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Fear

By Dalpat Chauhan

Translated from Gujarati by Hemang Desai

‘Hanged Man’, imitator of Goya (Francisco de Goya y Lucientes), pen with brown ink and brown wash on laid paper, 17.81 cms x 11 cms, ca. 1840-1900/ Image courtesy The Metropolital Museum of Art

The history of resistance against the atrocities on dalits and their struggle for constitutional rights in Gujarat goes back to 1972 when the Dalit Panther was set up in Ahmedabad. The institutionalisation of protest, the fight for rights, and the assertion of a distinct cultural identity went hand in hand with the operation of an alternative economic model, envisioned in the establishment of agricultural cooperatives set up around the same time, enabling the economic independence of dalits while effectively redeeming the community from inhuman economic, social and sexual exploitation at the hands of the upper-caste feudal overlords.

Golana, a village in the Khambhat tehsil of Anand District in Gujarat, became one of the first sites to have witnessed an articulation of independence and revolt in 1975 when three spirited young men challenged the traditional rights of the kshatriya community which entitled them to not only enter a dalit household at will but to also molest dalit women. Though the youngsters were determined to put an end to the rampant sexual exploitation of dalit women in several villages of that area, the elders of the dalit enclave in Golana lost nerve and fell at the feet of the exploiters, apologising profoundly for the hubris of the youngsters. The elders finally had to expiate for the sins of the youngsters by carrying in their mouth the shoes, torch and turban of the kshatriya man who had been challenged and had run for his life after leaving behind these articles. In the aftermath of this incident, the accused dalit man’s elder brother, gripped by the fear of his brother’s murder at the hands of the upper caste people, committed suicide.

Unfortunately, eleven years later, Golana became the flashpoint of one of the most horrendous instances of violence against the dalits of the village on 25 January 1986 when four spirited dalit activists were murdered in broad daylight in an attack launched by hundreds of upper-caste people for the former’s supposed arrogance in toying with the idea of building houses in the land allotted to them by the government. 25  January 2019 marks the 33rd anniversary of the Golana Massacre.

Dalpat Chauhan’s ‘Fear’ captures the initial moments of the heroic resistance put up by the dalit youth in Golana in 1975.


‘For me, the lesson from the incident was clear.
Fear is the biggest obstacle in the way forward.’

Martin Macwan

The entire street had already been out for threshing and winnowing wheat grains on the farms of landlords. This was their daily labour. As the battered, mid-winter sun rose, its tender light streamed softly into the house. Columns of sunlight, filtering in from the chinks and holes of the russet, country-made roof-tiles, drew intricate, ever-changing patterns on its clay-bedaubed walls. Khodo, the stump-leg, was lying on a slightly unhinged cot strung with coir-ropes, his head propped on a cone-shaped dirty pillow, eyes firmly closed. Like a restless spirit, he tossed and turned this way and that every few seconds. After a while, tired by the effort of keeping his eyes shut, he opened them, and at once saw the cross wooden beam supporting the roof of the house. He kept staring at it as if in a daze. To the crossbeam was tied the moliyo*. It had been hanging there from the day his mother came to her in-laws after marriage. Years of hanging from the beam, unattended and unnoticed, had made it gather so much dust, cobwebs and grime that it had begun to look like a sturdy black bow. The colourful tassels attached to the strings on both its ends had gone sooty, and looked like flowers of pitch-black, permanent homes to flies equally black, if not more. As daylight thickened and penetrated into the far corners of the house, the flies began to buzz around, taking short flights away from their abodes and landing back onto them with depressing regularity. Khodo got livid at those flies. Lying in the same position, he started to violently flail his hands in air to drive them away, only to eventually give up as they remained indifferent to his exertions. Once again, his eyes were riveted to the crossbeam and roof. Why would they have hung the moliyo like that? He blinked in wonder, and a vision of a woman hanging down from the beam, her flaccid hands hanging down loosely and the moliyo wrapped all over her face like a murderous shrink-wrap, flashed before his eyes. Scared stiff, he squeezed his eyes shut.

Everything vanished.

