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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the October 2018 issue

Gujji

In this short story, a taunted shopkeeper's son finds his scorned background is his entree to a corporate career. 
 

Although his name wasn’t Gujji to begin with, he was Gujji now. Before he was even aware of it, it was as if his ears had absorbed this slur on his identity. First given to him in school, the name had already cooked through by the time he was a boy in the alleys of the neighborhood, much like the sausages boiled and hung from his family’s shop. When we’re raw, we’re free to trim our identities—their shape and size—to our liking. But what do we know then? Meaning, it takes time for rawness to give way to maturity. And how mature was Gujji at that age?

His mother and father bequeathed him the name Ramdas, to mark him as one of their own. But family resemblances can also provoke unwanted feelings. Gujji’s older brother was named Shyam, or Shyamal, for his evening-dark skin. His little sister, Suman, also dark, was frequently called Kallo. Names like these help us form a picture of the person. But Ramdas’s name wasn’t linked to any sign of his outward appearance. His makes for a different story altogether.

I’ve often said to Ramdas, “Yaar, you really need to write down everything that’s happened to you.” Hearing this, he’d whip his head around. “Are you joking? What do I possibly have to write that’s worth noting down? It’s not like I’ve done anything great in my life.”

Do we need big reasons to write about ourselves? Don’t small ones count too? I’ve often wondered if some social logic doesn’t underlie how we measure the distance between big and small. “Writing all this also wouldn’t feel entirely true,” he’d then said, staring straight at me.

I knew the reason for his gaze. See, I always believed I knew Gujji. But I was only fooling myself. Is it even possible to know another soul? I’ve tried countless times to come to a better idea of what I am. What I’ve found is that, after brooding over my heartbroken dreams, I become a god. In those moments, the world appears full of cunning, and I feel completely alone—as though everyone else were selfish, and I their slave. It depresses me. But strong emotions always depress us—that’s what I think. When the time comes to step down from my imaginary pantheon, I suddenly find myself scheming, barking a cruel laugh. Then I’m a demon. What I really am, though, is hard to say. Is it even in my power to know all this? And if not, how can I claim to know Gujji, I mean, Ramdas?

Well. Without making any claims, I’ll take you into his world: where Ramdas became Gujji, and our friend Gujji went from an MBA to marketing manager at McDonald’s.      

His family was evicted from their home near the Red Fort and moved here to this resettlement colony in Delhi. In other words, not by choice. The government was on a campaign to “sanitize” the city, which meant families had to be ripped from the slums they’d built there and dumped here on the outskirts of the capital. Some kind of international games were about to take place. From the perspective of cleanliness, filth had to be eliminated wherever it lay. They compensated Gujji’s family by giving them thirty-two and a half square yards of land. Gujji’s father’s sharp mind then proved its worth when he seized the neighboring empty plot too. Even today, a ramshackle house still stands on the stolen property. Since there’d been no allocation, the house didn’t have a postal address. Babu Ji wasn’t the only one to act cleverly: many others did exactly the same thing. That’s why many don’t have postal addresses to this day. This practical outlook was something they all had in common, a strategy they’d adopted to get by—much as financial insecurity forces a man to make his own path. If he can’t, he’s beaten down by poverty. That’s the way of the world, and a life skill you need if you’re going to survive.  

Many other Rajasthanis lived in the colony, including members of Gujji’s own caste. They came from all over, like the pig-rearing Valmikis and leather-tanning Chamars. They didn’t have many houses between them, but they combined what they had to form a block of their own. What was officially Block A of Sundarpuri Mohalla was commonly known to outsiders as the lower caste’s ward. But talk to an insider, and you’d learn that, along the edges of this same “lower-caste ward,” higher castes had formed several blocks too. Similarly, the different castes dined and intermingled peaceably, though I’ve never seen them work side by side in their struggles outside the ward.  

In Blocks B and C it was easier to find a smattering of houses from all the castes. On that side of the road, several houses also belonged to Muslim families. The Kureshis, Sarafis, and Ansaris built a mosque, from which they sounded the azan like clockwork each morning. A small road ran between the mosque and lower-caste blocks, dividing the two communities. The road traveled independently until it was swallowed by a bigger road, where it gave up its identity for a chance to become a part of the wider world. Is erasing one’s identity to attain greatness immoral? I debate these questions constantly.  

