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In death, Rajasthan woman pays price of loving a Dalit

Balai returned to the village in the morning with the body in a taxi. There was no one to lend a hand. He carried Devi in his arms and gently put the body on the floor of the house the two shared

india Updated: Feb 11, 2018 23:18 IST
Salik Ahmad
Salik Ahmad
Hindustan Times, Bhilwara
Narayan Balai at his partner Sohni Devi’s residence in Rajasthan’s Suwana village. He said he was forced to carry Devi’s body on his own as the villagers refused to help. (HT Photo)

She turned the rule book on its head to be with the man she loved in a village where the caste divide runs deep.

Sohni Devi, 44, a Jat, chose to live with Narayan Balai, a Dalit who was 10 years younger than her. Devi was widow and Balai a widower.

They stayed together for five years in Suwana village in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara, until tuberculosis claimed Devi’s life on February 4 in a hospital in Jaipur.

As the news of her death spread, the elders of the Jat-dominated village pronounced that nobody would touch her body.

Balai returned to the village in the morning with the body in a taxi. There was no one to lend a hand. He carried Devi in his arms and gently put the body on the floor of the house the two shared.

He started making calls to his friends. Except one, no one came. It wasn’t that there were no people – a crowd was watching as Balai, who drives a tractor for a living, struggled to arrange for Devi’s body to be taken to the cremation ground.

“There were some who said the municipal vehicle used for ferrying animal carcasses be called,” said Someshwar Jat, who runs a tea stall.

Someshwar said he wanted to help but did not want to be the only one defying the community.

Some others suggested that Balai seek police’s help. He did that. “What could I have done? It was not a law and order situation. I couldn’t have forced the villagers to participate in the funeral,” said Yashdeep Bhalla, the station house officer at the Sadar police station.

He called an ambulance for the body to be taken to the cremation site. At about 5pm, Devi’s funeral pyre was lit by Balai. His friend Ram Chandra Harijan was the only person at the cremation ground other than the staff.

Caste lines run deep

Caste fault lines run deep in the state and by chief minister Vasundhara Raje’s own admission, the state is very caste driven.

In 2016, Rajasthan reported 5,134 cases of atrocities against Dalits, the third highest in the country after Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the National Crime Records Bureau data shows.

“Jo apne samaaj se hi chali gayi, usko phir kyun poochhna (Why should we bother about the one who left the community?),” said Jeevraj Jat, Devi’s brother-in-law.

The village elders refused to speak, saying it would bring infamy to the village.

Devi was not always shunned. People would often talk to her and even borrowed money from her, Balai said.

She got Rs 14 lakh from the sale for her share in the family property but squandered it away, Jeevraj said. But in death, the village struck back.

Isolated by society

When asked why she didn’t attend the funeral, a woman, who didn’t wish to be named, said Devi moved out of her house and chose to live with a man from the Balai community. It was the community’s decision, she said.

Narayan Balai shows Aadhaar and Bhamashah Yojana cards of late Sohani Devi, at his residence at Balai settlement, in Suvana village, Bhilwara, Rajasthan , on February 8, 2018. (Himanshu Vyas / Hindustan Times)

After Devi’s death, Balai locked their house and moved into his father’s home in the village. He agreed to show the house to Hindustan Times. The walls were lined with posters —landscapes and pictures of gods and goddesses. Plastic flower chains laced the door frames.

“Both of us loved decorating the house. Whenever we’d go to Bhilwara city, we’d buy these posters and flowers,” Balai said.

He seemed to have moved out in a hurry. A pair of woman’s sandals was a reminder of their life together. They, however, did not pack away their past — shelves were crammed with studio
photos of Devi, her husband and their kids.

Her husband died in 2004. Her 13-year-old daughter now lives with her brother-in-law in Suwana while her 12-year-old son is in Mumbai with another relative.

Some villagers even forced police to check if Balai wanted her house and money, both of which would go to her children.

“I even offered to pay for the pyre wood but he refused. Balai paid Rs 2,100 himself,” the SHO said.

Balai has a seven-year-old daughter but she stays with maternal grandparents in a neighbouring village. His wife died in 2012. He had met Devi when she needed help with building the house in 2007.

In her last days, Devi had become frail and it was Balai who did the housework. She didn’t mince words when villagers questioned their living arrangement. “She would retort, ‘Narayan (Balai) takes care of me. None of you came for help when I needed it. Why do you speak now?’” he said.

Balai has one more task left – to remarry. “Devi would tell me I am young and should get a wife.”

First Published: Feb 11, 2018 23:01 IST