I’ve met many mothers in my travels around Nepal. I’ve heard the tales of their lives and struggles. I feel that not all these stories are the same. I’ve written this story as a monologue, based on what a few mothers have shared with me:
“A buffalo can never be washed into a cow, a Dalit can never be purified into a Brahmin.” On my middle finger is a thimble but the unpalatable words of Bistini Bajai from the Big House do not stop pricking. The flame on the iron lamp is stuttering, like my life. The kerosene is about to run out. In the hearth, smoke sputters from the evening’s damp firewood. My eyes burn. They cannot find their way at night. I’m staring at the tip of the needle and sewing a blouse. My eyes burn, itch. After a day of working the machine, my back is aching terribly. For some reason, my hands are cramped. My shoulder blades are about to drop off. Early next morning, I will have to give Bistini Bajai her blouse. It has to fit perfectly.
Once when I went to drop off her clothes, Bistini Bajai had placed a block of salt on top of four mana of maize as payment. There’s no guarantee everyone will give you enough rice, lentils, vegetables, cumin, coriander, ghee, salt, turmeric, ginger. Some put a block of salt on a heap of flour, those short of money will tell you to take payment later. Others make out as though the stars are not yet aligned.
Today, after so long, I feel relieved. I was able to offer a handful of cow-dung to the young ‘un from the Big House. Bistini Bajai is dead and gone, but the grandson showed up. They used to think I wasn’t even worth giving cow-dung to.
Once, I’d gone to ask for cow-dung to plaster my leaf-and-branch shack. “Use your own dung,” Bistini Bajai said as she refused me. My heart cracked. This life, not worth even cow-dung! Since then I’ve been afraid to ask for anything. I portion a meal’s worth of offal into two. But I won’t ask for anything from the neighbours. I don’t recall any give-and-take with them. We could have had such a system of barter, but nothing I touch passes muster. The only thing that does is our labour. If it wasn’t for that, their lips wouldn’t taste rice-water.
No one was willing to give me cow-dung, so I bought three cows at thirty rupees apiece. Since then there’s always been a cow in my house. By the time I became worthy of cow-dung my son had left to work in the Gulf. They say that if you give milk and yogurt to Untouchables the livestock start climbing trees. Instead, they give us yellowish, watery yogurt, and say this is what our fates have decreed. What do they think will happen if they give us cow-dung? Will the cows become Untouchables? Or will the trees start walking?
The villagers only come to our house if they need their clothes sewn or if they need farm labour. At other times, nobody comes to ours nor do we go to anybody’s. They say if you rub shoulders with small people you debase yourself, but if you associate with the good and the great it makes a real person out of you. Keeping company with us stops you from becoming human! That’s why the high castes don’t fancy us. They act as though their kids will be infected by our caste if they spend time with our kids. Chhi, chhi, stay away! For a mistake as tiny as a grain they beat our kids to an inch of their lives. Which kids are theirs and which are ours? They’re all the same at that age. Out of anger, I didn’t go to weed their cornfields. My livelihood’s in my hands: I’ll manage somehow.
Last year I went to ask how my grandson did in his exams. The teacher said, “This dum woman is so daring, she looks me in the eye and asks how the kid is doing!” I’m sending the kid to school with what I’ve earned day and night, don’t I have the right to ask how he’s done in his exams? I gave him a mouthful! Seeing his stunned response brings to mind a blinkered ox being harnessed to thresh paddy.
I have a bellyful of talk about these villagers, but who will listen to us! If I stand, the wind will take my words. If I don’t, no one will hear.
The house feels empty. That’s why even the livestock get excited if there’s a visitor. This village is big but the hearts of the villagers are dried up like a winter well. This is the only damai house in the village. My father-in-law used to say: in the old days the Bistas brought kāmis with them to make their sickles and hoes and the damais to sew their clothes! Now even our brothers aren’t in the same place. You can do whatever you like to those who are on their own. Whatever they say goes.
I labour in the fields of the big people. Working on an empty stomach, my mouth tastes sour. All the labourers work in harmony, like friends. Our elbows brush against each other as we harvest the rice. A while back, Kāili Bajai nicked her finger with a sickle. I quickly rubbed some rauné grass together and pressed it to the wound. The bleeding stopped. Later, Kāili Bajai said, “Sister, I feel at ease when I’m with you.”
Even this friend, so at ease with me, shuns me when it’s time to eat, makes out as though she doesn’t know me. When I feed the livestock their gruel I go right up to them. I pick the ticks from their bodies. But when I go to work on their farms, they push the food at me angrily. There’s a tin plate set aside for me. I have a special bond with this plate. Sometimes I wonder whether the Bistas are putting me to work or shooing away a calf. They don’t even call me by my name when they set me a task. Since nobody calls me by my name, I’ve forgotten it. Sometimes I ask myself: what is my name? Everyone calls me Kānchi Damai. For love, they say! How old am I? They say I was found on a hillside when they went to cut thatch!
