Fiction

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by Ramendra Singh

Next evening Shivangi was flying to the U.S. for a post-graduate course in mental health at the Washington State University. She had decided to spend her last night in India with her friends, nearly all of them, from school, from college, from the street theatre group she was part of in college, from the office where she worked for six months before suffering a heatstroke during a day long power-cut in the month of June and resigned. There were nearly two dozen people in the house and almost all of them, at some point or other, felt less important than others. Singers were outnumbered by non-singers, dancers by non-dancers. There was no game that could involve all of them together. They had been talking the entire time, one to one, one to many and sometimes many to one, and the voices were just voices.

“This looks like a train station. You really know all these people, Shivangi?”

“Yes. Each one of them is a friend. They are not mere acquaintances.”

“And how many are heartbroken because you are leaving?”

“Shut up, Harry.”

“I think all of them are.”

“Yes, but none of them in the way you are suggesting.”

“It can’t be. These people are good at hiding. Om there has always had a big crush on you. Haven’t you, Om?”

“No, nothing like that.”

“Don’t be shy. This is your last chance to let her know. Maybe she would cancel her flight and stay back.”

“Stop it, Harry.”

“Yeah. Stop it, dude. She would never be interested in someone like Om anyway.”

“I’m talking about Om liking her, not the other way?”

“Why can’t it be the other way? I am asking both of you.”

“Oh, so you want her to be interested in you?”

“That’s not the point, Ranvijay. I want to know the logic behind your assumption.”

“Chill dude. It’s nothing serious. You are great.”

“Look, I’m not serious. I just want to know what you mean by someone like Om.”

“Look, buddy. It’s nothing related to your caste, if you are trying to take it there. So peace.”

“Stop it, guys. Can we please have some other topic.”

“Yes, let’s talk about something else. What are you going to study in mental health, Shivangi?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, are you going to work at mental hospitals?”

“No. no. That’s the problem with India. Mental health is not just mental hospitals. We are all in the need of mental health services. We suffer so many traumas and shocks and abuses for years, decades and centuries. Sensitisation is one of the most important tasks.”

“Oh, I see. So it’s like you’ll be treating healthy people.”

“Yes. But then there are no healthy people, Ranvijay.”

“I’m kidding.”

“Hey Ranvijay, I would really like to know why you think Shivangi wouldn’t date someone like me?”

“Dude, do you really want to hear it?”

“Yes.”

“Because you have an inferiority complex.”

“What makes you think that?”

“You have. For whatever reason, for being poor, for your caste, for your using the quota to get into the university. I don’t know.”

“Guys, stop that. Let’s play a card game.”

“No, let him speak. Now that he is drunk, his true self is speaking.”

“Don’t take it wrongly, man. I am not that drunk. I’m just telling you the truth. You must also have had similar thoughts about your own people.”

“Yes, true. Most of them have inferiority complex. But they are just mistaken, because people like you carry a hypocritical air of superiority because your forefathers were extraordinary thugs and cheats.”

“Hey, Om. What’s this? If you are angry about something, don’t take it out here. Ranvijay, you know is the most helpful person. We never discriminated against you. We consider you our friend.”

“But you need to make that special effort to consider me a friend. And that’s discrimination in itself. And I know Ranvijay is helpful. But he is also extremely feudal and casteist in his thinking.”

“Look, Om. Nobody is casteist here. This is no village.”

“Really? I mean really? You find no problem with what he said.”

“Now when you talk about caste it’s okay. And when I talk about caste I become casteist. Dude, what’s that?”

“Ranvijay, you too stop it. Please.”

“Snatch his beer bottle. He does that whenever he drinks beer.”

“Why are you being like this, Om? Now. On this occasion.”

“I’m telling you it’s nothing. It’s just his feelings for you that are making him react like this.”

“Harry please. I’ll hit you.”

“Okay, ma’am. It’s your farewell. Whatever you say. But someone please get some more peanuts.”

“Varun, what happened to the pasta?”

“Oh, no.”

