The Awakening of Meena Rawat


Aai, please don’t leave me.” 

My mother lies motionless in the back of an ambulance. I clutch the hairy arm of the paramedic sitting on a cracked, bottle-green vinyl bench that runs parallel to the stretcher bed on which she lies. There is only a foot of room in between the stretcher and the bench.

At the head of the stretcher is another seat where I sit facing my dying mother’s head. I massage her ankles, which are bluish-black and puffy. My cheeks are wet with tears.

“Please help my Aai,” I beg.

The man throws my hand off with a violent jerk. “How dare you touch me,” he roars. “Filthy Chamar.” In the closed van, his words ricochet like bullets.

Aai exhales painfully as if drawing her last breath. Panic swirls in my chest like a beehive. I kneel, hands clutched together in entreaty. Desperate, though careful not to touch him again, I fall prostrate to the rubber-covered floor. My nostrils quiver as I smell the nauseating scent of blood and dried urine, my arms stretched out in front of me and my eyes raised piteously as the ambulance rattles over uneven streets. All I can see are the tips of his reinforced, black lace-up boots. This is the first of two things about this man that are forever burned into my memory. Hard boots, built for a tough job. The other is the way his gaze slithers away from me—careful to avoid eye contact—as if he might catch something. 

His jaw tightens when I look up again at him, but he continues to contemplate the view outside the window. Even though I am only ten, I can tell he is bored and disinterested, and simply seeing out another shift. He has nothing for us . . . not for me and not for my Aai. Because ‘nothing’ is exactly what we are. 

I will never forget the feeling of emptiness he leaves me with. 

“Let her die,” he says viciously. “She’s a sweeper.  A bloody Chamar. There are always more of you, like rats. And who needs more rats?” He shrugs as he shifts his unblinking stare back to the window. 

I struggle to my feetlisting to keep my balance. My Aai’s eyes are open, but they seem far away—far from the back of this ambulance, this man, this existence. I whimper like a hurt dog as tears roll down my face.

The van shakes as we ride over another bump, jostling my Aai who lets out another gasp of pain. Her breathing becomes more ragged and her chest heaves. I foolishly clasp my hands in a moment of hope as if the heaving chest is proof of a resurgent life force within her.  

Aai grasps weakly at her chest, and then her hand falls away. In her last moment, her eyes and her mouth fly open again. She looks shocked. She looks . . . like my Aai no longer. 

I muffle my cries, empty sobs leaking into the tight, hostile space in the back of the ambulance.  

She is dead. My Aai is dead. 

Chapter 1 


Fall 2014 

Fremont, California

 Even before my eyes open, I sense that Bhavesh is awake. The sound of his voice floats from the kitchen next to Maya’s bedroom where he’s on the phone on one of his business calls. I’ve been falling asleep in Maya’s room almost every night, waking up cramped and tired in my daughter’s bed. I could get up and make my way back to the marital bed at some point during the night, but I almost never do. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Good, I suppose. But worried, too. 

When our paths cross in the kitchen or the hallway outside the bathroom, or when he comes home at night, the hairs on the back of my neck rise in anticipation of his critical reaction.  

When we were newly married and moved from India to the west coast of America over nine years ago, Bhavesh had harbored nothing but sweet thoughts and sweeter words, despite all he had sacrificed to be with me. Over the years, as he grew more frustrated about those sacrifices, his sweetness had increasingly turned to criticism and, ultimately, to piercing personal insults.

Sunshine slices through the break in the curtains, sending a beam of white light onto the carpet next to the bed where I lie, dispirited by the memory of his outburst last week. At the sound of him crashing about and shouting loudly from the master bedroom, I ran in from the kitchen where I’d been preparing breakfast. He yanked the closet door open, making the billowing curtains tremble.

“Why are there no clean starched shirts for me to wear?” he demanded, shaking a fist at me as he saw me hovering in the doorway. 

“I’m sorry, Bhavesh,” I’d stammered, “I haven’t had time to pick them up from the dry cleaners’ because my boss was out of town. I, . . . I, needed to work overtime—“

His jaw was stiff with anger as he turned away, muttering his favorite passage from the Hindu scriptures, “Women are not fit for independence.” 

Now, hearing him on the telephone, my mouth fills with distaste at his precise enunciation of every word. Someone is getting an earful from him—probably one of his vendors in India, late with a shipment.

“You bewakoof!” he bellows after a long litany of instructions to pick up the order for drive transmission and steering parts from Mahindra Motors, check to make sure all parts are properly packaged, deliver the products to Honda Motorcycles, and repeat the same process for Tata Hitachi. Over the years I’ve heard this over and over again, and each time Bhavesh sounds more enraged, as his life has grown more disappointing to him.

I clap my hands over my ears. I’m sorry for whoever he’s talking to, making them feel like a disappointing employee, just like me. 

Great, I think, anxiety moving like a current through my belly. That means he will probably be in a bad mood. I should have awakened earlier and come down before him.  

I shiver slightly as the memory of my nightmare floats through me. Every rut in the road the cursed van had run over, every pain-filled sound my dying mother had made, the floor that stank of sweat and death—all of it still twists inside me. It had only been due to the largesse of the local zamindar, in whose home my mother had worked as a sweeper, cleaning their toilets for over twenty years, that Aai had been fortunate enough to receive any medical attention at all, for all the good it had done her to die in the back of that van subjected to the hostility and indifference of a man paid to save her life.  A familiar sickening feeling broils angrily inside me. 

The little girl I was then—pale, squalid-looking, with rough braids hanging across my face in shame—had not understood. It was all I had ever known. The caste system had been outlawed in India for many years, but it was still being practiced. I grit my teeth, wishing I could go back to being my ten-year-old self and right the injustice that had happened in the back of that van by screaming at the medic to do his job or else reporting him for his unlawful behavior.

With a forceful shake of my head, I bring myself back to the present and my sleeping daughter beside me. 

“Wake up, Maya. You’ll be late for school.” I shake her when she doesn’t respond. 

