STOPPED IN BOMBAY: VEENA GOKHALE
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Veena Gokhale worked as a journalist, for a number of English-language
publications, based in Bombay (Mumbai) during the 1980s. Specialising
in Feature Writing, she wrote on a variety of topics, including the
arts and travel. She came to Canada in 1990, as a Distinguished Visiting
Journalist. Gokhale has a Masters in Environmental Studies and has been
working for non-profit organizations that focus on environment and development
issues in Canada. Presently, she is working for a civil society organization
in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Gokhale also has numerous journalistic publications in international journals.
* * *
Dilip stood in
the tiny balcony of his hostel room, looking down on the busy street.
It was Saturday afternoon and the children from the school across the
road had just been let off. Saturday was half day.
On the pavement were vendors selling cigarettes, sookhi bhel, sweets,
peanuts and channa, balloons, chakris, whistles, ribbons and toys. The
scene was noisy as well as busy. The cars driving up to pick up children
added to the general air of confusion. Horns blared, cars went into
reverse gear, brakes slammed, doors banged, car radios played music.
The younger kids were led home by their ayahs or mothers. They dragged
their feet, distracted by the action all around them. The adults kept
a firm hold on their hand, urging them to hurry. Some of the older children
were grouped around a vendor selling barf ka golas. Others were hanging
around, reluctant to break up the intense attachment to peers, which
is only possible in school.
Every so often a mo-bike roared down the street, weaving dangerously
through the traffic. Sometimes it would stop at the hostel gate and
a young man, or a couple, would park outside and enter the hostel building.
Three young men in jeans, t-shirts and dark glasses loitered outside
the hostel gate, smoking. They examined every woman who walked by from
head to toe, exchanging glances, whispering, sometimes letting a low
whistle escape their lips.
“Louts! They gave the hostel a bad name. Idiots”! Dilip
Occasionally, a soberly dressed office worker would pass by, carrying
a brief case, probably returning from a leisurely, afternoon lunch.
Dilip knew the rhythms of B Road; he had lived in the student’s
hostel for two years. The street had fascinated him when he had moved
to Bombay from his village, Wadgav. He had never seen so many people
before, let alone so many vehicles. And the noise! There was layer upon
layer of sound in Bombay, mingling into a massive, continuous hum. You
couldn't get away from it even in the dead of night, when the sounds
seemed to go underground, a subterranean vibration passing through everything.
When he first came to the hostel, Dilip used to stand in the little
balcony and watch the street for hours, speculating about the people
who passed by; making up stories about who they were and what they did
for a living.
The school children reminded him of his sisters and cousins in Wadgav
though these kids were middle-class, neatly molded into their school
uniforms, while his siblings attended school in the mornings in well-worn,
patched clothes, and worked in the fields in the afternoons. But, like
the children at the B-Road school, they were all growing up fast. At
seventeen, his sister Malti was a woman. She had completed her matriculation
and was already engaged. She would be married in two months time!
Malti was Dilip's favourite. She was only two years younger than him,
so they had a lot in common. And she had gone to school like him. Malti
was a strong and serene presence in his life. Her fiancé, Pradeep,
was a lucky guy. He worked as a clerk with a state government department,
in Bombay. A family friend had brought about the match.
Malti would move to Bombay soon. The thought had been a constant reassurance
to Dilip a few months ago; but now he felt it didn't matter. Nothing
would change; Malti's arrival would not make the slightest difference
to his situation.
Trrrrrrring - one of the kids let his bicycle bell go, as he peddled
jauntily down the street. Dilip wished that he had his battered old
bicycle with him here, in Bombay. There was a time when he had cycled
20 km everyday, sometimes in pouring rain, balancing an umbrella in
one hand, to a secondary school in the nearby town. Wadgav didn't have
a pukka road then, and the path would turn to sludge after a rainy night.
Dilip had to skip school sometimes, but usually he would go anyway.
They would sink large, flat stones into the mud and he would step carefully
over them, trying to keep his old, much darned school uniform clean.
Going to school in the monsoons had been something of an adventure.
The government had built a pukka road eventually. By then, Dilip was
on his way. He had won a state government scholarship to do his B.A.
He rarely thought about Wadgav now; he deliberately avoided thinking
about it. Yet thoughts from the past had a way of sneaking into his
head sometimes, dropping in like unwelcome relatives, demanding to be
entertained. He hadn't written home for two months. He had two letters
from his father and one from Malti, lying in the top drawer of his study
table, unanswered. Pradeep had come to see him a couple of weeks ago.
Malti must have written to him, asking him to pay a visit. Dilip had
told the chaprasi to tell Pradeep that he was not in his room.
Dilip glanced at the cheque for 500 rupees in his hand. It had arrived
that morning, a mere ten days late this time. He could not make a bank
deposit till Monday, nor get any money out. He had one rupee in his
pocket. No, that was one rupee, 10 paisa. He did not have a meal account
at the hostel canteen anymore. The cheques had been too unreliable for
him to keep that up.
“Matherchoth”! He had the urge to spit out the word so it
would land with a thud on the street, form a venomous stream, and flow;
flow like an open sewer in the city. People would see it coming and
jump out of the way, alarmed. The sewer would run to Bombay University's
Revenue Department, stopping at the feet of one Mr. Mahajan, Chief Accountant,
who signed all the cheques. Mr. Mahajan, looking down from his desk
would be terrified, and find himself choking on the stench...
Dilip wanted to crush the cheque in his fist and toss it into the Arabian
sea, which wasn't very far. If Dilip had pushed his body out over the
balcony railing and craned his neck to the left, he would have caught
a glimpse of blue through the fronds of a palm tree. Marine Drive ran
more or less perpendicular to the street. If you licked your lips you
could taste salt on them.
