Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Grace and Mercy 

 

 

The shutters are closed in the mother superior’s office, never a good sign and six people are already in the office, making it feel cramped once I hear the click of the door behind me.

The mother superior, an almost unflappable woman looks unusually troubled.  Sister Gina always looks troubled, but today there is a slump in her shoulders, a horrid paleness in her face that makes it look white as a sheet. My heart slams in my chest at the sight of three police officers.  Hai Bhagwan, please.  One of them smirks at me as I come in. My skin crawls and it makes me shrink inside myself. Ramu just stands there, next to the police officers, all of whom are bigger than he, his fists hanging like dead weights from his arms, his expression flinty. Except his eyes glitter with fear.

One of the policemen, chubbier than the other two and with a different insignia—Head Constable—on his arm, produces a flyer. My heart hammers in my throat. An icy, bottomless feeling settles inside me.  Any small hopes I was still harboring leave.

 

*    *    *

 

“Kanshi Ram?” I ask, looking at the flyer Ramu has pulled from his pants pocket and hastily placed in my hand after looking around nervously, with narrowed eyes, even though, as always, it is just the two of us having lunch on our bench in the courtyard. Today’s lunch was smaller than usual, and we have both been making our small portions of rice last.

“He’s a Dalit intellectual,” Ramu replies, waving his index finger excitedly, “an activist.”

“Uh-huh,” I reply. I give a small shrug. 

Ramu flashes me a brilliant smile. “He speaks about equality for Dalits; about bringing the ways they have in the big cities, like Delhi, down here. And more.”

“He’s coming here?” I ask, one eyebrow raised curiously, as I read the flyer. I look up at Ramu; his eyes are sparkling 

“We should go!” he exclaims, his smile curling further, like spreading oil.

*    *    *

 “Come in,” the mother superior calls out. A knock resounds through the room as we stand staring silently at each other, my heart in my throat.

“Ah,” the chubby policeman says as a girl walks in, her step easy and jaunty. “Roopa, is it?”

Roopa keeps her face turned from me, refusing to meet my eyes.

“Yes, sir,” Roopa replies. “I’m . . . I’m Roopa.” There are spots of bright red on Roopa’s cheeks. 

“Don’t be shy, girl,” the chubby policeman says cheerfully, gently patting her arm. “you have nothing to fear here.” The last rays of the afternoon sun filter through a broken shutter and glint on the worn brown linoleum.

“I am Head Constable Chekavar,” he continues, removing his hat to reveal a sweaty, balding pate. He holds the flyer up to Roopa. “You found this flyer, no?”  Roopa gives a small, shy nod, and he says loudly, “Speak up, please, Roopa. We all need to hear you.

 

“Yes, sir. I found it.” Roopa’s voice rings with a self-righteousness I can see rising from her pores like sulfur gas. 

Shadows dip and swerve against the bookshelves like frightened bats, and the statue of Jesus dying on the cross frowns down at us.  The mother superior stares into the dim air beyond our shoulders, her mouth a thin, pained line.  Sister Gina is in silhouette, her head bent as if it’s too heavy for her neck to hold up.  “And where, may I ask, did you find the flyer?”

Roopa points to me, her voice strong and clear.  “In her things!”

 

*    *    *

Once the orphans of Grace Mercy get to a certain age, the nuns begin to encourage us to spend more time away from the home, looking forward to the day when we can hopefully make our way in the world. Although the kindly nuns don’t wish to throw anyone out on the street, they must prioritize the intake of younger orphans over the retention of older ones. 

Buta and Kamal request special permission from Sister Gina to go do research for the history paper at the Internet Café at New Market in the evening.  Granted. Roopa and five girls request special permission from Sister Gina to go watch the Hindi movie “Chalte Chalte” at Alankar Cinema this Sunday.  Granted. 

So, it’s not too hard for the both of us to find excuses to be out on the evening of the rally but, as it will run later than we are usually out on the streets of Kalanpur, we plan to return separately and each prepare different excuses for our lateness.

Although the market square is busy, it is far from packed -- to our disappointment.

Ramu turns to me and says, “Hmmm, that’s odd. The venues for Kanshi Ram’s rallies usually over-spill, sometimes with those outside relying on messages passed through the crowd to hear what’s being said.” 

Mustachioed policemen with polished bamboo batons and machine-guns in their hands are making their presence quietly known. They fan out with an eerie precision, stationing themselves near exits, appearing to stare through us from behind mirrored glasses. I feel my stomach clenching with fear.  

