Asha had never been in such a smart flat before. It was in a building with a guard at the entrance, and potted plants and colourful children’s swings in the compound. Asha felt both excited and nervous as she and Priya went up the lift to the fifth floor.
The woman who opened the door and took Priya in her arms looked as smart as the building: short hair, lipstick, a flowery salwar kameez. It was impossible to make out her age, but to Asha, she looked like someone who would always be young and glamorous. Asha hung back. The woman, whom Priya called Auntie, said to Asha, “Come, come in, are you in Priya’s class?”
“She’s my roommate,” Priya replied for Asha. “She doesn’t know anyone in the city so I asked her to come for lunch.”
“Of course, please come in,” said Auntie.
Asha sat quietly on the plush orange and brown sofa, happy to listen to Priya and her Auntie talk about people she didn’t know and the best mall in town to buy clothes. By lunch time, the rest of the family had joined them – Auntie’s husband, Uncle, their son who was as silent as Asha but in a surly way, and an old man, Uncle’s father.
The old man ate noisily, staring at Priya for a long time. Then he shifted his attention to Asha. Asha could feel his eyes rest on her face; she could feel his look stick to her skin.
He suddenly stopped chewing to ask, “What caste?” Everyone fell silent.
He turned to Priya. “Your friend, this black girl. What caste?” His voice sounded especially loud in the silence. Auntie got up to get sweets from the kitchen. The moment passed. But when Asha accompanied Priya to the kitchen with the plates from the table, Auntie stopped her. “No, no, don’t come into the kitchen.” Her smile wavered. “You’re a guest, after all.”
Priya is still her roommate, but she spends a lot of time in other people’s rooms. She is very polite to Asha when they have to be together. But every word of hers, every look, reminds Asha of the old man’s all-important question.
Mrs Kumari has stopped droning. The bell rings; Asha’s wandering mind comes back to the class. She shuts her textbook, the one that practically waves a flag to show how casteless this place is.The very first page of the book, there are three bold lines that scream: Untouchability is a sin.
Untouchability is a crime. Untouchability is inhuman. It’s a sin – for those who believe in that kind of thing, those who live by religion. It’s a crime, for those who want to keep on the right side of the law. And inhuman – whose heart does that appeal to?
She wishes she could ask Satya or Ravi what they think.
Ravi, especially, who would be less serious about it than Satya. He would know how to make light of it all, make her smile, even laugh at the hypocrisy of it all. Caste is officially gone. She can see him act it out, looking for it everywhere, under the table, inside a backpack, in the congealed drain by the roadside. She can hear him playing the fool, calling in a plaintive voice, “Where are you, where are you? Show us your face, Mr Caste, I know you like to follow us wherever we go...”
Brave Ravi, funny Ravi, who can sing or joke about fear and sadness. Ravi, who can beat his drum when he runs out of words. How is he, what is he doing now?
It’s been three months, what’s happening? Asha adds an emoji of a puzzled yellow face with hand on chin and finger across the cheek. She clicks the Send arrow by Satya’s name then forwards the message to Ravi. Ravi responds immediately: Busy, lots to tell you. Will email.
But it’s Satya’s email that comes first.
I am sorry I have not been able to visit as promised. Ravi also seems very busy, we have only spoken once on the phone. He told me all about his roommates, he wants me to come and meet them. Ravi is tempting me, but you know I have to study as much as I can to keep up. My only break is when I take my cycle and explore the surroundings. (Prasad bought me an old cycle. I am lucky to have a brother like him.) I am glad the college is not in the city. If I cycle for about half an hour, I can reach open fields. All the green, the openness, makes me feel fresh and strong again. Watching the women and men at work there, it’s almost as if I am home. It makes me feel I am with my mother. I have also found a pond no one seems to use. It’s small and not too clean, but I like sitting by it, listening to the breeze and watching the water tremble as if it is trying to tell me something.
Enough about myself. You had asked me to send you a poem for your Facebook page. I tried to write a few lines for you last night but I think I was too tired. This is what I managed:
The field where my ancestors worked
till they dropped dead, turned to earth.
Why does it call me every night,
the field I have left behind?
I don’t know where to take it from there. But I read a very good poem, a translation I found of a poem by LS Rokade. It starts like this:
Mother, you used to tell me
when I was born
your labour was very long.
The reason, mother,
the reason for your long labour:
I, still in your womb, was wondering
Do I want to be born –
Do I want to be born at all
in this land?
Where all paths raced horizonwards but to me were barred...
It goes on to describe the mother’s life and the land that is hers but never really hers. Then comes the part I like best.
Mother, this is your land flowing with water
Rivers break their banks Lakes brim over
And you, one of the human race
must shed blood
struggle and strike
for a palmful of water.
I spit on this great civilization.
Is this land yours, mother, because you were born here?
Is it mine
because I was born to you?
Must I call this great land mine
sing its glory?
Sorry, mother, but truth to tell
I must confess I wondered
Should I be born
Should I be born into this land?
I can read this poem again and again and imagine that I am speaking to my own mother. It makes me feel sad, but it also makes me feel strong, do you know what I mean?
Your friend, Satya
But Asha does not feel strong as she reads Satya’s email. Instead, it brings back a worrying memory from their school days. Maybe all studious children are unpopular with their classmates. Satya was also serious, quiet, hardworking, kind – and SC. Maybe that’s why even his name made him a natural target. In the playground especially, the name made him a girl, more than his lack of interest in cricket and kabaddi.
Asha can see Ravi, who loves sports, his back straight, his face stormy, as he loyally took on anyone who teased Satya in the playground. It only got Ravi into trouble every other week with the teachers. But even Ravi could do nothing in the school assembly where the other boys waited for the part when the Principal saluted the flag then announced solemnly to the standing rows of children, “Satyameva Jayate!”
Several boys would grin meaningfully. Once the Principal left, and the boys started pushing and shoving each other on their way to the classroom, they bullied Satya. “Satya Jayate! Satya Jayate!” They circled him, laughing.
Once one of them said, “It seems your people clean toilets? They lug buckets of shit every day?”
Another boy jeered, “Did you see the truth in shit today?”
The others loved this question. From then on, Satya was asked “Did you see the truth in shit today?” every day after the morning assembly.When the teachers were within sight, the voices grew softer, but they could still be heard. “Satya in shit. What is Satya’s motto? Truth in shit.”
Ravi and Asha were teased too, but never in the way Satya was. Why was it worse for Satya? Because he was the better student? After all, for the others, they were the same, all the quotas. They were dark and poorly dressed.They had trouble with English.They could get away with lower pass marks and scholarships. All SCs come from the same dirty place.
But actually, the three of them, Asha, Ravi and Satya, were from different places, different families. Did those daily cruelties happen because those boys sensed that even among the quotas, Satya was at a disadvantage? Asha finds it hard to believe they would know the difference. She herself realised how lucky she was only after she got to know Satya.
Asha lets her mind travel home, look once more at the picture of this luck, as if to reassure herself.
Excerpted with permission from I Have Become The Tide, Githa Hariharan, Simon & Schuster.