Matheri (Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh): “When I am awake, I see their faces. When I try to sleep, they appear again. As ghosts.”
For Meenu Singh (40), life as she knew it ended on January 6, 2017 – the day her husband Jaiveer, a sugarcane farmer overwhelmed with debt, shot and killed their two daughters Shweta (15) and Pammi (13) before ending his own life.
A year and a half later, Meenu is stuck in time. Whenever she is alone, which is most of the day, the events of those fateful few minutes play in her mind in graphic detail. She sees it happen over and over again. “I see their disfigured faces… the bloodied floor… the bullet shells… the sound of gunshots… the screaming…”
That day, Jaiveer was supposed to take Shweta and Pammi to their bi-weekly post-lunch tuition class in town, 10 km away. It was routine, only on that day it was not. Jaiveer latched the heavy iron gate that opened into their compound. He grabbed Meenu, who had come out of the house to see her daughters off, and tied her to a pole. She protested, but mildly – being in the habit of doing as she was told.
He took Shweta and Pammi inside the house, into a room opening onto the aangan (courtyard), and locked the door. Meenu heard two gunshots, the thump of something heavy falling to the ground. Jaiveer appeared at the window, and fired at Meenu who, alarmed by the sounds, was struggling to get free. The bullet hit her in the thigh.
Jaiveer ran out of the room and into the courtyard. He fired at Meenu, and Krishna who had come running up, from close range. The gun misfired. An alert neighbour crashed through the gate, ran into the courtyard and tried to snatch the gun from Jaiveer. Jaiveer ran back inside the room. They heard a bang. The thud of a heavy object falling. And then, silence.
“She (the neighbour, Rajesh) untied my hands,” Meenu says. Tears flow from her eyes but her voice is steady, with an undercurrent of anger. “He could have spared my daughters, but he killed them too.”
Jaiveer was a “small farmer” in the government’s books. He owned four acres of land in Matheri, a nondescript village in western Uttar Pradesh with a population of about 950. Like most farmers in this part of the state, he grew sugarcane. He sold cane to sugar mills which, in these parts, are notorious for delaying payment by months, sometimes years. As of that January morning, the mills owed Jaiveer Rs 1,10,000.
The cash-strapped farmer slipped steadily into debt. For working capital, and to keep the house running and educate his children, he borrowed from local money lenders, sahukars, at a monthly interest rate of 3%, which translates to 36% interest per annum.
Additionally, he borrowed from the formal credit mechanism through his Kisan Credit Card (KCC), which provides farmers short-term credit to meet the expenses of sowing and harvesting. The amounts that farmers can borrow vary depending on the size of their land holdings; Jaiveer’s four acres entitled him to borrow Rs 1,00,000, which he did, every year.
By the first week of January 2017, Jaiveer owed Rs 3,15,000 on his KCC and a little over Rs 3,00,000 to the sahukars. There was also the Rs 12,000 they owed to local grocery stores.
Jaiveer saw only one way out of the trap. He bought a gun.
The National Crime Records Bureau began recording the suicides of farmers and agricultural labourers in 1995. From then to 2016, the last year for which data is available, a total of 3,33,398 farmers have committed suicide. That is over 15,000 suicides every year, 1,200 suicides each month or 42 suicides per day.
A left turn off the Delhi-Dehradun highway, a few kilometres before the industrial town of Muzaffarnagar in western UP, leads to Matheri. A narrow lane with a small canal, locally known as bamba, on the one side and sugarcane fields on the other extends deep into rural Uttar Pradesh.
It is around noon on a sweltering day in May. Matheri wears a deserted look. The narrow lane leading to Jaiveer’s house is filthy with sludge. The iron gate is brown with rust. Meenu, in a pink kurta, loose mustard salwar and dusty pink slippers, opens to our knock and hastily pulls a pale-yellow dupatta over her head. She is alone. Krishna has gone to play at a neighbour’s house.
“Aap jab dekhoge to pehchanoge nahi use. Fool gaya hai pichle saal se (When you see him, you will not recognise him. He has put on a lot of weight since last year),” Meenu smiles as she offers water, sweeter than what city folks are used to, in steel tumblers.
We sit on string cots in the angaan. Across from us is the room where Jaiveer shot and killed their two daughters before turning the gun on himself. “We don’t go there,” Meenu says.
