Activist Kausalya Baisantry recalls the ambivalence that greeted her Dalit family's attempts to modernize their life in pre-Independence India.
Translator’s Note: Italics indicate words the author transliterated from English into Hindi. Parenthetical comments are the author’s.
Definitions of Hindi words may be found in the glossary.
When my parents finally, after six girls, saw my brother come into this world, their happiness could not be contained. Back then they were of a religious mindset. They resolved to start celebrating the birth of Ganesh-ji by observing Ganapati in the home each year for five years. They were devotees of Shiva-ji and Krishna-ji. They also had their own gods and goddesses, and did puja to deities like Mirabai, Khandoba, Devdulla, Vaghoba. They performed Naagpuja at someone or other’s house on Naagpanchami. That day they would draw an image of a he-cobra on the wall. After sprinkling a line of dhaan (unhusked rice) in every home, someone would fill a pot with milk and put it in the corner in the belief that Naag Devta would come drink it. People from our basti would go into the wild and place milk in a hole or burrow. Starting in the morning the snake charmer would take his cobra and roam around the basti playing his reed bina. Women would worship the cobra.
In our basti people celebrated the Ashtami of Shri Krishna’s birthday with lots of fanfare. Many beautiful Krishna figurines were sold in the bazaar. People bought them and brought them home. Baba also brought a pretty nice figurine home with him. Our courtyard and house had been cleaned and whitewashed a day or two ahead and the house decorated with colorful paper strung from bamboo poles. The walls were hung floor to ceiling with pictures based on old tales. A figurine of Shri Krishna was placed on a wooden chouranga (a type of stool) for puja, and Ma made five kinds of different dishes to eat. That day, my parents observed a fast which they broke only after Shri Krishna’s birthday ended at midnight. They suspended each of the five dishes with rope and then strung this in a wooden frame in which a Shri Krishna figurine was hanging. This was referred to as his swing. Another puja took place at midnight. The women sang songs of Shri Krishna, and the men folk sang bhajans while they clanged cymbals and beat the dhol and mridanga. The singing went on all night. The boys of the basti wandered around stealing the dishes hung here and there in the swings and would run away as soon as they were glimpsed. Shri Krishna had stolen butter and curds in this same way.
The next day in the evening, after we did puja to Krishna, all the people in the basti joined in a procession singing Krishna bhajans and submerged Lord Shri Krishna in the Friday pond.
The people in our basti also celebrated Divali-Holi and worshipped Shiva-ji. During the days of Shivaratri, some people set out for the Shiva-ji temple in the mountains to take darshan of the image there. Often these temples were far away along impassable mountains. They wore yellow vestments and carried a special type of long swing, which was called a khaya. Shiva-ji drank bhang and became intoxicated, so people would drink lots of liquor and cry out like him. They were not sure if they would be able to return from such an inhospitable land, that’s how they thought. When they arrived at the station or bus stand, all their throats would join together to raise a huge cry. The women sang Stuti Gita to Shiva-ji. Now none of these rituals are observed. Most untouchable people, and especially Mahar folk, converted to Buddhism along with Baba Saheb.
Ganapati Puja was regarded highly in our basti. In Hari Master’s home, Ganapati Puja was maintained for ten days. Ma and Baba had each made a vow to honor Brother, so they kept up this puja for five years. For ten straight days Baba and Ma bathed and washed at daybreak and made modak for Ganapati by dissolving lumps of unrefined sugar in real ghee, grinding chickpeas, and mixing it all with flour. Ganapati was celebrated with great fanfare and with beautiful decorations in Sitabardi, Mahal Dhantoli, and other places. Seeing the decorations, we also did up our homes. The children in our “line” came to help with the decorating. On each of the ten days, Ma arranged some program or other. Rangari and Agribhoj Kaka set up for Antyakshari, debate games, and things like that for the Chokamela Hostel boys. Sometimes songs were sung and other days gramophone records were played. Ma was in a really expansive mood. She bought a gramophone with her “fun money.” Agribhoj Kaka, Rangari Kaka, Ma, and Baba all went together to buy it. For fifty rupees they were able to buy eight records and His Master’s Voice gramophone. Ma really took a liking to two records of songs by K. C. Dey: “Teri gathari main laga chor musafir jag jara” and “Baba man ki ankhain khol.” Ma’s voice sounded so very sweet: “Would you wake the thief traveling in your bag” and “Baba open up the eyes of your mind.” She sang this bhajan often. She prepared the ground chickpea flour to make seviyan for the kardhi at the house itself, all the while singing “ovi.” Ma really loved music.