The sea had fascinated Dilip too, coming as he did from interior Maharashtra,
which was arid and rugged. He used to go for long walks along the breezy
promenade that was Marine Drive, alone, or with his hostel buddies.
The sunsets were spectacular, particularly during the monsoons when
the sea neighed like a high-spirited mare and waves crashed against
the rocks, sending jets of water into the air, under a flaming sky -
gold, orange and pink.
At night the sky would turn clear and dark, but the sea would be darker
still, a bit restless, mysterious and inviting. There would be a balmy
breeze, sweet enough to soothe the most troubled brow, wiping away every
trace of the day's plentiful sweat. The lights from the high-rise buildings
that dotted the Drive would gleam incredibly, magically bright. The
Queen's Necklace. Dilip's jigari dost (best buddy) Vishnu did not care
for the name, Queen's Necklace. “Those bloody Brits with their
la-di-da ways”, he would say. “We Indians are such assholes,
we just carry on with all their fucking, colonial shit”.
Dilip's classmates would start laughingly debating the point, half-heartedly
defending the good things about the British Rule - the schools, the
hospitals, the railways, the parliamentary system. And cricket!
People would be pro or against, depending on their mood. Vishnu would
continue in a staunchly nationalistic spirit, sometimes quoting the
leaders of the Independence Movement. The uncompromising Subhash Chandra
Bose was his favorite.
Dilip would listen to these conversations, fascinated. (Yes, Bombay
was an enchanted place for Dilip then.) He admired the way Vishnu freely
abused the British, or for that matter anyone and anything. Ramesh would
stick to his point, often out shouting his opponents and wearing them
down through sheer stubbornness. Months had passed before Dilip started
contributing to the discussions. It was not just his shyness that held
him back, it was also his English.
Dilip's father had made it a point to send him to a good secondary school
which, though Marathi-medium, was known for teaching English well. Dilip's
English teacher, Mrs. Sitara, had taken a special interest in him. She
had let him take out four library books at a time, though the official
limit was two. Dilip had usually chosen two books in English and two
in Marathi. Mrs. Sitara also frequently picked him to read aloud in
the English period.
Dilip's cousin Milind, who worked as a teacher in Nagpur, had encouraged
Dilip's father to subscribe to an English newspaper. “Such a luxury—
A daily newspaper, and that too in English”! Dilip's mother would
say from time to time. No one else read the paper though Dilip's father
glanced through it sometimes. Dilip's mother, who did not speak English
and held it in uneasy contempt, never failed to bring up this extravagance
whenever she and her husband had a quarrel over money.
Milind, who was the only other family member fluent in English, encouraged
Dilip to listen to the BBC, giving him a transistor radio on his twelfth
birthday. Dilip's English and his general knowledge were very good.
His father was proud of him for that.
Still, it was a different sort of English that they spoke here, in Bombay.
Vishnu's English was much like his, strongly accented with Marathi,
their mother tongue. Most of their classmates had gone to English-medium
schools; naturally he had a better accent. And Dilip's other good friend,
Priya, had gone to a Convent. At first Dilip had been acutely aware
that though he was fluent, his accent was all wrong. After coming to
Bombay, he had consciously worked to blunt it.
But after a while his accent had not mattered much among his peers.
He had brains. He was better informed than his pals. If the first thing
his friends looked for was how `cool' you were, the second was intelligence.
Dilip did not have an uncle in the U.S. to send him Levi jeans or a
Sony walkman, nor did he have a Jimi Hendrix record collection; but
he could hold forth on a range of subjects. And so he had found himself
becoming voluble as the months passed, the casual camaraderie of his
friends cushioning his self confidence. He was at ease with the English-medium
crowd as well as the vernacular medium students. He was not part of
either clique, but to some extent he belonged to both.
Dilip rarely went for walks on the Marine Drive now. Their gang had
dispersed gradually with some of their classmates moving in with relatives
or finding paying guest accommodation. These days Dilip passed the time
sitting in his room, staring at the walls. Sometimes he would turn on
the radio, but it only provided some background sound, he didn't really
listen to any of the programs.
Time had changed its quality and the days had somehow shrunk. Maybe
because it took him longer to do things. Maybe because he slept more
erratically. He hardly went to lectures these days, and when he did,
he couldn't seem to concentrate. Even the brilliant sociology teacher,
Professor Wagle, did not hold Dilip's attention anymore. You had to
pay attention to take good notes. Now he depended on Vishnu for notes.
And he hadn't even bothered with Vishnu's notes for the past couple
Not so long ago it was Dilip who had the most up-to-date and detailed
notes, taken in his beautiful, angular hand. His friends would borrow
his notes from him every time they bunked a lecture to go to a movie,
romance a girl or to just sit around talking, in the college canteen.
Dilip turned away from the street and entered his room. He dropped the cheque on the top of his desk, where it fell to its rest, among half-written
sheets of paper and open textbooks. Lying down on the narrow, iron bed
with its sweaty bedcover, Dilip turned his eyes to the ceiling.
He was hungry. In fact he was starving. All he had eaten the day before
was egg curry-rice for lunch. Vishnu had tried to buy him breakfast
in the morning, but he had refused, pretending that he had more than
the wretched rupee in his pocket. The meal-a-day routine that he had
been on for a week left Dilip cranky and disoriented. It seemed to upset
his stomach. He would wake up at odd hours during the night with stomach
cramps and he felt light-headed when he got out of bed in the morning.
