They think he knows something, these people do. But he doesn’t. Balwinder is standing outside Akal Singh’s hut because he’s seen Surjit, the queen of men’s morning dreams, afternoon siestas and nightly brawls. The woman who brings a smile to the sweating farmhands: one says that her limbs are longer than sugarcane stalks, the other says that her hair is shinier than a sickle, another claims that her skin is whiter than cow’s milk. And here she is, all long-limbed, shiny hair and fair skin, watching the man she’ll soon marry eat another balushahi.
“Hutt,” Akal Singh shouts when he sees Balwinder.
But Balwinder is unable to look away. A few months ago Surjit had let him put his hands down her kurti. Her breasts were soft like malai and her skin was as hot as that of a newborn calf. Balwinder wishes he were marrying Surjit so he could touch her breasts again. His hand moves to his tamba.
“Who’s that launda?” Surjit’s future father-in-law asks. He is sitting on the charpoy, alongside a retinue of relatives, counting dowry notes for his fat son.
“The village tharki,” Akal Singh answers. “Worse than a dog.”
Ever since the villagers found Balwinder next to the women culling wheat, with his tamba down to his ankles, he has become known as a tharki. It’s so unfair, he thinks. People are the sum total of all their sins, not the sum total of one sin.
Akal Singh picks a pebble and throws it in his direction. Balwinder scrambles for cover and runs into the fields. Harvest season is over in Punjab and the fields are parched in anticipation of the rain. His bare feet blister on arid land.
Forget these bloody rice growers, Balwinder thinks as he runs. Let Surjit marry whom she wants. I’ll find another girl for myself, a better girl.But whom?
Only a handful of unmarried girls are left in the village; most girls are killed by the time they’re a week old, or killed for loving a launda like him. With more men than women, it’s no wonder that Surjit––whose teeth jut out like a donkey’s––is regarded a beauty, Balwinder thinks meanly. Still, her father has to pay dowry. Balwinder wonders how much dowry his brother will be able to command for him. But Mohinder has told him that no father will give their daughter to Balwinder, not from their Jethuka village, not from any Bathinda tehsil.
“You don’t work, you don’t earn,” says Mohinder. Then he sighs; always the sigh. “And, you’ve molested every girl in the village.”
Not every girl, Balwinder had whispered to Surjit that moonless night, below the shade of the big neem tree. In response she bit his ear and he imagined that he’d finally lose his virginity. Then she heard a rustle in the stalks and bolted.
What a waste, like a ripe jamun falling splat to the ground.
Balwinder sees a spiky green poppy pod lying on the ground. He can’t believe his luck! What a rare find. He picks it up and sniffs it. It hits him immediately. He walks up to a young boy rolling dried opium resins into balls.
“Magha, give no,” he tells him. In return for lancing the poppy capsules in the night shift once a week, Magha gives Balwinder opium husk whenever he asks.
Before Magha can react, Balwinder shoves husk from his palm into his mouth.
“You have tea to go with this?” he asks the boy.
Magha shakes his head. Balwinder takes a knife lying near Magha and makes a small slit on the poppy pod. A sticky white fluid oozes out and Balwinder inhales it.
He asks Magha, “How can I be sad even when I am happy?”
Magha looks at Balwinder askance. His supervisor shouts. He pushes Balwinder.
“Hutt,” he says.
Balwinder runs again, this time to the big neem tree. He leans his head––that is getting heavy with narcotics–– against the bark and curses his luck. But the curse is lost in the noise of life, much like his intentions; drowned out by the strains of a Bollywood song. It can come only from the portable TV that Pappu––the goat herder’s son–has. Pappu has become a rich boy as goat meat is in demand after the beef ban. Balwinder walks to the other side of the bark and peers over Pappu’s shoulder. He watches Anushka Sharma, that cricketer’s girlfriend, leap up from a village pond wearing a transparent white ganjee and small shorts with stars and stripes. Balwinder’s mouth drops open. Why do the women in his village not show their bodies like this?
If only someone would agree to marry me, thinks Balwinder. I’d run home to her every hour and bang her till she couldn’t move.
He feels Pappu’s hand on his chest. He is pushing him away, saying, “Get off me. Your spit is ruining my kurta.”
“It’s sweat,” Balwinder says defensively.