‘Your mother had killed herself… hanging herself from the beam…’

Words rose like a flock of pigeons in his head. He couldn’t dare to recall all of it. Streams of sweat washed all over his body. Startled as if out of a nightmare, he suddenly opened his eyes. The moliyo was shrivelling gradually, its murderous noose tightening its crushing grip around his neck. Unable to breathe, he sat up in his cot, restless and flushed.

‘I escaped… I could escape… I tell you, Punjo, run away. These bloody tentus would not spare you. You, bloody whelp of my mother-in-law, trust me…’

Then he began to run his eyes around to see whether there was anyone else in the house. There was no one, nothing except a stick leaning against the wall near the mouth of the gutted fire-place, and a broken wooden stand right ahead of it. He continued to mutter.

‘Tell me, Punjo. You locked the door with a chain from outside, didn’t you? It was you and no one else.’

His eyes travelled in the direction of the stick and he froze. At once, he went down and began to writhe in pain as if under a hail of deadly stick-blows. His father’s face swam before his eyes. Bloodied… tossing and twitching in excruciating pain. He too began to toss about like him.

‘O dear me… father…’ he wanted to cry out but he slumped down in his cot instead and began to breathe heavily like bellows. After a while he muttered, ‘I escaped, didn’t I? I slipped from their clutches.’

He began to drink in the moonlike patterns forming on the wall, those brilliant, spectacular circles at the end of the sticks of sunlight, hurled right through the roof. Moons, so full of light and symmetry. But the very next moment, he got startled once again.

‘Who thrust these white knives in the wall?’

A couple of moons swam on his wavy quilt as well. He flinched in horror, dithered for a while and then with utmost care and caution, stretched his hand out to touch them. The moons slipped onto his hand.

‘Damn it, this is nothing but moonlight… ’ He drew his hand back in relief. The moons slipped away. The sight of slinking moons reminded him of Punjo.

‘Where’s Punjo?’

He got up from the cot, opened the door and came out. Finding nobody in the street, he began to cast flitting, confused glances around, in the direction of the village and the farm. Far away from the entrance of the street, ran a road to the farms. He saw a baraiyo in the distance heading towards the farm and Punjo, the tinder*, making for the untouchable street down the same road, a small metal pot in hand. Khodo broke into a frantic sprint shouting out warnings, ‘Run Punjo run, I am telling you. That tentu** would chop you into pieces. Run away…’ The fiendish bawling and the crazed expression on his face sent a chill down Punjo’s spine for a moment.

‘What happened Khodo? Is everything all right? Oh… you’ve got back to it again, haven’t you? Your pet prattles! Nobody is going to kill me. Calm down now. Let’s go back to street.’

‘Yes, hurry up, Punjo. Let’s go.’

Grabbing his hand firmly, he began to pull Punjo towards the street, his eyes planted firmly on the baraiyo ambling down the road.

‘I am coming! Don’t pull me, you idiot.’

‘You saw that? Bloody tentu was heading straight for us with a sword in his hand. I swear by God. Hurry up, let’s go to the street.’

He kept towing Punjo like a child pulling his father towards a confectionary shop.

*

When Narsinh saw Khodo squatting by the farm-hedge to relieve himself, he hollered, ‘You bloody fucker. Have you taken leave of your senses or what? What the hell are you doing there? You think this farm belongs to your father that you can pollute it at will?’

He took a dry clod of earth from the farm and hurled it with all his might at Khodo. The shot missed the target by a foot but caught the metal pot placed next to the spot where Khodo squatted. The pot was sent on a tumble tour leaving behind a trail of spilling and splashing water. Khodo shot up in panic.

Narsinh was hurling abuses at him. Grabbing the pot with one hand, hitching his pyjamas with another and fastening them clumsily, he roared down the dusty road towards the street, in full throttle. Echoes of abuses and threats eddied up behind him,

‘Bloody dhedh*…if you’re sighted around this place once more, I will strip and hang you upside down from the bunyan’s branch and burn dry chillies below…’

The threat, very real threat, charged his feet with hysterical speed. Upon reaching home, he shut the door fast behind him. The pounding of his frail heart seemed to chant the refrain of ‘burn dry chillies below,’ again and again.

