As the clock strikes 9 pm, Kuldip Kaur sets out of her house armed with a khunda (a long, wooden stick) and a big torch. There are few people out at this time in Bangiwal, a remote village in Jalandhar district located on the banks of the Sutlej, though today is an exception.
The village is holding a jagrata (night-long prayer session) and people have gathered under a brightly lit tent singing bhajans. For Kuldip, that’s both good news and bad. Good because, unlike other nights, she won’t be the only one up while the rest of the village retires to bed by 9 pm; bad because she needs to be even more alert as most of the houses are empty with people at the jagrata on the outskirts of Bangiwal.
Kuldip, in her mid-40s, is one of only two women among the 13,500 “chowkidars” appointed by the government to guard Punjab’s 13,000 villages at night. The other, Razia Begum, is a guard at Bir, 15 km away. Kuldip does her rounds, intermittently calling out villagers’ names and saying ‘Jagde raho (Keep awake)’.
Every night, after her children have had their dinner, Kuldip eats a light meal before setting out, dressed in a salwar-kameez, her head covered with a dupatta. She does a quick check of the several lanes in the village before coming around to the main street by 9.30 pm. Here, she takes her first break at a chabutra (platform) built around an old banyan tree, where the men play cards during the day. After resting for about 20 minutes, she gets up for her second round, now covering the other corner of Bangiwal.
The village, with a population of around 1,000, has approximately 250 houses spread over 3 sq km. She can’t afford breaks longer than that.
Kuldip’s second round lasts more than an hour, and takes her close to her own house. Here, her son Luvpreet meets her. The fourth of her six children and the elder of her two sons, the quiet 15-year-old is worried about his mother.
“I study till 11 pm and then come and spend an hour with her as I feel scared when she moves alone at night,” says the Class X student.
Kuldip smiles indulgently. “I ask him not to worry, that I will take care of myself and the village as well, but after all, a child is a child,” she says. “I send him back by 12 though, as he has to attend school in the morning.”
Around 11.15 pm, on her third round, as Kuldip stops outside a house and calls out the name of the owner along with ‘Jagde raho’, there is a furious response from inside. “Aap tan tu saari raat be-araam hona hi hai, saanu kyon kardi hai vajan maar-maar ke? Chup-chap pind de chakkar lai ja (You have to stay awake the whole night. Why are you disturbing us too? Just keep taking the rounds quietly),” scolds the woman. Kuldip shrugs, though Luvpreet looks a little abashed. “I have to listen to such things daily,” she says.
At midnight, Kuldip’s brother-in-law Kulwant Singh comes and takes Luvpreet home. By this time, Kuldip is back on the main street.
Walking down one of the narrow lanes, she talks about her husband Avtar Singh. The former village chowkidar, he earned
Rs 800 a month and died of a heart attack six years ago. She was offered his job as relief.
Around 1 am, by which time there is a chill in the air, hinting at the coming winter, Kulwant brings her a thermos full of tea. Kuldip sips the tea slowly, again resting on the chabutra. This time her break is cut short as she hears dogs barking agitatedly from one corner of the village. Kulwant and Kuldip go there to look around. But there is nothing “suspicious”.
Kulwant hangs around for two hours, admitting that he is worried about the drug addicts roaming around at night.
By now, Kuldip has only an hour more to go. She strains her ears to hear the loudspeaker at the local gurdwara, which starts relaying the granthi’s (priest) prayers between 3.30 and 4 am. That’s her clue to head home.
After sleeping only four hours, she is up again. She first finishes the chores at home and then leaves with eldest daughter Sarabjit Kaur, 20, for the fields, where they work as labourers.
Kuldip says she can’t afford to live on her chowkidar’s pay alone. “The state government gives me only Rs 800 a month and that too after a gap of four to five months.”
Kuldip, who never went to school and just about manages to write her name in Punjabi, says she works hard to ensure that her children get an education. To her regret, Sarabjit stopped going to school after Class VIII, following the death of her father. While the second of her daughters is in Class XII, one is in Class XI and the youngest in VIII. Her youngest child, son Sukhwinder, is in Class V. All are enrolled in government schools.
The president of the Jalandhar district chowkidar union, Swaran Singh Baba, hopes the government increases the pay of guards to at least Rs 3,500 a month, as fixed by the Centre. “One can’t have even two meals a day with Rs 800,” he says.
Kuldip herself insists what she is doing is “nothing important”, but for her village that’s almost entirely Dalit, she has set an example. “She doesn’t know that she is a big inspiration to women, doing what many men would not like to do,” says Surinder Pal Singh, the former sarpanch.
While she repeatedly tells Luvpreet not to worry, Kuldip admits she is nervous every night she steps out. “I am lucky nothing untoward has happened in Bangiwal in the six years that I have been in charge, though episodes have happened nearby,” she says.
So every dawn that prayers sound out from the loudspeaker at the gurdwara marking the end of her shift, Kuldip says one of her own, thanking god for another peaceful night.
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