“Mom!” cries Maya, protectively grabbing her shoulder as she awakens and turns to look at me, bleary-eyed. My lovely daughter’s expression droops into a pout, huge tears in her soft brown eyes.  

I reach out to her, stung with guilt. “I’m so sorry, sweetie. Mommy had a bad dream and she’s grumpy this morning. She shouldn’t take it out on you.” 

I put my arms around her and slowly rock her. “Don’t cry, pyaari beti.” Remorse lodges itself in my throat like a half-chewed piece of meat. 

“It’s okay, Mommy,” Maya replies.  “I forgive you.”  A mischievous smile finds its way onto her face. “I forgive you, as long as you get me a puppy.”

I can’t help but laugh. My daughter is learning subtlety and manipulation.

“We’ve spoken of this,” I chide, pulling back the covers to encourage her out of bed. 

“Maybe I’ll ask Daddy,” Maya says cheerily, grabbing her bright yellow SpongeBob pillow and pressing her nose into it. 

I keep my face expressionless, even though there’s a coppery taste in my mouth. “Not this morning, huh?” 

Maya shrugs, her train of thought sliding seamlessly to another topic in the way only a child’s can. 

“What shall I wear to school today?” she asks, climbing out of the bed. 

We pick an outfit together, chatting back and forth to get the right balance of cuteness, style, and warmth. It takes about fifteen minutes and then we trudge downstairs, both of us reasonably pleased with the outcome. 

Bhavesh has finished his telephone conversation and stands by the counter spreading margarine on his morning toast. The scowl he wears before noticing his daughter gives clear warning of his mood. 

“Daddy!” shrieks Maya, causing him to break into a wide smile. She runs to his outstretched arms and he gathers her up. With that even-toothed smile and his way with his daughter, most women would find Bhavesh attractive—an ‘excellent catch’. He is a devoted father, and no one could disagree with that. But I have been married to him for almost a decade and I know better than to trust that smile. Just because he can find kindness for his daughter does not mean he has the same for his wife. 

Seeing me hovering behind our daughter, Bhavesh frowns. I turn away, barely meeting his eye, and begin to lay out the fixings for Maya’s breakfast, hoping to avoid conversation for as long as possible. Maya has perched herself in front of the family computer monitor and is happily engrossed in images of puppies.

“You’re going to be late dropping her off,” he says to my back. His tone is curt. 

“Yes, we got behind this morning,” I speak carefully, not turning around to reply.  I can’t bear to look at him. The back of my throat itches terribly. There is a wild, flapping sensation in my chest like I’m looking down at the edge of the world. I only hope he won’t press me further. I don’t think my head can take the strain of explaining myself to him this morning. 

I needn’t have worried, as when I finish with Maya’s breakfast, Bhavesh is gone. I hear him stalking around the lounge section of the open-plan living space, then the family room. I relax, unclasping my hands from their tight hold on the milk carton. 

Then he appears back in the kitchen. He’s all nervous energy, presumably agitated after the phone call to his vendor. It must have been serious. My shoulders hunch, as if bracing against an icy wind, but Bhavesh is deep in his thoughts and has forgotten me. He turns and heads towards the front of the house to his office.

“Maya, come have your breakfast!” I call quickly. Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning and I long to escape into cold air, pure and fresh like a baby’s breath. “We have to be quick, honey.”

Ten minutes later with the dishes still in the sink, clothes not yet in the wash and a dirty towel lying in the corner of the bathroom, I tug at the front door and pull it open with a whoosh. Most days I make sure the little tasks are completed, just so Bhavesh doesn’t have the opportunity to snipe at me. Yet lately, I have found myself purposefully leaving them undone. It’s my little rebellion, I guess, or maybe in protest at his own behavior—one must only look into the bomb site he calls an ‘office’ to see that. 

 Now back on our own, Maya and I chat cheerfully, fingers entwined, as we head to our car parked on the tree-lined street of our California-perfect, suburban neighborhood. Maya’s little backpack bounces on her shoulder as the cool morning breeze brushes our faces. 

I have moments when only Maya fills my thoughts, and driving to school with my beautiful daughter is when those moments often occur. Some of my thoughts are trivial, like how glad I am that I won the battle to make Maya wear a sweater on such an unusually crisp morning. At other times, my thoughts are filled with love and thanks for the joy my daughter brings me; the only real joy in my life. 

But, despite my best efforts, those are not my thoughts today. 

I glance upwards. The sunshine has disappeared and given way to a gray sky full of texture, in places dark and angry, but with the potential for a powerful, cleansing rain.  Dull, depressing, miserable; the type of sky that makes it difficult to keep a lid on the memories of my former life—memories that constantly spill out and intrude upon this other life I have ended up in. 

These days my memories are more insistent than ever, and I must work hard if I am to suppress them. But that’s impossible when they seep into my dreams. 

Chapter 2 


Winter 1996 

Kalanpur, Uttar Pradesh 

It is hot for the time of year. The cooling winds that so often blow in off the Arabian Sea are still, and the temperature has crept up into the thirties. The monsoon season is still almost five months away, so there is none of the terrible humidity that accompanies the sweltering heat in this region of northern India.  

But still, my skin burns as I climb, faltering and nervous, beside my GopiMama—my uncle—all the way up the steep hill leading to the orphanage’s flaking blue gate. By the time we reach the top, my uncle is uncharacteristically sweaty, and I am beginning to feel light-headed. We have covered some distance today, and we both pant with exhaustion. 

The building at the top of the hill is made of a featureless gray stone and has a tumbled-down look. Vine-covered walls rise two stories to a steeply-pitched roof, and narrow, deep-set windows are crossed with black iron bars. The glass in some of the windows is broken out and the holes are stuffed with rags to keep out the cold.

Even from a distance this place to which my uncle is taking me looks grim and forbidding, like something out of the bhoot bangla story about a haunted house Aai used to tell me when she wanted me to hurry and drink my milkless chai on days the rent money was due. Up close, however, it is depressingly real. A dilapidated sign hangs over the main gate, proclaiming in faded letters, ‘Grace Mercy Children’s Home.’  

The gate opens as we come near, a chowkidar springing to attention as a gleaming white Ambassador car appears. The driver, dressed in a white uniform and cap, blares his horn at us in obvious displeasure.

My GopiMama leaps out of the way, pushing me before him. Had he not been so quick, the car almost certainly would have hit us. His tattered white dhoti skims the side of the front tire. It is now smudged with brake dust along with the dirt from our journey. 

Arre, Arre, Meena”, he growls, pinching my ear. “Come on now, child. Don’t keep the good nuns waiting.” 

I shrink at his fury, not yet old enough to distinguish between anger and misdirected guilt. 

Hanging my head, bone-tired after the long morning’s walk, I wonder who was in the car. Had they been coming, like me, or going? Will I have to be here forever?

If my Gopi Mamahad been unhappy about being burdened after my mother died, my aunt was furious.

“What are we, a charity?” I overheard her berating my uncle one afternoon. They had sent me on an errand to the market, but I had returned after a few minutes, having forgotten to take a bag.  

I hesitated numbly outside the door. “Should we take in every child whose parents can’t be bothered to look after them? It is okay for her now, isn’t it? She doesn’t have to worry about money or food anymore.” 

The ground buckled up around my feet and I had to hold on to the wall. It was if my Aai had died on purpose, just because the lazy woman could not be bothered to look after her own child any longer. I knew enough not to show my hatred, and to be as careful and helpful as I could. But they are still taking their first opportunity to be rid of me. 

Gopi Mamareaches the gate and raps the heavy, bronzed knocker that reverberates into the dusty front yard. The chowkidar pokes his head out with a disapproving expression.  

“What do you want?” he barks. 

“I’m Gopi Prasad,” my uncle says, cupping his palms together, thumbs against the chest, his head bowed slightly. “I’ve come to see the nuns of Grace Mercy about my niece.” He points a finger at me, making me feel conspicuous in my tatty clothes. Shame rises like bile as I look down at my sweaty and dirt-stained blue chemise and at the holes visible in the elbows of my blue cardigan.  Fidgeting awkwardly, I try to hide my bare feet, which are sore and red-blistered. 

The chowkidar’s gaze is swift and scrutinizing; I shrink inwardly, clutching a red, embroidered cloth bag to my chest. The bag is my prized possession, a gift from my mother, purchased just before she died, from the Mangal Bazaar—a weekly market held every Tuesday evening in front of the village temple. I’d been surprised by how shrewdly my mother haggled with the shop owner over the price of the bag so that she could buy it with the few coins that the Zamindar’s family had given her for Diwali.  

The chowkidar slowly slides open the heavy, wrought iron gate and it creaks loudly in protest, making my ears ring. My uncle and I follow him through a small, open courtyard into the main building, which is cold and dark despite the brightness and warmth of the day. I break into a cold sweat as the icy floors, a mixture of stone, damaged tiles and wood, sting my bare feet. 

The building sounds hushed, muted, as if under a spell. A large muscular woman appears, her face grim and unsmiling. She ushers us into an even darker room, which is bare except for a solid, plain desk with two worn-looking leather chairs in front of it. The walls, like those in the unlit hallway, are unicolor – a dull white offset only by thickly-layered, dark khaki trim. On one wall there is a brightly colored picture of Jesus Christ and on the other, behind the desk, a cross of dark wood. 

“I’m the mother superior. This is the little girl, yes?” she asks my uncle in a commanding tone. The old woman wears a simple white habit, faded and worn but spotless, and a heavy crucifix around her thin, wattled neck. Her face is wrinkled as a dried date and her voice is cold and austere. My heart seizes at the thought of being left with her as she shuffles to an equally worn leather captain’s chair behind the desk. An old wooden clock on the wall behind us ticks away the sounds like a crow pecking the remains of a dead tree stump.

“Yes, yes, Sistah. She is alone . . . poor child. Her mother . . . Sistah, gone to Heaven, na.” Gopi Prasad shakes his head with pity, a bit too vigorously. I have never heard him like this before; it is either because he is in the face of her immense authority or because of his desperation to be rid of me. 

“You do know we have no other Dalit children here. Meena will be the only one.” The mother superior eyes my uncle cautiously.

Gopi Mama’s fingers are so tightly laced in his lap that his knuckles have turned white. “Yes, Sistah,“ he replies meekly. “I have nowhere else to go, Sistah.”

A maidservant with squinty eyes, dressed in a raggedy, jade green sari just like the kind my Aai used to wear, scurries in with a steaming cup of tea on a chipped ceramic tray.

 “Tell Sister Gina I want to see her,” the mother superior tells her with a nod as the maidservant places the tray before her.  

A nun with a round, cheerful face and sparkling eyes scampers in, young and disordered, beside the mother superior. Flushed, she breaks into a broad smile as she spots me. 

I panic at the sudden attention and hide behind Gopi Mama, sucking my thumb. Embarrassed, my uncle arches his back, trying to catch hold of me.

“Come now, Meena. Let’s not be rude to the Sistah.” 

“It’s all right,” Sister Gina says after introducing herself. Her voice is calm and soothing.  “You are just fine there, aren’t you, Meena?” 

At the sister’s kind words and soft face, my shoulders slump under the weight of all that’s happened—my mother’s death, my unwelcome presence at my aunt and uncle’s home, the journey, and this strange place. The only reply I can manage is a hiccup. 

Sister Gina slips off her tightly laced black shoes, still smiling at me as her feet hop on the ice-cold floor.

“Meena, look what I have for you.” She squats down beside me.

In her hand are two sweets labeled Cadbury Chocolate Eclairs. The two purple and gold treasures tantalize me, catching the light in the tilt of Sister Gina’s hands. I look up into Sister Gina’s eyes and my fingers tentatively reach out, half-expecting these impossible prizes to be snatched away, or for my hand to pass right through hers, the sweets and the kindly sister all an apparition. 