And yet, that small knot of fear doesn’t stop my mounting excitement. Not only am I with Ramu, but for the first time in my life, I’m with a great throng of like-minded people—an icy, hollow feeling settles inside me as I remember how my Aai and I have been treated in the country of our birth, as garbage, because we’re Untouchable.  And like all memories from my childhood, it blows the raging hole in my gut open . . . the upper caste man who spat at my Aai when she tried to get water from the tap, the burn of hunger in my belly when there is no more rice pudding with raisins and almonds—a-once-a-year-treat—at the orphanage for us. I swallow back bile that’s trying to rise up into my throat. 

Kanshi Ram is not even on the hastily erected wooden stage yet the atmosphere in the marketplace is already electric. Festive white and orange posters displaying Kanshi Ram’s picture adorn a small platform to which a party worker has added a microphone and public address system.  A sign behind the stage reads: KALANPUR WELLCOMES BAHUJAN LEADER KANSHI RAM!

 

*    *    *

“But it’s just a flyer,” I blurt angrily, panicked at what the policemen might do. “I haven’t broken any law.”

Head Constable Chekavar inches so close I can smell the rankness of his breath and body, like rotten eggs.  “The flyers were all over town-”

“-It was me,” Ramu interrupts, wobbling his head solemnly. “I gave her the flyer.”

Chekavar spins towards Ramu, almost as if had anticipated the interruption.

“And where did you get it?” Chekavar asks, his eyes alight.“At the rally?”

Ramu nods, eyes to the floor.

“So, you’re an activist, are you?” Chekavar asks, shaking his index finger like a  school teacher. “Have you joined Kanshi Ram’s movement?”

Ramu looks up at him. “No, sir,” he stutters, his face shiny with sweat. “I promise. I’m just a student.”

“I’m just a student,” mimics the policeman. “The first refuge of the belligerent. You’re a dirty activist, that’s what you are. A trouble-maker.” He adjusts his belt barely holding in his fat belly, the tummy rolls spilling over his too-tight khaki trousers. “We’ll be having none of that in my city.”

He turns to the mother superior. “Was he out on the night of the rally?” The mother superior looks to Sister Gina, who reluctantly shrugs her affirmation. Then he swings back to Meena. “And her?”

“I told you it was just me,” Ramu says, his voice quivering.  He lifts his palms in the air, with his fingers splayed.

The Head Constable is enraged by the interruption. “You shut up, you rotten Chamar!” he spits. “You’re in enough trouble as it is.”

Sister Gina’s eyes are wide and feverish.  A small, new muscle jumps in her jaw. 

“Our older students are often out in the evening,” the mother superior says, her voice uneven as if she’s climbed a long hill. “They aren’t our prisoners.”

“Well,” Head Constable Chekavar says, “this might be the problem. If you kept better control of your students, maybe they wouldn’t attend illegal gatherings.” he shakes the leaflet in the air, “or keep this filthy literature.” He wags his finger at the mother superior warningly. “We shall be paying more regular visits to Grace Mercy in the future.” I see one of the other policemen flash a brief, hungry grin.

Head Constable Chekavar stands with his legs apart, his cheeks ballooned in rage as he looks menacingly at me. I try to hold his gaze in defiance, but his mostly calm and reasonable-sounding manner that hints at something terribly dangerous beneath the surface terrifies me.

Once my gaze hits the floor, Head Constable Chekavar turns back to Ramu, letting the leaflet fall to the floor. He unbuckles his belt with a sigh. “Let’s get this over with.” 

“No, Nahi!” I cry, starting towards Ramu, “you can’t!” One of the other policemen, a bald man with a thin scar running from the corner of his left eye to the corner of his mouth grabs me and twists my hands behind my back. “This isn’t fair, we did nothing wrong!”

I catch a sharp look from Ramu. I can feel his fear in the salt taste in my own mouth.But it’s clear that Ramu has been the Head Constable’s target all along, even though the flyer was mine. I feel I am in a dark twisting tunnel, which presses in on me. Its walls, musty-smelling like old socks gag me until my chest is about to burst open.

 

*    *    *

“I won’t tell you how we are all born to be equal, or about how an oppressive society, an archaic system, has been breaking our county’s laws for over half a century.” 

Kanshi Ram is a powerfully built man of less than medium height, with thick straight white hair almost to his shoulders.  He wears a white kurta pajama and when he walks to the microphone, I can see that he is wearing white sandals, the front of the sandals narrowing down to thin strips which curve up like the ends of a proud warrior’s mustache. 

