How Hazara Singh made a comfortable living without putting his hand to tilling or any other conventional mode of occupation was a mystery to many in the village. But those who knew never tired of admiring his unusual skill at cattle-lifting or housebreaking and of relating stories of his nightly adventures.
In children’s story books thieves are generally shown as locked behind impregnable prison bars. But Hazara Singh had never been to gaol. In fact, he was not even among those whom the police inspector, on his occasional visits to the village, would summon and openly beat up in our school compound.
The visit of the inspector, who always camped in our school, meant a holiday for us. But we did not stir out of doors for fear of policemen. We of course would hear from the roofs of our houses yells and cries of the criminals coming from the school campus.
On such occasions, Hazara Singh, in his immaculate white turban, sat with the police dignitary on the string charpoy talking to him or would be seen busily running around making arrangement for his board and stay.
Whatever little land Hazara Singh possessed was cultivated by his tenants and he seemed to lead a life unburdened with any visible care or responsibility. Other peasants clad themselves in coarse homespun and could afford to wear clothes bought of the market in town only on rare festive occasions. Hazara Singh always wound round his head a respectable length of fine mull and had ample yardage of mill-made white long-cloth loosely draped round his waist.
Apparelled respectably in this way, Hazara Singh would frequently be visiting his friends or relations in the neighbouring villages. In his own village he sat among the elders and was always the central figure in such assemblies. He could talk of various things delightfully and was full of anecdotes and stories.
I loved hearing Hazara Singh talk, especially of his daring exploits. Whenever I was home on holiday from my school in town, I spent long hours listening to his tales. He was evidently proud of his powers at cattle-lifting and housebreaking, but from his narration it was not difficult to guess that he relished the former procedure more than the latter. It gave him a greater sense of triumph. It was, to him, like winning over troops from the enemy ranks. Whenever we sat together, Hazara Singh would quietly relapse into a reminiscent mood.
“One day my nephew came to me”, he rambled on once, sitting upon a stump and scratching the earth with a piece of straw,” and said that he needed a pair of bullocks. He had seen one belonging to the Chathas of Ajnianwala and wanted me to somehow reach it to him at his farm. I told him that the Chathas were his father’s friends and that he would not be able to keep their bullocks if they got to know where they were. And if he would ultimately return the animals, why must he expose me to the rigours of cold wintry nights? But he was insistent and assured me that I could count upon his ability to retain the animals once I managed to pass these on to him. I promised I would.
“It was no easy task unfastening those animals. It was the finest pair – and the cleverest – I ever encountered. They would give a start at the slightest semblance of a shadow at night and once frightened, it was very difficult to lay hold on them. Round their necks they wore rows of noisy trinkets which made loud alarm.
“I had of course taken with me two handfuls of green fodder. Sniffing their eats in my lap, the animals, instead of getting frightened, stretched out their heads towards me. Currying them affectionately with my fingers, I took off the trinkets from their necks and walked out quietly with the two animals following me. The pair was well known in that part of the country and anybody within a radius of nine-ten miles would at once have recognized it. I had taken with me a fast mare and rode off with the bullocks stringed to the saddle. Really good oxen will follow up a galloping horse! With the rise of the sun next morning I had done more than twenty miles and reached the village of Ranike to greet my cousins- sons of my mother’s sister- with an early good morning. I tied the animals in their sugarcane farm and lay down on a charpoy to rest in the sun. By nightfall I again set out with the animals and arrived at my nephew’s farm before daybreak.
“The owners had been following close upon my heels. It was not difficult to keep track of three fleeing animals. Next day they also reached there. They knew for sure where their bullocks were and bought batchfuls of common friends to intercede on their behalf. My nephew at last gave in and returned the animals. I still rag him about it; he has no answer when I ask him why he made me ride through those two chilly nights if he could not keep the bullocks”.
Animal-lifting was interesting, but there was a great deal more money in housebreaking and Hazara Singh was no less proficient at it. His first principle in the technique of housebreaking was, “Avoid all noise at all costs!” And he had ready-made formulas to this end. ‘Cloth’ he would say, “is the best absorbent of sound. Cover up with cloth all those objects that are likely to make a sound.”
The neighbouring villages he had classified into two distinct categories- ‘his own’ villages where he would never imagine doing anything and ‘others’ where he could operate freely without any qualms. But it was difficult to say which set of villages was dearer to him. He knew all these so well; their roads and pathways, bushes and pastures, canals and streamlets were like an open book to him and he knew them all intimately. Even as a bee hopping from one flower to another, drinking the honey considers the whole garden her own, or as a youth visiting his maternal village regards all homes with equal affection, Hazara Singh loved all these villages, whether ‘his own’ or ‘others.’
Hazara Singh was proud of the art he possessed and he made no secret of it. Not many people, he would say, were so neat of hand and foot.
“The moneylenders of Mangewala had a pucca built house,” he told us once. “The outer walls were plastered over with cement and were thought to be invulnerable. One I heard the moneylenders had come into a good bit of crisp money in lieu of mortgaged land they had released. Now this was a wonderful opportunity.”
“Four of us set to work. There were four men sleeping in the front of the house completely oblivious of the back rooms. I knew it was not easy to break through the walls and decided to cut in the foundation under the wall. We kept digging away until the small hours of the morning and managed to worm a tunnel into the house below the wall. We made good our escape with whatever we could lay our hands on. Next day the police inspector came and visited the spot. I was also present. As he went in and came out through the tunnel again he praised the man and admired his ingenuity and hard toil. He said he would compliment him when he was caught.”
Housebreaking was a sport for him- a sport which was exciting to him for its risks. But he would always give a different impression to his friends. “This is no joke really,” he would say. “You never know for a moment if you would be able to come back the way you are going of course, I think nothing of encountering three or four persons, for I can run and can also wield a stick as well as anyone. But it is always a hare-and-dogs affair, you know.”
After finishing my education I took up a job in a city. Later I married and became absorbed in the occupation of raising a family. My visits to the village became fewer as well as briefer. I never got a real opportunity to sit with Hazara Singh. It was well over ten years before I took a long leave and found myself spending some time in the village. I heard that one of Hazara Singh’s sons had been running a dairy in the expanding district town. He had now come back to the village with some money and an educated wife. The money he had invested in the land. The educated wife was highly thought of in the village. Women and children, in particular, looked up to her as their path-finder in the confusing new order that was emerging around them. All this had increased my interest in Hazara Singh and I was looking forward to meeting him.
“Tell me some new story, uncle”, I asked when we were comfortably settled in his sitting room away from the zanana. “How do you mean, dear? What new story?” “You told me all your old stories. We haven’t met for a long time. Now tell me your recent ones.”
“Oh, you mean that! Well, no, no! Far from it. I cannot do that any longer.” “Why not, uncle? How can a leopard change its spots?” I remonstrated good-humouredly.
“Well, if you must have the reason, I think it is my daughter-in-law, the educated daughter-in-law. I feel her seeing right through me. So wise is she! If I went on with my old game, I would feel dirty in her presence. And who wants to appear like that before an educated daughter-in-law.”