Free to go in and out but not to do any business

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

Police service

The sub-inspector was an old brahmin from the hills who had entered police service thirty years ago, and was set to retire soon. He studied the surma around Dada’s eyes and the knife against his throat, cast a glance at his wife, then sighed and indicated that the money was buried under his bed. He got off; they moved the bed gently to one side. The man fetched a shovel and dug up the earth while Dada sat in a corner and smoked a chillum of ganja.

When the sub-inspector was knee-deep in the crater the shovel scratched a box, which he handed to Dada. They refilled the hole and moved the bed back into position, pausing for a moment when the wife moaned and turned over in her sleep. Then they moved to the outer room, where Dada tied up the subinspector. On his way out, Dada picked up a nice-looking musket. The policeman grunted in protest. Dada told him, ‘Get yourself another one from the police department. A young bhantu needs it more than an old brahmin. There better be a lot of gold in this box or I will come again, and this time I will wake up your wife.’

There was no gold in the box. Dada took it to the bania in Bareilly, who counted ninety silver coins and three silver anklets. Dada cursed his lack of judgement. He had been a fool to rob a sub-inspector, he later told me. A man who earns no more than forty rupees in a month cannot accumulate treasure. I have since learned never to waste time on a policeman: if he is an ASP or of higher rank he is too dangerous; if he is an inspector or lower he is too poor.

Dada had already picked out a girl for Bapu. She was notorious in Moradabad for having exchanged words with a bania after lifting a bag of almonds from his shop. The bania was sure the bag was on her body, but nothing was found when she was searched by another woman. Of course, the woman was not a bhantu, so she could not have known where it was hidden. Dada went to the panchayat in Moradabad, placed the box in the hands of the head panch—an old bhantu of long acquaintance—and demanded the girl for Bapu. The panch counted the coins and scolded him. ‘You bring me ninety rupees when the mooth is two hundred!’

‘I cannot count,’ Dada said, ‘but I know this is a fortune for a girl who is not chaste.’ He knew nothing of the girl’s morals but hoped that such talk would help lower the mooth. The panchayat summoned the girl’s father. He was enraged at being questioned about his daughter’s ways, but Dada had been able to sow doubt in his mind, and he was reluctant to investigate for fear of what he might discover. Subdued, he asked, ‘Where is your boy?’ ‘I have brought you the money he stole. Why do you need to see his face?’ ‘When did he steal this?’ ‘I see you have not heard of the sub-inspector who was robbed by a young bhantu in Bijnor.’

The man became suspicious. ‘I have heard nothing.’ ‘Ask around. The police do not want to talk about it until they have caught the young man. Your daughter will get the boldest, most courageous bhantu in Rohilkhand.’ The head panch informed Dada that the mooth for an unchaste woman was a hundred and twenty. ‘You may come back when you have thirty rupees,’ he ruled. Dada turned to the girl’s father. ‘When you are offered a drop of gangajal, you do not say, “It is only a drop!” You drink it gratefully because you know it has come from the waves of Ganga Ma—one drop of her water is worth more than the ocean crossed by Ramji. These silver coins come from a subinspector, a high officer in the police, a man who speaks to DSPs and ASPs and SPs, and perhaps the IG himself! Does it matter how many there are?’ It took the girl’s father a day to ascertain that a robbery had indeed taken place, and the match was grudgingly fixed. Bapu bought himself a new dhoti and kurta. Dada stole a set of silver bangles to present to his daughter-in-law. The day before the wedding, the Bijnor police marched to the railway station and searched every train, looking for the bhantu who had robbed the subinspector. That evening, the girl’s father came to Dada and told him, ‘The police are looking for an old bhantu.’ ‘Old? The boy is not yet sixteen.’ ‘The sub-inspector noticed wrinkles around his eyes.’ ‘The boy had rubbed my surma around them,’ Dada scoffed. ‘How could a man see wrinkles through the black surma?’

‘The sub-inspector is quite certain that the robber was an old man. It seems he walked slowly and wasted much time in picking a lock. A younger man would have scaled the wall.’ Furious, Dada retorted, ‘I do not need to jump over walls, because I can pick a lock in the blink of an eye!’ So the match was called off and Bapu remained unmarried. Dadi died that year from Bhabar fever, along with hundreds of bhantus and karwals who were struck by it. A year passed. Bapu was now seventeen. At his age other bhantus had become fathers, and Dada began to despair. Then someone told Bapu that the government would pay money to a bhantu who married a girl in the new type of prison they had set up outside Moradabad. ‘I know that prison,’ Dada said when Bapu mentioned it to him. ‘You can leave after morning roll-call with a day pass, but you must be back by evening. The guards will whip you only if you steal when you are out.’ Bapu asked, ‘Why will they let me enter that prison? I have robbed no one.’ ‘They take all bhantus—those who have robbed and those who will.’

