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a pass and took me outside. A fence ran all round the jail compound, and our
huts lay along the perimeter. A row of khair trees blocked the view outside.
After Ma died, the government took away our two bighas—it was rocky land
anyway. Two years later they made Dada a guard. It was his task to keep
count of the bhantus who left during the day and scrutinize their day passes.
When they returned, he collected their passes and counted them again. If the
counts did not match he had to report it to the police. He earned a little by
overlooking the absence of some men who stayed out overnight for a quick
job. He had taken an oath before the panchayat in Moradabad never to rob
again—this relieved him of the burden of a monthly tribute—but, as long as
he himself never stole anything, he saw no sin in collecting a small reward by
looking the other way.
I was the only child in the prison, so I had no friends. Dada said the
government took away all boys and girls in the hope that they would not learn
the trade of their fathers. They had left me with him, he said, because he knew
some people in the government. Every evening, after his duty at the gate, I sat
in his lap and watched bhantus being whipped for stealing in Moradabad.
When I was three or four the government put up white and purple buntings
all over the prison and called a large assembly. It was a cold morning; Holi
was still a month away. I asked Dada why we were celebrating so early. He
said it was a puja for the queen, who had died before she could find a second
husband. I asked him if the queen lived in Moradabad.
‘She lives in Vilayat, and every SP in Moradabad trembles in her presence.’
I replied that the IG Sahib would certainly not tremble in anyone’s
Dada laughed. ‘Even the Lat Sahib kneels before Victoria.’
I told Dada it was odd that a woman who saw the top of a Lat Sahib’s head
could not find a second husband, but he did not explain. When a bhantu died,
he was taken to Hardwar on a broken cot and we had a feast of puris and
jalebis, but there were no jalebis for the queen. Instead, two sahibs came to
the compound and made speeches; a third read from a book and sang in praise
of the new king. I touched Kali Ma’s feet in my mind. Now that a king sat on
the throne, I hoped we would be able to leave the prison—perhaps he was not
angry at bhantus like the queen was. But the assembly ended and no such
order came from the sahibs. Dada told me that the new king was the son of