Next Story:....................................................................................................................................... Back to Stories Index

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 thought.

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. in Bombay.

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 of weeks.

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 cool.

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 hungry.

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 thinking..."

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 excellence!

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: ``Everything's O.K.?"

``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 years.

``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 try."

``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 it unread.

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, probably.

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 door.

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 him.

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 class.

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, ceiling fans.

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 be
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 on top.

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 stronger.

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 subjects.

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 room.

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 L.S. Rokade;
the second from `Experiment,' by Dharmaraj Nimsarkar. The poems appear in
`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: FOOD
chakri: a toy
ayah: female babysitter
pukka road: an asphalt road
chaprasi: doorman

paan walla: betal leaf seller
Matherchoth: Motherfucker
maidan: open stretch of land
tava: a thick iron frying pan
jigari dost: best buddy attar: perfume
pallu: that part of a sari that hangs over the shoulder and back, which can also be wrapped around the head

Author's notes:
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.

Next Story: ........................................................................................................................................... ......... Top

Web Graphics and design by Smita Maitra * Background graphic by Kabir Kashyap* concept by Amrita Ghosh * Please read the disclaimer

This web journal is sponsored by The Caspersen School of graduate studies, Drew University