‘Will they make me work?’
‘There are mustard fields outside, but you need not work hard.’
That is how Bapu married Ma. The government paid. They were given a hut inside the fenced compound and two bighas of land outside. Ma did most of the work. Bapu sat around and smoked ganja. It was rocky land, and Ma was no good at this kind of work. Her bapu had trained her to be a pickpocket, but it was difficult to do any business while in prison. Although they could slip into the bajar every day, the prison was where the police came looking whenever anything was stolen in Moradabad. If a bhantu was found to have robbed, he was whipped and locked up in a room, from which there was no release for three days. If a bhantu was found to have robbed twice he was sent to Moradabad jail, where he spent the rest of his life. It became clear to Bapu and Ma that this mustard field was worse than a prison—they were

Bapu was slow for a bhantu

Bapu was slow for a bhantu. While he learned the business, my grandmother tried to make up the shortfall caused by Dada’s retirement. Dadi had been trained by her father but Dada had not permitted her to work until now. Wearing a new skirt and dupatta, she walked about the bajar in Moradabad. She brushed up against men—when you are older, you will learn that men do not mind this—and pulled out coins from secret pouches sewn into their dhotis. Dada later told me he was ashamed to let Dadi press her body up against men. ‘We are bhantus, not berias, who let their women do immoral things with men they wish to rob!’ Dadi herself did not mind; she would have preferred to steal from women, but women hide their coins deep inside their blouses, where a hand cannot reach. Also, a woman never has more than five or six annas. Whenever Dada raised the matter she silenced him by saying, ‘My youth has already been given to you, and we have a son of fourteen to show for it. These men get no more than an old hag of thirtyone or thirty-two, and receive their punishment when they are about to buy a necklace for their wives and find their money gone.’

Sometimes Dada and Dadi would work together. He would finger a gold bangle at a shop counter and begin to quarrel with the shopkeeper about the price. While the two were busy, Dadi would lean over the display case and  slip a few trinkets into her bodice. They got by like this while Bapu learned the trade. But where Dada had dug up hundreds of rupees from kitchen floors,
Dadi managed to steal a rupee or two. And there was the constant fear of the police, who could catch a bhantu even before he had stolen anything and lock him up in the mustard field.

Dada never told me anything about Bapu’s training. Whenever I asked, he would sigh and say, ‘Your bapu was a bhantu by birth but a habura by nature.’ Even at fourteen, Bapu did not have the courage to slip his hand into a man’s pocket. Dada decided to get him a bride, hoping the woman would put some spine in his back, and perhaps provide an additional hand. But which girl would marry a man who had stolen nothing, robbed no one and could not pay her price? The rate was more than two hundred rupees by then. So Dada resolved to come out of retirement to help Bapu do his first job. It had to be big, so Bapu could get a proper bride. Dada set his sights on the superintendent of police in Moradabad. No panchayat would question the courage of a bhantu who had robbed an English sahib.


At dusk one day, Dada walked to the SP’s bungalow and hid behind a hedge under the window. He had never stolen from a sahib, so he wanted to watch the house for one evening before having Bapu do the job. The SP, still in his police uniform, was seated at a large table with his wife. His khansama, who had come out of the kitchen carrying plates, slipped and fell, sending everything crashing to the floor. He and the khidmatgar began to clean up. The memsahib scolded them, then lashed out at the mashalchi for not keeping the kitchen floor clean. Dada had not known there would be so many men attending to the SP at his dinner. Perhaps they all lived in the sahib’s bungalow, which would make it impossible to enter the rooms without waking someone. Could they be brought over to his side if promised a share of the loot? Then Dada heard someone singing in the garden. The sahib’s mali was watering the rose bushes, advancing in his direction. Dada sprang out of the hedge and ran, reminding himself of his old pledge not to stalk nawabs and kings, and adding sahibs to the list.

Dada now settled on the sub-inspector in Bijnor, who was only a brahmin. It was the night of amavasya; there was no moon. On such dark nights Dada used a powder of cardamom, black pepper, camphor and a secret ingredient that I swore on Kali Ma never to name. If you go to the panchayat in Moradabad and tell them you are Sultana’s son, they will give you a packet of this powder, and you must hand over what remains of it to your son. Dada ground the mixture, added water and rubbed the paste round his eyes. Using this surma he could see clearly even in pitch darkness. At midnight, he shook Bapu awake and told him, ‘The passenger train to Bijnor is three hours late. We can catch it if we hurry. Slip your knife into your dhoti.’ He had to take Bapu along so the robbery could be added to Bapu’s account. As soon as the train left Moradabad station, Bapu began to shiver.

Dada ordered him to pluck up courage, but he complained that the night was cold. Furious, Dada let Bapu jump off at the first stop and return home, so it was he alone who stole into the sub-inspector’s house in Bijnor. A bhantu does not cover his face when entering a house—we would be no better than haburas if we did—but Dada needed everyone to think this was Bapu’s job, so he tied his turban around his face. No longer able to tackle walls, he found a gate in the back and picked the lock. He could walk as softly as a cat, and it was not until he was sitting on the bed with his knife grazing the sub-inspector’s chin that the man opened his eyes. He tried to sit

The musket man looked at the babu

The musket man looked at the babu, and they said nothing. ‘I will slit your thakur’s throat!’ Dada shouted. The musket man shrugged. ‘The government gives two rupees for every bhantu brought to this new jail.’

‘My wife has robbed no one! Why should she go to jail?’
‘She is a bhantu,’ said the government babu.

‘Every bhantu is a thief: you, your wife, your children, and the grandchildren still in the womb.’ That is how Dada discovered that a bhantu cannot trust the government. He must hide from it even if he has not stolen and plans to steal nothing until the next full moon. He used to tell me, ‘This new type of prison is worse than a regular one. In Moradabad jail, the constable will whip you and the subinspector will call you a dog, but you will be out in three months or three years. In this mustard field, you are in jail forever. There is no release: you can leave only on the shoulders of four other bhantus when you are dead.’ So, after morning roll-call on his first day, Dada got day passes for Dadi and himself and they left the mustard field, never to return. But he feared that his working days were coming to an end. A man whom the police have registered must watch every corner anxiously, and a bhantu who cannot ride with confidence, climb bullock carts or jump over walls cannot steal. He thought of handing his business over to his son, my bapu, but then the government laid a railway line passing through Moradabad and Bareilly, and Dada discovered that he did not have to scale walls or ride horses any more— he could simply take the train. His area of operation now extended all the way from Punjab in the west to Gorakhpur in the east, where he shared his loot with the dom panchayat so they would not mind him looting in their territory. It was this railway line that ruined my bapu’s career, because Dada did not retire as an old man should when his son has reached marriageable age.

Drunk with the image of himself as Gulphi, he was in Kanpur one day, Hardwar the next, Ambala the day after that. He chose crowded trains and wealthy-looking people—banias whose soft hands had weighed maunds of flour but never turned a clod of earth—and struck up conversations. He had the Rohilkhand railway timetable printed inside his head. The whole of it. He knew which train started when to go where from which station, and which one was running how many hours late, and which connection it would be impossible to get that day. He would hold court inside the train, giving free information to anyone who might ask. ‘You want to go to Bazpur? Take the mail train to Lalkuan and change to a passenger special from there …’ When the train got crowded he would offer his bench to others and lie down on the floor. Then, as soon as the whole compartment began to snore, he slit bedding rolls with a small, curved knife he kept inside his mouth, snatched bangles, necklaces and rings off lifeless fingers dangling from benches. He was gone at the next stop, knowing exactly which connecting train to take so he could get back to Moradabad that very night, where his wife would decide which bangles she would keep and which ones he could sell to a bania in Bareilly. It is wise for a man to memorize the railway timetable, my son, if he is too old to ride horses.

Once, Dada pulled a hansuli off a fat woman’s throat. Dadi said it was too large for her, so he took it to the Bareilly bania, who said it looked like the hansuli his father-in-law had given him as dowry. Dada realized that the woman he had robbed was the bania’s wife. Seeing no way out, he winked at the man and said, ‘The woman who wore this was a fat buffalo. I thought my arms would not be able to circle the folds in her neck.’ The bania quickly said he was now quite certain he had not seen the hansuli before, and Dada snatched it back, saying his wife had taken a fancy to it. My bapu—your grandfather—was almost fourteen before Dada realized he had neglected his son’s training. Many years later, sitting with me in Najibabad Fort, Dada would wish he had never seen the railway and never heard of Gulphi, whose image drove him to work when he should have been training my bapu. ‘Gulphi was not even a bhantu but a karwal,’ he would say wistfully, ‘and for him I turned away from my son.’ Karwals are our cousins. We will marry their sisters and they will marry ours, but they are not bhantus, and a bhantu should not aspire to become what he is not.

One day, as he was jumping off a train, Dada slipped. It was a small station near Dilli—it did not have a concrete platform, just a mound of earth an armlength below the footboard. He did not break any bones but sprained his ankle, and knew his career had ended. That night, he called Bapu to his bedside and asked him to take over the business. That was when our troubles started.

