N is a bright XII standard boy. In the classroom he looks motivated. He works hard and while he is not the most talented in his class, his ‘driven-ness’ ( The strong desire to prove himself), more than compensates for it. I was not surprised thus when he cleared his NDA written examination.
I work these days with an army school. The aim of the school is to help children of limited economic means get quality education and to prepare them to clear the NDA exam and join Indian army as officers.
For those who qualify the written exam, the next challenge is the SSB or the Service Selection Board. The service selection board is an intensive five day ‘interview’ where the NDA aspirants are put through rigorous physical and psychological screening process. It comprises of group discussions, planning exercises, outdoor tasks, psychological tests and interviews and is perhaps the most daunting selection process of its kind in India.
Being the school counselor, I was given charge of preparing the cadets for their SSB. Thus it was, that N and me sat in my office one Tuesday morning. The agenda was to go through a series of personal questions likely to be asked in the SSB interview.
“What does your father do?”, I asked N.
“He is a civilian, Ma’am”, N replied.
“As a civilian, what does he do, N?”
“He is a safai karamchari, ma’am”, he responded , a little hesitantly
“Being a safai karamchari is no crimeN, say it loudly and clearly.” I quipped
“Yes, Ma’am! He is a safai karamchari, ma’am”, N said a little more audibly.
N was one of our best cadets and his command over English and current affairs was the envy of his classmates. Subsequent questions went by quickly. N answered all of them smoothly almost suavely till I came to…
“Relate an incidence from your life that defines you?”
N went into deep thought. He looked up, his mouth opened and then closed again, somewhat like a fish. A long pause followed, he looked around the office and then his gaze settled downwards on his feet. When he looked back at me his eyes were moist.
“My father was working at an officers home. It was very hot and he had been cleaning all morning. After a while he got thirsty. He asked the lady of the house for water to drink. But she did not give it. He was very thirsty and after waiting for long had to drink dirty water. It was very dirty water… She was an educated woman ma’am…” N, averted his gaze again. I saw a tear drop roll down his cheek.
Seeing N, so uncomfortable and ashamed, I was filled with shame and rage. Shame at the behavior of privileged people like me who are still capable of refusing a thirsty man water because of his caste. And anger at a society which allows a young idealistic Seventeen year old to have such a memory, as his defining moment in life.
When N looked up his eyes were gauging me. Looking to see if what he had told me had made a difference in my attitude towards him. I looked back at him letting him see the disgust in my eyes. Not for him and who he was, but for the likes of me and what we did!
N, stayed on to talk about other such ‘experiences’ he and his family had, had. His younger sister was being stalked by some upper caste boys in the village. When his father went to complain against them. He was humiliated and turned back from the police station.
I was aghast at how ‘Bollywood-like’ these incidents were. Those of us who live in urban India tend to forget about caste discrimination. Most of our work is done by people we don’t particularly know. Many of us do not know the person who empties the trash cans kept at the corner of our streets. Or cleans the toilets in the public parks we visit. We do not interact with them often and when we do, we call them by generic names like didi, bhaiya, aunty etc. By doing so are we paying them respect or are we contributing towards making them face less and identity less?
The bitter truth is that in spite of reservations, in spite of Ambedkar, in spite of all the laws against the caste system. The caste system prevails and thrives. The saddest part is that it gets used by cunning politicians and ambitious wannabes to reach their own dubious goals.
There is a happy ending to this particular story though. N has cleared his SSB and is all set to become an Army Officer. He told me with sparkling eyes, how ecstatic his parents and sister are about this achievement. When I ask him how he feels he replies somewhat more solemnly, “Now no one will refuse my father water again.”