Vishnu had invited him to go with him to his cousin's house in Dahisar,
for the weekend. But Dilip had made up an excuse. He didn't want to
see people. People always asked questions about his family, his studies,
his job plans. They wanted to talk all the time - about politics, the
weather, TV, sports. It exhausted and irritated him.
Besides that, he had never got used to the local trains in Bombay. And
going to Dahisar involved a long train journey. Luckily his college
was at a walking distance from his hostel. The crowds, the stench, the
incredible crush of closely packed bodies on the locals, scared Dilip.
He dreaded having to force his way into a second-class men's compartment.
He had even experienced groping hands once or twice and felt really
sick. How could people be so disgusting?
Of course you couldn't actually be sick on the train. There was barely
room to stand. And just enough air to keep alive. Vishnu didn't seem
to mind commuting at all. But then he was a Bombay boy- bindaas, totally
Anyway Dilip had no money for the train fare to Dahisar. Vishnu had
offered to pay for him. But how could he let him do that? As things
stood, Vishnu, who was quite hard-up, spent so much money on Dilip. Dilip wondered sometimes how much of the fierce affection and protectiveness
that Vishnu displayed towards him was personal; and how much linked
to the fact that they were both Dalit.
Vishnu felt much more strongly about being Dalit than Dilip did. Though
named after a god in the Hindi holy trinity, Vishnu was a neo-Buddhist;
unlike Dilip who considered himself Hindu. Dilip's mother had an altar
at home that housed several deities. She worshipped them all every day.
She fasted and observed various festivals throughout the year. Vishnu
was more conscious about being Dalit because he had gone to a secondary
school in Bombay, living at an uncle's house. Vishnu's uncle had been
involved in Dalit politics. Vishnu had heard Dalit leaders speak; he
had even gone on some protest marches, though his activism had tapered
off as he entered university.
Dilip, growing up in a village with a mostly Dalit population, among
poor farmers, laborers and workers who sought seasonal employment in
cities, with just two upper-caste families who were not that much better
off than the others, felt he did not share Vishnu's passion about the
injustice done to low-caste people. Perhaps he should. Perhaps he should
be angry. Anger that was chilli-hot like wada-pav chutni and inflamed
the tongue and the senses. Instead, he felt tired and hungry. Hellishly
Well, he had the rupee. He could get some sukhi bhel with that. But
then, what would he do tomorrow? Or, if he ventured further afield,
towards Colaba, he might be able to eat some wada-pav. There were a
couple of vendors who gave food on credit to poor, starving students.
It was good business. The students had nowhere else to go and always
somehow managed to come up with the money later.
Dilip felt his stomach contract as if readying itself for the kill.
Saliva rushed to his mouth forcing him to swallow hard. His brain however
was giving him different signals. He had already eaten on credit a few
times; better to pay the vendors off on Monday and then start a fresh
account. It was possible that they would refuse him further credit.
How humiliating would that be!
Dilip turned so that he lay facing the room with his back to the wall.
He would skip dinner as well and get something to eat tomorrow. His
stomach rumbled but he paid no heed; he was used to ignoring its protests.
He knew the pattern now - intense hunger pangs followed by a feeling
of numbness. Then a calm would descend on him and he would fall asleep.
Next to Dilip's pillow lay a well-thumbed copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Dilip turned so that he lay on his stomach and picked up the book. He let it fall open. Page 125. He read randomly: ``On the other
hand, it would be a false premise to believe that activism (which is
not true action) is the road to revolution. Men will be truly critical
if they live the plentitude of the praxis, that is, if their action
encompasses a critical reflection which increasingly organizes their
Dilip shut the book and let it fall from his hands. It landed on the
floor. The words he had just read made no sense whatsoever, even though
Dilip knew the book intimately, having read it from cover to cover half
a dozen times. His one desire had been to possess a new copy, since
the one he had was quite dog-eared.
Dilip owned very few books. He was used to getting them out of libraries
or occasionally borrowing them from friends. What was the use of buying
books, his mother used to say. A library was where a book belonged,
not a home. He had never wanted to own a book. But that was before he
became obsessed with Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Dilip had found the
book at a used bookstore in Walkeshwar. He had paid two rupees for it.
Prof. Wagle had talked about the book and about it's author, Paulo Freire,
in one of his first lectures that term. The aloof and antiseptic Prof.
Wagle spoke of Paulo Freire with great enthusiasm. Freire the liberator!
Freire the intellectual! Freire the educator! Freire the humanist par
Dilip had gone to the Professor's Common Room after that particular
lecture to seek the Professor. A peon, loitering at the door, had told
Dilip that he would summon him, casting him a look that said ``Keep
Out." Seconds later Prof. Wagle advanced towards Dilip.
``Come in, come in Dilip. You wanted to see me, no?"
Dilip nodded and followed the Prof. into the high-ceiling room with
a long table surrounded by many chairs. Against the wall were benches,
a grandfather clock and heavy, book lined cupboards. Perched on top
of the cupboards were dusty shields and cups, won by the college for
participating in various sports and cultural events. Dilip felt as if
he was breathing the very air of earnestness and intellectual enquiry.
Who in Wadgav would have ever thought that he, Dilip Bodhare, would
be inside the Professor's Common Room of the prestigious Elphinston
College one day?
Prof. Wagle took him to a bench and said: ``Have a seat." Then
he asked Dilip some routine questions about his studies ending with:
``Yes Sir. But...I...Can I ask you a question about something that is
outside the syllabus, Sir?" said Dilip.
``Of course. Of course my boy," said the Prof.