On the big road was a school for children from the far-flung countryside. Directly opposite was a police station emblazoned with the chest-puffing slogan “The Delhi Police Are With You!”, signs that generated a pleasant, if false, sense of security. At the station's corner, a few flower carts and mobile shops lined the road. They concealed a small animal hospital that lay hidden behind them like an eclipse. How did Gujji ever become a McDonald’s manager coming from a place like this? You must be on the edge of your seats.

Gujji was in class six when he and his family settled down in the mohalla. His older brother Shyamal was in the eighth, which meant that they both had to reenroll in school. Gujji’s family shared the work of rearing pigs, and also owned a small shop selling pork. People from all over the mohalla came to purchase the food in secret—regardless of whether they were Brahmin or Bania. It’s true: the Muslims hated this.

This shop played a central role in his naming. The first step in his journey from Ramdas to Gujji. Gujji, in case you didn’t know, is a dish, made by mixing pig meat with pig blood. Nowadays, multinational companies rebrand it as “hot dogs” and sell it for quadruple the price. Those who once turned their noses up at gujji can now be found chomping down on these hot dogs at modern, genteel foreign establishments.

But at Gujji’s (a.k.a. Ramdas’s) shop, the country brand could be bought for mere pocket change, to be eaten at leisure on the road. If you don’t mind, I’d like to share the recipe. And, with your kind permission, switch from saying “pig” to “animal,” as I’ll be referencing the word ahead. More importantly, this is what Dalit society calls it.  

Keep in mind: killing the animal isn’t all fun and games. If you’re not careful, it’ll butt you seven generations back. The animal’s so strong that even if you stole the strength of Bhim and Ali, you still couldn't hold it down. Which is why a special technique's been created to catch and kill it. That’s just how the animal is; maybe it can smell you as you circle it. Even now, not much research has been done on its power of smell. Is it stronger than a dog’s? All this to say—the animal won’t allow itself to be caught easily.

Sometimes, it will even injure the inexperienced animal catcher. While defending itself, it never lowers its head. Stab it, and it won’t stop charging until it’s dead. Once it finally dies, it lets the entire neighborhood know with a gut-wrenching squeal: oowwee!! Cooperation is essential to take its life. The fainthearted are likely to flee: the scene is no less harrowing than two humans in combat. Self-preservation: that’s why the Dalit kills. Not because he wants to. Because he has no other choice. Because of an appalling, tragic lack of power.   

All three of them—Ramdas, Shyamal, and their father, Mohan—would work together to slaughter the animal for the shop. Two carcasses lasted up to two days, maybe three. A knife would be thrust into its side. Blood gushed out in a torrent. Sometimes, when its feet weren’t properly tied—even with the knife sticking out of it—the animal still managed to break free. Then it was hell to catch, and wrought considerable havoc, splashing blood all over the neighborhood. If it happened to slip out past the mosque, both sides leaped for their clubs. That’s why the animal is only slashed after it's been firmly tied down.

During the knifings, Gujji would stand ready with a round pan. Once the blood started to spill, he’d thrust the handle downward, like collecting water from a tap. If he ever slipped up, Babu Ji’s palm would land with a loud crack against his cheek. “Kutta ro baccha! Son of a bitch! Focus!” he’d flare. Ramdas spent a long time rubbing his face after that.  

An entire pot would then be filled with the animal’s blood and carefully stored in the house. The animal would be chopped into pieces, divided into its respective parts, and sold. It's unnerving how cold the animal feels after it dies, how peaceful. In a collection of pieces—the liver, ears, lips, feet, neck, tongue, and nose. And how terrible, too, its blood continuously dripping from lumps of flesh. It is a corpse, after all: an animal corpse. By morning the blood has thickened and browned, like a cake. Green pepper, garlic, masala, and ginger are then chopped and mixed in. The intestines, after a thorough cleaning, are stuffed with the spicy bloody mixture and knotted on both sides with string. Water is heated in a pan, and the cucumber-shaped intestines tossed inside. They are safe to eat once boiled. Finally, they’re cut into patties and sold. That’s what you call gujji. Others have modernized the technique; today, “hot dogs” are consumed in Europe—and increasingly, in India—by customers who happily slurp the juice from their fingers.

