The night of February 14, 1980 was cold and dark. The moon had tried to break through the mass of black cloud, had tried and given up. An icy wind from the hills carrying the smell of fresh snow, swept through the deserted narrow lanes of the little Harijan village of Ramnagar in Uttar Pradesh. It rattled the heavy, planked wooden doors, shook their solid iron rings, as if demanding entry. It swished in through the small high windows of the stone-and–mud houses and whirled through the courtyards.
Satish Kumar Phulsingh listened to the whistling wind and shivered. He felt the cold through the thin quilt he had rolled out in the corner of the room next to the kitchen. On one of the cots his father coughed and turned; on the other Sita his little sister drew closer to the protective warmth of her mother. She whimpered in her sleep. “Tsssh,” murmured her mother sleepily and pulled the worn blanket over the little girl.
Next to him, his brother stirred. “This awful cold,” he grumbled. “Isn’t there anything else for cover?”
Satish knew there wasn’t. The few rupees his father earned as a labourer and his eldest brother Vinod with his rickshaw were hardly enough to feed the eight members of the family. Satish too brought home some money from looking after Uncle Manchand’s cattle. Not that the Manchand’s were rich, but he and his wife were old and their sons had left the village long ago to make their fortune in the big bustling town of Patna. Uncle Manchand had not heard from them since. Satish Kumar Phulsingh shivered again, not because of the cold, this time, but because of fear of an unknown future. Life was difficult if one was poor.
There… that wasn’t the wind; that was the dull thud of bare feet on their terraced roof. Then a low whispered order, “Move, man to the left, the next house, I say, the next.”
Satish lay motionless.
“Satish?” queried his father into the dark of the room, “ Was that you?”
“No, Father. I think there are people outside.”
“Who? Where?” cried his mother alarmed. “The calf, they are after the calf.”
“It might be just a stray dog,” murmured his father, but not very convincingly. “I’ll lock it up.”
Satish heard his father grope for his sandals and scramble to his feet. Suddenly a high-pitched shriek broke the stillness of the night followed by a hard blow against wood.
“Open,” roared a hoarse voice. “Open or we’ll shoot!”
Nobody in the small room stirred. Then his mother whispered, almost voicelessly, “Dacoits, Oh, God!”
In less than a second his father was by the door and had pushed it open. “We are coming,” croaked Satish Kumar and slipped past his father into the courtyard.
A shot barked through the night followed by the terrified cry of a woman, “Help, help, dacoits!”
His father’s broad hand fell heavily on Satish’s shoulder. “Wait.” Satish stopped and tried to pierce through the darkness.
Seconds ticked by painfully. Suddenly a black shadow leaped over to the Manchand’s house and vanished into the inky darkness. “They are on Uncle Manchand’s roof,” whispered Satish. “We must help him.”
“Shhh, boy. We have to call the others.”
“I’ll go,” said Satish and turned to cross the courtyard.
He had hardly covered half it’s length when three more gunshots blasted the air and another voice barked, “ Open the door you cowards, or we’ll blow it in!”
Old mother Manchand’s petrified screech that followed, sent shivers down Satish’s spine. He hurried on. “They have broken in, “ he thought. “I have to bring help immediately.” Hugging the wall like a shadow, he silently ran down the lane.
Knocking at all the doors on the way he cried urgently, “Open up, uncle. Help, help, dacoits have broken into Uncle Manchand’s house. Help!”
Doors were flung open, sleepy faces frowned at him from behind window-grills. “What’s it Satish, What’s going on? Weren’t those gunshots we heard?”
“Dacoits, dacoits!” cried Satish once more. “ In the Manchand’s house. Quick get guns, before they loot the whole village.”
“Guns?” asked an old man astonished. “There are no firearms in the village. We are poor, we have nothing to fight with but our fists and nothing to lose but our lives.”
“But we’ll fight!” cried another man. “Get sticks, stones or iron rods. Fast.”
Satish tore along, knocking at every door calling, “Dacoits, dacoits!”
The news spread like wild fire. From all corners of the village men converged towards the Manchand’s house, grim-faced, carrying sickles and sticks. From a distance they could hear the dacoits bellow, “Get lost, you dirty rats or we’ll shoot you like dogs!”
“Ah they are killing us.”
“Everyone of you,” was the answer and two bullets hissed through the night.
“We must surround the house,” whispered Satish’s father. “get over the wall somehow.”
“How?” asked a small man with a drooping moustache, trembling in his thin kurta and pyjama. “They’ll shoot the moment they see the tip of our noses.”
“The night is to our advantage. They won’t be able to see us, “ whispered Vinod Kumar Phulsinh. “Let’s go”.
“But we won’t be able to see them either, “ snarled the skinny man.
During the argument Satish slipped away unnoticed. With the ease of a cat, familiar with every nook and cranny, he climbed the wall from their side of the courtyards. Clinging to the cold rough stones he managed to push himself over the top, and looked down into his neighbours’ compound. Two shadows streaked across the Manchand’s terrace and merged into the dark. From the right corner, from behind the tamarind tree a battery operated search-light flashed. The sudden beam almost blinded Satish. The light traveled over the ground and zigzagged over the doors. “One wrong move from anyone and you’ll all be dead,” roared the voice from behind the tree.
The beam danced on and would have fallen on Satish’s face had he not ducked.
