Saturday 20 September 2008

Draupadi’s Dead Sons...

Santhi could not control her excitement any longer. She had been made to wait a long time for this day. The tall walls of the temple, painted in alternating red and white bands did not look forbidding anymore. Another fight was coming to an end for her people. It had taken them long to realize that no god or temple was beyond their beck and call. And when they did, it had taken them only 20 years to force their way in. The last leg of Kali had begun to totter. Or to put it better, two millennia of discrimination was on its last legs. Their fight was no longer against the B’s or T’s. The Dalits had come face to face with the last of their oppressors. The V’s. The V’s - a people who had suffered the humiliation and shame inflicted by the caste system, like the Dalits, had now risen up the social ladder. The change had begun 20 years back. Today they dressed, walked, talked and behaved like the T’s and in the Dalits they had found a docile race to stamp their authority on. But times had changed.

The sun rose higher and higher into the sky. The huge posse of policemen posted in and around the temple began to wilt in the heat. They cursed and swore under their breaths. Her people also struggled for breath – their hearts were pounding wildly. Several of the older men and women kept muttering prayers while the younger ones waited impatiently for the temple doors to open up. Within the temple walls, a commotion was frothing. The regular priests were refusing to do the poojas. It was too late to find someone else to step in. Officials from the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Board who had taken the initiative to open the temple to the Dalits debated on the course to take. This occasion could not be put off. Tensions were running high in the village. The V’s dominated the village and life in it. In protest, they had deserted their homes and lands and taken refuge on a nearby hillock. Before they decided on a more drastic course of action, the temple entry had to be initiated and committed to practice. Finally, an official of the HRECB, familiar with the rites volunteered for the Poojari role.

The door opened at 10 am and tepidly, they moved slowly into the unfamiliar grounds of the temple. Santhi clasped her hands in prayer; her watchful eyes following her son, Guna, whose youthful enthusiasm had lead him to the head of the slow procession. Guna had begun college this year, the only Dalit youth from the village to get this far. Santhi worried endlessly about harm coming his way. Activists of the Dalit political movement unfurled party flags and shouted slogans, honoring their leader, who had wisely chosen to absent himself from today’s momentous victory. The sanctum sanctorum opened and the people strained their necks to get their first look of the deity. One man, Ganesan, their chief, was allowed to move forward and garland Draupadi Amman. Tears streamed down Ganesan’s face as he came out. Santhi felt nothing. She had no use for a temple after living 40 years outside its walls. Seeing the deity evoked nothing.

People had begun to leave. No one would work today at the village. They would all celebrate, drink, dance and go to sleep happily. Except for Santhi and Guna. Santhi’s husband had died last year and Guna was forced to pitch in with his labour. Their family made firecrackers for a living. The authorities had permitted them to explode crackers on the temple grounds tonight at 8pm. Guna and Santhi started for home together. Both mother and son had been each other’s best friends for a long time. Guna never found himself getting distant from Santhi even when the fancies of the teenage years or the manliness of adolescence, made its presence felt within and without him. He had seen in Santhi the toughness to withstand his father’s wild ways after drinking and the wisdom to shield Guna from the boys of his age and keep him focused on his studies. When her husband died, how quickly she took over the firecracker work and kept the finances and his studies afloat! Often, Guna would wonder, what Santhi would have become, if education had not been denied to her.

“I was watching you earlier. I got afraid seeing your enthusiasm.” Santhi could not hold back her worries.
“Amma, how many times have I told you, that whatever I do is well thought out!” Guna said, not making the effort to hide his annoyance.
“I have only you left in this world. Even the goddess doesn’t speak to me.”
“What we did today will be seen, heard and read about, all over this country. I had to be at the front. Some day I will lead our people.” A sigh escaped Santhi at Guna’s words. She didn’t have the right to dream for this child, she thought. He belonged to the people.

