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 and adorned with flowers. Her mouth was firmly shut and her eyes were looking at the camera with confidence.
Though we studied in the same school, I do not remember being in the same class with her in first grade. Apart from the class picture, her booming loud voice is the only other reminder that she was there in my class in second grade. I remember that she used her loud voice to blurt out any answer that came to her mind. and her voice used to bother me the most as I was trying to answer the correct answer to a question and everyone around me was answering the wrong answer in chorus. Once I remember that I made a face at her as hers was the loudest and my second grade teacher who was about to go on a sick leave burst out laughing seeing my exasperated face.
Nagamma’s bold voice in second grade 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.
In third grade, I began to feel less secure around some of the girls in the class. They were taller and more matured than me. One day after noticing that I was upset, 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 also 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 and learn about her more.
Nagamma was an 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.
Nagamma’s mother was a a short woman and she did not have the sun burnt blond hair like Nagamma did. She tied her graying hair roughly in a bun on the side of her head and her saree hung a little above the ankle. Nagamma did not look like her mother; she was tall and her 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.
Nagamm’s home was closer to school and 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 when I went there with some of my classmates 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 she did not make a big deal out of it.
In fourth grade, I saw Nagamma becoming the boss of the class and she even began to dictate how things should be taught. Nagamma was afraid of writing cursive English letters and she 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 in my mind 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 clothes and wash myself. 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 curiously questioned my mother about my rituals after school. She asked my mother whether I always had to follow that ritual of cleaning and changing clothes. 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.
As I went to high school, I remembered Nagamma whenever my sixth grade teacher criticized me not writing in cursive letters and I held her responsible for not writing well in cursive letters.
Several years passed and I went away from home to study in college. One day, I was standing near the front gate of my home when I was on a vacation break from college. 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 went down to the road to meet the woman who did not make even slight attempt to come towards me.
I asked her, ” Do you recognize me? I am …., your classmate!”
I remember her smiling lightly and acknowledging me proudly.
I asked her ” How are you?” as she made no attempt to inquire about me. She replied,” I am fine.”
I quickly began to sense that she did not want to carry on the conversation and she seemed to be embarrassed. I let her go after that two syllable conversation in my language.
I felt sad that I had called her. In that sad, 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?