When she told her husband what had happened, he started shouting, “Who is he to tell our children not to go to school? Is the school his father’s property? If the children of our street didn’t go to his school, he’d be out of a job. We have given these people too much leeway. Right down from the headmaster, all the teachers are from the other street. One or two people from our street do study and become teachers, but they can’t fight these people. They are falsely implicated in something or the other and transferred. If we let them get away with it now, these thieves will ask for more.”
“Sure, as if our people have got what they wanted all these years!” said Paripoornam. “Now you want to go and make everything all right. Just talk to your daughter and send her to school, or she’ll do poorly.”
“Our children will be ruined if they study with these people. Just you wait till tomorrow — I’ll grill them. They can’t touch our children.”
“Hey, calm down. You’ll go and say whatever you want and they’ll fail our daughter. Do you know how many children have been failed like that? They were all good students. No, let’s drop it for now.”
Next day, they told Chinnaponnu not to talk to the children of the other street and not to ask them for anything. They dropped her off at school. Chinnaponnu sat in class nervously. She was not happy like before and her mind was not on her lessons. She was itching to know why she must not have any contact with the children of the other street.
For a few days after that, the slum was abuzz with talk about this incident. The people of the slum did not make a big hue and cry about the behaviour of the children of the other street, but they could not accept the way the headmaster and the teachers treated their children. When they sat together in the evenings, everyone discussed the matter. Even the women who went to the forest or in search of other work were talking about it:
“It is better to stay at home rather than study in this school. My daughter says that too. The whole school is swept and cleaned by our children. Their children just come, attend classes and go home without doing anything.”
“Why should our children sweep? Can’t they refuse to do it?”
“Oh, no. If they refuse to do anything, they are beaten up. When my husband went and asked them what was going on, they said that our children do a better job of it, and their children don’t know how to clean.”
“Great! Our children will clean up and their children will study! Just as we all work hard in the forest while the other villagers enjoy life.”
“But you know, sister, our boys are fuming. How long can they tolerate this? We bent over backwards, but we want our children to stand tall and enjoy a good life. This desire burns like fire in everyone’s heart.”
“That’s so true. There have been too many incidents. Whenever the smaller children mess up the classroom, our children are asked to clean up. They are so arrogant!”
There was another incident three or four weeks later. Komalavalli, who taught Class III, had put her Pongal festival bonus in her purse but couldn’t find it in the evening. At once, all the slum children in her class were detained and questioned. The authorities decided that Kattari, Vellukannan’s son, had taken the money. They detained him in school and the other slum children were sent home.
Word spread. Kattari’s mother went to the school in tears. Vellukannan followed, taking the headman of their street with him. Ten or fifteen important people of their area also went along. The headmaster had brought the headman of his street and ten important people too. The boy Kattari was in shock. He looked helpless.
The headmaster opened the proceedings. “Look what this boy from your street has done. Such a little boy and he has stolen three thousand rupees! We can settle the matter if you listen to our headman, or we’ll have to call the police.”
Kuttiyan, the headman of the slum, said, “If the money went missing in Class III, all the children of that class should be questioned. Why should you question only the slum children? That’s not right.”
“What are you saying? You want us to question the children of our street?” the headman of that street was appalled.
“Yes, do you think your children can’t steal? That only children from our street steal?” asked Kuttiyan.
“Hey, what did you say? How dare you call our children thieves!” shouted the headman of that street. He got up and hit Kuttiyan.
“What did he say wrong?” countered Vellukannan. “You should have questioned all the children of the class. You have detained my son and called him a thief. How did you come to this conclusion? Is it because he is from the slum?” Vellukannan turned to his son. “Have you stolen the money?”
“No, Father. I didn’t take it. When I went to the toilet, I saw that Aravind had a lot of money with him. He even bought a packet of biscuits and ate all of it himself.”
“Look, he says it was some Aravind. Ask about that boy.”
The moment Vellukannan said this, the headman of the other street started screaming at the top of his voice: “How dare you? Do you mean to say that my son stole the money? Do you think that he is like the wretched boys of the slum? Are you telling me that my son is a thief?” He got up and started hitting Vellukannan.
Kattari ran and hugged his father and started crying. Meanwhile, a teacher came to the headmaster and said something to him. At once the headmaster told the headman of his street, “Let them be. Why should you beat a dog and earn the burden of sin? Why do you want to deal with them at all? Just touch these people and they’ll make trouble. These people are not like they used to be. Let them be.”
“Why should I? Did you hear what he said?”
“His words won’t hurt you. Here, you, take your son and go away. Let’s drop it. The teacher has got the money back. Luckily, no one is blamed,” said the headmaster easily.
At that, Vellukannan’s anger knew no bounds. He spat on the floor with all his might. He picked up his son Kattari, put him on his shoulder and marched away. Kuttiyan and the others followed.
Translated from the Tamil story ‘Ellakaaram’ by Sarsa Rajagopal and Antara Dev Sen
p. 1 p. 2
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