Rangari Kaka taught me how to put on the gramophone record. As soon as the gramophone came on, people in our line would come and sit. The room filled with people. Sometimes they demanded that we put on the gramophone. I myself would put the key into the gramophone and place the needle on the record with great majesty. I felt as if I were doing a mighty deed.
There were a few people in our basti who couldn’t bear our advanced ways. Among them were our relatives, who could not understand why we were getting educated. Ma ignored them. They used to band together with others in the basti and pester us. They threw stones at our home during the Ganapati festivities. Sometimes they went so far as to throw the pestle for grinding spices. We kept quiet. Baba would tell Ma to sit down and stay silent. Baba used to say, These people are fools. No need to bother mouthing off at them. When our clay tile roof began crumbling to pieces, Father would replace the tiles after coming home from the mill each evening. But they didn’t consider this a setback and our studies went on as before.
There was no work for the riffraff in the basti, and they were not educated, so the only thing to do was misbehave. Some squinted, wounded at the sight of others’ progress. It only incited them. They lived to discover sparks of love between the boys and girls in the basti and did whatever they could to find where the two lovers met, where they’d go. They’d grab the two and bring them back in order to shame them. The parents of the poor lovers punished them with a beating. They would walk with their heads bowed low, now that their family pride had been dragged through the dirt. Those gundas! No one ever mouthed off to this type of vagrant’s teasing for fear of getting beaten up themselves. They’d write really dirty things using the names of the lovers in chalk or coal on the walls of the bathrooms in the basti. Some were offended. Some thought it was funny. This was the work of boys who managed to pass only the third or fourth level of school. Ma had a lot of courage, and Baba had endless patience. They did not give any credence to those loafers. Sometimes Ma hurled abuse at them when they attempted to bother us. Those boys, they were afraid of Ma. She was terrifying.
Baba’s nephew really burned with jealousy when he saw us. He begged our family to arrange a marriage between his younger brother and me, but Ma refused. Ever since then he kept finding ways to torment us.
One time I was coming from the home of my father’s sister. My bua lived in a different line from our basti. Ma had sent me there on some errand or another. When I was coming back from her home, I saw a band of gunda-like riffraff gathered against a wall playing cards. Someone in that group lived on my line and was extremely well-mannered, a married man with two children. He came up to me and threw his arms around me, holding me close. I used all my strength to push him off and then slapped him twice. I came home and recounted the whole incident to Ma. Ma turned into a firestorm and charged off to his home to tell his wife that she needed to rein in her husband. He was a polite boy but that band of loafers had riled him up. It grew late that night but still her husband hadn’t come back home. Ma went again and again to see if he’d returned. A fire was raging in Ma body and soul. She went to his home first thing the next morning. He was so scared seeing her that he fell at her feet, begging for forgiveness. Ma didn’t respond and neither did his wife. They just kept hitting him with shoes. The girls of the line were like his sisters. He shouldn’t have behaved this way. From that day forward he was too ashamed to show his face. As soon as he saw us he would bow his head and duck inside his home.
Some of the gundas and others who wanted to impede our progress had already made up their minds to bother us. Baba’s nephew was ahead of everyone in turning people against us.
I learned to ride a bicycle at school. Bicycles were available for rent for one anna per hour. Sometimes I would rent a bike to ride to my sister’s home or to one of my friends’ houses—Nalini or Prema. The boys from the basti would suddenly jump in front of my bicycle so that I would fall and give them a good laugh. Outside the basti too the boys from upper-caste families would burn for us: “There’s a Harijan bai riding along! Just look at that brain, her baba is a beggar, and she’s riding a bicycle!” They’d say this and then also try to make me fall from the bicycle. Even upper-caste women who considered themselves in the know would laugh in a derisive manner to see me riding a bicycle. They also seemed surprised that we, children of an untouchable laborer, could attain so much learning.
When I started going to college, Baba bought an old lady cycle from some man because my college was fairly far from home. Then a completely new bus service started up. The service was very infrequent and I did not have enough money to pay for the bus ticket. I biked to college every day. Then people in the basti and outside of it kept finding some way to shower me with taunts.