Like me. Let us name him Sultan

like me. Let us name him Sultan.’ Dada was a modest man, not one to list his own exploits, but let me tell you he was the greatest thief in Rohilkhand. He could jump on to a moving bullock cart, slip jewellery off women’s arms, shake coins loose from kurta pockets, silence whiners with a swish of his sword, plunge knives into a few throats and jump off without the slightest disturbance. All this as the cart driver sat in the front dangling his legs, watching the roll of bullock humps and singing a Garhwali song, turning to look back only when the women’s wails had risen to the sky. By then my dada would be flying with the wind on his horse. And that was good for the cart driver, for a sword would have found its way through his heart, too, if he had turned round sooner. For three weeks every month Dada robbed and stole, and murdered when necessary. He bought himself the best bhantu girl in Rohilkhand for one hundred and fifty rupees, which was twice the rate in those days. They said he was the great Gulphi himself, come back to life after three hundred years. It had taken seven hundred soldiers dispatched by the nawab to catch Gulphi, but even the English sahibs with their thousands of policemen could never come near my grandfather. Dada liked to say that the Nawab of Rampur was his patron. He knew every constable in the nawab’s force. Sometimes, after robbing a cart in Moradabad or Bareilly, he would ride into Rampur State, where the nawab’s police would not bother him. Even if the Moradabad police was chasing him, they would abandon their pursuit after crossing the Rampur border because a man caught inside Rampur would have to be handed over to the nawab’s police. When things cooled down in Moradabad, Dada would slip back. While he waited in Rampur, Dada tried to do business there. Once, he managed to climb into the bedroom of the nawab himself. Let me tell you what a nawab’s bedroom looks like: the curtains were of Bengal silk, the carpets were from Persia, the spittoon was pure gold, and the footstool was shaped like the bust of a man, perhaps a bhantu, on whose head the nawab stepped every morning. The bed, its headboard studded with diamonds, could hold three mistresses. Even the wind that blew into the room carried the scent of jasmine from the garden below. Dada was about to pluck out a diamond from the headboard when he looked up—the ceiling was one large mirror, reflecting every move he made. Dada knew it was bad luck to be seen by a mirror but, before he could retreat, a dog had bounded into the room. It was a Rampur hound, the type that could stare down a bear. Dada jumped through the window and landed in a patch of the nawab’s English roses, cutting himself very badly as he scrambled to his feet and ran for his life until he was clear of the nawab’s estate. That day he made a rule for himself: never stake out anyone richer than a thakur or a bania. Nawabs and kings, he later told me, are for bhantus who are trying to prove themselves. Where other bhantus prefer gangs, Dada liked to work alone. A gang could launch daring dacoities, but everyone had to follow the mukhiya and the loot had to be shared. Dada did not like that. For this he earned the wrath of the bhantu panchayat in Moradabad, because his thefts brought them no glory. Dada did not think much of the panchayat but dared not cross it. Many years later, when we were in Najibabad Fort, he told me, ‘Never forget to pay regular tribute to the panchayat. They are five old bhantus, too weak to steal or rob, who live off the work of others. When they die, another five will take their place and they will be equally decrepit. But a man must show regard for the elders in his community. Should your panchayat abandon you, you will have no one to turn to. Who will look after your family when the police arrest you? Who will come to your son’s wedding? Who will give his son in marriage to your daughter? And when Sri Maharaj has finally called you, who will carry your bier to the banks of the Ganga?’ So, Dada punctually paid the panchayat’s share. Every month, on the night of the full moon, he went to Moradabad and deposited six silver rupees. The panchayat rate was a tenth of the loot but they had no idea how much he stole, so the tribute remained fixed. It was age that finally slowed him down. One day, he found himself trapped inside a thakur’s compound, pinned against the mud wall, with the thakur’s musket prodding his throat. Dada had unearthed a bag of jewels from under the kitchen floor. When he was challenged, he tried to scale the wall but fell at its base, and now the muzzle of the musket lay cold against his skin. He let the bag slip to the ground, fell to his knees, folded his hands and spoke with tears in his eyes. ‘You are a great thakur with many bighas of land, and I am a poor bhantu. Spare my life and I promise on Kali Ma’s head never to enter another house.’ Dada took oaths to suit the occasion, always remembering to bite his tongue so nothing would go wrong when he failed to keep his word. The thakur looked at him kindly. ‘I know you are a poor man. Come back tomorrow morning. I will pay you a rupiya.’ Dada was dumbfounded—a thakur had taken pity on a bhantu! He studied the stern face before him—sparse moustache, beady eyes, heavy jowls—and thought he had seen an avatar of Vishnuji. Rubbing his nose in the dust, he grabbed the thakur’s ankles and wept. The thakur laid a hand on his head and murmured, ‘Bring your wife with you.’ The next morning, Dada returned to the thakur’s house with his wife, your great-grandmother. A bullock cart was waiting with a driver and a man with a musket. The thakur asked them to climb in. ‘Here is your rupiya,’ he said to Dada, throwing a silver coin into his lap. Dada raised it to his head, then hid it inside the folds of his dhoti as only a bhantu can. ‘My man will take you to my mustard fields,’ the thakur told him. ‘You must work until sunset.’ Dada shrugged—a bhantu does not cut sugarcane or pull weeds in mustard fields; he slits throats and tears pockets. But he kept silent on seeing the musket man. The cart took them to a fenced compound. They entered a hut where a babu noted Dada’s name and age in a book, then asked him his wife’s name. Dada was incensed. ‘Have you no shame?’ ‘Everyone has to be registered,’ said the babu. ‘Is this the thakur’s land?’ Dada demanded. The musket man stepped forward. ‘This is the land of the greatest thakur in the world: the government.’ Dada realized he had been tricked. ‘I want to go to the thakur’s land!’ The musket man whispered, ‘This is not a regular jail. You may leave every morning with a day pass, but you must return before nightfall. You will not be tied up if you answer roll-call morning and evening.’ ‘What will I do here?’ Dada asked. ‘Grow mustard.’ ‘When will I get out?’

