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The Visiting Card

Dalpat Chauhan

Translated from Gujarati by Hemang Ashwinkumar

That a woman from a caste that is the lowest of the low should learn Sanskrit, and not only that, also teach it- is a dreadful anomaly to a traditional mind. And an individual in whose personality these anomalies are accumulated becomes an object of attraction – an attraction blended of mixed acceptance and rejection.”
Kumud Pawde, Antasphot (1981)

“After all you are from the Cheri, you might have done it. You must have done it. The tears started welling up in my eyes, and I wept. After a long time, the priest wrote a note asking that I should be allowed to return to the school. When I took it to the headmaster, he abused me roundly, using every bad word that came to his mouth, and then told me to go to my classroom. When I entered the classroom, the entire class turned round to look at me, and I wanted to shrink into myself as I went and sat on my bench, still weeping.”
-Bama, Karukku (1992)

Soft purring synced in with soughing of hot loo outside. A gentle jolt backwards and the bus bound for Ahmedabad moved. She ran a discreet, searching gaze around to see whether there were enough co-passengers on the bus, that she was not all alone. There were quite a few, not to worry. That the seat next to hers was vacant was such a relief. She closed her eyes and sat resting her hands on the purse in her lap. Her fingers began to tap rhythmically on the hard leather of the purse; soothed by the rhythm, she was slowly slipping into her fond reverie. But a sharp tidick-tick, not very far away from her, jolted her out of it. The conductor was closing in, swaggering down the aisle, his leather pouch with a long belt slinging down his left shoulder and a rusty ticket case with equally long belt on the right. Irked by the interruption, she began to look outside the window. Another tidick-tick, much closer and unusually loud. The conductor snapped with his empty ticket punch almost in her face, a rather arrogant yet customary way of posing a question in a tidick-tick, tidick-tick language to consult a passenger’s destination. The sharp noise went straight through her eardrums, like a bullet, and blew her nerves. She purchased the ticket, put it safely in her purse and relapsed into her fantasy, the unconscious tap-tapping on purse playing a musical escort. The continuous clatter of the ramshackle municipal transport bus and the rustle of the hot wind blowing in through the window seemed to clarify the vision she had been having frequently of late. The convocation ceremony of some university. Students standing in neat rows wearing black robe and square academic cap, with a snow-white tassel attached to its center. Upon announcement of their names, they would mount the stage one by one from one side, receive their degree certificates and proudly walk down from the other side.

All unknown faces, complete strangers, but she would try to spot herself amongst them. Faces would stream on, one after another, but she was absent, the missing person.

“Oh, God? I’m not there.” She mumbled, half-asleep half-awake. The bus sped over a road bump and the heavy thud as it landed woke her up. Her dream, she realized, was straight from a television show, her pet prime-time soap. She smiled wryly. Of all the Faculties at university, it was hers that never held a convocation ceremony. Why didn’t they hold one? The question thorned her heart. She would never be able to go up the stage. Suddenly, an acute sense of deprivation washed over her and punctuated her memory of being a pariah; it rekindled the acute consciousness of a stranded existence. And what was her fault? Her birth…just the fact that she was born in a particular caste. That became the ground for discrimination, for shamelessly inflicted dispossession, for robbing her of her rights. She had to change her Faculty, thanks to her birth.

Bitter to the marrow, she closed her eyes. She had read the story of Prometheus who was punished by Zeus, so severely and so unfairly. Tied to a rock, he had to suffer excruciating pain as a huge vulture pecked at his liver by day, which grew back by night only to be eaten again the next day. What horrible punishment! What was his fault? A champion of mankind, he stole fire from the gods and gave it to mortals. What was her fault? She, a Scheduled Caste student, had pointed out the error of her chemistry teacher during the class.

“Sir, there is an error in the formula, it seems.” And, how terribly she was humiliated in front of her classmates!

“Supersmart that you are, why don’t you come here and teach? Oh sorry, I forgot. You want to be a doctor, don’t you?” She didn’t realize when her teacher graduated from sly dig to plain innuendos because she had switched off, literally. Switched off because it was all too familiar; she knew full well what was coming. “You bloody SCs…you want to become a doctor? The whole civilization will go down the drain.” He might as well have said, “I’ll see how you get admission into a medical college.” She remembered the placard hanging on the wall of her classroom which quoted Chanakya, “Never underestimate the power of a teacher.”. A mixture of contempt and acrimony lined her face. She spat out of the window and smiled sardonically.

* * *

The bell of the bus rang, and the bus halted with a screech. She looked out in the east and saw a magnificent royal gate at the entrance of a village. Everybody who passed through it marveled at its architectural beauty. The name of its sarpanch in glittering golden colour, along with his ancestors up to three generations, was engraved on a huge wooden plank attached to one of its pillars. Gigantic village gates were in vogue, almost every single village boasted it, she thought. At once, the animal within her, her mind, was let loose, “What if an SC fellow donates money for the construction of such a gate…?”

Some passengers got down while a few more got in. The bus moved on towards a fork in the road, one going east, the other south-east. The latter had been a witness to a bizarre historical development around faith and caste. As soon as one embarked on it, two similar temples, say identical twins, of the same presiding deity, separated only by a single-brick partition wall, hove into sight. The older was an upper-castes-only site; the entry of the SCs was prohibited. But SCs too would not back out that easily. Right next to the upper-caste temple, they erected a small shrine initially which later ballooned into a splendid temple. One deity, two temples. The result of a crazy adamancy and insolent human obduracy, what else? She had been obdurate too, but in a different way; to stake her claim and she did. A resounding slap in the face of the orthodox society, wasn’t it?

She looked at the new temple and her eyes smiled softly. Hanging on with grim resolve and steely determination, she had finally staked a claim to the title ‘Doctor’. Suddenly, she heard a squeal of brakes; a cow was standing in front of the bus blocking the road. The driver honked madly and cursed the rabaris for such irresponsible herding and then this god-forsaken country where, according to him, such anarchy was normal. Unbothered by the bovine road blocker or the all-too-familiar rant, the conductor kept tidick-ticking his empty ticket punch in the faces of the new passengers and issuing tickets. Once he was done, he announced in his deep, hoarse voice, “Anybody left out?”

* * *

“Hey, Meena, did you point out the error of H2O in the class?”
“H2O? Who H2O?” she had asked curiously.
“Now look at Ms. Innocence. Our chemistry teacher, who else?”
“What about him?”
“I heard you got his knickers in a twist. But be careful with that fellow. He can hurt, most painfully at that.”
“What can he do to me? These are board exams. Nothing is in his hands, really.”

“Yes, basically he is a sissy. But our seniors don’t have civil things to say about him. He doesn’t forget and forgive easily, difficult if it’s a public humiliation and impossible if it’s at the hands of an SC. He always tries to put students from our category in their place. Would say, ‘What will you gain studying so hard? You bloody…’”

“Let’s see.” She had not paid much heed to her friend’s caution that day, but one crucial point, she had missed. Marks for journal. As per the board rules, the subject teacher had to assess a student’s journal for practical work and give marks for it.

The bus hit a pothole and a violent jerk rocked her entire body. That day too, she had felt a similar jerk, the day her chemistry journal went missing in school. She had immediately figured out the ploy, the trick of her teacher. She had met the teacher with her father; he had pleaded with him, had fallen to his feet, actually.

“Sir, if she scores less in the journal section, her dream of studying medicine will be shattered.”

“Sky will not come crashing down if…”, H2O had instantly checked himself, “…there are many other branches of study like arts, commerce, B.Sc….”. He had casually added.

“She wants to become a doctor. If you help…”

“What kind of help? Do you think I’ve misplaced her journal? You people are just impossible. Go home and search.”

All his entreaties, beseeching and pleading were of no use. They had met the school principal, government officers and so on. All in vain. The bell tinkled once again. The conductor was frenziedly tugging at the bell rope while forcing a passenger to get down, physically pushing him towards the exit alongside the driver’s seat. The passenger, a rustic fellow in dirty clothes, kept pleading,

“I want to go to Ahmedabad.”

“Take the next bus. Get down, now.” He was literally thrown out of the bus. Outraged and helpless, he kept glaring at the conductor as the bus left him behind. She felt sorry for him.