Meenu settles down on a cot opposite us. Her movements are slow, deliberate; she lowers herself with care. “My knees are a problem,” she sighs.
It is the least of her problems. The last 18 months have been a ceaseless struggle on many fronts – recovering from her injury, dealing with the farm, managing the debts she has inherited, putting Krishna through school, warding off attempts by family members to sell off her land, and dealing with loneliness.
The government has been of no help. “Jab apne kuch nahi kar rahe to woh kya karenge? (When my family is not willing to help, what will the government do?)”
Shortly after the deaths of Jaiveer, Shweta and Pammi, the district magistrate’s office deposited Rs 30,000 in Meenu’s account. No assistance has come in from either the Central or state governments.
Omkar Singh, one of Jaiveer’s brothers, claims that he has written to the chief minister multiple times seeking financial support for the family. “No response has come till now.”
Bhartiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Sanjeev Balyan is the MP from Muzaffarnagar, and Matheri is part of his constituency. He says he has been trying to help the family. “Since the government does not have any specific scheme to help in a case of farmer suicide, I am trying to see that the family receives Rs 5,00,000 under the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund,” Balyan told me in August 2017. A year later, he is still trying.
“I don’t understand all this,” says Meenu, when asked about compensation and related issues. “Jaiveer’s brother is managing all of that, and I don’t even know what is happening.”
For the last one year, Meenu says, Omkar has been claiming that he is trying to seek government help. “But I am not sure if he is actually trying. I have no way of finding out.” The doubtful tone contrasts with her attitude a year ago, during our previous meeting, when Meenu directed most of my questions to him. “Yes, I did trust him. He was supportive initially,” she says. “Par ab to is taraf muh bhi nahi karte (But now, he doesn’t even look this way), forget about anything else.”
Jaiveer has four brothers. None of them, she says, has been of much help. Around July last year, Krishna’s school fee was due. Of the Rs 20,000 she needed, Meenu only had about Rs 5,000 in cash. She asked Omkar if there was any money in Jaiveer’s bank account, which he controls though it is technically hers. All bank documents are with Omkar, she says, since the day her husband killed himself. “That is how it is. Anyway, I don’t know how to operate bank accounts.”
Omkar told her there was no money in his late brother’s account, so she asked him to help with the fees. “He refused. Outright.” She approached the other three brothers, and was turned away. Finally, she borrowed Rs 10,000 from a neighbour and Rs 5,000 from her brother to make up the shortfall. “He has to go to school, no matter what,” she said. “I arranged the money last year and will do the same this year.”
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Meenu has two sources of livelihood – the four-acre sugarcane field and two buffaloes. Parvinder, Jaiveer’s youngest brother, takes care of the field in addition to his own four acres. She pays him a fixed amount equal to the price of 50 quintals per acre, regardless of how much is actually produced. According to the currently prescribed State Advised Price (SAP) at which sugar mills in UP buy cane, Meenu has to pay Parvinder Rs 65,000 for working her land.
Four acres usually yield 600 quintals of sugarcane in this region, translating to an average revenue of Rs 1,95,000 per season. The cost of cultivation averages around Rs 30,000 per acre, or Rs 1,20,000 for Meenu’s four acres. Factor in the payment to Parvinder, and Meenu’s land gives her returns of Rs 10,000 every season.
The margin is wafer thin, and productivity has been below average. Last season, the first after Jaiveer’s death, the field produced only 300 quintals. In the season prior, as The Wire had reported, Jaiveer’s field produced only 200 quintals due to a pest attack that destroyed most of the crop. This season, the harvest yielded 350 quintals, slightly more than half the average. In none of the three previous seasons has the produce been sufficient to cover even the cost of cultivation.
Parvinder doesn’t look after the field well, Meenu says. “He doesn’t do anything. Even when I request him many times.”
Last year, when the crop was ready for harvest, Parvinder refused to help. “I pleaded with him. But he simply did not do anything.” Despite being unwell at the time, Meenu went to the field herself and started cutting the standing sugarcane. Krishna joined in. Meenu’s sister, who lives in a nearby town, also came to help. “It was good family bonding in the end,” Meenu says with a light laugh.
Her elder brother gave her two buffaloes earlier this year. Meenu tried to sell their milk in the market, but the economics hasn’t quite worked out for her. She says it costs around Rs 4,500 per month to feed them, and the quantum of milk produced does not fetch enough to recover the costs.