He wipes the drool running down his mouth, but doesn’t move.
Pappu smacks him on the head. “Hutt,” he shouts.
Balwinder walks away. It seems that no one wants him around. He doesn’t care. He passes the village pond. It’s no longer a pond, really, but a shriveled up memory of water. Still––it’s the only pond he knows, so Balwinder stops to take a break. No one is there at this time of the day and he is feeling dizzy. So he lies down on the bank and lets the damp cool his back. He drifts off into daydreams about Anushka and Surjit. It’s wonderful!
How do dreams distill bliss from reality?
His thoughts are interrupted by voices. He lifts his head and sees Tanvir and Hardip walking towards the pond with two pots of clay. They must be coming to collect water for their bulls, for no human can drink this muddy sewage. Balwinder gets up and hides behind a tree. He watches the girls. They’re lost in their chatter. When they bend down to collect the water, he sees the hint of a cleavage on their teenage breasts. This is enough to send him into a tizzy.
There’s something about women that makes men want to have sex with them.
He puts his hand under his tamba, but no, it’s not the same satisfaction. He looks around. No one is there. He pulls down his tamba so he has enough space to shake his penis. He smiles. At last, he’ll find bliss.
Balwinder licks his lips. He imagines the girls coming out of the pond, wearing a white ganjee like Anushka, water trickling down their legs, breasts jiggling as they walk, their nipples almost visible. His eyes glaze over as he imagines the things he would do to these girls. He starts shaking his penis. The pleasure, it is too much. He shuts his eyes.
Thwack! There’s a white light at the back of his head. “Ahh!” he screams. He opens his eyes and turns around.
Tanvir is standing with the pot in her hand, raising it to whack him with it again.
“No,” Balwinder shouts, holding his hands up. His tamba falls to the ground.
“Besharam,” Tanvir shouts, still not looking away. What a brazen girl! “Pull it up! Pull it up now!”
She watches him as he pulls up his tamba. Hardip is sobbing now, her tears falling over the pot that she’s dropped to the ground.
“If one of you opens your kurti, or lies down next to me for one minute, I will marry you,” Balwinder says.
“Only one minute! Maa kasam, that’s all I need!”
“Behuda,” Tanvir shouts.
“Today I will not leave you.”
She whacks him on the head with her pot again. He stumbles. She catches him by the ear and drags him. Though he is bigger and stronger than her, he doesn’t fight back. He’s enjoying the sensation of a woman touching him. The girls walk him across the furrowed fields that stretch in front of them like grooves on a donkey’s hooves. After ten minutes they stop outside the sarpanch’s house.
“No!” Balwinder shouts. “Not here!”
The girls push him in through the gates and onto the courtyard. The sarpanch is sitting on his charpoy, with his big satisfied face, smoking his hookah. He is with the men from the District Suicide Committee.
“What has this haraami done now?” he asks the girls when they throw Balwinder at his feet. His kurta is soaked in sweat even though his gofer boy Chitpal is fanning him.
The girls tell him. The men on the charpoys mutter and titter.
“How many times have I told you?” the sarpanch shouts at Balwinder.
“Leave our girls alone.”
Balwinder says nothing. The poppy pod, the opium husk and the multiple hits on his head have left him weak and disoriented.
“He’s high again!” someone remarks.
The sarpanch sniggers. His opium production exceeds the qualifying yield, and he sells the excess as maal in their district. He could lose his cultivation license, so he bribes the officials by keeping them high, as Balwinder can see now.
“Ghar mein maa-behen nahin hain?” someone asks him.
“Nahin,” Balwinder replies. “Bhabhi aur bhanji hain.” He sneers. Chitpal kicks him.
“Then take out your frustration on your bhabhi-bhanji,” a man says.
“I’ve heard HIV can be cured by having sex with a baby,” another man says.
“And he definitely has AIDS,” a third man says.
They all laugh. The sarpanch smiles at Balwinder. He is pleased with this disturbance.
He wants to keep these men entertained and distracted. The committee members are consulting him on where to put ‘patra’ or ‘apatra’ on the farmer suicide forms. As the arthiya, who lends money to farmers at exorbitant rates, the sarpanch claims that there are no suicides in their village due to farm debt. Despite a farmer suicide nearly every week, he makes the committee members put apatra on every form. A clean record will help the sarpanch rise to tehsil level, then district level and then state level. One day he could become the Governor of Punjab.
