It is a windy day, India taking on Pakistan in cricket, but our tv has news channel on the screen. The verdict for the 3 year old hit and run case is about to come. For others it is a matter of justice, for me it is different. My father, Sub Inspector Shivraj Pandey arrested the culprit, Education minister's son, Rajeev. He got many phone calls, bribes actually, but he rejected all of them. Even when the bribes gradually turned to threats, he never faltered. As a result of his firm resolve, Rajeev gets to spend the next 5 years of his life in the maximum security proson of tihar
It has been long, father isn't home yet, he always gets back by 8:30, but its midnight and we are still waiting. Next morning, he arrives with a letter in his hand. He had been promoted and transferred. We are going to Dhauna, a small village, 200 kilometres from Varanasi. No one knows why he is being transferred, but he is happy, and already started with his packing.
At 6 pm, we leave for Dhauna. The roads get worse as we move closer to the destination, people staring as if they haven't seen a police car for years. Strange clothing and everyone carries a lathi. Our new home, is more of a stable, smelling like shit, full of dirt and furniture that can be counted on fingers of a single hand. Dadaji gets the only bed available, and the remaining people, i.e. me, mother, father and Veena use floor as the bed, without any mattress.
Next morning, I wake up with a dog by my side. I don't know where it came from, but I had no energy to get up and waste time on a silly creature. I see my father talking to a person in uniform, probably another policeman in the village. He looks at me and calls me and starts talking with red lips due to paan he is chewing.
Policeman : What is your name beta?
Me : Jayant Pandey.
Policeman : Which Class?
Me : 8th Standard.
Policeman : English Medium?
Me : Yes
Policeman : Very Good.
Then he conducts a similar enquiry on my sister, Veena. After having a cup of tea, the policeman leaves.
We get admission in the only English medium school in the village and also bicycles to cover the distance between the school and home which is around 6 kilometres. English is the only subject taught in English. Me and my sister are very excited, new place, new school and new friends. Next day, teacher asks me to introduce myself and while doing so, I see a bunch of students sitting on the floor at one side of the class. The board is hardly visible from their place, the floor is dirty and there is no fan above their heads. Probably they are being punished. The new school seems to be very strict. But the next day, i see the same faces sitting exactly where they were yesterday, even the ones who were punished. On asking my bench mate, he replies, "they are untouchables." I am shocked, trying to recollect the last time when I heard this term. What we think exists in history books, is being practiced even now. I am looking at their faces, trying to figure out why are they called something that I don't even feel like saying? I look at them, again.
I am not able to forget those faces, some cute, some beautiful, eager to study, writing everything in their note book, a stitched set of papers in fact. There is something I don't know, something very disturbing, something I never expected, something that demands an explanation, an answer. I am waiting for my father, expecting him to clear my mind. He comes back at 8, and I wait for him to finish his meals. The very next moment, we started talking.
Me : Papa, I wanted to ask you something.
Father : Yes my child, what is it?
Me : Yesterday, I saw a few students sitting on floor in the class.
Father : May be they were punished.
Me : and also today...
Father : May be your school doesn't have sufficient benches.
Me : May be. But I heard something else.
Father : What?
Me : They are "Untouchables".
Me : No, I don't think this is okay. Why are they called so?
Father : First of all, promise me you will not discuss this with anyone and try not to get into these things.
Me : What things?
Father : Listen, God made us all equal, we are all born in the same way and with the same colour of blood, but man divided itself into groups, into higher and lower castes. And unfortunately, people started treating each other like animals. So, these so called "untouchables" are actually people belonging to specific castes.
Me : But I didn't see anything like this earlier.
Father : We have developed a lot. Economically, as well as socially. This thing is not practiced anymore but there are some parts of the country where the minds have not changed.
Me : So, they just call them this way and make them sit separately?
Father : They avoid any type of contact. In some cases, they avoid even looking at their faces.
Me : That is really depressing.
Father : Yes it is, all we can do is hope for a better tomorrow. Now go to sleep.
Me : Good Night
Father : Good Night
The room owner asked us to manage for a few more days without the beds, so we took our mattresses to the terrace and slept in open air. Out of curiosity, I ask Veena if her class had the same scene. She replies that she didn't notice.
Next morning, I go to school with a very different mind, my doubts were answered, but am not able to accept it the way it is. I feel like doing something, helping these people or at least asking my class teacher to do something, but papa had warned me not to get into this thing.
It is Friday; we have to get our notes checked and also show our weekly assignment. My notebooks aren't complete. And I am the next person according to roll number.
Teacher : Number 21, Jayant Pandey
Me: Yes teacher
Teacher: Come and show me your notebook.
Me : Teacher, it isn't complete. I was not able to write all the answers. 7 questions are left.
Teacher: How much time you want?
Me : I am sorry.
Teacher : Its okay, I am asking you the amount of time you want to complete the work.
Me : Two days time would be enough.
Teacher : Okay, get it checked on Tuesday.
Me : Sure. Sorry again.
(After about 15 minutes)
Teacher: Number 27, Raju
Raju : Yes teacher.