“It’s all right, Meena,” Sister Gina says kindly, her grey eyes twinkling in the poor light. “They’re yours.” 

 “Thank you,” I stutter, my voice stuck in my throat. I clutch the sweets tightly to my chest against my red cloth bag. 

Sister Gina stands up and holds out a hand. I take it with a glance back at Gopi Mama.  But his face is turned away as Sister Gina leads me from the office and into the corridor.  Suddenly his voice calls after me, unconvincingly hearty, “I’ll come back for you, Meena beti.” 

The nun smiles down at me, sadness lacing her lips, and she tightens her grip on my hand. 

Chapter 3 


Fall 2014 

Fremont, California  

The rules are with me always, and they are here with me now at the Fremont Hindu temple as the priest recites the scriptures in a low monotone. Dressed in only a loincloth, his face and body streaked with ash, the traditional red thread of a Brahmin runs over his shoulder and diagonally across his chest as he drones on. His face is dark and emotionless as he reads from the Holy Scriptures, though for all the expression in his voice, he could be reciting assembly instructions for flat-pack furniture.

This is my conduit to God, I think to myself wryly.

The Pandit of the village temple where my Aai and I lived recited the rules to us every morning as if sleeping might have wiped our memories clean. I could lose almost every other memory, but those are as clear to me today as they were back then, like they have become tied into my DNA. And, in a sense, they are, going all the way back to my ancestors.

Rule Number 1: An Untouchable cannot wear chappals unless they are in the Untouchable part of the village. I still have calluses on my feet.

Rule Number 2: Untouchable children must wear a green wristband to school. No one else wore a wristband, and the children who were not Untouchables were either Brahmin or Kshatriya, created from the shoulder of God. Untouchables like me were created from the feet of God.

The Pandit in the temple in Kalanpur would bellow, “We are Brahmins! You are Untouchables!” the first a glorious exultation, the second venomous, his spittle spraying out over the worshippers. I would cower in the back as he glared at us.

Consigned to the most degrading menial work, poverty and struggle, the fate of the Untouchables showed in our defeated faces and raggedy saris. No matter how much we might have washed before worship, my kind always seemed to carry the grime of our dirty existence.

I shudder at how my Aai was one of those wretched people; one of the vermin who scurried amongst the refuse of her superiors, better out of sight and out of mind, her presence spoiling the view.

Rule Number 3: Untouchable children cannot share the same bench as Kshatriya or Brahmins. I press my eyes shut as a wave of memories of the time I broke that rule come back like a reel of film.

*         *         *         *

Summer 1998

Grace Mercy Children’s Home

Kalanpur, Uttar Pradesh 

The rain falls heavily, like a river emptying from the sky. I peer through the gray haze of monsoon rains from my seat by the schoolroom window, but I can barely make out the dark, formless shapes of the gigantic pipal trees on the side of the building.

My stomach is rumbling so loudly that the math equations on the page in front of me float in a blur. All I have eaten today is the gruel served up by Sister Gina before class. More watery than usual, the gray mess of oatmeal porridge was enriched with just a smattering of milk.

Some of the other twelve-year-old girls who whisper and giggle from behind their desks in the front of the class distract me from the window. My seat was assigned at the perimeter of the classroom where I painstakingly plant myself in the wobbly old elbow chair with only three legs, its upholstered seat stained with grease marks. I slouch in my seat straining to hear, careful not to be obvious.

“Look at him,” says a girl in a high-pitched tone, with deep-set, tawny, tiger eyes and the blackest hair I have ever seen. The others have nicknamed her Rani (Queen). Her hair is lustrous and shiny, unlike mine, which always seems to be the color of the dust that litters the corners of the orphanage. 

“See how he stands? I think he wants to make love to the chalkboard.”  She sniggers with a hand to her mouth.

The girl across from her—Anisha, I think, as I am still trying to remember the names of the other children—snorts. “Or his equations.”

The first girl flips back her hair with a wicked grin. “‘I want you x plus y’.

I can barely stop myself from laughing. Mr. Mehta is new and comes from outside the orphanage to teach us. This is only our third lesson with him. Before the first one, the mother superior came to lecture us from the front of the class about how lucky we were to have a real math teacher.

But all the rotund and very bearded man does is face the blackboard, his legs an extraordinary distance apart, his groin at the place where his equations are about to start landing. Then he babbles on and scribbles incomprehensible numbers and words. When the board is full, the chalk goes down and he turns to glare at us with beady eyes. It is so quiet you could hear a pin drop, and that marks the end of the lesson.

“I’m glad he’s so small,” says Rani with a glint in her eyes.

“Why?” Anisha asks, glinting back.

“If he could reach the top of the chalkboard, the lesson would be longer.”

Both girls frown at me, and Rani flashes her fierce tiger eyes in my direction, as I fail to stifle my laugh. I quickly turn away, back to the monsoon rains and the dread of not having enough to eat in the ebb and flow of Grace Mercy’s resources. In the last two years, food has been the first thing to grow scarce, with caste determining how much we get. Sometimes, we get nothing at all. Sister Gina always tries to be fair, but usually she only handles breakfast, and not always that.  Some days, breakfast doesn’t even happen.

I must wait for the other castes to get their food when we finally fill the dining hall, and I’m hopeful when I see plates of the other girls served with good portions. But by the time it’s my turn to be served, they have run out of rotis and the aloo subzi is finished. 

My face drops, hunger scraping vicious fingers inside my stomach. I stand at the kitchen door pleading with Mahadev, until he can’t stand the sound of my voice anymore.

Chupp, you Chamar,” he shouts at me as he flings a couple of rotis and mango-chilipickle in my direction.

I gaze longingly at the other girls sitting in rows throughout the mess hall. It is far too wet to go outside, and the thrumming of heavy raindrops on the roof drowns out the sound of chattering girls and boys. But I am forbidden to sit on the benches where they eat. I might pollute them and their food. I don’t understand, but I have been told this repeatedly by my Aai (in a cautionary whisper), by the Pandit, and by the mother superior. I hunch by the wall nearest the exit and pick at my food carefully, so I don’t drop it.

