The Faith of Ashish: Blessings in India Book #1by Kay Marshall Strom
“His name is Ashish. His name is Blessing. The boy is my blessing.” Virat and Latha named their son Ashish, for he is the light and glory of their world. Yet a simple drink of water from the wrong cup changes them forever. Virat, Latha, and Ashish are Untouchables in 1905 India, members of a caste who must never contaminate the/strong>
Virat and Latha named their son Ashish, for he is the light and glory of their world. Yet a simple drink of water from the wrong cup changes them forever. Virat, Latha, and Ashish are Untouchables in 1905 India, members of a caste who must never contaminate the/strong>
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“His name is Ashish. His name is Blessing. The boy is my blessing.” Virat and Latha named their son Ashish, for he is the light and glory of their world. Yet a simple drink of water from the wrong cup changes them forever. Virat, Latha, and Ashish are Untouchables in 1905 India, members of a caste who must never contaminate the world of the other, higher, castes.
Virat and Latha named their son Ashish, for he is the light and glory of their world. Yet a simple drink of water from the wrong cup changes them forever. Virat, Latha, and Ashish are Untouchables in 1905 India, members of a caste who must never contaminate the world of the other, higher, castes.
When Ashish is in desperate need of a doctor, Virat risks everything to save his son and ventures into the dangerous realm of the high caste. There, the strength of a father’s love, the power of a young British nurse, and the faith of a child change the lives around them.
"Kay Strom has penned a high-powered suspense novel using her extensive overseas research and her experiences in third world countries. A master in creating the unexpected." - DiAnn Mills, Christy Award winner and author of Pursuit of Justice, The Fire in Ember, and Under a Desert Sky
"Author Kay Marshall Strom, in her professional yet heart-rending style, has penned another story that will open the eyes and change the lives of her readers. This is an exquisitely written tale of hope and faith in the midst of difficulties born out of superstition and bondage. I am already anxiously awaiting the sequel!"- Kathi Macias, award-winning author of more than 30 books, including the popular Extreme Devotion series
"Do not miss this historical, inspirational novel by Kay Marshall Strom. It will touch your heart." - FreshFiction.com
Read an Excerpt
The Faith of Ashish
Book 1 of the Blessings of India Series
By Kay Marshall Strom
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Kay Marshall Strom
All rights reserved.
A small boy, his brown body sticky with sweat, stretched up on his tiptoes and grabbed an earthenware cup from the rim of the well. Water sloshed over the child's hands. The cup was already full—a fortunate thing, for the little one was too small to draw water by himself. He grasped the cup tightly in both hands and drank till it was empty.
Only then did the little one notice men running toward him. He didn't see the angry, snarling looks on their faces, though, because the glaring sun blinded him. The boy, his curiosity growing, rubbed his fists over his face and shaded his eyes.
A man rushed toward the boy. He raised a stick over his head and, without warning, smacked it down across the child's back. The little one screamed, "Appa! Appa!" but his father wasn't there to help him. The man cut the child's cries short with another blow, this one so hard it knocked the boy's breath out of him. When the little one managed to force his dark eyes open again, he saw still more men rushing toward him. He wanted to scream, but he couldn't. He could hardly catch a breath. Someone kicked him hard. Someone else pounded on him. Again and again and again.
"Ap ... pa!" the tiny child gasped.
The next smack flung him hard against the side of the well, mercifully knocking him senseless. He didn't feel the rest of the blows.
When the men left, the boy lay still in a tiny crumpled heap.CHAPTER 2
You know what you must do," Latha said.
Virat knew. Though it could cost him his life, he knew.
On the mat in the far corner of the hut, little Ashish moaned in pain. Virat could not bear to look at his son, so battered and broken. Instead, he busied himself with his dingy mundu. He untied the long strip of cotton from around his thin body and stretched it out as far as his arms would reach.
"I wove a new broom for today," Latha said to her husband.
"Put it in place. I am ready."