Tanvir clears her throat. Hesitatingly, she asks the sarpanch, “What punishment for Balwinder?”
“I will tell him to stop being a nuisance to us and to himself,” the sarpanch replies.
He turns to Balwinder and says. “Sell me the land your father has left you. Sign the bond. Leave this village. Go to a city and never come back.”
The crowd murmurs and agrees.
“Go now! Can’t you see we men have important issues to discuss?”
Tanvir touches Hardip’s hand and they leave, their pots clanging against one another. Balwinder watches them. Chitpal walks up to Balwinder and kicks him.
“What are you staring at?” he shouts.
Balwinder leaves the sarpanch’s house. He puts his hand under his tamba and scratches his balls. He is not affected by the day’s events. He believes that after darkness there’s light, after nighttime there’s morning, and so life is in a tip-in tip-out, a great balancer. Since he’s born into poverty, life owes him levitation that will throttle him into a mid-life of riches. He’s sure of that. Maybe selling his land is the way to do that. Though his brother will not approve, his father has left half the land in his name, and he can do what he wants with it.
Balwinder takes out the opium pod from his kurta and licks the goo that has now turned brown. He stumbles home, ignores the glares of his sister-in-law Dilneet, and takes a nap in the verandah outside their tiny hut. By the time he wakes up, when the sun is setting, he sees his brother walking back from the fields.
Mohinder barely glances at Balwinder as he sits next to the chulha where his wife Dilneet is roasting red chillies.
“The rain,” he says, “is late again.”
He rests his head in his hands. “The seeds are sowed. What will I do now?”
He begins to cough because of the chillies. Dilneet brings him the last glass of water in the house. Mohinder is known in the village for being its most hardworking farmer. He also never speaks a lie. Balwinder respects neither of these virtues. Instead, he goes to Dilneet and says, “I’m hungry.”
“So?” she says, looking at him with her big charcoal eyes.
“Give me food,” he demands.
“Did you not hear me?” Mohinder asks. “My cotton crop is destroyed. There is no money to feed four stomachs.”
“But I’m hungry,” says Balwinder.
“Get food from outside,” Mohinder tells him.
“What?” This is unprecedented. “What will I get with no money?” Balwinder shouts.
Mohinder shrugs. Balwinder gulps. How can his own brother want him to eat red ant chutney?
“Earn money. Work on your land. Or help me on my land,” Mohinder says.
“I will do that later. Give me something to eat first.”
“We have nothing here,” Mohinder repeats. “If you helped me––”
Why does his brother bring this up every single day?
“I don’t want to farm,” Balwinder snaps. “What’s the point? Our fertilisers kill the soil. Our bore wells kill the ground water. Nothing lives except our hunger.”
“No, it’s our greed that’s killing things. We used too many fertilisers to increase yield and killed our crops with pesticides. We’re failing because of ourselves.”
“I am failing because you’re not letting me grow what I want,” Balwinder says. “We can use the land to grow poppy instead of crops.”
“But poppy is more precious than gold! If we sell it for drugs instead of medicine, we’ll make a hundred times more than what we make now. We’ll repay our debts. We’ll be rich beyond imagination.”
Balwinder leans over and whispers into his brother’s ear, “I’ll go to Delhi. It’s a popular drug trafficking route into Pakistan and Iran. The men there, they are something else. What charm, what swagger! And what money Chitpal told me they make.”
“No, no,” Mohinder says. “We will not get into all this, Ballu.”
Balwinder looks at Mohinder and sees his struggles in his scarred face, in his arms that have burnt brown from toiling in the sun, in the circles beneath his eyes, darker than the darkest night. With his ambitious plans forward, Balwinder needs a helping hand, a loyal companion like Mohinder.
“Are you worried that your workload will increase? My brother, fear not! It’s easy. All we have to do is produce raw opium, put it in a large barrel, and add calcium solution and hot water into it. That’s it! We’ll become rich with such little work. It’s so simple.”
Balwinder laughs. He can sense that his eyes have become red and unfocussed. “What about Dilneet?” Mohinder asks him, “And my daughter Chaaya?”
