here,’Sukhvir said, stoking the panches’ arrogance by praising them. ‘What did Jaidev do, after all? And you went and … and that, too, at your woman’s say-so.’ This last statement had an effect on the crowd.


‘But this … my woman …’ Badan seemed to lose confidence. ‘Now what can I say?’


‘I’ll tell you, Sarpanchji,’ Sukhvir said, standing up. ‘Badan’s wife had a pain in her stomach. Now all know that his wife’s gauna happened just this spring. Now Jaidev is a decent man. He thought there may be a chance of a baby, so he examined her with the aala. Bas, that’s all that happened, and now only Badan knows what his woman went and told him. We know that when you use the aala, it needs to touch the patient’s body, the doctor can’t press it against a nearby buffalo. Poor Jaidev tried to light a lamp and burnt his hands.’ Sukhvir looked all around as he talked, drawing the audience to his point. Then he made his move: ‘If this goes on, the hospital will have to shut down.’


It was as if Sukhvir had set off a bomb.


‘No… no… this Badan has done wrong… done wrong.’ People’s heads shook in unison, as if possessed by a spirit.


‘Does this woman think she’s the only devout one left in our village?’ someone yelled.


‘Raising a hand on a government man is never right, bhai,’ someone else added.


‘A man who listens to everything his woman says is a total idiot!’ a third averred.


Sukhvir said, ‘Sarpanchji, give us your decision.’


‘With the approval of the panches and the clan, we set Badan’s fine at ten thousand rupees. If Badan can pay this in two days, all is good. Else, his hookah-pani will be stopped,’ the sarpanch spat out. This judgement – stopping his hookah-pani– meant the entire caste would boycott the farmer. The punishment was not just against Radha, but a slap on the face of womankind as a whole.


Badan cradled his head in his hands. What could he do, but accept the judgement? People walked slowly to their homes. The women went back to their hearths. Everything became quiet again. Evening sneaked in slowly, then night.

‘You’re drunk again?’ Radha asked when Badan’s staggering steps got him home late in the night.


‘Still you’re talking back to me, you whore? I haven’t drunk with your father’s money,’ Badan yelled. He took out all the anger of the day by beating Radha till he felt better. Somewhere in between, Radha revealed the chat she’d had with Usha. After it was over, husband and wife clung to each other and cried. Their worry now was for the ten thousand, their every fibre terrified of the fear of being outcasts.


‘Hmm, so the seed was sown by this whore,’ Jaidev said when Badan told him the whole story the next day at the dispensary.


‘My woman doesn’t have that much sense, daagdarsaheb,’ Badan said. ‘Nurse ji stoked her up.’


‘She’s no nurse-wurse, Badan,’ Jaidev revealed Usha’s caste. ‘You support me, I’ll have her paraded naked through the village. The bitch has been here as a high caste all these days. Our own pet cat, clawing back at us!’


‘I myself want to take my revenge on her, ji… ten thousand fine they put on us, and everyone’s laughing at my woman, too.’ Badan’s muscles flexed in anger when he’d found out about Usha’s caste.


‘In that case, just have some patience. I’ll tell you what needs to be done, soon.’


Days and weeks passed as they awaited their chance. One day, when drunk, Badan revealed the secret of Usha’s caste and of his secret pact with Jaidev, to Radha. When Radha could no longer keep it to herself, she earned her peace by revealing everything to her friend Savitri.


‘Stay careful now, sister, watch that Badan and Jaidev,’ Savitri whispered to Usha. ‘I’m grateful to you, behenji,' Usha said, softened by the affection. She was a little frightened, too, deep inside.


‘It’s nothing, you’re like my sister. It’s neither your mistake nor Radha’s, the poor thing got beaten so much she told everything, otherwise, no one ever give up the names of their well-wishers.’ Savitri hugged Usha. Then, grasping both her shoulders firmly, she continued, ‘I know this bastard Jaidev well. Once, long ago, he’d tried the same behaviour with me, too. I slapped him so hard he almost fell unconscious. He finds poor women and takes advantage of their helplessness, the low-life.’


