Your limbs are soaked in sweat and shame. Damp cloth clings to your skin as you crouch beneath the deodar tree, clutching its gnarled roots and envying the woodpecker that arches its vibrant breast on the branch above you. You pull your own burlap tunic closer to your chest. None of your light will leak out of you. You will not allow that.
A prayer bubbles out of your lips, a plea for forgiveness, because you know how many laws upon which you are trampling. But learning the words of the Brahmin—learning how life is stitched and kneaded and wrung out—is worth any sacrifice, even disobeying the laws of your caste. You need this knowledge like your brother needed water during the desert weeks last year, and you prayed for rain then, but your brother shriveled beyond survival anyway. He did not want life enough. You do. You refuse to let yourself shrivel.
You press yourself deep into the tree trunk and become one with the rough grain of the wood, melting your features down to conceal yourself from the sage who will lead his disciples into the forest as soon as the sun begins to dip. Even that sun will skim over your skin without illuminating your thirsty ears. You have attempted this many times, but your Amma dragged you from the shadows or you felt the Universal Spirit commanding you to flee or one of the cows died especially brutally, your ax hacking at its neck as it wailed a waterfall of agony, and you were too empty to learn.
But today. Today, Amma is squinting at shoe patterns, and the Universal Spirit is quiet, and the cows accepted your whispered apologies as you swung your ax. Today, you will forget about shoes and cows. Your ears will become the ears of a Brahmin.
(But your heart will always remain the heart of a dalit.)
The Brahmin were rumored to drink nectar for wine as the sages spouted golden truths. No one could be certain, though, for the Brahmin would never discourse of such matters, and no one else who entered the forest of truth was able to exit without revealing himself as a member of a lowly caste. And if that happened, the man would bare himself and sob, stripped of dignity and steeped in shame, and forever refused to speak about purity. You are not that man. You will be the first to verify the rumors. You will feel the golden truths cascading into your ears and winding through your ribs.
Your breath fades to silence as you see the sage begin to sweep from between two distant trees. He glows, and you long to glow with him, but you remind yourself that a moment of lightness will bring you an eternity of darkness. The sage and his pupils appear to glide across the uneven earth before settling under the deodar tree only steps away from yours. Your fear is smothered by the goldenness inside you, whose tendrils yearn to stretch toward the group of Brahmins.
“Today,” begins the sage, his voice tumbling from his throat, “I will teach you the story of Karna.”
These are the words, the golden words that you cannot fathom are flowing into your ears. These are the words you are destined to hear. You know that being a dalit does not matter, not in this moment, because the Universal Spirit is sending you this blessing. Laws are nothing when this much certainty blossoms inside you; any technicalities about who is or is not allowed to hear the goldenness cannot possibly apply. For who would deny you this beauty, this purity?
“Karna was a disciple of Parashurama. But when Karna approached his future mentor for the first time, he knew that he would not be taken on as a pupil if Parashurama knew that Karna had been raised by a simple charioteer. So Karna lied about his caste.”
You are unfamiliar with this story—you are unfamiliar with most of the Mahabharata—but you suddenly have no desire to hear more of it.
“Karna was a good pupil. He learned his master’s lessons to the point of perfection, like I expect you all to do for me. But you, of course, are all true Brahmin, not loathed pretenders. You will never be sinners like Karna.”
You feel yourself growing cold.
“One day—this was even after Parashurama had deemed Karna a master of Hinduism—Parashurama had fallen asleep on Karna’s legs. A scorpion scuttled up to the two and bit Karna’s thigh. However, in an attempt not to wake his master, Karna bore his pain in silence. But the blood leaked down into Parashurama’s ear, and he opened his eyes despite Karna’s efforts.”
The gold is not gold any more. It is lead, dripping into your blood and poisoning you.
“Parashurama was livid. He believed that only a Kshatriya could experience such extreme pain without crying out, and thus, Parashurama realized Karna’s falsehood. Parashurama cursed Karna to forget all his knowledge of the Universal Spirit.”
You try to unpeel yourself from the tree—you no longer care if you are discovered, do not care if you become the fabled naked man in the forest of truth—but your limbs have fused to the wood.
“Now, what can you learn from Karna?”
The students answer in an obedient chorus: “That the lowly must stay low.”
This piece won a Gold Key in the 2017 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.