People from good families say that my caste is an auspicious one! That it’s a blessing to see a damai woman first thing in the morning! That clothes sewn by auspicious hands are good! That’s probably why they got me to sew a vest for Thulāgharey Kānchhā with a piece taken from the dhoti I was wearing. Every year when children die they say they should be given low-caste names to save them from ghouls and ghosts. That’s why they used to be called damai, kāmi, sārki. Is it because we ourselves are evil spirits? Who are the gods who made us into demons? The stone idols did not make us so. Was it the village bāje then?
It’s not like before. People might be the same but the times have changed. Since the Maoists came, the tithe system has died out. They made it so that we could walk in front of our masters without taking the caps off our heads and the shoes off our feet. The Maoists didn’t believe in caste, and they didn’t spare those who did. They went into the rooms of those who practised untouchability. Our children and their friends went right into the Bista House to eat their meals. All the youths in the village left their ailing parents and nursing children at home for the forest. My son digested the bullet that entered his body like Cetamol. He watered the soil with more blood than coursed through his body.
The Maoists left the forest, entered the city. They say bark sticks to the tree it came from. In the end, they only got along with each other. They needed our children to kill and be killed, but when it was time to take a seat, they said our kind couldn’t manage it! When it was time to integrate with the army, my son became an Untouchable. If he became a Colonel or a General, it would be a humiliation for the upper castes! My son left because he could not bear his own humiliation. How many times will mothers have to empty their wombs to be rid of untouchability and discrimination! Fed up, my son left the country. When my son brought a woman with him, I had to call her my daughter-in-law. In the forest, caste or creed meant nothing. The same people, once they came to the villages and towns, started saying you should drink from the source and marry within the clan. We were outside the clan. Sometimes my daughter-in-law pricks me with these insinuations.
Yesterday the radio said that the Maoists are abandoning the wives they married then for those from their own caste! When the radio speaks like this, people mock it and call it “Duma’s radio”. These days the radio talks about us as well. Two girls speak for half an hour. I really enjoy their talk. But if the higher castes see us listening to the radio, they remark, “So she’s started to listen to the radio!” We’re allowed to learn a few things too, you know! It angers them to see us eating good food or wearing nice clothes.
Once, I was wearing clothes that my son had brought from abroad. I was feeling good. “This is what happens when lice from the feet creep up to the head,” remarked the bajai from the Big House, and my heart shrank. At first I didn’t understand why. It turned out we were wearing similar dhotis. Her daughter-in-law told me it was so when I went over to carry hay. Why is this body only fit for hand-me-downs? I have no desire to purify myself with water, because I don’t consider myself impure. I don’t understand why a Brahmin is pure and a Damai profane. How impure does the Big House bajai have to make us to render herself pure? The hairs on my legs are turning grey, how long should I take this!? “The spit of a Damai tailor is pure, the mouth of a Brahmin is pure,” they say. But whatever that mouth spews out is pure?
I eat what I earn. Deal straight. Err not, fear not. My hands are never idle. There’s always the rush of work. Even at midnight my eyes don’t get rest. Sometimes the whole village feels like a thicket of nettles. It stings wherever I touch. So many things play in my mind. The festive season is when one reaps the fruits of one’s labour. If the work isn’t done in time, the Bistinis start yelling, “Dumini, why’re my clothes late?” When they scold me I see nothing but my scissors, really. Anger makes me want to cut up the inch-tape and the clothes, and smash the sewing machine. But how can I compensate them if I shred the cloth? The words of the elders jolt me. It’s intolerable for a woman to lose her temper. But nobody says anything when my old man gets mad. The Bistas can do anything. I suppress my feelings and laugh it off.
The old Bistas are angry if their clothes aren’t done on time. “Please wait, I’ll have it done in a minute.” I try to mollify them. “When you’re sewing, you have to keep everyone happy. Wherever you go, it’s always going to take a bit of time.” Whatever they say, I’ve got to stitch up my own lips in the end. You speak at your own risk. “Such arrogance, don’t take your clothes there,” they’ll tell their neighbours. How will I light a fire at home if I don’t work! So I can’t even get angry.
No matter how much I sew, I’ll only have a set of clothes for myself. I have grown old sewing new clothes for others. During the festivals, all the Bistinis wear newly sewn clothes. In their eyes, we’re profane. Whether we wear new clothes or not, we’ll always be profane. I’m not sure why such profane people are compelled to celebrate the festivals of the pure! This needle-and-thread and scissors have sanctified their festivities. But I have no idea how I will purify myself.
