Raja’s Shame-A Short Story

Author’s Note: I chose to write fiction because I believe it has the power to humanize empirical data. Research has been conducted in many Indian states that provide evidence of discriminatory seating arrangements in schools, teachers discriminating against marginalized children, and so on. But beyond the numbers and affirmative action, it is that deeply personal feeling of shame that a child is subject to at such a young age – one that can scar them for life, and one that we need to recognize, acknowledge and empathize with.

“Mom, I do not want to go to school today, please”, said Vini to her mother. Vini had been worried about going to school for the past week. This week was her turn to sit with the new kid in class. All her classmates in the 4th grade had told her that anybody who touches him gets a horrible skin disease. One where your skin starts to come off in flakes. She could not stand the thought of having to sit next to him. But her mother was already packing her school bag. “Here you go, finish your tiffin today. And I can hear the school bus, so hurry up”, said Vini’s mother. The school bus had not arrived yet. They lived in a small town called Dantewada, with only one private school and a very quiet neighborhood. Not wanting to disturb her neighbors, Vini’s mother usually walked her to the bus stop before the school bus could start honking furiously.

Vini boarded the bus with a frown. Her friends on the bus reminded her that whatever happens she must not let the new kid touch her.

*

In class, Vini saw Raja sitting at the last bench. She went and sat next to him, carefully placing her school bag between them. To her horror, the school bag was not wide enough – it could easily slip through the gap between the bench and the desk. Raja had seen every kid in class do this. Usually, they kept their bags on the floor beside their benches, but whenever they sat next to him, they would try to create this barrier. He did not know why they did it, but he felt obligated to do the same. So, he picked his school bag from the floor and placed it beside Vini’s. The bag sat tautly leaving no gap. Vini was now relaxed, she took her notebook and pencil out of her bag, carefully placing them on the edge of the desk. 

It was a mathematics class, and the teacher was writing a problem on the blackboard for the entire class to solve. Vini was trying her best to coil her arms closer to her notebook, but she could feel Raja leaning towards her. Frustrated, she looked up and said, “If you cannot see the blackboard, why are you sitting at the last bench?” A little taken aback by their first conversation, Raja replied, “Well, this is my seat. I do not have any other seat.” Before Vini could open her mouth to ask what he meant, a flying piece of chalk hit Raja on his cheek. The teacher had spotted the two of them talking.

“Stand up, both of you”, said Mandal Sir as he walked to the back of the class. Inspecting Raja’s dirty notebook, he said, “This is how you keep your notebooks? This is your English notebook. Where is your Maths notebook?” Raja never spoke in class, so he kept his head down and continued to look at his hands. Annoyed at his silence, Mandal Sir instructed him to keep standing and asked Vini to sit down. “This kid will remain an adivasi”, he muttered as he walked back to the blackboard. Vini looked at Raja who was standing with his chin tucked too close to his chest. She thought she saw tears in his eyes, but she could not be sure. She pushed the bags to his side of the bench now that he was standing, and sat more comfortably. 

During the lunch break, Vini told her friends that she had washed her hands thrice. One of Vini’s friends was telling the group, “Raja lives in the forest. The bus drops him off at the side of the road and he vanishes into the trees.” 

“My mother told me he has an ST”, said another. 

*

Back at home, Raja takes his uniform off and hangs it by the bed. He goes outside and sits on his favorite spot on the log from a fallen tree. His mother is sitting on the ground and carving teak wood. Their house was surrounded by trees and the highway was a few kms away. The only sound was the sound of wind and birds. Sitting on his tree log, Raja loved watching his mother carve wood. It looked like a sculpture of a goddess now, but it could turn out to be an elephant by the time she is done with it. He wanted to carve wood like her, so she would let him use the chisel sometimes.  

“How was your school today?”, she asked Raja. He wanted to tell her that he needed a new notebook for Mathematics. That he had used the previous one for drawing. But he decided to wait until the next month. He wanted to ask her why they were adivasis, but something stopped him. He said, “I’m tired”, and lay down on the tree log. 

