The teacher introducing me to the class did little to bring me out of my reverie. My head was preoccupied with anxiety. Not to mention, my new name was unfamiliar. Before, they just called me chotu. At least, the nice ones did. I shuddered remembering the other things I had been called.
“Ramesh, would you like to share something with the class?” The teacher spoke again.
I silently shook my head and moved towards the backbench.
“Ramesh, why don’t you sit in the front. Here.” She gestured to the seat right in the middle of the front row.
I looked around at my classmates. All eyes were on me, but none held the contempt and disgust I was used to. No one seemed to have a problem with me sitting front and center in the class.
For the first time in as long as I could remember, I felt safe. Here, they didn’t know me. They didn’t know where I came from. They didn’t know the name I was given at birth. They didn’t know who, or what I was. I almost felt like one of those undercover agents in a Hollywood movie. Yes, I had watched a Hollywood movie. More accurately, I had watched half of one while working in my previous landlord’s house.
When the final bell rang, all students rushed through the doors. One even brushed past me. I winced, instinctively thinking that he would start screaming and cursing as the others had always done. Then his mother would sprinkle some holy water on him before letting him enter the house. Embarrassment flooded my cheeks. When I raised my eyes from the floor, I saw that the boy had already gone ahead, unconcerned that he had brushed past me. They don’t know the old me. I reminded myself. All they know is what I let them know.
The next day, when the teacher asked everyone to line up and proceed, everybody did so without a question; all seeming to know what was going on. After a few minutes of moving along in the line, I realized everyone was going to the temple, touching the statue’s foot and returning.
“Ramesh, move along.” A teacher said. “What’s wrong?” She asked when she saw me hesitating. “Go in. It’s Saraswati Puja.” She prompted me to step in.
I remembered what my father had told me before changing our religion. We are Hindus, but they will not let us enter temples. Do not misunderstand, my son, for we are not against the religion. We are simply against certain people who relish in making us feel vulnerable. Those people deny us our basic human rights. In Buddhism, we can get the equality and liberty that we deserve.
“Ma’am, I’m Buddhist.” I told her.
“That’s alright. Just go in and join your hands. Your religion doesn’t matter.” She told me, and I wondered if she would tell me my caste didn’t matter either.
During lunch, I sat on an empty table at the corner, the same as I had done the day before. I looked up in surprise when I heard the rustle of another person sitting across from me. It was a boy who had introduced himself to me in one of the classes.
“Aloo Paratha!” His eyes were fixed on my food, clearly in delight. “Do you mind if I have some?” He asked, but dived in without waiting for my response.
I kept staring at him in shock. He was eating my food.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was being rude.” He said nervously, assuming that I was angry at him for eating my lunch. He offered his sandwich in exchange.
If my thoughts weren’t stuck elsewhere, I would’ve found it funny that he wanted my Aloo Paratha in exchange for his sandwich.
“No. No, it’s not that.” I cleared my throat, trying to rid my previous thoughts. You are not him anymore, I reminded myself. “It’s just that no one used to even touch my food.”
“Oh, so you’re one of those people.” He nodded to himself as though he had made an important observation. My heart stopped for a second. “Don’t worry. I’m not judging you. My brother is the same. He can have my food, but I can’t even touch his.”
“I don’t mind. We can share our lunch.” I smile; the simple act of sharing food with friends was new to me. Friends. Huh, I guess a lot of things are new now.
“So, what does your father do?” He asked me, after telling me all about his father’s business.
“He has a job in the Public Service Commission.” I could hear the pride in my voice.
“That’s so great! I heard it’s really hard. My cousin attempted it thrice but couldn’t get in.”
“Yeah, it is great. We even got to move here because of the new job.” I instantly wished I hadn’t given so much information; it could lead to more evasive questions.
“New job? Is that why you changed schools?”
“Cool. I’ve always been here. It’s kind of boring. What did your dad do before?”
“He, uh, he used to prepare for the PSC exams. He studied all day.” I looked away. I was proud of my dad, but I didn’t want to tell a new friend that he used to do manual labor at night while he studied during the day. It is hard for people to understand coming from a low caste, getting a day job is nearly impossible. After all, they called us the untouchables.
“Oh, he must be really smart.”
“Yeah. He is.” My father had always been wise, despite his circumstances. He had single-handedly changed our condition.
Dalit. My father told me it was just a word. A very negative one at that. Even its meaning was broken people. We’re not broken people, he had told me. We’re just people who they are trying to break. Although he had a mature mind, he made me change my name; said he didn’t want any of the negativity to touch me. Sharma is a surname of upper-caste Brahmins, but it also meant comfort and happiness. He said that was all he wanted for me. Maybe, in this new life, it is possible.
Shreya is a literature enthusiast from Kathmandu, Nepal. When she is not busy with her school assignments and extracurricular activities, you can always find her experimenting in the kitchen and – of course – writing fiction. With great aspirations, Shreya is a daydreamer. She is always focusing on certain mere objects around her and imagining their stories in her head. During the lockdown, she has set goals to write as much as possible and have them published!
 Chotu – Literally means small. In India, it is a common word to address small boys.
 Saraswati Puja – A Hindu festival in which Goddess Saraswati is worshipped.