Shikha is a final year student of literature at Lady Shri Ram College for Women who likes to think she was born with a silver pen. She is interested in looking at pop culture and gender through a feminist lens, as you may find her dissecting movies, books and other forms of art to highlight the gender-based problems in them. She has written for many well-known feminist digital platforms, and wants to explore the spaces even more.
THE MILK BOWL
Murali held the bowl carefully in his hands. He made sure his brown, lean legs did not deceive him at this crucial moment. He walked cautiously, one foot at a time, being watchful enough to not step on any big pebble that he might stumble on. Obstacles were many on the road: big stones that he might trip on, smooth ones that he might slip on, or the numerous potholes which meant either you fall headfirst on the path, or get your clothes dirty if you had one of your unfortunate days when you lurch into a muddy one. The ‘road’ was a mere walkway the villagers had created to let the folks walk by without facing any thorns or bushes that were native to the area. Or that was simply a result of the incessant bullock carts that pass through everyday. The locals called the road ‘dagar’.
The dagar was the longest pathway in the village, the grand road, like we have the main commercial roads in cities and towns. It connected all the smaller tributaries of trails, streaming from the fields, the residential hut areas, and other establishments like the Balu’s mithai shop or the sarpanch’s home and the ‘justice court’. The ‘justice court’ wasn’t like one of the law courts in urban settlements, but a makeshift shack constructed by tying a large jute sheet to the trees nearby, and placing an old cot as the judge’s bench, where the sarpanch would sit and hear pleas. This courtroom came into play to try petty cases like a robbery, brother’s quarrel over a piece of land, and graver scenarios like lover’s elopement. Though robbery and theft took place day in and day out, the latter kind happened just once. Or as far as Murali could remember.
It was during last summer. That afternoon, Murali was on his way for a swim in the canal. Summers in the plains were unbearable. Not many villagers stayed out in the scorching sun. Women and babies would stay in the comparatively cooler mud huts, chattering the afternoon away, while the men would smoke hookah in the thick shade of trees beside the fields. Murali preferred going to the canal. As he would dive into the cool waters with little fish streaming past him, he would forget the world and just float there like a hollow bark torn apart from a tree. Only when his brother would call him back crying that mother was angry and would beat him if he did not return immediately would he realize that the sky had turned a soft crimson. A few peddlers walked past with their wares and a bullock cart passed by. Murali turned his head to look at the new pair of bells on the bullock when he heard some commotion.
Murali was confused. The scene in front of his eyes didn’t seem to make sense. There was a small group of men swearing wildly in the air while some of them held thick wooden sticks in their hands. Two young people lay huddled on the ground amidst the crowd. As Murali squinted to see clearly, he could make out who the silhouettes were. Rupa and Bisnu kaka! He knew both of them. While Rupa had just passed her school, Bisnu kaka used to work in a local factory. The other big children used to tease them when they were found holding hands. In fact, once Murali had seen the two sitting on the bank of a river outside the village when he had followed a rabbit. Rupa had treated Murali with some laddoos she had brought with herself.
Sensing some danger, Murali hid behind a tree nearby. He saw an elder man drag Bisnu kaka to one side and kick him ruthlessly. He tried to stand. At that instance, one of the men hit him hard with a stick on his head. Kaka fell on the ground and coughed up dark red blood. Rupa’s bloodcurdling scream pierced Murali’s ears as his heartbeat quickened. She tried to push away the two men, apparently her brothers, who were holding her arms in a twisted manner. Rupa was pleading, “No! Bhaiya please don’t! Just leave him and kill me instead! Please bhaiya…. No….. no….” and she collapsed there, wailing. The man who had hit Bisnu kaka with the stick towered above the huddled mass of Rupa. He pulled her by her arm, and slapped her tightly, “I had warned you to stay away from these dirty pigs… In saalon ki jaat neechi hai! They are black, ignominious assholes who are destined to stay under us Brahmins’ shoes , and not marry our girls! Tujhe ek baat samajh mein nahi aati! I had well warned you…” Rupa was hysteric, “I love him tauji! I can’t live without him….” Now Rupa’s tauji’s blood boiled like tar. “TAKE HER AWAY FROM MY SIGHT!” One of the brothers yanked Rupa’s hair and pulled her away. The other men came close to tauji. With a grave expression he hushed something, briefing the others some instructions. There was urgency in their movements. “Let’s go to the sarpanch.” One of the men saw Murali hiding behind the tree and scowled, barking abuses and hurling words at him which Murali didn’t recognize. Afraid that the man might just come over and thrash him for spying on them, Murali ran away as fast as his thin legs would carry him.