Latha held the long stems of the bundle of twigs firmly against her husband's back, and Virat rewrapped his mundu around both him and the bound ends. He pulled the cloth as tightly as possible in order to hold the broom in place. The garment must stay flat and smooth, though, with no folds. Untouchables were forbidden to wear folds. Caste rule. And caste rules must never be broken.
Even on this terrible day, Latha took care to adjust the jagged edges of the twig broom in such a way that they would not snag a hole in the worn cotton of Virat's only garment.
"Do the broom bristles hang down far enough?" Virat asked. "They must brush against the ground. Do they brush against the ground?"
Latha knew each crease on her husband's dark face, every cadence of his gentle voice. They had walked side by side through sorrow and disaster; they had journeyed together through want and despair. But never before had she detected the hoarse tremble of raw fear that now tinged his words. With all her might, Latha shoved at the broom. Jagged twigs clawed into her husband's bare back. Latha winced as blood ran down his brown skin, but Virat made no complaint.
Padding silently on calloused feet, Virat moved across the dirt floor to the sleeping mat he had dragged inside in order to protect his son from curious eyes. Damp locks of black hair framed the boy's swollen face. Virat reached out toward his child, but the broom on his back wouldn't let him bend down. So he stood stiff and straight, like a brown tree that cannot bend in the wind, and stared at his little one.
"Be a good boy," Virat whispered. "Remember, you are Ashish. Remember, you are a blessing. Always and forever, remember who you are."
When Virat left the hut, Latha did not follow behind him as required of a proper Indian wife. Instead, without apology, she walked by her husband's side.
"Now the cup," Virat said.
Latha plucked a dirty string from her husband's outstretched hand, looped it around his head, and carefully positioned it above his ears. She left the string loose, but tied the ends together in a knot. Virat slipped a flat tin cup over his mouth and pushed it securely in place under the string.
"Take it off!" Latha insisted. "Do not wear that awful thing here! This is our side of the village! Our house!"
"The new drum," Virat said through the tin cup. "Hand it to me."
As Latha fetched the drum, the door of the hut creaked open and little Ashish blinked out at the morning sun. Moving painfully, he shaded his bruised eyes and stared about him with a blank expression until he caught sight of his father—drum in hand, tin cup tied over his mouth, broom hanging down his back.
"Appa?" Ashish whispered.
Virat yanked the cup away from his face.
"Get back to the sleeping mat!" he ordered. "Now!"
"No, no, not so angry!" Latha pleaded. "Not today!"
Virat hadn't intended to be harsh with the boy. But the child had taken him by surprise. And once the words were out of his mouth, he couldn't take them back again, no matter how much he might wish it. Sadness flooded over Virat and washed away all the gentle things he would like to say, leaving him speechless. He couldn't think of one single word. So he simply shook his head and turned away.
With the drum tucked under his arm, the tin cup clutched in his hand, and the string still dangling over his ears, Virat called back to Latha, "Sacrifice the piglet to the village god. Implore the god to guide my steps.
Plead with him to make a success of my journey."
Latha opened her mouth, but her words drowned in tears.
"Should I die, wife, take the boy and follow the road toward the mountains. It will lead you back to your father's house."
Virat, the Untouchable ... Virat, the accursed ... Virat, the despised outcaste ... set his feet on the path that separated the familiar settlement of his lowly kind from the far side of the village, home to high caste warriors and kings and Brahmin priests.
And nothing would ever be the same again.CHAPTER 3
I will work with you, Appa," Ashish had announced early on that fateful morning.
To the child, it was simply another day. Early each morning, Virat went out to scour the open spaces around the mud huts and up the road in search of animals that had died during the night with their valuable hides intact. He always hoped for a cow or a goat, but he counted it good fortune to find anything salvageable at all. Ashish often tagged along on these daily hunts. It pleased Virat to have him. The boy must learn, for one day he, too, would do this accursed work. The son of a chamar always grew up to be a chamar.