Usha was taken aback to hear this. It was strange, she thought, that Jaidev bore Savitri’s slap quietly, but was now plotting against her. Is it my caste, or is it that I’m weak, she wondered.


In the evening when she reached home, Usha thought that such things must be shared with her husband Sujan, and talked of some of the events, hiding some others. She did not speak of Jaidev’s attempt to run a hand over her breast.


‘Good thing you didn’t get your check-up done, I’ll take you to a good doctor here.’ Sujan did say the right thing, but there was something odd about his face. ‘You don’t talk much to him, right?’


‘Of course not, I don’t want to talk to that bastard at all,’ Usha said with a clear heart, not understanding what was going on in Sujan’s mind.


‘How long has he been harassing you?’


‘From the first day,’ she said, as she pumped a stove into action. ‘Why did that gas cylinder have to run out today, of all days?’


‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’ Sujan’s questions now kept coming. When Usha didn’t answer that, he asked, ‘ What does he look like, I mean his height and body?’


‘Well, he’s fair-skinned, and has a good height, too, but he’s the worst kind of creep. He can never be faithful to anyone.’


This praise of Jaidev hurt Sujan. The snake of doubt reared its hood in his mind. ‘You didn’t find yourself liking him, or something, that high-caste creep?’ Sujan forced his tone to be playful.


Usha stopped those horses in their tracks. ‘Never talk like that again. I don’t like such things even in jest.’


When the two of them had finished their work for the day and prepared to sleep, Sujan said, ‘Usha, I can’t tolerate that another man even looks at you, leave alone touches you. If I find any such thing about you, then I’ll…’


‘You’ll what?’


‘Then you won’t be able to live with me.’ Sujan said flatly. ‘I’m no Ratanlal, who tolerates this sort of thing…’


‘Don’t ever think that way,’ she said and clung to him. But inside, she felt deeply cut by the direction his thoughts were going in. Usha knew the story of Ratan’s wife’s infidelity. But the tone that Sujan had talked in, had made her feel her life was suddenly joyless.


After many days, Dr Goyal came to the dispensary. Jaidev had been quietly planning for this.


‘Doctor saheb, we need to make a list of women in the nearby villages, who have TB.’


‘So make it, why ask me?’ Dr Goyal said carelessly, sprawling into his chair.


‘It’s a matter for women, Saheb. In the villages, no woman will talk to a strange man.’ Jaidev made his move.


‘What then?’


‘It means some woman will have to do this job.’Usha shuddered at the turn this conversation had taken.


Dr Goyal glanced towards Usha. She immediately protested, ‘How can I do it alone, saheb, the villages are so far away!’


‘Why not alone? Is someone going to eat you up? There’s nothing to be afraid of in the villages,’ Jaidev snapped at her, then turned back to Dr Goyal. ‘Usha knows how to ride a bicycle, too. You don’t know, doctor saheb, Usha is of the Bairwa caste, she’s not afraid to work hard.’


Now Usha realised why, the other day, Jaidev had egged her on, telling her to really prove she could ride a bicycle. And in her foolish bravery, she had ridden the cycle at full speed to show him. She had thought that he was using her caste to denigrate her – that too had been a reason to show off her ability with the bicycle that day.


‘Do you know how to ride the bicycle, Usha?’


‘Yes.’ Usha could not lie.


‘This is a women’s matter, saheb, else I would have done it myself,’ Jaidev said, and laughed a hyena’s laugh, hehhehheh.


Doctor saheb, as he left the dispensary, said, ‘Complete this job within this month, Usha.’ What else could Usha say, but ‘Yes, saheb.’ Jaidev couldn’t conceal his happiness.


Usha’s eyes were still focused in the distance. The appearance of a cloud of dust would indicate the bus was coming. But there was no activity, no dust there. ‘It’s twenty minutes after five, but no sign of the bus.’ Usha looked first at her watch, then she noticed Ghanshyam kaka coming from the direction of the dispensary. Usha was the only passenger to board the bus from here. ‘The bus has never been so late.’ She took out the new Nokia mobile phone from her purse and tried to call Sujan. Sujan had gifted her this phone as a present when she’d gotten the job.


She tried several times, but there was no network coverage and the call did not go through. When the connection finally worked, she told Sujan of the lateness of the bus. The connection got cut when she was talking and she couldn’t get through again. ‘What a lot of use this thing is.’ A smile came to Usha’s face despite the tension.


Usha inserted the pin of the headphones into the mobile and began to listen to a song,mar jaawaa tere ishq mein, marjaawa. She had specifically asked Sujan to record this song, from Madhur Bhandarkar’s film Fashion. Her eyes focussed on the far distance.


Usha had got married when she was only seventeen, and Sujan about twenty. Her gauna had happened two years later. Sujan was a strapping youth, and Usha, no less. ‘Goddess Bhaimata has made this pair with her own hands,’ everyone in the clan would say when they saw the couple.


For a few months after the marriage, Sujan couldn’t pay attention to anything else. ‘The fragrance of your armpits, and the touch of your feet – the comfort that they bring can’t be equalled by anything in the world.’ Sujan would hug her as soon as he came back from work. Usha would pretend to squirm away, saying, ‘Pitaji is coming, pitaji is coming,’ but the truth was that she didn’t want to let go of him either. ‘You’re my magnet, Usha, and I’m your iron.’


‘Not iron, gold,’ Usha would say, stroking his hair.


‘Then you’re my touchstone.’ Sujan would say, stroking her head in return. ‘Press up against me and make me purer gold.’


‘You’re very experienced,’ Usha would say, when she was completely worn out.


‘Uhh….’ Sudden shame would appear in Sujan’s eyes.


It always felt like a balm to Usha to see this blush on Sujan’s face. She counted herself the richest woman in the world, to have been the first woman to be with her man.


What strange longings humans have. The feeling of being first quadruples the happiness of both man and woman, but the fear of being second rears its ugly, poisonous head every moment.


‘Do you know what I like about you the most?’ Sujan asked in a soft voice. He turned over to face Usha.Sujan let the silence extend and take up residence. Finally Usha had to chase it away, and ask, ‘Tell me na!’


‘Your nose, your curved nostrils, your honour dances upon this nose of yours.’ Sujan said, measuring each word.


‘And do you know what I like about you?’ Usha shot back the question, and though Sujan got tired of asking, ‘What? What?’ refused to give an answer for the longest time. If Sujan insisted on an answer, she would cover her face in her hands. Even though he had some idea, he wanted to hear it from Usha’ smouth. ‘Your nose, my dear innocent devotee,’ she would say when tired out by his repeated entreaties, but her mind would want to shout out something else altogether.


When Usha had expressed her desire to do the nursing assistant diploma course, Sujan had supported her. She’d got the job right after that course.


Usha had also persuaded Sujan that until she got a job, there would be no children.


‘Do you know what I like most about you?’


Tonight, three years after their marriage, and one year after getting her job, she’d finally told him with shining eyes. Tonight, she was one month pregnant.


Hearing the answer, Sujan slept that night a deep, dreamless, satisfied sleep. When a woman gives a man his strength, does he really become more than a man? The next morning, when he woke up, he was a brand new Sujan, as if he’d come into the world to fly his conquering flag upon it.


Usha looked at her watch. ‘Half past five,’ she murmured. In the past minute, she had looked at the watch perhaps forty times. The sun had not completely set, but was on the verge of setting. Clouds of fear began to gather in her mind.


