This story has been on my mind recently. It was first published in the Asia Literary Review in December 2008.
Hope you like it 🙂
Spit lands on my neck from behind me in the high-school classroom. My tormentors do not bother to whisper or hide their faces, but shout the worst insult, as if it were my name. I thought it would be different here, away from my village. But it is the same. Always the same.
“Dirty cow-corpse-handling untouchable. What are you doing sitting in the front? Know your place. Get back to your village and clean leather,” says the son a spice merchant.
I do not even glance at him. I know better than that. I am here to learn, to get grades good enough to take me to university on a scholarship, far from people like him, from anyone who knows the curse of my family’s past.
I am Dalit, one of the “broken people”, untouchable. When I was born my mother gave me a name but no one uses it. They call me Chamar. I cannot enter the temple or drink from the well. I must use a clay cup that is destroyed afterwards so that others will not be tainted. I do not have a disease. I am not stupid or ill-looking or even very poor. I am not broken. But because I am Ravidas, because my father’s fathers made hides into leather and sold shoes, I am less than a man. Less than the cows that roam the streets, traffic giving way on either side. Even the cows have names.
Even though my father works in the south now, building the road that will one day bring Bihar into the 21st century with the rest of India, it was my family that were forced to clear the corpse of a beast that had died near the well. Only our hands were already soiled enough to touch the carcass. Pride stuck in my throat, blood thumping behind my eyes, as my mother and younger sisters and I struggled to drag the stinking cow to the edge of town near the railway tracks. The rest of the village watched from a distance, holding scarves to their noses. With wood from our own winter fire we burnt the corpse and as the flames rose and danced, I promised myself that I would escape. Somehow, I would find a way to escape the past.
Finally the teacher turns from his endless lines of algebra on the board, takes a handkerchief from his pocket and wipes the chalk from his hands.
“That is enough,” he says. “The scheduled classes have a place here.”
“But Sir,” moans the merchant’s son. “Must he sit at the front? I am being polluted”
Calls of, “me too,” echo through the room.
He continues. “Every evening I am forced to go to temple for cleansing. It takes hours. How can I study?”
“Yes, yes,” his chorus joins in.
I am quiet, studying the teacher’s face. I know he will give in, that he too believes that the laws that force him to teach me should be repealed. I know, even though I am the best student in the class, with scores almost always one hundred percent, he will give my seat to a Brahmin and force me to the back row with the other Dalits and the stupid.
He tilts his head towards me. “If you wouldn’t mind?”
It is not a question.
“Sir.” I nod but I make no secret of my anger, thumping my books into a pile and scraping the bench angrily on the floorboards when I rise. I keep my eyes to the ground as I walk to the back and find my new place. When I am seated the teacher continues his lesson, waving chalk in the air, explaining the same mathematical principle as yesterday for those high castes who were too lazy to listen the first time.
I sigh and flick through my textbook moving onto the next chapter’s exercises. When I look up, I see Babai glancing at me sideways under the cover of her hair. A small smile of comfort on her lips.
Those lips. Soft and rose coloured. Plump.
I love her.
She loves me too.
Babai is the only other Dalit from our village who qualified for a scholarship. Though Dalit, her family are from a higher Jati than mine. They are clothes washers. Her mother takes in washing from the neighbours and her blind father works in Patna in a laundry.
Babai is strong like me. I’ve known that since we were children and I saw her standing up to her mother, refusing to tend her brothers whims when she had homework to do. I heard the screaming and the blows that fell but she did not give in. She’s even managed to convince her father to allow her to continue studying, not marry as others from the street have done; barely thirteen, sent to service the filthy rooms and wrinkled organs of men old enough to be their grandfathers.
Everyone knows about her family. About her father. When he was young he joined a gang of dacoit, robbers who live in the woods. They were caught and punished by the policemen in Bodh Gaya, blinded with bicycle spokes and acid. He is an angry man. But he loves his daughter. And when he comes home he beats his wife for the bruises on his favourite’s face and tells Babai to study hard.
I have watched her a long time. Felt pride when she did well in examinations and smiled when she refused to clean the shirt of a boy who tried to put her in her place. She does not answer to Dalit, as even I do, but only to her name.
I decided long ago that she would be my wife.
She flicks her eyes towards me again but I send her a quick warning in return. We cannot risk being discovered or our long walks home will end.
