The Witch Hunt


Water was leaking in through the thatched roof. For as long as Amina could remember, it has always been like this. Every monsoon it was the same, no matter how much it had been reinforced. The constant shower of arrows coupled with strikes from the windy kendo sticks crushed every last stand that the roof tried to put up. And to celebrate this victory, nature lighted up the sky and shouted the thunderous war-cry.

But it was not as if nobody could defeat nature. Many in her village had enough strength to laugh at her face, to sip tea and eat pakoras sitting in their quilt, while nature sent waves after waves of attack; full of sound and fury, achieving nothing. Some of Amina’s friends had such houses. But we should rather say that “some children who were of her age whom Amina liked to call as her friends” had such houses. They didn’t shoo her away if she went to play with them, but that didn’t mean that they actually treated her as a friend. Just last week, it was Juhi’s birthday. She invited everyone to the party except her. In fact, no-one even told her that it was Juhi’s birthday. And on the very next day, all they could talk about were the gulab jamuns, the chat, the cake, the games, the car ride followed by the ice cream. And all she could do was to laugh along with them, keep a smile plastered on her face to hide away the shame of not being invited. Until she could hold back her tears no more and ran away, away from all of her ‘friends’. Ran till she could no longer hear the sound of their laughter coming after her.

In between the eucalyptuses and magnolia trees running along the boundaries of the pond, there was a kuccha road which connected Amina’s hamlet with the rest of the village. During monsoons, the road turned into an impassable mess of potholes, sludge and rock. Maneuvering this treacherous path with a bicycle, holding an umbrella in one hand and balancing the handle (and the lalten) with the other, Amina’s father would come home, every night in the monsoon. Every night, and always on time. If anyone ever asked her what was the toughest job in this world, Amina’s answer would always be this journey that her Abba made every night. It was tougher than what Pooja’s father did, or even Deepak’s, whose father was the ‘Gram Pradhan’ himself.

Amina’s father repaired shoes. “He is the best cobbler in all of the village”, Amina always boasted this in front of Pooja. But she somehow always forgot to mention that her village had only one cobbler. Well, it was a small village which needed only one cobbler and the fact that the village was small was something about which Amina could do nothing. Her father owned no land in the village. He once used to own a small piece of land, on the other side of the pond. They lived in a small house on the edge of the piece. That old home was much better than the current one; it was larger, more beautiful and more warm. But the roof still used to leak during monsoons. The only thing Amina remembers clearly about that place is the night of the witch hunt. The screams of her mother, the pleadings of her father, the shouts of her brother — she can still hear all those voices in her nightmares. That night was the last time she saw her brother, as they took him and his friends away. They also took away the fathers of all the other children, except her own. Maybe it was because Amina’s father was the only cobbler in village. “And everyone knows how important a cobbler’s job is, it is not like anybody can do it” was the reason Amina believed her father did not disappear on that day.

The night had fallen and there was still no sign of Amina’s father. “Maybe he has gone to the haat to make some purchases.” There was a time when Amina’s used to accompany her father to the haat. Those were celebratory days for Amina, an escape from the monotonicity of every day. The smell of the roasted potatoes being prepared for a delicious bowl of chat; the voices of a dozen shopkeepers quoting the lowest price, inseparable from each other; the calling of an astrologer predicting your future for pennies; the taste of the sweet, airy, weightless pink mass being sold at a balloon stall; the sight of a camel looking out of sorts in between all the commotion of men, animals and the very culture of the place itself — the haat always felt like one giant festival to Amina.

The days on which she went to the haat were also the days when she didn’t have to go to the school. Although she had committed no crime of such a heinous degree which deserved the punishment of going to that awful place, she had long ago accepted that such was fate. Her classmates were even more terrible than her ‘friends’ and they continuously ridiculed her for being delusional. They taught nothing in the classes and instead the teacher made the students complete her household chores. Moreover, Amina was never allowed to eat with other kid so they gave her her lunch uncooked. And this was exactly why her parents still send her to a school instead of making her work in some rich person’s home, washing dishes. They had one less mouth to feed that way.

Amina never understood why she along with many of the children living nearby her home were not allowed to eat with children from other side of the village. It was the other side where all the big houses with their large windows and doors and fancy cars and clothes could be found. Whenever Amina went there, she would get overcome with a irrepressible desire to own some of these things. But deep in her heart Amina knew that these were just pipe dreams, and nothing more. Maybe that is the reason those people with the big houses never allowed children like Amina to eat with their kids. Maybe they would than also have to share their houses with kids like Amina. Which is not something Amina would mind too much. After all, why can’t people share their homes with other people, especially when they have enough space already? There were just too many things in heaven and earth that could be made sense of by the poor little brain of Amina.

It was getting very late now, and still there was no sign of Amina’s father as of yet. There was a sense of deep unease growing inside Amina’s mind now. There was no reason to worry so much, she tried to tell herself. But with the passing of every second, her concerns started turning into fear. She was fervently praying for the lalten light to shine through the wall of trees on the other side. The cricket sounds reminded her of the sound which her father’s bicycle made as it cruised through the pouring rain. “Amina, come inside or you will catch cold again.”, her mother shouted from inside the kitchen. “I am waiting for Abbu jaan to come, then I’ll come inside.” A few seconds later, Amina heard her mother’s footsteps approaching. “Come inside beta, he’s not going to come today.”, her mother always said these same lines, and always in the same tone and the same volume. Amina had grown accustomed to hearing these words for the past six months. “But when will he come, when will he take me to the haat? Deepak always says that he is never coming back. He is, isn’t he Ammi?”, she started crying before she could even complete the sentence.

Her mother slowly engulfed Amina into her bosom, caressing her head as Amina sobbed uncontrollably. “Come on in now my child, or you will catch cold. Come in and eat something. Abba won’t like if he hears Amina didn’t use to eat properly in his absence.”

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