As he stood quaking with fear, he realised he’d even forgotten to wash his arse. The monstrous crossbeam with moliyo hanging out like its black tongue looked like a giant jaw ready to snap at him. A cluster of flies, buzzing around the tassels, conjured up for him the moustachioed face of Narsinh. He took up the stick stationed in the corner and began to aim blows at the flies. The hail of frantic blows landed on the wall and the door. A sudden wham-bam next door gave Rami shivers, and shaking with awful fright, she ran out in the courtyard yelling,

‘Khodbhai… O Khodbhai… are you alright? What’s going on? What are you up to now? Slow down, damn you… enough is enough. Why not show your mettle in the village square? No point blasting these crumbling walls.’

Chastened by Rami’s tongue-lashing, Khodo froze to the spot. He was out of breath. Disgusted by the reflux of bitterness and self-pity, he threw the stick in the corner and opened the door. Rami was standing right in front of him. His face fell. He remembered he hadn’t had any water since his return from the farm. Innocent words tripped off his mouth,

‘Sister, please give me a potful of water…’

Rami handed over the pot to Khodo and hurried back, awash with a sense of strange restlessness. The disquiet she felt in her heart flagged off a train of painful thoughts and bitter memories. This Khodbhai is one and the only child of his parents. His poor mother hanged herself for the fear of losing her honour and his father was burned alive. And this half-wit is bent upon busting the walls of his house. What cruel play of destiny! But why blame him when the entire village has lost its spine. O dear me, life of an outcaste is nothing but a load of crap. When that village head’s son made out with Jivi in her own house in broad daylight, bloody Punjo – may he be damned – couldn’t take that shit. The shoes lying in the veranda, the closed door and all that. And so, he locked the door with a chain from outside. After half an hour, all we could hear in the street were wild banging on the door and an avalanche of filthy abuses,

‘Bloody whelps of my mother-in-law! Who locked the door from outside? Come out and face me if you are the seed of one father. I would set that bastard right. Bloody seducers of your mothers, I am a darbar. I may visit anybody’s house. Who the hell are you to stop me, you buggers?’

Nobody in the street had had the courage to utter even a single word against the rapes of street women carried out in broad daylight with impunity. Next day, it was the headman himself. He stomped in, flung sleazy abuses involving mothers and sisters of the entire street and walked away unchallenged. Nobody could so much as moan in protest. Only Khodo kept beating his head against the walls of his house out of sheer helplessness and deep shame. Sometimes Punjo, her husband, would vent his spleen on the subject. But when the entire street had lost tongue…

After Khodo’s parents died, Punjo and Rami had looked after him. They had stood by him in times good and bad. While going home, Rami threw a spiteful, dirty look at Jivi’s house. Somebody’s shoes were lying in the veranda and the door was shut fast. Rami slapped her forehead in disgust, spat out a mouthful, and disappeared in her house

*

Never in his lifetime had Khodo stepped out in the blazing afternoon sun, but today he was seen running, as if for his life, to the untouchable street all the way from the farm. Panting and drenched in sweat, he halted for a moment at the frilled entrance of the street. Casting a few sleuth-hound glances here and there, he rushed towards an old dilapidated house on the right and launched into his pet diatribe,

‘Punjo, don’t you ignore me. Scram, you bastard. Run away to the city… that dharado would reach here in no time, scythe on shoulder… would make mincemeat of you… in a couple of lethal swipes. That bloody tentu, the whelp of my mother-in-law… O dear me… with big, wide eyes, scythe on shoulder and a sword in hand!’

Suddenly, he stilled. And as if a sword had slipped into his hand from somewhere, he launched into a frenetic sword dance, one clenched fist swaying in air and the other pinned behind his back. He jumped and lunged, dealing deadly sword-swipes all around in the decrepit house. Just then, a cat jumped down from the tiled roof of a neighbouring house, rattling a tile. It was enough to strike terror in his heart. Startled, he froze to the spot. As he saw the cat passing by, he grimaced at it and began to bluster,

‘There he comes… I am telling you Punjo… buzz off.’

But before long, his blabber dwindled into a loud, sorrowful wail.

‘They came for my father first and then my mother. And I kept watching everything but couldn’t raise a finger. What could I have done? Run away Punjo, now it’s your turn… I am telling you… believe me.’