My feet

my feet, and I settled down outside the cell with the folio in my lap. Abdur Rahman stood around a while, his curious eyes on me, until I politely reminded him to leave. As soon as we were alone, the bhantu spoke ‘I knew you would come, sahib.’ I held the Victorinox before him. ‘Where did you find this?’ Pointing to the folio in my hand, he said eagerly, ‘Write down what I say!’ ‘Who gave you my knife?’ I persisted. ‘Write, before they come!’ ‘Who told you I would pass through Bareilly today?’ ‘Take this message to my son Rajkumar in Najibabad Fort. Ask him to find a munshi who can read it to him.’ I moved the lantern closer to the bhantu. The orb of light now fell on his face. While accompanying Freddy on his raids, I had never actually seen Sultana; he had been a swish of white in the dark, a shadow that pulled away, a cloud of dust on the Tarai or merely a rustle in a patch of rhododendron. In the final showdown at Nainital, where I had watched with field glasses from behind deodar trees—about forty feet away—Sultana had had a black paste smeared around his eyes. Now, in the glow of the petromax, he looked astonishingly young. I had known he was closer to twenty-five than to thirty, but was unprepared for the startling awkwardness of adolescence that stared at me through the bars—a small man with thin shoulders and a slight frame, squatting at my feet like a bearer or an orderly. In Nainital, he had been in military khaki, and I knew he gave army ranks and uniforms to his men, but in prison he wore nothing more imposing than the regulation kurta–pyjama. He was very dark: part copper and part olive, with almost black lips. His arms, thin, sinewy and hairless, were crossed on his knees. His feet were gnarled and, in common with tribals who roamed the Bhabar barefoot, the toenails had hardened and fused into the skin. The moustache seemed well kept and recently trimmed, the beard was close-cropped and his eyes were unfocussed, dilated pupils betraying the effects of charas, which the hillmen manufacture by scraping the resin from cannabis leaves. I know many a subedar under my command who has fallen under the spell of this curse of the Kumaon foothills, but I cannot guess how the bhantu obtained it in prison. Feeling uncomfortable under his stare, I pulled out a cigarette. His eyes came to rest on it, so I drew out a second and held it up for his inspection. He nodded. I was about to hand it to him when a chilling thought stopped me: sitting before me was the most dangerous man in His Majesty’s empire. The police file on him spoke of more than three hundred dacoities, countless murders and rapes and stolen property worth more than a lakh. Whole villages near Bijnor and Moradabad had been burnt to the ground by his gang. Such was the terror he inspired in Rohilkhand that it had taken Freddy seven months to prosecute the case against him. Witnesses had trembled during his identification parade, and only one bania—a shopkeeper who turned King’s evidence—had dared to offer testimony during the trial. This was the man to whom I had offered a cigarette, leaning close enough for him to grab my arm or seize my ankle! Slowly, surreptitiously, I pushed my chair backward; he seemed not to notice or care. I lit the cigarette and extended it, watching his face carefully, bracing for a sudden lunge. He gazed at the whirl of smoke shining in the moonlight, passed a hand through the bars and wrapped his fingers round the end that was lit. We smoked in silence. I noted that the cigarette did not touch his lips; he brought it close to his mouth and inhaled deeply, and much of the smoke drifted sideways. I had seen high-caste Hindus smoke thus at Roorkee, to prevent being contaminated by a sahib’s tobacco, I suppose. I was amused. He was, after all, a bhantu tribal—barely a Hindu—whose very shadow would make it incumbent on a brahmin to sprinkle himself with water from the Ganges! Cigarette finished, I thought I might explain Abdur Rahman’s outburst. ‘The head constable is tired. It is late in the evening.’ Sultana’s eyes suddenly filled with fury. ‘That man would have trembled before me outside this jail.’ I nodded vaguely, reluctant to take his side. ‘And that sub-inspector,’ he continued. ‘Even you, sahib. And the Lat Sahib. And George Pancham.’ I had not known that he harboured such passion against the viceroy and the king, or even that he was aware of them. Hoping to get on with the matter, I took up the folio. ‘Well? What do you have to say to your son?’ ‘Is that a shama bird?’ he asked, looking at the racquet-tailed drongo on the first page. ‘A bhantu has no better companion.’ ‘Yes, it is much like a bhantu itself,’ I replied. Then he began to speak in a thin, weak voice, sometimes so soft that I had to lean closer to catch his words. He spoke all night, with a formality that he possibly considered appropriate with a sahib and an earnestness that betrayed a desire to place every word on record. For a man who could barely count, he was remarkably precise with distances, having measured the whole Bareilly division in arm-lengths and ‘kos’, which, as far as I know, is about two miles in these parts. Sometimes he would press his face against the bars and speak directly to me, forgetting his son entirely, then frown and admonish the boy as if I was not present. Occasionally, after rambling tirades, he would find himself out of breath and fall into moody silences, but that could well have been the effect of charas. Then, after what seemed an interminable pause, he would pick up the thread exactly where he had left it. Once, I nodded off, to be woken again by his gentle voice, and found his eyes searching my folio as if to read what I had written, though of course he was illiterate. I had no trouble transcribing as he spoke—my Hindi is no worse than Sultana’s, who himself spoke in an odd accent, being more comfortable in his Bhantu dialect. I made no effort to elaborate or qualify, even when his claims strained credulity, partly because the 6B pencil, while suitable for sketching, is not easy to erase, and partly because he would have noticed, so intensely did he keep a watch on the folio. OUR BHAGATS SAY that a man may not speak of himself until he has passed on the story of his fathers, so I will first tell you about my dada, your greatgrandfather, because it was from him that Sultana learned the trade of a bhantu. When I was born my dada told my mother, ‘This one has been pulled out by an English sahib so he will be the king of thieves, not a mere pickpocket

Impatiently now.

