A meeting of the panchayat heads was soon held at Karam Chand’s house, presided over by Pandit.

Chowdhry Ditta Mal put a hookah pipe in his mouth and blew out a stream of smoke. “Karam Chand, what happened with your issue, finally?” he asked, coughing.

Karam Chand scratched his turban. “Chowdhry ji, everything happened in front of your eyes. But Pandit ji has fresh news for us.”

The pandit belched, “Hari Om,” he intoned.

“Chowdhry ji, what is there left to say? These are bad times. I pray every morning and evening before the Almighty not to abandon me. Life has been peaceful so far, and I wish it would remain the same for whatever is left. Instead of making me participate in such profane activities, I wish God would take me away from this earth. But who can say what is in store for us?”

Bursting with curiosity about his news, a chorus of voices surrounded him. “Tell us, Maharaj, tell us.”

“What am I supposed to tell you?” Pandit snarled. “It is the result of your own misdeeds. You’ve turned away from prayer and meditation and indulged in sinful behaviour. You are causing chaos in our community.” After a moment of silence, he looked at Karam Chand. “I’ve been telling you since long to rein in that damn girl. And now, look. What I was afraid of has happened. That cursed girl landed herself with a Muslim family. I swear by God, my blood has been boiling since I heard about it. If such heinous things happen in our village in front of our eyes, then we may as well be cursed.” Hic. “Hari Om.” The group was in awe of Pandit’s piety and wisdom. They broke out into a new chorus, extolling his greatness.

Pandit spoke to Karam Chand and Mohan Lal, “The young men of today have lost their way. They are aberrations. They stink of selfishness. You idiots! You should have at least consulted me once. This brahmin is not your enemy. I was raised by your elders. Even if I was incapable of giving you good advice, I wouldn’t have given you any bad advice at least. But you don’t care. Enjoy yourself, do whatever you want. Who am I to interfere in your personal matters?” He placed his hands on his knees, attempting to stand up and leave.

Panicked, the men gathered around him. “No, Maharaj, please be seated, listen to us, why are you getting angry…” One of them placed his head at Pandit’s feet, one took his walking stick away from his hand, and another stood in front of him.

The helpless Pandit had to remain seated. Holding a muffler in both hands, Karam Chand bowed at his feet and pleaded, “Maharaj! Our honour is in your hands. Please counsel us on this issue, otherwise, the community will make our life a living hell.”

“Yes, Maharaj, this poor man is being harassed everywhere,” somebody else added.

Among the group was Mohan Lal, son of Munshi Devi Dayal. He had recently finished his studies and returned to the village. “Pandit ji, this is without a doubt a noble cause,” he said. “Only a learned man like you can resolve such a complex problem. That poor girl can still come back home if you try.”

“What did you say? She can come back?” Pandit spluttered. He looked at the village heads. “Have you heard this moron?” He turned back to the young man. “Is this what the Aryans have taught you? Think before you speak, and don’t interrupt the discussions of your elders. It’s like an illiterate arguing among intellectuals.”

Everyone glared at Mohan Lal, cursing him for his audacity. But the young man could not stay quiet. “I beg your pardon, Pandit ji, but I didn’t say anything wrong. What is the harm if the poor girl is allowed to return to the community? She is a child widow. If Lala Karam Chand is unable to look after her, then she could be allowed to marry a suitable –”

Pandit’s anger erupted. “Enough! Don’t you dare utter such filthy words again. Can a donkey be turned into a cow just by cleaning thoroughly? Don’t you feel ashamed about disgracing our faith by suggesting that widows should remarry?’ Slapping his palms on his forehead, he continued, ‘This is sickening, my friends. These Aryans and Akalis have corrupted Indian culture.” Hic. “Hari Om”.

“All right, Pandit ji”, Mohan Lal said, “As per your own words, if a fool cannot be an intellectual, then how can an intellectual be a fool?”

Aghast, the others shouted at him to keep quiet.

Excerpted with permission from White Blood, Nanak Singh, translated from the Punjabi by Dilraj Singh Suri, Hachette India.