Lost and Found
“You had it last, Shanti,” Bharat said, looking kindly at his little sister. “Where did you put it?”
“Oh, my brother, if only I knew. It is not with the game board.”
“We must find the die, Shanti. It is the only hope we have for a pleasurable afternoon. Did Karuna play Snakes and Ladders with you while I was working?
“Wait! Here it is,” Shanti exclaimed holding up the stone, her dark eyes shining. “Now we can play. I will beat you to nirvana this time. You will only experience rebirths, which is your fate anyhow.”
“Shanti, don’t remind me what waits for us. At least while we play the game we can believe in a better future.”
Squatting before the game, Shanti waved a fly away from her face and asked, “Why is everyone in our community called ‘Untouchables’? I think people outside our settlement do not like it when we come near them.”
“You cannot choose your family, Shanti. In India, the way a man earns a living, so must his son. Our father is a leather worker. But leather workers are contaminated. We touch the skin of dead animals. Latrine diggers, refuse collectors and many other polluted jobs only Untouchables do.”
“But, our father makes beautiful shoes” Shanti exclaimed. “His Punjabi Juttis and Mojaris are skillfully embroidered with beads, and no one makes as fine Kolhapuris slippers. Everyone says so. That is why he works so late; everyone wants his shoes.”
“Did you roll, Shanti? Do you remember how to play? The ladders represent the virtues, the snakes the vices. Land on a block with a ladder and you climb ahead. Land on a snake and you slide back. If you get to the next to last square, you must roll the exact number to get into heaven. If you slide all the way down you will experience rebirths.
This game was invented in India in the 13th century, they say, to teach nirvana is reached only by good deeds.
When you are older, Shanti, you will understand. There are four castes, or some call them jati. The Brahmans are the priestly group, the learners and symbolize the head. The Shatritas are warriors and rulers and political leaders, representing the body. The Vaishyas are businessmen and farmers and traders. They are the thighs and legs. The Shudras are laborers and peasants and signify the feet.
Jatis have many sub-groups and live in separate communities. A man must marry within his group or someone from a lower rank. A woman cannot marry below her rank. They have many strict rules.
We, Shanti, are with all others called Panchamas, or Untouchables. In the old days if a Panchamas entered a jati’s house, every place he touched was washed with water to restore purity. If only a Panchamas’ shadow touched a jati he would be severely beaten. Until the jati bathed he was contaminated. There are some who still feel this way about us.”
“Oh, my brother, will it always be this way?”
“Maybe not, Shanti. This morning on the river path I met a foreigner carrying a ladder. All foreigners are Untouchables. I did not have to avoid him and he was friendly. While we rested in the shade of a Mango tree he told me a story about a man called Jesus. I am going to meet with him again. I want to know more about this Jesus.”
“Roll again, my dear brother. I think we are on the way to heaven.”
Author’s note: It is a sign of disrespect for a younger sister to address her brother by his name.
Today, those outside the caste system (untouchables) are called “Harijan” meaning Children of God. They prefer “Dalit” meaning oppressed.
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