Outside their one room hut, Guna began sorting out the crackers they had worked hard on all month, to ready for this night. Only he and Santhi would be allowed back into the temple at night. Placing each cracker delicately into a sack, he tied the sack around the edges with a rope, heaved it over his head and started walking.
“Have your lunch before you go. It will take me only half an hour to get it ready,” Santhi called after him, but to no avail.
“I will see you at the temple in the evening,” Guna shouted back as he kept walking.
She went back into the house and noticed that Guna had forgotten to take the box of gunpowder to be used for one of the crackers. Making a mental note to take it with her, she crumpled on the floor and closed her eyes, beckoning sleep to come, and carry away her worries. She had forgotten everything about lunch.

Night had cast its dark shroud on the temple making it almost invisible. Santhi entered the temple road, a strange sense of foreboding following her like a shadow. A woman sat under a tree on the roadside, digging at the ground with a stick.
“Are you not Santhi,” she asked, as Santhi passed by.
“Yes,” Santhi replied, her thoughts elsewhere.
“You seem troubled.”
“That I am. But who are you?” Santhi paid closer attention to the woman now. They were about the same age, Santhi guessed. She could make nothing more out of the woman. Santhi had never seen her in the village before. There was something exceedingly powerful and stately about her.
“It doesn’t matter. You will have to do something that requires great courage.”
“I don’t understand anything. What are you trying to say?” Santhi persisted.
“Ah, nothing at all. I don’t want another fight in my name. Or is a fight a good thing? Time will tell, I guess…” Her voice began to fade but she kept rambling to herself.
Santhi quietly withdrew, wondering whether the woman was mad. The woman didn’t seem to notice.

A dozen policemen stood guard to the temple and the deity. The others must be out patrolling the streets. Leaving the gunpowder box near their other accessories like an empty sack, kerosene, candles, conical racks for placing the gunpowder, etc she went around looking for Guna.
“Have you seen my son?”
“Is he the kid who is exploding the firecrackers?”
“He just went down that way to the village well to get water,” one of the policemen replied.
“My god. Why would he do that? That well belongs to the V’s. Maybe he went because they have deserted the village,” Santhi kept her thoughts to herself. But unable to contain the fear that had accompanied her all through the day, she ran, hoping to catch up with him.

As she neared the well, she heard shouts and then a piercing cry. A steady moan rent the air. She slowed down, knowing very well, who the person in pain was. With heavy steps she approached the limp body of her son. He was silent now. The pitiful groans had stopped and his face radiated a serenity of a person in deep meditation - as though, he had completed his life’s calling. The calling he had talked of, earlier in the day. The tears that had streaked down Santhi’s face a few seconds earlier had dried up. Her face began to light up in a rage that thirsted for revenge. I am nothing but a weak, old, Dalit woman, she thought. Her powerlessness to do anything shamed her. The policemen. I want my boy’s murderers brought to justice, she said to herself. She ran. Past the tree where the woman had sat.

“My son! My son! Over there. Please help me.”
“What happened to him?” the cops tried to calm her down but to no avail.
“They killed him. Please catch them. Please.”
The cops deliberated on what to do, within her earshot.
“We can’t go after the culprits now. It is too dark,” one said.
“We have to recover the body first,” another said.
“The situation will go out of hand. We will need more bandobust,” a third added.
The policemen went down to the village well.

Santhi was left all alone. She knew she could expect no justice. Her eyes fell on the wretched temple. It was all for a god to pray to. If I don’t have my son, you people don’t need a god. She moved with purpose towards the crackers. A manic rage had overcome her. Lifting the kerosene can, she waved it around, pouring the fluid on the walls of the temple. Next she gathered the gun powder and sprinkled it frantically. She looked around for a moment. The policemen had not returned. A sudden calm came over her.
“Should I do this? Am I lighting the spark to a caste war? How many people will have to die for my act? Or will I spark peace instead? Will the fire I start burn or purify?” she had no answers to the doubts that crept in.
She remembered the woman under the tree. It was time to act. With steady fingers, she lit the match.

P.S - A short story I wrote at the insistence of a faculty member here, based on a news story in TN. Had to labour hard on this; probably the most uneven of my fictional exertions, but treasured because of its political theme and the reality of caste which we, the the urban elite choose to brush aside. Censored a little as you would have noticed, am ashamed about it, but am scared of violent reactions!