“The buffaloes have now become a burden on us,” she says. ”In addition to providing for ourselves, we also have to provide food and fodder for them.”
She points to the temporary tin shed in which they are housed. “We could not build a proper shed. We have not even been able to repair the ceiling yet,” she says, pointing to the large hole overhead, with iron rods jutting out. I had noticed the break during a visit last year; the condition has since deteriorated, and the ceiling appears to be on the verge of collapse. “I know it can fall anytime. But what can we do? There is no money.”
Meenu has largely survived on borrowings from sahukars and grocery stores, who she owes Rs 3,50,000 and Rs 35,000 respectively.
“Unki sharafat hai ki ghar nahi aate paise mangne. Main agar bazaar mein jaun to kya poochenge nahi mujhse? Kya jawab dungi? (It is their decency that they do not come to my house to ask for money. But if I go to the market, will they not ask me? What will I tell them?)”
She also owes Rs 40,000 to an agricultural labourer. “She used to work on our field when he (Jaiveer) was alive. We could not pay her,” Meenu says ruefully. “She is also poor. She also has a family to support. I keep requesting her to give me more time. I do not know what else to tell her.”
Occasionally, Jaiveer’s family has offered some financial help. “But not always. At most times, they have not been supportive, like when maaji (Meenu’s mother-in-law) died.”
Maaji lived with Meenu and Jaiveer since their marriage 18 years ago. Meenu was 19 then. She died after a brief illness in March this year. “When maaji was alive, there was a sense that at least an elder is around to watch over me, and I am not completely on my own.”
When she passed, Jaiveer’s brothers refused to pay the funeral expenses, arguing that since she lived with Meenu, it was her responsibility. “Despite knowing my financial condition, they insisted that I pay for it.”
“I put my foot down and said that there is no way I am going to pay for it. And to be honest, I simply could not. I had no money,” she says, adding after a pause, “I have no money.”
Jaiveer’s brothers continue to insist that she pay the Rs 35,000 – the funeral cost. “When I ask them where I will get the money from, they tell me to sell my land.”
The land has been a source of constant friction, with Jaiveer’s brothers demanding that she transfer the land over to them. “They say that they will be able to take care of the land better if it is in their name,” Meenu says. “I know that whatever little hope I have in life, is because of this piece of land and I will not part with it.”
As Meenu walks over to move her buffaloes into the shade, the gate creaks open. Meenu looks up, sees Krishna, in his blue T-shirt and denim three-fourths over dusty green slippers, and smiles fondly. “Do you remember him from last year?” she asks him, pointing at me. Krishna smiles sheepishly, and avoids eye contact. At 11 years of age, he is painfully shy, and prefers to steer clear of adults, of conversation.
Meenu walks into the only room that they now use. Since, they wont use the other room where the tragedy occurred. The room is dark, with no windows. There is a small bulb hanging from the ceiling, but it does not work. Next to a small round table, on the floor, sits a stove and a gas cylinder. Meenu pulls out a pan from the stacked utensils, puts it on the stove.
“Krishna loves potatoes,” she says.
Later that afternoon, I met three of Jaiveer’s brothers who live in the village. The fourth lives in Muzaffarnagar town. Omkar leads us to Meenu’s field, about 1.5 km away from the house. The sun is relentless; my phone tells me it is 45 degrees Celsius. It feels like a lot more.
We walk past fields lush with sugarcane, but when we get to Meenu’s field, the view turns bleak. The cane is patchy; it doesn’t rise as high, or look as healthy, as the crops in the surrounding fields.
The fields once belonged to their father, but have since been divided among the brothers, each of whom owns four acres. They are not able to make a decent living, Omkar says, because of the small size of each landholding.
“The cost of inputs is about as much as it would be in a 10-acre field. The output is a lot less,” Omkar says, smoothing down his chevron-style moustache. “So, there is no profit. On top of that, the sugar mills delay payments by several months.”
He wears his white hair short, and is dressed in a pale white shirt worn loose over grey trousers. Two pens are neatly tucked into the pocket of his shirt. He works as a peon in the sugar mill, Omkar says as he fidgets with the pens, because he is not able to earn a decent living from his farm. The job nets him Rs 10,000 per month, and this just about helps him manage expenses. “It is impossible to sustain a family with only the farm income,” he says.
