(This short story is based on an incident that took place many years ago. My endeavour to provide the narrative in story form is to make it that much more readable.)
He was apprehensive. He looked at his image in the window pane. His hand reached out to adjust his hair. His ‘Khaki’ shirt and shorts had made way for a white mundu and a blue shirt. He had tucked a red handkerchief under his collar to prevent his sweat from staining it. Cheap plastic chapels adorned his gnarled feet. Thaniya had come dressed in his best for the occasion. His wife had been upset. She had seen him dressed this way only when he went for weddings and funerals. He had convinced her that he was going to the school. It was the day of the enquiry; he had reminded her.
The enquiry officer would arrive any moment now. Should he withdraw the complaint? The Headmaster hadn’t been too happy about the complaint. But what would his friends – the Gardener and the Attender say? After all it was they who had prodded him to lodge a complaint. In fact, Seena, the attender had drafted the complaint. Thaniya had just put down his initials after Seena had read and explained the complaint. Enough is enough they had said. The high-caste master could not treat him, Thaniya, as scum. After all he was a human being. The government referred to him and his ilk as ‘God’s People’. He had heard that an ill clad man, whose portrait adorned the wall in the Headmaster’s room, had coined the word. Who was this person, he wondered?
Now, the moment of reckoning was on his head. How would the enquiry officer treat the matter? He had heard that people had been sent to jail for the offence he had alleged in his complaint. Would the master go to jail? He couldn’t help but chuckle. This was fun. He, a mere ‘scavenger’ in a private aided school, would decide whether the ‘high-caste’ master would spend some time in jail!
He espied the Enquiry Officer making his way down the corridor to the Headmaster’s room. The department had sent someone young. He had a bag slung over his shoulder. His face cracked into a smile when he spotted Thaniya. He seemed to know him. He even patted Thaniya on the back and proceeded into the Headmaster’s cabin.
The ‘high-caste’ master was sent for by the headmaster. Seena, the attender, escorted him. The master looked very nervous. He looked drawn. Ever since Thaniya had lodged the complaint, that was nearly a month ago, the master had looked ill. Just the other day, Seena had brought news that the master had ‘dibitis’. He was urinating sugar, Seena had said. Strange illness, Thaniya felt. That was how his drunkard father had died. Too much drinking caused it; he was told. How could the master, who never touched alcohol, get it? He had argued with Seena. But Pedru, the gardener told him that he had heard the Headmaster say that something called ‘tress’ also caused it. They had wondered what this ‘tress’ was all about.
The master was inside the room for close to half an hour. He could hear voices. The gentle murmur from the enquiry officer, the shrill voice of the master followed by the booming voice of the headmaster, not in that order though. The master left the room. His face was ashen. For a second, Thaniya was uncomfortable.
It was Thaniya’s turn. He stepped into the room but hesitated at the door. He should have left his chappals outside. Tch! How very forgetful! What would the headmaster say? The enquiry officer was sitting in the Headmaster’s chair. He beckoned Thaniya and motioned him to sit. Thaniya had sat down only once in front of the Headmaster’s chair; that was when he had gone to invite the Headmaster for his wedding. He shook his head and murmured that he was better off standing. The enquiry officer then read his complaint. He struggled with the Kannada. Probably it was Seena’s writing. Thaniya made a mental note to tell Seena about it. The enquiry officer looked at Thaniya and asked him whether he was comfortable with Kannada. Thaniya was gratified. He spoke clearly that he would like the proceedings to be in Tulu. It was after all his mother tongue.
The enquiry officer smiled and switched over to Tulu. He spoke with a Christian accent. He seemed amiable. He asked the Headmaster to arrange for some tea and asked Thaniya to narrate his version of what had happened that fateful day. Thaniya began his narrative. Seena and Pedru had told him to start from the beginning; after all he had to make his case very strong!
It had been a Saturday. Thaniya was looking forward to a restful weekend. A peg of arrack in the evening and then a game of cock fight was what he was looking forward to. He had swept the corridors and classrooms. Just as he was proceeding to clean the latrines, he had spotted the ‘high-caste’ master beckoning him. He had dropped his broom, last time he had been scolded by the man for holding a broom while speaking to him. The master was agitated. He was holding on to his belt. He ordered Thaniya to pick the buckle of his belt which had inadvertently fallen into the urinal, and then clean it and bring it to the staffroom. Thaniya had refused point blank. An argument had ensued and that was when the master in a fit of anger had said “You and your ilk are only fit to do scavenging!” He, Thaniya, had gone to the headmaster’s cabin and told the Headmaster. The headmaster had looked bewildered. He hadn’t handled this ‘buckle-in-urinal’ complaint earlier. He had asked Thaniya not to make it a major issue. After all it was a simple matter. (Thaniya, had left the Headmaster’s room, walked down to the office and asked the office manager leave for the day. Quietly he had slid from the scene. That, he felt was a masterstroke. Else he would have to do the Headmaster’s bidding; and probably treat the matter as closed. The headmaster had helped him with some money to build an additional room to his ramshackle house and therefore, he felt obligated to the pious man.) It had later transpired that Pedru had retrieved the buckle with the aid of a stick and had handed it over to the rightful owner.
