Athena's Notebook

Letter from a scheduled caste teenager

Dear National Commission for Protection of Child Rights,

I am a thirteen years old girl who used to live in the district of Damoh in Madhya Pradesh many years ago. When I was 9 years old, I ran away from home because my father beat the hell out of me for some reason. After running away, since I had nowhere to go, I happily started spending time on Nagda railway station begging for food and money. There is not much money or food in begging, but at least there was less beating. I also travelled for work to Nagpur, Ramji Mandi, Bhivani Mandi, Ujjain, Indore, and Bhopal.

During my work travels, I came across many strange men with strange behaviors and also some people who said they would take care of my food and money if I did things for them. These people later forced me to perform strange things (well at least they were strange when I was made to do them the first time) I did not like to do. (I would rather play you see. Silly me.)

At first, when they forced me to do it, it grossed me out. A man would come and shove his penis deep into my throat and I did not like it at all. I vomited a few times after that and did not want to ever do it again. But later, after getting forced to do it several times, I started getting used to it. You see, the trick I realized, was to stop resisting it. It was the only way to control my gag reflex. Now, I can easily do it twice or thrice in a day without vomiting at all!

For the past three years, I have been living on Bhopal railway station. I had made a few friends too. I used to live with these two boys Vijay and Ravi. They were both older than me and they taught me all about sex. But, one day, both of them left me, calling me a low caste hooker. I felt strange at being called that but it didn’t bother me much. I have become very adept at handling being abandoned.

A few days after Vijay and Ravi left me I got caught by this man called “Jali”. Jali specializes in kidnapping girls, torturing them, and turning them into hookers. He has done that to several girls and currently has 13-14 girls working under him.

Jali told me that coming from lower caste, and living on the station and having been forced to do explicit dirty acts already certified me as a hooker. He told me that the world might see me as a girl, but I was actually a grown woman who should pleasure men and earn him money.

We are 14 of us and none of us like too much of what we do, but it keeps us alive. A few months ago, one of the platform girls was mysteriously found dead. We all knew what she did- she either got into a bad fight with Jali, one of his vandals, or one of his clients. Either ways, none of us want to die.

Isn’t it such an irony dear commission, that after running away from my beating father, I have again come back into the hands of several men who also like to beat up? As it turns out, there is no escape from beating in general.

Anyways, I guess, I have made my story a bit too long and boring. I haven’t actually told you what I really want. It is not the rescue that I want because I have already asked the police here. They pretty much chased me away. And I understand their problem too. They don’t know what to do with me. It’s not like the city has a shelter home for me. So, I totally get the not-getting-rescued part.

But you see, the time that I get from fulfilling Jali’s commitments to his clients, I want to spend it going to a good school and studying there. This is because recently I came to know about this government scheme called RTE which guarantees that all children (regardless of who they are and where they come from) would get to go to school. Now, I know, I am thirteen, and I would be slightly older when this letter reaches you (16 maybe?), but I would still like to be considered for the scheme. I can pay my own fee unlike other children.

Also, what I really prefer would be a school near the railway station where I can go easily after work and ponder upon the complexities of mathematics and learn to write my name in English. Also, it would be very useful for me if there are a few lessons on environmental issues because these will really help me go to sleep. You see, after serving 5-6 clients a day, I just cannot fall asleep. There is also this gasping every night that I am certain is because of some unknown disease and I am sure that going to school would fix it.

Waiting to hear from you but in no hurry,
the thirteen year old scheduled caste girl who is sixteen now

Misinterpreting Equality

Leo Tolstoy said, “In education, once more, the chief things are equality and freedom.”

People misunderstand the concept of equality. Equality doesn’t mean making a dictatorial plan of things and then pruning everything (and everyone) that stands out. But sadly, most of our concepts of equality are based on that. Most of them arise from the idea that equality exists in standardization; that it exists in having people to do, think and behave in the same way over and over again so that no one does, think or behave anything differently.

But equality means something else. Equality is more like freedom to be able to be who you are and yet be given equal importance. A society with the right concept of equality will not have everyone in uniforms or reading the same books or coming from the same kind of households. It would be when everyone would be equally proud of who they are no matter where they come from; it would be when everyone would be able to able to retain their individuality no matter what they wear, read, or talk about. 

90% of the times, society wrongly interprets the term equality when used in context of humanity and it gives more support for the rich to suppress the poor, or the strong to suppress the weak. 

These famous lines from American Declaration of Independence also suffer the same consequence as any other mention of equality. It says,

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Right, that among these are Life, Liberty, and persuit of Happiness.” 

Edward S Corwin and Jack W Peltason, in their book, Understanding the constitution show how many have misinterpreted the expression

Excerpt: “Many have scoffed at the assertion that all men are created eual. They argue that such a statement flies in the face of the obvious facts- some men have brains, talent, facts and virtue and other do not… John C Calhouse and other defenders of slavery attacked the Declaration as a series of “glittering generalities”. Calhoun, who read the Declaration as meaning “all men are born free and equal” quipped, ‘There is not a word of truth in it…Men are not born. Infants are born. They grow to be men….they are not born free. While infants they are incapable of freedom.”

But Corwin and Peltason make it clear:

“The declaration does not assert that men are equal in all things. It proclaims that men are equally endowed with certain unalienable rights, among these being a right to live their own lives, liberties, and pursuits of happiness. These are man’s birthrights; they are not secured by an act of governmental grace or as a gift from others.”

But of course, we are way behind when it comes to understanding equality. In today’s day and age, a tribal man defending his 1 acre ancestral farmland in the deep forest is in no way equal to a man who owns a mining corporation and wants to own, along with several acres of mining area, that 1 acre of farmland. Isn’t it?  

In-class thoughts

Today, in class, I sat with the child who has Cerebal Palsy. His name is Vinod. Everyone wanted to sketch or paint- but he wanted to be able to write. Mostly, because he knows that he cannot do it. He has the sort of impossible expectation that he probably will never be able to realize: to graduate from class 2 and study in class 3. The reality behind him is that he comes from a slum that has not seen clean water for the last four days. That his house is practically a gutter. That the biggest achievement in his life would be to become a very successful beggar (whatever that means). But in this class room, in this small dingy class room where a nice NGO runs English and math classes, Vinod’s expectations from himself are to substantiate to whatever his brain understands as “passing exams”. To know what it means to be able to write the letters A B C D without messing up the already dirty sheet of paper.

The obscenity that arises from the gap between his expectation and his reality is hardly a new thing. But who, who is responsible for making a 13 year old child with cerebral palsy to expect himself to be able to write?

Maybe it is the cruel world around him that tells him everyday that he can’t do much. That, coupled with the NGOs futile attempt to mix him with normal children and teach him math and English the way they would teach any other child. Maybe it’s those silly off hand comments by a fatigued teacher, “Vinod! If you don’t study- you will stay in the same ‘class’ and everyone around you would move forward in life.” Her helpers, in full honesty, help her with the sharp quips. “Your friends will go in class III but you’d stay in class II! Study! It’s important.”

But Vinod. He sits and starts singing in a bold voice. He sings like Kailash Kher. He sings in some language I don’t understand. In a voice that no one understands. A voice that carries things with it- the teachers expectations, her helpers quips, the poorly written ABCDs, others’ laughter, the begging lessons… Other children gather around him and smile. They love the whole charade where Vinod disregards the teachers’ appeal to an expected ambition of “moving forward in life” and sings as loud as he can.  

Little do Vinod and teachers know that moving from class II to class III in this country hardly means moving forward. There is nothing for them waiting at the other end of the finishing line. It’s a false dream that they are shown by the world around them. The real moving forward, in this country, was, and still is, is learning the craft of lying and being good at it. It’s shameless cheating. It’s swindling. It’s the sleight of hand that helps you grab someone else’s thing in a flash of a moment.

Education. Education is only a façade. Education is not teaching people to earn money or to be proud of who they are. It’s teaching them how to speak English fluently so that you can work at a Pizza Hut or a call centre. Education is not providing resources to people who want to work because they want to excel. It’s providing them a source to hide themselves behind a seemingly “sauve” mask.

The mask has a smile, a shining face, bright eyes, round cheeks and big ears. It looks like it mould was a cherub’s face- perfect for advertisements, for campaigns and money grants. But Vinod’s singing. It’s only good for begging at train stations. Nothing more than that.