“Siiirrrr….”

Entering the bank with that loud announcement, she went over to squat down in the corner.

That simple seemingly insignificant word created quite a ripple… merely because it came from her.
Skirts were tucked in closer, people moved away, haughty looks were shot towards her corner before faces quickly turned away, and then everyone suddenly got busy, as if the ripple had never ever happened.

She was a kuruvikara rag-picker from a nomadic tribe, once considered to be untouchables and criminals. Obviously untouchability is outlawed now, eliciting the strictest of punishment, but laws don’t change mindsets, they just force us to put on a veneer of hypocrisy.
We still keep away from the kuruvikarans. Naturally we claim that is because they are dirty smelly thieves and scavengers. They eat cats and crows, children are warned, keep your babies and pets safely indoors, women are cautioned. We don’t walk past them, we walk around them. They are The Unseen.

In a bank full of educated, she was a lesser mortal, and she knew that. Oblivious to the discomfort she had triggered, or perhaps much too accustomed to it, she sat there with a smile upon her face, in no hurry, content to wait till the bank peon would make some time to fill out a cash deposit slip for her.

And so we both waited; she wiggled to get more comfortable upon the cold floor and I squirmed to get more complacent upon my cushioned chair. Even in the sweltering summer, she wore three layers of skirts, the longest of which came down to her ankles, a shirt, had a small towel like cloth thrown over one shoulder with several colourful beads around her neck. An extremely conspicuous ensemble! I wondered why. Would it not be more prudent to dress like the average population, to not make herself so obvious? Was she so foolish that she did not realise that people would treat her differently? Or perhaps she was that strong to dress that way despite it. I contemplated the amount of self-conviction it must take to smile benignly in the face of all the disdain being directed at her. Suddenly I felt very ashamed, embarrassed at myself for even viewing her as a member of a community rather than as a person. What did that say about me?

I cringed and lowered my eyes. At that moment I felt very dirty.

I needed to do something, I needed to do something so that I did not sink any lower in my own eyes, and so I walked up to her and offered to fill out her deposit slip. Startled, she gave me a big toothy paan-stained smile. A beautiful smile. A pardon for my ignorant prejudice.

As I was handing her slip back to her I met the eyes of the bank teller. With a subtle nod of his head he softly mouthed a thank you.

And then it struck me. Perhaps not all the hasty look-aways were reactions of rebuke, perhaps some were reactions of self-recrimination, just as I had felt a few moments back.

Note: The Narikuravas (jackal catchers) and Kuruvikaras (bird eaters) are nomadic tribal communities of Southern India that pride themselves on the traditional occupations of hunting-gathering and making and selling bead necklaces. Ever since they moved to the city for opportunities, the struggle has been to preserve their tradition while blending into urban life.

Image Credit: Divya Karthikeyan

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