impatiently now. A sentry appeared, held a lantern to my face, saluted me, parted the gate slightly to let me in and shut it quickly after me. I walked through the compound and into the office, where I was greeted by a very surprised group of policemen who sprang from their chairs with salaams. To my great relief I recognized Kaley Baksh Singh, a greying Sikh sub-inspector with the Armed Police whom I have known for twenty years. He had charge of the jail for the night. He appeared genuinely pleased, if a little confused, to see me after so many years. Assuming, naturally, that I had been sent by Government on some urgent matter, he dismissed his constables. I expressed wonder that he was still at his desk at this late hour. He sighed. ‘You have seen the crowd outside, sahib. Anything can happen.’ Apparently, the horde around the jail had come to witness the hanging firsthand. Those waiting up in the trees were bhantus or sansias, who could not be trusted to remain mere spectators. The ones on the ground were from other criminal tribes—aheriyas, pasiyas, kanjars, doms, karwals. The police would have to keep vigil all night. ‘Where is Sultana?’ I asked. The Sikh pointed to a building to his right. ‘It will be over by six in the morning, if there is no trouble before then.’ I asked if I could see the prisoner. It was an unusual request, but Kaley Baksh Singh still believed I had come on official business, so I soon left the office with Head Constable Abdur Rahman, who politely lit the way with a petromax lantern. The gallows had been constructed in a far corner of the compound, where three men now wrestled with a wooden contraption on the scaffolding. I was told they were measuring out the exact length of rope, keeping in mind the height of the prisoner, and testing it with sandbags approximating his weight, to prevent accidents. I asked why there were three men and was told that two of them were the hangman’s apprentices—his son and grandson—preparing to take over from him on his death. ‘They seem to be in high spirits,’ I remarked. Abdur Rahman chuckled mirthlessly. ‘Government whisky. But they will not sleep tonight—no amount of whisky can make them forget their sin.’ We walked round the corner. Abdur Rahman seemed more cheerful once the gallows was hidden from view, and he informed me that the hangman had rubbed the rope with banana peels so it would slide smoothly round the neck. ‘It does not matter how much you grease the rope, sahib,’ he added gleefully. ‘You have to get it round the neck first.’ I could make nothing of this remark and, not wishing to prolong such banter, offered no response. We stopped before a low-lying building and the constable on duty unlocked the door to let us inside. I recognized him—he often accompanied Kaley Baksh Singh on tours. He was a purbia, of the type that make excellent syces. He saluted politely but appeared nervous, no doubt on account of the prisoner in his charge. I was told that Sultana had eaten his last supper—dal, roti, a slice of onion and, at his request, a lump of jaggery—and was now asleep. ‘Nothing to worry about, sahib. Until sunrise,’ the purbia mumbled. I directed Abdur Rahman to set down the lantern at the entrance so we would not disturb the prisoner. The eastern wing of Haldwani jail is a short, narrow corridor lined on either side by three cells. In the far wall of each cell is a barred window, one foot square, set at a height of about seven feet. At night, moonlight filtering in through these windows provides the only illumination. We stepped into the corridor in silence. Neither Abdur Rahman nor I wore rubber-soled shoes, so we had to walk on tiptoe. Reaching the third cell on the right, I peered inside, expecting to see the dacoit asleep at the back. In the silver glint of moonlight, the cell appeared empty. Then my gaze travelled downward. He was squatting right next to me, just behind the bars, looking up. I am afraid my response to this sudden revelation does not do me credit, because Abdur Rahman raised a hand to steady me and delivered a sharp rebuke—wholly undeserved—to the dacoit. The head constable’s voice must have travelled far, for Kaley Baksh Singh came running with the petromax, and the two of them appeared much concerned for my well-being. I was embarrassed by all the fuss, especially because the bhantu continued to look directly at me with an unsettling frankness, but consoled myself that no amount of precaution was excessive when dealing with the man before me. I managed to dispatch the still agitated Kaley Baksh Singh, and requested Abdur Rahman to instruct the purbia that no one was to enter the corridor. A chair was brought, the petromax placed at

He wrested a hand free

He wrested a hand free of his shawl, slipped something into my palm and continued on his way. Before I could say a word, he had melted into the crowd. I found myself trembling, suddenly conscious of all the dangers that may befall an unarmed European in these surroundings. My fear turned to astonishment when I saw what the man had given me—the Victorinox Swiss Officer’s knife I had bought at the Army & Navy. Late last year, during a raid on Sultana’s camp near Kashipur, Freddy had borrowed it, and I had somehow neglected to ask for its return. Now it glistened in my palm, my initials scratched next to the cross and shield on its handle. I had heard of cryptic messages being passed among bhantu tribals, along with identifying objects—legs of lamb, pieces of cloth, powders of different colours and shades—that would authenticate the messenger. No doubt that was the purpose of the Victorinox, but how had Sultana obtained it? Did this mean Freddy was in danger? Rushing back to the train, I told the bearer to fetch my pencil and folio—I go nowhere without them—then continue to Lucknow with my luggage and wait for me there. He was understandably taken aback, but made no protest and proceeded to tie up my bedding roll. I took the mail train from Bareilly, got off at Haldwani station and hired an ekka. It was dark when I arrived at the jail. Doubt assailed me: how had the bhantu known that I would be at Bareilly station at that hour? And was it wise to respond to such a call? I always travel in mufti—civilian clothes attract less notice—but even in uniform my situation would have been awkward. I was not in the police, and had no business to conduct at Haldwani jail. What would the jail authorities think of a sahib arriving in the dead of night, armed with a drawing folio, demanding to see their prize prisoner? The ekka deposited me at the edge of a motley crowd of people lying in the dirt, some distance from the jail, compounding my confusion. Scattered around the jail perimeter, these men appeared to be asleep, turbans pulled over their faces, bodies covered with white sheets. They could not have been beggars, for they did not appear ragged. I stood, as it were, at the scene of a massacre. I picked my way through and rattled the chain at the gate. There was no response. Scanning the area, I found the branches of the trees around the boundary wall also full of men. A silent army had laid siege to the jail. Their dhotis and kurtas swayed lightly on the branches, and like the men on the ground they too seemed to be sleeping. I rattled the chain again,