When the girls finish they file out, tittering and chatting. I take my chance, slinking noiselessly up to their bench at the back of the hall, and take a seat as inconspicuously as I can manage. I quickly unfold my dupatta and remove the rotis, tearing a corner and pushing it into my mouth. Ravenous, I tear off another piece.

“Ee-e-h, you bloody Chamar,” a familiar voice calls out. “What do you think you are doing?”

I spin around to see Mahadev striding towards me. He looks terrifying as he hurtles angrily in my direction.

“I . . . I have n-not done anything,” I say, fear gripping me. Instinctively, my hand comes halfway up in a defensive motion. “I have not eaten any of the other girls’ food, I swear.” I lift up the rotis. “These are mine. Y-you gave them to me.”

“Not done anything?” Mahadev repeats, his eyes bloodshot with fury. “You have polluted the bench, you bloody fool! Who is going to sit here now?”

“B-but why not?” I implore him, reaching out my hand. Accidentally, it brushes his as he looms menacingly over me.

“Do not touch me,” he screams, jerking his hand away. He shakes with rage, veins popping in his forehead. “You . . . you . . .you have the audacity to touch me?

I shield my head with an arm as he waves his arms around.

“What is this?” he cries. “Will you strike me, too?”

“No, no!” I protest. “I wou—”

“—I will show you what it means to touch me—a Kshatriya! See how I touch you back.”

With a quick flick of the eyes, checking that no one is around, Mahadev grabs my ear and twists sharply. The intense explosion of pain worsens when he yanks me up to my feet, my rotis and pickle falling to the floor. I swallow back bile, almost vomiting my little piece of roti back up. I cry out in agony.

“Even your shadow contaminates this bench,” he says. I can smell his sour breath as he spits the words over me. “It’s not fit for sitting on now; it will need to be chopped up for firewood. Are you happy wasting a good bench like this?”

He turns and leaves me there, throbbing in pain and shame. With tears falling down my face, I bend down and pick up the roti, not knowing when I’ll be able to eat again.

The Pandit in Kalanpur saidthat Dalits have committed terrible sins in their last life, and that is why they are so lowly in this one. I wish I knew what my sin was; it must have been a terrible sin, indeed.

*         *         *         *

I inhale a pranayama breath, steadying myself, centering myself on where I am and who I am now, as I was taught to do by the swami who coached the group yoga class at Grace Mercy. I’m not that little girl any longer, I reassure myself, shuddering at the memory.

Watching the Pandit on the platform tying a mauli around the wrist of a large woman in a billowy sari, her hair pulled back in a greasy bun, I decide I want one for myself. I want it around my own wrist, rather than the green band I had once known so well. Do I not deserve to be blessed, too?

I push my way past the throng of worshippers, drawing one or two irritated looks. I ignore them and push more aggressively. I must have the mauli. I half expect to hold my wrist out to the Pandit and be refused—to be told that God is not there for me. It takes more than a calming breath to overcome the past that haunts my every step, even here, halfway across the globe from where I grew up.

Still, this is ‘Amreeka’. No ‘Real Hindus only’ here, and the Pandit duly ties the red thread around my wrist like I am any other member of the crowd; just like any other Hindu. But I am immediately suffused in shame. Shame that I am here in America, as an Untouchable with a mauli around my wrist, while so many of my people still suffer back in India.

How good it would be to cleanse my own karma I think, as I melt back into the crowd, to be rid forever of the fear and guilt of my Dalit heritage. What bliss that would be.

Chapter 4 


Fall 2014 

Fremont, California  

On Tuesday morning as I’m driving to work, I switch on the radio to distract me from thoughts that stir in me like dead leaves.

“Next on Philosophy Talk,” says the radio host, “Do you believe in Life After Death?”

 I hike up the volume.“Hello, everyone,” continues the host. “Meet Bob Olsen, the author of Answers After Life. Bob, death is one of life’s few certainties . . . or, is it?” I laugh inwardly, shaking my head. How American.

His voice grows deeper. “That may just be two sides of the same delusion. That is, Heaven is God’s carrot, and Hell is his stick.  It’s like Nietzsche said about Jesus—he was so hungry for love that he had to invent hell, so he could send those who refused to love him there.” The traffic light turns red and I drum my fingers on the steering wheel, thinking about the errands I have to run after work—I need to go to the bank, the dry cleaners, and the Indian store for the Brooke Bond Taj Mahal tea that Bhavesh likes for his morning chai.  

“Heaven is the flip side—it’s where you go if you’ve been a good little soul. What are your thoughts, Bob? What evidence have you found of life after death?

Bob’s voice comes on, high and nasal. “Hello, Jim. Thank you for having me on the show. The Catholic Church has long held that a just God without an afterlife is inconceivable, because it would mean that Hitler and Anne Frank had the same fate. I believe-“

I flick the indicator to turn right. A cloud moves across the sky in front of the morning sun and a beam of light illuminates the plain wooden cross at the front of the church on Mission Street.

  Fascinating though the arguments are, they are mostly based around a Judeo-Christian point of view, and I wish they would broaden the discussion.  I swat at the radio button irritably and change to a music station to drown out the meaningless chatter.

As I turn into the eastern edge of the campus, marked by a poorly fenced, bumpy parking lot already full of compact and energy efficient cars, I give a rueful nod. Too bad we don’t look for an eternity beyond this life in heaven or hell like Christians do. As an Untouchable, my soul has likely spent a fair amount of time in the lowest level of the Underworld already. I pull into a spot—scowling ferociously as I brood— though my marriage to Bhavesh, a Kshatriya, hopefully has elevated me enough to avoid the same fate next time around.

Or has it?