Dilip asked him about Freire. Prof. Wagle was obviously thrilled with
the inquiry. He explained to Dilip that Freire was a famous Brazilian
educator, not just an educator, but a revolutionary educator who had
developed a unique method for teaching illiterates that had an impact
all over the world. Freire wanted to encourage the development of a
critical consciousness so that people examined the social structures
that kept them in oppressive situations. Pedagogy of the Oppressed,
which held the key to Freire's ideas, had been so controversial in Brazil
that Freire had been forced to live in exile in the U.S.A. for many
``Brilliant. He is truly brilliant." said Prof. Wagle. Dilip found
it hard to imagine the brilliance of a man so highly recommended by
someone as learned as Prof. Wagle. The Prof. urged him to read Pedagogy
of the Oppressed.
``Is Freire still alive?" Dilip wanted to know.
``He is alive and well, as far as I know. And he lives in Brazil now."
This fact too had made an impression on Dilip. Most of the Great Men
he had read, or read about, were dead.
Prof. Wagle said: ``You are doing good work Dilip. The college is proud
of you and so, I am sure, are your people."
Dilip wondered what he meant by that. Did he mean his family or the
Dalits, as a whole? Probably the latter.
``By the way," said the Prof. as Dilip turned to go, ``did you
know that Freire came to India in the 1970s?
``Did he come to Bombay, Sir?"
``I am not sure of that. He probably did."
A couple of days passed after this conversation. Dilip wanted to go
to Walkeshwar, but was caught up in a play they were doing for College
Day. The play, about a young college boy taking to drugs, plumbing the
depths and gradually recovering, was written in a melodramatic tenor
by one of their classmates. They rehearsed for it every evening. Dilip
had a big part in it.
Priya was playing the female lead, which, in reality, was also a big
part. There had been some controversy around the casting of the heroine.
The Director, who was one year their senior, had wanted to give the
role to Dipti, undoubtedly the prettiest and most trendily dressed girl
in class. Priya, the intellectual, who had published poems in the college
magazine, and was studying English Literature, had taken offence at
this automatic selection of the heroine, and had demanded an audition.
This was the first time Dilip had ever heard the word `audition'; he
had some difficulty pronouncing it.
Reluctantly, the Director held a well-attended audition - the controversy
had aroused most people's interest. Dipti, Priya and another girl read
the meager lines attributed to the female character. There was no doubt
that Priya gave the most inspired performance. She had even rewritten
her part so that it sounded better. She got to play the lead, even though
it meant the end of the nascent romance between Dipti and the Director.
The Director was always a bit curt with Priya, and he was curt with
Dilip too, god knows why. It was his incivility that brought about their
friendship. Dilip had spoken very little to Priya before that, though
they were taking a course together in political science. They shared
an interest in books, albeit in different types of books. Priya read
novels; Dilip preferred non-fiction, particularly history and politics.
Soon they started sharing a bench during the political science lectures.
Dilip had asked Priya if she wanted to go to Walkeshwar and she had
readily agreed. Dilip was overjoyed to find Freire in the very first
shop. Priya hadn't bought anything, but seemed suitably impressed by
Dilip's purchase. Afterwards, Dilip spoke to her at length about Pedagogy
of the Oppressed over a cup of coffee at Samovar.
Priya...Priya's round, bespectacled face came into sharp focus, in Dilip's
mind. She was rather attractive actually. Particularly when she took
off her glasses and disarmed you with her hazel eyes. She had dimples
and straight, silky, shoulder-length hair.
Dilip wondered what it would have been like to have Priya as a girlfriend.
They had spent quite a lot of time together, sitting around after classes,
chatting. Dilip had even taken to going to college on Tuesday, even
though he had no lectures on that day, and waited for Priya to finish
her English Lit. class and join her in the canteen.
He had gone to Priya's house once. It was her birthday and she was having
a big party in the evening. Practically the whole class had been invited.
She had asked Dilip over for lunch that day. Dilip had felt badly that
he could not afford to treat her. He had bought her a Jane Austin novel
as a gift. That was as far as his money stretched.
Priya lived in a very posh, 11th floor apartment at Cuffe Parade. Dilip
was shocked by the rich carpets, marble and chrome fittings, paintings
and leather furniture. He had seen expensive interiors before, but only
while strolling through the lobbies of five-star hotels.
You could see the sea from Priya's bedroom. She had led him into her
room quite casually, after lunch. She had her own TV and VCR. They had
sat side by side on her huge bed, watching Cry Freedom, with a bowl
of potato chips lying between them. Priya had wept openly at the death
of Steve Biko. Dilip had been overwhelmed by it all - the dazzling house,
the amazing movie, the tear-stained Priya.
Perhaps he should have been bold and held Priya's hand when they had gone to see Enter the Dragon. He had imagined taking Priya's soft, fair
hand into his, often enough. And Vishnu had urged him to ``give it a
``And what if she refuses?"
``She won't. She likes you," said Vishnu.
But Dilip had hesitated. He didn't want to lose Priya's friendship;
he really enjoyed all the discussions they had, the books they exchanged.
Besides, Priya always talked in such abstractions that he couldn't imagine
anything physical being of interest to her. He felt he would have had
to quote from Shelley or someone like that, to win her. Dilip couldn't
relate to the English Romantic poets at all. Priya had lent him a textbook
with poems by Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley; Dilip had returned
Priya was always talking about how she wasn't planning to get married
for a long time because she wanted to go to Oxford to do her M.A. and
then perhaps a Ph.D. Priya was rich. Dilip had no illusions about that
after visiting her home. That was a pretty good reason not to hold her
hand. And on top of that, he was dalit, as low as you could get on the
caste hierarchy. Ostensibly, caste did not matter in modern, urban India.
None of his classmates talked about it. But it did matter, particularly
when it came to things like marriage. Even so, Dilip had been let down
when Priya fell for Jamshed, a student at St. Xavier's College, which
was always competing with Elphinston.
