Babu Govind Ram was a simple man. A village school teacher, he was sincere towards his work. The fact that he was paid peanuts for his work or that the school was a rudimentary one-room building in the middle of the fields did not deter him. Nothing ruffled his feathers. He remained calm when Shyam burst crackers in the school room, causing the door of the room to fall off the hinges, nor did he lose his cool when Muniya got her baby brother, who squalled through the classes, as there was no one else to babysit them. In other words, Govind Ram gently plodded on in life.
But that day, there was a slight frown in Govind Ram’s warm brown eyes. He looked at the members of the Panchayat seated before him as the parents clamoured behind. A young girl, Kaveri, stood next to him. Head bowed, she made patterns in the dust with her big toe.
Govind had met Kaveri two weeks ago. He had been trying to teach the alphabet to the younger children when a flash of blue in the mango tree outside the schoolroom caught his eye. Leaving the class in the hands of an older child, he went out to investigate and found a young girl perched high on the branch.
“Get down,” he asked.
There was silence for a few minutes, and then the leaves rustled. A slim brown leg, followed by a thin body followed. Govind took in the young girl clad in tattered but clean blue ghaghra-choli* who stood in front of him. His eyes didn’t miss the snarled hair hanging around a face that was so thin that it seemed to be made only of dark eyes. Eyes that were looking at the dirt ground as her big toe made random patterns on it.
“Why were you hiding in the tree?” he asked.
She gave him a quick glance, before looking down and answering, “I want to learn.”
“Then join the school, don’t hide,” Govind said.
“My mother is a widow and a daily wage earner. We don’t have money to pay for fees,” she muttered.
Govind looked at her, before saying, “Come to the school tomorrow. Sarkar* has made provisions for students like you who can’t pay the fees.”
The girl gave him a quick surprised look before nodding.
The next morning, when Govind reached the school, the girl was already standing next to the gate, head bowed, her big toe tracing patterns in the dirt. She was dressed in the same blue ghaghra-choli, but today her hair was tied back with a scrap of cloth.
“What is your name?” Govind asked.
“Kaveri,” she replied, her eyes fixed on the ground.
“Follow me,” Govind said.
Taking her into the classroom, Govind lightly touched her shoulder as he introduced her.
“Boys and girls, this is Kaveri. She is joining our school.”
“Chee, she is so dark and ugly, almost like the night sky,” called out Muniya,
“Look at her clothes, so old, and she is not even wearing any slippers,” sniggered Shyam from the back.
The other children laughed and nodded in acknowledgement.
Kaveri kept her head bowed, silent, but Govind could feel her shoulder tremble under his hand.
Govind quelled the class with a look.
“Kaveri, take a seat,“ he said.
But most of the children refused to let Kaveri sit next to them. Frustrated, Govind arranged for a separate seat for Kaveri.
Thus, Kaveri became a student at the village school. A pariah, she kept to herself as none of the children wanted to mingle with her, but her aptitude and willingness to study impressed Govind.
But then, on a blistering hot day, Kaveri, who generally stayed glued to her desk and chair, went out to the tap for a drink of water.
The moment the other children saw her drinking water from the tap, they raised a hullaballoo. Kaveri was from a lower caste, and having water from their tap meant their water had been defiled.
A few of the children ran to call their parents. The matter escalated, and Govind and Kaveri were hauled in front of the village Panchayat.
“Kaveri cannot study in the village school. She is untouchable, our children are being defiled,“ a parent shouted.
The other parents chorused in with their agreement.
Govind looked towards the members of the Panchayat and said, “The constitution of India has declared untouchability and caste system illegal. Kaveri has as much right as the other children of the village to attend the school.“
“But it is against the law of our society,” the Sarpanch replied.
Govind could feel his temper slipping. He opened his mouth to object, but the Sarpanch put his hand up to stall his words.
“Let Kaveri attend the school, but she should sit on the floor on the verandah outside. That way she will learn and also know her proper place in society. The other children should not be defiled by her proximity.”
Govind wanted to object, but he was a realist. He knew ostracising Kaveri was illegal, but he was also aware that if he protested too much, he could lose his job. Allowing Kaveri to attend the classes was, in a way, a step forward. He nodded his acceptance.
The Sarpanch asked the village priest to purify the tap so that the other children could start using it again.
