Chapter 11, Pt 4 of 5
INDIAN VILLAGE LIFE
“No, it is not a real fight, son.” she replied. “it is only that, while rebuilding their ghar (home) Sant Singh’s family have encroached on a small piece of ground which doesn’t belong to him. You can see that sticks are being used to measure the ground correctly, and to satisfy both the parties. It will take some time, though. They might carry on shouting and accusing each other for hours.”
They did, and we watched this tamasha (fun), the battle of words, all the time. We saw the Numberdar, the person responsible to keep order and also to collect the revenue, come on the scene. He was a clean-shaven, short and stocky man with greyish hair and spectacles, which were resting on the bridge of his nose. He wore khaki shorts and off-white open-neck shirt and was carrying a stick. A small space was cleared for him and he did a brisk work of measuring in all directions and talking incessantly.
To our amazement, the trouble began to subside. The crowd started dispersing and within half an hour the place was cleared altogether. We saw the Numberdar, walking towards our home and had to go down to pay our respects to him. I was intrigued at the way he had handled the situation.
“Oh, we get quarrels over something or the other nearly every day here, daughter,” he said to me. “We have no policeman in the village and don’t intend to let any outsider, police or no police, to meddle in our petty quarrels. We try to settle them in the Panchayat (the village governing body). I am one of the members of that, though I can’t be a Surpanch (chairman) because I get a nominal pay from the Government for collecting revenue, and also I am a retired soldier.”
I was anxious to know all about this village panchayat and went to watch one of their meetings which was taking place in the compound of the village guest house, a small brick building with a wall around it. A long strip of thick cotton cloth had been spread for the occasion, and on it sat the seven most loved and revered (not necessarily wealthy) elders of the village. They had made sure to put on their clean, homespun dhotis and kurtas (loose shirts) and two of them had even brought their hubble-bubbles with them. These were passed round so that everyone could have a smoke and keep in good humour during the proceedings.
Surpanch, the head of the panchayat, acted just like a chairman. He listened all round before expressing his opinion. There were no papers or pencils to pass round and the business of the hour was carried out by word of mouth along with a variety of movements by hands, arms and even heads. They had stored up in doors their memory all the facts and figures about the problems they had come to discuss and it was most interesting to listen to them.
Suraksha ji told me that the maximum membership of the panchayat was ten and the minimum five. That they elected a new surpanch once in every two years—that was when everything was running smoothly. If not, then they were allowed to change their head by calling a special meeting.
Small cases of assaults, thefts and indecencies were always dealt with by the panchayat. It was left to them to refer the more complicated and difficult cases to the police. It was also the duty of the panchayat to fight against the case of an innocent villager who might be caught by the police. Sometimes, when a track or path was badly in need of repair the panchayat tried to collect money and asked for volunteers to do the job. The panchayat could call a meeting whenever it was necessary.
In our one-month’s stay in the village we witnessed quite a few amusing incidents. One morning, as we were returning from the fields we noticed a group of villagers, men, women and children, marching in one direction. They seemed full of anger and we could hear their raised voices even from a distance.
“Birch him,” they shouted. “Take all the life out of him; spit on his face, come everybody, we must find him, he is no doubt hiding behind his mother’s skirt. Shame on his family!”
“Who is he and what has he done?” my sister-in-law asked in a high-pitched voice.
“It is Gangu, he has exposed himself indecently in front of Nanti when she was drawing water from the well. Come, sister, we will give him a thrashing for this.”
So we also joined this angry band and walked through the rough footpath, which zig-zagged haphazardly around the village. We soon heard another commotion going on just outside the culprit’s home.
“I will not spare you. I will teach you a lesson once and for all.” Gangu’s father had got this tall hefty son of his against the mud-wall and was hitting him with a stick and showering those abuses on him.