Nagamma was the tall, eight year old girl in the class picture that we took in second grade. I was seated next to my teacher with my eyes wide open and she was standing in the row behind us with her eyes and eyebrows made darker with eyeliner and her braided hair tied in ribbons.Her mouth firmly shut and her eyes looking at the camera with confidence.
I do not remember being in the same class with her in first grade. Apart from the class picture, her booming loud voice reminded me that she was there in my class in second grade. Her voice bothered me as I was trying to answer the correct answer to a question and everyone around me was answering the wrong answer in chorus. I made a face at her as hers was the loudest. My second grade teacher who was about to go on a sick leave burst out laughing. She understood that I knew the answer and was looking in my direction when she saw my exasperated face.
Nagamma’s bold voice was just the beginning of her growing interest in learning and it also signaled her gaining confidence in her abilities. Looking back, I think that was the year Nagamma began to know herself and had discovered that reading and doing arithmetic was not just for upper caste children. She had figured out the secret to learning and it just came easy to her.That was also the year, she was beginning to consider that she was an equal to anyone in the class. You see, Nagamma was from the washermen’s community, who were considered as less than equal to those from upper caste.
My third grade teacher pointed out to the rest of the class that I was the youngest by at least a year and the rest of them needed to be gentle with me. That was the year, I began to be intimidated by Nagamma’s growing confidence, beautiful handwriting, and her homework ethics. She brought homework that was neatly written and she eagerly checked her work to find that all her answers were correct. I felt threatened and began to notice her more.
She was a only child raised by a single mom and I dd not know about her father’s status, but for some reason, I had always assumed that her father had passed away. In those days, women and children from this community went in the night with a vessel to the houses of people whose clothes they washed and asked for left over food. I did not exactly remember what led to that conversation about seeking food from people, but I vaguely remember Nagamma telling us that her mother did not allow her to do it.
I remember seeing her mother with her hair tied roughly in a bun on the side of her head and her saree tied a little above the ankle. She was a short woman and she did not have the sun burnt blond hair like Nagamma did. You see- Nagamma’s hair was a mix of black and blond because of the time she must have spent in the town pond under the hot sun watching or washing loads of clothes with her mother every weekend and every day during vacation.
I had been to her home as I once needed water to wash my clothes that got dirty by something. We did not have running water in the school and Nagamma had offered to take me to her home near the school and give water to wash the dirt off. Her home was locked and she found the key that was hidden and opened the door. It was a small home that had a low ceiling and the living room had no furniture except a vessel on the side of a wall. I did not tell my mother of this secret adventure as I knew that she won’t be pleased with me going to a stranger’s home. However, she found out later that I had been to Nagamma’s home and reminded me not to do it again.
Fourth grade saw Nagamma becoming the boss of the class and she even began to dictate how things should be taught. Nagamma was afraid of cursive English letters and begged my teacher not to teach it. For some reason, my teacher chose to listen to her and did not teach how to write in cursive. I cursed Nagamma when that created an issue in sixth grade which was in a private management school that was far removed from the Municipality elementary school that I went with Nagamma. Anyway, Nagamma continued to study well in to the fifth grade in spite of her resistance to learn cursive letters and she gained respect from my mother for being the class topper in academics.
One day, I had invited couple of classmates to come and drop me at my home before they went to their home; Nagamma was one of those classmates. I introduced my classmates to my mother and then went inside to change and wash my face, hands, and legs. Nagamma quietly observed all the fuss I made with myself. I was putting a show of my life as my classmates waited. As my mother combed my hair, they stood around me, and Nagamma asked my mother whether I always had to follow that ritual of cleaning. She was pensive and was just observing and absorbing about life experiences that were different from hers.
At the end of fifth grade, my parents decided that I was finally ready to trek the congested, traffic infested long way to a good high school(Grades 6-12) that my father’s side of the family went to. Many of my classmates from poor and some untouchable* families did not continue their studies and dropped out of school and Nagamma became one of such victims. She informed us that her mother had decided not to send her to high school and I vaguely remember teachers trying to tell her to continue.
That was the end of Nagamma for a long time. I still remember her when I think about my inability to write cursive letters. I always blamed her as a cause for not being taught to write in cursive letters.
Several years later, as a young graduate woman, I was standing near the front gate of my home. I saw a woman walking on the road with a bundle of clothes on the top of her hair and her eyes quickly averted me and looked ahead. I recognized her a s Nagamma and called out her name. She stopped and turned around with an embarrassed smile.
I asked her, ” Do you recognize me? I am …., your classmate!
As I asked her ” How are you?”, I quickly understood that she knew me and she did not want to be embarrassed further. She replied,” I am fine”
I expected her to ask about me and I let her go after that two syllable conversation in my language.
I felt sad that I had called her. In that embarrassed smile, I sensed what could have been. In those years, she had really pulled ahead of the children from upper class and educated background, and she was almost a leader of that group. She had proved that she was superior to them and now she had lost everything and fell prey to the society’s and life’s callousness.
I think back to that meeting moment- She seemed lonely and she did not look like she had been married. I wonder where she is now and how her life is.
Does she have kids? Did they break the shackles of their life?