* * *

For the first time, she had seen her father burning with helpless rage. Her mother too had felt mounting dismay, but no remedy was in sight. Amid that despair, an acute awareness of the history of discrimination had dawned upon her, a realization that she was only the latest loop in the long chain of oppression. Not even the latest as in the moment she thought about it, a thousand other loops might have been added to the chain. Perhaps it was a legacy, like genetic deformity, that one inherited generation after generation. The injustice her father was subjected to in his college days had suddenly weighed her down with unprecedented acuteness.

Her father, exceptionally bright in studies, had scored well in his board exams and secured admission in the foremost engineering college of the city. Suddenly one fine morning, the entire city was engulfed in the conflagration of anti-reservation riots. The rioters had targeted hostels where reserved category students boarded. Breaking into their rooms, the hooligans had vandalized furniture, books, baggage and even physically assaulted them. They had to run for their lives, leaving everything behind. Travelling like a refugee on foot, in autorickshaws, on trucks and tractors, his father had reached his village only the day after with a few of his academic testimonials, he had been able to salvage. Unable to continue with engineering, he had to shift to humanities later. Enrolling in a college in his village, he had studied up to post graduation.

The sight of her father, unusually dispirited and crestfallen, had broken her heart. She had assured him, “Now, I’ll get the title of a doctor at any cost, even if I have to do a Ph.D for that. History will have to change. I’ll change it.”

Her father had smiled faintly and said, “Bravo my girl.”

* * *

Caught in the vortex of thoughts, she had kept on sitting like a figurine for quite some time and now her feet were on pins and needles. She stood up, stamped her feet lightly one after another on the metal floor and sat down again, stretching her feet on the seat next to hers.

The result of her board exams had been a sledgehammer blow on her career; the trick of H2O had worked. The crash in the overall percentage due to passing marks in chemistry journal had closed the doors of a government medical college for her. Admission in a self-financing college was possible still but her father would have had to pay through the nose for it. But she was fixated on that exclusive prefix before her name; she had made up her mind to create heaven on earth even if that meant an alternative heaven created out of a dangerous obsession, like that of Trishanku. A regular Doctor of Philosophy would demand an investment of several years at a stretch and at the end of such a long journey, if she got a supervisor like H2O, she was done for, she’d thought. Couldn’t she opt for Naturopathy or Homeopathy? Finally, she had got admission in Homeopathy and the precious, broad smile had revived on her father’s face.

* * *

The bus halted again, despite there being no stand in the vicinity. On her right stood a timber yard and an auto garage. On the left were a makeshift juice station selling sugarcane juice and a paan shop, with a shimmering face. The strips of small, individual-sized gutka, hanging like frills on the front of the shop shone with dazzling brilliance. The driver revved the engine up, a familiar signal for the boy on the shop to hand him over his quota of gutka. The location was nothing short of a place of pilgrimage for all municipal transport buses plying on that route; paying homage to the paan shop was customary, she figured. Perhaps as customary as it was for her to attach that coveted prefix to her name. Perhaps, not so customary. For she had worked extremely hard, as hard as she would have in allopathy, to learn the intricacies of diseases, reading of symptoms and labyrinthine process of diagnosis. The fact that the wellbeing, life and death of a living, breathing human being rested in her hands made her extremely alert and attentive to the nuances of treatment; naturally, it had given her many a sleepless night.

But she had surmounted all those trepidations and strain; she had made her mark and now was on the way to the office of the medical council to remit fees for her degree certificate, a flashing proof of her merit, to be framed and hung on the wall of her clinic.

* * *

She came back home in the evening on a returning bus. Her body was tired, but her heart was agile, raring to embark on newer journeys, explore newer terrains. The form for degree certificate was filled and it was a matter of time now, a few days only. Did she fill her address right? She immediately fished out the receipt from her purse and checked, word by word. Entering her room, she plonked herself on the chair at her study table and closed her eyes. As if reminded of something important, she straightened up and pulled out a drawer on her right. A case of visiting cards, lying in a long wait there, beamed at her. She opened it and took out one card. Dr. (Ms.) Meena Kapadia and her address underneath. She mentally tallied the address with the one she had given at the council office. The recurring pangs of self-doubt annoyed her. Nomenclature was all that was there to her society; it was a way of branding people, and how naturally she had given in to this system! The tragic irony behind how an individual’s identity and existence got reduced to a visiting card and a degree certificate made her sad.

