It has been years since father was killed. I do not forget. I cannot forget.
I am often jolted upright in my sleep, awaken from a recurring nightmare that translated itself into reality, years ago.
The atrocities on my people have been numerous. Justice denied, lifestyle ridiculed, freedom curtailed, dignity non-existent. Empathy is utopia, sympathy is expected by us, but this expectation is in vain. We try resisting but to no avail. Our voices are not strong enough. Our names invite scorn. Our professions are unwanted and often surprisingly unthinkable to certain people. We experience a rat’s race for privilege and resources within our own community, aloof of the larger and more substantial race going on in the society above us. When I say “above”, I mean it in more than one way. As deprivation and desperation festers itself in my own community, much like the hate festering against us outside my community, we fail to have solidarity and even subjugate our own people. We are what society has derogatorily labelled us as, but something I take immense pride in: “The Untouchables.”
It all began when I was born, much like most cliched stories. 1978, Una, Gujarat. Then again, the stories of most of the member of my community begin when they are born. I am a literature major. Yes, I am one of the few “literate” members in my community. It is fascinating that several authors use birth as a metaphor for a new beginning. The birth of a baby is seen to be joyous and its life is compared to a clean slate, having endless possibilities and trajectories it can encounter and head into. But for us, fate seals the deal by the mere virtue of birth. Life slams several doors on our faces the moment we are born. That is, if we are born. Our crippling dependence on mid-wives due to the sheer refusal and painful reluctance of doctors to engage with and aid our women in labour is something very normal. I pity children of our community.
Watching them groveling in the dust, employed and exploited by their “pure-blooded masters” fills me with anger. Them playing in the very same dust over the weekends fills me with anguish. The innocence and purity of their play offers a stark contrast against the horrid atrocities that have befallen them or are waiting to.
My mother almost suffered a miscarriage when it came to me. It was owing to the timely intervention of an experienced mid-wife in our village that I exist today.
Ever since my birth, I have been instructed what to do. Most times, by strangers themselves, as if they exercised more control over my life than me, myself. I was forbidden from wells, thrown out of schools, harassed on roads, and I was not even allowed to enter temples. Why would I anyways? To revere the Gods that had given me such a “lowly” birth?
The time when the rains failed to bestow upon us their abundance and the wells ran dry, my community, as a group requested the panchayat to address this problem. He promptly ascended to the first floor of his mansion and poured pots of water to the parched masses below, refusing any contact with us, literally and metaphorically.
I decided that I will bring the change my people need. I shall be the change I wish to bring about.
I decided to scrape my way through education. I would be a government employee one day, I promised my mother. She dismissed it lovingly and humorously as something that children flightily dreamt of. “A nice dream to dream”, she would say.
Education was the means I sought to liberate myself and to climb up the rungs of society in slow but sure manner. Father was always supportive of it. Although many of our neighbours, part of our very own community shunned me for doing so; branding my efforts as futile, my father always stated that one should keep moving forward, no matter what. He had great faith in the liberating power of knowledge. He was an ardent followed of Ambedkar. His photo is right up there with the idol of Buddha that we know pray to. Offerings, flowers and incense sticks, equally adorn both deities.
I faced discrimination even as a toddler in pre-primary school. The lady who taught us made the children from my community sit right at the back of the class. Somehow, I scarped my way through school and even college. Amidst the burning heat of insults, jeers, fear, paranoia and threats, my willpower was forged. The intensity of the adversity aided in my unwavering focus.
With my teenage hormones pumping and my adrenaline rushing in my veins, I was quick to anger and easy to coax into a fight. The heat of adolescence made me rebellious and belligerent, often quick to take offence at the most minute of things. I recall an incident where I was thrown out of class for questioning why we did not have Dalit authors in our textbooks. I was branded as a “non-conformist_ and an “attention seeker.”
My discontent was boiling to a high point now. The screams of revolution inside of me were reaching fever pitch. One incident sparked it off and it all came tumbling down thereafter.
My family is what is labelled as the “chamar” family. We are leather tanners who treat and process the skin of cattle, in order to convert it into the fashionable leather people in cities often wear. It is ironic how laborious and time-consuming the process is, but yet for the exorbitant prices the products demand in cities, we receive a mere pittance.
My father was slaughtered by Hindu nationalists who accused him of having killed a cow, he was merely skinning after its death. The news struck my family hard. To try and seek justice was pointless. For all the tears my mother wept, my community members remained that much apathetic. It was indeed nothing extraordinary for a Dalit to occasionally be “taught a lesson”.
The court, the police, the panchayat, all were puppets of the new government and all were harbingers of inhumanity. Through filibusters, red-taping and intimidation, the issues of my community were always relegated and ridiculed. Ill-treatment was mundane and justified.
With my will-power burning red-hot I left home for Ahmedabad, in order to register for the UPSC exams. I aspired to be an IAS officer who would bring about a change for my community.
At the registration desk, in the basement of a run of the mill exam center, a simple and short conversation followed:
“Where are your documents?”
“Any government certified document I can confirm your identity against”
“It pains the government immensely to recognize my existence. What document do you think they provided me with?”
“So you are not identified by the government?”
“Then you do not exist.”
I went back home, a man poorer and a man without hope. For the first time in my life I wondered about karma. Maybe I really do deserve this.
(Image Source : theforeverpursuit.com)