The Dalit Girl and the Brahmin Old Woman

As I read all the stories of intolerance, a shining memory of a confluence of humanity comes to mind. I grew up with my maternal grandmother. A sweet, loving woman, who never had a bad word for anyone. I grew up relatively free of abuse (no hitting, no insults and a lot of charm for discipline). Grew up in the lap of household democracy, so to say.

Ours was a cosmopolitan society. All kinds of religions, regions, classes…. one playground. The aunties used to be out on the park benches chatting with anyone around. If there were conflicts, they never really reached our sphere of awareness. Hindu-Muslim riots came and went, and my Muslim friends were right there, where they always were. No one roamed around with drawn swords. In fact, blood thirsty child that I was, I used to feel that nothing exciting and newsworthy happened 😀 Let’s just say I had no concept of what violence really was.

I was the bright, much acclaimed ‘clever girl’ – inexplicable, since I was an utter dreamer, and not particularly interested in studies, though I got good enough marks. I was known then too for my “wise words” on education (wasn’t praise then), and how most of is is boring and useless and how anyone can be clever. And I never hesitated to make my opinions known.

One such conversation happened with the watchman of our building – Govind. He had a daughter called Vidya, who was about three years or so younger than I was. When he praised my exam results and said that Vidya was having a difficult time, I explained to him earnestly how “anyone can be clever” and its not a big deal and volunteered to help her with her studies – particularly maths and science – where I was supposedly a genius (oh how we buy into educational fantasies).

Thus, it was arranged. Every evening, when we came out to play, I would spend time with Vidya like tutions. While I admire that childhood me and the generosity of heart in offering this, reality unfolded differently from how I had envisioned. Our first big stumbling block was that Vidya studied in a Marathi medium school. I found it difficult from the word go to understand the very different jargon in the textbooks, and spent time having to learn it…. complicated. Not to mention my speed in reading Marathi was nowhere near my English reading speed of a 200 page novel in 40 minutes flat. Vidya was really hopeless at reading aloud to help me, stumbling and fumbling so much that by the time she got to the end of a sentence, I’d forgotten the beginning. At the grand old age of 11 years, I was in over my head and discovering at that young age what it means to bite off more than you can chew on a very important initiative.

Luckily, I was child enough to fall back on the traditional problem solving route. I went to the grandmother, presenting it as ME needing help grasping all the Marathi concepts (yeah, too much pride to admit failure). Sold the idea to her as an educational initiative for me and said she was the best person to help me, since she had gone to school for seven years – Marathi medium! Now, I am willing to accept that she probably saw right through me from the word go, but generous, sweet person that she was, she agreed to help.

Then started the caste disasters. We are Konkanastha brahmins – fabled to be so full of our own importance as to claim that there are only two castes in the world – Konkanastha Brahmins and others. The girl was Dalit. The grandmother, while not the cliched “oppressor” certainly didn’t have any concept of a low caste person mingling with us. Now what?

We moved in our “classes” into the house, but compromised with her sitting on the floor, while my grandmother sat on the bed. The girl took it well enough, though I was utterly embarrassed by this “insult” to my new friend. Grandmother told me that I could take it or leave it. I took it.

Did I mention the old woman had failing eye sight? That didn’t go well with the long distance reading. We graduated to Vidya and grandmother both on the floor, but at a distance from each other. By this time, I had realized I was largely redundant (not to mention incompetent) in the teaching process, and started visiting my friends playing outside, slowly graduating to full time playing like before. Within one month of our teaching project starting, I was a happy traitor, leaving Vidya to the grandmother.

I had fully expected the thing to go on till exams and then stop. To my surprise, it continued. And it went on and on and on. When I moved to my parents after my SSC, Vidya was still coming to study, and she kept coming till she passed her own SSC Board exams.

I vaguely remember Vidya freelancing as extra help when we had a lot of guests. I definitely remember going with the grandmother to a puja in their house, where the grandmother didn’t eat anything, but no one minded. Dang, she was educating their daughter free, and she had visited with respect. Plus I was hogging enough for the both of us. They really didn’t mind.

A spectator after the first month, I was witness to this remarkable relationship and the changes it went through. All through, my grandmother never stopped me from having any kind of interaction I wanted with Vidya, even as her conditioning prompted herself to keep her distance. I was free to eat, drink, play fight, study with her… whatever. And I did, but honestly, I lost interest really fast. She was too quiet for me, too well behaved, younger….. and all my friends were out playing. Meanwhile the sweet girl and the sweet old woman together bridged a gap created over centuries of prejudice.

They started sitting closer with time as they pored over the same textbooks. When my grandmother found it uncomfortable to sit on the floor for long periods of time, she started putting a carpet on the bed to pander to her conditioning and they both sat on the bed…. From a timid, inaudible mouse, Vidya got a first hand dose of the Brahmin “ucchar” – CLEAR PRONOUNCIATION – no mumbling. She actually could be understood at first shot with time. Both of them genuinely cared.

Snacks, tea, small errands…. the peripheral stuff was offered on both ends.

To the end, the grandmother never really “mixed” with the low caste, but she didn’t let that stop love, caring, commitment, responsibility. She simply found “excuses” to change traditional distances into closeness. She would have been surprised if anyone accused her of not maintaining distances from the low caste – not that it fooled any of us. She had taken that girl firmly under her wing 😀 India could do with a lot of this brand of “discrimination” 😉

A few years ago, when I returned to Mumbai, I visited my grandmother again. Watchman Govind was at the gate, and we spoke and asked after each other’s well being. Vidya is married, has two kids and a job. Doing very well, happy. When my grandmother died on March 26th, 2007 I spent a tearful while at the gate speaking with the watchman, also in tears. He said Vidya wanted to come to pay respects and asked if it would be appropriate. I was surprised that he had to ask. If Vidya couldn’t be there, I am sure I shouldn’t be there either.