Since we started school here, five miles from home, those of high caste ride the bus. My father, filled with pride, managed to save enough to buy me a second-hand bike. He’s paid well working on the road, richer now than many in our village.
My mother is proud too, but she keeps her pride behind closed doors.
“We will show them,” she whispers over dinner. “How many of them sit down to so many dishes every night? How many of those Brahmin witches’ sons score one hundred percent and win scholarships.”
It was my mother who bought the portrait of Ambedkar, the untouchable who became a politician and made such scholarships possible. She hung it on the wall beside Ganesh, the elephant god, remover of obstacles, and told me to pray to them both.
Every morning I ride my bicycle to school, bumping over the dusty roads, feeling free and light, as if everything is possible. My legs pump hard as the wheels spin, moving me forward, wind cooling my face, my heart singing.
I saw Babai walking as I rode past on the first day of school. In the afternoon we left together but so did the rest of our class, and they were watching, so I leapt onto the saddle and peddled away. But in the cover of trees only a mile distance I waited for her.
She started when she saw me, but her lowered eyes and the slight upward lilt of her lips gave me courage. Occasional traffic rattled past but the school bus was long gone so I dismounted and walked my bike along behind her. Keeping my distance.
I would’ve liked to offer her a ride, to have her sit on the crossbar as I did with my sisters. To ride us both home, the breeze blowing her long hair. But I am Ravidas, Chamar. And even washerwomen are polluted by my presence. Her father would kill us both if he saw her on my bike.
So I walked behind, watching the gentle rise and fall of her footsteps, the sweat of the long walk clinging the cloth of her sari to her hips.
I couldn’t trust my ears.
“Is it new?”
This time there was no mistaking it. She was talking to me.
I coughed and stuttered, my voice squeaking. “A present from my father.”
“I’d love to ride. It looks like fun.”
“It’s great!” Encouraged, I rambled on and on, delight in my new toy making me forget my shyness, till I realised that I had crept dangerously close behind her and there was traffic approaching. “Sorry,” I whispered, dropping back.
“Don’t be,” she said, turning her head with a swing of her hair and a smile, a movement so graceful and full of promise I felt like riding to the moon.
“Maybe tomorrow I could give you a ride? I mean… not here, not on the road. We could… could… go down one of the forest paths. Just a little.” I stopped in my tracks. I’d gone too far. If she repeated what I said to anyone, I would be chased from the village with sticks. I held my breath as she strode forward and away.
“I’d like that.”
That night I could hardly sleep for visions of her loveliness and the additions of my imagination. I saw her sitting in front of me on the bike, my arms around her waist, my forearms brushing against the exposed skin between her sari and blouse. I dreamt of her face leaning towards me, of her lips coming closer, their softness.
In the morning I had to wash my blanket and hang it on the line before my mother woke.
I looked for Babai in the woods on the way to school, waited too long so that I was late for class, only to find her already there. But in the afternoon she walked. And I rode after her.
Once the school bus had departed and we were in the cover of the forest she turned and smiled as I followed slowly behind her.
“My mother gave me bus money this morning.”
“Oh.” I didn’t tell her that all day I’d felt as if bears had torn the heart from my chest. “Would you like a ride?”
We lingered by a sidetrack and when there was no one in sight we rushed down it, till we could no longer see the passing carts and bicycles. And there in the forest I taught her to ride. Her skirt hitched over the crossbar, she squealed as I raced along behind her holding the seat until she found her balance, her cheeks flushed red like plums. We laughed like children together and when she was tired of riding we sat with our backs resting on a tree trunk, talking of life and ambition and family. Just as she had in my dream she turned her face to mine. Leant closer.
But her father was coming home and she couldn’t be late.
Before we left the shelter of the track I reached out and touched her hand. The thrill of electricity that raced between us me made me jump.
She did too. “What was that?”
“That is us,” I said as if I were a holy man who understood everything. I didn’t though. I only knew that the two of us together made some kind of magic and I never wanted the long walk home, watching the sway of her hips, to end.
Most days she was there but others I waited and she did not come. The days she walked made every disappointment bearable. We were not able to sneak down the track often. The road to our village is not a big one but India has many people in it. All coming and going somewhere.
The times we ran down the track into the forest will forever be carved on my heart. Just as our names are on the tree we’ve come to call our own. The day we scratched our names together into the bark of the old fig was the day we kissed. I’d wanted to as many times as there are stars in the heavens, but it wasn’t me who did it first. It was Babai.