Last week after visiting the temple, I removed the mauli and hid it from Bhavesh and Maya, but I couldn’t shake my thoughts all week. I felt false; unworthy of being a Kshatriya, yet also a traitor to the Dalit caste. Surely there is no greater detriment to my own karma than to be this way—caught between castes, belonging nowhere. Climbing from my car and walking through the university grounds, I pull a face and inhale deeply, breathing in the crisp wintry air.

California State University East Bay has long, low buildings linked by glass walkways. On gray mornings like this it looks inviting, with its buttery light shining out across the parking lots. My bag looks out of place on an otherwise smart-but-insipidly-dressed East Indian university administrator, dressed as I am in a ruffled white blouse and black pantsuit bought from a discount department store years ago. The bag of red chanderi silk, my mother’s gift, is embroidered with flattened silver wire and trimmed with bold applique and mirror work. Much mended by me and inevitably faded, I’m still able to use it almost eighteen years after my Aai bought it from that street market in Kalanpur. It’s just a bag, but it has seen so much and crossed half the world to be where it is and what it still is—the only remnant of the mother I once had.

Climbing up the dank-smelling stairwell, I think about the project I am working on for the English Department, cataloging their collection of works by Chaucer and Shakespeare with automation software. I perk up as I remember. Today we will start indexing—something new to look forward to.

Scrabbling around for my keycard, I feel a sudden twinge in the small of my back. I lean backward for a moment and massage it. This job has been bad for my back, with a lot of days spent bent over in awkward positions. But maybe this is just what I need to get promoted. Then, I think, sliding my keycard and opening the door to my office, they might move me out of the janitor’s closet.

My office is about six feet across and less than twelve feet deep; its grimy window is the only thing keeping it from being a closet. Those meager dimensions are encroached upon by bookshelves lining the left side and much of the wall in which the door is set. My desk dominates the right side, which is the only place where it can fit. When not at my desk, I must tuck my chair all the way in, or else the room turns into a collision course.

My only personal item is a framed poster of Durga Ma killing the demon Asura hanging above my desk. “For inspiration and, you know, woman power,” I explain hastily when visitors to my little hovel ask about it.

‘Where is it from?’ and ‘How old is it?’ are innocent questions asked out of politeness or genuine interest, yet I always dread them and give hasty answers, which must seem to my colleagues the deflections they are. But how can I say that it was a gift from the only man I ever truly cared about? No, not my husband. Yes, you’re right, I should have gotten rid of it years ago, bad wife that I am.

For the next few hours I pound relentlessly at my computer, losing myself in a world of structure and organization. Although indexing the university’s catalog records is a tedious job, occasional gems pop up to keep a thread of interest running through.

Leaning back in my chair, I raise my arms over my head and stretch. My stomach growls and I turn to look at the clock on my desk. Wow, 12:10 already? I really have lost myself in work today. I was supposed to meet Tammy for lunch at noon.

I grab my coat and my bag and rush from the office, pulling on my coat as I walk down the corridor while trying to send her a quick text. “Arrrrgh,” I groan, realizing how foolish I must look to passersby as I wrestle with the arms, taking four times as long to complete the action than if I had just stood still. I don’t care, though; impatience is giving my feet wings. I run panting across the university grounds and I arrive at the cafeteria located at the east end of the campus babbling apologies, much to Tammy’s amusement.

“Yeah, yeah,” Tammy says with a grin. “If it were anyone else it would sound like an excuse, but I know all about you and your thing for indexing.”

I give her a grateful hug.

“Must be something I’m missing with it,” Tammy continues, pressing two fingers to her forehead, “because it always seems a bit boring to me.” At the table next to us, two young women, one wearing a burqa, are looking at a laptop together and talking passionately about a class on Islamic Studies.

In-dexing,” she says with a dreamy expression on her face, letting the world roll seductively off her tongue. “Wow, when you say it like that, it sounds quite hot. Gotta get me some of that.”

I chortle. In moments, I’m comfortably ensconced in conversation. Aside from Maya, my lunches with Tammy are the most perfect thing in my life. Only the setting is wrong. We should be in a stylish coffee shop somewhere, curled up in couches with a roaring fire nearby. Instead, we are in the university canteen, a less than intimate place. For one thing, the metal chairs are not exactly something you could ‘curl up in’. It is impossible to sit comfortably enough in them to stop my posterior from going numb halfway through lunch.

Some days we manage to get off campus if we get going quickly enough. Discovering new places with Tammy is always exciting but expensive, so we can’t do it too often. I cringe at the thought of Bhavesh’s black caterpillar eyebrows scrunching ferociously if he saw a credit card charge for lunch with Tammy of more than twenty dollars. In my mind’s eye I can hear him yelling, “Do I work all day so that you can blow off twenty-thirty dollars on lunch?” Still, Bhavesh tolerates my friendship with Tammy because it happens at work and doesn’t intrude on my time outside of it.

“You should come,” Tammy says, giving me a big crinkle-eyed smile of hope. “What do you think?”

With a start, I realize that I’ve been so intent on enjoying our closeness I haven’t been listening to our conversation. I push the shrimp on my plate and try to cover. “Uh-huh . . . so, give me some details.”

Tammy’s round, friendly face narrows. “I did,” she shrieks. I grab her hand and squeeze it gently. Tammy hates having to repeat herself. It reminds her of her ex-boyfriend who never listened when she talked to him.

After a beat, Tammy clears her throat then says,  “The university’s networking dinner with the Vice-Chancellor. All of the department heads are going. You could come with me, Meena. It might mean more funding for your project and you could stay longer. Maybe forever.”

Tammy clasps her hands—a teenager’s gesture, not one of a professional woman in her early thirties. I give her an indulgent look.

“Not that I’m, like, biased in that direction or selfishly motivated,” she continues with a wink. “Not like I might have some sort of breakdown if I lost my lunch partner.”

An unfamiliar rush of joy fills me, making my heart dissolve into honey. I don’t want to lose my lunches with Tammy, either. Our camaraderie is such a welcome change from the monotonic interactions between me and Bhavesh, and it opens up to me university gossip, feuds between teachers, a new language, and a new life I’ve never experienced before.

