SALTY WATER by Sadanand Sarada

It was her first day on the college campus for Kamala. She was walking along with others but her caste put her million miles away from them. Was she left with nothing but loneliness?

Poor woman! She was shaking like a deer that wandered off into wilderness … Her fearful eyes were drifting away in all directions.

“New here?” somebody asked her.

Yes, She nodded.

“Name?”

“Kamala.”

“Which class?”
“She? Second class!” Somebody else replied. They all burst into a big laugh.

Their laughter frightened Kamala even more. She was thirsty for a while, and their laughter dried out her throat completely.

“You are wearing a skirt and a half-saree? That to a degree college? What do you think this is? Second grade?”

“No madam. I joined the second year Intermediate class,” Kamala replied, fumbling for words.

“Is that right? We thought maybe our college has introduced the second grade recently, and that you were admitted in the second grade.”

“No, it’s not like that.”

“So, tell me, you’re in what class?”

“B.Com. first year,” Kamala said. She felt relieved that she managed to give them a correct response this time, and it was a relief.

“Telugu medium or English?”

“Telugu medium.”

“Ha, Telugu medium. Hey, Lata, come ‘ere. Meet this girl, she’s also from your caste,” she called out to Lata.

“What do you mean your caste?” Lata asked sourly.

“I mean, Commerce, Telugu medium.”

“You should say vaanijya sastram,” another friend said, giving the correct Telugu term for commerce.

“No dear, no way can I utter a word that long!” the first woman said and she turned to Lata again, “Here, this girl is in your Telugu Commerce class. Poor thing, see, she’s looking lost. Show her your classroom,” Leela Srinivas said to Lata.

Leela Srinivas would call a Hindu ‘Hindu’, Telugu ‘Telugu’ and claimed that her mother-tongue was Tamil.

Lata introduced a few more boys and girls to Kamala. Kamala folded both hands politely to all of them and said namaskaaram.

Kamala could not figure out why all those students were so kind to her and sought her friendship, not until it was time for the student union elections in her college.

Lata was in second year B.Com. Telugu medium class. She was walking with Kamala toward the first year class.

Kamala said softly she was thirsty; her tone was barely audible.

“There’s a water-cooler in that corner. Come on, I’ll show you,” Lata said.

The water cooler in the corner with two faded plastic glasses by its side seemed to showcase the extent of poverty in our country and the dishonesty in our people. A white plank with black lettering, attached to the water cooler, read that the water cooler was donated by Bahadur Adireddy in memory of his mother for the use of students. The plank would catch each the eye of each and every one that came to drink water from the tap regardless one was wearing glasses or not.

That great man, Adireddy, was known to be a generous man, who had set up the cooler for supplying cool water to the thirsty. Probably he had furnished one or two metal glasses for the use of general public; possibly the metal glasses were being used in somebody’s house. Now only the cooler stood there, carrying Adireddy’s mother’s name.

There was no way Kamala could lean forward, cup her palms and drink the water from that cooler. She had no choice but to drink from that plastic glass, which was disgusting to look at and smelling rotten.

The cool water slid down Kamala’s throat, and it was refreshing; the dissipating lifeforce in her seemed to have returned to her. She walked into the classroom Lata pointed out and sat down. All the girls sat on the benches next to the wall. Boys occupied other benches far back, leaving the first few rows to collect dust.

A young lecturer wearing a tie and high shoes walked into the class. He went on lecturing in English and in Telugu, switching back and forth. He told the class repeatedly that he’d be teaching accounting. He reiterated the importance of purchasing the notebooks and textbooks, told them which notebooks and which textbooks to buy several times, and how important it was to purchase the English versions along with the Telugu books published by the Academy, a branch of the state government. He stated that if a student wanted to score high marks, he must study the English textbooks, in addition to the Telugu versions, which were filled with mistakes. He even wrote the names of the English textbooks on the board.

Kamala noted down all those names meticulously.

***

Thus the first one week was all introductions, lectures on textbooks and the syllabus. During that one week, Kamala got to know not only Vinati and Janaki in her class but also Lata from the second year class.

By second week, the routine of taking attendance and teaching the lessons has set in.

***

One day, the English madam noticed that some of the students had not bought the textbooks yet and she was very angry. She yelled at them. In reality, she was showing off the fact that she was related to the principal. Even the second year students were scared of her, no need to mention how scared the first years were.

On another day, she asked the students with no textbooks to stand up. Kamala was one of them.

Madam also suggested that the boys should sell their shoes and shirts to buy the books. She was however a little kind toward girls. She told them to skip a meal a day and buy the books with the savings. Apparently she believed that everybody were eating three meals a day.