As an outcaste, Kaveri was ordered to bring her own food and water and was forbidden to use the tap again.
That evening Kaveri went to Govind’s house. She didn’t want to attend school anymore. “I cannot bear the daily humiliations,“ she said.
Govind looked at her with eyes that were kind and wise.
“I will not stop you if you want to leave, but what will you become when you grow up? A daily wage earner, like your mother? Subject to the whims and abuse of those who belong to higher castes?”
Kaveri flushed at Govind’s words but kept quiet.
“I know it is not easy to face constant ridicule and ostracism, but education will give you the means to escape this miasma. Use these cruel words and barbs to sharpen your motivation. You are so much more than your identity as a girl and a so-called low caste. You are Kaveri. A five-year-old with dreams. Don’t give them up!”
Without replying to Govind, Kaveri walked out.
The next morning, when Govind reached school, Kaveri was already there at the gate. A bag containing her food and water hung on her shoulder.
This time eyes were not fixed on the ground but looked directly into the eyes of the children who flung ridicule at her.
Kaveri stood at the gates of the college her heart thundering in her ears. If she had been barefoot, she would have made patterns on the dirt, as was her practice when fear and excitement threatened to overwhelm her.
No chance of that now, she thought wryly, looking at her feet shod in a sensible pair of slippers.
A parting gift from Govind, who had been elated when she had won admission to the degree college of the big city. Not only would she receive a full scholarship her food and boarding were also included. Along with the slippers, Govind had bought her two sets of new salwar kameez and a bag to carry her books in college. She had protested at his generosity. But Govind had laughed it off, saying she could return whatever he had spent on her by becoming a big officer.
Kaveri had just taken out her books, eager to start her studies, when Shyam from the village walked into the classroom. As the years progressed, Shyam’s mischievousness turned into bullying. And there was nothing more he liked than to make Kaveri the butt of his joke. Looking at Shyam entering the classroom, Kaveri felt her heart sink.
She had known Shyam had also joined the degree college. His father, the current sarpanch of the village, was certainly rich enough to afford his education. Seeing Kaveri, Shyam’s lip curled. She could practically see his brain working on how to make her life miserable.
Soon her fears came to pass. The news that Kaveri was untouchable, spread like wildfire through the corridors of the college and hostel. Her roommate, who had looked sweet and unassuming, refused to share a room with her. The mess workers would insult her with impunity and once in a while, even the college professors would let a few barbs fly.
Kaveri felt herself falling into darkness. The move to the degree college was supposed to be a step towards freedom from the bondage of caste she was trapped in. But it felt as if, she was trapped forever.
One day to find solace from the unkind comments Kaveri hid in the library. There she found a book where she read the words,
“You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise. “
As Kaveri read the words, she felt a spark of defiance igniting within her heart. She realized that this was what Govind had tried to make her understand on the evening of that ill-fated Panchayat.
Kaveri’s spine straightened. She realized she would have to fight back to gain what was rightfully hers.
The next morning, when Kaveri reached college, she found Shyam blocking her way. His insolent eyes looked her up and down. With a sneer, he turned towards his friend saying,” People from lower castes are never fond of personal hygiene. Doesn’t something stink here?”
Kaveri flushed but waited until Shyam’s friend had finished baying like a donkey before replying. “The stink must be from the rot in your brain Shyam, considering you are still stuck in the ancient times when caste-system was prevalent. In modern India, the caste system has been abolished and making hurtful comments about caste can land someone in jail.”
Leaving Shyam and his friend dumbfounded, Kaveri walked away towards her class, her steps firm, her eyes challenging the rest of the students.
Kaveri looked at her reflection in the staff bathroom. She smoothed down the folds of her simple cotton saree, making sure everything was well pinned and neat. She tucked the wayward strands of hair behind her ear, before giving herself a critical look to make sure she looked acceptable. There was no hint of the nerves within that threatened to make her cast up her accounts. Taking a deep breath, she picked up her handbag and walked towards the conference room.
“Enter,” a deep voice called out at her soft knock.
Kaveri entered the room to see a panel of five gentlemen seated on the other side of the massive table.
They brought out the big guns, noted Kaveri looking at the seniority of the men seated.
