Chandan dusted off his shoes, revealing the shiny cracked Rexene under the several layers of grime. He smiled, going to school was the happiest part of his day. He hurried through his breakfast, some roti and chutney. He picked up his bag and left, waving a quick goodbye to his father who lay dozing on the cot, his tired face creased with worry.
‘Virat’ called out a voice. ‘Virat’, came the voice again. Finally, it resorted to ‘Chandan’. He looked up guiltily. He always forgot that his official name was Virat, but a lifetime of being called Chandan had left an indelible imprint. He remembered dimly that his father had gone up to the big kothi on the main road, and after he had returned, he had started calling him Chandan. Now only his school knew him as Virat, and for that he was grateful. It let him forget his dark house and the numerous rats which scurried around all night and did not let him sleep. The name Virat, almost forgotten after the visit to Thakur sahib’s kothi, drew up images of glamorous cricket captains, surrounded by cheerleaders and avid fans. Lost in this reverie, Chandan tripped against a stone, and barely managed to save himself from plunging directly into the gutter. His left hand, however, was not so lucky, and it took a dip in the filthy channel, the white sleeve of his shirt turned black, and smelled terrible. Chandan gagged at the odour and hurried off to the handpump to wash off the filth.
As a result, he arrived late to school, his sleeve dripping a constant grey stream of grime and filth. He ducked into the class and sat in the corner. Steadily, the seats around him empty, and he was taunted by cried of ‘Ganda’, ‘He smells’, and ‘Go away’. He sat in ashamed silence and willed himself to concentrate solely on the teacher talking about B R Ambedkar. Eventually, his mind wandered to thoughts of Diwali, of small sugar statues and loud firecrackers. His father had promised that they would go later that night to buy some.
In the evening, he urged his father to go to the shops and buy some crackers. They set off, him wearing a bright printed t-shirt and a pair of shorts, and his father dressed in a black shirt with frayed golden cuffs.
They had hardly gone for five minutes when a man from Thakur sahib’s kothi called out to his father: ‘Oye, Shambu! Come, the master has called. The pipe needs your attention’. Chandan heard no more, for his father took Thakur sahib’s employee to one side and talked in low tones. Chandan heard snatches, his father protesting ‘It’s Diwali… Son…. Firecrackers…’ and the employee insisting ‘Malik… Guests… Two hundred’, and his father walked up to him, looking defeated and placed his hand tenderly on his shoulder, and said: ‘Go home. I’ll come in late tonight. Tell your mother. Don’t cry, we’ll go tomorrow’. Chandan stood, his lower lip quivering while his father followed Thakur sahib’s servant. Chandan went home, threw himself on his mat, and cried, hiding his face under the pillow, and fell asleep.
He woke up the next morning, shined his shoes, and set off for school. His did not see his father, but he was already late and hurried off. He took special care to avoid all stumbling blocks and remained focussed on the road. His eye fell on a plaster bust of a man wearing round spectacles, one hand aloft, the other holding a book. With difficulty, Chandan made out the
faded letters – B R Ambedkar. He smiled triumphantly and turned to come face to face with a bulky man with a cruel moustache. ‘You live in Harijan Colony? Come with me.’, and he led handan out of the winding streets towards a wide road lined with Ashoka trees. He came to a kothi, and he was pushed inside. ‘Go to the back, and clean out the pipe. Be careful that you don’t end up like the last bhangi’ and he laughed.
Bristling with rage, he marched into the courtyard and retched at the horrible smell. Next to the filthy gutter and manhole, there lay a man, covered from head to toe in the filth which had dirtied Chandan’s shirt the previous day. Underneath the coating of scum and filth, Chandan caught a glimpse of a golden cuff, and he ran with a cry and hugged the body tightly. ‘Papa, papa!’ he cried inconsolably, and when his mother found him half an hour later, his white uniform was stained black, and he smelled exactly like his father.