He holds up his hands to the crowd and says with a smile like a caress, “If you are here, you already know this.”

The market square had filled up late, a flood of people pouring in during the minutes preceding Kanshi Ram’s arrival on stage. There had been one group, burly-looking goondas in heavy, black coats with lathis in their hands who had obviously come to cause trouble, likely non-Dalits hoping to make a scene—by heckling the speaker—so that the police might intervene and break up the rally before it could even begin. They are ejected from the square by vigilant party workers to a chorus of cheering from the rest of the crowd. Ramu and I had joined in with the cheers—and now the mood of the crowd shifts, it is jubilantly giddy. 

“No, I am here to tell you ‘how.’ How all of you, by positive action and the sheer force of numbers will help to make the change that must come.” He pauses dramatically to make sure the attention of the crowd is focused on him.

It is hard to see Kanshi Saheb now, as we are caught in the press, other bodies closing all around us. The sun is high in a sky of molten silver.  The mud-brown walls of the houses surrounding the square throw back the heat, and the smell of dung and burning coal cling to the heavy, humid air. 

Ramu cranes his neck to see the stage, but I have no chance. It does not matter, because Ramu’s hand is in my hand, his chest pressing against my back, hot and solid, and Kanshi Ram’s words seem distant as heat blooms in my cheeks. My wide-open heart drums in my chest.

“The Hindu traditions are our enemy, but they are not our worst enemy,” Kanshi Ram continues, his voice gaining strength. The crowd leans forward, rapt.

“Localization, this is the thing that defeats the cause of the Dalit. Our country is a large one, our population among the fastest growing in the world, yet our economy and our society are still largely agricultural and localized. Uttar Pradesh does not care what is said in New Delhi, or Bangalore. And neither do the big cities care about what happens in the provinces. And, even if they do care, they never hear about it.” The silent shadows of two circling kite hawks slide down the walls of the whitewashed houses and skitter over the assembled crowd.   

“The thing that keeps the Dalit man in his place is inaction. We are abused, we are discriminated against, and yet only the abused and the abuser knows of it.”An appreciative murmur swells through the throng.  Since the start of the speech, the palpable tension in the crowd, the excitement, has only grown. 

More people are arriving and  space in our little section of the crowd is becoming scarcer. Ram glances at me anxiously, a pulse beating erratically in his throat as men are pushed closer and closer to me. He leans towards me until I can smell the clean fragrance of Cinthol soap on his skin. He eyes me warily, then wraps his arm around me and holds me close as if to shield me.

“The things done in a village are almost never reported outside that village . . . so there it stays. The horror and disgust that will ultimately bring our oppressors to account, and truly change attitudes in this country, can only happen when knowledge of what is done to us crosses the borders and boundaries that currently contain it.” 

Roars of agreement go up in the crowd with every sentence that sounds out from the public-address system.

Closer and closer the crowd pushes us until my body is pressed hard against his. Fireworks burst in my heart and I’m finding it hard to breathe. Sweet pain shoots through my entire body.

Kanshi Ram leans in closer to the microphone and continues, You are a blessed generation, especially the youngest of you in the crowd. For you have the power to change things. The new multimedia, the social sites, are a gateway to the rest of the world. Spread the word, let them know about everything that happens to you, about all the things you see. Let the world look upon them with disgust, let the other castes feel shame for once.  

“Feel shame, feel shame,” someone shouts and the crowd groans happily in assent.

“We can do it,” Ramu breathes into my ear and I gasp.  Fire blazes across my skin and down my belly. “There’s an Internet café right here in New Market. We can make an account and keep a record of things, make posts when we have enough money to buy some time in the café.”

I pull away slightly, look at that sparkle in his eyes. I have never felt this way before, every fiber of my being alive, and . . . belonging.  Excitement buzzes like an electric current inside me.  Excitement at the heat that swirls between my legs, excitement at the wild abandon he inspires inside me, excitement at how safe I feel by his side.

 

*    *    *

This is all my fault.

My chest is heaving. I’m overcome with guilt for getting Ramu into trouble, worse even than the repulsive feeling of the bald policeman with the scar, as he manhandles me from the room. He shoves his crotch against my backside as he pushes me towards the door. It presses into me and I make a small, shocked noise. As we pass from the office, his free hand comes up and grabs my breast, fingers twisting my nipple painfully.  

“Stay there,” he says, pushing me down onto a bench outside the mother superior’s office. “If you move, then you’ll get the same as him. Stay there and listen to what happens to Chamars who get ideas above their station.” He grins wickedly and walks away from me to disappear into the shuttered office.  I pant as if I’ve run a mile.  All of me is pulsing with sick, sick guilt.