But very early that morning a runner had come from across the bridge, from the high caste side of the village, and—careful to keep his feet off the polluted path of the Untouchables—had called out, "Virat! Virat the chamar! Come and take away a dead cow!"
No one of high caste birth could touch a dead animal, of course. It would instantly pollute them. So, however much they might despise Virat, they could not do without his services.
"You must not come with me today," Virat had told his son." Today you must stay with your mother."
But Ashish did not stay with his mother. As soon as Latha left on her morning trek to fill the water jars, the boy set out to follow his father. Virat was too far down the path for Ashish to actually see him, but that didn't matter. The child knew the way his father would go: he would take the small path to the main road where he would turn and follow it all the way to the river. So that's the way Ashish went.
When the boy got to the river, he caught sight of his father far ahead, on the other side of the bridge. Actually, Ashish could only see a faint shape, but he knew it to be his appa because the shape pushed a hand cart, and only his father did that. So Ashish had rushed across the bridge.
* * *
Beyond the clutch of mud huts, flattened dirt and dusty brush lined both sides of the pathway. With most of the trees cut down for their wood, the land lay barren—shades of brown and gray and sandy tan—broken only by a great patch of shimmering green up ahead. It was the scum-edged pond where Latha went each day to fetch water for the family. Only in the hot summer, when the pond dried into thick mud, did she risk going on to the river.
People of the washer caste lived around the pond. It was their job to clean the dirty clothes of anyone who could afford to own more than one garment. Already untouchable women had begun to gather at the side of the pond, dipping their jugs into the water as they chatted about their children. Farther along, dusty steps led from the washer folk's houses down to the water. Stained saris and muddy mundus lay in piles on either side of the stairs. One washerwoman after another grabbed up a dirty garment and beat away the stains in scummy water. At a signal that only the washer folk knew, waiting children dashed into the water to grab the colorful cloth away from them and spread it out over the rocks to dry. Red, yellow, blue, green ... like giant rainbow-colored flowers blossoming in the bleak land.
"Look at the funny man!" a child called as he pointed to Virat.
Other children turned to stare and giggle.
"Hush, hush!" the adults scolded. They kept their own eyes averted.
They knew. A cup kept an Untouchable's contaminated breath off roads where high caste feet would tread. A broom was necessary to sweep away the pollution of untouchable footprints. A drum allowed the disgusting one to warn members of pure high castes that a polluted, worthless one headed their way.
* * *
That awful day had started out an especially fine day, blessedly too early in the year for the sweltering summer air that would soon blast the land and scorch the soul. The dead cow lay in a field directly across the river, in the section of the village reserved for Sudras—the workers. Even though Sudras were people of caste, not outcastes like in Virat's section of the village, they occupied the bottom rung of the caste ladder. Were a Brahmin to kill a Sudra, his penalty would be no greater than if he had killed a dog.
Virat worked efficiently. First he skinned the cow. He laid the hide aside to dry into fine leather which he would later fashion into sandals for the highest caste feet. Next Virat removed the best of the meat from the bones. He wrapped each piece in a section of cloth and laid them one by one in his cart to take back to his side of the river. Untouchables were meat-eaters. In fact, the promise of meat is what had persuaded the village elders to allow Virat and Latha to settle at the far edge of the village.
The rest of the cow, Virat left for the vultures. They also needed to eat.
With a smile of success, Virat had grabbed hold of the cart handles and tugged his way back across the rough slats of the bridge. That night, he would enjoy meat with his rice. Everyone in the settlement of mud huts would take pleasure in a meal of meat and rice. No doubt, Latha and the other women had already lit the cooking fires in anticipation.
* * *
Up ahead, a clutch of small boys chased after each other, clouds of sandy dirt billowing around their bare legs. Startled, Virat stopped to stare. For a moment, he thought he saw his Ashish running in the circle, laughing with the other children. But no. It was another skinny brown boy with black hair and scratched-up legs.