Jaiveer’s only source of income, to sustain a family of six, was his four-acre farm. “His field, for some reason, has produced below the average in the last few seasons,” Omkar says. “It happens. One field will do well. The other will not. If the size of landholding is greater, then the farmer can manage. Otherwise, it is very difficult.”
In April 2017, the newly elected Bhartiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh announced that it will waive crop loans for around 86 lakh farmers. The scheme covered loans of up to Rs 1 lakh for small and marginal farmers, so those who size of holding was less than 5 acres.
Meenu’s plot is four acres. She qualifies for the waiver, but her name does not appear in the lists prepared by the bank. “We have asked the bank many times,” says Omkar. “Submitted all documents. But it has not worked.”
“Meenu is not the only one,” says Kuldeep Tyagi, who heads the Bhartiya Kisan Andolan (BKA), an organisation working to highlight issues faced by farmers in western UP. “The scheme has been implemented poorly,” Tyagi, who I met at his home in Meerut a few days after my visit to Matheri, says.
“There are cases where a farmer owning two acres of land and having a loan of Rs 50,000 hasn’t been included in the list. The banks have not followed the government guidelines. They have prepared the lists arbitrarily, and many farmers have suffered.”
“Look,” says Ranbir Singh, the eldest of Jaiveer’s brothers, “even if the loan was waived, what will be the benefit? She will have to borrow again to be able to sow for the next season and because there is no profit from the farm, she will not be able to repay the loan again.
“That is the story for all farmers. Karze ka chakravyuh hai (It is a vicious cycle of debt).”
While we talk, Parvinder — the youngest of the brothers, a stocky, bearded man with unkept hair and muscular arms and legs that speak to years of hard labour — moves between his field and Meenu’s, watering both with a thick pipe that is connected to a tube-well.
It is extremely difficult for one person to manage two fields, Parvinder explains. The cost of hiring labour is high, at Rs 400 for a six-hour day. “It is simply not affordable. We have to do it all by ourselves,” he says, as he digs a channel for water to flow into Meenu’s field. “I have to work 14-16 hours a day to look after both the fields.”
Meenu’s field, he says, is not looking too good; the harvest is likely to be below average. “There was a pest attack on a part of the field, so some of the crop was destroyed.”
Sugar mills delaying payments make matters worse, he says. This season, Parvinder has sold 350 quintals of sugarcane to the mills on behalf of Meenu. The mills owe her Rs 1,13,750, but thus far have paid only Rs 32,000 – about half the amount Meenu has to pay Parvinder for his labour.
The law says farmers are entitled to receive payments within 14 days of delivering produce. If the mill defaults, it has to pay the farmer interest on the amount due, at 15% per annum. In practise, however, this never happens in Uttar Pradesh. Three months after the sugarcane crushing season ended, in October, sugar mills in UP still owed farmers about 25% of their dues.
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When farmers run short of working capital, they sell a part of their produce to small jaggery producing units, known locally as kohlus. The kohlus pay cash on delivery, but the prices are much lower than those offered by sugar mills.
“Kohlu wale ki jo marzi hoti hai, wo daam deta hai. Kabhi 200, kabhi 180, kabhi 160. Us se zyada toh ganne ki laagat aa jati hai. Bas itna hai ki kisan ko turant paisa mil jata hai (The kohlu quotes whatever price they want. Sometimes it is 200, sometimes 180, sometimes 160. That is lower than the cost of production for sugarcane. The only benefit is that the farmer gets cash instantly),” Parvinder explains.
Parvinder argues that he is doing his best for Meenu, even though productivity on his own field is suffering as a result. “I could easily just refuse to work on her field and manage my own. But I am not doing that.”
“Anyway, I am not getting too much by working on this field,” Parvinder adds. “I am putting in so much effort, and I do not get enough in return.”
Meenu should just sell her land to one of them, Omkar says. “She cannot take care of it. There is no point in her holding on to the land.”
Ranbir agrees. Selling the land and moving to some other vocation will free Meenu from the cycle of debt, he argues. “Especially for a woman, because a woman does not work on the field. What is the point of continuing to own land? It can only add to her misery.”
“We are her well-wishers,” says Omkar, hastening to explain that they have Meenu’s best interests at heart when they advise her to sell. “And we are here to take care of her, like we have done since Jaiveer’s death. We are not going to leave her to fend for herself. We will provide all support to her and Krishna.”
