“I won’t go to school today, Mother. I’ll come to the forest with you,” Chinnaponnu whined. “I’ll hit you with a slipper!” shouted Paripoornam. “Why won’t you go to school? What would you do in the forest? All you can do is talk.” She fell silent and then repeated the same thing over again. This time, Chinnaponnu burst into tears.
“Why won’t you go? Did the teacher beat you? Did the other children harass you? Tell me, my girl. I’m getting late. If I get there late, they won’t allow me to work.”
“I don’t want to go to study. I’ll look after the house. I won’t go. I’m scared. I don’t want to go,” cried her daughter.
“Listen, I’m educating my children with a lot of difficulty. Some days I eat, some days I don’t. Don’t be difficult. Go to school. If your father comes home now, he’ll skin you alive! Yes, remember,” threatened Paripoornam.
Chinnaponnu did not know what to do, but she was determined not to go to school. “Please, Mother, just today,” she begged. “I don’t want to go. I’ll go from tomorrow. Please don’t tell Father.”
“You’ve been going to school regularly all these days. What’s happened today? If you study, you’ll have a good future. Otherwise, you’ll suffer like a dog. Come, take this rupee — buy yourself something to eat. Now pick up your bag.” Paripoornam wiped the tears from her daughter’s face.
“I don’t want money! I don’t want to go to school!” Chinnaponnu threw down the coin and cried.
Paripoornam saw Kittanammal walking towards the school, and called out to her: “Hey, girl, take my daughter with you to school. The dead dog! She is not listening to me.”
“Aunty, the children from the temple street beat your daughter yesterday,” said Kittanammal. “That is why she doesn’t want to go.”
“Oh! Is that so? She hasn’t said a thing about it.”
“Yesterday, she hadn’t taken her plate along for her midday meal. She asked Jyotilakshmi, the girl from the other street, for her lunch-box to eat out of. That’s what happened.”
“Did you ask for the lunch-box?” Paripoornam asked her daughter.
“Yes, but she said she wouldn’t give it. Then Muniamma and I ate together from one plate.”
“Why did they beat you for this?” Paripoornam could not understand.
“No, Aunty, she went and asked for the lunch-box from the children of the other street,” Kittanammal said, with emphasis.
“Why did you ask them? There are so many children from our street in your school. Why did you ask the children of the other street and not our own?”
“All the children from our street were eating. The children from the other street bring their meals from home in lunch-boxes. Jyotilakshmi had finished eating and her lunch box was empty, so I asked to borrow it,” explained Chinnaponnu.
Paripoornam was no longer angry with her daughter. “In school, children always give and take things from each other — and they have beaten her for this,” Paripoornam muttered to herself. “Anyway, when the children from that street beat you, you should have told your teacher.”
“We did, and the teacher beat Chinnaponnu again,” said Kittanammal.
“Why did you ask the kids from our street, the teacher said. You should have asked the kids from your street.”
“What are they teaching the children?” wondered Paripoornam. “Schoolteachers talking about caste! What will the world come to?” She turned to her daughter: “Pick up your schoolbag. It doesn’t matter if I don’t get work today. I’ll go to the school and make enquiries. They beat her so badly that she refuses to go to school!” And she dragged her daughter off to school.
Paripoornam went up to Class IV, where Chinnaponnu studied. The children told her that the teacher was in the office room. She walked quickly to the office. Chinnaponnu had to run to keep up with her. The headmaster and the teachers were all in the office. Paripoornam was very angry, but she controlled herself and said softly: “Sir, children give and take things among themselves. For such a small thing, the kids of your street have beaten my daughter and she no longer wants to come to school.”
The Class IV teacher glanced at Chinnaponnu and said something to the headmaster. The headmaster asked Paripoornam: “You have come all the way here for such a small matter? Anyway, your daughter is at fault. The donkey sleeps in the shelter of a wall and dreams of a mansion! If your daughter had touched their things and eaten from them, how would the children of our street eat? Go on, tell me. What, don’t you know the customs of our country? Instead of teaching those to your daughter, you have come here for justice!”
“Sir, what does this child know?” asked Paripoornam sorrowfully. “She does not know that she should not take things from the children of your street. She should not be beaten for that. If they all study in one school, things like this will happen.”
“That’s why we did not want to admit the children of your street. But then we took pity on them, and see what problems you’re creating now! You people should be kept in your place. If she does not want to come to school, get her four piglets. She can look after them. It would be good for you, too. Now go. Don’t waste our time early in the morning,” said the headmaster and got up. The other teachers followed him out of the door. Paripoornam took her daughter’s hand and returned home.
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Bama Faustina is the most distinguished Dalit fiction writer in Tamil, and one of the most acclaimed of all Dalit women writers. Her autobiographical novel ‘Karukku’ (1992) was the first Tamil Dalit text on the Christian Dalit community. Bama is a schoolteacher in Uthiramerur, Tamil Nadu