His father's name once spelt terror and respect in Chambal, where death comes as a whistling bullet, or in the form of crocodiles teeming in the local river.
But Souram Singh Tomar — son of Paan Singh Tomar who has inspired the popular movie of the same name — doesn't go back there after his father's death for fear of being killed by his father's old enemies or the police. Instead, Souram Singh, a 53-year-old retired Army subedar, lives with his 75-year-old mother and his family at Babina in Jhansi district.
Paan Singh was an armyman and an international award-winning athlete who became a dacoit (locals prefer the term 'baagi' or rebel) after alleged oppression and violence against his family. The movie on him was made by director Tigmanshu Dhulia with Irrfan in the lead role.
"My father was a good and kind person, not a criminal. Thirty years after death, he is still a respected person in the Army and you can find his photograph in a museum in Roorkee. He never hurt anybody except his enemies; not even their kith and kin," Souram Singh told HT on Friday over phone.
Pan Singh Tomar with his wife Indira and their children.
About the movie, he said, "I have seen the film and it is 85% true to my father's life. Before making the film, Dhulia had come to our house to research on my father's life."
Souram's elder brother Hanumant died in an accident in 1985, four years after the police killed Paan Singh in an encounter. Their four sisters are all married and live with in-laws.
The family has preserved the books Paan Singh read (mostly army handbooks and biographies handed out at training camps), his two passports including one which one required back then to travel to Pakistan, and his medals. They have also proudly kept his .30-06 Springfield rifle made in the US.
Paan Singh's wife Indira, 75, is a bit short of hearing now. "When my husband was an international athlete, nobody cared for him. After he became a baagi, everyone sat up and noticed. If my sons were not in the Army, they would have been killed," she said.
The family lives off Army pension and the mustard crop that grows once a year on the seven or eight arces of land which Paan Singh had bought after retiring from the Army. His wife travels to Morena to sell the crop since local tradition forbids even the most bitter enemies from harming the woman of the house.
"I never feel any regret for what my father did, despite suffering all my life because of that one incident which changed our lives," said Souram.
He remembers the day when trouble started. "I was 18 then. Our opponents, who were our distant relatives, attacked our house. My father was not home then. In self-defence, my elder brother came out with a rifle and fired in the air. My father had gone to Sihonia police station then to complain about a brawl that had taken place between the two families earlier. But the police did nothing and surprisingly the sub-inspector of police asked my father why had he come so early. 'You should come after two or three people are shot dead,' he had said. While returning, my father came to know about the attack on his house. My father, an international sprinter, turned a rebel and our lives changed forever."
"Some days later, I went to Roorkee for recruitment in the Army. It was March 17, 1979, perhaps. And that was the last I saw my home," he recalled.
"My father took a plunge in the notorious ravines of Chambal because nobody listened to his problems. The whole system — the government, police, everybody — were responsible for the step my father took," he said. "Me and my brother did not choose sports because we were busy running here and there to save our lives. My father asked us not to go to our village as our enemies would have killed us or the police would have bumped us off in a fake encounter. It's the police which create dacoits in Chambal.
He said that after being implicated in false cases, his brother Hanumant Singh wrote letters to then chief minister Arjun Singh for help but there was no response.
Souram, however, admits that people in Chambal keep rifles and guns for prestige. "If someone tries to solve a problem with mutual understanding, the rival party takes it as his weakness and tries to dominate him," he said. "I don't trust the Madhya Pradesh police. I feel bad because I left my home."
Souram claimed there were several fake cases against him as well. "The Army has saved our lives," he said.