I was ready to discuss some pertinent questions on social hierarchy and caste system in India as I gathered Ryan’s little body towards me and snuggled down to read the ageless Indian epic Mahabharata. Inevitably the question of caste system was asked as we read about Dronacharya’s refusal to accept Eklavya as a disciple due to his low status in society. Ryan was understandably miffed at such an injustice. The sense of fairness is very strong at this age, and this was extremely unfair. And since, I seem old enough to belong to the days of Mahabharat to him, I was asked if I have ever encountered caste discrimination. I was about to protest. I was about to tell him indignantly that I happened to be born in an enlightened corner of India where caste system was not encouraged. But I paused. Who was I kidding? Caste system existed and still exists.
I remember the separate doorways in many houses, backdoor of course, for the sweeper to come in. Sweepers belong to the lowest caste, the untouchables. The man who cleaned our bathroom and took our trash came in through the front door, for the lack of a backdoor. But I do remember the warning voice of our domestic help sounding out a warning ‘Lokkhon aasche, shobai shore jao!” (Lokkhon is coming, get out of the way)! The irony was, we got out of his way, quickly, like he was royalty. At the age of six or seven, I followed the rule and kept my distance when Lokkhon came to clean. When I was a preteen and felt righteously indignant about this whole complicated issue of caste system, I questioned this practice of staying away from Lokkhon. I accused my mother of treating Lokkhon thus, for his low caste. She explained to me she couldn’t care less about his caste. She was a firm believer of Chandidas’s immortal line ‘Shobar upore manush shotyo/ Tahar upore nai!’ (human race is above all, there is no other)! She was simply concerned about the germs Lokkhon may carry, given the nature of his work. She would have no qualms about mingling with him socially, once he was showered and clean. Can’t say I believed her, till one beautiful Holi morning.
Some incidents don’t simply fall away from my swiss cheese brain and this memory is one such. On a bright, sunshiny spring morning in Kolkata, I was playing Holi (the festival of colors) with the neighborhood children. My father stayed indoors and away from lime light to avoid being dragged out to play. My mother was smiling on our balcony as she watched us spray one another with colored water. I believe, it was baba who spotted Lokkhon standing on the periphery of the festivity watching us, with a gentle smile on his lips. His family was far away, he must have been missing his loved ones on this day of colors. Baba called out, “Go get Lokkhon, make sure he doesn’t get away. Put as much color on him as you can!” We paused in our game and looked at him. There he was, in his yellowing banyan and short dhoti, standing a little afar, unsure of where exactly he belonged. One of baba’s friends, went to him, grabbed his hand and brought him in our midst. He took a handful of gulal and plastered it on Lokkhon’s face. Then he enveloped him in a bear hug. My mother came out and put gulal on him. Shobar upor e manush shottyo, tahar upore nai…indeed! At an young age, our parents can do no wrong, but I was at that age when when our parents are never right. That day, that moment, my head bowed in grudging respect, towards my family, for walking the walk as well as talking the talk.
Lokkhon has always been the most loved employee in our household. He missed work, sometimes weeks. I chuckled as I heard my mother yelling at him, “Next time I am going to dock your pay, I am serious this time!” Lokkhon’s response was, “Hehehehehe, boudi! Bukhar ho gaya! Sach mein!” (I had fever, believe me)! I knew there would always be a next time, and that next time will see a threat of docked payment too. I also knew the threat will never be carried out. One simply couldn’t get angry with Lokkhon, in real. His ever ready smile made sure one couldn’t stay angry.
As I got older, I recieved subtle hints. “Didi, my son needs winter clothes. He hardly has any sweaters.”
“How many days did you work this month?” I joined the game.
“Hehehehe, didi, I got sick.” That was mostly the response. Or “I had to go home, it was an emergency!”
I remembered to buy sweaters for his little boy on my way back from work. Why? Because he was loved, and he was gentle and he was such a constant in our lives.
In 1992, when I was in college, the infamous riots over Babri Masjid claimed many lives – Hindus and Muslims took up arms over religion. Lokkhon rushed back to his village in Bihar to take care of his family. When he returned I asked him how everything was. Was his little village affected by the riots? Were people killed? Many bad incidents have been reported and some heroic efforts were mentioned. But many heroes went unsung. The villagers in Lokkhon’s village were such heroes who remained anonymous. This is what he said to me:
“Didi, we have more Hindus in our village than Muslims. But we have lived together in peace for generations. They are our brothers, our friends. We were not going to let anyone harm one of our own. They have their religion and we have ours. But there is no conflict, didi. People came to harm them. They said to give our Muslim brothers up. We took up arms, didi. We said you have to go over our dead bodies to get to our village brothers. We turned them away. We stayed up at nights to guard each other. We took turns. Not one person in our village got hurt!”
Oh, did I mention Lokkhon never went to school? And is considered ‘uneducated’? And he belongs to the lowest of the low castes?
These days when I go back, I enquire after him. Ma says, “Don’t worry, he will come. He knows didi is coming from America!” Sure enough, he comes with the same smile, maybe more gray hair than before and a little bent. But the smile is the same that I remember so well.
“How long will you stay this time, didi? Is dada coming? When? Didi, my children need clothes and I need new lungi. See this one is so torn!”
“Let me see how many days you actually come to work while I am here!” I play on, for old time’s sake.
We both know, he is going to miss days and I am going to buy him lungi and clothes for his children. I still overhear people calling out to my children, “Lokkhon aasche, shore jao!” And my teenager retorting, “Why do I have to move? He is a human just like us!”
My childhood comes back and nudges me gently “Remember?”