Sitting side by side under our freshly cut names, she brought the warmth of her hand to my cheek, ran her finger along my top lip.
“You have a moustache.”
I nodded, afraid to speak. Wanting her to keep touching me. My body quivering.
“You are a man now.”
I kept my hands cupped at the front of my trousers, trying to hide the effect her touch was having.
“So handsome,” she whispered close to my ear, the heat and scent of her neck making my head swim.
Then she kissed me and it was better than in all my dreams. Her lips on mine. Sweet and soft. Her mouth. Her whole mouth.
I had to break away.
“We must go back.”
“It is late. We must remember…” I rose quickly before I could forget where we were and who I was and lose myself in her mouth, melt into her forever.
Angry, she stomped before me muttering. Before we reached the road I reached for her. “I will marry you. I don’t know how, but I will.”
That night I stayed awake writing by candlelight till the roosters crowed. I wrote a letter telling Babai everything I planned for us. University, good jobs, money, a wedding larger than any our village has ever seen. A wedding so large and a dowry so rich that my Jati would be forgotten. I wrote of my love as Shiva would to Shakti. My lingam, her yoni. Together. The children we would have. The life I would give her, away from our past and the curse of being born “broken”. Made promises. The last page I filled with, “I love you. I love you. I love you.” More than one hundred times.
That was two weeks ago. She keeps the letter down the front of her blouse, near her heart. When I walk close behind her I hear it rustling.
Now, when I see her looking at me as the rest of the class jeers, I see the face of my wife and the promise of our life together and nothing can hurt me.
Her brothers are waiting at the school gates to take her home. As I peddle out, not even glancing in her direction I hear them saying that their father has returned early. He has lost his job.
Around nine I am in bed, my hands pretending they are Babai’s, when I hear cries from down the street. I sit up in a panic ready to flee or run to Babai’s rescue. Her blind father is yelling, ranting. Her brothers shouting. Her mother screaming. And then, suddenly, it is quiet.
My mother heard the fighting too, and in the morning she tries to stop me leaving.
“Do not go to school today. Wait. See what has happened. Her father…”
But I have to go. I have to see Babai and make sure she is alright. My mother makes me pray before Ganesh and Ambedkar, and blesses me three times herself before she lets me out the front door.She stands watching as I throw my leg over my bike and ride down the street. It is empty. Quiet. There is nothing to worry about. It was just another family argument. Nothing about me.
Just before I hit the ground I see a glint of wire strung across the road.
The bike careens on at high speed without me as I thump onto the dirt, clutching my chest where I was struck. Before I have a chance to draw breath, Babai’s brothers are upon me. Her father barks orders from the side of the road, waving sheets of paper.
“I love you. I love you. I love you.”
I twist and turn but the two of them hold me fast, ripping my clothes, squeezing my throat. My mother runs onto the street and they kick her down.
“Chamar! Chamar! Filthy Chamar. Messing with my daughter.” The blind man froths at the mouth as he comes towards me wielding a razor. My stomach heaves.
“Hold him. I want to do this myself,” he yells.
My mother screams for mercy, for the intervention of the gods. I screw my eyes shut as the razor glints in the sun in the blind man’s hand.
As the brothers pin me to the ground a crowd gathers making way for the father.
He sits across my chest and brings the razor to my face, his wash reddened fingers grappling at my cheeks.
“Where is Babai?” I ask. My last thought is for her.
He answers with the razor, scraping it across my skull, tearing hair from its roots. The brothers hold my head for their father to finish. I hear Babai cry, “No!” and see her fighting through the circle of onlookers, her face swollen and blue.
Distracted my captors loosen their grip. I lift my knees and kick the old man away, roll from between his legs, kick one brother in the crotch and scrabble in the dirt through the crowd away from the other.
Stumbling to my feet I break into a run. The brothers belt after me, the father roaring. I look back and see the whole village following, chanting, “Chamar! Chamar!’ If I fall I am dead.
I run. I run to the end of the houses, through the yellowing fields and across the railway tracks. I run as fast as I can, tears streaming. I will run all the way to the monks at Bodh Gaya if I have to. Fast and far I will run. As far as I need to.
I will not be broken any longer. I am not Dalit. Not Chamar.
I am not broken.
I am a man.
My name is Gopal Gite.