Author’s Note: Hansuli is a silver bracelet like ornament worn around neck by women in the hills of Garhwal and Kumaon. The name Hansuli symbolizes prosperity and happiness.
She had been convicted of homicide and awarded fourteen years rigorous imprisonment. The judge in his judgment said that he was taking a lenient view because of her two minor children.
Yes, she was the mother of two sons. Looking outside from the tiny holes in that police van, taking her to the central jail, she could see the trees, all running backwards. So were her thoughts; running back to painful memories, anguish over her broken dreams and the frightening thoughts of the future awaiting her sons.
The police van was winding along the curves of the hill road and her mind was sinking deep in the memory lane. What was that she could remember of her childhood?
Her name was Hansuli, the only daughter of the village grocer, Sukhram Sah. She was always pampered by her father and cursed by her mother for being careless and clumsy. She was very beautiful and her father was dotted on her.
"I will marry her to a prince and my daughter will dwell in riches." That was the dream of this shop keeper of a tiny hill village. There were no schools and in any case those days need was not felt to send girls to schools. A marriage in a good family was the ultimate wish of every girl’s father in this part of the world.
If the dreams of Sukhram Sah were to come true, Hansuli would have been married to some sepoy of the Garhwal Rifles or Kumaon Regiment or she would have been given in marriage to some one with a house and little land. Neither of them unfortunately came to happen for Sukhram Sah, one day after excessive drinking in a marriage feast died without leaving any assurance of his dreams.
Hansuli was then fifteen. Now the biggest ailment of her ailing mother was the young daughter who by all social norms was crossing the marriageable age.
"If alone I could get Hansuli married, I too could die a peaceful death", she would bemoan before every sympathizer, requesting every one of them to find a groom, any groom for that matter.
At last a groom was found for Hansuli. Ganpat Sah, the goldsmith in the next village had lost his wife. By local standards, Ganpat Sah was quite well off. He had a smithy shop, a servant, good paddy fields, pair of oxen, couple of cows and a buffalo. Perfect match as late Sukhram Sah would have called it. However there was a little snag. Ganpat Sah was nearing fifty and was already a grand father from his daughter's side.
"Look at his wealth and prosperity. Your daughter will live like a queen. Ganpat Sah promises to cover her with gold and he will also give you four thousand rupees," Hansuli’s mother was told by the matchmaker.
"And remember, there is no dearth of girls for rich men like him. On the other hand, your fatherless daughter is getting overage. You can not find any match for her, let alone such ideal match."
Hansuli was thus married off. She was a rich man's wife. On her first visit to her mother after marriage, she distributed sweets to all homes of her village, offered prayers to the local deity and gave two sarees to her mother. And of course, no one missed the Gulabad (gold necklace), ear-rings, a bulaak (V-shaped golden ring studded with diamonds) in the lower nose, a large nath (round shaped golden wire with precious stones) on the upper nose and the glittering bangles. She indeed looked like a queen.
Dhanpat Sah was rejuvenated in the company of his young beautiful wife. Hansuli gave birth to two sons. Ganpat Sah was overjoyed to have male descendants. Hansuli looked more charming and beautiful. Ganpat Sah's cup of happiness was full to the brim; rather overflowing.
Ganpat Sah could not hold the cup for long. Following summer, he was one of the victims of cholera epidemic in the villages around. Hansuli was left alone with her two sons and the world to face.
Ganpat Sah had a younger brother, Dhanpat Sah, who never approved of anything that his elder brother did. Dhanpat Sah was not happy when his elder brother married Hansuli. He had several reasons for his dislike for his elder brother, jealously being the foremost.
Dhanpat Sah had seven children; four daughters and three sons. He was a worried man, always swearing, cursing his fate and his brother in turn. "Why couldn't my elder brother give a little out of his riches to me, his only younger brother? Why should sons of the same father not help each other?” Dhanpat Sah often lamented.
Dhanpat Sah was further dejected when Hansuli gave birth to two sons for with it his hope of his brother dying without leaving any male descendent had been razed to dust. He cursed the day his brother married Hansuli, cursed his brother who according to him, despite one leg in the grave had married a young girl.
"What a perversion! When he should have devoted himself to prayers and weaned himself away from worldly allurements, he has brought a young bride to satisfy his lust.” Dhanpat Sah would lament before everyone he met.
The death of his elder brother therefore brought back glimpse of hope to Dhanpat Sah. If alone he could keep Hansuli in his fold, he could get a share from his brother's property. Hansuli was then twenty, a simple village woman unaware and incapable of comprehending Dhanpat Sah's designs. She had accepted him as the Karta (the head, the doer) of the family.
Hansuli helped generously when Dhanpat Sah's two daughters were married. She gave a part of her jewelry to her nieces and money to Dhanpat Sah for meeting other expenses.
