चाण्डालश्च वराहश्च कुक्कुटः श्वा तथैव च ।
रजस्वला च षण्ढश्च नैक्षेरन्नश्नतो द्विजान् ॥

A Chandāla, a village pig, a rooster, a dog,
a menstruating woman and a eunuch must not look at the twice-borns while they eat.

— Manusmriti 3.239

Not just a furtive glance, this nine-year-old boy's sin was far more audacious. Indra Kumar Meghwal, a Class 3 student, simply failed to contain his thirst. He, a Dalit boy, drank from a pitcher kept aside for upper caste teachers.

Punishment was due. He was beaten, mercilessly, by Chail Singh – his 40-year-old upper caste teacher at the Saraswati Vidya Mandir in Rajasthan’s Surana village.

After 25 days, and after visiting 7 hospitals to seek help, on the eve of India’s Independence Day, the little boy from Jalore district breathed his last in Ahmedabad city.

Listen to Pratishtha Pandya read the poem

Worms in a jar

Once upon a time
there was a pitcher in a school.
The teacher was a demigod,
three bags full –
one for a Brahmin ,
one for a king,
and one for a penny that Dalits they bring.

Once upon a neverland
twice upon a time,
the pitcher taught a little kid –
“Thirst is a crime.
Thy teacher is a twice-born,
life is a scar,
and thou art a worm, lad,
kept in a jar.”

This jar had a quaint name: sanatani desh,
“Your skin is a sin,
kiddo, damned is your race.”
Yet with a paper tongue
drier than a dune,
he drank a li’l drop of the wet mehroon.

the thirst was too much to bear,
didn't the books say: “give, love and share”?
Out spread his fingers brave,
touched the pitcher cold,
The teacher was a demigod,
And he, a nine-year-old.

With a punch and a kick
and a well-placed stick,
the boy was tamed,
with a rage unnamed.
The demigod laughed like a sweet limerick.

Bruises on the left eye,
maggots in the right,
black were the lips
to the teacher's delight.
His thirst was sacred, his creed was pure,
his heart is a hole
where death endures.

With a sigh and a ‘why’
and hatred high,
the thirst was named,
in wrath untamed.
The blackboard moaned like a graveyard fly.

Once upon a time
there was a corpse in a school,
Yes sir! Yes sir! Three drops full!
one for a mandir,
one for a crown,
one for a pitcher where Dalits they drown.

Poem and Text : Joshua Bodhinetra

Joshua Bodhinetra is the Content Manager of PARIBhasha, the Indian languages programme at People's Archive of Rural India (PARI). He has an MPhil in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata and is a multilingual poet, translator, art critic and social activist.

Other stories by Joshua Bodhinetra
Illustration : Labani Jangi

Labani Jangi is a 2020 PARI Fellow, and a self-taught painter based in West Bengal's Nadia district. She is working towards a PhD on labour migrations at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.

Other stories by Labani Jangi
Editor : Pratishtha Pandya

Pratishtha Pandya is a Senior Editor at PARI where she leads PARI's creative writing section. She is also a member of the PARIBhasha team and translates and edits stories in Gujarati. Pratishtha is a published poet working in Gujarati and English.

Other stories by Pratishtha Pandya