The brothers believe Krishna has become more reserved since the deaths of his sisters and father. “He does not talk at all,” Ranbir says. “Earlier, he was quite bubbly. But now, he just stays quiet.”
Omkar says Krishna does chat with him occasionally, asking questions about the field, or asking for help with school fees and books. But he never talks of the tragedy, never asks about that day, say the brothers.
“Not once has he asked anything,” says Omkar. “Even if someone starts talking about Jaiveer, he looks away.”
“I remember that day,” Ranbir says. “Krishna did not even cry. He didn’t say a single word.”
“I do not know what came to Jaiveer’s mind that he did this. He was not someone who would worry too much. I was shocked when I heard what had happened.”
Ranbir was working in his field that day in January 2017, when a neighbour ran up to him with the news. “Maine kaha ‘Bakwaas na kar, aisa na ho sakta’ (I told him to stop talking trash, this cannot be true).”
The neighbour repeated what he had said and started crying. “Tab laga ki ye to sach bol raha hai. Meri himmat nahi padi fir khade bhi hone ki bhi (That is when I understood that he is telling the truth. I could not even stand then),” Ranbir says.
He recalls walking to the village and finding a large number of policemen, and pretty much all residents of the village, gathered around Meenu’s home.
“Ladki ko tuition le jane wala tha. Pata nahi kya fitoor aya (He was about to take the girls for their tuition classes. I don’t know what rage came over him). And they were very capable girls, especially the elder one, Shweta. She wanted to be a doctor and used to do very well in school, she was always ranked number one.”
The younger of the two, Pammi, also did well, Ranbir recalls. “And Pammi used to help her father in the field. She would perform the job of two men on her own. She used to work tirelessly helping her father.
“I don’t understand what Jaiveer thought,” he says, his voice thick with grief. “Both the girls were exceptional – he did not have to worry about them. They would have made their place in the world.”
“Jab zinda the, tab to kehte the ki itna padhegi toh shadi kaun karega (When they were alive, the talk was who will marry them if they study so much),” says Meenu, visibly angry at what she considers to be Ranbir’s hypocrisy.
It is another hot and muggy morning at the end of May, and Meenu is wearing the same clothes she wore the last time I’d met her. The same loose mustard salwar, a pale-yellow dupatta, and dusty pink slippers. The only difference is a missing red bangle from her right hand. “That broke yesterday when I was tying the buffaloes.”
She is waiting for Krishna to come back, so they can have breakfast. “Aap kyun itni mehnat kar rahe ho? Kuch hone wala nahi hai (Why are you working so hard? Nothing is going to come out of it),” she tells me, surprised that I have returned to speak to her yet again.
“I don’t have any hopes from anyone – not from the government, not from the family. I just know that I have to live for Krishna. Otherwise, I have no desire to live,” she says.
Her desires died with her daughters, she tells me. “Apne aap hi mar jate (He should have died himself).” She looks away, fighting to choke back grief, but the dam breaks and I hear the sound of her sobs. “Itni yaad unki nahi aati. Par Shweta-Pammi nahi bhulaye jate (I do not miss him that much. But I cannot forget Shweta and Pammi).”
She swipes at her tears with the end of her dupatta. “Sometimes I feel they are here. Sitting next to me,” she says, patting the empty space next to her on the string cot.
“Shweta used to win a shield each year in school. I will show you.” She wipes her tears and gets up, with a sense of purpose. The trophies and books are in that room, the one she rarely goes to, the room her daughters were killed in. It is the only room in the house with a fan, but Meenu and Krishna would far rather sleep out in the open.
The room is dark, and smells dank. Pieces of wood are scattered around in haphazard manner. There is a bed at the centre of the room – the one onto which the girls collapsed after being shot. An untidily draped sheet covers it.
From under the bed, Meenu brings out a maroon suitcase. “Is mein rakha hai. Bahar dhool chadh jati (I have kept them inside this. They would have caught dust outside),” she says, smiling with a sense of pride.
The trophies and books let out clouds of dust as she takes them out. She laughs sheepishly. “Inpe to dhool hai (They are covered in dust).” She wipes them with her dupatta as she carries them out of the room.
Perching on the cot in the courtyard, she sifts through the different prizes that Shweta, in particular, had won. “Top kiya tha. Abhi toh. Pichle saal (She topped. Just now. Last year),” a smile appears on her face as she opens Shweta’s notebooks.
