“It must be cool down there?”
I said that with a smirk and only because I was irritated. I’m not one to scoff at the poor and downtrodden. I feel for their plight and feel sympathy and all that. I’m not unkind.
She looked up startled.
“No.” She said, “It is hot here too.”
I’d asked the question in broken Hindi and she had replied in English. I felt somehow chastised.
“Why are you sitting on the floor?” I asked in English this time, slower, still unsure if she would understand.
“I’m used to it.” She said and drew an indistinct shape on the floor.
We were the only two people on that corridor. She had looked up when I’d walked in, my heels clapping aloud on the freshly waxed floor.
She had smiled. A soft, benign smile.
But it was her eyes that had made me miss a step.
In her small, oval face, everything was small and knew their place. Her eyes though were big. Sparkling and overpowering.
I sat on the empty wooden bench and took a closer look at the frail young girl on the floor, probably in her late teens. Her face was dark, very dark, skin shiny and bright, hair oiled and pulled straight back into a tiny bun. She wore a neatly pinned blue chiffon saree over a faded blouse, her bony arms sticking out from frayed sleeves. She dragged her fingers through the floor, making circles and squares, now and then brushing against the legs of my seat.
I fanned myself with the notepad and grumbled about the heat, traffic and pesky guard outside. She looked up and smiled again. I did not smile back.
Fifteen minutes passed. No word from the minister’s underlings. I had a story to file by afternoon.
“How much longer?” I complained to my nails.
“He’ll be busy till noon signing papers and talking on the phone.” The girl at my feet murmured. “September is a busy month for them.”
“How do you know?” I asked imperiously, “Do you work here?”
“No.” Her voice was low as she leaned forward to draw a large circle, “But I’ve come here many times.”
Deadline. Deadline. Deadline. I glanced at my watch. Another half an hour and I would either march into his room or march out to find another story.
“What is your name?” I asked to while away time.
“Jwala.” She replied.
“That’s a funny name.” I looked at her with interest.
“It means fire.” She grinned, “I named myself.”
“Why?” I asked, “Are your parents dead?” I knew that the poor had no families and no homes, their parents died early from diseases or something. Maybe she was one of them. Maybe she was the minister’s secret mistress! Now THAT would be a story.
“My mother is alive. My father’s dead.” Her tone was soft. Her English was hesitant, each word spoken with great care. “I changed my name last year.”
“Oh,” I said, losing interest. “I see.” She must be a maid. A learned maid. It wasn’t so uncommon these days.
We sat quietly for a while, lost in thought. It was a hot, hot day. The solitary fan whirled over us in a slow, strident song. This was a new building and only a few of the state assembly ministers had moved in to occupy their sprawling offices on various floors. There were about five of them in the building that day, the most important of them, the State minister for law and justice, in the room facing us. The minister was new, hurriedly appointed after his predecessor was sent to jail for bribery the month before. I imagined the man settled in a plush cabin deep inside, behind layers of peons and office staff. Occasionally, some of those people walked out.
One kind soul enquired if I wanted tea. I nodded. He forgot to ask Jwala. Lucky for her, the tea arrived in a paper cup enmeshed in another.
“Do you want some tea?” I asked.
“No.” She muttered drawing a square.
“Have some.” I separated the cups carefully and tilted one to pour into the other.
“I am Dalit.” She whispered, her voice barely reaching me over the gurgle of warm liquid. “Untouchable.”
We learn the caste system when we are very young. Sometimes, they are in our school textbooks, sometimes apparent in everyday life. Mum had refused to hire a Dalit maid once and grandmum refused to even be near one. I knew friends who wouldn’t play with Dalit kids, or drink water from their homes.
But I am an open, educated, modern woman.
I didn’t realize I was holding my breath (and two half-filled cups of hot tea in my hands) till Jwala said quickly as if to make up for my hesitation, “Don’t worry. I’m used to it.”
“No.” I handed over a cup. “What are you used to?” I muttered to myself, angry.
She smiled at the cup and took a long sip.
“Thank you.” She said in Hindi. It was soft and confident. “They ignore me every time.” She nodded her head as if agreeing with herself, “Every time.” She repeated.
“How many times have you come here?”
“I come every six months, as soon as my university holidays begin.”
“I want them to reopen my case.”
She told me then, in three clear sentences, like she was reading the news off a teleprompter.
Three clear sentences.
Two years ago, I was raped by 8 upper caste Jat men in the village of Alwar which was my home.
The police registered a case only after my father killed himself.
Out of those eight, four were never arrested while the rest were acquitted.
Her words crashed into my ears. Shrill and jarring. Like a trumpet out of tune.
Blood rushed to my face.
My heart pounded.
One hears about it all the time. In my line of work, it is a common statistic. Another Dalit girl raped and killed, publicly stripped and beaten, set on fire.
Here, she was at my feet. A girl.
A sweet, pretty, living girl.
Not a statistic.
We sat silently and I counted the tiles.
“What happened to you?” I asked not sure what I meant.
“I am studying in the city,” she replied, a hint of pride in her voice. “BA in History.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Become a Teacher.”
“Doesn’t pay very well.”
“You can give me a job?”
“You don’t want that either.” We laughed together. Merrily. In sisterhood.
8 men raped her. Yet, she sat with me and talked.
“They raped you,” I said congealed grief in my voice. I said that so I could believe it happened. “Why?”
“I was first in my tenth class. They wanted to teach me a lesson.”
She looked at me, those bright, beautiful eyes. Big, large, doe-eyed. All-knowing.
There were no tears in them.
“I forgot the pain.” She said, “But they laughed. When I cried, they laughed.”
She said it simply. She answered the question I never asked. The question I was afraid to ask.
“I met policemen. I met ministers. I begged them to reopen my case.” She gestured at the half-open door, “Sometimes they listened to me.”
“They told me to forget everything. Not to fight upper caste men, to know my place. It is a tradition. One time the guard hit me with a gun and I fell. That was in the old building.” She paused, “This new minister, he will listen. I think he is kind.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
“I’ll come again.”
“They stop laughing.”
I said nothing.
“It was hard for us to step out in the village after that. But I was good in studies, I got through college and left. My mother helped me.” She looked up, “Not everyone is lucky.”
I crushed the cup and threw it into the bin.
The door opened and a lady in a brittle white saree announced that the minister was ready to meet me.
I gestured to the girl at my feet.
“What about her?”
The lady dropped a look of disdain.
“That one keeps coming.” She said dismissively.
“She was here before me,” I said.
“You coming or not?” The woman asked annoyed.
I rose and the minister’s secretary stepped back. I didn’t follow. Instead, I dropped to the floor and settled down cross-legged. Drew up my notepad.
The woman looked down at us, baffled. She shrugged and stepped inside, shutting the door behind her with a bang.
Jwala was looking at me curiously. I touched her hand. She didn’t draw away.
We stared at each other for a whole second.
“Tell me your story,” I said.
And she told me.