I lived with my Grandmother in a stately old mansion, since the day my parents were no more. But I couldn’t remember that day. Neither could any of my friends, or anyone else I knew. I thought, perhaps, that my very, very old Grandmother was about the only person who knew how I was left an orphan. Even after the hundreds of times that I had asked her, not once had she even given me a clue. So I was completely in the dark. Not only that, she would tell me absolutely nothing about my parents. How they looked, how they were, how much they loved me, were they rich-I knew nothing, not even their names. My Grandmother was a strict old person, and that’s the reason that everyone who met me, always said, “What a nice mannered granddaughter you have, Mrs. So and So (I don’t know my Grandmother’s name, and I had not heard it from anyone).” It made me sick to hear people say that. What would have made me happy was- “You must be more sensible and disciplined, Vanessa.”
I certainly did not like living with Grandmother in her dusty, old, antique, quaint, beautiful, precious, big, and rich house. In other words, I was treated like a little princess, and so I was supposed to know my manners. There were about six servants in our house- Phyllis, Nancy, Harriet, Hailey, Simon, and Edward. I did not like any of them except Harriet. The others were all nuisances, and they were all young, probably just a few years older than me. Harriet was pretty, with a mass of tangled red curls hanging about her pink, rosy face. What amused me the most were her eyes. They were green, and yet startlingly blue. A vivid black dot danced in the middle of each eye. They were friendly, laughing eyes, which could betray the constant fun and excitement inside the heart. Harriet was the youngest, and even then, Grandmother made her clean and sweep like anything. When Harriet was free at night, the two of us would slip away to the back garden to play and talk, while Grandmother slept. But we had to be careful. If Grandmother caught us playing together, then she would send both me and Harriet to bed without any supper. And there was a very sad and cruel reason behind this.
I was Grandmother’s granddaughter. Even if she did not like my manners, still she knew that I was her family; I had her blood running in my veins, and that I was rich because she was too. Grandmother knew that Harriet, however nice and understanding she may be, she was still a servant after all. She was from a poor family, and was not from a very respectable background. This was the reason I was not permitted to play with Harriet, but I did not mind her low-caste and family position. However, these were the only obstacles in our long-standing friendship. I liked and respected Harriet all the same, and I never told her what Grandmother thought. I knew that if I told her, then she would be deeply hurt and wounded, even if she did not show it.
And then one day, as fate would have it, I was caught playing cards with Harriet. Harriet was whipped, and sent back to the house. And Grandmother grasped my arm, and pulled me upstairs to my room. She locked the door, and faced me with a disgusted face. “ I do love you, Vanessa,” said my Grandmother. “ You are like my own little girl, and I should be proud of you. But you make that very difficult. Listen Vanessa. I know Harriet is your friend, but don’t you understand, she’s from a very low status, my dear!’
“ So what? Is she ill-mannered or rude? Why do you care so much about her being poor?”
“ Vanessa, you are a respectable girl. If she plays with you, then . . .then . . she’s untouchable!” I did not know what “untouchable” was. And I thought that if Harriet was untouchable, then untouchable would mean something nice, surely. So that night I went up to Janet, our cook. “Janet, what does ‘untouchable’ mean?”I asked her. Janet turned, and looked at me gravely. Then she asked whether I really wanted to know. When I nodded, she said in her broken english, “Ye shun’ be knowin’ about such thin’s, Miss Vanessa. But ye still insist, I tell ye. Untuch’ble means a persen ye no wan’ting to know, be’cos of that persen be’ng poor.” I was deeply hurt when I understood why Grandmother had referred to Harriet as “untouchable.” I wept the whole day.
That evening, Grandmother again fell to talking about Harriet, and why I should not play with her. I completely refused to listen, while Grandmother persisted in vain to make me agree with her. Little did we know, that Harriet was outside the door, listening. She had come up to give Grandmother her tea, when she had heard her own name mentioned by us. She heard every word, and realised things that she had not even known till then. “Harriet is not fit to play with, Vanessa. She is low-caste, and you are rich. If she plays with you, people will start despising you too. Harriet is the one to be despised.” I really hated Grandmother from that day. As if I cared whether people thought me rich or poor, untouchable or respectable. I would have been shocked to know that Harriet was hearing all of it. These hurtful words about her, spoken behind her back. Just then, the door swung open, and I nearly fell over in dismay, when I realised what Harriet had heard. Grandmother didn’t seem to care. “Do you good, Harriet. You must know that you are not to play with Vanessa anymore.”she said. Harriet nearly choked. She burst into sobs, put the teacup on the nearest table, and ran out of the room, wiping her face with her worn-out and grimy hand.
Harriet would not talk to me anymore. Whenever I waved or smiled at her in the hallway, she would turn away. When I tried to say something to her, or even say “Good morning,” she would not even look at me. I had no one to play with, and felt most lonely. And I’m sure Harriet felt the same way.
The next day, a terrible thing happened. I was walking in the garden with Grandmother, when her leg slipped into a small hole. She wasn’t injured, but she had a twisted ankle. She was in bed the whole day. I did not pity Grandmother, when I remembered the harsh words she had said about Harriet. But the next day, Grandmother asked the servants one by one to come upstairs and massage her ankle. But they were all busy except Harriet. I didn’t know what she was doing. I made sure to get out of Grandmother’s way the whole day. At night, I just went to say goodnight to Grandmother. What I saw made me stare. I saw Harriet massaging Grandmother’s ankle, and they were talking. But then Grandmother said in a severe tone- “You certainly work well, Harriet. But I would like you to stay away from Vanessa.” I went to my own room, sobbing. I had thought that Grandmother had been sorry. But she had only been using Harriet for her own comfort. Harriet was still the “untouchable” girl.
Even today, when I’m twenty three years old, I still think what Grandmother thinks of Harriet and other poor, but nice people. I work for a designing company now, and I have my own little cottage. A few months before I had left Grandmother, Harriet had packed her bags, and left, to build up her fortune herself. I don’t know how she is now. And I will think the same of Grandmother, till she finds Harriet, and apologises to her. There are many other people in the world, who still have certain opinions about low caste people, like my Grandmother had. But these poor people are actually very rich at heart. People like Grandmother may be from wealthy backgrounds, but they are the ones who are really poor and low caste at heart. And I know about myself. Harriet was my friend. But after being separated from her for so many years, I do not know what I should think of her, unless I see her again. Maybe we’ll be the old Vanessa and Harriet, happy in each other’s company. Or will I also have formed prejudices against her? Had my Grandmother really succeeded in putting her ideas into my head? Had I accepted her opinions, and agreed with her? I don’t still know, and I don’t particularly wish to, either.