Raju was leaving for Delhi from Saharsa bus station in Bihar. His face, glistening with sweat against the sun, almost looked like a half blooming rose in spring glowing with the dew of new dreams sprinkled over his life. His father was a small carpenter and his mother was a daily wage worker at a brick factory. Raju used to sit on the floor and read from a used maths book while his upper caste friends used to sit on benches under the swollen, logged ceiling. Raju became inseparable with the sun and surviving under its heat and power. Every day he walked 10 miles back home from school.
One day Raju witnessed few villagers throwing stones at his house. The community that he lived in was secluded from the main village as they belonged to a lower caste. The stone pelters were all in their mid-forties, mainly zamindars and their relatives. They screamed, “Bhoorelal and his wife! Their devil son is mingling with our children! Fucking scoundrels!” Seeing all this, Raju hid behind the bushes until the stone pelters went away. He went home and saw his mother coming out. She saw her son and pretended that nothing had happened.
Raju’s will strengthened after seeing his mother’s resilience. He grew up as an admirer of strong women. By the time he reached high school, he realised his ‘otherness’, developing into an aware and young boy. He did everything to celebrate his ‘otherness’, just because of his mother. He got all the motivation, inspiration and endurance he ever required from his mother.
One day, the famous Anand Kumar from ‘Super 30’ spotted Raju in a classroom. Raju enrolled and left for Patna where his father also stayed. His father would often send money from Patna for his family. However, Raju missed his mother and was bothered about leaving her alone. He felt like his pillar of strength had now vanished.
Raju qualified for IIT with an all India rank of 24. He noticed that he became a mirror image of his mother, both in appearance and strength. While the other members of batch spoke about their father’s struggles and trials, he would say, “I am lucky that I am like my mother.” His mother lived every day in dire and dangerous conditions, devoid of any male patronage or protection of any kind. As soon as local zamindars got wind of Raju’s ventures, they attacked and destroyed one portion of the house. Yet, the reporters and newspapers branded her as a ‘daily wage labourer’ and a ‘homemaker’ while his father was called an ‘urban migrant’ and a ‘forward-looking man’.
As time went on, the state realised Raju’s potential and nominated him as the ideal candidate for upcoming elections. They also ensured a Dalit vote bank, a community they neither cared nor thought of.
Raju now stands at the bus stop with his father and imagined his mother shining above him. Wearing a red torn sari, Raju’s mother walked straight like an image of a divine goddess, an image only Raju can see and feel. She bids him goodbye, her red glass bangles tinkling while she wipes her tears. Everything that she sacrificed would soon vanish in the sands of time.
Raju’s education was solely on a state scholarship. He made his way to IIT Delhi. His broken English and shy persona earned him great titles like ‘speechless’ and his group of friends was known as ‘the quota group’. The mechanical engineering class had only one girl, Jhumpa, an Adivasi girl from Jharkhand who was also on a state scholarship. Jhumpa often reminded Raju of his friend Ghuniya at school, who could easily maths problems in class 8 while they sat on the floor and passed time. She left school soon after that. Her family unlike Raju’s mother, couldn’t suffer the violence inflicted by the upper caste villagers on them. He never saw her again.
Jhumpa and his mother became the main reason for him to push harder. Once, as he sat beside Jhumpa, he noticed how stressed she seemed. As she was working on the register, he leaned and asked her, “Hey, do you understand the theory written in English or did you get the translated version from the library?”
With hesitation, Jhumpa replied, “It’s not a problem, I can understand it.”
“But how do you not face a problem?” Raju asked again. Irritated, Jhumpa replied, “I am self-taught in English! I did both along with all the work I was expected to do”.
She returned to her work while Raju, remembering Ghuniya, grew more thoughtful. Soon Jhumpa left and the IITians of the top schools jeered behind her, “Man, there are no pretty girls in the class. Look at her! The desert has a cactus but no dates!” Raju saw Jhumpa walking with her head held high, just like his mother who managed to survive every ordeal alone for years.
One day while sitting in the canteen, he saw Jhumpa with a copy of ‘Ruby Bridges Goes To School’, borrowed from the Dyal Singh public library, behind the IIT Delhi campus. He moved towards her and sat beside her; this time she did not show any discomfort and gave him a faint smile. Raju did not speak and Jhumpa found his civility surprising in the midst of all the toxic masculinity of the boys in her class.
Suddenly she said, “Hey, this is a really nice book!”
“Really? Why?” Raju asked.
“Why? Ruby Bridges’ story is so inspiring. I mean, she was the first black woman to go to an all-white elite school while the white parents spit and threw stones at her. Such a little warrior!”
Raju smiled and said, “Just look around. We still have so many Rubys walking around every day. No one publishes anything about them.” Jhumpa’s voice became heavy, she stared at the book for long enough and said, “Our country is not the USA. The Rubys were beaten with stones and steel.” She got up and walked away, dropping her plastic plate in the dustbin. Holding her book, Raju noticed that the sun shone really bright that day too.
Jhumpa and Raju successfully completed working on a Japanese power management project. The institution asked them to have their pictures taken to be published on the cover of India Today’s student edition as the success story of the month. The management issued a strict mandate to them to smile and wear decent clothes a week before the shoot. Raju wore the purple shirt that his mother had gotten for him before he left for Patna to prepare for his exam. It was something he had worn only on special occasions.
That day he carried a brown jute bag which his father used to carry tools to cut and shape wood. He sat on the assigned spot and Jhumpa sat beside him in a crisp orange kurta. The kurta was given to her mother on Diwali by her employers and had been previously owned by their daughter. Raju and Jhumpa sat together, the sun shining on them brighter than ever, as they stared at the camera and kept smiling to get that perfect shot till their jaws hurt. For the first time, the magazine editor got a good cover photo for his front cover.