A scrawny seven- or eight-year-old – no one in Banjhan’s Chamarli kept a written record of births or deaths – when Udho left for Britain, Kalu grew up in Banjhan. He attended the non-profit Banjhan High School. He and Udho corresponded regularly. Banti was illiterate. Kalu was her window to Udho and the world, and Udho’s to Banti and Banjhan. Despite now being richer than many zamindars in the village, he was constantly belittled and reminded of his place in the huddarory.

“Skinning dead cattle, eating carrion and working the zamindars’ lands is both your job and destiny. God made it so,” his Brahmin classmate Subhash had said to him once. Kalu clenched his fists and lunged towards him. Were it not for his friend Boota – also a Brahmin – telling Subhash off and holding Kalu back, one or both might have given the other a bloody nose.

The boy was the last of the three children Banti gave birth to and the only one to survive exiting her womb. She had named him Kahla – the Punjabi word for hasty, or in a hurry. Aptly named, for she was in a hurry for him to grow up, so he would take care of her and Udho. Kahla, for his part, was in a hurry to become educated, in order to prove he was as good as anyone else. He was in a hurry to be considered a human being.

Everyone in Banjhan Kalan called him Kalu – blackie. He wasn’t black. Like the other children in Banjhan Kalan, he was brown, but they felt entitled to call him Kalu Chamar. “You don’t deserve any different,” they’d tell him if he objected. Even in school, he was branded. The school had very few students from the lower castes, and no one other than him in Kahla’s class. Banjhan had willed Chamar to be part of his name and being. And the school was but a part of Banjhan.

Years passed. Kalu grew taller. But at five-foot-two, weighing a measly 45 kilos at the age of 15, he was no match for his better-fed classmates. He was lucky to be studying in a school that provided students benches to sit on. The school had been established by a couple of rich landlords. They had donated the land and the money to build it, not wishing village boys to be corrupted by the liberalising influences of the city. Education to protect and perpetuate privilege had, perhaps unwittingly, opened doors to change.

One day, he found a spot next to the Brahmin boy Rajinder Kumar. There were no fixed seats for the children to sit in their classrooms. But caste dictated a protocol they were far from oblivious to. As Kalu advanced towards the vacant seat, Rajinder, a tall and muscular Brahmin with short but healthy, black, oiled hair, moved over to claim the entire bench.

“Move over,” said Kalu.

“Oye, Chamar! Go sit on the ground where you belong,” answered Rajinder.

“You Bahman bastard,” shouted Kalu as he swung his right fist at Rajinder’s nose. Rajinder fell down. The blood from his nose splattered, dirtying his clothes and the floor. The teacher yelled at Kalu before taking him to the headmaster.

“I won’t have a Chamar beat up Brahmins in my school...Get lost for the rest of the week. And bring your guardian with you when you come back,” his headmaster told him.

It wasn’t unusual for Kalu to get into fisticuffs with upper-caste students who, like Rajinder, were in the habit of insulting him for being a Chamar. Unless the scuffles gave him something like a swollen eyebrow which was impossible to hide, he kept his bruises and bumps concealed from his mother. With an absent Udho, he didn’t want to cause Banti any further distress.

Out of the class of 30, only his friend Boota, a son of one of the teachers, called him Kalu without suffixing it with the customary “Chamar”. Boota would come to his home, sit near the chullah and devour the food made by Banti. But Boota’s mother wouldn’t let Kalu near her home let alone the chullah. She would pour water over Boota to cleanse him if he ever admitted to touching Kalu or sharing his food.

In the processions in the village commemorating the birth anniversaries of Sikh and Hindu deities, the Chamars and Chuhras – those traditionally confined to the “menial” task of sweeping – walked at a distance from the rest, behind the procession. While Boota was his chum, he could never help Kalu gain entry to the temples or the front line of the processions.

The only place that fully accepted Kalu was the Chamarli. Though he was much younger than most of them, the group of men that celebrated Ravidas’s birth anniversary each year at the samadhi, or shrine, were among his best friends. Kalu appreciated the message of equality in Nanak’s “Manas ki
jat sabeh ek he pehchan bo” – humanity is one – but he liked even better the Chamar Ravidas’s promise included in the Sikh Granth: “Aisa basaoon sehar main Jahan milay sab ko unn, chhote baro sab sum basain Ravidas rahey persun” – an aspiration for a city where everyone had shelter and food and all were equal. Ravidas stirred something in him.

Excerpted with permission from The Past is Never Dead, Ujjal Dosanjh, Speaking Tiger Books.