“Would you like to ride the Janta Express”, Chotey asked as soon as we arrived at our native place for Grandama’s final rites. For Chotey, whose talks are replete with double-meaninged words, you had to be sure that he didn’t mean the Janta Express train that runs from Howrah to Rajgir.
It turned out to be Janta Mai, the mother of a teenage girl called Janta. A women in her early 30s, Janta Mai used to earn her livelihood by doing dishes and cleaning in several homes in the village.
Although dark in complexion, there was something in her face that made her beautiful. She loved to dress. At Satish’s home, where she did dishes, she had traded a chapati less for a small amount of mustard oil. Everyday Janta Mai would bring a greasy old bottle in which Satish’s mother would fill a pint of oil, just sufficient to oil her long, flowing black hair.
“My malik selected me as soon as he saw my beautiful hair”, she says talking about her husband who left for Punjab to work as agricultural labour around five years ago and didn’t return.
“People said that he may have died. But I am not convinced. I will not rub the sindoor as long as I don’t see his dead body”, she adds.
Life for a single women from the backward caste is often very difficult. Howsoever hard she tried to escape attention, she wasn’t able to escape the lustful eyes of men.
On the very third day, I heard an elderly women from our family scolding her for being too friendly with her son in law.
In me she found a person with who she could talk with frankly.
One day while I was bathing at the well, she came and snatched the bucket from my hands.
“How will you city people know to draw water from the well.”
I was actually not good at the act. Almost half the water that I drew fell before reaching the top of the well. But I would prefer to do things on my own and declined her request.
She didn’t go though. Sitting on the edge of the well she began talking about herself.
“Do you know Mrityunjay Jha who lives in Chowdhary Tola?” It little mattered to Janta Mai if I knew of the man. She went on incessantly.
“Today his wife blamed me for stealing her nose-pin.”
When I displayed shock on my face, she got further encouraged and continued her talk.
“Tell me do I look like a thief to you. Had my malik been here, I would have purchased better ornaments than that cheap nose-pin.”
I nodded in agreement.
Everyday there was a new topic for discussion. She would ask about life in a big city. Once she asked if Punjab was too far away. When I asked why she was asking this she didn’t reply.
Chotey and his gang thought I had something for the woman. “It’s not your concern”, I said and moved away.
On the last day she again met me at the well. She was intently looking at the Lux soap I was rubbing onto my body. For poor villagers, a body soap is often a luxury. The same soap is used for cleanng body and clothes.
“Would you want to keep this”, I offered her the soap.
“No, your mother would be angry.”
“Keep it. No one will see.” She agreed, hiding it in her anchal.
Months passed and I almost forgot Janta mai and her silly conversations.
It was a weekend and M had come as always for our weekend dinner. He had recently returned from village and he had many things to discuss. There was also news about Janta Mai.
“Your Janta Mai was beaten in public”; the ‘your’ hinted at our alleged affair.
“I was said that she was having an affair with the postman. Both of them were tied to the peepal tree at the village chowk and everyone beat them with their slippers.”
The couple was beaten at the orders of the Panchayat.
A few weeks later I came across Ashish. He too had just returned from the village. I asked him about the Janta Mai incident.
“No, there was nothing between them; Janta Mai and this postman Hari were innocent. You know it was her elder brother-in-law who wanted to grab the little land she still held.”
Is she still in the village?
No! She was expelled from the village and noone has seen her after that day.”
While I was thinking about the injustice on that single backward class woman, Ashish was telling, “Things like these happen regularly in villages. You shouldn’t care much about them.”
Yet another story about women: