Vijay red with rage, barged into Sumathy’s room and threw the folded newspaper on her face. In a low but threatening voice he warned her. “You have a similar fate waiting for you. Just note it. If you don’t mend your ways, you are doomed for sure.”
Sumathy frightened by his aggressive behaviour and forceful tone, took the paper and went through the piece of news. It was about a gruesome attack on George Floyd by American Police. What a ghastly report on the incident which shook the world over! A picture was also there at the middle of the news text. Floyd was lying unarmed on ground with face down and the police officer bent on him with his knees on his neck. One could easily visualise Floyd getting choked. No wonder he screamed. “I can’t breathe.” He pleaded and pleaded and his cries fell on deaf ears. The breathless man’s struggle lasted for full eight minutes and forty-six seconds. The police did not budge. George’s battle for survival was a live show for the people gathered around the area. An ambulance was there within reach. But it was used only for carrying the dead body of George Floyd. A racial attack. Nothing helped and nobody came to his rescue. Game over.
Sumathy relating the incident to her life, could not avoid trembling in fear. Her boyfriend George was an eye sore for her brother Vijay and he had been time and again warning her to avoid meeting the guy who was from a low caste and following a different religion. She was from a ‘mudaliar’ community, an upper caste in the social set up, whereas George was from a ‘Scheduled Tribe’ and on top, a converted Christian. Obviously, a low caste breed. In a caste ridden society, such an inter-caste mixing could not and should not be allowed. Funny thing was that if any person from upper caste had his eyes set on a girl from a lower caste it was not objected, though it was not welcomed. Heaven would fall lose if a dalit boy had to marry an upper caste girl.
Sumathy was contemplating to break open her love matter to her parents and seek their approval. Before she could gather guts to approach them, Vijay signalled his forewarning. At least now, she must act faster and get their opinion. If they approved, then okay. Otherwise? She was worried. Question of her future and it was being tossed by others. It would be decided by them! That is fate.
Her parents looking for her, came there. Finding her in tense and in pensive mood, wanted to know what was disturbing her. Sumathy losing no time, gathered guts and told them everything including Vijay’s threats to eliminate George. Her father assured her. “Don’t worry about Vijay. He is a toothless snake. But about your friend, uhm, uhm! Give us some time. We may have to find out ‘who - how – what’ about him. Caste is not our concern. Character is. Your point of view and judgement of a person are different from ours. Trust in us. All will be okay.”
Sumathy’s joy knew no bounds. She did not expect that things would fall into places so easily. She expected heated arguments and counter arguments, tear jerking emotional dramas and finally one side might have to give up for the other. ‘Who would be that loser’ was a million-dollar question. But what actually happened was something totally different. Her parents though had not readily agreed to her, neither did they disapprove her proposal. That helped Sumathy to get back to her normal gay spirits.
It was surprising to Vijay to note that in spite of his strict warning, Sumathy was reeling in her usual ‘high’. He expected her to be gloomy and dejected. At least she would beg him to spare her lover. Nothing happened. He thought she would have worked out a separate plan for herself --- quite likely that the two would be planning to elope soon. Vijay decided to quicken his process or else he would be losing grip on them. ‘A third-rate fellow of lower caste would be the son in law of this house. Will his parents be able to absorb the shock?’ He was worried on their behalf. He must prove to Sumathy that Vijay was not any fool to be ignored. It would be a costly affair. A deadly costly affair. He decided to threaten and caution George, the same way as he did to Sumathy.
Whatever decided must be executed immediately. Otherwise it would get dampened and fizzled out. Before then speed up. He left in a hurry and met George. He slid a knife secretly into his pocket. If his words of caution failed to invoke fear in him then he would wield out the knife only to instil additional dose of threat. Having done that, he rushed back home with a sense of achievement. He thought that George would not let him go. Instead, he would beckon his friends for his support. In such an event Vijay would be rendered helpless. That was one more reason for him to take a knife for self- defence.