Ramdas’s classmates often lingered by the shop on the way to school. They knew all about it, the gujji hanging there. Ramdas occasionally brought his lunch from home. And what do you think was set out for him? Gujji. He packed the pieces into a plastic thali—though his older brother Shyamal refused to touch the stuff. Maybe that’s how he avoided the same fate. Ramdas also inherited a second legacy: his father’s wits. He traded gujji with his classmates in exchange for their finishing his homework in class. The Jat and Yadav children all too readily went along. Over time, his name changed from Ramdas to Gujji. If his name hadn't been recorded in the school roster, he might have forgotten it altogether.   

He shared several similar anecdotes with me from his childhood. My heart trembled when I heard them. Sometimes, hatred engulfed me too. They were heartbreaking scenes in which he was painfully alone, with no one to help him. I’d wonder: does society torture all Ramdases this way? Not everyone is lucky enough to study and become a manager. To move up in life you need willpower—an innate drive, not to mention a supportive environment.

Sometimes Ramdas was forced to take a vacation from school or dragged out of class to graze the animals. The animals roamed freely across the nearby fields, feeding on shit. Since the neighbors’ homes didn’t have toilets, they used the land as a public defecation ground. What was a public source of humiliation for the humans became a convenient source of food for the animals. Ramdas had to care for the animals throughout the day, which is why he brought food to last the day from home. Surrounded by their stench, the blistering heat, and the dry dusty wind, Ramdas gulped down the mush of meat and roti. The animals grew familiar with his movements, and he theirs. Sometimes, when they were feeling sportive, they lifted their snouts for a playful joust. That’s when Ramdas came running with a holler, scattering them in all directions: Huror hoh! With a long, thin, spiky bamboo cane in his hand and a dirty visor tilted over his brow, Ramdas looked nothing less than an ancient warrior as he marched through the field. A small warrior, baked tobacco brown. Though in reality he performed the duties of a shepherd, no one wanted to label him as such. There are all sorts in our society who refuse to call pig-rearers shepherds, though their work is exactly the same. To this day, neither Gujji nor I can understand it. These were the same people who once abused the so-called untouchables because they were cow herders, the same people who ate pig just as they ate goat and cow. How did that animal, which they scorned in public, turn into a lip-smacking snack in private?

It wasn’t until class ten that Ramdas began to escape this work. By then, he’d also gotten out of collecting raatab, or pig food, from weddings. On the second day of weddings, his father would send Ramdas to fetch the feast’s leftovers from a drum or right out in the open. He’d balance one end of a bamboo cane on his shoulder while his older brother Shyamal or his father carried the other. Two empty buckets swung between them, which they used to carry the slops to the animals—leftovers akin to the scraps given to his community to eat. As he trudged forward, bowed and sweaty under the buckets’ weight, sometimes a blast of the unwanted food’s fetid stench rushed up his nostrils, causing him to buckle and gag. But did his father ever give Ramdas a chance to catch his breath? Babu Ji’s palm hung ready to swing at his face with the usual curse. Fear and powerlessness silenced him. The animals gobbled up the leftovers with happy snorts.

To afford the raatab, Babu Ji saved for days. He even cut down on work to keep an eye out for weddings. Where else could raatab be purchased so cheaply? Ramdas’s family competed with the two other families who also spent all their time tending the pigs. At four in the morning, Ramdas, Shyamal, and his father set out to collect the leftovers. Occasionally, a fight broke out between the families over the rights. But Babu Ji was a prudent man—he’d settle with someone at the house of the family far in advance. Then it happened that one day Ramdas threw down his pail, in full view of the public. His father had instructed him to fetch raatab from a nearby mohalla. Babu Ji waved the staff he used for driving the animals. "Suar Ro Baccho! Get a move on, you swine! So long as you're a part of this caste and household, you’ll do this work!”

Ramdas disappeared for two days. When Babu Ji found him and convinced him to come home, Ramdas seized his chance. “Mai padhno chahun . . . I want to study! I don’t want to do this work . . . ” Fearful that his son might bolt a second time, Babu Ji never sent him to another wedding. Instead, Ramdas voluntarily accompanied Shyamal to scavenge spoiled produce tossed out in front of the mohalla's main vegetable shop—that too before daybreak. Shyamal and his father also bought chaff, or “burada,” which was winnowed from the wheat flour of households’ unused rotis. The thresher placed the dry rotis in a large drum and soaked them in water. This was another of the animals' favorite meals.  