‘Merichhatrikeneecheaajaa/Kyonbheeje kamala khadi-khadi/ terinaakkinathnibheeje/ Nathnikibheejekadi-kadi’ sang Jaidev as he stopped his Rajdoot next to her. ‘What happened, Usha rani, didn’t the bus come?’ He got off the motorcycle and shamelessly came close to her.


‘It’s probably on the way,’ she said, taking a step back. She took off the headphones and tried calling Sujan again.


The phone persisted in parroting ‘No network coverage’. As soon as the phone would get connected, she’d yell ‘Hello! Hello!’, and Sujan would yell ‘Hello! Hello’, since her voice was not reaching him. Usha pretended to have a full conversationfor Jaidev’s benefit, so he would not think she was left alone here. ‘How long will you take to get here, oh, half an hour… ok…’


Jaidev’s entire attention was focused on Usha’s talk.


On the one hand, he was frightened by what he heard on the phone, and on the other, angry at Badan Singh for being late. Just then, Badan Singh appeared, trotting towards them. Jaidev breathed more easily. He leaned on his motorcycle.


‘Daagdarsaheb, are you going home?’ Badan Singh asked him, and Jaidev looked away, ignoring him.


‘Could you drop me off at Bhatkaiya village junction?’ Badan’s voice held entreaty.


‘Is this bike a dowry present from your sasur?’ Jaidev growled. ‘Can’t you see, our Usha rani’s bus hasn’t arrived yet. It’s our duty, to make sure she gets home safely.’


‘My uncle’s completed a hundred years and there’s a function,’ Badan said.


‘No, Bhaisaheb, you drop him off,’ Usha cut in. ‘My man should be coming soon.’ Fear was in her mind. She remembered Savitri’s warning. Although she’d talked of Sujan’s coming, she herself had trouble believing it. The phone hadn’t connected despite multiple attempts. Her mind would not be diverted any more listening to songs. Bad thoughts began to crowd in on her.


‘Come if you want to, Usha. It’s even possible the bus won’t come today at all.’ Jaidev said, but Usha stood by her decision. Instead, she walked a little bit ahead.


‘Well, Badan, your luck’s good and mine’s run out. Come.’ He kick started the motorcycle and began to drive, with Badan seated behind him. ‘All going well?’ he asked Badan when they’d gone a little further.


‘Yes, Daagdarsaheb, all going well.Sukhvirpatwari phoned me, that’s when I came to you. The bus has broken down. Had to pay the cleaner two hundred and money for a bottle, that’s all. He broke some part from the engine, and now it won’t run. Sukhvir is coming up behind us.’ Jaidev felt relieved as Badan explained all the details.


A quarter past six, and the bus hadn’t come yet. Ushahad tried a thousand times to connect to Sujan’s phone. Again and again, Savitri’s warning swirled through her mind. She would not stay the night at the dispensary. Jaidev was not trustworthy, he might come back. Ghanshyam kaka was aged, what could he do? No village homes were close by, for anyone to come to save her. But if she went into the home of someone in her caste, everyone would know, then the job would be hard to hold on to, and anyway, who did she know around here? In the end, she decided that she would go to the home of Savitri, the Aangan worker.


Savitri would give Usha shelter for the night, for sure. But if she refused, then….The thought felt like a splinter embedded in her throat. ‘It’s not a house of the caste, anyhow. Kaka will tell me where to stay.’ Her nervousness increased. Finally, defeated, she went up and sat next to Ghanshyam kaka, to chat with him and distract herself.


A few minutes later, a jeep appeared on the road ahead. Ghanshyam kaka almost ran to the road. He was relieved to see the patwari Sukhvir Singh in the jeep. He gestured for the jeep to stop.


‘What, Ghanshyam? What do you want?’ Sukhvir growled at him.


‘There’s a problem, saheb,’ Ghanshyam beseeched. ‘Which way are you going, saheb?’


‘Arrey, I’m going to the tehsil. Rahul Gandhi is coming in two days to our zilla. He really has a lot of empathy for our Harijans.’