Slowly, Dhanpat Sah had acquired authority in the household. He wanted his writ in all matters. Hansuli had to compromise for her sons were too young. The only wish, her only dream was to bring up her sons well; give them good education.
Dhanpat Sah lacked the skills of a good goldsmith and soon lost the clientele of his elder brother’s time. He closed the goldsmithy and opened a grocery shop. It hurt Hansuli but she realized that the shop had to be used in some way or the other to sustain the family.
Dhanpat Sah was now growing in health as well in ambition. His amorous interests were increasing as well. Hansuli was a fully developed woman now, beautiful and appealing. Hansuli could sense his designs and avoided Dhanpat Sah as much as possible. Dhanpat Sah would come to her in the evenings on one pretext or the other and unduly delay his departure.
One evening, when in a drunken state, Dhanpat Sah came to Hansuli who was feeding her children. Sitting on a charpoy (wooden bed woven with coir ropes), he complained of body ache and several ailments that were chasing him ever since he had taken over the responsibilities of both houses.
"My wife has not brought a bit of luck that you brought to my elder brother," he told her. Then he lamented over his wife's apathy towards him.
"Now that he is no more, why don't you share this luck with me? After all this is an accepted custom and your sons will get a father,” Dhanpat Sah suggested to her.
Hansuli was fed up with Dhanpat Sah’s advances; she in fact loathed his visits. The money her husband had left was running out fast for Dhanpat Sah always complained of poor sale and damages due to pests and rats.
Hansuli was enraged with the latest suggestion. The altercation between them was heightened. For Dhanpat Sah it was the moment of decision. “Either I get over the arrogance of this woman and subjugate her or she would become independent of me for all times,” he told to himself.
"I am going to sleep in this house and you will be my woman hereafter. I know the young studs chasing you around. I will not allow that to happen; I will not allow the honour of my family sullied. I am the Karta of this family and you will hereafter obey me implicitly as your man."
Hansuli writhed with anger. The insinuation of infidelity on one hand and the right to molestation on the other was too much to bear.
"What do you mean, you rascal? Have you ever seen me talking to a man? Aren't you ashamed to speak thus to your elder brother's widow?"
Dhanpat Sah had no proof of the serious insinuation but he didn’t want to give up. “Every woman desires a man and it takes no time for a young woman like you to slip. In any case why this can’t this remain within the family?"
"Get out of my house and next time if you ever come here, I will char your face with a burning wood. You devil! Get out", shouting thus, she closed the door at Dhanpat Sah’s face and bolted the room from inside.
"I will teach you bitch a lesson. I will make you my woman and I will see who comes to your rescue." Dhanpat Sah went back muttering threats. He was annoyed with every one and he wanted to avenge his insult. Above all, he wanted that woman to capitulate to his desire.
In the middle of a night, in that hill village when it is pitch dark and even dogs find it too inconvenient to bark due to biting cold, Dhanpat Sah was heading towards the house of his late brother. With a sickle in his hand, Dhanpat Sah was writhing with anger and burning with lust. A full bottle of country liquor that he had drained down his throat had apparent effect; his legs were unsteady, his hands were shaking, and his senses were out of his control.
He wanted to overpower the sleeping woman and once done, he wanted to tame for all times. That was the plan. But it didn't work. Hansuli was young and stronger. After initial reversal, she regained her strength coming to know that the intruder was none other than the debauch brother of her late husband. Dhanpat Sah lost the battle, his clothes were torn and his breath failed. The influence of liquor had incited him to raid his brother's wife but sapped his body strength. And a hard blow of wood pulled out from the hearth did the final act. This time Hansuli closed the door behind him after giving him a couple of hard kicks.
With much difficulty, Dhanpat Sah could reach back his house, where waiting for him was his aging wife. First- aid was given by the elderly woman to the wounded who was now much more determined to oust Hansuli; the woman who had usurped the property of his brother.
A few weeks later when Hansuli was out of her house, attending a marriage, her house was gutted by fire. The iron box containing all her cash and valuable clothes was no more than a twisted ash container and the silver box containing her jewelry was no where. There were doubts in everyone's mind but nothing could be substantiated. The net result was that Hansuli was reduced to abject penury and she had no option but to take shelter in Dhanpat Sah’s house.
The elder son of Hansuli was six by now and she was very keen that he should be sent to the school. Dhanpat Sah was not in favour of this. He wanted the young lad to help him in the shop and to attend to errand jobs. Hansuli was no more than a domestic servant in the household. This she didn't object but her sons being treated as labourers was intolerable to her. There were altercations often. She was beaten by Dhanpat Sah who still smarted under the insult of his amorous adventures. He had not succeeded in taming Hansuli and that hurt his male ego.