I cherish our easy relationship, but I could never keep it going if I lost my job. Sadness squeezes around me like shrink-wrap.  I can’t imagine a situation in which my husband would happily let me go off to meet my friend for drinks or dinner in the evening. Then again, the Vice-Chancellor’s dinner is work, and more funding might even mean the university would take me on directly. That could mean more money; something that Bhavesh would likely be happy about.

A loud clatter of cutlery slices into my reverie as a kitchen hand accidentally drops the tray he’s holding. Tammy swivels around, then turns back to me.

“Plus,” Tammy says, her eyes shining blue like a peacock’s neck, “the guest is some famous Indian corporate guy.”

Coming from someone else, maybe it would be a little insulting, but I know my friend’s heart. Her face is open, guileless.

 “Oh, yeah,” I say slowly, “I did see something. I’ll . . . I’ll have to see what’s going on with Bhavesh and let you know.”

Tammy’s face drops. She puts down her fork and gives me a swift, searching look. “Maybe don’t mention that you are coming with me,” she says carefully.

“Why would you say that?” I shrug good-naturedly, implying that I think Tammy is being silly. The truth is, Bhavesh barely even acknowledged Tammy on the one occasion they met. I know that was intentional—after nine years of marriage, I’m well aware that Bhavesh doesn’t give much value to women, especially single women like Tammy.

I’m struck by a sudden thought and I giggle so hard I keel over sideways. “I think it might be better to tell Bhavesh that you would chaperone me. Better I turn up to an event like that with a girlfriend than all alone and, you know . . . available.” I blush.

Tammy simpers approvingly and flutters her eyelashes exaggeratedly. “I wouldn’t trust me to chaperone anyone.”

Chapter 5 


Fall 2014 

Fremont, California  

It‘s only mid-September, but in the fading glow of the sunset, our house appears gloomy when I return from work. Maya is taking an evening hip-hop dance class at school, so my little princess is not there to brighten up the place.

Her classmate Allison’s mom will be dropping Maya home, thanks to a neat carpool system that has worked well for the past year.Thank you, Bhagwan. I drop the girls off at school in the morning, allowing Allison’s mom to attend a step aerobics class. In return, she drops Maya back on a Tuesday evening. I can’t help but feel that I get the better end of the deal, gaining the extra time when I arrive home, while Allison’s mom ends up doing exercise, of all things.

I love the ease of these friendly systems in the U.S. I wonder how much the countless moms who make these arrangements appreciate just how easy they are. In India it would be harder, with much more formality to it. Our families would need to first figure out if carpooling was even a proper arrangement to enter into, since the relative castes would determine if one child’s bottom was worthy of gracing another’s car seat. Here it is just two moms helping each other out, bound by the fact that their children are in the same class and have chosen to be friends.

I do not have time to relax. Bhavesh will be home soon and will want his dinner fresh and hot, so I quickly begin the routine that transforms me from ‘office worker’ to ‘housewife-slash-mommy’.

I take a speed-shower, then the office clothes are swapped for jersey pajamas and a loose, V-neck tee.Moments later I am heating oil in the frying pan in the kitchen before emptying the contents of the pressure cooker into it. Maya is always hungry when she gets home and must be fed before I start rolling out Bhavesh’s rotis, lightly fried on a hot tava and served fresh while he sits at the head of the mahogany dinner table, reading the local newspaper, The Argus. 

Chopped onions go into the pan next, followed by stewed tomatoes and thin slices of fresh ginger. After another minute or so, the contents of the pan are added to bubbling kidney beans, and I then happily stir the whole mess together. Mystep aerobics, I think wryly.

The aroma of ghee and cumin flavoring the curry always put me in a trance, bringing me back to my childhood. But no matter how much I try, my rajma chawal never smells as good as my Aai’s did. The ringing of the doorbell interrupts my thoughts.

“Mommy, Mommy, guess what I learned from Ms. Tracy today!” Maya prances into the kitchen after we’ve waved off Allison and her mother.

“Come on, missy, let’s get you to McDonald’s and your chicken tenders,“ I overhear Allison’s mom say as they hurry off. I try not to appear overly proud that my own daughter has a home-cooked meal waiting for her.

As I fill a large pot of water to boil, Maya is already performing, tapping, turning, and twirling as her fluffy pink tutu with sparkly sequins spreads out around her. Just as she’s spun in a full circle, the doorbell goes again—this time, with a tone of impatience. My heart sinks.

Bhavesh comes pounding into the kitchen, the blazing kitchen light illuminating his five o’clock shadow. The astringent lime-patchouli odor of Old Spice mingled with body sweat wafts off him ashe picks up Maya, spins her around in his arms, and fusses over her.  “Did you get your paycheck today?” Bhavesh shoots me a questioning look over her shoulder.

“Yes,” I reply automatically. “I’m putting the rice on, but then I will get it for you.”

“It is amazing, don’t you think,” he asks with an approving sidelong glance, “how even a Dalit can develop herself in a place like America? All you needed was the opportunity I gave you, and now you are earning money in an office job.” He rubs his fingertips together. He looks not just satisfied, but proud of his pupil. “A-mazing.”  

“You must feel grateful for that,” he continues with his equivalent of what Americans call ‘foreplay’.

My stomach muscles clench.

From the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of Maya’s legs clad in shining pink disco tights stretched out in front of the T.V. as she flips the channels on the remote. While I remain completely still, she squeals in delight as she spies a yellow sponge dancing excitedly on the screen.

In the glare cast by the overhead fluorescent light, Bhavesh’s eyes glint with relish. “How I made you pure and brought you to this place. In India you would be cleaning toilets, like your mother, but here you have an office job.”

I keep my eyes fixed on the tiny nicks in the lacquer along the bottom board of the oak cabinet behind his head. I’m not about to point out that I was the one who got my job. It belongs to me; I made the application, put together a resume, and went to the interview and assessment session. If I stay silent this way, he is less likely to get stirred up like a nest full of hornets and spoil the peace of the evening.

