A SPITBALL hits the back of my neck. I thought it would be different here. But it is the same. Always the same. ‘Chamar!’ my tormentors call loudly, though the rest of the class at least tries to stifle the laughter. ‘Filthy untouchable,’ says the son of a merchant who lives near me. ‘Why are you sitting in the front? Know your place. Get back to the village.’
My eyes remain fixed on the blackboard and the algebra being chalked by the teacher, pretending he is deaf. I know better than to acknowledge insults. ‘You are the smartest in the class,’ my mother says. ‘It is only right you should sit at the front.’ ‘I will,’ I tell her. ‘I promise.’ And this morning as I rode my bicycle the miles to my new high school and found my first class, I urged myself to keep that promise. That others think differently is beyond my control. My mother told me the new school was better and, though further away, the distance would be nothing compared with the journey I would soon be taking to university and beyond, far from our village, far from the curse of my family’s caste.
Gandhi-ji called us Harijan – ‘children of God’; my mother says they killed him for his beliefs. When I was born my mother gave me a name, though no one uses it but her. Outside the house, I am simply ‘Chamar’, the name of my sub-caste, for even among the lowest there are degrees of wretchedness. I am forbidden to wear shoes. I cannot enter the temple or pump water from the well. When someone takes pity and gives me a drink, I must use a clay cup that is destroyed afterwards so others will not be tainted. ‘What disease do I have?’ I ask my mother. ‘None,’ she says. ‘Am I stupid, or ugly or poor?’ ‘No,’ she answers stroking the hair back from my forehead, ‘you are the opposite; clever and handsome and richer than any of them. You will be a greater man than any in the village. You’ll see.’
But still I am called ‘broken’.
My father works in the south now, where they do not know his caste. He has gone far and there they call him by his name and he is happy. He is building the road that will one day bring Bihar into the twenty-first century, with the rest of India, and every month he sends home more money than others in my village see in half a year. But because his forefathers made hides into leather, I am considered less than a man, less than the beasts that are free to roam the streets, snarling traffic in their wake.
I am Chamar.
When a cow died and its bloated carcass fouled the village, only the hands of my family were considered soiled enough to touch its rotting flesh, though there are other Chamar who are lesser than us. But because my father works, because we eat meat twice a week, because our hut has a cement floor, and we stand with our eyes looking forward and not down at the dirt, the task was ours. Just as I learned early to swallow my pride, I swallowed the bile that rushed to my mouth at the stench of the maggoty cow when my mother and sisters and I dragged it to the edge of town near the railway tracks and set it alight. A crowd watched, scarves held to their noses, as the kerosene-fuelled flames rose and danced.
I will escape, somehow, the sins of the past. My mother made me promise.
‘Chamar!’ the merchant’s son hisses again.
‘Enough,’ the teacher says, turning from the board and clapping his hands in a cloud of chalk. ‘Need I remind you that the Dalit have a place here. Even the lowest and most hopeless of the scheduled classes are entitled to education.’ Such is the law, which he states as if reciting a multiplication table.
‘But Sir,’ says the merchant’s son. ‘Must he sit at the front? I am being polluted.’
‘Me too,’ says the boy on his left.
‘Also me,’ says the boy on his right.
Please subscribe/sign in
to view article.