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Updated: January 20, 2013 17:07 IST

Papad, bidi and a dacoit

R. V. Smith
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Photo: Tony smith
Photo: Tony smith

R.V. Smith spins together a tale of a papadwallah who once wielded a gun!

Near the steps of the Jama Masjid, in the 1960s, used to stand a papadwallah selling papad (crisp roti-shaped fried salted savoury, relished by kings and commoners alike) every forenoon and evening. He was a tall, thin man with a walrus moustache and close-cropped hair who would leer at women and boys as though he was going to eat them up— at least this is what one girl told her mother— prompting her brother Zameer to accost the wicked-looking one eyed man. He warned him to behave or he would report him to the police. The papadwallah folded his hands and begged him not to do such a thing as he was mighty scared of the police, who were always after him. That prompted Zameer, an aspiring lawyer who was himself in the habit of staring at the mohalla girls from his rooftop, to probe the man further. The papadwallah lit a bidi and this is the tale he told:

His name was Lakshman Singh and in his younger days he and his elder brother, Ram Singh, were Chambal Valley dacoits— members of a gang led by Charna, one of the lieutenants of the legendary Man Singh Daku. The gang invariably struck on dark nights as they could be easily espied on a moonlit night by the Provincial Armed Constabulary of Uttar Pradesh and M.P., who camped near the ravines, almost as deep as those of the Colorado Basin in the USA.

Then fate struck one moonlit night when Charna and some of his men were shot in an encounter while they were doing their daily sit-ups and push-ups in a sugarcane field. The encounter lasted several hours, with the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary rushing in to aid the constabulary of the two neighbouring States. Charna was still wearing a langot (a brief triangular shaped loin-cloth) when he fell last of all. Three members of the gang, though injured, managed to escape by swimming across the Chambal. Among them were Lakshman Singh and Ram Singh, who later joined the gang of the sex maniac Alwara, notorious for raping or molesting a hundred village women and girls. His example made the two brothers lecherous too. Alwara was eventually killed near Mathura, not in an encounter but at the hands of a young married woman who, after being raped in a godown, caught him napping and struck him on the head with an axe lying in a corner. He died in great agony and the woman escaped to her family.

After that Lakshman and Ram Singh were arrested by the police during a raid on a village dancing girl’s house at Bah, the police party being led by Philip Sahib, who later went on to become a famous kotwal. The two were sentenced to 10 years’ rigorous imprisonment each and after release from jail came to Delhi, where they settled down in Bazar Sitaram. Ram Singh got married and became a reformed man, but his brother continued with his wicked ways, so much so, that he even seduced his sister-in-law. Ram Singh discovered the affair and chased him out of the house, warning him— under pain of death— never to return.

Meanwhile the police got wind of the brothers’ presence in Delhi and they were arrested. But no fresh case could be made out against them, except for a complaint lodged by one Asghar that Lakshman Singh had molested his young daughter and her two brothers behind a toilet. For this he was sent to jail for three years. On being released he rented a house in Mori Gate and started selling papad. His long route lay from his house to the Jama Masjid. But at night the police visited his house thrice, calling out his name to confirm that he was present by replying “Hazir hai”.

Zameer asked him why he had a damaged eye. Lakshman Singh told him that once during a police-dacoit encounter he tried to hide in the house of a rich Nambardar. But the lecher that he was, he saw a housemaid and pounced on her in the dark. Hearing her screams the Nambardar came with a lathi and struck him full force on the face, making him blind in one eye. But still he managed to climb the house roof and escaped by jumping down to the other side, with the now alerted policemen chasing him. He was caught but managed to give the two constables, guarding him in the eye hospital, the slip and rejoined his gang until his re-arrest, conviction and release, after which he and his brother settled down in Delhi.

Lakshman Singh continued to sell papad until five years subsequent to his confession to Zameer. After that he was not seen on the steps of Jama Masjid. It was learnt that he had died of hooch poisoning, along with some others, one Holi night. Zameer became a lawyer and wrote about the former dacoit in an Urdu magazine.

He must have retired by now, for one doesn’t see him any more at the Tis Hazari courts. Some say he has gone away to join his sons working in Dubai. But one misses him despite his idiosyncrasies, which included making faces at people he didn’t like. And as for papadwallahs, even now when one calls the heart misses a beat.


Basant in times pastFebruary 10, 2013

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