Innocent young minds meet mixed messaging in schools. Will casteism triumph or be vanquished? Translated from the Tamil by Malini Seshadri.
The students of classes three, four and five were overjoyed. The next day they were to visit the next village to watch a movie. They were so happy that they could barely focus on their lessons. Each child was to bring five rupees. Those who had slippers had to wear them, and those with water bottles were to bring them along. All these instructions and more were given by the headmaster. Excitement ran high. And why not?
Though the Kattur Primary School had been in existence for more than fifty years, conditions in the village had seen no improvements at all—no bus service, no drinking water facility, no hospital. There was neither a tea stall nor a grocery store, not even a bunk shop where a thirsty person could get a soda. For everything, one had to travel three kilometers to Oothukottai, which even had a couple of cinema theatres. It was in one of these that the students were going to see a children’s movie the next day. Never mind which movie, the outing to Oothukottai itself was excitement enough for them.
The next morning, all the children gathered at the school by seven. Once the assembly was over, they were made to stand in line. The headmaster sent the children off on their way with the teachers, while he got onto his two-wheeler and went on ahead. In their bubbling enthusiasm and excitement, the children walked very fast. The distance was three kilometres. Half-running and half-walking, they arrived at their destination.
Children from another school were already at the theatre. The Kattur schoolchildren were counted and admitted one by one. What a frightful commotion and noise there was in that theatre! Deafening! It was past ten o’clock by the time all the children had been settled in, and the movie could start. Everyone fell silent. Though it was an English movie called Baby’s Day Out, all the children were totally fascinated and absorbed. They identified themselves with the baby in the movie. In the interval, they kept buying things to eat, whatever they set eyes on and whatever took their fancy, till they ran out of money.
After the movie ended, they stepped out into the blazing sunlight and started back, their steps dragging. The moment they crossed the main road, the orderly line broke up. Many of the children were not wearing slippers; the midday sun scorched the soles of their feet. And then there was the overpowering, parching thirst… Somehow, they managed to keep going. The water bottles had long been emptied in the cinema theatre itself. Sweating and exhausted, everyone hurried to get back to school.
About a kilometre from the school, was a village called Pallathur. When they entered the village, the children went to the wayside water-pump, and started pumping water to drink, because they were so thirsty. A big boy from the fifth class was pumping water for everyone. All the children were pushing and jostling for water. It was quite a task to get them organised in a queue. Mahalakshmi from class three held out her water bottle to be filled, and was about to drink it eagerly. But her sister Vijayalakshmi, who was in the fifth class, stopped her. She grabbed the bottle, gave Mahalakshmi a smack on the back, and shouted at her angrily.
“You’re going to drink water from the tap in this village street? I’ll report you to Appa, and see what a beating you’ll get!” As she spoke, she emptied the bottle onto the street.
“Akka, I’m so thirsty. Please don’t tell Appa. I’ll drink just a little water,” pleaded Mahalakshmi.
Vijayalakshmi would not let her drink. Mahalakshmi started crying loudly as she walked along. “What’s the matter, Mahalakshmi?” asked her teacher Mary. “Why are you crying? Not able to walk? It’s just a very short distance more to go. See, there’s the school. Look there, you can see your classroom already.”
Shanthi, who was walking alongside, said, “It’s not that, Teacher. Mahalakshmi is crying because she is thirsty.”
“But everyone drank water at the village tap just now. How could you be thirsty again so soon? It’s all right, come along. You can drink water in the school.”
“No, Teacher. Maha didn’t drink water at the tap. Her sister said she shouldn’t, and she brought her away from there.”
“Why wouldn’t she allow her to drink?”
“Because it’s the tap on that street, Teacher…that cheri street. Their father will beat them if they drink water from the tap there.”
“Who said that?”
“Mahalakshmi’s sister said so, Teacher.”
Mary was stunned. Even at this young age they were practising discrimination …..she was very angry and upset. In the classroom the children get along well together… they do things together. Everyone drinks water from the common tap in the school. Then where did this ugly idea of discrimination come from? If their father would actually beat them for this, then they must have learnt it at home. With all these thoughts crowding her mind, Mary walked along in silence. Later, she called Vijayalakshmi and asked her, “Vijayalakshmi, what will happen if you drink water from that cheri street in the village? Isn’t that also good water? Why did you stop your sister?”
“Teacher, that’s what we’ve been told at home. ‘Don’t mix with the children who live in those streets. Don’t accept anything to eat from them. Don’t even go anywhere near there.’ That’s what we’ve been told.”
“But that’s wrong, isn’t it?” asked the teacher.
Vijayalakshmi did not reply, nor did Mary teacher press her any further. The other children were rushing into the school, hungry and tired from the midday heat. The teacher also went in, dizzy with fatigue.
Mary teacher continued to feel troubled about the things she had heard on the way back.
There is no such thing as caste. It is a sin to talk of high-born and low-born people. We’ve been teaching these things here for years, and it’s all been a waste of time. I taught this same Vijayalakshmi last year in class four. In the Tamil lesson there was that Bharathiyar song…that drum song. I remember how I explained over and over again that all human beings are equal. I talked myself hoarse about it—all a waste. It’s not what is taught in school but what is taught at home that seems to stick. When the Headmaster returns, I must ask him to call the child and question her.
Having come to a decision, she gulped down her lunch and stood waiting for the Headmaster.
The Headmaster had gone home for lunch, and was back around two o’clock. The teacher broached the topic gently.
“Sir, on the way back the children had a hard time. So hot, and on top of that, the thirst…. Fortunately, when they got to Pallathur they drank water at the street tap, and after that they felt somewhat better, Sir. But even with that terrible thirst, some of the children refused to drink water from that tap, Sir.”
“Why? What happened?”
Mary Teacher gave him all the details of what had happened, and suggested that he should call Vijayalakshmi and talk to her.
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A child was sent to fetch both the sisters. When they came, the Headmaster spoke casually.
“What’s wrong with drinking the water from cheri taps? Only in cherihomes you shouldn’t drink water. You’ve been told by your parents that you mustn’t drink water even from cheri taps, is it? All right, no problem, go back to your classrooms.”
Having stressed only in cheri homes, Headmaster Varadarajulu walked off to his classroom.
Selected by Mini Krishnan
Reproduced courtesy of Oxford University Press
Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta