When I was studying literature in college, I was fond of one particular teacher. This teacher was named after a Hindu deity that he so loved – even though he was an atheist, but he really admired the story of this particular god.
Extremely poised, outspoken and confident – he was everything you would want in a teacher. In the first year, he was assigned to teach us verbal skills in a business environment. He had quite a unique way of pronouncing words, and he was dramatically sturdy in the way he taught.
Students did not take him seriously and skipped his classes on a regular basis but I genuinely liked how passionate he was and how nothing could deter his enthusiasm for a subject. From uninterested students, absent students, to the ones who downright insulted him to his face, he continued on.
Perhaps he was oblivious to their behaviour, I had thought back then – he hardly paid any attention to students being rude to him – and there were many. Whenever there was an argument, he politely asked the students to walk out of class without making much of a fuss.
In our second year, he became our teacher for a core subject and plotting to write a complaint against him started doing the rounds. Since I found him both informative, funny and perfect as a teacher, I couldn’t make out why the other students didn’t like him. His accent, his clothes and even the way he talked – everyone made fun of him.
I thought it was just kids being kids, but there was more to it. Some students were even caught making fun of him on official WhatsApp groups and he still let it slide. Over time, I realised that he was very aware of the dislike he generated, and of how he was being bullied. He just preferred not to dwell on it.
That same year, I found out from mutual friends that he belonged to the Dalit community. My teacher didn’t use a surname but he had talked a lot about his village, his past and was always proud of where he came from. I did not pay close attention to the details until I stumbled upon the reason behind the incessant bullying.
The students who did not care about his caste were very fond of him and liked him immensely. But that was a small percentage of the class.
That same year, I learned more about his life and just how strong he was.
Raised in a community were he was oppressed and beaten, he tore away from societal bounds, studied hard and chose a name he liked. He was proud of what he had achieved and did not care much for religion. He always told us that he believed a man makes his own fortune and is responsible for his own vices. Despite having fraught family ties, he kept going back on a regular basis to advocate for Dalit rights. He wrote papers and went on campaigns.
Living in a bubble of privilege of sorts, I wasn’t very aware about the hardship Dalits have faced over the decades. My teacher was more than happy to help me write a paper on the subject and that is where I began to unlearn and relearn bit by bit.
From B.R. Ambedkar to Bama to Om Prakash Valmiki, I began reading in detail about the atrocities committed upper castes over centuries. I had never been so ashamed of being a Brahmin and I did not know if there was any way I could make an apology.
The whole episode brought me more awareness and compassion, and ended whatever notion of Brahminical supremacy I imbibed over the years. I have now ended up writing many papers and articles in order to bring awareness regarding crimes done against the Dalit community, specifically women.
Of course, after college, I had to go back and thank him for everything. When I asked around for him, I was told that no one there with that name. I did end up meeting him, but this time, he had a different name. An ordinary name, a name that did not draw much attention.
I asked him why he had changed his name. He told me that his son’s friends had found out that he was a Dalit and were bullying him.
My teacher, a man who had never felt ashamed of his background, and who was so proud of everything he had achieved and stood for over the years, was also just a father fearful for his son’s safety.
Sitting there and listening to him, it felt like something inside him had died.
As I turned the corner, I thought of his son and imagined him as a child: a child, who was lively, had battle scars, and was proud of his victories, who was now being held at gunpoint by the world at large.
Devika Mann is a literature major who is also a self proclaimed aesthetician and is absolutely in love with poetry, tea and windows. Send her a poem on her tumblr account.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty