He promised he’d catch up, and here he was, keeping his promise. The large cousins at his side had come along to make sure I didn’t get away this time.
No one came to my assistance. My five assailants, large, fair, and straight-haired, were from families that had pull. Their victim, small, thin, dark-skinned and curly-haired, obviously from a lower caste, had none. The few people around melted away before the five began operations.
Faced with five well-fed and vengeful upper-caste lads, I curled up into a tight little ball. Most of their blows landed on my arms and legs and shoulders, where they did the least damage. But one of the five had steel tips to his shoes, and drew blood. He was also inexpert, which was why I got away with only a few bleeding cuts.
My parents, besides being low-caste, were poor, law- abiding, god-fearing, and ill-connected: not a formula for success in India. They’d drummed it into my head that the police, and the other arms of government, were for the upper castes, the well-off, and the well-connected. We . . . well, we served, we licked our wounds in silence, we wondered what we had done to deserve whatever happened, and we waited quietly for the good days, which came rarely, if ever.
But this was different. I looked at the bruises and the blood on my dark limbs and thought that the police might help. We were in the 1990s already, and the world, I thought, was changing. The open wounds were evidence if shown to a doctor, and I was sick of being beaten for no reason at all. I got to my feet, and ran, then hobbled to the police station, some four kilometres away, to see what they’d do. They only proved my father’s point. They laughed me out of the police station, the group of constables on duty telling me I’d be crazy to file a complaint against the sons of some of the richest people around. As they shoved me out of the station, they even gave me some friendly advice, half of which I took to heart: ‘Learn to bend,’ they said, ‘and to run.’
I could already run, but I worked on it and eventually got to outrun most people over a long enough distance. I learnt also to hit back, to defend myself against
hooligans like the five, but that was many years later.
As for bending with the wind...well, I do some of that and there’s a reason to turn around and get away from here as fast as I can. But there’s also a reason not to: my wife, dead some months ago, always tried to do the right thing regardless. She’d regretted it once in a while, but her courage had been infectious. After a lifetime of turning away, of inevitable guilt, I learned from her to fight back. It was because of her that I took this sabbatical in Goa anyway, to get away from Iowa City, where her memory followed me everywhere I went.
— Excerpted with permission from Westland