The spacious auditorium bedecked with festoons and filled to the brim wore a festive look. The stage with a red velvet backdrop, a table full of trophies in the center, and a lectern of highly polished teak wood with the crest beside it suggested a bride before the marriage ceremony.
Valmiki dressed in tight jeans, a crisp checks shirt and sneakers walked up to the front row, took a seat on the left, leaned back and stretched his legs. Three students beside him in the row turned their heads toward him, gave a once over to the newcomer, and walked out. The seats went begging until the Freshers’ Day started. Three new students walked as if they were sneaking into a room where they did not belong and slipped into the seats. They sat hunched forward and said, “Hi.”
“Hi, I’m Valmiki,” he said and extended his hand. Before his hand could get the expected response, a tall figure appeared out of nowhere and stood before him.
Dressed in a suit that had seen better days and a tie long out of fashion, he looked sloppy and stood in sharp contrast to the festive ambiance.
“Perhaps you are not aware the front row is reserved for the prizewinners,” he said in a tone polite but with a tinge of admonishment. Hearing him, the other three vacated their seats, dashed through the aisle to the rear, and merged with the crowd.
Valmiki, no respecter of rules, said, “I didn’t find any notice posted, nor anyone told me. Why should there be any reservation at all?”
“Perhaps you’re not aware I’m the professor of physics.”
When his statement did not produce any perceptible change in the student’s posture or attitude, he continued, “I find it strange you are questioning about reservations. You wouldn’t have been here but for reservations. Am I right?”
“Yes, you’re, but I hate people who keep reminding me of it. I wouldn’t call it the reservation, but my right enshrined in the constitution.”
“Look, this is no time for semantics. All I’m asking you is to follow the traditions of this prestigious institute,” he said, this time, less polite than before.
Valmiki stood up to his full height, shrugged, and stomped away to the rear, passing on the left side.
“I want you to remember we both have a few things in common.”
Valmiki did not find it necessary to turn and warm up to the professor. He had lost interest in the function, although he heard of the excellent cultural program after the customary lecture and prize distribution ceremony. He made his way home fifty miles away.
“What’s the matter? Didn’t you like the hostel food? I heard it is excellent and not expensive,” his anxious mother asked.
“The food is OK, although not as good as what you make. I left the Freshers’ Day function as I felt humiliated.”
“Humiliated, In what way?”
“By my professor. He seemed to be one of us, yet he spoke of reservation as the primary cause of my admission to the institute. He made me vacate my seat. I walked out.”
After narrating the whole incident to the minutest detail, he asked, “Don’t you think I’m right?”
Seeing him slumped on the long sofa and switching on the TV, she opened the large-sized Friz and served him a glass of Gatorade, a new drink catching the popular fancy in the market.
“You shouldn’t take these stray comments seriously. Identify your goals and just keep going to get what you want in life. It matters little what others think of you.”
“Don’t fear. I’m not quitting the institute. I’m no quitter.”
“I know. Don’t forget you’re my son. I get whatever I want, and I pursue my goals with a single-‐minded purpose.”
“If you have the time, why don’t you tell me your story and how you achieved your goals?” he asked and snuggled close to her.
Gayatri, his mother, looked at her son, felt a surge of pride, and ruffled his hair. “Of course, I’ll tell you, and I
have all the time thanks to three servants I keep.”
“Can you guess my caste?” she asked.
“What has that got to do with your story?”
“No, it’s the principal part.”
“It must be the same as that of dad.”
“No, I am a Brahmin of the top of the rack. We are three sisters, and my father was just a school teacher in a government middle school with hardly any future. We had wealthy neighbors, and their children had good things, dresses, gold ornaments, a car, and a great lifestyle.” She paused for breath.
“When I finished school, I realized I couldn’t afford to go to college. I had no way to enjoy real life. I then found your dad. One look at him, I found my meal ticket.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your dad, my classmate, was weak in studies and shunned by others because of his caste. When he failed, I showed interest in him and helped him regularly. With my help, he passed high school and got a government job fast. While coaching him, I taught him a thing or two, not parts of the curriculum. That made him run around me. He waited until I became a major and then proposed. My father and the whole family stood firm against it, but I jumped with delight.”
“You mean it was a love marriage. It must have taken a lot of courage on your part,” he said and put his arms around her.
“You want the truth?”
“Yeah, truth, unadulterated truth.”
“There is nothing like love. I could see a prosperous future ahead with your dad. I was sure he would get quick promotions and give me a good life I always wanted. Look at our house. It has every possible gadget, and I have gold ornaments and a credit card in my purse. I would have had none of these had I followed my father’s advice.”
“Why then, dad wants me to follow his advice.”
“Fathers always want their kids to get the best of everything, but their ideas often are not in sync with reality.”
“Does dad know your story?”
“Don’t be silly. Why would I tell my husband this? I regularly speak of his intelligence and my love for him.”
“Isn’t it cheating him?”
“Not at all. Intelligence is relative. My constant prodding props up his self-‐belief, which in turn provides nourishment to flourish in life.”
“You believe all this?”
“Yes, I do a lot of reading. I’m a respected member of the ladies’ club.”
By then, Venkiah walked in much to the surprise of the mother and son.
“How come we didn’t hear the sound of your car?” Gayatri asked. She fervently hoped he had not heard any part of her story.