“Bhabhi?” Balwinder turns to Dilneet. “You will live like a free woman with no debt.
We will buy you a new sari. We will buy new balis for Chaaya. We will make you a kitchen piled high with makki di roti and sarson ka saag.”
Dilneet looks away and shakes her head.
“No, I tell you,” says Mohinder. “This is not right. I am a simple farmer. I will not give up. I will plant the crop again.”
All this time Balwinder had thought that they could be happy. How was he to know that his brother didn’t want happiness, he wanted simplicity? He looks at Mohinder with contempt, “This has always been your problem. This lack of courage.”Balwinder takes out the opium pod from his kurta and takes a sniff.
“How many times have I told you not to have this stuff?” says Mohinder.
He slaps the pod from Balwinder’s hands. It falls on the ground. Balwinder is too groggy to pick it up.
He giggles, “If you don’t want to grow opium, then let’s sell our land to the sarpanch and go to Delhi. Start a new life there.”
“How can we give our father’s land to the sarpanch? He will grow drugs on it.” “Who cares?”
“No, Ballu,” Mohinder says. He folds his hands before Balwinder. “Spare my family and me of your plans.”
“What other way is there to get money?” Balwinder asks his brother. “Unless I commit suicide and you get government money.” He laughs.
“Perhaps bhabhi can do this by feeding me those chillies,” he adds charmingly.
He looks at Dilneet. She ignores him and walks into the hut. He sees her go up to Chaaya’s jholi and rock the cloth hammock gently. Balwinder hears his niece coo in pleasure. He sees her wrists, round with fat, move about playfully in the air. This makes him angry.
“How does the baby get fed and not the men of the house?” He points to Dilneet’s breasts.
“What about that? She feeds Chaaya with them. Let her feed us with them as well.”
Mohinder stands up and whacks Balwinder on the head.
“What is wrong with you? Is it the drugs or the hunger?” he shouts. “Spare your bhabhi at least.”
Balwinder holds his head in his hands and says, “You starve your brother to feed that baby? Everyone else buries their girls in a pot; they put sand in their mouth. And you want to spare this girl and your wife who can’t even produce a son?”
“These drugs are making your mind sick!” Mohinder spits on the floor.
“You could’ve killed her at birth. Said that the umbilical cord cut off her neck. Even the sarpanch has used that excuse.” Balwinder shouts, unshakeable in his beliefs.
He walks into the hut to the seven-month-old Chaaya. He lifts her up.
“Don’t touch her!” Mohinder shouts.
Dilneet grabs her baby from his hands.
Mohinder runs into the hut and whacks his brother. Balwinder begins to weep. His brother has never been this angry with him before.
“Have you gone mad? You’re so high! You could’ve dropped her!” Mohinder shouts. “I was looking for food in her cot,” Balwinder snivels and says. “That’s all. Maa kasam.”
Mohinder pushes Balwinder out of the hut. “Hutt! Hutt!” he shouts.
He pulls the doortowards himself and locks it from the inside. It’s not much, the door. A tin sheet really. But Balwinder doesn’t have the energy for a fight. He searches the courtyard for stalks of hay that they keep for their bull. He finds a few and nibbles on them. Then he puts his head down on the verandah floor and goes to sleep.
In the middle of the night Balwinder hears grunts. What is that? He gets up slowly from the floor and walks towards the hut door. His head is heavy and empty from the food he has not had in twenty hours. He puts his head against the tin sheet.
They are going at it, his brother and bhabhi.
Why is it that his brother gets to have fun and he doesn’t? He peeks in through the door but it’s too dark. He can’t see a thing. His penis stands up. He pulls down his tamba and starts shaking. He lets out a groan. The moans from inside stop. They have sensed that he’s awake, as they often do. He thinks he hears his brother mutter a curse. He goes back and lies down on the floor. When his brother opens the tin sheet all he can hear are the snores from Balwinder’s mouth.
The next morning, after his brother leaves for the fields, Balwinder watches Dilneet as she feeds the baby. He watches her as she shuts the tin sheet behind her. He watches her as she comes out to the verandah. He watches her as she lights the chulha to heat tree sap. She’s not bad, he decides. Her breasts have rounded out after having the child.
“Is Chaaya sleeping?” he asks her.