There are aheriyas, pasiyas, karwals

there are aheriyas, pasiyas, karwals … Even as Freddy fills the jails with tribals, I hear daily of raids in the Bareilly division. There has, however, been a noticeable dip in robberies since November, and Ashdown, the Inspector General, is said to be pleased with the result. It was an odd coincidence that I should pass through Sultana’s territory on the last day of his life—he was to be hanged in Haldwani jail the next morning. Seven of his associates were to be hanged at the same time, all in separate jails to avoid inciting trouble. It occurred to me that Freddy might be on my train, on his way to Haldwani jail. Unfortunately, the first-class compartments on the Rohilkhand and Kumaon Railway have no corridors, so I would have to wait until the next stop, perhaps Bareilly, to look for him. After a while, unable to watch the greyness any longer, I pulled out my drawing folio and 6B pencil and began to sketch a racquet-tailed drongo, which can be spotted all over the Tarai. The drongo is a deceitful bird—it will follow flocks of thrushes and wait for the smaller bird to turn up a centipede.

When it does, the drongo will swoop down, screaming like a hawk to frighten away the thrush, and steal its food. Its strategy for survival rests wholly on its ability to mimic larger birds. It is a cheat, a fraud, a sort of ‘criminal bird’. It is, in fact, rather like a bhantu tribal, whose very blood is suffused with crime, who can imitate others in speech and dress, and sometimes pass as a member of another tribe or even as a high-caste Hindu. If the British Empire extended to birds, the drongo would be confined to a tribal settlement.

When drawing at my desk, I prefer Double Elephant sheets because I am able to draw my birds full size, but in the train I had to make do with the foolscap paper I was carrying, so the drongo’s tail had to be cut short. By the time I had completed the sketch and looked up, we were approaching Bareilly. I pulled down the louvred wooden shutter, not wishing to see the crowds at the station, but left the glass window open to let in some air, for the heat had become unbearable. As soon as the train had stopped, my bearer made his appearance to refresh the ice box, lay out my bedroll for the night and hand me my towel and soap (it never ceases to amaze me that bathrooms on the trains carry no soap or towels). A sound from the station platform suddenly caught my attention. Amidst cries of ‘Hindu pani!’ and ‘Mussalman pani!’ I heard a distinct voice calling, ‘Sultana Daku ki jai!’

reaction before offering his own. Being from the state of Orissa, he could hardly feel kinship with a bhantu from Rohilkhand, but I thought it best not to enquire into his feelings on the matter. These days Non-Cooperators from the Congress Party will glorify anyone who obstructs the work of Government, even a murderous dacoit, and their spirits have risen since Mr Gandhi’s release from prison. True, the Congress had supported Freddy in his campaign against Sultana, and welcomed him warmly when he brought the bhantu in shackles to Haldwani jail, but one never knew what treachery lay hidden behind their declarations of loyalty. I was hardly astonished, therefore, to hear a murderer extolled in terms reserved for Hindu gods and goddesses, or Mr Gandhi himself.
Who was this man, declaring his love for Sultana so openly? Did he not fear the police or the stationmaster? Perhaps he had done so with their approval, even encouragement. Although in civilian clothes, I felt duty-bound to investigate. In any case, I hoped to find Freddy somewhere on the train before it left Bareilly. So I rushed out to the platform, seeking the owner of that voice in the crowd of beggars and stalls. It was futile. Indeed, it was not wise for me to run about like this—the ill will generated by Mr Gandhi’s campaign had not fully dissipated. I caught the eye of my bearer, who had followed me outside, perhaps out of concern for my safety.

That was when I saw a figure approach me. He seemed in no hurry and made no effort to conceal his advance. From his clothes, and the extreme darkness of his skin, I took him to be a Rohilkhand tribal, perhaps even one from a criminal tribe; he was certainly not from the hills. Not used to being accosted thus by an Indian, without a salaam or at least a polite lowering of the eyes—even by native members of the ICS—I was disturbed. What if the man had a weapon hidden inside his clothes? Was he an aheriya? A pasiya? Or a bhantu, sent to avenge Sultana’s capture on the first European he saw at Bareilly station? I could not retreat, however, because my bearer’s eyes were upon me.

When he was almost level with me, the man whispered urgently in Hindi, ‘Sultan Rajput salaams the sahib and requests the honour of his presence in Haldwani jail.’

Look for the brahmabuti plant in the Bhabar jungle.

snake, look for the brahmabuti plant in the Bhabar jungle. Any bhantu can teach you how to recognize it from its flowers. Tear off three leaves, wash  them and squeeze their juice on the wound. It will heal the bite of the most vicious krait and the wound from a police musket, or even an English sahib’s rifle.

When shooting with a 12-bore musket, remember that it does not fire well beyond eighty arm-lengths, and the new muskets issued to the police in Rohilkhand produce too much smoke, giving away your location.