She did not have time for long chats with Dilip after that though she
was always glad to see him. She made that very clear. They continued
to exchange books for some time after. They would scribble notes - mini
book reviews - and leave them in the books they exchanged. Dilip kept
Priya's notes; wondering what Priya did with his notes. Threw them away,
At least now he knew what it was like to be friends with a girl, Dilip
thought. Malti was his friend too, but it was different because she
was his sister. And then there was Gauri. Gauri was his father's best
friend's daughter. She lived a few houses away, in the village. Dilip's
father had a tacit understanding with his friend that Dilip and Gauri
would marry one day. Dilip's sisters, especially Malti, always teased
him about Gauri.
He did not see himself marrying Gauri; they were too different. His
father would be upset about this, but he would come around eventually.
He had always let Dilip have his own way, the only male child among
five children. Dilip was the favorite not just of his father, but of
his mother and sisters as well.
Dilip was suddenly nostalgic for the narrow, low lit, mud- baked streets
of Wadgav, the smell of dung and of things growing and decomposing,
the coolness of the mud floor that his mother and sisters washed every
day with dung; the smoky, sweetness of the night air with wood fires
burning everywhere, the family gathered together in the courtyard for
the evening meal, the eggplant bharta so incredibly tasty, made from
vegetables just-picked from his mother's garden behind the house, his
father smoking bidis, sometimes listening to the transistor, Dilip sitting
with Malti after the meal, playing a game of cards by the light of a
kerosene lamp because the electricity had gone off for the nth time
that day, while their younger sisters constantly pestered them to let
them join the game - brats as persistent as mosquitoes, that had to
be swatted away.
Dilip rolled over onto his stomach again. He could hear sounds from
the street. The paan-walla who operated outside the hostel in the evenings
had his radio tuned to Vividh Bharati as usual. It blared out an old,
Hindi film song: “Jhumka gira re, Bareli ke bazaar mein jhumka
gira re..." (I lost my earring at the market in Bareili...) He
could hear other sounds – conversation, laughter, television,
ping pong - from downstairs, filtering in through the slightly open
When he woke up again, everything was quiet in the immediate vicinity. He could hear the muted sound of cars on the Marine Drive and the faint,
industrial hum of the city. That meant that it was after midnight. Sleep
had swallowed his day like a python that swallows a rat whole. Many
snakes seemed to curl around Dilip's life these days, poised to strike.
He got up a little unsteadily and went out into the balcony. The street
was empty. There were no lights in any of the buildings, only the street
lights were on. He felt wide awake and hungry. He wished he had a biscuit
or something to nibble on. The thought of a simple, Monaco biscuit sent
a rush of saliva to his mouth. Or a glucose biscuit. That would be even
better. His mother always gave him a packet for the bus ride from Wadgav
to Bombay. They were just four hours apart, Wadgav and Bombay, yet they
were different worlds. The mud and brick houses, the wells and hand
pumps, the fields and farm animals of Wadgav gave way to cluttered,
little towns with shops and houses close together and a much postered
movie-hall, cars and rickshaws on the roads, the luxury of streetlights.
And then the hills and salt marshes and coconut trees of Bombay. The
city itself was massive, overwhelming, layered, stinking of chemicals
and car exhaust, but intoxicating all the same with its myriad possibilities;
a city where you could get lost, where every turn could bring you upon
something unexpected -an elephant, a hotel that rose up to the sky,
20-feet statues of Lord Ganesh, a girl in a miniskirt.
But Dilip's world was confined to the hostel, to the street. Even his
college did not seem to belong to him any more. How long was it going
to go on like this?
A month ago he had gathered his courage and called Mr. Mahajan at the
Revenue Department. He had been passed on from person to person while
a line of people gathered to use the hostel phone. Finally Mahajan had
come on the line. No there was nothing he could do to release the scholarship
cheques sooner. He had to wait for them to be approved, to come in.
What could he do? He was totally helpless. “Write a letter of
complaint if you like”, he told Dilip in a tone that suggested
that this would not improve matters. Dilip had decided not to bother.
Dilip looked down at the street. What would happen if he jumped? He
had had the thought before. He was on the 4th floor. They had a discussion
once about suicide - what was the best way? Jumping from the 4th floor
meant death. Jumping from the 3rd floor meant broken bones rather than
death. Dilip looked down at the concrete slabs - far, far away. Shivering
a little, Dilip came back into his room and sat down on his bed.
What would Freire have done in his situation? He had read about Freire's
life in the introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It said that
Freire's middle-class family had suffered a setback and Freire had experienced
hunger too. What sort of hunger? How acute?
After he had bought Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Dilip had read it several
times, looking up the difficult words in the dictionary. He had been
given the dictionary as a prize in Class 10, for standing first in class.
Pedagogy was another of those hard to pronounce words, Dilip decided,
as he looked it up. Why couldn't English be more like Marathi? In Marathi
things were pronounced exactly the way they were written.
``English is an unreasonable language," Mrs Sitara had said to
Dilip once. ``B-U-T but is but, but P-U-T does not follow that same
rule. Yet English has its rewards once you've mastered it."
After a few reads, Dilip felt that he understood what Freire was saying.
More or less. The ideas in the book were certainly far out. They were
really something else! Like the student and the teacher being partners,
engaging in a dialogue to learn together. Dilip felt that he would be
unable to dialogue with Prof. Wagle. Dilip agreed with everything Freire
said about the relationship between the oppressor and oppressed, even
though the book was hard to read. It had so many difficult words, and
the sentences were constructed in a strange way; strange but fascinating.
Once mastered, the book had its rewards.