When the boys saw Virat staring at them, they stopped and stared back. Embarrassed, Virat moved on. The boys pulled together and drew away. Virat didn't turn around to see how long they continued to gape at him.
Past where the boys played, the land grew full and lush. Here the houses were larger, framed by verandas and sheltered by leafy neem trees. They were even made of wood, though the boards had weathered to a dull gray. Here and there Virat saw a mango tree, fragrant with blossoms. One house had a good-sized cart pulled up to one side and a plow next to that. At the end of the house stood an extra room big enough for a cow. Or maybe only a goat, though even a goat would be wonderful.
Nice, this part of the untouchable village. Nice in a drab sort of way.
* * *
"Where is Ashish!" Latha had demanded as soon as Virat pulled his cart into their courtyard. "Where is your son?"
Virat stared at her, unable to comprehend the question.
Here at home. Here with his mother. Virat knew Ashish to be an obedient child, so he must be right here.
But Ashish was nowhere to be found. So Virat left his cart where it was—standing in the open, filled with the wrapped packets of fresh meat—and ran to search for his little boy.
"Have you seen Ashish?" he asked one person after another." Have you seen my son?"
No, no, no, each person said.
But then three boys pointed down the road and told Virat, "He went that way. He went to the bridge."
That's when panic seized Virat. He had run to the bridge and on across without stopping, bellowing all the way, "Ashish! Ashish! Where are you, Ashish?"
* * *
"You make a disgusting spectacle of yourself, chamar!"
Ranjun the potter sneered from behind the pretentiously bushy mustache in which he took such pride. On his head he balanced a huge load of newly fired earthenware pots, skillfully bound together with twine. It made him look like a tree with globes of fruit growing out of his skull. Although he, too, was untouchable, his pots were used in the kitchens of the high caste houses—the most sacred place to be found in a house—so he considered himself better than the others on that side of the river.
"Do you really think a cup, a broom, and a drum will protect you from the wrath of the upper castes?" Ranjun laughed out loud. "Of course they will not! It is you who pollutes the ground! It is your shadow. Tell me, how will you walk through their land and keep your shadow off their road and away from their houses?"
Ranjun was a vicious man. When distressed or angry, he beat his wife with a stick, and his daughter too. Sometimes he did so even when he wasn't distressed or angry, just to make certain they knew their place.
Yet Virat answered Ranjun with respect. Not because he liked the man, but for Latha's sake. She considered Ranjun's wife Pooni her closest friend.
"I have business on the other side of the bridge," Virat said as he continued to walk.
Virat could feel Ranjun's eyes burning into his back. Business? Of course Ranjun knew what that business was. Everyone in the untouchable end of the village knew.
* * *
Only March, yet the day that had started out mild had grown increasingly hot. Little Ashish had crossed over the bridge into the Sudra's land. Why he would do such a thing, no one could imagine. Certainly he had never set foot in the high caste area of the village before. It could be that he became confused and lost his way. Or perhaps he simply determined to find his appa. But this much was certain: Ashish crossed over the bridge on a day that had turned unexpectedly hot.
One other thing was certain, too: At some point the little one had seen the village well and the community cup alongside it. Just a well like any other, except that it sat on the high caste side of the bridge. But the sun seared and the child grew thirsty, so he had stood on his tiptoes, reached for the cup, and he had taken a drink from it.
So normal a response. So innocent an action. But so dangerous for one of his caste.
* * *
"Your son desecrated their well," Ranjun called after Virat." Of course they grabbed up sticks and beat him! Your boy should have learned the proper ways from you. This is your fault, Virat!"
Virat had taught his son. "Do not cross over into the high caste section of the village," he had warned, not one time but many. He had pointed to the rough-hewn bridge and explained to his son the great danger he would invite should he dare to so much as tread on the road next to it. Caste code, Virat said, and caste code must be observed.
Excerpted from The Faith of Ashish by Kay Marshall Strom. Copyright © 2011 Kay Marshall Strom. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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