Two years later, the reply came. Parbhu had asked that his son be given a job. And although he was now at death’s door, here it was. His son, Jai, was studying for his matriculation. When he refused to take the job as a Bhangi, a wave of anger erupted against him. But he was adamant; even if the entire community rose up to oppose him, he would not take it.
He was in full revolt against his parents who were insisting he give up his studies and become a Bhangi. He stood now, waiting for his father to say something so that he might attack him with the help of his powerful vocabulary. In the school and in the settlement, he had been able to defeat the great and the good in debate and even now, when his father was on his deathbed, he was intent on demolishing the old man’s decision to make his son a Bhangi.
Lying wearily on his cot, Parbhu was trying to assess the mental state of his angry son who was standing by the foot of his cot.
In his head, he was trying to find the words to dispel the white-collar dreams his son had been nurturing. His sixteen- or seventeen-year-old daughter-in-law, Shanti, was sitting on the bed, pressing his feet.
She had drawn the edge of her pallu from across her head to her chest. And as always, she was beating her husband in the secret spaces of her head. She wanted to tell him to take her, to abandon his education, to get a job, to settle down and begin a physical relationship with her. Her mental pain communicated itself to her father-in-law almost as soon as she touched his feet. Taking courage from her touch, he began, “Jai...”
Without giving his father an opportunity to say a word more, Jai shouted, his interior revolt now in full flight:
“Pitaji, whatever happens, I will not give up my education. I will not take up this job of a Bhangi that is being thrust upon me. In fact, when I finish my education and I am as wise as Socrates, I am going to destroy this inhuman practice of untouchability.”
This answer was a sharp sword slicing through all their hopes.
For here was a man who could snarl at his father like an animal when the latter lay on his deathbed; a man who could ignore the poverty and deprivation in his own home; a man, who though he was physically male, would not so much as look at his own wife. And for her part, his wife began to see him as stupid, unfeeling and intensely selfish. She began to look at him from behind the veil of her ghoonghat; and his physical beauty excited her. That she should be thinking such thoughts – and in the presence of her father-in-law – made her feel ashamed of herself. She bowed her head again and applied herself to pressing his feet.
This gentle service from his daughter-in-law stirred the old man’s heart. He feared that after his death the girl might suffer even more; he feared that his son’s complete refusal to look at his wife even by mistake would drive her to search for the comfort of another man’s arms. These fears made him speak with no little bitterness and no less determination. “Jai, can’t you see the state we live in, the condition your mother is in? Don’t you hear your wife’s sighs?”
“Just for this I should become a Bhangi? Give up my education to clear up the dirt of the village? Carry filth on my head? If you wanted me to do that kind of work, why did you have me educated? Why did you let them light these lamps of independence, knowledge and humanity inside my mind?”
The yearning in his voice caused the old man’s eyes to moisten in sympathy. He began to see his son’s sorrow. But Shanti’s mind filled with hatred for him. She saw her husband as a useless fellow. She cursed her own fate and began to weep, and Jaichand, full of the anger of rebellion, let out a roar of revolt.
“I am not going to do that job. I will never become a Bhangi.”
It was as if the revulsion he felt for the work he was being asked to do had turned into electricity and was coursing through this refusal. Shanti was reduced to ashes and the old man was scorched by the radiant heat of this sun. However, he persisted in trying to explain their situation.
“...But you are the son of a Bhangi. What problem can you have with doing this job? People pay to get these jobs, hundred, even a hundred-and-fifty rupees. And here you’re getting one free. We need you to take this job. If you had a job, I might not be so near death. Your mother would not be reduced to a skeleton. This girl would not live in this state...”
“Where is it written that a Bhangi’s son must become a Bhangi?”
“In our poverty. In our dharma. In our country.”
“What dharma? If it breaks a person and turns him into an animal, is that dharma? In this country that invests greater significance in a stone than in a human being? I will not heed such a dharma. If it has given us only this poverty, this deprivation, then it behoves us to reject it. But we are not going to do that. I will. Just let me pass my examinations...
“Until that time, let me go where I can beg for food...or sin for it...for the sake of my stomach.
“Those who do not have patience may feel free to commit such sins for their stomachs.”
Excerpted with permission the story “Revolt”, from When I Hid My Caste, Baburao Bagul, translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger Books.