Memories of Childhood - Summary

This chapter presents two autobiographical stories narrated by two women; one, an American Indian woman born in late 19th century, and second, a Tamil Dalit writer of the modern times. The women are from marginalised communities and the stories are about the relationship of their community with the rest of the society.
The first story is by Gertrude Simmons Bonnin who was born in 1876. She had to struggle a lot as her community suffered severe prejudice but she triumphed against all odds to become a writer. She adopted the pen name ‘Zitkala-Sa’ to publish articles criticising the Carlisle Indian School and the dogma associated with her life as a Native American Woman and spent her life fighting the evils of oppression.

I.          The Cutting of My Long Hair – by ZITKALA-SA

The writer had been sent to a place referred to by her as ‘Land of Apples’. The story begins on her first day and she says that it was bitterly cold and snow still covered the ground and the trees were bare. A large bell rang for breakfast and its noise was annoying and it was followed by clattering of shoes on bare floors and all the harsh noises that followed were even more irritating for her. But, she couldn’t do anything.
Then, a white woman with white hair reached there and placed all the girls in a line. All the girls were Indians (Native American) and were dressed in closely clinging dresses and stiff shoes and the smaller of them wore sleeved aprons and had shingled hair. The writer’s blanket had been removed but even then, the other girls seemed more immodestly dressed. When the line of girls moved in from one door, a line of boys entered from the opposite door. The three boys that had reached the place with her were at the end of that line and looked as uncomfortable as she was.
Then, a small bell sounded and each pupil drew a chair and the writer too pulled one and immediately sat down. She soon realized that she was the only one seated but as soon as she started getting up, another bell sounded and everybody sat down and she had to sit back down. A man started saying something and she looked around to find him but found that everyone else had hung their heads over their plates and found the white woman staring at her. She dropped her eyes too. A third bell rang and everybody started eating. But, she started crying as she was afraid to do anything on her own by then.
But, the eating by following the bells wasn’t the toughest thing she had to do that day. Late that morning, her friend Judewin gave her a warning. She knew a bit of English and had overheard the white woman talk about cutting the long and heavy hair of the girls. Amongst Indians, mourners kept short hair and shingled hair were for unskilled warriors captured by the enemy. Judewin said they had to submit but the writer said she would fight it. She disappeared on the first chance she got and went up the stairs. She passed a hall reached a large room with three white beds that was dim due to dark green curtains. There was no one there and she went to the bed farthest from the door and crawled underneath a bed.
She would peer out whenever she heard footsteps and heard people calling her name while looking for her but she did not answer. After some time, some women and girls entered the room that she was hiding in and started searching in closets and behind trunks. Soon, they looked under the bed and dragged her out even though she fought as best as she could. She was taken downstairs and was tied to a chair.
She cried aloud and kept shaking her head all the while until they managed to cut off one of her braids. It was then that she lost her spirit. She had faced several extreme indignities since she was taken away from her mother like being stared at, being tossed about in air like puppets and finally, her hair had been cut off like a coward’s. She felt like an animal that was being herded.

The second story in the chapter is by a Tamil Dalit woman writer who went by the pen-name ‘Bama’. The story has been taken from her autobiography ‘Karukku’. The word ‘Karukku’ means Palmyra leaves, which look like double-edged swords due to their serrated edges. The word ‘Karu’ also means an embryo or a seed signifying freshness or newness.

II. We Too are Human Beings..........BAMA

The story is about the time when the writer was still in class three and hadn’t heard people talk about untouchability openly. But, she had experienced it and had felt humiliated too.
Her house was at a ten-minute distance from her school but she used to take more than half-an-hour to cover that as she used to enjoy watching the fun and games going on along the way and interesting things in the bazaar like the performing monkey, the snake of the snakecharmer, a performing cyclist, the Maariyaata temple with its huge bell, and the various food stalls. At times, there would be street plays or political speeches or stunt performances and everything made her stop and enjoy.
One day, she reached her street and found that a threshing floor had been set-up on the opposite corner and the landlord watched over while seated nearby. The people from the street were working with the cattle to remove the grain from the straw. She stood there to watch the fun.
She saw an old man come from the bazaar with a packet containing some food item as the wrapping paper was stained in oil. He was holding the packet only with the thread to make sure he did not touch it in any manner. He bowed in front of the landlord and gave the packet to him.
She went home and told her elder brother about how funny the old man looked while carrying the packet that way. He told her that it wasn’t funny as the landlord is upper caste and they are not supposed to touch us in any manner and that is why the old man was carrying the packet with the string.
She felt terribly sad at hearing that. She could not understand how could they find their touch disgusting, why should they fetch and carry for those people, and why did an important elder of their community go meekly to the shop to fetch snacks and bowed in front of the landlord. She wondered whether having more money made them better and allowed them to forget that her people were humans too. She thought that her people should not be made to do all those petty tasks and should just have to work in the fields and get the wages.
Her elder brother studied at a university and had come home for the holidays. He used to go to the library in the neighbouring village to borrow books and one day, while on the way back, one of the landlord’s men went up to him and asked him who he was. When her brother told him his name, the man asked him where he lived as that was enough to tell him about the caste.
Her brother told her that since they are born into a low community, they are never given any honour, respect, or dignity. But, by studying and progressing through knowledge, those indignities would go away and, therefore, she must study hard as people would come to her if she proved herself ahead of others. Those words from her elder brother had a deep impact on her and she studied as hard as she could and stood first in her class soon. Once she did that, many people became her friends.


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