Freire explained so very clearly how the oppressor managed to fool the
oppressed by making them believe in their inferiority, by convincing
them that his beliefs were right, their's wrong. And then throwing them
scraps, making them applaud his charity! So what if the rich had more
money? That was the only thing they had, really.
Dilip had bumped into Prof. Wagle soon after his third reading of Pedagogy
of the Oppressed and had blurted out that he liked the book very much.
``I knew you would Dilip," the Prof. had said. ``I think you should
do a presentation about it in class. There's no time for it this term
but we can fit it in next term. We will discuss the book first, you
and I, then you can write an outline for your presentation."
``O.K. Sir," Dilip had replied. So they were going to dialogue
just as Freire had suggested! They were going to interact as equals
- he and Prof. Wagle! Profressor Wagle must think well of him. Dilip
day dreamed about their next meeting in the Professor's Common Room.
He gave a lot of thought to the presentation, deciding that he would
incorporate some of Babasaheb Ambedkar's ideas in it as well. What a
good presentation that would make!
Back in the room, Pedagogy of the Oppressed seemed to be mocking him,
lying half-open on the floor. There had been a time when he had believed
in it, just as he had been carried away by Babasaheb Ambedkar's ideas,
reading the great man's biography late into the night.
Dilip pushed Pedagogy under the bed with his foot. He wasn't supposed
to touch books with his feet. Books were knowledge, hence sacred. Well,
since the Dalits had been created from God's feet, it made sense that
he was now desecrating a book with his foot. ...
Dilip knew how Freire would have dealt with adversity. He would have
gone out and mobilized people, people like himself, in a similar plight,
and tried to bring pressure on the powers-that-be. Were there many people
like him? Dalit students who had won scholarships to pursue education
that had been denied to them for centuries?
Here he was on a scholarship that had seemed so enormous in Wadgav,
but which didn't seem to go very far in Bombay. He had learnt to make
ends meet, if he got the money in the first place. Wasn't education
for Dalits one of the things Babasaheb Ambedkar had fought for; Ambedkar,
whose photograph hung in their veranda at home, a garland of pink, plastic
flowers honoring the great leader. Ambedkar, Freire, his cousin Milind.
These people were different from him. They were strong. They had made
it. He did not know anyone like himself. He was alone. He had friends,
family, yet he could not turn to them. Here was no one who could help
Maybe he should have a bath. He hadn't had a shower for 3-4 days and
felt itchy. At least the showers would be free at this time of the night,
though the water would be cold. Dilip passed his hand over his face
to encounter a stubble. He had stopped shaving as well. What was the
use of all that?
``Eh Dilip, tu Devdas mat ban," (Don't be a tragic hero.) Vishnu
had teased him yesterday. Then he had hurriedly changed the subject.
Dilip had become so cranky lately. There was no telling what might put
him in a bad mood, even a harmless little joke could cause a bruise.
Dilip could not get over the fact that he had walked out of the mid-term
Sociology exam held last week. He had prepared himself the best he could,
even though he wasn't feeling very well and did not have complete notes.
He had taken a seat in the second row in the exam hall. Prof. Wagle,
who was invigilating along with a female professor, caught Dilip's eye
and smiled. God knows what he thought of his frequent absences from
Seated on the hard, narrow bench in the exam hall, Dilip quickly scanned
the question paper. He knew two questions well, he was O.K on two and
rather shaky on the last one. He looked around him. People were settling
down to write. Vishnu winked at him from the other end of the room.
Dilip took up his pen and started writing. He wrote half of the first
answer when he was hit by a wave of dizziness. He put his pen down because
his hand was trembling. What was the matter with him? He looked around
the room. Everyone was writing hard. The atmosphere was peaceful, with
the occasional turning of a page, and the mechanical creak of the ancient,
Dilip took up his pen again but he found he couldn't concentrate. With
great difficulty he finished the first question and started on the next
one. He felt really weird. His head felt light and heavy by turn and
soon he had a throbbing headache. Dilip put his pen down. He squinted
at his answer paper on top of the desk, which wasn't quite in focus.
He had to get out. He couldn't write any more. He might faint or something.
He didn't want to make a fuss.
Prof. Wagle had got up from his seat and was walking around the classroom.
He was at the other end of the room. It was a good time for Dilip to
make his escape. Dilip got up, pushed his pens into his pocket, willed
himself to walk rapidly to the table and dropped his answer sheet there.
Then, without looking back, he walked swiftly out of the room.
Dilip lay down on his bed and stared at the spotty ceiling. How was
he ever going to face Prof. Wagle again? He had barely spent 40 minutes
on the exam. Only third class students did that, or those who failed.
He would never be able to go back to college again. Never.
His father had not got as far as college. He had finished his class
seven, then worked at odd jobs in nearby towns, living away from the
family, sending them money every month. Then he had got a job at the
post office in the next village and had started living at home again.
It was a steady, government job; a reservation job. Dilip's grandfather
had been illiterate, and had toiled for next to nothing, in other people's
fields. He had died young. And now he, Dilip, was going to fail his
mid-term Sociology exam.
Lines from a Dalit poem came suddenly to his mind. Vishnu, of all people,
had an interest in poetry and had lent him books on Dalit poetry. Dilip
had been moved by these poems. They visited him sometimes, like this,
when he was up at an unusual hour.
``Mother, you used to tell me/ when I was born/ your labor was very
long. / The reason, mother, / the reason for your long labor:/ I, still
in your womb, was wondering / Do I want to be born - / Do I want to
born at all / in this land?"
Dilip continued to stare blankly at the shadowy ceiling.
