Prejudice or values, I'm learning, are a function of perspective, and directly proportional to one's range of experience.
Take, for instance, murder.
I've grown up thinking that if there is sin on earth, it is murder. That killing a human being - especially for the purpose of material gain - is the greatest sin. You can condone a lot that's labelled 'criminal'; but how can you forgive somebody for cutting short a life? For destroying any potential that a life may have held, for the future? For bringing about something as irreversible as death?
All these years, I thought that I couldn't bring myself to be nice to murderers. Until I went to do this story.
Here's when I met men who have killed several times over. Men who killed so many that they didn't remember how many.
A curious magistrate had asked 'how many' when old Lukka Daaku (Lokman Dixit) was brought to court after his surrender, "Judge saahib, do you remember how many chappattis you eat in a month?"
Lokman Dixit. Old man. Green woollen cap, white cotton dhoti, shuffling feet. Great-grandchildren, playing with new-born puppies; I played along. An old pension-earning school-mistress wife, who insisted on silently standing behind him, in the background of the frame, while I took his pictures, oblivious to his yelling. Old man with the wrinkles of an wise grandfather.
I met this old man who didn't remember 'how many', and I felt no outrage, no tempestuous sense of wrong-doing and lack of justice. No resentment. Nothing.
I said namaste, and, unthinking, called him 'baba'.
Just like that. Baba.
Baba is what grandfathers are called, in this part of Chambal. And I think of my grandfather - his morning quiet, his aversion to violence of any sort, even raised voices, his wollen cap, his shuffling feet, walking stick, wisdom.
I wait for Lokman Dixit to speak, while he struggles to find answers to my questions - Will the new gangs surrender? Will he help them persuade them to surrender?
And he says: "I wouldn't, not unless the police asked. But I don't believe that there will more surrenders.... Koi nahin chahta, beta. Sarkar, samaj, police, koi nahin chahta. (Nobody wants them to surrender, child. The government, society, police... nobody.) They'd lose the bribes these gangs pay. They'd prefer to kill them. If you don't catch them, you get money. If you catch and kill them, you get accolades and president's medal. Inke toh dono haathon mein laddoo hain. (They've got sweets in both their hands, which means, either option is sweet, for them)"
.... and after a long pause, he adds, "You see, child, the problem is that the police force was made by the British, for their own purposes. They were made for the bureaucracy and to protect the (foreign) government. They weren't ever intended for the poor. That's the basic problem. That's why the police is pathetic. They extract two paise from rickshaw or thela-walas..."
He drifts off again, before adding, "I don't talk about the past in front of the kids, don't know what might come into their minds... Even when we meet at Jaura, at the Gandhi Ashram, we don't talk about the past... I get bad dreams, sometimes."
Dixit still remembers one colonel, Girdhari Singh. "I met him near Dhaulpur. He said 'Go over to Pakistan.' I said, why should I? This is my homeland. He said,'why are you ruining your own home?' That got me thinking. Then Vinoba Bhave appealed for a surrender, and we asked to meet him..."
The novelist Tamanna (Manmohan Kumar) has written some 48 books, most of them novels about dacoits in this region. He is bursting with anecdotes about many a prominent daaku, of his time.
Like the one about Mansa Ram, a dreaded dacoit from Datia. Tamanna told me, "On May 1, 1972, about 81 dacoits surrendered. Mansa Ram Singh was one. But surrender meant nothing. He ruled the prison, like it was his sasuraal (in-law's house). He was known to beat up the jailor. Later, he had done this interview with Kamleshwar for Doordarshan. The show was titled 'Bandoonkon ka badshah' (The King of Guns). Kamleshwar asked him how many people he's killed. Mansa Ram retorted, "If I'd known you would be asking me, someday, I'd have kept a record"."
"I have one grouse", Tamanna says. "The media goes overboard in it's descriptions. Especially the women. The papers describe all dacoit women as 'dasyu sundari'. Beauties! All dacoit women are described as great, irresistable beauties.... When you see their photos, you'd be willing to puke!"
Tamanna has other stories to tell - my favourite being about a brave woman cop who went chasing dacoits. He says it is a true story. Someday, he might turn it into a novel, in English, if he can find a publisher.... "She killed 5 dacoits in an encounter. She went through mud and rain. Alone. When the villagers found out she as a cop, they refused to give her even a cup of tea."
Mohar Singh, who's now a local politician as well in Mehangaon, was part of the Madho Singh-Mohar Singh gang. But he began his career training under a woman - the original bandit queen, Putli Bai. She, who was one half of the Putli-Kallan gang. She, who took pride in her work, leaving behind signed notes every time she committed a daring robbery. But Mohar Singh is dismissive of her work, now.
"Putli didn't do much... she was around for 5 years (she was killed in an encounter later). She had a big name only because she was a woman... but yes, that's where I first went, when I turned baaghi... Later, I met Madho Singh in the forest. We'd all meet each other wandering in the forests. Sometimes, the villagers would introduce us to each other and we'd formed our own gangs."
He begins to get nostalgic about his 'support base'. "In Dabra, we went to loot at a wedding. We'd just begun, and I saw the bride, sitting there quietly. She said to me, "Uncle, I'm going to be taunted for the rest of my life, all because of you". So, I felt bad. Those were times when we didn't even have ten rupees. But I asked the guests to take back their money and jewelry; we blessed her and left. In jail, this same girl came to visit me. She was crying because she thought I'd be hung. I consoled her and told her that our terms of surrender ensured that we would not be killed..."
And there's Makhan Singh, who was part of the Chhidda-Makhan gang. Chhidda was the only dacoit to be hung by the authorities, in recent decades. He had killed a small child. Makhan was the less cruel brother. Cousin, actually. But caste and family ties are so strong, that there is not much difference between 'real' brother and cousin.
Now, when Makhan Singh laughs, his eyes crinkle up, like a man who is used to laughing a lot.
He's had some acting experience too. A few years ago, some film crew from Bombay came to him, offering Rs 50,000 to play himself. "The film was 'Anokhi Aahuti'. But then there was Ayodhya, and the riots, and the film shooting was put on hold... Later, they gave me Rs 20,000. I thought I might as well take what was coming my way."
He talks of this and that - tube-wells, land, farms, caste equations. His grandchild brings out an old gun - licensed, this time around... "A punjabi from the army, Niranjan... he sold us our guns, in those days. He is in jail, now."
But Makhan Singh does not talk so much about guns or Chhidda. When asked to pose for a photograph, he handles the gun lightly, as if stuck somewhere between unease and familiarity.
Makhan Singh. Mohar Singh. Raghuveer Singh.
Old men. Grandfathers. Murderers. Surrendered dacoits....
And, unthinking, I call them 'Baba'.