The 15 Down leaves in a couple of minutes. Down the track, the green light is showing and the signal is down. The passengers are all safely in their carriages, settling down for the journey. And suddenly two women in tattered clothes start a scuffle on the platform. One woman tries to snatch a child from the arms of the other. The latter clutches the child to her breast with one arm. With the other, she tries to fend off the woman and climb into the train.
"Let go, may death devour you! Let go, the train is leaving!"
"I shall not let go of the child, I shall die rather than let the child go…" Yet again, the woman tries to pull the child away.
A few minutes earlier, the two women had been standing together, talking companionably, and now they were snatching and clawing at each other. The onlookers were amazed, and kibitzers began to gather. The policeman on duty at the platform had been getting a drink of water at the tap. Now he came over, swinging his cane.
"What’s the matter? What is this hullabaloo all about?" he asked authoritatively.
The women stopped fighting. Panting, they stared at each other like beasts of prey.
The show was over, and one or two people boarded the train again. The woman carrying the child tried to climb in with them, but the other one pounced on her and dragged her down to the platform. The thin, dark, loose-limbed child slept on with his head on the woman’s shoulder. As the women scuffled, his thin, long neck was jerked this way and that, but he did not wake up.
"Stop this racket. Tell me what the matter is." The policeman shouted, driving his cane between the two women to separate them.
The woman who had been trying to snatch the child away turned to him and said in anguish, "She is taking away my child. I won’t let her…" And she leaped once again to snatch the child away.
"The train is about to leave, you wretch, let go of me!" The woman carrying the child screamed and ran for her carriage. The policeman blocked her way.
"Why are you taking away her child?" he growled.
"The child is not hers. He is mine."
"But she says the child is hers. Tell me the truth: whose child is he?"
"Mine," said the second woman, who was the younger of the two, and she burst into tears.
Her fevered face glowed through her coarse, untidy hair, and her eyes were eloquent with fear. Agitated, breathless, she made a grab for the child again.
The policeman wanted to settle the matter quickly. He ordered the woman carrying the child: "Give him to the other woman."
"Why should I? The child is mine."
"Was he born of your womb?"
Silently, she glared at the other woman.
"Was the child born of your womb, tell me?" the policeman growled angrily.
"So what if the child was not born of my womb, I have fed him with my milk. I have nursed him for the last seven months."
"That doesn’t make him your child. Are you trying to kidnap him?"
"Why should I turn kidnapper? My own children are alive and well, thank you. Ask this witch." Turning to the other woman, she said, "Why are you silent, you hussy? Am I snatching your child away from you? Sir, she herself had put the child in my lap. She was going to abandon him on a garbage heap, and I asked her to give him to me instead. I have cared for him from the day he was born. This woman had come to see me off at the station, and suddenly she changed her mind."
The policeman turned upon the second woman, "Did you give her the child yourself?"
She looked at the older woman for a few moments, wide-eyed, uncomprehending, and then she lowered her eyes.
"I did, but he is my child. Why should I give him away? I shall not." She stared helplessly at the older woman, too nervous to weep any more.
"So you had given away the child. Why do you want him back now?"
She trembled, her eyes pleading.
"She is taking him far away, to pardes1," she said, and burst into tears again.
"Must I stay here for ever?" The older woman raised her hands in appeal to the crowd. "All the people of my dera2 have already left. Stay another five days, she keeps telling me, and I have been here a month already. How can I stay on? And today, when the train is about to leave, she changes her mind."
"Are you related?"
"How on earth would she be related to me? She is Kathiawadi3 and we are Banjaras4."
"And where are you going?"
"To Firozepur, ji."
"Why to Firozepur?"
"We are gypsies, sir. Our clan had rented some land here and we tilled it for two years. Now, we have rented land in Firozepur. All my kith and kin are already there. I must join them."
The policeman was in a quandary. The blood mother had abandoned the child and the other woman had nurtured him with her milk. So who did the child belong to?
p. 1 p. 2
Bhishm Sahni is one of the most popular writers of Hindi. His honours include the Padmabhushan (the President’s award) and the National Academy Award. He lives in Delhi