Soapnut Leaves is written by Chasso. The real name of the author is Chaganti Somayajulu (1915-1994) and he wrote in Telegu.
Soapnut Leaves gives us a insight into the nature of social discrimination and injustice practised in India through the story of two small girls – Paaramma and Gaviri, though friends, come from different socio-economic strata.
The plot of Soapnut Leaves is very simple. This story is about two village girls, Paaramma and Gaviri, who go out into the fields and the vastly different kinds of experiences they have on this outing. Paaramma is the daughter of a respectable farmer and Gaviri is the daughter of a labourer.
On their way to the fields they come across fields of green gram and Paaramma keeps picking the green pods without worrying about getting caught. She believes that being the daughter of a respectable farmer no one would dare do anything about it. But Gaviri being the daughter of a labourer dare not do the same, though she is very hungry. They keep walking and soon they find a carpet of soapnut leaves on their path. Paarammma has no use for soapnut leaves, but for Gaviri they are a fine source of fuel and she gathers as much as she can and puts them in her basket.
Finally they reach the field of the Prime Landlord Kaambhukta garu. They find a tamrind tree laden with fruit. Paaramma flings a few stones and manages to pick a few tamarind fruits. When Gaviri asks for a few tamarind fruits, Paaramma asks her to pick her own fruits and moves away. Gaviri gathers all her courage and flings a few stones. But instead of fruits, she manages to bring down a big dry twig. She is very happy because the twig is good fire wood. She breaks the twig into smaller pieces and puts them in her basket.
In the meantime the Prime Landlord arrives and kicks her basket scattering the twigs and the soapnut leaves. Gaviri tries gathering the leaves and the twigs once again. These further angers the Prime Landlord and he starts abusing her. He, obviously, did not know what the soapnut leaves meant to Gaviri. She promises the Prime Landlord that she will never visit his field again. But the Prime Landlord does not relent. He accuses her of thieving cattle dung which he finds hidden under a bush. Despite Gaviri protesting her innocence she is given a thrashing by the landlord. Gaviri picks up courage and fights back and showers abuse on the landlord. The landlord hits her with his wooden sandal. Gaviri falls on her face with pain and the landlord, satisfied with the outcome, leaves.
Gaviri, after a long bout of weeping, and in much pain, picks herself up. She collects her soapnut leaves. As a mark of her protest she leaves the tamarind twig behind in the landlord’s field. While she walks back, still sobbing, the school children are still singing their multiplication tables.
The plot of this story is very simple. It revolves around two small girls. But the theme is not so simple. The narrator begins by describing the dress of the two girls as they move out of the village. This description clearly marks a very sharp distinction between the social classes of both the girls. Paaramma is a rich farmer’s daughter and Gaviri is the daughter of a labourer. The fact that Paaramma, being the daughter of a rich farmer, is wearing a ragged (old and worn out) dress is ironic. It seems that the word ‘rich’ is used here to highlight the extent of rural poverty. Paaramma can only be considered rich when compared with Gaviri`s family who are practically starving.
The other thing that we notice is that Paaramma is a Naidu which is a forward caste. But Gaviri’s caste is not mentioned. The author only says that Gaviri belonged to the ‘loin-cloth class’ (labourers). The difference of class is, as is very usual, reflected in the way they are dressed, the food that they eat and also in their attitude towards life and fellow human beings. It is interesting to note that the issue of class has a primacy over the issue of caste in the story. We all know that caste is the dominant determinant in our social interactions, especially in rural India. On the other hand class is more of an urban issue. But does it suggest that the narrator, by adopting the point of view of class, is rejecting caste as the defining characteristic of social organization? It might be that the author is trying to demonstrate the overlapping nature of caste and class in Indian society.
But at the same time the author is trying to reveal the nature of this overlap. Our social interactions and attitudes are shaped more by the class rather than the caste that we belong to. For instance Paaramma’s attitude towards Gaviri, school, and other things are shaped by the fact that she is Appala Naidu’s (a big and moneyed farmer) daughter. Though they are friends Paaramma behaves in a very insensitive way towards Gaviri. She does not hesitate to make fun of the fact that Gaviri had nothing to eat in almost two days. She even makes fun of the fact that Gaviri has no oil to apply on her hair. On the other hand Gaviri is defensive all the time. She pretends to have had some food because she does not want Paaramma to pity her. She wants to be treated as an equal. Paaramma declares that she will be attending school soon. But Gaviri social condition does not allow her to go to school because unlike Paaramma, Gaviri has lot of responsibilities on her small head.
In part 2 of the story we see the girls going into the fields. While Gaviri gets busy with the task of collecting dry twigs to be used as fuel for the cooking fire, Paaramma roams around with a carefree attitude. She starts picking green gram from other people’s fields and eats them. Though Gaviri is starving from the night before, she dare not do the same. Being poor she had learnt a few lessons from life itself. This bitter lesson in life is that the poor cannot expect just treatment from the rich. Both Gaviri and Paaramma know that if they are caught eating green grams from other peoples fields they won’t be treated in the same way. If caught, Paaramma will go scot free but Gaviri will get a severe beating. The difference between Paaramma and Gaviri’s social situation becomes very stark in this part and this is reflected in their behaviour as well.
