It looks good from up there, doesn’t it? Believe me, you don’t want to zoom in. I am just a speck in the far corner to the right, part of the crowd having gathered here at the boat races.
I am a mere spectator. I choose to be this way.
After years, I find myself in an unfamiliar land. The people are different. The language, to me, as of now, is incomprehensible. The food is however, divine. The lush greenery around me soothes my tired eyes and the deep, still waters calm my mind.
I rejected a land that considered me a freak. I have no home. Nothing.
I have an education that taught me when to shut up. And my education apparently came in quite handy all my life. Quite a few times. Too many times, I admit. I had to get away.
I have always been different. I can never do the thing expected of me. At first, I could not afford to be like everybody else. I was different. And then I learnt to celebrate my unique nature. I took pride in being apart from the rest.
This fierce quality was appreciated by those who understood and after much deliberation, I accepted an offer. An offer of marriage. This was a unique matter in the society I lived in. In fact, my great-aunt remarked that it was a ‘strange’ match, unconventional and unorthodox.
I had always felt unorthodox and unconventional were out of the ordinary. Qualities to be exalted. Celebrated. Turns out I was wrong.
It was one of those ceremonies after the wedding. The groom’s family had to host lunch. Everybody sat down to a meal that had been cooked by the elderly women of my husband’s family. I offered to help, but they turned down my offer. I attributed it to the customary pampering of the bride before her mandatory stint as housekeeper began. My parents and relatives were made to sit in a separate room and were served food. My husband sat with us and there were a couple of banana leaves ready, but my mother-in-law, politely excused herself and my father-in law, saying she would have her meal in the kitchen, could they be excused?
My father stood up. I gave him a beseeching look. He sat down. The food remained untouched on his leaf. Through a film of tears, I saw hardly anybody had touched the leaf. My husband tried to coax everyone into eating, but his words met stony silence and averted eyes.
It was then that the coin dropped.
Being of another caste, we were untouchable. They would not break bread with us.
Untouchability had not existed, technically, in my life. But now, I realized that as long as you were in your own sphere, you were safe. My friends belonged to different communities and were welcomed into each other’s homes. I believed this was true of all the world. Till I was proven wrong.
It was a weapon used against me, to make me feel humiliated and vulnerable when I could not defend myself. My husband was upset but he did not stand up for me, against his parents. He would tell me to be the ‘bigger’ person and ignore it. How long can you ignore a thorn in your foot? How can you pretend to be blithely happy when an abscess forms, filled with blood and puss and throbs painfully even when you are not walking?
The roots of necrosis began dramatically with the meal after the wedding and continued insidiously.
In conversations when I participated, well, with my silence of course, remember, I was ‘educated’…
What are the sweets you make on auspicious occasions?
Oh, we make them only during death ceremonies.
Who is the presiding deity of your home?
Really? Never thought that possible.
…and in discussions in which I starred, invisible, my presence like a ghost that is only felt and not seen…
Come, come, Jayamma, how are you today? What vegetables did you bring?
Tomatoes, brinjals, ladies’ fingers, pumpkins…
What did you cook at home, Jayamma?
Amma, I made rice and we had yesterday’s lamb curry…
Chee, do you really like eating meat, Jayamma? Aren’t you filled with revulsion?
Amma, I have been brought up this way. If you had been born into a family like mine, you would have been at the butcher’s shop now, buying the choicest cut of meat and maybe we would be swapping recipes of mutton curry…
Stop it, Jayamma!
My father-in-law chose that opportune moment to walk out of the house to go to his favourite ‘paan shop’ for his customary cigarette.
What does your husband do, Jayamma?
He sells fish at the market, Amma.
Oh, how do you bear it? You sell clean vegetables, and he sells unclean fish! How do you bear the stench? Fishy odours are the worst!
Jayamma got up in a haste and struggled with her flat basket after she placed her rolled-up towel on her head, cushioning the basket. I helped her place her basket on her head, while she ranted.
Well, in that case, how do you bear your own odour, Amma? Don’t act as if you smell of flowers! Every man to his life and taste. How dare you ask me such questions? I fact it is people like you who are contributing to the increase in the price of non-vegetarian food. Ask your husband and sons what they eat when they go to the hotels on Sundays…
Jayamma spat on the floor of the veranda and swore she would not return. I cleaned up the mess she had left behind. My mother-in-law swelled up with righteous anger and spoke about how ‘these’ people had become uppity and forgotten their place. She threw a dark look in my direction and spoke about the dilution of race in Kali yuga.
I did not react. Jayamma was not literate. She could speak up. I had an education that clamped my mouth shut. I stayed quiet.
I had a baby. A girl.
And then it began. The slow poison. The orientation. The grooming. The hidden signals that I began to notice.
She must have been three when she brought ‘Asterix in Spain’ to me and placed it on my lap. Her favourite comic.
Amma, this is yuck.
This is yuck, look at this.
I looked at the comic and at the picture of roast boar, the favourite meal of the Gauls. I had never tasted pork, but the picture of roast boar in the Asterix comics always made me feel hungry. Golden brown glazed meat, juice dripping onto the tray, Obelix devouring it greedily…
It is food, we must not say that about food. People eat it. You must not talk about food like that.
No, Grandma says it is ‘chee’, yuck, ‘kaka’ and people who eat meat are unclean.
I spoke to my husband that evening.
We spoke about this before we had her. We decided to allow the child to grow up my way. It prevents any kind of confusion. An identity crisis.
But, I cannot have her head being filled with such prejudice. It is not fair. She needs to respect other people, other cultures…
My voice trailed after him. He had walked away by the time I could even get a sentence out.
A year passed and my daughter began talking about caste.
My husband ignored me. He ignored her.
I packed my bags and went away with her to my parents’ place.
He didn’t notice. Work had taken precedence over everything.
Meanwhile, I was not welcome there. My parents let me know, in those little ways. Leaving me out of their everyday routine. Being unbearably polite and courteous. You can be violent in peaceful ways, you know.
After all, I had dug my own grave and I had to lie in it.
And so my education came in handy. The education that earlier, had gagged me and prevented me from speaking up, gave me a life.
A friend who lived in a town far away offered me a place to stay, while I picked up the pieces of my life.
I moved away. Began afresh.
It was hard, I admit.
But, I was free. So deliriously free.
I taught my daughter never to speak about caste, never to ask anyone for details nor venture to share any.
I taught her creed and race do not matter.
I taught her the importance of learning as many languages as she could and speaking in as many tongues as was possible.
She was young. She could unlearn everything before any permanent damage was done.
I know she would not put up with any nonsense any more. Unlike me.
Did I say earlier that I have nothing? I was wrong.
But, how, you may ask.
You see, I have everything. Everything that matters.
I have the conviction to stand up for what I believe in.
The deafening cheers of the people break my reverie.
I now stand here, humbled by the awesome display of strength and power at the races. The sheer power unleashed by human beings who can choose to be all- powerful and all- mighty when they want to.
And I am a mere speck.
An uncomplicated speck.
But I think of myself as a speck, a speck that makes a difference.
I know, I do.
You see, I’m a speck that will make itself seen and heard. If you are observant enough, even felt.
What’s uncomplicated about that? You may ask.
You see, it’s simple, really. Just know this. Nobody can get away with heinous acts of racism or even talk suggesting discrimination.
Not on my watch.
And that is the uncomplicated fact of the complicated matter, that governs our lives, and threatens to break us apart.