On reaching home, he found his father waiting for him. He sensed something amiss. Before his father would demand any explanation, he took the lead and lay bare facts. He thought his father would be shaken ruthlessly and get madly angry. Nothing happened. Was the ground under his feet slipping? No. Blood-boiling? No. Calling George by filthy names? No. Going to beat Sumathy or chuck her out? No. Was he looking for ways to take out his impotent anger upon himself? No. His father stood like a solid rock. That was something unusual for a father to receive a heart-breaking news. For a second, Vijay thought that the rude shock must have robbed his father of his senses and he must be on the verge of collapsing. No. Not even that. Nothing of that sort happened. Vijay was not aware that his father knew everything.
His father asked him a simple question. “What do you understand by caste? Who is upper caste? Who is lower caste?”
Vijay not understanding the background, paused for a while and then said, “Caste is determined by birth. To whom you are born, that decides the caste you are into. If the parents are from upper caste, so is their child. For example, I am your son and so I belong to your caste, say Mudaliar. George was not lucky to be born to an upper caste couple. So, he is in a lower caste community. He is pinning his eyes on Sumathy. How can you accept that low breed fellow as your son in law? That is why I warned our Sumathy to stay away from that wretched fellow. Just now, I went and cautioned George also. Let him know his limitations.”
He expected loud appreciation from his father for his good deed. Instead, his father said in very soft tone, “Have you not read in your primary classes at school that there is nothing called caste or subcaste in the society ---- except for two. One caste comprises of performers and other one comprises of non-performers, that’ all. No Upper cast or lower caste. Caste is determined by DEED not by BREED. Do you have any separate caste for engineers or any other caste for doctors?”
Vijay abruptly cut his father’s arguments and raised his voice. “Nice to hear about all those ideal philosophies. Good as dogmas, not for real life. Be practical. George is by no way a match for Sumathy. George, even if he is millionaire, he is to be rejected. He is from a Tribal community and no way a match for Mudaliar girl.”
His father continued in the same low tone. “What do you think about fishermen? Their community? Are they from lower or upper caste?”
Vijay looked sarcastically at his father. ‘What is this non-sense? Obviously, they do not belong to upper cast at all. Their nasty life, all the time smelly, even their language is different from ours and full of slangs. But why suddenly about them? Are you looking for me, any girl from that community? Dismiss that idea.”
Father replied, “Does it irritate you so much? Have you heard about Vyaasa Bhagwaan, the author of our great epic Mahabharata? He was born to a Fisherwoman. Do You know Valmiki Rishi, the author of another great epic Ramayana? He was a hunter cum roadside robber. Certainly, he too was not from any upper caste. As I told you earlier, people are known by their DEEDS not by their birth. For your kind information, let me tell you one thing. I do not have inhibitions about George or his low breed. All I am bothered is about his performances --- his ‘give-back’ to his family, to his friends, to his society and to this country at large. Of course, by fair means implied within.”
“Appa, I am still not convinced. What our relatives will think? What our friends and our community people will think? They will laugh at us. They will not accept him as our son in law. We have to live in this society and with these people only. We cannot put our head down just because this idiotic girl fell for a scoundrel. I don’t agree.”
Father keeping his cool, responded. “So, you are firm about Mudaliar boy should seek a Mudaliar girl and vice-versa. If that be so, what should I do in your case? Listen to me carefully. You strongly believe that you are a son of a Mudaliar and so from an upper caste. Unfortunately, it is not so. You are also like Vyaasa Bhagwan, born to a fisherwoman. When we were at Ongole, your original I mean, your biological mother was working in our house. She lost her husband to the rough sea when she was carrying you. We assured her about our full support in her testing times. But she did not survive long. After giving birth to you she passed away in a few days. No one from her community came forward to support her. We took their permission and that of local police, adopted you as our son. You are not a Mudaliar by birth. You are Mudaliar by our acceptance.”
Vijay’s mother who was a silent spectator there, whispered, ‘What about Raajaathi?’
“Yes. We engaged a lady, Raajaathi. She was from a sweeper community. We gave her good rich and nutritious food to feed you, the one which we could not afford for ourselves. You grew up steadily. Later Sumathy was born to us, our first natural baby. Then we moved to Chennai and so on…, were all history. Now you tell me! What is your caste? By birth a fisherman, by bringing up in formative years a sweeper and in later part of life till now, a Mudaliar? Who are you?”
