It was one of the Karate lessons during summer vacations, in between classes VI-VII. I was waiting outside the entrance to the ground, along with a few other boys. It was only around 8o’clock, but already sweltering hot.
“Kyon bhai, kaun si caste ke ho?” (So, brother, which caste are you?) Out of nowhere, this question came to me from a bigger boy.
“Brahman.” I mumbled, stupefied. This was the first time someone had asked me this question.
“Oh okok”, the guy said. “Aur tum”(And you?), he directed his question to another.
Feeling weak from all the hot sun, I came and sat beside the older boy on the low wall he was sitting on.
“Ok, aur tu?” The curiosity turned towards another, smaller boy standing nearby. No response came.
“Ye to saala kisi bhangi-chamaar ka lagta hai…”(Bastard looks like some Bhangi-Chamaar’s), the bigger boy said, and looked at the High Brahman sitting beside him for approval.
Sahir was the first friend I had. He was in my class, and his younger sister Farha was in Sunanda’s class. This coincidence further cemented our friendships. We were in class I-II at that time. Sahir always used to wet his lips with his tongue. Farha had bob-cut hair and her mom made a ponytail on top of her head like a fountain.
Some of my earliest memories are with Sahir. I remember us going to the park with our Leo machine guns and hiding in the undergrowth and shooting at imaginary Pakistanis. We would wrestle on my sisters’ double bed. More often than not, I would beat him hollow. Often, when I would pin him down, he would try to add extra force to his efforts to topple me by invoking ‘Ya Ali!’. On a rare occasion when he had me down, I remember trying to seek divine help by invoking ‘Jai Bhawani!’.
I think it was the time of the felling of the Babri Masjid. There was curfew in the entire town. The schools were closed. But being Government Quarters, our colony was immune to the curfew. Our children’s group took full advantage of the closed schools by playing night and day. There was strict curfew in the rest of the town. Dad once took us walking till the entrance of the colony, where police guards were posted. As he talked to the policemen, we had the occasion to inspect the area. The usually busy road beyond our colony boundary was totally deserted.
Once, probably during the same days, Sahir came to me and said something like, “Yaar Hinduon ne to Muslims ki Masjid tod di, ab Muslims ko bhi kuchh to karna chahiye.” (Dude, the Hindus have felled the Muslims’ mosque, even the Muslims should do something now).
I remember quite clearly that thinking on it with whatever logic I was capable of, I had replied, “Haan yaar, sahi hai, kuchh to karna chahiye”. (Yeah buddy, you’re right, they should do something.)
We had then carried on with whatever we were doing.
There was a boy, Satvik Reddy, who used to live near us. He was two years junior to me. I was in class IV and he in class II. While coming home from school in auto rickshaw, there were 3 boys who were usually picked upon by the rest. Satvik was one of them.
I still don’t know why the remaining two were picked upon, but I think Satvik was picked upon because he was, well, different from the rest of us. He had very hard, curly hair and he spoke Hindi with a different accent and came to the auto everyday smelling of some funny food item. (I was to later know that it was chutney). While the rest of us came clutching a rolled up paratha or a sandwich, Satvik usually had an idli stuffed in his mouth.
Nobody could make out his uncommon-ish name from the accent he spoke in, and so he was called ‘Saabje’ by the rest of us. As for his surname, it was taken to be ‘Grid’. He was what we took to be a ‘Bangali.’ His nickname was ‘Kabootar’.
There was a distance that we had to walk to our homes after getting down from the auto, and most of the times me and a friend of mine made sure we made it hell for Satvik. His last line of defense on us teasing him would be to spit on us, upon which we would thrash him.
There had been a few more South Indians, mostly Andhraites, in our neighborhood and in our class across the years. None of them was a particular target anywhere, which gives me consolation that it was not as much as Satvik being different ‘culturally’ but him being different as a ‘boy’ on the usual parameters of boyhood which made him a target. But the cultural difference, no doubt, played some role.
Perhaps the biggest brunt of the society, which differentiated between people on the basis of their birth, was borne by the Sindhis (of which there was a substantial number in Ajmer). They were always the target of derogatory jokes. They had no manners – if there were some people heard throwing abuses, they were taken to be Sindhis until proven otherwise. Sindhis were the biggest cheats of all people who one should never do business with, unless one wanted to get swindled. One should never befriend them unless one wanted to get stabbed in the back. Their boys were useless pricks who one should stay away from. Their homes were the dirtiest. Their kitchens smelled and their women who were loathe to do any housework did not cook proper meals for their kids who made do with some random snacks at mealtimes. The Sindhis were tasteless people who had no sense of dressing and propriety. Oh, and yeah, their girls were whores. And so on and so forth.
Suffice to say this, that calling someone ‘Sindhi’ was a big, sharp gaali. I cannot list down specific instances for the kind of prejudices I saw people holding against Sindhis. One blog would not be enough.
PS1: I am no longer in touch with Sahir. I have a bagful of memories with him, from which I have chosen those which hold some interest in the light of the political knowledge I have gained over the years.
PS2: Now as I see the kids, Telugu and Non-Telugu, in my building in Hyderabad, playing together and none being targeted, I feel glad that children today are intrinsically cosmopolitan. More that what perhaps, we, growing up in small-town North India, were in our time. The idea that my behavior towards Satvik could have been influenced by our cultural differences rankles me no end to this day. Especially in the light of the humbling behavior the amazing people of Andhra Pradesh have accorded to me over the past six years.
PS3: About Sindhis, I don’t know how things are now in Ajmer, but if you were growing up at my time in Ajmer, you could not stay immune from these prejudices. I could start getting rid of them only when I left Ajmer and went to Kota and saw the world with my own eyes. Later, as I built friendships with some other people of that community, such notions became a thing of the past. Today, I have nothing but respect for the Sindhi Hindu community, who despite migrating to India 6 decades ago with nothing on them save the shirts on their backs, till now without a homeland, have today made themselves to be what is perhaps the most prosperous community in the cutthroat competitive environment of India. I regard them as among the finest of ‘our’ people.
The Town that was – I http://wp.me/p1jJo-dL
The Town that was – III: http://wp.me/p1jJo-eR