“Gangsters!” he whispered through clenched teeth. “We’ll show you.” From behind one of the three pillars on the terrace, Satish saw another figure bent over with laughter as he yelled, “Back into your holes, you rats!”
Filled with uncontrollable rage, Satish crawled forward, close to the house, not taking his eyes off the mocking figure that stood legs apart, in a display of brutal strength, holding his gun at the ready.
The light turned towards Satish. He flung himself face down on the top of the wall and waited, his heart in his mouth. If they saw him, he would be dead. Not more than three feet away the light stopped, swirled and was again focussed on the doors.
Satish crawled at the mortar of the wall, felt a brick move under his grip and shook it lose. Without another second’s delay, he rose to his knees, took aim and putting all the strength he possessed into the shot, flung the stone at the gunman below, not more than 10 yards away from him. The brick hit the man with such force that both he and the gun crashed to the ground. Before Satish dived back into the shelter of his courtyard, he saw the dacoit scrambling to his feet howling furiously, “Get them, kill them!” He put the gun to his cheek, pulled the trigger, once, twice, thrice. But the gun was silent.
Pleased Satish dropped to the ground, dashed back to the road, and ran straight into the arms of his father. “ We don’t stand much chance,” his father said, “there are about nine of them and they all have rifles and a light. We have neither.”
“We don’t have guns, but we could have light, “ said Satish. He turned and stole along the innerside of the compound wall to where their little calf mooed terrified in a corner. In great haste he tore off a few handfulls of straw and rolled then into a tight bundle. He soothed the frightened animal and patted it gently. Then he ran back into the lane, where the villagers were crowded around the Manchand’s door.
“Get bricks, more stones, we have to do something if we want to save the village, “ cried Kattar Singh and swung his sickle.
“Uncle,” Satish nudged the broad-shouldered man, “Do you have matches?”
“Matches?” frowned Kattar Singh absentmindedly, “Matches.”
He checked his pockets and pressed a box into Satish’s hand. Then he swung back and shouted aggressively at the locked door, “Kick it in, climb the roof. Come on, have you turned chicken hearted?”
“And so will I,” answered Satish’s father.
“I too,” whispered Satish and slipped back into their courtyard towards the opening in the wall. His hands shook as he struck the match to light the straw bundle. Heart pounding he blew the flame alive. The straw crackled. Smoke got into his eyes. He coughed. He peeped cautiously through a small opening in the wall: into the completely dark courtyard. The search-light had been switched off.
“Now,” thought Satish, “it’s now or never.”
He pushed through the opening, reached back, grabbed the burning bundle and hurled it towards the middle of the Manchand’s yard.
It shot through the dark like a meteor then fell to the ground, lighting up the compound. Shadows dived into the shelter of pillars, trees and boxes. “Shoot him, shoot him!”
Satish broke into a run. Bullets whizzed past him, missing him by inches as he zigzagged across the courtyard like a hunted rabbit.
“Ah!” shouted a stout man with a wild beard, from the verandah, “Take this, “ and raised his gun.
Satish swung to the left and flung himself behind a massive, neatly piled heap of cowdung cakes. Gasping for breath, his sides aching as if a thousand needles were piercing him, Satish almost buried himself under the heap and waited. Bullets hammered into the cowdung heap, then the guns were silent. “Get the fire out of the way,” roared one of the dacoits.
“Stamp it out!”
“Oh no,” thought Satish, “It’s our best weapon.” He scrambled to his feet and looked towards the house, where a man in black kurta and trousers had jumped into action. The man spurted forward but was suddenly struck by a brick that got him between the shoulders. He stumbled and fell.
Satish glanced back and saw the triumphant face of Uncle Kishen vanish behind the wall.
“Get them, get them!” Hearing his father’s encouraging cry filled Satish with new stregnth. Groping around for a weapon, his hands fell on a couple of bricks. Clutching one and forgetting all caution, he straightened up and flung it at the dacoit who was now back on his feet. The brick caught the man on the chin. He was stunned and fell back, his hand flying to his jaw as he grunted in pain. His face twisting into a mask of rage, he turned sidewards and glared at his attacker, ready to go for him, instead of fire. For a second their eyes met in the flickering light of the burning straw.
Never in his life had Satish seen such fury and hatred in a man’s eyes. He shivered and bent down to pick up another brick. This time he hit the man’s forehead. The man spun around twice and crashed to the ground.
A cry of joy escaped Satish’s lips. “We’ll get them, we’ll get them!” he rejoiced and picked up a third brick to aim at the dacoits behind a bullock cart. Ha, he couldn’t fail. But the flames exposed his hiding place.
As Satish swung around and aimed, a bullet hit him, struck the right side of his face. Still gripping the brick, Satish Kumar Phulsingh sank to the ground without a word.
“Satish, son,” cried a voice. Satish Kumar did not hear his father’s cry, nor the enraged roar of the villagers who swarmed into the courtyard from all sides. He was vaguely aware of his brother dragging him into a room and looking down at him with a strange expression in his eyes. Then he knew nothing.
He knew nothing of the fierce battle that continued in the Manchand’s courtyard where the villagers fought with bricks, stones and sticks for over two hours. They fought with sickles and bare fists for their lives and those of their families. They fought till the leader of the dacoits was caught and knelt before them in the dust, his hands tied behind his back.
No one would ever forget the moment when the police finally took him and his companions away.
And no one in Ramnagar would ever forget the courageous young boy who had given the sight of his right eye to help free the village from the terror of nine ruthless dacoits.