Dilip woke up late on Sunday morning. It was almost 11
when he opened his eyes to a room full of light and sound. ``Meine tere
liye hi saat
raang ke sapne chune, sapne surile sapne..." (I have chosen these
seven-hued dreams for you, these lyrical dreams...). Another Hindi film
song was blaring from the transistor downstairs.
Dilip felt tired. He had a headache. He had to get something to eat.
He sat up in bed with some effort, holding on to the iron frame. Brushing
his teeth with the meager bit of toothpaste left, he changed from his
shirt into a t-shirt. Then he went downstairs. Most people were grouped
around the TV set watching `Ramayan.' He was thankful that he did not
have to talk to anyone.
``Hi Dilip," someone said to him as he stepped out of the hostel
compound. He managed a weak smile.
Weak. That's how he felt. The different parts of his body seemed to
be loosely connected this morning. Keeping his head down because the
glare of the sun was hurting his eyes, he walked over to the maidan.
There weren't as many food-sellers there today as on working days. So
he had to wait his turn while they served other customers.
Finally Shyamlal, the wada-pav walla, turned to him. Dilip offered him
the crumpled one-rupee note. ``Baki somvar ko de dunga," he said
(I will pay you the rest on Monday). Shyamlal heated a pav on the tava,
sliding in a blob of butter. Then he heated a couple of the potato dumplings.
Putting them between the bread, he sprinkled the red-hot, garlic chutni
Dilip's eyes closely followed Shyamlal's deft movements, while the smell
of cheap, hot oil rising from the tava stung his senses. He carried
his wada-pav to one end of the maidan and sat down on the grass. He
wanted to eat carefully, so he wouldn't spill anything. The food inflamed
his mouth, making his eyes water. His mouth was probably tender, his
tongue a bit swollen.
Two sets of boys and young men, in white pant-shirts and white caps,
were playing cricket in the maidan. Dilip watched the game near him
for some time. Having finished his food, he wiped his oily hands on
the grass. He definitely felt better. He was still hungry, but felt
He made his way back to the hostel taking a slight detour and going
to Churchgate station first. Standing at the newspaper stand inside
the station, he scanned headlines and examined magazine covers. He wanted
to pick up the Indian Express, and read it, but he knew that the owner
frowned upon people browsing through his wares without buying anything.
The newspapers they got at the hostel would have disappeared by now.
You had to get up early to get a shot at them.
Back in his room, Dilip sat down in his chair which was turned towards
the open balcony door. Maybe Vishnu would return later that day and
he would borrow a few rupees from him. It would be wonderful to go and
eat some biryani at Colaba. The thought made him instantly hungry. After
all, he would be able to cash his cheque tomorrow and return the money.
But then again it was possible that Vishnu would come back only on Monday.
Dilip regretted that he hadn't gone to Dahisar with him. Vishnu's cousin
and wife were very nice people. They had two small children; Dilip enjoyed
playing with them. Now there was nothing for him to do but brood about
the sociology exam. He wasn't going to do very well in economics and
political science either. But at least he would scrape through in those
Now he couldn't dream about talking to Prof. Wagle about Paulo Freire
and doing a presentation next term. The Prof. would be completely disgusted
with Dilip after he saw the exam. Perhaps he should have told him that
he was sick. He might have had a re-exam then. But he didn't want to
take the exam again, anyway. He was really, truly fucked, as Vishnu
would have put it.
As the day wore on, Dilip wished more and more that he had gone with
Vishnu. Vishnu was his only real friend in hard, ungiving Bombay. Dilip
wouldn't have survived all this time, without him. He tried all day
to read his notes, so he could figure out what bits were missing, but
his mind refused to focus. He had a little more success cleaning his
He found Pradeep, Malti's fiancé’s number, scrawled on
a chit, as he was sorting through his papers. He should call him, but
not today. He knew that he was expected to get involved in the marriage
preparations. There wasn't much time left. Malti's wedding was going
to be held in Bombay at some expense. Where would he get the money to
give Malti a nice wedding present? He wanted to feel enthusiastic about
the wedding; energized about Malti living in Bombay, but all he felt
was dread at being at an event as public and vociferous as a wedding,
with 100s of garishly dressed guests, kids running around, the band
playing loud music.
Later that afternoon Dilip dozed off again and woke up feeling hot,
claustrophobic and nauseous. How could he feel like vomiting when there
was barely any food in his stomach? He felt so bad that he dragged himself
to the common bathrooms at the end of the corridor. He retched, squatting
over the toilet bowl. Bile rushed to his mouth, but nothing happened.
The nausea passed. Dilip washed his face. Feeling a bit refreshed, he
returned to his room.
He was never sick like this. It had only happened to him once, in Bombay,
because of overindulgence in beer. He had only drunk beer once. They
had gone out on a boozing spree, after the college play. Dilip never
drank, though he accompanied his friends to bars sometimes. They always
tried to get him to drink, but he firmly refused.
This time, for some reason, he had agreed. Vishnu had promptly bought
him a Kingfisher beer. Dilip had taken a small sip and hated both the
taste and the smell. How could people enjoy this stuff, he thought.
The beer was as appetizing as urine. Urged on by his friends, he had
somehow managed to finish his glass and then the bottle. Later, he had
thrown up by the roadside.
Now he felt as if he had the unpleasant taste-smell of beer-urine in
his mouth-head. At least he had retained the food. That was the main
thing. In fact, despite all the unattractive sensations he was experiencing,
he was hungry.
Vishnu still hadn't returned. He wouldn't come now till the next day.