Vijay was stunned. He was speechless. He was visibly shaken. The parents he knew were not his parents at all. He thought George low breed. What about himself now? A smelly fisherman? A dirty sweeper? How could he face his friends? ‘Will they accept me if they knew the truth? Do I have a moral right to question others?’ He abruptly left the place in silence.
A policeman was watching Vijay who was sitting alone in Marina Beach under the scorching sun for a pretty long time. He thought that the guy was up-to something abnormal. He pulled by Vijay by his collar and took him to the police station and booked him under attempt to suicide. When the Inspector asked for details Vijay could not answer properly. “What is your name? your father’s name? your address? Your caste?” Vijay was already very much confused. ‘What is my identity?’ The policeman thought he could be mad or mentally derailed.
Inspector asked the policeman to get phone number of his family member and ask them to take him home. The phone number given by Vijay was wrong and went to somebody who came running to police station to say that he never had a son at all. Why so much? No family also. Because he was summoned to the police station, he came running so as to avoid further complications. Police got fed up with Vijay. Was he a nuisance maker? A mild punishment only would work with such people. Inspector told the stranger to take him to a saloon and get his head tonsured, then leave him at his place and ask his father to report to police station about his safe arrival.
Without a word Vijay followed. They stopped at Jimmy Saloon. Inside what he saw was something unexpected. George was waiting there with a sharp knife. Jimmy asked Vijay to choose the hairstyle he wanted. When George told him about Vijay, Jimmy burst into laughter. He took the knife from George and said ‘This knife is like Atomic Energy. When you wielded it to terrify George, then in your hands it was ‘Atomic Energy for destructive purpose’ and in our hands it is Atomic Energy for service of humanity’. We are for peace. You tell me what hairstyle you want?”
Vijay just pointed out a Bhudhist monk figure with a clean-shaven head. Again, Jimmy laughed. ‘What a funny fellow!’ Simultaneously, he remembered Mahendra Singh Dhoni had his head tonsured immediately after winning the World Cup in cricket. He offered his hair to Goddess Kalimata in accomplishment of his success. A tribute. George said that possibly somebody must have passed away and so as a sign of mourning, Vijay must be shaving his head. Vijay nodded affirmatively. In his mind he said it was his ego. The escort also had his head tonsured. Just for whims. ‘No more calls for me from police’
“Next time you come here, you will be having a lady, Susan to attend on you.” And added showing George, “His fiancée.” That was one more surprise for Vijay. He asked “Susan or Sumathy?” He did not get any reply.
Jimmy said that she too was their partner and they fondly called her Susan. Vijay told them. ‘Then you please call me Victor. I am also from a low caste and give me a job here.’ Jimmy laughed again. He said, “nobody gets job here by their caste. It is only by his qualifications and skills. Understand! What course did you complete? Performance alone is counted as merit and nothing else. Susan had done her Beauty Parlour course. George also has one. They are qualified people for their skills.”
Vijay’s ego was smashed once again. He believed barbers were a community of low breed. He got life lessons taught at a saloon. Earlier his father preached sermons about performers and non-performers. It did not go deep down. Here Jimmy laughingly inducted those very same doctrines. He silently left the place. He did not have moral courage to look at George and ask for forgiveness.
He went home with the escort and rang the doorbell. Sumathy on seeing two persons with their tonsured heads screamed. “Amma, call Appa immediately.” Her mother said he had gone to Murugan temple to offer his tributes. Sumathy saw two more people coming to towards her house. Yes. Both with clean shaven heads. Her father was one and another --- Oh God! George.
Vijay said his tonsuring was for mourning George Floyd’s killing, the upper class crushing the lower class. Father said his tonsuring was an offering to Lord Muruga for blessing his son Vijay with a better sense of judgement. George said he opted willingly for his tonsuring to show it as a mark of his victory or just say accomplishment --- just following his favourite hero M.S. Dhoni. The escort said he had no reason. He just joined the band wagon.