01 January 1970

Book Excerpt: Chambal Revisited


Book Excerpt: Chambal Revisited

The translator reflects that while the name Chambal evokes a range of associations like fear, grandeur, violence, crime, and heroic machoism, in our mind, there are multiple stories of oppression and compromise that are hidden in the folds of the valley. 

And just one day later, I was sitting in the moonlight flooded beehed...
And just one day later, I was sitting in the moonlight flooded beehed... Shutterstock

'Chambal Revisited' is Nabanita Sengupta’s translation of the book, ‘Abar Chambal’ by Suvendu Debnath. The original book is in Bengali. The translator reflects that while the name Chambal evokes a range of associations like fear, grandeur, violence, crime, and heroic machoism, in our mind, there are multiple stories of oppression and compromise that are hidden in the folds of the valley. 

The excerpt:

It was just yesterday night at Mahavir’s house; I was so drawn towards the beehed that I wanted to climb to its top with my glass of drink. I wanted to drink under the moonlit night. And just one day later, I was sitting in the moonlight flooded beehed. On one hand, the temperature was low, on the other, there was heat from fire and rum. I kept sipping my drink slowly. Everybody picked up pieces of meat from the foil pack and continued eating. On realising that I was not eating anything, Gauri picked up a piece and offered it to me. Then she picked up her glass and kept humming a tune. Though this moonlit beehed and rum was what I was dying to enjoy last night, I could not soak myself in it now that the opportunity had arrived. Ravi-ji and Babuli sat on a side and were discussing something earnestly. But without paying attention to them I asked Gauri, ‘You all are staying in beehed, but aren’t you scared of the pythons here?’ Her response was quite odd, ‘Saheb, the wild animals are not as ferocious as the human beings outside the forest.’ I asked her the meaning behind this. ‘Leave it Saheb, what’s the use!’ I could smell a story behind her words and asked her, ‘Why did you come to the beehed?’ After keeping quiet for a while, she said that she had not come of her own volition. She was a student of B.A. first year in the Goswami Tulsidas College at Chitrakut. She was born in a lower caste farmer family. I interrupted, ‘You are a Yadav, how can you belong to the lower class?’ This made her laugh, ‘Not Yadav, Babu, Jatav. It sounds like Yadav. We are farmers belonging to the lower caste.’ I further interjected, ‘But if you are poor, then why did Nirbhay kidnap you? He must have known that he won’t get much money!’ Gauri informed that kidnappings were not always for money. It was also a way of taking revenge on one’s enemy. The son of the village panchayat used to disturb her continuously and wanted to sleep with her. She kept refusing him. One day she had also slapped him in college for misbehaving with her. The village elders had held a court that day to decide on the issue and since it was the fault of the panchayat pradhan’s son, the verdict went against him. But the pradhan could not forget that insult. He paid Nirbhay to kidnap Gauri. One day when she was returning from college, Nirbhay kidnapped her. He raped her for days. During that time there were two more women in his gang—Neelam Gupta and Sarala Jatav. Nirbhay had kidnapped a young boy, Shyam Jatav whom he introduced as his son.

Nirbhay had married the famous dacoit beauty, Kusuma Nain. After that, he married another dacoit diva, Seema Parihar. Then in 1994, he married another woman called Basanti. But Basanti got a chance to escape. Nirbhay kept on searching for her and finally in 1999 he found her and killed her and her brother. Thereafter he kidnapped Sarala, the 11-year-old daughter of Basanti’s brother. After two years he married her to Shyam but kept on raping her. It was from this point that Sarala became popular as a dacoit-beauty in Chambal. Nirbhay had kidnapped another girl from the Auriya village of Itawa district in Uttar Pradesh. 

Her name was Neelam Gupta. He then married her as well. Then in 2003, he kidnapped Gauri. Nirbhay loved to seduce women. He did not leave even the wife of his adopted son. In between all these, Neelam and Shyam got together and secretly conspired against Nirbhay. They also fell in love with each other. Neelam and Sarala were the biggest attractions of Chambal by then. Sarala was fair, beautiful, and intelligent, while Neelam, though dusky, was no less attractive. But Sarala had become second in hierarchy within the gang. Nirbhay depended more on her. Therefore, whenever Nirbhay was away, she led the gang. Neither Shyam nor Neelam could accept her authority. Neelam maintained a secret relationship with her stepson and kept provoking him. Among the wedded wives of Nirbhay, along with Kusuma Nain, Seema Parihar, and Basanti, there was Munni Pandey, Parvati alias Chamko. There was no count of the number of wives Nirbhay had. There was a period when around two hundred villages of Chambal lived in his terror. He had committed more than two hundred murders and kidnappings. There was a prize money of two and a half lakh rupees on his head. Then in 2005, one day Neelam with the help of Shyam ran away. They left the beehed and went to the police to tip them about Nirbhay. Nirbhay died in that police encounter. Shyam and Neelam surrendered themselves to the police. Neelam was sentenced to an imprisonment of twelve years. Sarala too surrendered herself.

Gauri had run away from Nirbhay before his death in 2005. But all roads to her home were blocked. When she went back to her village from the beehed, she was tortured by the police for days. Though she had learnt to shoot, she had never been involved in any robbery or murder. Her work was mainly cooking and taking care of the dacoits. Yet, she lost her reputation due to her days in the beehed. I asked her, ‘Why didn’t the police believe you?’ She explained, ‘Why would they believe me? The dacoits of Chambal involved the entire gang in their activities. Wherever they went to commit robbery, they left behind a chit of paper containing the names of all the members of the gang.’

So, without even doing anything, Gauri got involved. After returning to her village, she had to face harassment not only from the police but also from the village headman. At every step, she had been insulted as a prostitute and as one of the women of Nirbhay. Repeatedly the panchayat met to decide her case and again and again she was insulted. Then one day, unable to bear any more, she got in touch with Babuli and ran away to the beehed. She improved her shooting skills, committed murders and robberies. I asked her whether she was nervous during her first attempt. She laughed, and then said, ‘No, there was a little bit of hesitation but by then the world had filled me with so much hatred that I could have rained bullets on anyone. What was my fault? I wanted to study. My results were good too. I wanted to get a job after my studies so that I could make my parents’ life comfortable. But this bastard of a fate dragged me here.’ This was normal in Chambal, whatever human beings planned, their fate decided otherwise.

Standing on top of the beehed, I could see a blurry river Chambal flowing slowly. Nothing mattered to it. There was no turbulence in it. The lives of these human beings did not have any effect on it. Its only job was to keep flowing across ages and be a silent witness to the tragic stories of these people. It had witnessed the tragic fate of Gauri too—the story of a salwar kameez clad, shy, 18-year-old girl who once had dreams in her eyes. The Gauri who was once the apple of her parent’s eyes, now wields the gun and shoots strings of abuses. The girl who once shivered to see blood, now plays with blood. This was probably the fate of Chambal and its people. No one knew who would next be sucked into the beehed. Even today Chambal was carrying the burden of curse of a woman from Mahabharata. Who knew how many more Putli, Phoolan, Seema, Kusuma, and Gauri would be sacrificed!


(Dr. Nabanita Sengupta is an assistant professor of English at Sarsuna College (affiliated to the University of Calcutta) and an executive committee member of the Intercultural Poetry and Performance Library.)