Though Gaviri is only eight years old she had the responsibility of fetching water, collecting dry twigs, leaves or anything that can be used as fuel at home. Without Gaviri’s efforts it will be difficult for the family to cook anything at all. Thus she has no time for any of the normal things that other children of her age do. Gaviri’s sense of responsibility is such that she forgets her hunger and her sadness at being so poor the moment she lays her eyes on the soapnut leaves. Soapnut leaves are especially good for cooking fire. On their way back, they see a fruit laden tamarind tree. Paaramma, being the daughter of a Naidu, is not afraid of taking down a few for. But she refuses to share it with Gaviri. This seems heartless. Though Paaramma is supposed to be a friend, she tries at every opportunity to put down Gaviri. She is a proud and arrogant girl. She shows off her privileges to Gaviri and lacks decency and sympathy. Her attitude, typifies the upper class attitude towards their less privileged counterparts.
The village school serves as a backdrop in this story. Paaramma is going to attend school very soon. Most people believe that education can bring in great social changes and can help in establishing a just and equitable society. However, in this story, it seems to have failed in its mission. The school hasn’t actually changed the attitude of the people. The village remains trapped in its unjust practices. Consequently the attitude of people towards education is nothing short of sceptical. Gaviri’s father believes that the school will not help Gaviri in her life because the life skills that Gaviri needs to learn are not to be found in books or the multiplication tables taught in the school. For Gaviri and people of her class the prime concern is to keep the cooking fires burning in their huts. It is a daily struggle for survival. And these skills are best learnt from life. And you can see for yourself, in this story, that life’s lessons are bitter. Gaviri must learn to curb her hunger, must suppress her desires and must submit herself to the unjust social system in order to survive.
The Prime Landlord, hearing the noise of the broken big dry twig falling on the ground, appears on the scene. This is a crucial moment in the story. Gaviri’s worst fears come true in this part. We also get to see the actual nature of justice in our society. This is also a section where we discover something more about both the girls. The Prime Landlord spells trouble for both Paaramma and Gaviri. Paaramma runs away but Gaviri stays there to face the consequences of her being there. Two questionscome to our mind here: (1) Why did Paaramma run away leaving her friend there? (2) Why did Gaviri, knowing the attitude of the rich people, not run away?
The answer to these questions tells us a lot about the girls. Though Paaramma is supposed to be a friend, she tries at every opportunity to put down Gaviri. This incident shows apart from being insensitive she is a coward as well. She knows that she has done something wrong but she is unwilling to face the consequences of her action. On the other hand instead of helping her friend prove her innocence in front of the Prime Landlord, she runs away deserting her friend Gaviri to her fate. Consequently Gaviri suffers, not just the beating, but also the indignity of being called a thief. Gaviri has done no wrong and she has the courage to face the Prime landlord though she is scared of him inside.
Despite not being at fault, Gaviri is beaten and punished by the Prime Landlord only on the basis of mere suspicion. Gaviri fails to understand this injustice. It seems that the Prime landlord (by implication the moneyed class) takes it as a matter of right to punish the children or people of the lower classes. Thus the system of justice here seems to be the preserve of the higher classes. In fact in an instance of supreme irony the Prime Landlord becomes the accuser as well as the judge, thereby effectively shutting out the possibility of justice for the lower classes. Gaviri suffers twice. First she is abandoned by her friend and then punished unfairly for a crime she did not commit. But the most striking thing in this part is not the punishment or the suffering that Gaviri is subjected to. It is the response of Gaviri to this adverse situation that holds our attention. We do not often see anyone from the lower classes stand up to the injustice dished out by the higher castes/class. The people from the lower classes accept this as their fate. But Gaviri is made of sterner stuff. She stops weeping and starts asserting herself. She fights hard to protect herself respect. She will not tolerate the unfair accusations of the prime Landlord. It is amazing to see that that this small girl not only has the courage to stand up and fight this injustice but also has the courage to abuse the Prime Landlord.
The story ends, once again, with the school coming into focus where the children are still learning the multiplication table. Gaviri gathers the soapnut leaves once again and as a mark of her final defiance she throws away the tamarind sticks saying, “You-son-of-bitch! No one needs your tamarind twigs”. The contrast between the situation of Gaviri in the school of life and the school where the children are learning the multiplication tables, once again brings the role of education into focus. The irony of the situation is that there seems to be a wide gap between this school and the school of life. What the author is, perhaps, suggesting is that this gapbetween the village school and the school of life must be bridged for education to become meaningful. Till then the soapnut leaves would remain immensely more valuable to Gaviri and children from her class than the education dished out in the schools.