The Indian girl story continues (part 3)…
She ambled along with kajal smeared down her face, and her jet black hair escaping from their tight braids. It was funny to me how not a morning person Asha is. She absolutely hates mornings. I feel like she should have been born into a family with a home with running water, and a toilet, so she wouldn’t have had to wake up to use the toilet at 430am.
She grunted a hello to me, barely, and then grabbed a hold of my right arm, so she could have her eyes closed, while I directed us to a nice spot to do our business. I had bought enough water for the both of us, because I knew she would be incoherent at this time of day.
The sun was still not up and it was a beautiful dawn. I could see that it would be one of those sunrises. The ones that take your breath away and last a few seconds, leaving an imprint on your brain that life is just nothing. I had no slippers on. The ones my mother had bought for me for Diwali last year broke and we didn’t have enough money to replace them. I couldn’t or wouldn’t wear my school shoes to go to the toilet, as I was too afraid they would start smelling like something and I would be ostracized even more in the school.
“At least we are not truly toilet cleaners, like some other Chamars we know,” my brother would say sometimes with a superior voice. I hated it when he used the word Chamar to describe people that we knew, or other people who lived in the same slum as us. So what if they worked cleaning toilets? At least they were working hard and living well. They weren’t living off of alms, or someone else’s work. They weren’t being supported by their parents, or their children. They worked, and they made enough to buy some food for the day, and pay the owner of this land for their bit of house. Isn’t that better than some others who live off of others and refuse to do a honest day’s of work?
Why is cleaning toilets such a big deal? We need them. We need them more than we do the actresses and actors who entertain us and numb our minds.
I knew better than to argue with my brother though. He didn’t take criticism really well, having never been criticized ever by our parents. Malin would have understood me, but then he was a different kind of man.
I shrugged my shoulders as I walked, causing Asha’s head which was lolling on my shoulder to fall off.
“Aiyoo. What are you doing? I am sleeping here.”
I shrugged my shoulder off again, and told her, “Enough sleeping. We are here.”
We were next to the only Banyan tree in the slum area. It was a magnificent beast of a tree. It looked like it had been here for thousands of years. Its branches tripped many a children and women up when they were roaming around in the middle of the night looking for a place to squat. Thick and sprawling. It took up acres of space. I loved it dearly. I would come here and talk to it sometimes, when I had no one else to tell my feelings to. It heard me and it was sympathetic in a way no human could be. It was also quite wise, and if it could speak, I knew I would get the best advice from it on what I should do with my life.
Asha let go of my hand, and went around the tree to the other side to hide and do her stuff. She would probably fall asleep while squatting, so I kept on calling out to her every few seconds to ensure she was still awake.
I could see a bit of pink showing up in the sky, which meant that we had but a few minutes before the light would be enough for peeping toms to gather around and stare.
I did my business quickly, cleaned myself up with the water, and then went around the tree to give the water jug to Asha.
I stood then, looking off into the distance, as the sun did come up and it was one of those sunrises. I felt like the Sun was telling me, “I know this is one of your last Chandipur sunrises, so I wanted to give you a good one.” I bowed my head to the Sun God, Surya, and I thanked him for the privilege of such a beautiful gift.
Asha was standing there with the water jug, almost empty now, and staring at me. She was wide awake now that she had had some time. “Talking to your baniyan tree?” She asked me.
I nodded my head, not wanting to explain any further. She knew that I wasn’t really happy with the way my marriage had been set up or the fact that I was going away to Delhi. It was just too far away from my mother and I needed to be here to help her, as my father and brother were absolutely useless. But there was no point in me even thinking such thoughts. What would I do if I refused to get married? How would that go? How could that even happen?
I didn’t know. Even if I said I didn’t want to get married, I wouldn’t be able to find a job in the factory and I definitely won’t be able to stay in the slums. I would be kicked out and I would have to take up prostitution like some women I knew who had been kicked out of the fold. I wanted to go to university, not to sell my body.
My head hurt. There was nothing to think about anymore. Nothing to do but go.
Asha and I walked in silence back to our homes.
A man stopped us on the way. He was one of those men who thinks he is God’s gift to mankind, when he’s actually quite the opposite.
Asha loved to fight. She was always rearing to fight, especially with an idiotic man. She had four brothers, and I felt like all of her frustration of not being able to hit her brothers was poured into fighting other random men.