Sundarpuri Mohalla was the one place where those who'd received an education read about the Buddha and Ambedkar, and their many sacrifices for the Dalits. They collected donations and built a small Buddhist monastery. It had a large dais, on top of which the statue of an awe-inspiring, serene ascetic was installed. This was the first community festival Ramdas had ever seen. He and his family were invited as well: the father of Ramdas’s classmate, Gautama, came calling at their door. “Mohan, Baudh Vihar mein 'Murti Sthapana' hai . . . the installation ceremony is happening at the Budh Vihara. Please bring your children.” Even Ramdas’s father attended. On the platform, the Valmiki, Khatik, Chamar, Dhanak, and Bandara communities sat together for the first time. Sermons were held every Sunday, in which Ambedkar’s life story was told and conversations were held on the Buddha. For Ramdas, the monastery became a very special place. Bantay Sudantu, who lived at the monastery, often spoke passionately about the need to educate their children. Ramdas felt a change begin to unfold inside himself.

Meanwhile, his nickname had caught on at school. Even the history teacher, Alok Jha, and the P. E. teacher, Dahiya, frequently called him Gujji. “Aabay Khatik, why don’t you tell your old man to bring us some gujji, huh?” Or, “Gujji, there’s a wedding in the neighborhood today. They’ll need someone to pick up the slops.” These words buried Ramdas in shame. He recounted how, in class seven, when he and the other lower-caste children failed to do their homework, the teachers forced them to squat and loop their arms behind their knees to grab their ears. Or how they’d place a pen or pencil between their fingers and squeeze their hands tightly. These punishments were unbearably painful. They each cried alone, but they all felt the same pain inside . . . a shared pain . . . Ramdas never once saw this happen to the Jat, Gurjur, or Brahmin children.

In class ten Ramdas emerged with the highest grades in the district. The children from the other castes seethed with jealousy. That man who’d become a principal from the Chamar community came to the school to award Gujji in front of the entire assembly. An instance of the community honoring and celebrating one of its own: self-recognition between many. Principal Deenadayal called Ramdas over to his office. “Congratulations, Beta!” he said. “You’ve lifted the name of the entire Dalit community. Now give your studies everything you've got … we’re counting on you to become the next Baba Saheb Ambedkar.” That day, the principal reminded him exactly of Bhantay Sudantu. Back at the monastery, the neighbors also congratulated him heartily. They said to Babu Ji, “Mohan, make sure this boy keeps up his studies. And don't you worry about a single thing. He’s the pride of our community, the pride of the Dalits.” That day his father’s chest swelled four times as wide.

Ramdas also succeeded in passing class twelve with high marks and went off to college. Only four other Dalit children accompanied him: from the Chamars, Rajesh and Anil; among the Valmikis, Balvant; and from Ramdas’s caste, the Khatiks’ Dhanik Kapil. A large number of Jat, Gujar, Yadav, and Brahmin children also graduated, but few decided to continue with college. One entered an industrial training institute, while another opened a business and barely budged from his new shop. College, meanwhile, provided Ramdas with his first true taste of freedom. He filled his lungs with the open blue sky. Our inward-looking Ramdas never compromised on his studies. He'd managed to free himself from the experiences of collecting raatab and catching pigs for gujji. But even today, these words haven’t loosened their grip on his family, society, or the mohalla.  

Even at college Ramdas kept cooking gujji, though less frequently. Sometimes, from the corner of some room, a “Aabay, bring us some gujji,” followed afterward by a cackle, collided with his ears, jolting his entire being. “I must make myself better.” With these words, he strengthened his resolve. Ramdas finished his BA and enrolled in an MBA program.

By this time Ramdas had completely changed. He stood before the world a new man. The way he'd once looked at life, the futures he'd once dreamed as a child—all gone. New dreams flexed their wings. Ramdas had only to board his flight into the sky. The sky unfurling toward the horizon called out to him. He felt the call resounding deep inside.      

After getting his MBA, he wanted a job at a well-known multinational company. His specialty was marketing. He mailed out his resume. Three times a week he went to a cyber café, searched for jobs on international websites, chatted on the Internet, and returned home. Since college, he’d started tutoring children in the neighborhood, a habit he kept up till then. Through tutoring, he'd managed to cover his school expenses and educate children from the Dalit community. Dalit and Muslim children were the only ones who came for lessons. In his free time, he read books at the local Buddhist monastery or the Delhi public library. Then, one day, a letter from McDonald’s arrived in the mail.  