‘Tehsil, you mean, Mirganj?’


‘Yes, of course, Mirganj. Where else, you son of a donkey! I need to leave some papers with an Anandaram Bairwa there.’ Sukhvir said, scolding him affectionately. As he said ‘Bairwa’, he covertly glanced towards Usha.


‘Our child Usha’s bus hasn’t come today. I would be grateful if you could drop her to Mirganj,’ he said, folding in hands in entreaty. Sukhvir pretended to think for a few moments. He cast a glance at Usha, standing apart, and her body seemed to sting him like a poisonous insect. ‘Bhai, it’s a woman, at least ask her first. Me, I’m a government officer and my duty is to help other government workers.’ He trampled his snake-like thoughts underfoot.


Usha was listening to all this from where she stood. She’d heard of Anandaram. He lived in another part of the same colony, and was a senior Congress party worker. The idea of a government worker being trustworthy also appealed to her. Getting out of this village by any means possible was the best move, anyhow. After a little show of hesitation, wavering between yes and no, she agreed to go along. Sukhvir had never said so much as a bad word to her, she thought.


‘Come, sit in the back seat,’Sukhvir said, and her remaining doubts vanished.


‘I’ve heard that Jaidev keeps harassing you. That man is a bastard.’ Sukhvir opened up the conversation when the jeep had gone some distance. Usha hesitated for a bit, but then joined in by voicing all the thoughts she’d had about Jaidev. The road was almost empty, a pedestrian or two visible every kilometre or so. It was always like this in the villages as the night drew near. Life came to a stop. The village turned fearsome.


‘Shall I turn off this way, we’ll save almost half the distance.’ Sukhvir asked the question without looking at Usha, and she said neither no nor yes. Sukhvir turned the jeep onto the untarred road. The fields along the way were dried up. Two jackals, tussling on the road, slunk away into the bushes as the jeep approached.


‘Quarter to seven now,’ Usha said, looking at her watch, as the dusk deepened. She tried the phone again, but again the same message, No Network Coverage. She felt flustered. ‘This thing is useless!’


By now the jeep was two or three kilometres off the main road. Far ahead in an open area, two men standing next to a motorcycle came into view.


‘What is this bastard Jaidev doing here?’ Sukhvir said, and it was as if Usha’s soul shrivelled with fear. Before she could do anything, Sukhvir pulled up next to the motorcycle. ‘Here you go, doctor saheb, you handle your staff now. My contribution is complete.’


Sukhvir’s words fell on Usha like boulders. She was frightened beyond belief. Dizziness overcome her, but she took control of herself, sprang out of the jeep and fled towards the road, shouting, ‘Help! Help!’ But there was no one to hear her. Jaidev let her run. Starting his motorcycle, he caught up with her in less than ten seconds. Sukhvir brought his jeep over, too. Usha was huffing badly. The three of them gazed on her like hungry wolves.


Sukhvir jumped off the jeep and came towards her. He stroked Usha’s chin with a soft hand. Instantly, Usha smashed her knee into his groin. He let out an ear-splitting shriek and tumbled over. Seeing Sukhvir’s state, Jaidev stepped back. Sukhvir lay on the ground, knees drawn up, groaning.


‘Come on, you bastard!’ Usha roared like an animal, ‘Traitor!’


‘Forget this bitch, chase her out of here,’ Jaidev said.


‘Wait, you whore, I’m going to knock the attitude out of you,’ Badan Singh said, and stepped towards her. Revenge burned like a fire in him.


Tadaakkk. A powerful slap from Usha rocked him back, but he took hold of himself. Work in the fields had strengthened him. Hissing with rage, he punched Usha hard in the face. The blow landed solidly. Usha fell over with a cry. Her nose began to bleed.


‘Hey, pehelwan, have you killed her?’ Jaidev went up to her still body and checked her pulse. ‘She’s alive, the bitch. Throw some water on her face,’ he said, standing up.


