CLASS III marks a milestone for this family, in a dusty, fog-enveloped village of around 1,500 families, four and a half hours from the national capital. Two of their sons dropped out of village school as third-grade students and the third has just enrolled in the same class there. The eldest of the three is now the juvenile convict in the December 16 gangrape, who may walk free on Sunday.
Pulling out arbi and disentangling it from weeds at a landowning farmer’s field, the middle brother, 14, has to be reminded it is a day before his brother’s release. His old school uniform now his work attire — the rolled-down sleeves his only protection against the bitter cold — the 14-year-old worries, “We brothers look strikingly similar. I hope he looks different now. Otherwise I will never get mazdoori again in the village.”
For 14-hour days, the boy gets paid Rs 100, but the money will buy the family wheat for dinner — their first meal on Saturday. He adds that he doesn’t know what his eldest brother, now 20, looks like. He last came home eight years ago, when he still washed dishes at a dhaba in East Delhi.
The third brother is 8 — the age at which the juvenile ran away from home. “When he came home last, I saw he had chappals. He wore pink chappals and helped mother make rotis. If I had chappals, I would also run away,” he says wistfully, rubbing an open wound on his bare right foot.
There is a fourth brother, 6, and also slipper-less. He has never been to school.
The mother lies at home on a cot, shivering under a blue shawl lent by a neighbour. While officials have said she would be brought to Delhi and the juvenile handed over to her, she says that’s unlikely. “I am unwell.” With media crew pouring in over the weekend, and conscious of village murmurs all around, her constant worry is the prospects of feeding an extra mouth.
A tarpaulin sheet held up by four bamboo sticks to block chilly winds covers the courtyard where she lies. “He was born here… in this courtyard. I used this same sheet to cover him,” she says between coughs.
Another cot lies nearby. At night, the family moves into one of the two pucca rooms at one end of the courtyard, added only this year from money given by the pradhan. The rooms have no doors, and open out into the street. Since they are too tiny to accommodate the cots, the family of seven — the woman, her husband, three sons and two daughters — squeezes onto jute and plastic sacks laid out on the mud floor of a single room. Hay stiched into cloth serves as a quilt, which they all share.
In a corner are stacked the tools of a labourer who can do multiple jobs — paint brush, saw, small khurki. They had a small mirror, but the younger boys broke it.
Privacy is offered by two gold-and-red dupattas in a silk net cloth hung on the doorway as curtains. Two more dupattas, blue and pink with mirrorwork, are pulled across the room’s only window. The woman acknowledges these were once her daughters’ best clothes.
The elder daughter, 21, the only sibling the convict was close to, agrees to talk after much cajoling. Speaking over a neighbour’s phone — the family doesn’t own one — she has been working at an under-construction home since 7 am. “My brother had big dreams, so he went crazy… like my father. He has already ensured I will not get a husband in this village. If he stays here, I will not get one even in the next 10 villages,” she says.
Does she remember him? She clears her throat. “He was chubby and fair. I would play with his cheeks, he would call me dark. He was my only brother who could write his name. He is too clever for his own good,” she says.
She also remembers a broken promise. “He had said he would bring me bangles and anklets. He never did,” she says before hanging up abruptly.
In the other room, the family keeps its only worldly possessions — shared with others. The buffalo ‘Bagha’ is owned by them in “chauthai (one-fourth). They and three other families jointly purchased the animal two years ago. So they own only 25 per cent of her milk and dung, and when it is sold, they would be entitled to one-fourth of the money.
They own a little more of the goat ‘Jhumri” — “badhai” or half. The other owner milks her, gives them half of it. In return, they take care of the goat. When Jhumri gave birth to two calves, they got one.
Between bouts of wheezing and coughing, the woman vomits twice. Asked again about her son’s imminent freedom, she has one urgent request — “First take me to hospital. Then I will speak.”
At the block headquarters, about 10 km away, a homeopathy specialist concludes she has bronchitis and a recurrent chest infection. He gives some medicines in a pudiya.
The medicines ease the cough, but only briefly. Again bitter, she cries, “I had bought dupattas for my eldest daughter’s wedding. The year he got arrested, I was planning for her wedding. Today, the dupattas have become curtains and my daughter is a labourer.”
Her husband, who has been mentally unsound for 15 years, has become more withdrawn since their eldest son’s conviction, she adds. He also remains absent from home for long durations. He left last on Friday morning, and till Saturday evening, hadn’t returned.
She does not own a TV, nor has she ever watched TV, she says. She cannot read the papers as well. So while she has been spared the debate surrounding her son’s release, she has also stayed far away from his world. Contrary to reports, she says she never visited him at the juvenile home, nor had anybody from the police or juvenile home contacted her.
“Someone from the home spoke to me once about a year ago. I asked for his picture. But that never came,” she says.
Savita Singh, the newly elected pradhan, is to be sworn in soon. Her husband who speaks for her says they will support the boy if he returns. “This is not the city, where we shame people. We have to help him, he is one of us,” he says.
Others, who have faint memories now of the eight-year-old who left home with two other village boys, are not too sure.
“They say he has become radicalised and is more dangerous now. If he could bring so much shame as a boy, what will he do now?” a 20-year-old who works as a mechanic and also aspires to go to Delhi says. A “classmate” says he was a very adventurous boy. “He would run the fastest, and escape to the block office between classes to watch movies. We were too scared, but he would lead us,” he says.
At the primary school, about 200 metres from the convict’s home, Class III students are chanting the table of two in chorus. Though the school has a building now, they still sit in the courtyard like when the convict was a student here.
The eight-year-old brother of the convict has just been dragged in by his 14-year-old sibling. He sits for a few minutes, and then tip-toes out.
Standing in the fields, the 14-year-old smiles. “I cannot even write my name… I always thought what is the point of studying when I have to work in the fields? He is going the same way as me. Maybe our eldest brother can teach him to read and write, and dream.”
A moment’s gap later, he adds, “But only the good dreams.”