The torrential rains lashed the muddy and unlit lanes as he desperately looked for a ray of light. It was well past midnight and his vehicle had broken down some distance away from the village. He seemed to be crossing some kind of a jungle, human residence still appeared to be far. He was to take charge as inspector the next day, he was brave enough, but the eerie sounds of the night and the darkness engulfing him made his heart pound faster than usual.
As if an answer to his prayers, far removed from the wobbly path, he saw the gleam of perhaps a lantern. Bursting with hope, he half walked, half ran to the spot, only to find a humble, thatched shanty.
“Koi Hai? Is someone there?” He banged at the door.
It opened with a loud creak and before him stood a beautiful, young, modestly dressed woman. Her sari looked faded and tattered but her eyes were radiant.
“I was on my way to the village, but my jeep broke down. You see I’m completely soaked and can’t find my way through the night. Could I please stay here till...”? He requested struggling with the village dialect he had sparsely learnt.
“I understand, come.” She replied in impeccable Hindi, as she ushered him in.
“My poor abode is too small to accommodate you, but you are in need, I can’t let you go out like this. Take this Chaddar and dry yourself, or you will catch pneumonia.” She offered him a torn rag. He was surprised at her effortless use of the English word.
In the dim light, he caught sight of a frail, old woman sleeping on a rickety Charpoy (bed). There were some earthen pots strewn around a Chulha stove.
“Sir!” Her voice jolted him back from his thoughts. “Sit down please and stretch your legs. I can see your feet are bleeding.”
She examined his feet, applied some ointment and tied a clean cloth over his wound.
“You’ll have to consult the Vaidya (Doctor) in the morning, because I think something has penetrated the skin. If you leave it there for too long, your wound might get septic Daroga ji.” She spoke in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Wait.” He was astounded, “How did you know I’m with the police? And how educated are you? I was made to believe the village is pretty much backward, I mean, literacy wise. But I’m so glad to have met you.”
“To answer your first question, there’s a pistol bulging out of your trousers. And for the second query, I was in the final semester of my Nursing training, when everything happened.” She wore a tired smile.
“Why did you stop then? What happened? And why are you living here like this?” His curiosity was further aroused.
“My Baba (father) was the Zameendar (landlord) in the village. Our village doesn’t have a secondary school, so most girls don’t venture beyond the free primary education. Why would they, they are raised with the sole aim of getting married eventually. But my father thought differently, he wanted to set an example. So, I studied further, enrolled with a nursing college, the village needed some primary health facilities as well. I too would administer some first aid and help around in medical emergencies. But father passed away mysteriously one night and within a month of him gone, my uncles and aunts labelled Ma and me as Chudails, witches.”
“What?” He was taken aback, “Witches? In this age and time?”
She scoffed amidst tears, “Yes sir, word started going around that I was treating people with Blackmagic, and only strange and weird women would refuse to marry young and go outside mixing with other men, in the name of education. The worst part was, my uncles, who never worked a day in their lives and enjoyed the luxury that Baba provided them, were most instrumental in branding us witches.”
He seethed with anger. If only he had been around at that time, to put some sense into those people.
“One night, just two months ago, Ma and I were forcefully brought to the courtyard. Almost the whole village had assembled and they tied us to trees and pelted us with stones. They tonsured us, our faces were blackened and we were banished out of the village boundaries. This abandoned hut is where we are trying to dwell, I know Ma doesn’t have much time left. She still hasn’t recovered from the shock, she’s paralytic now. I don’t really know what I did to deserve this, I was just trying to help.” Her tears flowed unheeded.
He was speechless, he had read of witch hunt in history, something that happened during the Dark Ages. He had also sporadically read about it happening in India, but being face to face with a victim of this cursed practice, he wondered what world he lived in. Educated, intelligent and liberated women being denied of their freedom of expression was often talked about. But this? A woman had been stripped off her dignity, exiled from her home and left to languish in the jungle. And her fault? Being born a woman, trying to put her knowledge to good use and serving an ungrateful community.
Dawn broke and the sky turned crimson, he took her leave and left, promising to help. He was sure there was foul play involved as well.
The present Zameendars, the police and some village elders inspected the remains of the hut, now charred to bits.