She doesn’t reply. She leaves the sap to cool and walks to the electric wires, which have no electricity. She pulls them down and begins to hang clothes on them.
Balwinder watches her. He picks up the opium pod that his brother had thrown on the ground yesterday and licks it. He feels bolder. He walks up behind Dilneet and grabs her from the waist. She drops the cloth in her hand. This makes him feel invincible.
“I heard you going at it like a randi last night. Why enjoy only one brother? There are two of us,” Balwinder says.
“What are you doing?” Dilneet shouts. Her eyes widen in shock. “Let go off me!”
“I’ve waited four years. Never once put a finger on you. Yesterday the sarpanch asked me why I’m going around the village when a fudi is right in my bedroom. I am also wondering why?”
He’s out of breath, from lust or the opium. Still, he grabs Dilneet’s sari blouse and pulls the hooks. Dilneet kicks him on the shins. Balwinder keels over. White flashes before his eyes. Then he sees Dilneet running, straight towards the fields where his brother is. Shit!
By the time Mohinder and Dilneet come running towards the hut, Balwinder is hitting himself with the cane for the bull.
“Kill me! Hit me! For I have sinned!” Balwinder shouts. “What I have done is unforgivable.”
His brother is having none of it. He grabs Balwinder by the neck and pulls out his sickle. “You lout!” his brother says. “Today I will not spare you!”
His brother seems taller and stronger when he’s angry. Balwinder thinks of shouting for help but he knows that no one in the village will save him. They all hate him.
“This is all your fault,” Balwinder retorts. “You should have gotten me married.”
“I tried! For years! No one wants to marry a haraami like you!”
“Kill me then, brother,” Balwinder shouts. “Kill your own Ballu and send him to your parents. I am sure Pitaji and Maataji are waiting for me!”
He falls at Mohinder’s feet. It’s a simple gesture, but it makes him as vulnerable as his niece. He knows it is something Mohinder will not be able to bear.
True, for Mohinder stops his sickle that is raised mid-air.
This is his chance. Balwinder has to show Mohinder what a good brother he can be. “I will change,” he lies. “I will stop drugs. I will not look at women. I will work in the fields.”
From his neck he removes a chain, on which are bunched together three rudraksha seeds. He hands this to Mohinder.
“This is a gift from me to bhabhi. Consider it my apology.” But Dilneet, whose only prized possession is a tiny gold stud that is as small as her ear piercing, walks off in a huff to the hut where Chaaya is now wailing.
“This better not happen again!” says Mohinder.
“I promise! Maa kasam.”
Mohinder looks worriedly at his brother and then walks into the hut, shutting the tin sheet behind him. Again, his brother has forsaken him for this child. All their tensions are because of Chaaya, Balwinder decides. I don’t get food or my brother’s care because of her. I have no respect in this house because of her. Enough of this second-class treatment, he decides. I will make my life change. I will make people respect me.
From the pit of his stomach Balwinder draws upon some inner strength. From this emerges an inside-out person, an inverted version of himself that has been shacking unknown inside him for the last twenty-three years. His shoulders shudder, like a drug leaving the body of an addict, and he feels a sense of both loss and gain.
He knows what he has to do.
He washes his face at the water pump, and walks over to the sarpanch’s house. The man is lying on his charpoy, watching a dance reality show on TV.
“I am ready,” Balwinder tells him.
The sarpanch doesn’t look up. He snaps his fingers and Chitpal appears with a file. The sarpanch takes out a green paper. Chitpal puts the paper in front of Balwinder. He holds up an inkpad. Balwinder rubs his thumb on the inkpad and puts his thumbprint on the green paper. The sarpanch snaps his fingers again. His fat wife comes out of the kitchen. He holds up five fingers. She vanishes within the house and reappears with cash. She gives it to Chitpal. Chitpal puts it in Balwinder’s hand. It’s rupees fifty thousand; half of what Balwinder’s family would get for his suicide.
The transaction is done. Balwinder’s land––belonging to his family for over seven generations––is sold to the sarpanch.
The sarpanch has not once looked up from the TV.
Balwinder feels like a rich man now, rich enough to leave the village and go to Delhi. But he wants to say goodbye to his brother. Show him that he has more money than him. Show him that he will become a bigger man than him without working in the fields. Show him the possibility of leaving the village.