“What? Is it still on the stove.”

“What the heck.”

“Great host.”

“Crazy host.”

“No, it’s okay. I think I can salvage it. It’s not totally lost. Nothing like our society.”

“Okay. Let’s play cards then. We can get divided in four teams.”

“Okay. Make some space for me here. I don’t want to be here in Ambedkar Nagar.”

“Nobody is moving. No favourites. No team building. Stay wherever you are.”

“So none of you heard anything. Really?”

“What, what happened?”

“I know you guys are used to hearing this in my absence. But say something at least when I’m right here.”

“Look, Om. What did I say wrong? You live in Ambedkar Nagar, right. It’s your address, written on your ID card. Now I said just that. Why do you feel bad about it? It’s your inferiority complex. If anyone calls me Sangam Vihar, I wouldn’t mind it at all.”

“Oh, yes, right. Do you ever think where this inferiority complex comes from?”

“Dude, you are impossible. I have only one suggestion: look within.”

“Yeah, really. So that you can continue to have a free run outside like your forefathers.”

“Peace. Peace. Food is here. The burned and salvaged pasta.”

“Here is your plate, Om. First for you.”

“That’s discrimination.”

“No, that’s reservation.”

“Ranvijay! Enough of this stupid discussion.”

“I think we should actually talk it out. I would like everyone to have their say on it.”

“No, Om. no. That’s not happening. It’s not the right occasion.”

“It’s never the right ocassion. It has never been, since the advent of Brahminism.”

“Dude, please. Don’t go there. Don’t take names.”

“We are all educated, urban people. We don’t even believe in casteism.”

“The fact that you are saying all this should be proof enough that we don’t believe in any such thing.”

“Really?”

“Hear this, Om. There is a guy in my locality. He lives in a 4,000 square foot house. His father is Class-A officer. This guy has done graduation from DU and is sitting at home. And all the time he talks about how Dalits are discriminated against. ‘We are dying’. ‘We are being trampled on.’”

“He talks about others who are.”

“But, should he? After finding such a place in the society.”

“You mean, he is no more a Dalit because he is rich.”

“I mean this guy is himself extremely rich, lives lavishly and now talks about poor Dalits. That’s hypocrisy.”

“I think that way you people are the greatest hypocrites ever created.”

“We at least don’t crib.”

“Yeah. Because you don’t need to.”

“Look if you want to have the last word you can. But how many people are believing you is anybody’s guess.”

“There are poor Brahmins too. My building’s security guard is Brahmin.”

“My cook is a Kshatriya.”

“Let’s conclude this, guys. Poverty is bad. It’s the evil. It turns the man against the man.”

“And the man against the woman.”

“Yeah. Right. We Women are suffering the most.”

“There is no we women. You are seeking the freedom that you can have, you are not bothered about the freedom of poor women, in villages, in shanties on the outskirts.”

“That’s absurd, Om. Let me tell you this. If one woman paves the way, all can follow.”

“Really. Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1967. No Dalit woman followed.”

“It is still better than the U.S.”

“I’m not saying that upper caste women are not discriminated against. But their uplift doesn’t benefit the lower caste women. It’ll help if a man in their family grows rich or gets educated.”

“You have to be right at everything.”

“No. I am asking you to see this. Just look around. How many Dalit girls are here. Zero. How many Dalit girls are your friends? Hardly any.”

“Okay, guys. Let’s go for a ride. We agree to agree on agreeable things.”

“I would have loved to date a Dalit girl.”

“But just the fact that you have to say it is problematic.”

“Yes we are all part of the problematic tribe.”

“What if I said the same?”

“What would that be?”

“That I want to date a Brahmin girl.”

“You obviously want to. There is no secrecy in it.”

“I don’t mean anyone specific.”

“Oh, I met this one dude in Allahabad University hostel. He started discussing his life plan. And he said he wants to get a good government job and then marry an upper caste girl.”

“So what’s wrong in that?”

“It’s patriarchal thinking, Om. Don’t try to defend the indefensible”

“The way he is interpreting it is patriarchal. Girls can also have such dreams or preferences.”