“How could this be, I was here last night. The young lady bandaged me, her mother lay on a bed there. They were very much alive.” The inspector argued.
“Sir, didn’t we tell you they are witches? They roam the jungle at night, hunting for prey.” The girl’s uncles tried convincing the police.
“If that was so, why didn’t they kill the Daroga?” One of the villagers was now confused.
“The girl and her mother would have inherited the mansion and all the property after the landlord’s untimely death. Who owns them all now?” The inspector queried.
“Of course, they would have. But mother and daughter practiced sorcery, so we were left with no option, but send them packing, forever. Now we take care of our elder brother’s assets.” The uncles replied, albeit timidly.
“What if I say, early in the morning today, you and your men arrived here to check upon them. A dispute ensued and fearing enquiry, you murdered them and torched the hut. So, they disappear and you conveniently justify your witchcraft story. As it is, you were the ones who profited the most from their death.” The inspector pointed his accusation at the landlords.
“No. Why would we kill her? We had made sure the villagers wouldn’t let them return.” One of the uncles blurted out.
As the police recorded their confession, the inspector addressed the villagers, “Your landlords have admitted to their crime, let me clarify that the two women are safely lodged at the police station. But it’s not just them, I blame you all for them being shunned and ill-treated. The woman was trained in nursing, she could have earned big in the city, but she chose to stay here and heal you. And how did you repay her? By turning a blind eye to the torture, she was put through and eventually turning her away. Along with her old mother. With such disgrace. The world has progressed immensely and here you are, believing in hogwash like this. Are you even aware that witch hunt is a punishable offense? If they were Chudails, would I have lived to tell the tale, would her uncles have survived to expel her and snatch her inheritance? A woman gains knowledge, gets empowered and you clip her wings, condemn her to exile. Tell me, if it was a man in her place, wouldn’t you have worshipped him, would you have called him a demon?”
Many a villagers hung their heads in shame, a few women shed tears.
“I will be pushing for secondary level schooling here.” The inspector continued, “As a penance for your wrongdoing, I hope you educate your daughters, educate yourselves and refrain from indulging in superstitions like this, so that tomorrow, your daughter isn’t treated the way those good women were. If ever you come across something cruel and illegal like this, you’ll inform the police and not take law in your hands.”
The villagers nodded in unison.
“Village landlords confess to their crimes, poisoned their elder brother and banished his wife and daughter in the pretext of sorcery and Blackmagic. Mother and daughter rescued by police.” The morning newspapers read.
“Look!” The inspector read out, “Your mother and you have finally got justice.”
The so-called witch read the news article too, her eyes welled up with tears of joy. The inspector had hatched a plot to help them take cover at the station, and burning the hut. He had succeeded to get her uncles to admit to their crime. Perhaps humanity isn’t completely lost, she reflected.
“So, what about the future?” The inspector asked.
“Back to the village, to our ancestral home. Mother has suffered a lot already. But I intend to complete my degree and, in the meantime look for some part -time job. Once I get back on my feet, I’ll travel far and wide, into rural India, to teach people. To advise them to treat their sons and daughters as equals, to spread the importance of schooling and education, to get them out of the murky curse of ignorance and superstitions. Tamasoma Jyotirgamaya, May the light of knowledge remove the darkness of ignorance.” She spoke with confidence.
Preethi Warrier has completed her Masters in Electronics Engineering and is an Assistant
Professor. She is one among the winners of the TOI Write India Campaign Season-1, for the famous author Anita Nair.
Her work can be found in anthologies like Arising From The Dust, Born Too Soon, She- The Warrior, Travel Diaries, Secret Diary, A Kaleidoscope of Asia, Sharing Lipstick and
Shattered, Macabre Tales.
She is a regular blogger with Momspresso, Womens’ Web, Let’s Make Stories,
Chrysanthemum Chronicles, Induswoman Online, Juggernaut Books, Story Mirror, Pratilipi and Sharing Stories.
She enjoys writing 100 word stories and has garnered appreciation on many platforms.
She also won Second Prize at Asian Literary Society’s Gitesh-Biva Memorial Awards-2020.
Preethi resides in Mumbai with her husband and son.