When he returns home, however, neither his brother nor bhabhi are there. Mohinder must be in the fields and Dilneet must have gone there to give him lunch. Balwinder can walk to the fields but that requires ten minutes of effort.
Instead, he decides to rest. He walks into the hut and sees Chaaya in her jholi, sleeping. He sits down next to the jholi and puts his money on the floor. He rubs his hand against the notes. He has never seen so much money in his life. This is the happiest day of his life.
He remembers that as children Mohinder and him would often chase butterflies in the fields. It was a time of run and freedom, without the despair of poverty or ambition. Every once in a while Balwinder would manage to catch a butterfly, and then he’d get that glint in his eyes, that glint that he was happy to the point of being delirious. It was something special, something that Mohinder had never had or felt, and could never imagine having or feeling. But sometimes, on days when his eyes were scorched and troubled, Balwinder would catch a butterfly, pin it to his hand and pluck its wings, let it fall to the ground. This perplexed Mohinder and he would ask his brother: how can you ruin the thing that brings you happiness?
Because I can, thinks Balwinder.
He turns to look at his niece. He sees a bit of himself in her dark brown eyes and the way she smiles, even without her teeth. But the rest of her––her fair skin, her bulbous nose, her soft stomach––are all his bhabhi. She will grow up to be a beauty. And then she will reject men like him. All these bloody women are the same!
Then, he sees something. Nestling against his niece’s legs and going into places no man would ever dare, is a mosquito. Balwinder swats the mosquito but doesn’t remove his hands from Chaaya’s legs. She wakes up and gurgles at him.
Balwinder feels an old familiar yearning.
Yes! How can he enter the city a virgin?
Balwinder stands up and looks outside. The sun is still strung high up in the sky.
There is no movement except the sway of a gentle breeze. There is no sound except two mynahs calling to each other. The only time he can do this is now.
He stands up and leans over Chaaya’s jholi. He removes her cloth diaper and pulls down his tamba.
In the beginning her cries are strong. She starts bleeding, there is lots of blood, and her pelvis swells. Then, her cries become weaker and she loses consciousness. After he’s done there are multiple tears to her anus and a massive laceration in her rectum.
This is what it means to tear someone open.
He had not imagined sex to be this way, but it has fulfilled his need.
There is nothing else left to be done.
He looks at his niece. Her eyes are shut. She isn’t moving. Is she dead?
He is about to leave her body in the jholi, but what’s the point? Girls should be treated like girls. He picks up his niece’s body and carries it outside the hut. He ties together a few electric wires with the hay stalks and places her body on them, like a flower left out to dry. Her body is lighter than he remembers, smaller too. Mohinder and Dilneet will be able to see it when they walk back towards the hut. Serves them right for not feeding him.
Balwinder steps back. The entire process has taken him less than ten minutes.
He stuffs his few clothes and money into a burlap sack, and walks out of his brother’s hut. He crosses his neighbour’s huts, the sarpanch’s house, the furrowed fields and the poplar trees. His shadow falls on the road, wavering, unlike him. He reaches the bus stop where he stands and waits to board a bus to Delhi.
For the first time in many years his penis is limp, like a whistle afraid of its own steam. He’s never been this relaxed in his life. He hums the tune of Anushka Sharma’s song.
The clouds become dark. A drop of water falls on him. The rains have arrived.
“Good,” Balwinder says as he looks up at the sky. “My brother will not go hungry this year.”
He watches a woman walk up to the bus stop and sit down on a tree stump. He notices that she does not have an umbrella. This can mean only one thing: her blouse will become wet and transparent. This is turning out to be a good day, Balwinder thinks, as he whistles another happy tune.
Meghna Pant’s short stories Happy Birthday (Random House India, 2013) was longlisted for the prestigious Frank O’Connor International Award 2014. One And A Half Wife (Westland, 2012) – my debut novel – won the national Muse India Young Writer Award and was shortlisted for other awards, including the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Her new feminist book, The Trouble With Women is now available on the Juggernaut app. Meghna also abridged the world’s longest epic, The Mahabharata, into one hundred tweets that The Guardian reviewed as ‘wonderfully descriptive and paced’. Her short stories have been published in over a dozen international and national literary magazines, including Avatar Review, Wasafari, Eclectica, The Indian Quarterly and QLRS.