“His entire planning and goal-setting behind marrying an upper caste girl is problematic.”

“Oh really. So you planning to date a Dalit girl is progressive. His planning is problematic.”

“It should be a choice on both sides. I mean one should not plan to marry a caste but rather a person.”

“You think that guy was planning to focibly marry an upper caste girl without her consent.”

“I don’t know if he was. He didn’t look the kind of person who would have any knowledge of winning a woman’s heart.”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t have succeeded anyway. With such people around, it’s impossible for an upper caste girl to fall in love with someone like that. If suppose Shivangi did that, she would lose a close friend like you.”

“I wouldn’t mind it, if she chooses you of her own free will.”

“Guys, you are talking about me. I am right here.”

“Honestly, Shivangi, would you fall for Om? Ever?”

“What is this stupidity going on? Stop it please.”

“Oh, come on. Answer it and end this debate forever.”

“No. No more discussion about this topic. I hereby declare this topic anti-national.”

“Okay, let’s talk about cows then. Om would have something interesting to say about them too.”

“Hey, Shivangi, I’ll make it easier for you. There is something that I want to tell you. Like always wanted to tell you, even from before you gave that speech on plastic ban and bullying you faced in school for your short height. That I have had feelings for you. So maybe this is my last chance. So I want to exercise it.”

“Now, you have to answer, Shivangi. He has been waiting for five years.”

“Guys, this is my farewell. You are being unfair to me.”

“If you want, we can wait till you reach the airport to make it more dramatic.”

“Please stop it.”

“You are not dating anyone anyway.”

“But that’s not relevant.”

“It’s just a hypothetical question.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. It’s a hypothetical question.”

“No, it’s not hypothetical. It’s real, from my side.”

“Oooh. You are in a spot now, Shivangi.”

“Guys!”

“It’s just a simple question. Say yes or no.”

“No, I would want one sentence explanation if that is not too much to ask.”

“Get done with it, Shivangi.”

“I’ll tell you in private, Om.”

“No, I want you to answer before everyone whatever your answer is. There is no point in telling me in private.”

“Do you really want me to do this on my farewell night?”

“I’m sorry but yes.”

“Om needs help. I mean psychiatric help.”

“I don’t want to force, Shivangi. If you don’t want to answer, it’s okay. There is no force or pressure. I just wanted to tell you my feelings. That’s it. You answer or not, we are going to be friends.”

“Right.”

“Your feelings are so political, Om.”

“Yes, because my existence is political.”

“He wants to hear what he wants to hear.”

“Even your love is political.”

“Can it still be called love if it’s so political?”

“Do you believe in caste and stuff, Shivangi?”

“No, not at all. I’ve never done that. I don’t even know the caste of so many people in this room.”

“Now, Om is going to say you should believe in caste.”

“I wouldn’t say that. But I would say that every person should acknowledge the reality of caste in our country.”

“Dude, there is no reservation in matters of heart.”

“Reservation is not special treatment. It’s equal treatment.”

“Okay. Everyone please be quiet for two minutes. Let me clear my mind. I have had three glasses of wine and I’m finding it hard to focus in this chatter.”

“Okay, all, shut up.”

“No, no. Just a minute. I want to ask what he is trying to find out this way. Are you going to draw a conclusion about her beliefs on the basis of what she says to your proposal?”

“I’m not doing that. I think I’ve already clarified everything.”

“I mean, just think that if she accepts your proposal, won’t you feel that she did it not out of love but out of humility or social responsibility.”

“Guys please. Let’s hear her response and then go for a ride. Yes Shivangi, go ahead.”

“Okay. First of all I don’t believe in caste or things like that. I never have. So whatever I say is not even one bit related to that…”

“Is it even possible..”

“Shhh.”

“Quiet. Let’s hear the answer, man.”

“Silence.”

About the Author:

Ramendra Singh is a writer based in Mumbai. Previously he worked as a political reporter with The Indian Express.

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