She points to Shweta’s handwriting – beautifully shaped cursive that spells ‘Bio’, short for Biology, on the first page. Around the page, Shweta had drawn borders, shaded with sketch pens of different colours. Her full name, ‘Shweta Choudhary’, is written in slanting capital letters, and underlined. She was in class ‘XI’. Her roll number was ‘20’.
Shweta had scored 95% in her class 10 Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) board exams, a few months before her father killed her. No one in her school – or in Khatauli town, for that matter – had scored higher. She wanted to be a doctor, and had begun preparing for the extraordinarily difficult pre-medical tests she would have to take after completing class 12. The books she needed were too expensive; Shweta borrowed them from friends in school.
Pammi, two years younger than Shweta, had scored above 90% in classes 8 and 9. “Pammi was also a good student,” Meenu says. “But not as good as Shweta. She tried to follow in her sister’s footsteps and be a good student. She wanted to be a teacher.”
The three children – Shweta, Pammi and Krishna – studied in a private English-medium school in the town of Khatauli, about 10 km away. The combined fee was Rs 60,000 a year. Tuitions for Shweta and Pammi cost another Rs 8,000 per month. It was way more than the family could afford. “We wanted them to go to an English-medium school so that they can learn English,” Meenu says. “So that they can get a job in the city. Get out of this poverty.”
She talks of how the family would sometimes skip a meal, but they would not consider reducing the amount spent on education. “Kayi bar toh pure-pure mahine humare ghar sabzi nahi aati thi (Many times, we ate without vegetables for an entire month).
“Bas pata nahi, fitoor tha. Ki padh jayenge to kuch ban jayenge. Aur bharosa tha ki bacche zimmedar hain. Aage jake zindagi behtar hogi. Aaj bhugat lo (I dont know. There was this madness. That if they study they will do well in life. And we had faith in them that the children are responsible. That our lives will be better in the future. We can suffer today).”
The girls were aware of the sacrifices their parents made on their behalf, particularly Shweta. “She understood that we are spending much more than we can because she wants to be a doctor. She told us she would give up her dream, study in a Hindi-medium school in the village, help out on the field, look for a job and repay all their debt. I told her ‘No, never. You want to be a doctor. You study hard and let us take care of the money.’”
Sometimes, when the financial stress was really acute, Meenu would say to Shweta, “Hum kyun itne gareeb hain? (Why are we so poor?)” Shweta would respond, “Aisa mat kaho ki hum gareeb hain. Main khud ko gareeb nahi manti. Gareeb toh woh log hote hain jinke maa-bap nahi hote (Don’t say that we are poor. I don’t consider myself poor. People who don’t have parents are poor).”
Krishna does not like it when Meenu talks of her daughters, she says. “I cry when I talk about them.” She tries to avoid the subject, but then Krishna is the only person she can talk to. She has no friends except a neighbour who visits off and on.
Rajesh, the neighbour, is tall and broad-shouldered and speaks at a rapid pace. Jaiveer’s family is no help for Meenu, she tells me. “She is all by herself.”
Rajesh worries about Meenu’s health. “Sadma laga hai iske dil ko. Gehri chot. Hum aur aap nahi samajh sakte kya beeti hai is pe (She has suffered a shock. A deep wound. You and I can not understand what she has been through).”
She lists the traumas that Meenu suffers from: a bullet wound in her thigh, an arm that was fractured a year earlier and required the insertion of a rod, a recurrent kidney ailment…
Loneliness is another cause of concern, Kamlesh says. “She has no friends. Only me. How much can I do? I also have a family. She doesn’t even go out anywhere. She has not stepped out of the house since that day.”
“Jee hi nahi karta kahin jane ka (I don’t feel like going anywhere),” Meenu says. She tells me that while she has occasionally stepped out of the house, she has never set foot outside the village. Back in the day, the family would go to fairs, and sometimes go out to eat street food in Khatauli. Shweta and Pammi liked to ride on the ferris wheel in local fairs but Meenu, not so much. “Dar lagta tha mujhe bahot. Main khadi rehti thi, yeh log jate the (I was very scared. I would stand while these people would go).”