Rupa and Bisnu kaka were never seen after that day.
Murali looked at the bowl in his hands. It was a hot day, and Murali was thirsty. The bowl was full of fresh, thick cow milk which his grandmother had milked the first thing that morning. A layer of cream appeared on the surface. Murali was always fantasized by the fat layer. It was like magic to him. He would slurp the white film and then drink the rest of the milk quickly, before ‘bhalu’ would snatch the glass away from him. It was a childish fear Murali couldn’t yet get over at the age of eleven. It was a hoax his mother used to make sure the children didn’t roam about without drinking their milk. Bhalu, the bear was the accompaniment of the local madari. It looked scary, but wore frills which instead of making him funny and friendly made him a lot freakier.
Now Murali had the bowl in front of him, full of creamy, pure milk but he resisted from drinking it. Taking a deep breath, he covered the bowl safely with the sewn leaf and continued his way. It was a crucial day, and Murali didn’t want to ruin it.
Murali studied in the village school. Most of the boys in the village went there. It was a six kilometer walk from Murali’s home. Every morning, the boys who passed each other on the way would challenge them for a race to reach school first. Murali had an athletic body, and although no one ever challenged him, he would still run, fast and surpass the other boys. The older, defeated boys would beat him once they reached school.
The school, an all boys one, was a brick structure, cemented at some places, and raw bricked at the others. Apparently the funds ran out when the cementing wasn’t finished yet. It had big classrooms, where children used to sit on the floor on some dusty mats. The only chairs that were in the school belonged to the teachers, one in each classroom. The teachers, ‘masterji’ were considered as the most learned people in the village. They were just five of them in the village; they could read and write, and looked quite respectable in their attire of neat, white dhoti, kurta and spectacles. The village folks were always pleased to serve the teachers in any way possible. They would send them grain sacks during harvest season, sweets made at home during the time of Diwali, or pots would pour in from the potter’s. They were the reputable lot as they were the ones who would read notices from the government office and write replies for the tax officials. Murali always looked up to them and was incredibly fascinated by them. Especially his teacher, Gopi Prasad.
Gopi Prasad was the oldest teacher of the school. He was tough and known for his hard ways to get things done. Regardless, Murali had admiration for him. When Gopi Prasad used to pass by, Murali’s eyes would follow his movements until he was gone, all the time smiling from ear to ear. Being a shy boy, Murali never had the chance to interact with Prasad. When the teacher took classes, Murali would never blink an eye in order to listen to every word that Gopi Prasad spoke. Although Murali had to listen hard amidst the noisy classrooms, with his and his friends’ mats at the rear end of the classroom, almost outside, he still would try listening to some words, and would make sense of others watching masterji’s mouth. He was in awe of masterji’s fluent way of speaking and his knowledge. He dreamt of becoming like him one day. Sophisticated, wise and refined in all his ways. Murali had, since forever, wanted Gopi Prasad to address him anyhow, or at least have an eye contact. What a day would it be! But, alas, he never got a chance. Until yesterday.
As autumn was nearing, and so was the harvest season, the older boys of the school felt that they weren’t doing enough for the teachers. Rumor had it that those boys recently had read about the Gurukul system in one of their history lessons. They wanted to gift their teachers guru dakshina as a token of respect. “What should we gift our teachers? They get enough of grains and other produces. They might be sick of them.” One of the boys said.