On Monday morning, he had conspired with Pedru; who led him to Seena. It was then that the complaint was drafted and sent to the department. The Headmaster and some of the teachers had requested him not to do it. But Thaniya had been adamant. For effect, Thaniya said that he had wanted to go straight to the police station and have the master arrested. The Headmaster and the enquiry officer were both watching Thaniya intently. He felt elated. He wished Pedru and Seena were around to listen to the narrative.
Just then the tea arrived. The enquiry officer took a cup in his hand and asked Thaniya to continue. Thaniya drew himself to full height; he had seen his cousin Duma who was a policeman do that, and then continued his narrative.
He had not liked the master from day one, he said. Always addressing him in the singular; though he, Thaniya, was 25 years older than him. Poking fun at him now and then. He had made several comments on his being squint. He had not heard the comments though; they had been reported to him. He had friends in the staff, you see. They were nice to him.
And most importantly – The master had refused to eat the sweets that he had brought when his son had passed the SSLC exam after 3 attempts. Then there was the case of the master not drinking water from the jug that he had filled. This, he said, made him feel unclean. All this, he said, had made him erupt like a cracker. And the master had wanted him to pick the buckle from the urinal! No way! He, Thaniya, had 33 years of blemishless work record under many Headmasters. He may have cleaned latrines, but he had never picked a buckle from the urinal, never! He paused for effect.
The enquiry officer sighed and then asked Thaniya if the incident in front of the latrine was witnessed by anybody. The headmaster turned to look at Thaniya. Thaniya said “No!” Was the enquiry officer implying that he was lying? Thaniya was losing patience. With a straight face he said, ‘God was the witness’.
The enquiry officer looked at Thaniya sharply and said “God also forgives! What about you Thaniya? Can you not forgive? Look at the man. He has developed diabetes. Do you know he has a mentally retarded daughter? What do you get from putting him behind bars for commenting on your caste? I know it was wrong, but you are older than him, don’t you think you should understand all this?”
Thaniya was taken aback. He hadn’t known about the daughter. That was news to him. Had God already punished the man? Then why should he a mere mortal punish him further; or did God want him to punish him further? Thaniya was confused. What should he do? He wished his friends were with him. But then again, did the enquiry officer know of his problems? He stayed in a ramshackle hovel. The empty field at the back of his house was his toilet; which he shared with his community members. He and his community members were still being treated like lepers. The government helped. But it looked like it helped only those who already had plenty. Look at that crook Buba. He had joined the government service as an attender. Today he had moved out of the locality, built a huge house, and his children were studying to be doctors. He, Buba, had shamelessly boasted, over a peg of arrack, that he took bribes. All that Thaniya had done was sold a few beedis to the students of 10th Std. He was censured. And Thaniya’s children, less said about them, the better.
He looked at the enquiry officer and said in a loud voice “No”! The enquiry officer sighed, the Headmaster made a clucking noise. “Then you must produce a witness” said the enquiry officer. Thaniya was agitated. “You mean to say he said he did not say all this?” he said. “Then why had the Headmaster requested me to withdraw the complaint? Why did the other teachers ask forgiveness on his behalf?” And then with great aplomb he said “Do you take me for a fool?” That was great dialogue, he felt.
It was the turn of the enquiry officer to be confused. He got up, picked his bag and murmured about making a report. Quietly he shook hands with the Headmaster, offered a vacant smile to Thaniya and went out of the room. Thaniya followed him outside. He did not want to be alone with the Headmaster.
That night, Thaniya did not sleep well. The face of the master, the enquiry officer and the headmaster kept coming back in dream after dream. He got up and went out in the open. Lighting a beedi, he looked up at the sky. He was tired of it all; tired of everything. Should he withdraw the complaint? What would his friends say? He pondered for a long while, then turned in and slept.
The next morning, Thaniya walked into the Headmaster’s room startling him. The Headmaster asked Thaniya sharply, “What do you want?” Thaniya bowed down and looking at the floor said “I withdraw the complaint.” The Headmaster took some time to recover. But looking relieved, removed his spectacles and polishing them said “I assure you he won’t trouble you again. I will call the enquiry officer and inform him. You may have to sign a statement”. Thaniya turned to go. Just then the Headmaster said “Thaniya, what made you change your mind?” Thaniya paused, looked at the Headmaster and said “Let sleeping dogs lie”. He walked out tears streaming from his eyes, head erect, proud that he, a mere mortal, had forgiven.