Kamala thought about her situation. She was aware that her father had to take out a loan to buy clothes for her. It would be painful for her to ask him to take out one more loan for her books. If she waited for a couple of months, the first loan would be paid off, and then they could borrow the money for books. She convinced herself that she must manage somehow until then.

Kamala was attentive in class and taking notes diligently. She would purchase the books whenever she could. Nevertheless, the English madam was not impressed with Kamala’s mode of thinking; she was annoyed.

***

One day, Kamala saw Lata in the bus.

“You get in here at this stop everyday?” Lata asked her.

Kamala nodded.

“Do you live close by?”

“There, I live there,” Kamala pointed toward the colony.

“That colony! Isn’t that Harijan colony?”

Kamal nodded again.

A few other students in the bus heard the conversation and turned their eyes in that direction.

The boys in striped shirts also looked at her.

Kamala lowered her eyes; it was getting uncomfortable for her.

That afternoon, she was sitting on the lawn and reading her class notes.

Vinati was standing at a distance and talking with another student. Lata joined them. She said, “Hey, you know, your classmate Kamala is a Harijan.”

Vinati told Lata, “I was friends with two Harijans in my Intermediate class. I used to shake hands with them everyday, sit on the same bench and eat lunch with them too.” Apparently, she was proud of herself for doing so. She also suggested that Lata should make friendship with Kamala; that would help her to win all the Harijan votes.

Lata was planning to contest for the general secretary position in the upcoming student union elections.

Kamala could hear their conversation. The letters in her notes were changing shapes.

Her classmate Kishore also joined Lata and the group.

After a while, they all turned to Kamala, and walked toward her. Vinati and Lata sat next to Kamala, almost leaning on her shoulders. Lata was talking and tapping on Kamala’s shoulder again and again. Kamala felt as if she was sitting on a bed of thorns. She twitched each time Lata put her arm on her shoulder.

The ice cream cart came.

Lata bought ice cream for all. We have to remember here once again that she was a contestant in the upcoming students union elections for the general secretary position.

Vinati exchanged her ice cream cone with that of Kamala, and looked at her friends, as if she wanted them to notice her big heart.

Kamala understood Vinati’s looks; the icecream in her hand tasted bitter and scorched her stomach.

Up until now, Vinati and Lata were saying hello to Kamala, now that had changed. Vinati started shaking Kamala’s hand; not just shake the hand and leave it at that; she would clutch Kamala’s hand and wait until several of her friends had noticed it.

Kamala was getting tired of this special treatment.

***

One day, Kamala was walking from college to the bus stop alone.

Behind her, Jivan was walking with a friend, and they were talking.

Kamala increased her pace. Nevertheless, she could hear Jivan’s words. “We tried so hard and still we could not get my sister admitted in medical college. I wish we’d belonged to a scheduled caste or scheduled tribe. We could’ve gotten the admission in a snap. Do you know what the SC stands for? Supreme Caste! They’ve reservations everywhere – in colleges, job market; they have scholarships, free education, free accommodation in hostels … Theirs is the life, if you ask me. I’m telling you, one must be born in a scheduled caste, not in this forward class like ours. Those bastards will not let us live, I’m tellin’ you.”

The words pierced through Kamala’s heart like a javeline. The bus stop was not too far, yet it felt like miles away.

***

One day a genteman came to her English class. He assured the English madam that he had obtained the permission from the principal, and showed the letter to her. He added, “The local M.L.A. Mohandas sent me to distribute free textbooks to the harijan students in the class.”

The English madam asked the SC and ST students to stand up.

There were not many SC and ST students in that. In fact, Kamala was the only SC student in the B.Com. Telugu first year class. A few of her classmates turned their eyes toward her. Kamala could feel their looks on her skin. She was too embarrassed even to look up; she could not bring herself to stand up.

Madam looked around, “No SCs here?”

Kamala was hoping that that gentleman would go away.

Vinati nudged her with her elbow, and said, “Here, Kamala is here, madam.”

Kamala had no choice but get up. The entire class was watching her. She stood up like a felon.

Madam was upset that Kamala did not stand up the first time she had urged the SCs to stand up. She poured a torrent of curses on her for ten minutes; she did so in English of course. It was not just yelling; she hurled abuses at her in English. She had a Ph.D. in English, you know. And then, she wondered for five more minutes, what a nerve! Why not come up and take the books freely given?

***

On a second Saturday and the following Sunday, the college, under the National Service Scheme (NSS) planned a camp for two days. This time the camp participation was limited to the Telugu B.Com. first year students.

The camp site was a small village. The students were proud of themselves for participitaing in that camp, which included activities like paving streets and planting trees.

Vinati found out that Kamala did not sign up for the camp.

“Aren’t you going to the camp?” she asked.

“No,” Kamala replied.