One time I was returning home from college. I saw a crowd in the courtyard. I got really scared that something unthinkable had taken place. I cut through the crowd and slipped inside our home. Baba was searching for something in his iron “boxe” while a young man about twenty-five or thirty years old in a nice pant-shirt stood outside. I had never seen him before. I asked Baba what the matter was, what was he looking for? Baba told me that the young man in pant-shirt standing there, he is saying that he is a police sub-inspector, and someone filed a report at the police station saying that the cycle you are riding is stolen and this inspector is also saying that we people are also in possession of a pistol without a license. I told Baba to put away the boxes, that I was going to speak with the inspector. I said to the inspector: “How do we know that you are an inspector? You should first put on your badge before coming here and you should show us a warrant in our name.”
The inspector was a well-mannered man. He said, "I want to say something to you people." He reprimanded the crowd and told them they should move on. Everyone left. We invited him into the house and asked him to sit in the iron chair. We explained the environment in the basti to him and told him that we sisters were all studying, which is why some of the riffraff and some of our relatives, whose nature was prone to getting riled up, couldn’t bear to see us progress: this is why they looked for ways to torment us. He was understanding. He himself was of the Teli caste. Their society was also backward, this is why he knew. He listened to what we said and understood the people in the basti were harassing us. He said that if anyone harasses us again to let them know. He himself would ask around and intervene. Seeing him come inside our home, the people in the basti were terrified, and never harassed us after that. After a few days this gentleman was transferred to a place called Umred. Whenever he returned to Nagpur, we would meet. One time he brought his wife and mother to our home.
Our relatives became even more vexed after this incident. They searched for more ways to bother us. Ma’s paternal cousin passed away, so Ma went to Amaravati. Baba fell ill with malaria fever. The fever was so high, and still he sent us to school. A few days earlier a Bengali boy came to live in the basti. He had taken a room in someone’s home. He was doing some odd job in the office of the Army. We were literate people and when he saw this, he wanted to call us his family. He kept coming by and saying Namaste to our parents. “How are you?” he would ask. We did not show any special interest in him. That is why he too became vexed. Our relatives and that illiterate riffraff teamed up together and trained him in their ways. Seeing that Baba was ill and no one else was at home, they came to the house. They asked Baba about his fever, but he was slumped over, eyes closed, like he was unconscious. They stole a photo of me that had been hanging on the wall. Who knows how long it was afterward before anyone realized that photo had been missing.
He had a photographer make a photo of himself sitting with my photo. In the photo I am in a pose of writing something and he is standing behind me. My sister Kasturchand and I were going to the park from school when he came running up to us and presented the photo. I was startled to see it. He began walking ahead of me and dangling the photo in front of me. I don’t know how I summoned the courage: I pulled my chappal off my foot and slapped him across the face! He sort of cowered, but still he kept putting the photo in front of me and babbling something. One boy saw this. He rushed over and grabbed him while I hit him a few more times on his back with my chappal. That boy rushed him far away. My sister stood there silent and afraid. That evening when we arrived home, I told Ma everything. Ma flared up in anger, but what could she do? She showed great courage in sending us to school and said she herself would silence them if they bothered us again. Ma scolded my younger sister for saying nothing. She had also wanted to give that no-good badmash a few slaps with her chappals. All this did nothing to keep the peace with our enemies. They wrote a petition in court and had someone write a love letter in my name, which they presented in court. It was a false case, which is why that Bengali boy was not ready to stand as petitioner, nor would any wakil represent him. The case was rejected. That gang was so enraged they squandered their days chasing after a hearing. Afterward the Bengali man understood that he had made a big mistake. Maybe even felt some regret. Now he was no longer to be seen with the riffraff. He looked solemn. A few days later he left the basti. We didn’t see any way to get out of the basti, because we did not have enough money to build another house anywhere else. If we were to go anywhere now, our wish was to live in a nice place among the educated, so Ma would say, Learn to read and write, certainly our condition will improve and such wishes will be fulfilled.
Many days later my parents sold whatever jewelry they had, sold the old house in the basti, took out a loan, and bought a piece of land in Ramdaspeth. There were lots of well-educated people nearby. Most were Brahmins.
© Kausalya Baisantry. By arrangement with the author's estate. Translation © 2018 by Christi A. Merrill. All rights reserved.