Teacher: Your work is incomplete.
Raju : Yes teacher, I had to go to our relatives place.
Raju : My uncle died because of cardiac arrest.
Teacher : So? He wasn't supposed to write it. Don't give excuses (giving him a tight slap on his face)
Raju(crying) : Teacher, give me a day of time, I will complete it.
(The teacher grabbed his hair and started pulling it, he started shouting out of pain)
Teacher : Who are you to tell me what to do? Your parents work in a brick kiln, don't waste their money. Ultimately you have to do the same work.
Raju : No teacher, I will become an engineer.
Teacher : Shut up and stand on your knees. You are born to become a worker or labour, don't aim too high.
Raju remains silent and stands on his knees, for the remaining day. No one bothers to ask why he was punished. During recess time, I go to him and ask him if he wants my help in completing his work. He requests me to not talk to him as it would get him into trouble. I ask him what trouble he may get into for talking to a classmate.
Suddenly our class teacher arrives.
Teacher : Jayant, what are you doing here?
Me : Nothing teacher, I am talking to Raju.
Teacher : Do Not talk to him. Go and have you lunch with other people of upper caste.
Me : What? I don't understand. Who are the upper caste people?
Teacher : Don't you know? Go and sit with Thakurs and Brahmins.
(Instead of arguing, I left)
Teacher : Raju! Why were you talking to him?
Raju : Teacher, I asked him not to talk, but he didn't agree.
(The teacher again slapped him)
Teacher : You piece of shit! Don't try to be smart. I know you very well, today you will talk to him, tomorrow you will steal his belongings.
Raju : Sorry Teacher.
I hear everything from a distance. This may be because the teacher is angry on his not completing the work on time. But this thing continues for days, every time the people sitting on the floor get punished whereas we the benched ones are just given warnings.
One afternoon, we are playing football and suddenly I hit a glass window and it breaks into pieces. The sports instructor comes running, He is very angry, he slaps me thrice, pulls my hair and when I start crying, he asked me not to make noise and grabs my collar.
Suddenly, he leaves me.
Instructor : What is your name?
Me : Jayant
Instructor : tell me your full name.
Me : Jayant Pandey.
Instructor : I am sorry beta, you should have told me earlier.
Me : Told you what sir?
Instructor : That you are a Brahmin.
Me : Why sir?
Instructor : Leave it now. Go play now.
I ask my friend why the instructor suddenly changed his tone. My friend starts laughing. He then tells me, " When he grabbed your collar, he saw the sacred thread which only Brahmins wear. And teachers do not beat Brahmins and Thakurs."
I realize that its more than only making them sit separate. They are abused, exploited and also physically harassed. God knows what else happens in this village.
It has been 2 months in Dhauna, and I have started accepting the village and its life. But the case isn't same with my mother. She already has problems in her spine, and now that we are in village, she works hard all day and sleeps with a painkiller. Dad decided to keep a maid in house. Mamta, a girl of around 15 years agrees to work for 200 rupees. Mom is more than happy to have a helping hand. She does all the cleaning and washing.
One morning, mother slips in the verandah, and breaks her ankle. She asks Mamta if she can help for a week at extra payment. She agrees. In the evening, when Dadaji comes back from his evening jog, he gets angry on seeing Mamta in the kitchen. He lifts the water pot and breaks it on the floor, hits Mamta with his walking stick and asks her to get out of the house. I feel so embarrassed on his act but choose to be silent for the moment. After he feels relaxed, I ask him:
Me : Dadaji, are you okay now?
Dadaji : Yes my son, I am fine.
Me : What happened in the evening?
Dadaji : Are you asking about the kitchen?
Me : Yes!
Dadaji : How can your mother allow that girl to enter into kitchen?
Me : Why? What is the problem?
Dadaji : Son, you won't understand.
Me : Is it because, she belongs to the so called lower caste?
Dadaji : Yes, she should not touch our food. It becomes unhealthy for eating. We will have to take bath and change clothes to get pure again.
Me : To get pure? What do you mean by that?
Dadaji : See, these filthy people are not the people we should touch. Their touch makes us unsuitable in the eye of God. They aren't allowed in temples. We cannot go to temple or pray anywhere if we eat food made by their hands. So, we have to apologize and get pure by cleaning ourselves and praying.
Me : Is it written in any book?
Dadaji : You should not eat mud. Is this thing written in the book? No! But we know what is right.
Me : So, who told you this?
Dadaji : No one, I learned it by watching my parents do the same.
Me : But we didn't follow any such thing back in Delhi.
Dadaji : Yes, we cannot. Because we don't know if a person is untouchable in Delhi. So we cannot. Over here, we know who are our own people and who are not.
I see there is no point arguing with him. He even considers them as different people. I feel ashamed of having someone in my family who believes in this stupid system. Today, I lost respect for my own grand-father after watching him hit a 15 year old girl with a walking stick. This act of his is so disgusting. Mother was in pain, but anyhow manages to make some chapattis and dal (pulses).