“But what else do we have? The best thing we own is marbles. I don’t think they would appreciate it.”
“What about some handmade stuff? We can present them with…”
“Balu, the finest you can create is a mud pile, which will get washed away by the rain.” All the boys laughed.
“Any good ideas?” The eldest one demanded, who was apparently presiding over the meeting under the banyan tree.
A younger boy spoke, “My grandmother told me the story of Eklavya. He cut off his thumb as guru dakshina as he was a great student. I never sat in the front row after listening to this story. What if the teacher asks me to cut off my thumb as well?”
And so, a daily supply of milk for masterji’s tea every morning was decided as the safest option.
The day had arrived when it was Murali’s turn.
The boys had charted out a cycle where each student would have to bring milk once a month. Murali was impatient since the past few weeks. Now finally, the moment had arrived. He was going to talk to Prasad masterji face to face! No more staying in the shadows. But what would he say when he would meet Gopi Prasad, and hand him over the milk bowl? Should he put his hands together in a Namaste, and say ‘Pranam masterji’? But he would have the bowl in his hands, and he wouldn’t want to spill the milk. Maybe he should touch Gopi Prasad’s feet and then say ‘Pranam masterji’. Wouldn’t that be too much? But his father had taught him to touch all elder’s feet for showing respect. After all, Gopi Prasad was of such reverence. He would say, “Pranam masterji, I have brought you milk for your morning tea. Thank you for teaching us values and morals of life.” If everything went well, he would add his name as well to ensure masterji remembered him. He repeated the lines in his head and didn’t realize that he had reached school. Show time. With a deep breath and heart pounding, he stepped in.
Murali kicked a stone in front of him. The stone rolled to one side and crashed into a bigger rock. There wasn’t the leisure in his walk he generally had. He was dejected. A group of small children were fighting and tearing at each other’s hair. Murali didn’t care. He looked at the bowl in his hands. The bowl was still full of fresh cow’s milk. Grandmother’s innocent face, smiling at him as she carefully prepared the bowl danced in front of his eyes. How pleased she looked when Murali had told her about his chance of taking milk to masterji! “This is the first time in our family that we are getting to share our food with big men like him. Let me fill the bowl.” She looked into the milk pot, was a little hesitant, but poured its contents into the bowl Murali was to take with him. She quickly covered the pot. “Here my boy, take this carefully.” She smiled her bright smile and kissed Murali on the forehead. Grandmother had tried her best to hide the milk pot, but Murali had already seen. The pot which had milk for the whole family was empty.
What would he tell grandmother when she would ask him about his experience with carrying milk to respected individuals of the village like Gopi Prasad? He couldn’t imagine looking at her hurt face when he would return home with the bowl as it was in the morning: full of milk. Although Murali couldn’t make sense of all the words of masterji, but he knew it was bad. The teacher had moved a step away from Murali as he approached him with the bowl. Murali was so thrilled and eager, but legs shaking all at the same time that he had forgotten his practiced words. He just put his hands up for Gopi Prasad to take the bowl from him. The disgust on Prasad’s face was enough to make Murali’s innocent, little heart sink. He winced, and said loudly in front of all the boys, “I don’t think we yet touch, let alone having food from their homes still, right?” The boys laughed. “And this dirt here thinks that I would drink milk from his home! Why don’t you go and dirty the pigs in the swamp with your milk?” Prasad smirked. With a darkened face he continued, “How dare you can even think of doing this, avarna? Just stay in the shadows, boy. Don’t you think there was reason for us to make you and your filthy friends sit at that far corner of the classroom, away from all our children? Go away, now.”
Murali couldn’t let his grandmother know about this. He was thirsty, he was hungry. There was milk, the one drink he loved, in front of him. He had made his decision. He walked down to the corner of the street. He stood there, holding the bowl. Taking a deep breath, he poured the milk on the ground below. Once every drop of it was out, he wiped any droplets that might have sprinkled off on his legs. Grandmother mustn’t know. Picking up his milk bowl, he started his way home, as fast as his little legs would carry him.