We dropped to the plains to eat white rice. This family, this home, these fields feel like a nation won with this needle and thread. This family is my nation. These two plots of land I earned through hard work are my country. I dug these terraces at night by the light of an oil lamp. It took me three years. During the revolution, people used to run off to the next village. How scared we were. Even amidst the fear, we didn’t stop digging. As we ploughed the land, a house came into being as well. Counting this one, I’ve built ten houses. We’d move the shack every time the fields above us were ploughed.
I roof the house myself. I do it every year. I flip the thatch over and lay it again. Now, with my son’s earnings, we’ve built a pukka house. My youth has gone into this soil. We don’t have the title for it, but at least I’ve been able to give away scoops of cow-dung to the villagers. There are a few households without land titles. They believe in untouchability, too. So do the Gurungs and Magars. They drink a gruel tinted with millet, but they mock us. We can’t say anything in return. If we do, they say, “Damais are a useless caste.”
A few years ago my mother passed away. No one was willing to join the funeral procession. There was only one Damai household in the entire village. The Gurungs didn’t join the procession, let alone bring ritual offerings, because they worried that the high castes would shun them as well. That night my mother’s corpse lay stretched on the porch. We cried through the bitterly cold night. Only the next day did people from our caste from the next village over arrive for the procession. The high castes don’t ask us to join their funeral processions because they say they’ll come into contact with us! I used to wonder why one of my uncle’s relatives moved away as far as the eastern plains. What kind of a place is it where there’s no one to even come to your funeral! How can they pretend that they live in harmony with each other? As long as we endure the humiliation, there will be harmony. Here, there’s no one to celebrate or to mourn with.
I wonder, will I go the way of my mother? I’ve started to feel unwell. I had many children. I’d become pregnant soon after I’d given birth, and there was no question of having the child. So I’d induce a miscarriage. I’d eat an unripe gourd to eject the fetus. That’s what it was like in the old days. Who would have taken us to a doctor! My old man wouldn’t even know. What difference would it have made? My body was enough for him.
Once, the child was already formed. When it came out I saw its little fingers. Blood flowed, it smelled of blood. Because of the loads of earth and rocks, firewood and grass I had to carry, I suffered a uterine prolapse early on. I smelled bad to myself. I found it difficult to even go near people. I was already considered impure, and I’m very dark. I don’t really know how to do anything. I collect firewood, work in the fields, thatch roofs, and sew a little. I didn’t even know how to do this to begin with. It feels like only yesterday that I was whacked with a pair of scissors for this. Later I learned by observing others. It’s like they say, “Sārkis are beautiful, Daminis are skilful.”
I don’t need the inch-tape to measure the shoulders, chest, waist, arms. The bodies with their protruding bones are steep like the hills or flat like the plains. I’ve been taking measurements for years now. This inch-tape isn’t enough to measure our humiliation. But there’s not much difference between cloth and mockery. It’s like the nettle, stinging us on the inside. The more we cover their modesty, the more they denude us. That’s why the cold of winter doesn’t touch us, nor does the warmth of spring.
One day I was sewing clothes for the Big House when a girl working for some NGO appeared on my doorstep. Said she wanted to learn about the state of Dalits! She asked me a bunch of questions and filled in a form. Her hands were moving so fast! Seeing her write, all sorts of things came to mind. Letters mean no more than black marks to me. But if I held a pen instead of a needle in these hands?
—Perhaps I’d have written about sewing a labeda suit.
—I’d write about sewing clothes fine and strong.
—I’d write about quilting with urine-stained cloth.
—I’d write of camping on a mat by the cowshed while sewing clothes for the Big House.
—I’d write of how my mother’s corpse lay stretched out all night in the bitter cold outside the house for want of a funeral procession.
—I’d write of being scalded by thin gravy poured onto rice in my tin plate.
—I’d write of the pain of not being considered even worthy of cow-dung.
—I’d write of our being stripped naked.
—I’d write of the agony of miscarriage.
—I’d write of the shame of covering our bodies with rags.
—I’d write of the ghoulish eyes of the Brahmin who forced himself on me while my husband was abroad.
—I’d write of enduring childbirth without a warm meal.
—I’d write of sewing uniforms for the Maoists.
—I’d write a folk song about the pinching pains of untouchability.
—I’d write an epic about the dehumanizing system of caste.
—I’d write of being dehumanized.
—I’d write of my Damai husband who danced merrily with the Panche-bājā even when the hearth was cold and my daughter had a fever of 104C.
—I’d account for the zeros added by the moneylender at the end of sums borrowed.
I don’t have a pen at hand. Well, I’m no good at accounting. But I’ve kept accounts of all the little debts owed me by the village in a box in my mind. And when people say they love the village, it makes me laugh. It makes me want to tear Bistini Bajai’s blouse in the middle of the night, and shake the village with my laughter.