“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding…”
~ Khalil Gibran
Arjun first felt pain when he was fourteen years old. Before then, it wasn’t truly pain. Hunger. Bruises. Scrapes. Beatings. That was all the result of human weakness, the bleak brother of human courage. It was nothing to him. He ached with the sun when she stretched and rose and he ached with her as she slipped away, carrying her rays of hope with her. Physical pain was a dull and ever-present memory. True pain, he knew, was when something you couldn’t really see was taken away from you. Something that was as much a part of him as his calloused young hands that picked up crushed bottles and broken glass each day, his blistered feet that slid and slipped underneath the weight of the sack on his shoulders, his lungs that breathed in the decomposing walls of houses he was told was too good for him to live in.
It was dignity. Wrenched away, torn apart and discarded like the rubbish piled up around him. His decomposing dreams had been pried from his small, bony, unwilling fingertips that had not yet held a pencil.It was nighttime, and the street lamps and flashing neon signs were flickering on and off, shedding light across the faces of stragglers on the street.
Arjun was making his way back home. A single, dingy room lit by a kerosene lamp, where he, his parents and his five siblings stayed, speaking only to ask how much money they had collected-or lost-that day. But tonight was different. In his hand he held a one-thousand rupee note. It was slightly torn in one corner and crumpled like a handkerchief , yet one-thousand rupees was more than he had ever held.
He had found it pinned underneath a beer bottle that noon, the other end flapping carelessly in the wind. Someone must’ve had too much to drink last night. He fell to his knees and cradled it like a child. Tears streaked down his face like thin rivers, making tracks on his face caked with dried mud and dirt.For one night his family would not have to suffer. They could laugh like people instead of ragpickers, humans instead of untouchables, a family instead of strangers. Perhaps they would breathe without choking on dust, and walk without stooping to the mud floor…
While walking home, Arjun imagined what his Mother might say to him. Her hands might reach for him, hug him, hold him… “Amma,” he might say, “We are free. Let us live. I can go to the other side of Town and pick up kabobs, we won’t have to go hungry….” He could see himself so clearly, pleading. He just wanted to feel like a boy. A man, even, but how can one watch the sun rise when their eyes are forced downward?..
These vivid images of rebirth swam in his mind as he hurried home, and turning the corner on a seemingly deserted side-street, something caught his eye. Something large and silver, leaning against a run-down bazaar. Arjun approached it tentatively, careful not to swing his ragpicker’s sack in case it made a noise. Then, in the light of the streetlamp, he saw it was a bicycle, scintillating and gleaming underneath the artificial light of the streetlamp. Arjun drank it in with hungry eyes. He shuffled closer. Someone’s name was carved into the handle. If he knew how to read, perhaps he could-
“What are you looking at, dalit?” Arjun felt the words in his bones as he heard them spoken, piercing through the velvet darkness.
“This is very nice bike sir. Very nice. I was just looking sir.”
“Who asked you to look? Who asked you to come near it?” The voice moved into the light, letting it fall on features contorted with fury. Its owner was a boy not many years older than him, but with longer, thicker limbs and a stronger more upright frame. Malnutrition and anemia had stolen so much from Arjun, including his growth.
His heart was beating so fast and hard he felt it in his throat, and his legs shook so badly underneath him he could not move them. His right hand was still clutching the money, and his fingers were so tightly closed around it his knuckles had turned white. He could not get up. Fear had paralyzed him.
“What are you still staring at?” The boy moved closer. His eyes seemed to pierce Arjun, stripping him of his humanity in a single gaze.
Arjun did not respond. He was struck dumb. He had braved years rummaging in hovels and rotting piles of the worst putridity, but he could not respond to a single question. This one question, which would cost him his prathishta. Dignity.
“Do not ignore me.” The boy’s voice was like thick liquid, and his words came out as if they had to push through bars to leave his mouth.
“ You should be crushed. You bring shame to our country.” The boy’s heavy knuckles sunk into Arjun’s body like bread, kneading him and pummeling him, punctuating each phrase with blows to Arjun’s thin face and skeletal body.
But Arjun could not let out the faintest scream.
“Please,” he gasped. He held out the thousand rupee note with his bloodied hand. “Leave me, s-sir.”
For a long time, the boy’s eyes pierced Arjun’s, now rimmed with red and surrounded by purple bumps. Without a second gmlance at it, he pocketed it, and got up, stretching his muscled legs and arms. “I will let you go. But only because this country needs people like you to pick up our trash for us while we are busy doing something for this world. Mother India is not your home. She is ashamed of you. You should be grateful I did not kill you. You have no honor, no glory. You and your people deserve to dwell in the slums. I am letting you go out of grace… Remember this always.” And with those words, he mounted his bike and sped away, the whizzing sound of the wheels fading into the night. Arjun lay in a heap on the road. His tattered garments were strewn around him as if they were wings emanating from his bleeding body, and dark bruises were blooming like graveside flowers all over him…
He began to cry. He began to cry for himself, and the pain that wracked his body, but that pain was nonetheless familiar. That pain felt like the morning and the evening, day and night, the same struggles of each waking moment that now resembled a steady rhythm, like the smooth notes of a song memorized by heart.
This new pain felt more like loss. It felt like he had lost what made him human, what gave him the power to love and the power to feel with his heart instead of his hands. It became jarring staccato notes that hummed in his ears and echoed in his mind.
While he gathered the garbage littered all around him, he cried for his loss and he cried for his people, the dalits, “untouchables” of society, ground into the dirt by the heel of the caste system, and the indifference of others. He cried for himself, for a long time, smeared with mud, on the street, thinking only of pain and lost prathistha.
As he bled out among the garbage, the sun stretched and rose, her light reflected in Arjun’s dull, glassy eyes. He heaved himself up, weariness and defeat clinging to him. It dragged at his arm when he walked and forced it’s way in between his fragile, flaky words, slowing his speech. Fragments fell from his lips, as loss climbed into his chest and forces him to sit hunched over, slipping from his fingers like ashes, hanging from his clothes. His small crooked feet left faint red footprints where he dragged them back to the slums, as he cradled his empty sack, groping blindly for his dignity in the eyes of those who turned away.
Remember this always.