free to go in and out but not to do any business. And they had to answer rollcall twice a day, or the police would go around Moradabad looking for them. Dada slept in the railway station, not far from the mustard field, and did all the stealing for Bapu. He had given up the idea of retirement. He stuck to safe targets—old women and large families. He still had a small knife hidden in the left side of his mouth, between the gum and the cheek. With this he could cut thin gold chains and rip through sacking. Bapu came to meet him at the station three times a week, and Dada would have him hide coins in his dhoti to take back to Ma, because he knew she was with child. It pained him, he told me, that his grandson would be born in a government prison, but better that than to let his son starve outside.
Then Bapu made the great mistake that ruined our family. Taunted by another bhantu in the mustard field—a man who had his eyes on Ma, Dada said—Bapu made a foolish attempt to do a job on his own. Someone had taught him tappabaji: if you know how to handle brass and extol its shine, you can pass it off as gold. He had a jeweller make him brass earrings, and set off in search of customers. You cannot fool a bania with them, but you can draw poor men aside in the bajar and tell them you have stolen the earrings, and offer to sell them at half price. Unfortunately, Bapu walked right into a settlement of doms, not knowing that doms—whom the police lock up in mustard fields like they do bhantus—are masters of tappabaji. A quarrel flared up and ended with someone killing someone. I do not think Bapu did anything, but the police took him away anyway.
Ma was working in the field. She knew nothing until Bapu failed to answer the evening roll-call. She waited all night, hoping he would steal back into the compound. Overstaying his day pass would get him three days in the room,
but that was a small matter. The next morning she got a pass, ran to Moradabad railway station and shook Dada awake. She was heavy now— eight months gone with me. The two of them immediately went to the police station to ask about Bapu, but were afraid to approach the entrance. All bhantus were registered with the Moradabad police, and Dada, who was not, would be arrested as soon as they saw him. He stayed back and asked her to go inside. She returned in five minutes, walking slowly, holding her belly in pain. The constables had laughed at her condition and told her nothing.
They returned to the railway station. Ma would not stop crying. They sat all day on the platform, turning away every time they saw a constable. As evening approached, Ma said she would have to return to the fort. ‘I cannot miss roll-call.’
With Bapu gone, Dada suddenly felt alone. ‘Do not leave me,’ he pleaded as she got to her feet. ‘They will not lock up a woman, just cancel her day pass for a week.’
Ma sat down again. They stayed on the platform for two days, hungry, watching trains come and go. Crowds swarmed the station every morning, rushing this way and that, carrying their bedding rolls and searching frantically for space in packed carriages, scrambling every time the train whistled. At night the station was silent, except for the shuffling of beggars.
On the third evening Ma rose to go, saying, ‘Someone must work our land.’ Dada pointed to her belly. ‘Will you feed your son mustard from your two bighas?’
Ma sighed. ‘He will eat what the government gives him.’ Dada was desperate. ‘Do not go back! I will look after you!’ He knew she did not believe him. How would he take care of her? At his age he should have been sitting in the bhantu panchayat, receiving the share that was owed to him. But even a man who was the equal of Gulphi in his youth has no say in the community if his son cannot carry on his trade. Dada later told me that he did not want Ma to leave the station because then he would have lost me forever. ‘I will beg, I will steal like a habura, I will cover you from head to toe with gold. What reason do you have to return to that jail?’
‘They will give me dal–roti,’ Ma said quietly. They had not eaten for two days. The words stuck in Dada’s throat and he nearly choked with shame, but still asked, ‘Will they give me dal–roti too?’ Ma knew right away what he meant. ‘They register all bhantus,’ she replied, looking away. ‘You cannot leave until tomorrow morning and you must answer roll-call.’ Dada sighed. He had once believed he would die as he had been born—in the Tarai—having lived like his fathers. Now he would waste away in a mustard field. He consoled himself that his life had already ended, and he would spend the rest of his days teaching his grandson what he could not teach his son. He stood up. ‘We will go and live in peace. We will cut sugarcane and water the mustard, and sweep wheat chaff off the ground, until this one,’ he pointed to her belly again, ‘is ready to become Gulphi.’ That is how Dada surrendered to the government. But even a cheetal brought down by a leopard gives one last kick before falling silent, so Dada did a final job that evening—and this on a hungry stomach. He took Ma to the thakur who had once sold him to the government and said, ‘For nine rupees you can catch three bhantus and deliver them to the mustard field.’ ‘I see only two,’ said the thakur.
Dada pointed to Ma’s belly. The thakur shook his head. ‘The government
does not pay for a womb.’ ‘A bhantu will grow up to be a thief,’ Dada said. ‘Why not lock him up before he utters his first cry?’
‘The government will give me eight rupees for two. I can give you three.’
‘Six rupees,’ Dada countered. ‘I will have to pay a man to tie you up and take you there.’
‘Four,’ said the thakur. So Dada received four rupees and the thakur’s cart dropped them off at the prison, where Dada was registered and allowed to live in Ma’s hut. That is how I, a bhantu meant to roam the Tarai and hunt in the Bhabar, was born inside the walls of a government prison. When Ma’s pains began in the middle of the night, the English ASP who was doing his rounds was the only one who attended to her—Dada was too afraid to approach her. It was the ASP who tore me from the womb. He was a policeman, not a doctor, hakim or
vaidya, or even a bhagat, so Ma died. But before she stopped breathing she had seen me, noticed I was whole, and heard Dada say, ‘This one has been pulled out by an English sahib so he will be the king of thieves, not a mere pickpocket like me. Let us name him Sultan.’ The mustard fields surrounding the jail lay where the Bhabar forest ends and the Tarai grassland begins. I played there on days when Dada got himself