Now that he had completed his MBA, he finally began to feel that he faced the world as Ramdas, both in name and being. During his program, he hadn't encountered a single person who’d call him “Gujji.” He was now Ramdas, MBA holder. Management Specialist. Not Gujji, the sausage-eater, pig-feeder, raatab fetcher. Just Ramdas. He held his head high, pushed out his chest. His tan skin began to shine . . .

Ramdas's interview with McDonald’s had come. There was an opening for manager. He felt like the post was meant for him: he was the only one who could fill it. He’d seen the advertisement and filled out the form from the newspaper. This was his first interview. How he lived, dined, dressed, spoke—no one could have recognized him now.

He arrived at headquarters at exactly 10 a.m., anxiety mixed with excitement. It was all he could do to control himself. When his name was called, he rose. As he rose, he found himself flying. Somehow, he creaked open the door and peeked inside.  

May I come in, sir?” he asked in English.

Yes, come in,” a gravelly voice echoed from within. 

With a deep breath, he took his first step into the room. Then, all of a sudden, an unbelievable explosion clapped against his ears. "Gujji? You? Here . . . ?”

Inside . . . his eyes settled on a man with glasses. Ramdas recognized him immediately—one of his classmates from school, two years his senior: Rajiv Dahiya. Here, too, his past and background rose against him: two slaps landed resoundingly across both cheeks. He dragged his feet forward . . .  

Yes. Please sit, Mr. Ramdas,” a man said, waving to a seat. The interview continued in English.

“So, you’ve done an MBA,” another fat, flabby man said from the center. “We’ll start by introducing ourselves. I’m Sanjay Tiwari. This is Rajiv Dahiya. With us is Mister Ansari, Mr. John, and this is Mr. Adler. Haan, So, Mr. Ramdas, please do tell us a little about yourself. ” Ramdas summarized his academic career, hobbies, and interests. They each asked him a question. He answered them all with deep confidence and enthusiasm. The interview lasted half an hour.

“OK, Mr. Ramdas. You may go.”

“Ham aap ko inform kar denge,” another interviewer said, shuffling some papers.    

As Ramdas exited the room, sadness overcame him. The members of the interview board had seemed so genuine. They hadn’t asked him anything about his past. Still, he couldn’t help but fear the unknown . . .

(He didn’t know that back in the room, everyone on the review board was considerably impressed by Ramdas’s knowledge, his well-prepared answers, his ease and poise. Everyone, that is, except Rajiv Dahiya. He told them all about Ramdas and did everything he could to prevent Ramdas’s selection. Sanjay Tiwari said, “Mr. Dahiya, Ramdas’s background will be all the more useful to us. He’ll take a greater interest in how the different dishes at McDonald’s are made. It will be good for business.” Mr. John agreed. “Yes, Mr. Tiwari, we should appreciate that boy." How Gujji had struggled to get there . . . Ansari didn't object. Seeing everyone against him, Rajiv Dahiya said—“Sir! I simply cannot work with him! If he’s selected, then I, I’ll resign today!” Silence blanketed the room. They all tried their best to change his mind, but . . .)

Ramdas grew exhausted replaying the interview. His head felt heavy. He wanted to forget it had ever taken place. In his dreams, he couldn't help but feel that deep down, maybe he was still Gujji. Scheduled Caste: Gujji. Lower caste: Gujji. The pig nanny . . .  At night he'd suddenly jolt upright. Sometimes, the fear was so great he’d call out in his sleep, “No, I’m not Gujji! I’m Ramdas, MBA Graduate. Educated . . . Even after I’ve gotten so many degrees, why won’t they look at me like another human being?” He’d get up to grab a glass of water to wet his dry throat and vow to end the caste system for good.

Ramdas was at home the day the letter came. He opened the envelope with shaking hands. Inside was a single page, which read: “Congratulations, Mr. Ramdas. You’ve been selected for the position of marketing manager. Please indicate your acceptance at your earliest convenience.” He could hardly believe his eyes. He reread the lines again and again—those lines that had transformed his very being. He was no longer Gujji. He was Ramdas. Educated, human just like everybody else. Ramdas.  
 

“Gujji” © Suraj Badtiya. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by John Vater. All rights reserved.

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