I rub my pinched nipple, struck by how non-Dalits are repulsed by being near an Untouchable, and yet have no problem mauling, even sexually assaulting them. Their stupid rules make no sense. I shrug—a painful, heavy-hearted shrug—because it’s such a ‘Ramu’ thing to think. Mr. Reason.

The door opens again and Roopa appears outside in the hallway, escorted from the office by the same policeman who had groped me moments before. For Roopa, he is all nods and courtesy. The door closes behind her and I watch woodenly as the Brahmin orphan starts to walk off, her head down as it had been in the office. Anger turns inside me like a broken spear tip.  But she stops halfway and stands there for maybe ten seconds, several yards away and with her back to me. Then she turns around and walks a few paces back toward me.

“Why?” I ask as Roopa turns and looks at me fiercely. “We do nothing to you. I thought . . . I thought we were okay.”

Roopa’s nostrils quiver like an overwrought buffalo’s. A smile like a crack in old plaster slowly finds its way onto her face. Broader and broader it becomes, then she cups a hand to her ear and strains her neck in the direction of the mother superior’s office. The first crack of the Head Constable’s belt sounds in the still air, followed by Ramu’s cry. Roopa keeps looking at me, her hand raised to her mouth in mock surprise.

“Okay?” she says at last. “You’re a fucking Chamar.

She laughs, a mocking, hysterical laugh and walks away as the belt sounds out a second time, Ramu’s answering cry a knife through my heart.

*    *    *

 It is a hot summer’s day in Fremont, California, and my skin beads with sweat as I head out into the garden to fetch my four-year-old daughter for lunch. She has been bouncing on the trampoline yet has not a bead of sweat anywhere on her. Oh, to be young again.

I lean over and kiss Maya on the forehead and, as I straighten, she gazes at my neck, her large brown eyes twitching with wonder.  Hanging around my neck is an old rusty charm: the image of the warrior goddess Durga riding a lion and her six arms holding weapons. She reaches out with a child’s confidence to take the charm in her fingers.

I take the thing off and hand it to her as we head from the garden and through open French doors into the lounge for her lunch. 

The same feature as a moment before is on the satellite news broadcast from New Delhi—I always have it on around the middle of the day. A reporter interviews Asha Devi, the mother of Nirbhaya, a 23-year-old girl gang-raped by five men and a juvenile, on a moving bus six years ago. She does not understand why the convicted rapists have still not been executed, despite the passage of time and the upholding of their sentences in the supreme court.

“Why do you wear it?” Maya asks, playing with the charm so that prisms of light dance across the ceiling and the walls.

“For courage,” I answer.

“But you’re the bravest mummy I ever knew,” she says.

“I’m the only mummy you ever knew,” I reply, changing the subject by touching my finger to the end of her nose. She giggles and hands the charm back.

“What is the benefit of the law if it takes so long to punish perpetrators in connection with such heinous crimes?” Ashi Devi asks, her eyes filling with tears 

As I bring over the samosas I made Maya for lunch, my unruly daughter bolts out of the door. “One more go on the trampoline, mummy!”

I laugh at the cheeky look on her face—a look of victory, if only a small one. We all take what we can get, whether four or forty. 

On the TV, the camera cuts to a commentator from Zee T.V. News, a short man with slicked-back hair, who sums the piece up by quoting crime statistics. “In India, one-hundred-and-eighty-thousand instances of rape have been recorded in the last five years, although many agree that these reported figures are only a fraction of the actual number.”

I use the remote control to turn the television off, retreating from the outside world with the press of a button. Placing the remote back down, my fingers subconsciously move to the charm around my neck. For a moment, as Maya had, I play with the thing, letting the light zip across the walls. Then I stop and turn it over, reading the small, roughly carved inscription

Yours, Ramu.

 

 

 

Anoop Judge is an author and blogger. Her debut novel The Rummy Club won the 2015 Beverly Hills Book Awards and received three other awards. Her recent essay 'A cockroach in my bed' was featured in the the Scars publication anthology and also received an Honorable Mention in the 46th New Millennium Writing Awards. 

She has a Bachelor's degree in English Literature from Delhi University and a JD in Law from John F. Kennedy University, California. She writes: "Since we last spoke, the first 10,000 words of my unpublished novel, The Awakening of Meena Rawat has been accepted for publication in the July issue of Litbreak magazine. "