The handshake episode

Kum Veerabhadrappa

A school teacher overcomes his prejudices in the course of adapting to his new posting

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The Hindu: H S Raghavendra Rao's review of Kum Veerabhadrappa's collection of short stories

Our school moved up to the Kendaremma temple in the untouchables’ quarters. Many incidents took place after that, all vying for attention. They were as innumerable as the stars in the sky, how could we count them! Some we can talk about, others need the facility and refuge of the written word. Yet others warn us, “Keep your lips sealed, or else…” Together, they rest peacefully in the impenetrable backyard of experience. Briefly…

The vested interests of Vagili village had quietly ostracised me. I became aware of it as the days went by. Krishna of the oil-pressers, who used to fetch water for me, slowly became distant. Yankobi of the washermen stopped doing my clothes. Tippaiah Shetty, who used bring my groceries home, collected his dues and left with a sour face. People close to me started avoiding me. Bhoja and Ramappa Soami of the goatherds came up to me and advised: “How can you survive after making enemies of village elders? You are just hot-blooded… Just listen to us and make the school…”

As for me, I did not budge to any threat. Hanumanta of the untouchables and Timmaiah of the gravediggers became my left and right hands. I had the Hercules, in any case. I pedalled out seven to eight kilometres and got help from the washermen. I started getting my groceries and stuff from there. The ostracism did not affect me in any way. I just lived my routine.

I don’t know why, but my fellow-teacher took a transfer to a village called Suluvayi, and went away. Gurumurty Swamy of the Lingayats, who took his place, was the way only he could be. He looked like he was born around the time of the Sepoy Mutiny. He had passed the sixth class exams, but had failed the seventh. He was a higher-grade teacher, no stranger to me, although I couldn’t say I knew him well.  Tired of his ineffectual ways, the Block Development Officer had transferred him to Vagili, also known as Andaman-Nicobar. When he said, “That Swamy must be taught a lesson,” I had felt bad.

When Swamy entered the village, he had smeared his entire body with sacred ash. He wore seven or eight kinds of beads around his neck. Like comrades who clutch the Das Capital under their arms, Swamy was clutching several almanacs. Yet he was a good man…

He wouldn’t touch strangers easily, nor would he allow himself to be touched. He would find out about the land, air and water, and only then use them judiciously. He wouldn’t raise his eyebrows or his voice before anyone. He walked about the place without as much as the water in his tummy shaking, and wouldn’t lose his temper with anyone. He may have looked like a salesman for the lethal weapons of superstition and hypocrisy, but he was a good man among good men.

How to get along with someone like this was my worry. One day, when he was walking by the boundary stone of Vagili in the manner of a convict sent to Kala Pani, he was advised by Kelamani Sivareddi, rushing for his morning cleansing: “How will you work with that butcher? Why don’t you fling your resignation and go live on alms?” Others told him other things. Yet others told him yet other things. But he trusted God, walked up to the Dalit quarters, and surveyed it like one who had triumphantly arrived at God Indra’s capital of Amravati.

As if to welcome him, Kurukundi Naga and his friends were cutting up chunks of the meat of a buffalo calf. A man called Dokka was preparing the hide for tanning, and boiling it in hot water. On another side, Chandra sat with his queen between his legs, peering into her hair to find lice – they must have appeared like fierce Airavata tuskers to him – and killing them with violent passion. Other lovely sights elsewhere…

Walking across a bridge of sighs, Swamy entered the Adi Dravida University that was our Kendaremma temple of three walls. He took in with moist eyes the snotty Einsteins, Amartya Sens and Cariappas, and became emotional. Before his sorrow could break out in a flood of tears, he turned his heart into pink granite and assumed charge of the first and second post-graduate classes.

Many from the colony came to see Swamy as if they were coming to see a corpse. “Who knows what sin he had committed in his past life?” they said by way of homage.

He gradually got used to the atmosphere of our university. He found a corner at the oil press to live in, for free of course. He performed his rituals three times a day, and ate food he cooked for himself. He spoke with everyone in a steady voice, without any highs and lows. If Vagili gradually became a centre of curiosity, Swamy became the centre of another kind of curiosity.

The sympathy of “Poor man, he is paying for sins committed in a previous birth” became his protective shield. He didn’t go out begging, but things arrived at his doorstep. He cleansed himself of the school’s surroundings by taking dips in the stream, performing his rituals on the banks, chanting his mantras, and, on returning home, gazing at his reflection in the five-metal mirror.

And would he ever refuse to hand out charms and talismans?

Blessed frankincense for women who had difficulty giving birth. Charms for the horns of aggressive bulls, for the udders cows that wouldn’t give milk, for the arms of those who had to venture out to recover loans, for the necks of husbands who couldn’t control their temper, for the waists of women who would refuse to be persuaded…

His star value increased when Ravdemani Lachumi Reddy, smoking the hookah and preparing to retire to Lachumavva’s garden, performed successfully in bed, and the news wafted out like perfume everywhere. Shankara Reddy, Gopala Reddy, Raghava Reddy and other village heads started visiting Swamy to increase their virility.

Since Swamy made at least fifty a day, I often teased him, in boyish mischief, that he should tie a charm on the village heads’ arms to make them treat the Dalits as equals, and on the heads of Dalit children to make them grasp their lessons easily. “How’s that possible? They are village folks,” he would say, laughing away the suggestion.

Perhaps because of his influence, some Dalit children started smearing their foreheads with sacred ash, looking astonishingly like young B D Jattis. He suggested that I too wear sacred ash to increase my social standing, and practise peering at the five-metal mirror to have my wishes fulfilled.

There was a junior comrade called Yankobi in the colony. He had become a nightmare for Swamy. “You, sir, you’ll lose your job if I complain that you discriminate against our castes,” he would threaten, and pocket ten or twenty. He would growl at Swamy wherever he saw him. One morning…

Drunk, Yankobi arrived at the school and stretched his hand out, insisting on a handshake. Swamy hid his hands behind his back and refused, “How can I give you a handshake for nothing, brother?” Yankobi said, “If you can’t touch my hand, how will you touch our children? You’re teaching our children to smear sacred ash, but not to write. I am going to right away…” And so forth…

It wasn’t as if there was no truth in his argument. It was also the time of the Emergency, you know. “How can I do that? These same hands that do the rituals...” he said, tears welling up. With two hundred children, the school needed his services. Yankobi announced a week’s deadline for his handshake, and left.

Swamy, who used to touch touchable children with a short stick and untouchable children with a long stick, threw both sticks away. He gradually overcame his inhibitions and started putting his hands on the shoulders of Dalit children. When Yankobi came back snarling a week later, Swamy surprised him by giving him shaking his hand.

One day, of his own accord, Swamy exclaimed, “There’s a kind of peace in touching Dalits.” In any case, he had his five-metal mirror…