One night, emboldened by the influence of liquor, he again assaulted Hansuli. This time Hansuli was beaten severely, her blouse shred to pieces, and her sari pulled down. Hansuli and her children wailed loudly and shouted for help. Dhanpat Sah was not prepared for such a turn of events. He didn't know what to do. Taking advantage of that, Hansuli ran out of the house in the semi-clothed condition towards the village chowk. Villages folks had come out, they saw her plight, but thought it proper to let it remain a matter within the family.
After some time, Hansuli returned to her place. She saw her sons smitten with fear and sobbing behind the door. Hansuli took the decision. “This village is no more livable for us. If I were to labour, and yet get insulted; I should rather to go to some unknown place where I will not be assaulted,” she thought.
In the wee hours of the day, Hansuli left the house of her husband along with her two sons for an unknown destination. She took the first bus that was going to Gochar, a small town on way to the Hindu holy shrine of Badrinath.
It was now over three years that Hansuli was in the small town of Gochar. She was working in a small way side hotel which catered to the pilgrims to Badrinath during the summer months. Its owner, Than Singh, had a small room below the hotel which became the abode of Hansuli and her sons.
Than Singh was a jovial man in his early fifties. He talked a lot and enjoyed drinking in a company. He regaled his customers with jokes and was easily convinced by other person's arguments.
Than Singh would return to his village in the evening leaving the management of the tea-shop to Hansuli who would keep the place clean, start the oven in the morning and prepare tea for the early arrivals. Hansuli persuaded Than Singh to buy a buffalo so that the requirement of milk could be met locally. Than Singh admired Hansuli for bringing good luck to him.
Hansuli was satisfied. Both her sons were going to a school. In the afternoon they would come back and help her in serving the customers or delivering tea to other shops in that small market.
By now Hansuli knew that a widow was an object of desire and notwithstanding his good nature, Hansuli had realized that Than Singh was no exception. She therefore had to make a choice. She compromised this time and accepted the status of a servant and a mistress of Than Singh. It was a pragmatic arrangement that suited both the sides.
Than Singh helped Hansuli to acquire a piece of land adjoining the shop. Industrious as she was, she started growing vegetables in her land. Hansuli by now had some money of her own and she was bringing up her children well. She had forgotten her past, was happy with her present and cherished a dream for the future.
Her past but was dogging her. The word at last reached the remote village of Dhanpat Sah that his sister-in-law was working as a maid servant in a hotel in Gochar. Her newly acquired prosperity was told to him in multiple measures and of course he was told of her new status. It was this part of the information that inflamed the dormant ego of Dhanpat Sah. He decided to bring her back.
Gochar being a small town, Dhanpat Sah had no difficulty in locating Than Singh's hotel. He saw it from a distance and also saw his sister-in-law serving attending to the customers. He decided to wait till it was dark.
That fateful day, clouds had collected over the valley of river Alaknanda. It started drizzling by the evening and it was cold. Than Singh who had a good season that year, was in his element. He decided to celebrate the day's end with a bottle of liquor in the company of Hansuli.
The hotel had closed. Hansuli' sons now slept there, leaving the room below to their mother and Than Singh, her companion. Than Singh was enjoying his drink and Hansuli was cooking meals for him.
Suddenly, there was a big thud on the door and in came fully inebriated Dhanpat Sah giving a snide laugh to both of them.
He turned towards Hansuli and shouted, "So this is how you are bringing good name to the family. If you were so hungry of men, what was wrong with me, the younger brother of your husband? But you have the traits of a harlot, a prostitute and you need a new stud every night to satiate your lust." Then he suddenly lifted a burning wood from the hearth and moved towards Than Singh.
"First, I will teach you a lesson, you bastard!" He growled advancing towards Than Singh. Than Singh though younger and stronger than Dhanpat Sah was not prepared for such an awkward situation. He didn't want to create a scene. He was out of his wits, afraid of being denounced before his folks. Giving Dhanpat Sah a big push, he ran out of the house leaving Hansuli to deal with her visitor.
"And now you bitch, I will tell you what I am going to do with you. I will satiate your desire for ever," he said trying to catch hold of Hansuli. Hansuli once again cursed her fate.
"Go away, you devil. I have nothing to do with you. I left every bit of the property to you. I said not a word even when you burnt my house and took away all my gold and cash. Why don't you leave me and my children alone?"
"We will talk of that later. First you come to me, you bitch in heat", he said his voice slurring due to intoxication and excitement.
As he plunged towards her, Hansuli saw the sickle hanging on the wall. Mustering all her strength, she gave him a push and leaped for the sickle.
It was all in a flash. A full force blow and Dhanpat Sah was lying in a pool of blood shouting for help at the top of his failing voice.
Dhanpat Sah could not survive. Hansuli was tried for murder and the judge taking a lenient view sentenced her for fourteen years rigorous imprisonment. It was for meeting this punishment that she was being taken to the central jail.
As the van moved away, her thoughts returned to the small hill town of Gochar where her elder son washed the dishes and her younger son begged for alms.