In “Memories of Childhood”, there are two autobiographical extracts from the writings of two different female writers from marginalised communities. They look back on their childhood and think about their relationship with mainstream culture. The first part titled ‘The Cutting of My Long Hair’ is by Native American writer, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin. The second part titled ‘We too are Human Beings’ is by a contemporary Tamil Dalit writer with the pen-name ‘Bama’. It is an excerpt from her 1992 autobiography IKarukku’.
The Cutting of My Long Hair by Zitkala-Sa
The writer recalls how her first day in the land of apples was bitterly cold, with snow covering the surroundings. A large bell rang for breakfast. Shoes clattered on bare floors. Many voices murmured. The writer’s soul had lost her peace and freedom. But all of it was useless.
A paleface woman placed them in the line of girls who were marching into the dining room. She walked noiselessly in her soft moccasins. The boys entered through the opposite door. She was feeling very uncomfortable. A small bell rang. She pulled her chair and sat on it. But she noticed that all others were standing. She felt confused. The second bell was sounded. All were seated at last. She caught the eyes of a paleface woman upon her. She was so keenly watched by the strange woman. The third bell was sounded. Everyone picked up his knife and fork and began eating. She began to cry. She probably had never eaten using knives and forks. All the new changes were too much for her to take.
Late in the morning her friend Judewin told her that she had overheard the paleface woman talk about cutting their long heavy hair. Among their people, short hair was worn by mourners and shingled hair by cowards. Judewin said ‘that they had to submit because the school authorities were strong. The writer rebelled. She decided not to submit but to struggle.
When no one noticed, she disappeared and crept upstairs. She hid herself under the bed in a large room with three white beds in it. She heard loud voices in the hall calling her name. Even Judewin was searching for her. She did not open her mouth to answer. The sound of steps came nearer and nearer. Women and girls entered the room. They searched her everywhere. Someone threw up the curtains. The room was filled with sudden light. They stopped and looked under the bed. She was dragged out. She resisted by kicking and scratching wildly. She was carried downstairs and tied fast in a chair. Her long hair was being shingled like a coward’s. Since the day she had come here, she had suffered insults. People had stared at her. She had been tossed about in the air like a wooden puppet. She moaned for her mother, but no one came to comfort her. Now she was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.
We too are Human Beings by Bama
The writer takes us back to her childhood when she was a carefree child studying in the third class. She hadn’t yet heard people speak openly of untouchability. But she had already seen, felt, experienced and humiliated by what it is. The distance from her school to home could be covered in ten minutes. But she took from half an hour to an hour to reach there. She watched all the fun and games that were going on. She saw monkeys, performance. She saw the snake charmer displaying his snakes. The other attractions were: the Maariyaatta temple; the Pongal celebrations; the statue of Gandhiji and the sweet and snack stalls. She could go on and on. Everything stopped her and attracted her attention.
Speeches by leaders of political parties, street plays, puppet show, stunt performances or some other entertainment happened from time to time. She watched the waiters pouring coffee from one tumbler into the other tumbler to cool it, people chopping up onion with eyes turned to other side, or almonds blown down from the tree by the wind. All these sights stopped her from going home. The she would see people selling vegetables, fruits and sweets.
One day the narrator saw that a threshing floor had been set up near her street. The landlord sat there watching the proceedings. Then an elder of their street came along from the bazaar. He was carrying a small packet. It contained something like vadai or green banana bhaji. He came along holding out the packet by its string without touching it. The elder went straight to the landlord. He bowed low and extended the packet towards him. The landlord opened it and began to eat.
She went home and told her elder brother the story with its comic details. Annan was not amused. He told her that the elder was carrying the packet for his upper caste landlord. These people believed that the people of the lower caste should not touch them. If they did, they would be polluted. That was the reason why he had to carry the packet by the string. She became sad on listening all this. She felt angry towards the people of upper castes.
She thought that these miserly people, who had collected money somehow, had lost all human feelings. But the lower castes were also human beings. They should not do petty jobs for the miserly people. They should work in their fields, take their wages home and leave it at that. Annan told the narrator that they were born in a community of “low caste” people. They are never given any honour or dignity or respect. If they study and make progress, they can throw away these indignities. If they are learned, the people will come to them of their own accord. The words Annan spoke to her that day made a very deep impression on her. She studied hard and stood first in her class. Many people became her friends.