“Most of our classmates are going, you know. Come on, it’ll be fun. We can spend a couple of days together,” Janaki said, and added, “We are going to work in your harijan colony, I understand.”

Just then, the peon came and said that the economics lecturer and NSS program coordinator, Sarveswara Rao, wanted to talk to Kamala, and that he was waiting for her in the staff room.

As soon as Kamala walked into the staff room, Sarveswara Rao said, “Aren’t you going to the camp with us?”

“No sir,” Kamala replied.

“We’ll be leaving Saturday morning and be back by Sunday evening, you know.”

Kamala was quiet; she kept staring at the legs of his chair.

“I’m putting down your name.”

“No, sir, please, don’t.”

“Why not? How does it look if we don’t have even one Harijan student in our camp? We received orders from the bosses above, asking us to submit a list of participants with a breakdown based on caste. If we can show that we do have SC students, we look good and have a better shot at funding. Not only that. One of the programs in our camp includes a Harijan student, right? And the only Harijan student in our class is …”

Harijan student … Kamala is a Harijan student, Kamala, the Harijan student … her heart went into a fit of rampage, she moaned silently.

“I’m putting down your name. You must go to the camp with us. Or else, we will have to take action on you,” he said, looking at her. The look said you can go now.

***

At camp, they were done with their activities on Saturday. That night, Sarveswara Rao sat down with the students and explained the next day’s activities.

He said that there was one very important item on their schedule. He had used his clout and arranged to have the newspaper, radio and T.V. reporters to be present at the event; the students’ photos will be printed in the newspapers, and broadcast on the radio and TV stations.

At the mention of TV and the radio, the students got excited; they seemed to be wishing that that tomorrow were here right here and right now.

They checked their suitcases for neatly pressed shirts and pants.

Some of them were counting the hours for that tomorrow to come.

Some of them concluded that it was unfair to have twenty-four hours in a day.

“So, what is that particular item scheduled for tomorrow?” someone asked, dying with curiosity.

“A Harijan student Kamala from our class will enter the temple,” Sarveswara Rao said ardently.

A huge applause broke loose and resounded through the sky. Some students whistled ecstatically. And they all clapped again, expressing their happiness for being part of such an innovative program.

Most of the students could not sleep that night overwhelmed with the thoughts of the photos that were going to appear in the newspapers and on the TV. They spent most of the night pondering over the right posture for the photo shoot.

Kamala wanted to run away from that place, wished that that tomorrow would never come. In her mind, she pictured the people and the photographers – they all were pointing fingers at her the Harijan girl. She closed her eyes.

Is it possible for that tomorrow not to come because somebody is going to get hurt?

No. That tomorrow did come after all.

The group made Kamala take a bath early in the morning and wear new clothes.

They garlanded her. They made Kamala a sacrificial beast.

They took her to the temple in a parade.

Vinati held Kamala’s hand, would not leave even for a second.

Lata walked in front of Kamala as if she was responsible for the historic event of Kamala entering the temple.

Each time the cameras turned toward Kamala, both Vinati and Lata clung to her.

Even Parijatam, who never had talked to Kamala until now, came close to her and talked to her with a big smile. She wore a silk saree, probably because she wanted to appear beautiful on the TV.

“What’s her name?” somebody asked, pointing to Kamala. Several students said “Kamala”, competing to be the first to say her name; hoping that their names also would appear in the newspapers.

People gathered all along the street.

Two illiterate men looked at the crowd and were confused. One of the asked, “Hey, what’s gonna happin? What’s those flowers on’er neck for?” The other replied, “That’s tanner gal, says gonna go into temp’l,” the other person said.

Reporters and photographers were scrambling for good spot.

“Oh! Is she the Harijan student? … Look here, madam, just one snap, please, smile, okay, good.”

“As you walked toward the temple, how did you feel? I mean your thoughts, what were you thinking?”

Questions from the TV and radio reporters poured from everywhere. Students surrounded the TV reporters; each one of them wanted to be the closest to Kamala in that moment, and caught on tape holding her hand.

Two students from upper class commented. One said, “What a jamboree for a tanner girl? That’s what I call the roots.”

The other said, “Take ‘er and make ‘er your girl, you’ll have it too.”

The words pierced through Kamala’s heart like an arrow.

Anguish sprung to her eyes, gushing forth.

The TV and radio reporters jotted down tears of joy.

***

After returning home, Kamala threw herself into her father’s lap and broke into a fit of sobs.

“What’s happin baby? What’s happin’?” father asked her anxiously.

“Let’s go away dad, far far away where people see us like people. Let’s run away from this horrid town,” Kamala said, hugging her father tight, and pouring her heart out.

***

Translated by Nidadavolu Malathi, and published on thulika.net, January 2006.

(Published in Andhrabhumi monthly, November 1982.)

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