The girls were fond of eating chowmein at the fairs. Meenu wasn’t particular. “Kuch bhi kha leti thi. Jo ye log khate (I would eat anything. Whatever they were eating.) Haan, alu ki tikki pasand thi (I liked fried potato cutlets),” she says with an embarrassed smile.
Now she never goes anywhere. “Krishna ko bhej deti hun. Main kya karungi jake? (I send Krishna. What will I do there?)”
“Log baatein bhi banate hain. Ghar pe rehti hun tab bhi banate hain. Agar aap akele aye hote to aaj bhi batein banate (People speculate. They speculate even if I stay home. Even today, had you come alone, people would have speculated),” she says. I had travelled with a fellow woman journalist.
Meenu recounts an incident when her sister’s husband had come to her place to give her some household items: soaps, detergent, toothpaste. He had come alone. “Bas, batein shuru kar di logon ne. Kya kya bola. Aapko bata toh nahi sakti par aap samajh hi sakte ho (That’s it, people starting talking. What all they said. I can’t tell you, but you can understand),” she says.
These recollections stoke her anger at Jaiveer. “Bahot gussa aata hai. Aise haalat chhod ke chale gaye. Naash kar diya ghar ka (I get very angry. He left me with such circumstances to deal with. He destroyed our home).”
What bothers her the most is that she had no idea Jaiveer harboured such thoughts. She tells me that a married couple are believed to understand each other, know what is in each other’s minds. “I had absolutely no idea what he had in mind. I could not think that he could do this. That my husband could kill our daughters.”
She ponders what it was. She remembers that Jaiveer drank that day. “He was not an alcoholic. He had stopped drinking two years ago. Had not touched the bottle since.”
This is the first time in several meetings over a year and a half that Meenu has spoken about Jaiveer being drunk that day. “Log galat samajhte hain. Badnami hoti hai. Isliye nahi bola (People misconstrue things. Brings us disrepute. Hence I didn’t say it).”
Meenu tells me that Jaiveer was an alcoholic. He would leave home to go work in the field, but instead would start drinking till he was knocked unconscious. The field suffered from neglect. But, says Meenu, all this stopped some two years before that fateful day.
“I threatened him one day that I will leave, taking the kids with me. That got him worried and he stopped drinking.”
Meenu believes that once Jaiveer stopped drinking, he realised the gravity of their situation, and lost hope. “Earlier, he was always drunk, so I do not think he could comprehend the situation we were in. When he stopped drinking, he discovered that we were in deep trouble,” she says.
According to Meenu, Jaiveer made a genuine effort to first reform himself by putting an end to his drinking habit, and then to work hard on their field to increase produce. “I think he lost hope when nothing changed even after he worked hard for two years. We were still in the same situation as we were when he was an alcoholic.”
Meenu is not sure why Jaiveer picked up the bottle that day. “No clue. And this will haunt me for the rest of my life. He left me with so many questions and nobody to answer them,” she says.
She looks towards the gate, and her smile breaks out. Krishna is home.
He spends a large part of his day watching television at Rajesh’s house. I attempt to talk to him, but he is standoffish. He plays ‘Subway Surfer’ on his basic smartphone. It is a game in which the player is required to jump on trains and avoid obstacles while running at uncontrolled speed. When I talk to him about the game, he smiles and responds. His top score is unbeatable, he says, and hands me the phone, challenging me to try. I fail, by a distance.
He tells me he wants to be a police officer when he grows up. He likes the authority that comes with it. “Sab darte hain police se (Everyone is scared of the police).”
“My only hope is that he studies hard and gets a job in a city,” Meenu says, stroking Krishna’s hair. “Kheti mein toh kuch nahi hai. Humne kar ke dekh liya. Mehnat bhi karke aadmi yun hi reh jata hai (There is no hope in agriculture. We have done it and seen. Even if one works hard, it doesn’t help).”
Meenu feels that unless Krishna gets a job in a city, there is little hope. “I worry about this all the time. And he is not doing too well in school currently,” she says. “I can’t sleep at night from worrying. I just lie with my eyes open.”
When she feels overwhelmed, Meenu sometimes thinks of ending her life. But then, there is Krishna.
“Bas iske liye jee rahi hun. Par kab tak? (I am only living for him. But for how long?)”
All images by Kabir Agarwal.
Additional reporting by Moniza Hafizee.
We wish to thank the National Geographic Society and the Out of Eden Walk, whose 2018 Journalism Workshop supported the creation of this project.