Her eyes fell on the man, seated towards the door, looking at her with a contemptuous curl on his lips. Ignoring the man and the feeling of disgust he aroused, she seated herself in the chair gestured to by the head of the committee.
“Miss Kaveri, you have been summoned here because you have claimed emotional and verbal abuse at the hands of your superior, Mr. Naveen Kohli. Can you tell us what happened?”
Kaveri hid her clenched fists in the folds of the saree before answering.
“Mr Kohli constantly made comments and barbs about my background and my caste. He also unfairly held back my incentives and promotion.”
“Can you elaborate? What started it, or was he against you right from the beginning?”
Kaveri thought back to the day when, after gruelling years of hard work, she had cleared the administrative services exams. She had been elated on being posted under Naveen Kohli, who was famous in the services for his achievements. What Kaveri had not known was that the perpetual smile on Naveen’s face was a façade to hide the monster within.
Two weeks after Kaveri joined, she was invited by Naveen for dinner. Naively, she had eagerly gone for it, hoping to learn more from Naveen. But received the shock of her life when she realized Naveen meant to seduce her. His words, coated in honey, had threatened her to submit to his will.
Kaveri had rebuffed his advances and escaped with her virtue intact, but consequences had swiftly followed.
Keeping her expression polite, Kaveri said,” I had rebuffed Mr Kohli’s indecent advances to me. In retaliation, for hurting his male ego, he constantly made pointed barbs about my caste. He took delight in humiliating me in front of everyone and did not hesitate in shouting at me for bizarre reasons.”
“Can you tell an incident?”
Kaveri’s palms felt clammy, but she kept her voice even.
“ We had gone to an inauguration of a government school in the village. As government officials, we were invited to the Sarpanch’s house for lunch. But he told the Sarpanch that I was a low caste and thus should be given separate utensils so that his house was not polluted. I was served lunch on paper plates, which I refused to have. This was marked in my appraisal as insubordination by Mr Kohli.”
The man on her right shifted.
“ I meant it as a jest,” he said, leaning forward on the table.
“A jest that demeans others is bullying,” Kaveri replied calmly. “ I was constantly being penalized, my appraisals were marked wrong, and I was denied benefits by Mr. Kohli. He used my caste as a weapon to humiliate me.”
The Chairman asked Naveen, “What do you have to say for yourself?”
”Today’s generation has very thin skin. Even minor things hurt their ego, and they take it as a slight to their person,” he said in his clipped convent accent.
“Maybe, one can ask Ms. Kaveri if she has any proof of the so-called humiliations I heaped on her,” he added.
The Chairman turned to Kaveri, an eyebrow raised.
Kaveri nodded and went out to call Ram Singh, Naveen’s driver.
Looking at the Chairman, Ram Singh started narrating his tale,” I have been a driver for Naveen sir for the past three years. When Kaveri Madam joined, sometimes on official visits, I used to drive both of them. Naveen sir used to shout a lot at her in English. Once, I remember him shouting at her constantly for half an hour. He told her she had a job only because of the government’s reservation policy, otherwise, she was not even fit to scrub toilets.”
“Sir, they both belong to the same caste, that’s why he is siding with her,” Naveen objected.
Ram Singh shook his head, “No sir, I do not belong to the same caste, I am a Brahmin. I am not protecting her, but telling the truth. Everyone in the office knew that Naveen sir was holding back Kaveri madam for no fault of hers. He would even make her work on Sundays and other holidays.”
The driver was dismissed, and the room was silent before the Chairman asked Kaveri, “Why didn’t you raise the complaint of sexual harassment against Mr. Kohli when he first propositioned you.”
“Would you have believed me? It was the word of a rookie against a senior officer. I didn’t have any concrete proof. I had been alone in the room with him. According to most people, that itself is enough to implicate me.”
The chairman and the rest of the committee flushed at the understated anger of her words.
Five hours later, the committee finished their deliberations, and Kaveri’s allegations were upheld.
Naveen Kohli was suspended from active duty and was ordered to pay compensation to Kaveri for the trauma caused by him.
As Kaveri walked out of the office, her heart hummed,
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Ghaghra-choli: long skirt and blouse worn by young girls in villages.
Sarkar : (here) The Government of India.
Author’s Note: I have taken inspiration from the poem “ Still I Rise by Maya Angelou.”