* * *

A few days on edge were all it took to bring the postman on her doorstep. When she was handed the fancy, cylindrical case carrying the roll of her degree certificate, she felt as if she was getting it from a dignitary on a stage facing a huge applauding audience. The vision of black robe, graduate cap and snow-white tassel flashed before her eyes. Such a long wait and such a long journey. The curse of Prometheus was lifted finally. She cried out from the main door, “Mummy, the degree certificate is here.” Entire house smiled with joy.

* * *

She took out a visiting card, ran her fingers over its crisp edges reflectively and tucked it in her purse. Telling her mother that she was going to see her friend, she set out hurriedly. Her steps, informed with a new energy and unique spring, soon veered off to her high school. The moment she had waited so desperately for was finally here. She wanted to get back at H2O, no, get even with him in this duel of minds. She was the soldier of silent resistance, of a battle fought in isolation.

Would he be there? The self-doubt she loathed so much cropped up. She will go again if he’s not there. But what if he has changed jobs or got transferred? She would get his new address and see him there. Was she taking it too personally? And what if he was no more? God forbid…she shuddered. At once, her joy turned into deep sadness. All she wanted to prove to him was that he was too puny to make or mar human destinies. She did not want to speak anything harsh, let alone bitter or insulting. She would give him her visiting card and it would speak for itself; no words were required.

Lost in her thoughts, she did not realize when she reached the gate of her school. Nothing had changed in the school, it seemed. The same lofty iron gate, probably a bit more rusted. The same old building with smoky grey walls. The sprawling playground flanked by two neem trees, their form denser and wider. The same watchman except that his moustaches and shock of hair on head had greyed strikingly over the years.

“Whom do you want to see?” he asked, his indifference and arrogance intact.

“Chemistry teacher.” For a flitting moment, the watchman looked baffled; her heart missed a bit.

“But he has become the headmaster now. He must be there in his cabin upstairs” he obliged, much to her relief.

She climbed the dusty stairs and reached the cabin. Her heart was pounding. A peon was sitting on a stool just outside the door of the cabin. A nameplate nailed on the top right of the door proclaimed H2O’s name in bold black letters engraved on a golden plate. She fished out her visiting card from her purse and held it before her.

“Dr. (Ms.) Meena Kapadia.”

A faint smile flickered across her face. But almost immediately a sense of strange inhibition gripped her. She would send her card in, but what if he didn’t call her inside? And even if he did, what if he did not offer her a seat, intentionally kept her standing? Wouldn’t it be adding insult to injury? She broke out in a sweat all over her body. She looked at the nameplate, kept looking on…and it began to shrink…until it was reduced to a black mustard seed. She turned her gaze to look at the visiting card she was holding in her hand. It shook a bit and then began to enlarge beyond the periphery of her hand, the school and the village.

“Shall I give your card to sir? He’s there if you want see him.” She saw the extended hand of the peon. At once, she pulled her hand back.

“No, I don’t want to meet anyone.”

Putting the visiting card back in her purse, she quickly went down the dusty stairs.

First published in The Beacon.

Dalpat Chauhan is a veteran Gujarati dalit writer and one of the pioneers of the Dalit literary movement in Gujarat in the late 1970s. He has published a number of books including his novels Malak (Homeland) (1991), Gidh (Vulture) (1991) and Bhalbhankhalun (Dawn) (2004). He has has received more than 15 literary awards, including those from Gujarati Sahitya Parishad, Gujarati Sahitya Academy and the prestigious Narsinh Mehta Award. His works have been translated into English, Hindi, Marathi and German.

Hemang Ashwinkumar, a bi-lingual poet working in Gujarati and English. He has translated contemporary Marathi poetry into Gujarati and contemporary Gujarati poetry and short fiction into English. His Gujarati translation of Arun Kolatkar’s Kala Ghoda Poems was published recently.