Even though she was the only girl in the family, she was still the girl, and a girl couldn’t really fight with the boys. That was just undone.
“Ah, Vishu. We meet again. Wait a second, we meet every day right here, because you are an absolute idiot, without any originality.” Asha said, with as much sarcasm as she could muster. I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t want to provoke Vishu more. He was already a pain to deal with.
“If you ladies would only see the gem that I am, and give yourselves up to me, I wouldn’t have to stop you every morning.”
“Yes, of course, that’s our fault. Entirely our fault.”
I pulled Asha, and went around Vishu. I had an exam today and I didn’t have time for all of this.
Vishu grabbed my plait from the back and pulled me towards him.
“Hey,” he said, staring into my eyes from above, “Just because you are getting married, doesn’t mean, we can’t still have some fun beforehand? C’mon now.”
Even though my brother was basically useless at all of the household stuff, he was great at protecting me from all of the crazy men that seemed to accumulate in our slum. But he didn’t seem to be be anywhere in sight at the moment. Vishu yanked a bit harder on my ponytail, and the inevitable happened. Asha bit his hand so hard that I think he started bleeding.
He let go of my ponytail, and started howling, jumping around, holding his hand, as if the sky was falling. I grabbed a hold of Asha, and we ran out of there as soon as possible. I didn’t want his friends coming over, and them ganging up on us.
“Asha! He’s definitely going to get back at you for that. I won’t even be here to help you then.”
“Ah, don’t worry. I’ll tell my brothers. They are useless in every other regard. At least they can protect me from demons like Vishu. You alright? Your head?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. I have to go get ready for school. Don’t hang around outside by yourself, okay? Always take someone with you. Byeee.”
I rushed into my room. It was my last exam, and I had had to beg my mother and father to let me go to it, even though it wouldn’t really matter how I do on it or any of my other exams. It was on my favourite subject, Calculus. I was one of the best students in class. I still remember the results of the first exam. The teacher liked to know the faces of all the students that did really well. I got a 96 in class. I loved calculus so much that I spent all of my time working on problems and figuring out solutions. It was one of the few pleasures of my life. The exam wasn’t easy for most, but it was to me. It was as if I could see the solutions of the problems lighting themselves up in front of me. I could see them being solved on their own. When he called out my name, Kashni, he though his eyes would pop out of his sockets. He knew I was an untouchable, and not only that I was a girl. All of the other high achieving students in his class were male. I had the highest score in class.
I walked up to the front of the class to take back my paper. I heard whispers to chamar floating behind me.
The Maths teacher jerked up as I got to him. I instantly stiffened up as well. I didn’t have to touch him, if he thought I was unclean.
He looked over the class and said, “If anyone uses the word chamar to describe Kashni from now on in my class, you will be failed.”
It was my turn to be bug-eyed. I couldn’t believe it. He held out his hand, and shook it.
“I’m honoured to know one of the best female students in Maths ever. I have never had anyone with such a high score. Thank you for proving me wrong. Women can be good at Maths. I’m never going to make that mistake again.” He bowed to me. I could see that he was a Brahmin. He had the unmistakable air of someone who knew his place in life and knew that he was in the upper echelons no matter what he did.
I held out my hand, and he gave me a warm squeeze. A gasp went through the class. They all waited for him to release my grasp and clean his hands on his pants or his handkerchief.
He didn’t. In fact, he clasped both hands together, and told me to go back to my seat.
It was one of the first and few times I had been treated like I was a human.
A weird experience. I didn’t tell anyone about it. No one would understand I don’t think. It was this feeling inside of me that I was better than what everyone else was telling me. I didn’t feel dirty, or as dirty as everyone told me I was. I had the same skin as everyone else in class. Some of them were fairer than me, but I was fairer than most untouchables. I wondered quite often what would happen if I moved somewhere where no one would know that I am an untouchable. What would happen? If no one knew that I was an untouchable, what would people say to me? How would they treat me? What would I be? How would I seem? Would they be able to touch me without flinching or washing their hands? Would they be friends with me without telling me that I’m dirty or that I need to shower?
It was one of those fantasies of mine.
But having my hand shook by my favourite teacher was pretty much one of the best things that ever happened to me.
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