He wished he had Vishnu's cousins' phone number. He desperately wanted
to talk to someone. He knew the cousins' last name and the name of the
street he lived on, so he could look him up in the directory. But there
was no point in calling Vishnu though. He would get worried; he might
even interrupt his visit and rush back to the hostel. Vishnu was always
worrying about him, as it was. He has been talking about getting in
touch with Dilip's parents; telling Dilip he needed to go home and rest,
eat. But Dilip had managed to dissuade him, telling him he would go
to Wadgav soon, in the summer holidays.
Dilip shut his door against the sounds of the Sunday evening TV film,
emanating from the common room downstairs, and lay down on the bed.
All he had to do was get through somehow to the next day. Then he would
cash the cheque and eat. The idea didn't stir him. He felt that he would
throw up if he ate anything. If he had the energy, he would have banged
his head against the wall. The thought frightened him, but that was
what he wanted to do.
Reaching under the bed Dilip took up Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He tried to read from the book jacket. ``In the course of his work...he
evolved a theory...based on the conviction that every human being no
matter how ``ignorant" or submerged in the ``culture of silence,"
is capable of looking critically at his world...and that provided with
the proper tools...." Dilip let the book drop to the floor again.
He wished he could be angry, righteous. Feel that the world owned him
something. A meal. A job. Dignity. He tried to recall Vishnu's words
about the plight of the Dalits. He wanted to remember Baba Ambedkar's
speeches. But his mind remained weary, and blank.
Suddenly he was submerged in a huge hopelessness, a hopelessness which
was dark and deep and final. Dilip sobbed into his pillow. The sobs
sounded loud, harsh in his ears. Then they stopped abruptly. He felt
himself floating, as if his self had separated from his body.
Snatches of Dalit verse came to him as if from a great distance...``Such
experiments are bound to recur / time and again, of picking suns/ from
the dead blackness of blood / and painting days/ on the canvas of darkness/
I am available always, all the time/ My protests are wordless/ and complaints
have no voice..."
Dilip dozed and dreamt that Freire had come to Bombay. The ministers
and the VIP's were at the airport to receive him. Freire stepped out
of the plane. Standing at the top of the folding stairs, he smiled and
waved to the crowd. People rushed forward to greet him as he walked
down the steps.
A beautiful girl in a silk sari placed a garland of marigolds around
Freire's neck. Another girl put a red tikka on his forehead and dabbed
attar on his wrist. More people surrounded Freire, garlands in hand.
Dilip was at the hostel, getting ready in a hurry, to go and listen
to a talk Freire was giving. He hurried downstairs to be stopped by
the chaprasi at the door. There was a riot outside, he was told; the
streets were unsafe.
Dilip paced the hostel corridor waiting for the riot to end. It was
getting very late. Finally he decided to go out anyway. He stepped out
of the hostel gate, ignoring the chaprasi's protests. A stone flew at
him out of nowhere and hit the gatepost. Dilip ducked and stepped back
into the compound. The chaprasi shut the gate after him.
Dilip was entering Wadgav and people were coming towards him with garlands.
His mother had prepared a great meal for him, Dilip knew. He ached to
eat his mother's bhakari again. As the crowd reached him, Dilip realized
that this was a marriage procession. He could see Gauri, dressed as
a bride, holding a rose-garland in her hands. Gauri advanced towards
him, head bent, face half covered with her pallu. Dilip turned away
in a panic, but he was surrounded by a wall of people from which there
was no escape.
Dilip fell into a deeper sleep from which he awoke a little after midnight.
He was sweating, fearful, with a band of tension stretched tight across
his chest. He lay feeling groggy and disoriented for a long time. Then
he sat up and switched on the table lamp.
The street was dark and quiet. Holding on to the cool, balcony railing,
shivering a little, Dilip looked down at the stone slabs, 4 floors below.
All he had to do was hoist himself up and push his body into space.
He had tried it once and found it quite hard to do. He had managed to
get high above the railing, balancing on his hands, his feet clear off
the floor. But he hadn't really intended to jump then.
Malti would be married soon. She was going to study to be a nurse. She
would make a good nurse; his parents would be proud of her. The image
of Malti in a white, nurses' uniform, her hair hidden under the white
cap, flashed through Dilip's mind.
He tried to hoist himself up on the balcony railing, his heart slamming
against his ribs, his mouth open, gasping with the effort. It was too
tough. He felt so weak. He sat down in the balcony, on the cool, dusty
floor, and rested his head against the wall. He stayed like that for
a while, his mind in a daze. Then he got up and tried again. This time
he succeeded. With his body jutting out of the balcony, into the night,
he looked down again, and started feeling dizzy.
What was he going to do with himself this time?
Dilip pushed himself out, into space.
Acknowledgements for the two Dalit poets quoted:
The first excerpt is from `To be or not to be born,' by
the second from `Experiment,' by Dharmaraj Nimsarkar. The poems appear
`No entry for the new sun,' edited by Arjun Dangle, Disha Books, Orient
Longman, India, 1992.
Translations of the Hindi/Marathi words:
Sookhi bhel, chana, barf ka golas, wada-pav chutni, bharta, bhakari:
chakri: a toy
ayah: female babysitter
pukka road: an asphalt road
paan walla: betal leaf seller
maidan: open stretch of land
tava: a thick iron frying pan
jigari dost: best buddy
pallu: that part of a sari that hangs over the shoulder and back, which
can also be wrapped around the head
This story is based on a true incident. Gokhale was a journalist in
Bombay in 1989 and was sent out to report on a play being enacted by
the student union to protest the suicide of an undergraduate student.
This student was on a government scholarship, but was depressed and
starving because of late and erratic payments. Gokhale isn’t sure
whether the student was Dalit or not. In fact, she knows very little
about him. She was told by one of his friends that he was proud and
wouldn't take money or help from other people. The persona of Dilip,
and the details of his story are fictional.
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