And as if caught under the rain of sticks and scythes, he began to parry blows, flinging his hands up in the air and tossing his legs as if rats had scuttled up his pants. He doubled over in pain now but straightened up the very next moment as if determined to fight it out. The more he tried to crush the fear lurking in his heart, the more it reared its head with all its fangs out. Just when he had got in the thick of his antics, he lost balance and keeled over.

‘Help… help… run folks run… save my Punjo… there he slaughtered him.’

Letting out a loud wail, he went into hysterics. On hearing him whine, the children in the street, along with Rami and a couple of other women, rushed out of their houses and rallied round him. Khodo kept gawping at Rami with wide open eyes. Just as the string of a tightly strung bow, when drawn and released, vibrates, his body tautened up and went into violent convulsions. His breaths began to come in short, rapid gasps. On seeing his pathetic, overwrought condition, Rami began to curse past seven generations in Jivi’s lineage. She squatted by his side while her tongue went on railing.

‘Bloody slattern. May she be ruined. If her backside burns so much, why doesn’t she thrust logs into it? Why does she create troubles for this poor boy?’

‘Hey, lower your voice. If somebody hears, he would snitch to her husband. And that would brew a fresh trouble.’ A woman standing by warned Rami in a voice filled with anxiety and fear. Just when the warning seemed to have drilled some sense into her head, a shrill cry rang out,

‘Who is that slut, claiming to be Sita’s sister?’ Jivi stormed out of her house, indignant and outraged. Without paying attention to her, everybody purposely busied themselves in the fuss of making Khodo sit up. Khodo’s body had become stiff like a corpse. He could be made to sit up only after prolonged bouts of pulling and pushing.

‘In whose courtyard do we not see the shoes these days? Show me a single house. If you’re so brave, why don’t you ask your husbands to challenge these rapists. I’ll hold you in awe for the rest of my life then. Why, you don’t have the guts, do you?’

Jivi sat on her haunches in her courtyard as she concluded her tirade and segued into loud weeping, the loose end of her sari, drawn over her face, busy drying her dripping eyes.

‘This village is impotent, o dear me… which vengeful enemy of mine flung me into this village… threw me into this dark deep well?’

Then, as if goaded by a fresh surge of outrage, she sprang to her feet, restoring the loose end of her sari to its original state, that of a half-unfurled giant Japanese fan.

‘This bloody sissy asks Punjo to run away all the time. Why, slit a baraiyo’s neck instead! You don’t have kids or family to bother about if you’re killed in the bargain? Do something like that and you’ll live up to your father’s name, the brave man that he was. And if you can’t, just keep lying with your face thrust into your backside. Don’t make so much fuss, understood?…

Slay somebody, damn you. But why am I pinning hopes on this ass whose blood didn’t boil even when his own parents were being butchered?’

Jivi harangued Khodo mercilessly and stomped back to her house. Her acid words burnt a hole into his head. The ring of her challenge reverberated in his head. He rose to his feet. Blood coursing in his veins rushed to his eyes and he went insane. Without uttering a word, he ran towards his house. He went straight inside and banged the door shut behind him. He saw the stick lying in the corner but today he didn’t quake, not a whit. The stick, the moliyo and the door swam before his eyes like a dream. His body, flushed with sweat, flopped down, his head a basketball held in both his hands.

*

The door Khodo had shut on the street, the street that quaked in the dark, settling cold, didn’t open even after eventide. Rami came over carrying his dinner on a large aluminium plate and knocked at the door twice to no avail.

‘Khodbhai! I have placed rotlas and kadhi here, here in the alcove. Do eat them. Otherwise, you would go straight to accompany your parents…’ Pleased with herself for having made a smart dig, she kept standing there for a while, waiting for a response. Realising that her barb fell flat, she huffed, ‘Oh damn! For how long should I watch over this mess of others’ making? And such a man doesn’t die that easily, oh no.’

Inside the house, the string-cot creaked slightly. But nobody got off from it, nor came out. ‘Well, if that’s how you want to act, I’ll go.’ Rami grumbled and flounced back to her house.