Badan Singh first cleaned up the blood from Usha’s face with her own dhoti, then splattered some water on her.


‘Me first,’ Jaidev sang out then, like a hyena.


Usha felt sometimes a great light, sometimes a grim darkness. In the frightening blackness, she was screaming, thrashing her head about, begging for mercy. Strange visions came to her. All was lost. Now Sujan was wringing his hands. She kept bathing, and the waterfall was flowing upwards in the river. The river was breaching its banks. A cloud burst and rain hammered down. Sujan was running towards her. She was running away from him. Now Savitri was taking her hand and leading her to the temple. One blow of hers smashed the idol. Usha was walking around. The idol of Radha was already there. Savitri cut off Jaidev, Sukhvir and Badan’s head and offered them to the idol. Radha, laughing maniacally, ran out of the temple. The villagers, terrified of Usha’s fiery form, scattered. She stepped out of the temple, and crushed the sarpanch, Hira Singh and the five panches underfoot all together. In the panchayat, the women standing to the side began taking off their clothes and throwing them at the men sitting in the panchayat.


‘Is the bitch dead?’ were the first words Usha heard as she came back to consciousness. ‘No, she’s alive,’ Badan Singh said maliciously. ‘Will she tell anyone? She might ruin our honour.’


‘Don’t worry about it, Badan, she’ll lose her own honour if she tells. For now, just us three know, if she tells, the whole world will know,’Sukhvir growled.


‘Kept her nose in the air, didn’t she. If she’d agreed earlier, she wouldn’t have had this happen.’ Jaidev added. ‘Now let’s get out of here. The daru is finished, too.’ He tossed the bottle away.


‘How will I live?’ Usha thought. She wanted to weep loudly, but she could not. Instead, another thought came into her mind: why should I shed tears, for what? Suddenly Sujan’s face swirled into her mind’s eye. ‘Will he love me as before? How will I show my cursed face to him.’ She felt like she’d fallen into a pit of shit. She began to wipe her face with her dhoti. I’ll leave Sujan, she thought. All men are the same. Better to have lost my honour. If these eunuchs forcibly pushed their way into me, why does that mean my honour is lost? Why isn’t their honour lost? I won’t become another Kalli and die. Why should I die? If I do they will gather more courage. I will not cry, I’ll scream it out loud to everyone, stand in the village choupal and scream it out.


She began to scream, then. ‘Honour? I spit, ack-thoo! upon this false and weak honour! Thoo on this honour!’ She spat upon the rocks nearby. ‘There’s Sonia Gandhi, standing at the police station. I’ll write a letter to Sonia Gandhi: Honourable Sonia Gandhi, you’re a woman too, give me justice!’


Usha opened her eyes. The sky was full of stars. There was no one in sight. She cleaned the spit off her face. The wind was whistling through the bushes. From far in the distance, the sound of jackals squabbling came to her.


‘Really, what difference does all this make? Why should I die for no reason?’Usha slowly sat up. She adjusted her clothes and stood up. There was an empty bottle of alcohol lying nearby; she bent down and gripped it securely by the neck. ‘I’m going to make those jackals pay for this,’ she declared to herself. With slow steps, she walked towards the main road.




This story first appeared in the original Hindi in Hans.




Ajay Navaria has published two collections of short stories Pathkatha aur anya kahaniyan, 2006 and Yes Sir, 2012, four books of literary criticism and one novel Udhar ke Log, 2008. An English translation of his short stories, by Laura Brueck, was published as Unclaimed Terrain, Navayana, 2012. His fiction has won him awards and acclaim, and he has been widely translated. He presently works as an Assistant Professor of Hindi at the Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.


Sudarshan Purohit is a software engineer in Bangalore. He's also translated books and stories from Hindi to English, hunched up in his office cab. Some day he hopes to complete his own crime thriller (which will likely feature either software or cabs).


1Cobbler caste