Do not rob sahibs, kings or nawabs, or ASPs, SPs and police officers of higher ranks. The greatest man you may steal from is a DSP, a deputy superintendent of police, because he will be a thakur or a brahmin in the twilight of his life, not a young sahib freshly arrived from Vilayat. Though the DSP is poorly paid, he will have collected a small treasure from a lifetime of hoarding. Being old, he will eagerly part with it when he fears for his life.

Twice every year, the Bijnor police come to Najibabad Fort and set up a desk near the gate. Bhantus are asked to form a line and the police take pictures of their hands. When you are twelve you will be asked to stand in this line and your fingers will be pressed on a tin slab smeared with ink. Once they have this picture, the police will know every time you touch a knife, a handle or a doorknob. From the guards at the gate, try to find out when they will come; the guards look stern but they are bhantus. For many years, my dada—your great-grandfather—also stood guard at this gate, and he would tell any bhantu what he knew in exchange for a banana. Use the banana the sahibs give you during morning prayer. On the day the police come, hide in the grove of samal trees near the rear wall of the fort, so they never get a picture of your fingers.

When you are thirteen you will be able to leave the fort alone with a day pass. In towns like Najibabad, Bijnor and Moradabad, you will find thakurs and banias shrinking from you, pandits sprinkling themselves with water from the Ganga when your shadow falls on them, and the poorest chamars and bhangis—though they beat leather and clean drains—refusing to touch you.

You will then ask yourself: what kind of blood does a bhantu have that a chamar will not touch him? Know that a man’s place in this world is determined by his father’s—your birth is no lower than that of the sahib who brings you this letter. A bhantu’s blood is redder than a bania’s or a thakur’s, and his heart beats faster. our hundred years ago, your fathers were rajputs, rulers of Chittorgarh in Rajputana in the great desert to the west. They tasted the Mughal emperor’s wine, smoked his charas and fondled his wives. It was the emperor Akbar who turned his back on Maharana Pratap, our father, and drove him from Chittorgarh Fort into the ravines of Haldighat. We bhantus have wandered the jungles ever since—sons of rajputs born to rule—subject to no one and obeying no one’s laws. Some day we will regain Chittorgarh, and the thakurs and banias will tremble before us. Until then, we must steal when we can, rob when we cannot and kill when necessary.
I have now taught you all that a boy can learn from his father. When you are a young man hiding from the police in the Bhabar jungles, you will wonder what kind of a bhantu your father was. Riding through villages in the Tarai plains, you will stop to ask, ‘Who was Sultana Daku?’ From inside their shops, the banias will be eager to answer, for they have seen my vengeance. Or you will ask the government, after they have captured you and set a date for your hanging, ‘What do you know of Sultana Daku?’ They will bring you files with dates of this or that raid, the names of those killed and long lists of property that I looted. But a boy must learn the truth from his father, so I will now tell you how I was born, how taught the trade and brought to manhood, how loved and how betrayed to the police. From the journal of Lt Col. Samuel Pearce, DSO, RE Officer Commanding King George’s Own Bengal Sappers and Miners Roorkee, United Provinces 8 July 1924
Thirty years ago, on the P&O from London, I met a major who had had a long career in India. He was happy to dispense advice on the proper conduct in the country. A sahib should give frequent ‘shabashes’ to natives, he said. It was not a good idea to ‘strike people’. It was best to have a Mohammedan bearer because ‘a Hindu bearer will usually not wait at a table: he will only hand out drinks and smokes’.

I replied, with the presumptuousness only a rookie can display, that I ‘knew
my India’. He sighed and told me, ‘You don’t, my boy, and you never will.’ I have not found any use for the major’s advice, yet I remember his admonition well. How else do I explain the events of last night? Never has an Englishman peered so deeply into the abyss of some terrible tribal vengeance.

I may have narrowly escaped death and mutilation, and perhaps averted a bloody mutiny against Government, yet I dare not mention it to anyone because I do not fully understand what happened. I still do not, as the major might have said, know my India. I had better begin at the beginning. Keeping in mind the extent of the state, Government in the United Provinces do not often require my presence in the capital, and I am called to Lucknow no more than twice a year. It so happened that I received a summons yesterday, and there being no pressing matter at the Sappers, took a mail train to Delhi, from where the express left for Lucknow late in the afternoon. I had a sleeper compartment to myself; the other three berths were unoccupied. Sitting next to my ice box—grateful to my bearer for his foresight—I watched the flat plains of Rohilkhand roll by to the east of Delhi.

July is a monotonous month before the rains rush in. All land is parched and the same shade of grey, and cattle trudge about looking for water. To the north, the Tarai grassland yielded to the Bhabar forests, after which the Himalayas rose sharply. This is a most unhealthy area. I have lost count of the havildars and subedars in my charge who have succumbed to malaria— they call it Bhabar fever—and it does not spare Europeans either. This submontane tract is also where Sultana, the bhantu bandit, roamed free until last November, sweeping like pestilence through towns and villages, murdering, pillaging, mocking the police and taunting magistrates, until the Special Duty Force, led by Freddy Young, put an end to his reign.

I like to think I played a small part in this, having accompanied Freddy on many of his raids on Sultana’s hideouts. Freddy has acquired quite a reputation in police departments from Moradabad to Bareilly. Since he captured Sultana seven months ago, his Special Duty Force has laid at least three dozen gangs by the heels. Unfortunately, there is no dearth of criminal tribes in the United Provinces. Although the bhantu gang is now in disarray,