*

There had hardly been any daylight when a hue and cry rose in the village. Somebody had smashed Harisinh’s leg while he was asleep under a shed outside an empty house in the village head’s farm. Luckily, the lethal but ill-aimed blow caught his leg, waking him up in time to cry for help. Otherwise, his life would have sneaked out of his arse before he had figured what’s going on. But Harisinh had identified the attacker even in the dark. ‘That Khodo, the lunatic.’ The rumour went as did the reactions to it.

‘Bloody dhedh has gone astray. But you must give the devil his due. He is a spunky fellow. Really, one has to be really headstrong to assault someone like Harisinh. Hats off to him.’

‘He was bound to get spunky sooner or later, wasn’t he? What horrible atrocities had the village head inflicted on his household! Don’t you know that?’

‘He is a village head, my friend. He is licensed to ruin anything, standing crop or lives. But this boor is an outcaste. Still he dared to cross him…’

‘Then… ?’

And then the entire community of baraiya stormed the street, grabbing whatever they could lay their hands on. Sticks, scythes, long-handled axes, clubs and tins of kerosene. The village head bellowed as he reached the centre of the street.

‘Where the hell has that whelp of my mother-in-law gone, bloody Khodo… fuck off his mother. Tell him to come out, otherwise I’d set the entire street alight. You bloody dhedh… bloody you broke my son’s leg? Your head seems to have turned, haan? Come out, you. Where are you Parbat? Bring me a tin of kerosene.’

Just as all birds slink into their nests when a hawk swoops down, whoever was engaged in work outside their houses scuttled inside, leaving everything as it was, and shut the doors fast. Even Punjo and Rami rushed inside and began to peer from the crevices in the door. In a blink, the entire street put on a deserted look, save for a echoing hush that hung in the air. One sturdy fellow headed towards Punjo’s house and heaved his scythe onto the string-cot standing on its side. The voice of the village head boomed,

‘Hey Punjo, tell me where the hell that Khodo is hiding, or else your house will go up in flames within minutes.’

He made to the courtyard of Punjo’s house. A dog barked at him from a safe distance, but somebody hit it with a stick and it ran away yelping in pain. A heavy silence engulfed the street once again.

‘Why, you brave men, have you gone deaf? Shucks to your mothers. Today I’ll settle your bloody hash. One man comes and fastens the chain to the door, the other comes and breaks my son’s leg. What bloody cheek! We have let you people off again and again, but enough is enough.’

Sticks and scythes began to land onto the wooden frameworks of the roof, eaves, cots and roof-tiles of all the houses. Some sticks were hurled on the doors. But nobody even uttered a word. Punjo felt he should go out. But he had been a witness to the miserable fate a spirited man like Khodo’s father had met. So many blows he had endured! Almost involuntarily his eyes travelled to the bathing place in the street. For a moment, the image of Khodo’s father tossing about in a pool of blood flashed before his eyes. Apart from being overcome by a sense of self-disgust, his heart surged with genuine admiration for the mettle Khodo had displayed. Every single hair on his body bristled with anger. He began to look around for his scythe. Upon finding it, he grabbed it firmly and turned towards the door. Somebody was still heaving blows on his door. Rami tried to hold Punjo back, a sense of mounting panic writ large on her face. Punjo was struggling to jerk her away when he heard an ecstatic shout-out, ‘Hey, there it is… that’s Khodo’s house.’

The entire gang wheeled round and made for Khodo’s house en masse. Punjo kept peering through the crack in the door intently, his grip on the scythe becoming firm by and by.

‘Hey, don’t set the house on fire. Pull the bastard out and set him alight.’ The village head instructed. Sticks and scythes rained heavily onto Khodo’s door. In no time, the door was smashed open.

‘Wait a minute. Disrobe him and bring him stark naked over here. Put him on fire right in the centre of their street.’

He blared out and stormed towards the house. Removing his shoes on the veranda out of habit and jumping over the broken door, he lunged at the cot spread in the middle of the house. Not finding in the cot, he let out a frightening shrill roar.

