Suman and the New Girl in School
by Indrani Talukdar
(Anand, Gujarat, India)
One day, while walking home from school, Suman lost his magic ring. Upset and crying he reached home. Dadi, seeing him thus, prepared his favorite kheer, but Suman was inconsolable. As far as he was concerned, he’d lost his source of strength. He barely tasted the food dadi had cooked for him and went to bed crying.
He lay awake all night practically thinking where, oh where could the ring be, how could he have been so stupid to let it fall out of his grasp.
Birds were chirping outside his window when sleep came to him finally.
In his sleep he saw the gnome who had given him the ring.
“You were becoming too dependent on the ring,” the gnome was saying, his head bobbing up and down like a little balloon. “You must learn to face the world like a man now.”
Suman walked to school the next day, his head bowed. Veeru, who had grown an inch taller and was strappier since he’d seen him last, edged past him almost apologetically.
“Trust all bullies to be cowards,” Suman was saying under his breath. Kalu, the dog who usually accompanied Suman to school, couldn’t agree more. “He doesn’t have his friends around him so he can’t bully anyone,” he yapped.
“And I don’t have my magic ring with me,” Suman thought aloud, “but Veeru and his friends don’t know that!” he grinned.
It being the first day of school after the holidays, he had some new classmates. There was Ravi whose father was working at the brick kiln not far from school. Ravi’s mother was a good cook and was running a tiffin service from home. The parathas and pickles Ravi got from home were simply delicious. He shared his tiffin with Suman during break time.
Two new girls had joined the school. One of them was the pradhan’s niece and was called Jhelum. Suman liked her name as it had a nice ring to it. The boys were shy around her but Jhelum managed to break the ice with her mischievous smile and boisterous ways. Also, she seemed to know more than the boys during lessons.
The second girl, Sarita, was very different, though. She was quiet and withdrawn and nobody seemed to want to play with her, not even Jhelum. Suman found out soon enough the reason for it. Sarita was a dalit, the lowest caste in the village.
During the school lunch hour, while all the children would be served good healthy food, Sarita was expected to wait till everybody finished their lunch and pick up the leftovers.
“What are you doing?” Suresh in his class asked Suman who was walking towards where Sarita was sitting.
“Hey! Don’t talk to her and drop that at once!” Suresh tried to snatch a half-eaten apple from Suman’s hands.
Suman, walking past Suresh, went up to his class teacher who had, earlier in the day, taught the class a lesson on Gandhi and his views on untouchability.
“Why should she have
to eat leftovers when none us do?”
The teacher, in his starch white dhoti, turned around and thundered, “Are you like her? Or, is she like anyone of you? Do you know her father is the local sweeper here? No school wanted to admit her; she should be glad that we did.”
“Look! if you want to go and play with her, sit with her, and eat with her, nobody’s stopping you. Only remember, no one else would want to speak to you either.”
After the children had departed, Sarita was ordered to clean the toilets and sweep the school. Suman stayed back to help. Sarita accepted his help without saying a word, without looking at him once.
No one wanted to sit next to Suman the following day, except for Kalu.
Suman feared that he would be attacked by Veeru and his gang or, at the very least, be taunted by them. Nothing of the sort happened because everybody believed that he had magical powers. Only he didn’t- he no longer had his magic ring.
That night, the gnome came to him in his dreams once more. “You have powers within that you are not using,” he said.
The next day was 2nd October, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. Suman reached school early like the rest of his classmates. The principal, Mr. Rampal, was about to deliver a special speech that day.
“Today, I am going to speak about the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi,” Mr. Rampal was saying.
“Gandhi was a great soul who believed in equality. He made friends with the dalits...” Kalu barked at this point.
The principal glared at Suman and his dog.
“Like I was saying, Gandhi was a great friend of the dalits...” Kalu interrupted his speech yet again by growling and barking.
“Suman!” thundered Mr. Rampal. “Just because I allow you to bring your dog to school doesn’t mean that he can create disturbance here.”
Kalu’s barks turned so deafening that Suman had
to shoo him out of the hall, which was a tin shed.
Then everybody froze. A snake was making its way towards the principal across the dais. Some children in the front row screamed and fainted. Mr. Rampal turned white and looked as though he was about to faint himself.
Suman who could speak to animals chuckled to himself and looked at the snake who was actually non poisonous. The snake, whom he’d spoken to on a number of occasions and whom he had nicknamed Nag Punch, was grinning widely. “Just wanted to give everybody a scare, old boy! Tell that girl to drive me away with a stick. They don’t know how to treat humans with respect, what will they do to a reptile,” hissed Nag Punch.
Whispering into Sarita’s ears Suman handed her a stick. Sarita went after Nag Punch singing a popular filmi number even as the whole school looked on mesmerized. Nag Punch withdrew rather obligingly.
Everybody, including the principal, respected Sarita the dalit girl from now on.