“Shastry gave me a lift on his scooter when my car had a breakdown,” he said, dropping his briefcase on the coffee table. “How is it you’re here and not in the college?” he asked his son.
Valmiki, knowing his father well, wanted to avoid the usual sermon and stood to go to the bathroom. He felt his dad’s hand on his shoulders and resumed his seat, sitting correctly with a straight back. “I’ve some good news. The government is selecting four officers for deputation to the United Nations. I have a fair chance to be one of the four. When this happens, we have to shift to the US and work in Washington, DC, for ten years. We can save money in dollars and build a beautiful house anywhere in India.”
“Is Shastry also in the running?” Gayatri asked.
“Unfortunately, no. I feel pity for him, for he is the one who issued my posting orders when I joined the department at the lowest rung. While I moved to his rank with four promotions, he hasn’t moved. He is no longer my boss but a colleague and takes offense when I address him, Sir.”
“Why do you pity him? It’s the way things are, aren’t they?” asked Gayatri.
“I know, but I feel guilty sometimes as my friends who had joined with me are still languishing in the same position as lower division clerks with hardly any chance for promotion.”
“So, what? It’s their bad luck. You’ve not sinned, nor did you stop their advancement. I don’t know why you’re feeling sorry. It’s misplaced kindness, I think,” Valmiki said. Now that he had heard the good news, he no longer felt obliged to stay on the sofa and shifted to the bathroom. His mother ordered the servants to lay out the dinner.
Valmiki while washing preened in the mirror. He solved the mystery of his skin color and texture. His skin, neither dark nor fair, but shade in between had a sheen of the youth. After a thorough wash, rubbing his face, he thought his skin had decent patches interspersed here and there in the dark background like the moonlight of a quarter moon on a cloudy night. “Rubbish,” he said to himself and made his way to the dining table.
By then, Venkiah had a wash, changed into pajamas, sat at the head of the table, and ordered one of the servants to prepare his evening elixir, scotch, and soda with plenty of ice, a plate of nuts on the side and grinned. He looked like a happy man who had completed his excellent day’s work and earned a good drink. When Valmiki took his seat, he found his dad in his elements and ready to start his sermon.
“You better start working hard. You have come this far with reservations. That’s it. Unless you show your mettle, you won’t go further now.”
“C’mon dad. I’ll join a government department and will get promotions exactly like the way you’re getting them. It’s no big deal.”
“First, you have to pass this course. It’s no easy task. You always take the easy path. Soon these reservations may stop. The public and the courts are protesting. What would be your future?”
“No, dad, you are not in touch with what is happening in the country. Everybody in politics is bending backward for our welfare. They even refuse to identify the creamy layer. Nothing is going to change in your life and possibly in my time also.”
“Let him be, what’s your problem?” Gayatri intervened.
“It’s just unfair. When Valmiki was in the final college year, my pay was in the fourth band. He had no reason to call himself a marginalized one. I’d have been happy if he had managed to get where he is on his steam without claiming the reservation.”
“Dad, you don’t know what troubles I faced in my college. Most of the students hated me mainly out of envy. They knew I’d get a seat irrespective of my rank in the entrance test. While they spent most of their time in the coaching classes spending tons of money and burning the midnight oil, I used to spend long hours playing games. First, I wanted to follow your advice, but seeing their envy and the way they used to taunt me as quota boy, I decided to spite them by getting a seat through the quota system.”
“Nothing wrong in that,” Gayatri added weight to the argument.
“You two are impossible,” he said and took a long swig of the drink. The servant standing beside him replenished the glass. The master finished the second drink as fast as the servant filled it. When the faithful brought the third glass, Gayatri glared at him and signaled to put it away from the table. The master, quick in his reflexes, snatched the drink, took two gulps, and gently set the glass on the table.
“I’m not drunk, Gayatri,” he said with a voice that started blurring.
“Moreover, I’m celebrating. Imagine what a posting at Washington means.”
“I heard it’s impossible to get a servant there. I’m not so happy about the news.”
“I’ll get you a servant. Let’s take one from here. Let’s take this fellow,” he said, tapping the man who brought his whiskey. Tell me, haven’t I done everything just to make you happy all these years?”
That silenced Gayatri, who nodded and started eating the chicken curry and rice.
The master winked at the faithful, who excited by the news of a possible trip to Washington, brought the fourth drink, and passed it under the table, making sure the lady of the house did not see it.
When the family finished the dessert of Gulab Jamoons, Venkiah, the master of the house, in an expansive mood waved his hand and asked the servants to leave. “Ever guessed why I keep asking you to go on your steam without reservations?”
Valmiki, watching the show of his dad and realizing he had one too many, kept quiet. Also, he had no answer to the question.
“I don’t know, Dad.”
“It’s guilt. The guilt I’ve been putting up with all my life,” he said and put his head on the table as if the weight of remorse had forced it down.
“What guilt, dad?” Valmiki asked. His curiosity intensified by the second. Watching his father slipping into sleep, he poured a glass of water over his dad’s head and shook him several times.
When all his attempts failed, he stood, picked up his dad, and carried him to the bedroom where he removed his shoes, put him in a comfortable position, and turned around to leave.
Then his dad woke up for a minute, said,” My caste certificate,” he said, paused for a while, and added, I got it by bribing a clerk,” before falling asleep.
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