Standing with her uncle in front of the tailor’s shack, Sampat looked on with fascination at the tailor’s sartorial movements, observing the swift up-and-down dance of his feet on the pedal-operated sewing machine and the way he carefully guided the fabric underneath the hopping needle. As Sampat watched him finishing off clothes for another customer, she thought about the doll she owned—her only one—and its tattered dress. Maybe she could make a dress for the doll? She thought. When Sampat asked the tailor if she could take a piece of fabric that had been discarded on the ground, he encouraged her to, and then pointed to the rubbish heap around the back that had more scraps she could help herself to.
After Sampat returned home that day, she stole money from her parents to buy a needle and thread, and then practiced sewing secretly in between her farming work until it became something of an obsession—she returned every other day with her friends to rummage through the tailor’s waste pile for scrap fabric. “I told my mother I was out in the fields, but I went there instead.” Once, when she couldn’t get her hands on a piece of cloth in the garbage dump, she tore off the bottom strip of her mother’s sari. “Back then, the edges weren’t hemmed, so she didn’t notice! I had a bad habit of stealing cloth—I was always scared of getting caught, so I tucked it into my underwear or armpit when my mum walked by. Look, even today I have this habit!” Sampat says, pulling out a rolled-up scrap of fabric from her bra and waving it around, chuckling heartily. This life skill would give Sampat an advantage in her adulthood—it allowed her to be financially independent.
More than the sewing, however, it was Sampat’s social consciousness that set her apart from all of the other people in her village. From her earliest days as a child, Sampat had always felt keenly the offense of injustice—the sight of it smarted her. When she was around seven or eight, one of her friends in the hamlet, a shepherd boy called Chand Pal, had been slapped by a girl called Gayatri Patel, who was the daughter of a powerful landlord. The little boy was crying bitterly and was being consoled by the other children. What had been his crime? He had gone to the toilet, there in the field, in between the raised banks of tilled soil, and was spotted by the watchful eye of the landlord’s daughter. Gayatri yelled hysterically that he should conduct his calls of nature off the field next time. The children were expected to defecate on the edges of roads, where the land belonged to no one. Many were killed this way after being hit by passing trucks, especially at dusk or when it was foggy. Yet if they relieved themselves on the property where they were working, they were beaten.
Sampat and her friends hated Gayatri. They thought she was a wicked brat. “That girl was a bully. The whole family had a fighting nature. She had an abusive tongue too. She quarreled with everyone. She used a Bundelkhand swearword at me, which meant I was a widow. I said ‘How can I be a widow? I’m not even married!’ ” Sampat recounts, chuckling at her ignorance. “She pulled faces at me. I bit my thumb at her or made big eyes.” Sampat’s father had gone to speak to Gayatri’s father to complain about what the girl had done. “My father went to that family and said that they shouldn’t beat children,” Sampat remembers. Her father’s intervention offended Gayatri’s father and resulted in the two men quarreling. “After my family had an argument with them, they said we should not walk on their land anymore,” Sampat recalls.
When Sampat heard what had happened, her body filled with rage. She was so cross that the most brazen of plans germinated in her mind. Gathering together a motley group of her friends, Sampat convinced the other children to “poo” in the fields at the same time the next day, when the young heiress to the farm was sure to be watching. Even at that age, Sampat knew that if her enemies were larger and more powerful than she was, she had to outnumber them. It was easy for Sampat to get the other children to agree: Back then, as now, she had a way of melting away their fears with her confidence. Under her direction, the children squatted down and pushed out whatever coils of excrement they could, giggling wildly as they did so.
Gayatri, spotting the defecators, rushed toward them with a menacing look. “Their house was far but she saw us from a distance. She had a stick with her. When she ran she shouted, ‘Just you wait, I’m coming!’ I said, ‘You wait! I’m going to show you,’ ” Sampat recounts.
“There was a scuffle. She had long hair. I grabbed it and pulled it with all my strength. We all got her and pinned her on the ground and rubbed her in shit. It was like playing with mud. I rubbed it in her mouth. I was so angry. I was a child, so doing these things wasn’t disgusting to me then! Some boys who were with me ran away when Gayatri’s brothers came. I said, Stay away, this is a girl’s fight. Then her father dragged her away and shouted, ‘Why did you get involved?’ ”
“My father was away that day but my uncle told him what happened. My uncle said, ‘You did the right thing. You had a good fight today.’ ”she said. “People think I am fierce now, but they should have met me when I was a child!” Sampat laughs, when telling the story.