‘Bloody Khodio gave us a slip…’

Something stiff like a heavy stick rammed into his forehead and toppled his turban. Smarting under burning pain, he began to caress his forehead, his features all scrunched-up. But before he could figure out what it was, another massive blow struck him in the same spot with equal force. Unable to contain his rage, he gnashed his teeth and grabbed the object with his right hand, his eyes still shut in pain and shock. He began to feel the object curiously with his hand.

‘Fuck it… whose feet are these?’

Hearing the dazed shriek that escaped the village head’s throat, his henchmen rushed inside the house and found him gaping blankly at the crossbeam, his hands holding the feet of a human frame hanging languidly, right next to the moliyo, from the wooden beam. Confused by this new apparition, the flies were buzzing their way back and forth between the dusty tassels of moliyo and the bloodshot eyeballs that had popped out of their sockets. A column of sunlight filtered in through a hole in the roof and cast a perfectly round, brilliant moon on Khodo’s hand, pitch-black and lifeless like the moliyo.

Read the original story here

*Moliyo (an embroidered choli-like upper garment worn by women) of a newly-wed woman is considered a blessed, auspicious article in dalit social epistemology which is hung onto a safe location in the house. However, as per a local proverb, it also represents a matter/ person that is shelved and unheeded once it has outlasted its utility.

*Dhedh: A caste-linked pejorative for a person belonging to the weaver caste which constitutes the majority of the population within the Scheduled Castes in Gujarat. In addition to weaving, they also conventionally drag away carcasses of cows and buffaloes from the village under duress. The act of ‘dragging away’ is referred to in Gujarati by the verb ‘dhasade’ and dhedh seems to have been derived as an agentive noun from that verb.

*Tentu is a contemptuous address for a person from the Kshatriya varna. Other terms used in the story like dharalo, baraiyo and darbar designate a person belonging to the upper castes like Rajput, Koli, Thakarda, etc. There is a strain of disdain, disapproval and fear running through these local terms of address.

**Names of lower castes in villages invariably indicate a disability, dispensability and worthlessness. Local belief is that such naming spares the child from the temptation of trigger-happy Gods and ensures its survival. The looming fear of a precarious existence in a caste-ridden society makes people cope with sub-human life.

Dalpat Chauhan was instrumental in establishing the Dalit Panther in Gujarat and ran a few radical little magazines like Kalo Suraj (The Black Sun) and Akrosh (Outrage) during the 1980s and 90s. He also set up Dalit Sangharsh Sangh (DSS) in Gujarat in 1982 and brought out an anthology of Dalit Poetry and booklets resisting and condemning instances of atrocities and questioning the Government reports on them between 1982 and 1985 when Gujarat burned with anti-reservation riots. His notable works are his novels Malak (Homeland) (1991), Gidh (Vulture) (1991) and Bhalbhankhalun (Dawn) (2004). His collections of short stories like Munjharo (Buffaloed) (2002), Dar (Fear) (2009) have been critically acclaimed. He has also scripted well-received plays like Patanne Gondre (1987-1988), Anaryavarta (2000), Antim Dhyey (2000) and Harifai (2003). He has been given more than 15 literary awards, including those from Gujarati Sahitya Parishad, Gujarati Sahitya Academy and the prestigious Narsinh Mehta Award. His works have been translated into English, Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, French and German.

Hemang Desai a bi-lingual poet, short story writer and a translator negotiating Gujarati, his mother-tongue and English. He has published three books of literary translations with critical introductions (1) Anuvidhan (Post-statement) (2010) which anthologised select Marathi poetry in Gujarati translation (2) Thirsty Fish and other Stories (2013) which carries English translations of eminent Gujarati poet Sundaram’s short stories (3) Poetic Refractions (2012), a collection ofcontemporary Gujarati poetry in English translation. His poems and transcreations have appeared in World Literature Today, Etad, Vahi, Cerebration, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Indian Literature, Sandhi, New Quest, Tathapi, Four Quarters Magazine, Danse Macabre, Museindia etc. He has recently finished the translation of Arun Kolatkar’s poetry collection ‘Kala Ghoda Poems’ into Gujarati. He is presently translating fiction of eminent Gujarati Dalit writer Dalpat Chauhan into English and finalizing a monograph on Indian perspectives on translation theory. He works at Central University of Gujarat, Gandhianagar and can be reached at [email protected].