*         *         *         *

Summer 1996

Kalanpur, Uttar Pradesh 

I am nursing an injury on the other side of the village square from the water tap, a thorn somehow having found its way into my foot. As we aren’t allowed to wear shoes in public—and we don’t own them, in any case—the soles of my feet are like leather and horn hard. I always keep my eyes firmly fixed on the ground as I walk so that I hardly ever hurt my feet on anything like a shard of glass or a sharp metal edge.

The tip of the thorn has broken off and become a small splinter, making it hard to dig out. I see a telltale furrow of worry on Aai’s face as she bends over me and tries to pull the thorn out. But the splinter has worked its way deeper into my foot, and my skin already looks angry and sore.

“Wait here, pyaari beti,” she says softly. My mother often calls me her sweet girl, especially when she feels I need comfort. “I will fetch water from the tap so we can clean your poor foot.”

I watch her cross the square hugging her small tin bowl to her chest. She turns around and warns, “Meena, don’t touch it. You’ll push it deeper.”

Once her back is to me, I return to poking my foot, squeezing harder until my eyes tear in pain. As the splinter shifts, I push my thumbnail across the skin over and over again, hard and rough like sandpaper. A tiny black tip emerges from the center, surrounded by beads of blood, and I keep pinching, ignoring the tears rolling down my face, and then I am pulling the thing free. I stare in fascination at this tiny piece of plant that caused so much pain.

Aai!” I call out in a timid voice.

I rise and hobble across the square. The roofs of wealthy houses nearby are almost visible, their terracotta-colored Roman tiles adorning many of the larger houses in my village, like the one my mother cleans. But here at the center, in this poor village, only the temple has such a decorative, gabled roof. The surrounding hovels have grimy walls of rough concrete or stone, and the roofs are corrugated, made of sheet metal or plastic, parodying the Roman roofs less than a quarter of a mile away.

About halfway across the square I spot my mother by the tap. A man dressed in a fine white dhoti, a long white shirt, and heavy black sandals towers over her.  His clean-shaven face is dark-complexioned, and he wears a red tika on his forehead. As I speed up my steps, straining to hear, the wide gold of his watch wristband and the rings on three fingers of each hand glint in the sun.

“If you touch this tap, Chamar,” he says, his voice booming through the stale air, “then whom will it be fit for? Only other Chamars. That is selfish, wouldn’t you say?” He looks no older than my Aai and speaks to her slowly, deliberately, as if she is too dim to understand.

“But my daughter,” she says, her shoulders shrinking as she pleads with him. “She has hurt her foot and all I need is a little water to clean the wound.”

“So what will it matter if your dirty daughter has some more dirt in her?” His cackle cuts through the hot, humid air.

“Maybe if you would get it for me,” my mother begs, her hands clasped together in submission, “then I would not have to touch the tap.”

“Harrumph,” he says loudly, his mouth twisting to one side.  “That sounds like I would be serving you,” he continues, scowling fiercely.

Aai shakes her head, the strain of keeping her voice even showing in her tense knuckles. “It would be helping me.”

“Well,” the man says with a cruel grin, “perhaps if you asked properly. When Chamars want something, they should be on their knees, in their proper place.”

My heart is hammeringas he points to the ground.

“Go on, get on your knees.”

It is near market time and throngs of market sellers and villagers fill the square, some drawing close to the drama unfolding in front of the communal tap. But the unshaven men in their faded lungis and soiled undershirts and the Dalit women dressed in cheap, synthetic saris in garish prints and silver nose-rings keep their faces averted, pretending they can neither see nor hear what is happening. My skin tingles with fear and embarrassment.

My mother hesitates for a moment, then sinks to her knees. “I just want to clean my daughter’s wound,” she mumbles, face to the ground.

“All right.” The man shrugs and holds out his hand. Aai looks up to his outstretched hand, her eyes filling with gratitude. She lifts an arm to pass him the bowl. Quick as lightning, the man jerks his hand away.

“But,” he says, in his slow, patronizing voice, “if I have to touch your filthy bowl, then what is the difference? I will still be polluted.” He leans forward and spits on her. “Everything you touch is polluted. Now go away, and do not come to the tap again. Get your water from a dirty puddle, like the rats.”

My mother collapses into herself and I want to run to her. I want to show her that the splinter is gone and there is no need for the water. But I turn around and scamper away. I know she will have wanted me to be protected from her humiliation. My heart is like a madly bouncing ball, beating the breath out of my body. I will pretend I haven’t seen a thing.

*         *         *         *

Now, in front of Bhavesh, I try to keep my back straight. “There’s this thing on at work,” I say haltingly, then begin to clear the dishes. “It’s a . . . dinner.”

“You want to go?” Bhavesh responds absently as he looks away to continue reading his newspaper.

“Well . . . yes. It would be good.” I say, keeping my voice even.

“But you cook dinner here each night; why go to work to have it?” Bhavesh looks up over the edge of the newspaper, meeting my eyes. I can’t tell if he is teasing or being serious.

I adjust my apron.  “Really, it’s for networking.” I clear my throat. “I might be able to get more funding for my department; maybe even a pay raise.”

Oh, why did I have to jump into the money argument so soon? I castigate myself.

But, confusingly, Bhavesh plays along. “A pay raise, huh? See, it’s just like I said. The things you can do here!”

“So you think I should go?” I keep my voice suggestive.

Bhavesh slithers behind me as I continue to wash the dishes. I gasp as he grabs my ear and twists it. He keeps his voice low even though Maya is in the lounge area with no chance of hearing us.

“I tell you what I think. I think you should go to bed early tonight; your husband has a need to pleasure himself.” He leans in closer—his hot breath on my ear, which throbs in pain. “Just make sure you don’t forget your place.”

Anoop Judge was born and raised in New Delhi and now resides in California. She is an award winning author. For more information on Anoop, check out her website.