“Don’t study so much that you are tired”, she said. She was using a knife to carve the wood, and every so often she would wipe the sweat off her forehead with her palms, then continue to work on the goddess. Raja had watched her work so many times, but this repelled him today. Why can’t she keep a spare cloth to wipe her sweat, he thought. He continued to look at her, studying her face. He noticed it was covered with sweat, wood dust, and dirt. When his mother was done for the evening, she asked him to help her clean the wood dust from the ground. He wanted to say no, but he had always cleaned the wood dust. So, he went to fetch the broom from inside the house. After he was done, he washed his hands three times. 

*

The next day at school Raja went to his bench where Vini was already seated. He placed his school bag next to hers between them and took his seat. She did not look at him once. He was relieved that she would not notice him wearing the same uniform as yesterday. It was a special day at school. To teach the kids the importance of community service, the teachers had instructed them to clean the playground with their hands – pick up small objects like candy wrappers, plastic bottle caps, and put them in the trash. Raja was starting to worry – it would be very difficult to avoid getting his clothes dirty while cleaning the playground. He decided to tell Mandal Sir that he was feeling sick. But when the time came, he could not utter a single word.

So, he ended up on the playground picking trash with all the other kids. He bent down, squatting carefully and picking small wrappers off the ground. Vini, not looking at who was behind her, bumped into Raja accidentally. She immediately screamed, “Oh no! I will have to take a bath now”. Shocked at her own words, she fled to the washroom. Raja remained in that squatting position, his breath caught in his throat. He looked up to find all the kids staring at him. He had never felt so dirty. Was it because I was wearing the same uniform I wore yesterday, he thought. He did not know what to do, whether to say something or run away. So, he looked down – chin tucked so low all he could see was himself – and started to pick up the trash, as did the other kids. 

“What happened to Vini?”, one kid whispered to another.

“She touched him.”

*

Back at home, Raja did not take off his uniform. He went and sat outside on his tree log. Here, there was nobody who could push him to the corner of this log with their school bags. He did not quite understand why, but he started crying. He wiped his face with his hands and noticed they were now covered with tears, wood dust, and dirt. His mother came outside to work on her wooden sculpture. Seeing his mother made him cry again. “What happened Raja? Why are you crying? Did something happen at school?”, asked his mother. He did not know how to tell his mother what had happened. He just knew how it had made him feel – shameful. Crying, he said to her, “Maa, I do not want to go to school. Please.”

***

For Further reading

  • Human Rights Watch. (2014). “They Say We’re Dirty”: Denying an Education to India’s Marginalized. Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/report/2014/04/22/they-say-were-dirty/denying-education-indias-marginalized: In this report, Human Rights Watch examines the barriers to education for marginalized children, including Dalits, Tribal groups, and Muslims. Findings outline the various forms of discrimination faced by marginalized children – from teachers using derogatory words for their caste to Dalit children being made to sit separately.
  • RAMACHANDRAN, V., & NAOREM, T. (2013). What It Means To Be a Dalit or Tribal Child in Our Schools: A Synthesis of a Six-State Qualitative Study. Economic and Political Weekly, 48(44), 43-52. Retrieved July 5, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/23528806: This study commissioned by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan found exclusionary practices in schools and highlighted the need to urgently address them.

Author Bio

Shaivya Sahare has been working and volunteering with NGOs that focus on the environment, education, and art & culture for over three years. She recently finished her year as a Young India Fellow at Ashoka University, Haryana. Her educational background in Computer Science Engineering makes her optimistic about the role of technology in empowering people.   

Published by The Delek Archives

This project intends to archive instances of identity and religion-based discrimination in schools. It will map policies, surveys, curriculum evaluation and self-reflections; with a larger goal to providing a vision for justice, equity and inclusivity in school education.

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