The broken people

Last year, I thought it was time for Dhanno to begin cleaning her own bathroom and toilet. When I proposed it to her, she was shocked. Until then, usually I and sometimes Tai had cleaned it for her.

Perhaps she had never realized that someone did the job for her. Luckily, she was reading bits of Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘My Experiments with Truth’ then, and we crossed over several issues with the thought that Gandhiji cleaned his own toilet.

It’s the same with our public spaces. Most of us assume there is someone to clean up. So, it’s chuck, spit, pee, shit.

Read my review of ‘Untouchable’ by Mulk Raj Anand (1935), here.

Though Mulk Raj Anand is said to have been deeply influenced by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, his style reminds me of a long-ago reading of D H Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’. Bakha’s dumb, inarticulate world of sensations is recreated in an intricate pattern of descriptions. Usually, I am impatient with descriptive prose, jumping over large portions to get to the action and dialogue. But here the description is so delicately interwoven with what Bakha is feeling, seeing, sensing, creating the inner world of Bakha through a myriad of physical impressions – the sun, his flaking dry winter skin, the cells in his body, the burst of sugar syrup in his mouth as he eats jalebis in the market, the angry tingle of the undeserved slap on his face, his spit under the dirty carpet in his hut, the cooking vessels that his sister has not washed in years, and above all the horror of the barracks lavatories he cleans 7 – 8 times a day.I’ve seen one such lavatory in an old house in Amroha, an open pit where you squat. ‘Going’ there was unimaginable, but what of the person who had to clean it everyday? How else but by complete subjugation and exploitation could the upper castes get away with leaving this task to someone else?

The book was written in 1935, but is life for the untouchables any different now? It’s obvious not, check out for yourself here.

Yes, a lot of the Dalit women can fill water from a tap now, and don’t have to wait around a well, hoping for a sympathetic upper caste person to turn up to fill their pots, like Bakha’s sister had to. But like Bakha’s sister Sohini who is mauled by the priest, the Dalit girls today too regularly have to face the threat of rape if they show the smallest signs of raising their heads.

A lot of people can get an education, unlike Bakha who even though he is willing to pay one anna per lesson to the little upper caste boy who plays hockey with them, has to beg to be taught with humility. A lot of people can get other jobs, and don’t have to continue sweeping and scavenging like Bakha, whose life revolves around the latrines. So, yes, perhaps things have changed a little. But how much?

I’ve seen villages in Maharashtra where the untouchables still live in a segregated area. In some villages, the entire untouchable community has converted to Buddhism but even then, they continue to live outside the fold of the village. My Parisian friend, G visits his ‘munh-boli‘ family in Ahmedabad every year. They are rich, the parents retired from government jobs, high posts, the sons and daughters-in-law work in banks. But they live in the untouchable colony, on the ‘other side of the river’.

I have met several young boys in Mumbai, going to school and college, but resigned to the fact that they will be sweepers ultimately, for nothing else but to keep the government jobs and the government quarters, their father have. Never mind, if the government quarters are in a terrible, terrible condition, dirty, without adequate water, falling down in places. The sweepers in Mumbai are called conservancy workers, but that does not change their working conditions which continue to remain unsafe and unhygienic to the extreme, life-threatening in several instances. The only way they can cope with the work is by dulling their senses with alcohol.

Mr. Ramesh Havalkar runs the ‘Safai Kamgar Parivartan Sangh’ in Dadar. He fights a daily battle with his own people’s fatalism and disillusionment, to keep the children of the community motivated enough to stay in school, organizing a space where they can study in the evenings, and do their homework with some help from voluntary tutors. Trying to organize an annual picnic for the children who rarely get a chance to go out and have some fun.With his help, I visited some of the colonies for a few days, wanting to shoot a documentary, 3 or 4 years ago. But I gave up after a while, ashamed. I am no social activist, nor do I know how to get my documentaries telecast. The couple of people I approached with a project proposal including PSBT did not show any interest in the subject. I did not need money to make the film, but I did want it to be telecast, not just seen at film festivals. I just felt that to make the film without that guarantee would be cheating the people who were helping me, with a false hope that their plight would be seen through the film, and would perhaps help to solve some of their problems. Perhaps if I had been blogging then, I wouldn’t have given up the project so easily.

My own responses to them seemed so inane. I could not help but ask questions like ‘Why don’t you clean up this area yourself?’ And felt foolish even in the asking. When garbage trucks come to pick up the garbage only once a month, when you get water only for 10 minutes once in 2-3 days, there’s little anyone can do about cleaning up.

Within the conservancy workers too, there are fiercely protected caste lines based on region and community. Even when they are asked to move from a dilapidated building, about to fall down at any minute, they want to be sent to quarters where people from their own region or community lives, or into a community which is fractionally less lower caste than them (who of course, don’t want them).

This was another reason I abandoned the project. But Bakha’s complete submissiveness to whatever happens to him, his conditioned passiveness despite the turmoil of emotions that rise and subside within him, his unquestioned acceptance that he is an outcaste, is a mindset that cannot be erased so easily. I understand now how naive it was of me to expect those who were outcastes to be above caste considerations themselves.

In Bakha’s life, the caste hierarchy is maintained even with his closest outcaste friends. Ram Charan is the superior, because he is a washerman, Chota comes next because he is a leather worker, and Bakha is the lowest amongst the low.

Today a lot of houses have drainage and the flush system. It is this, ‘the machine’ that the modern poet, Iqbal Nath Sarashar claims will actually change the life of the untouchables, and which seems to Bakha, the silent listener, the true solution to his problems.Earlier, he has rejected the path of conversion, being bored by the Salvation Army minister’s confused rambling about Jesus Christ. Mahatma Gandhi’s speech about the untouchables, and the story of the Brahmin boy at Gandhiji’s ashram, learning to sweep, touch Bakha but he cannot see how they will actually help him, as the Mahatma’s words make it clear to him that he has to continue being a sweeper. The Mahatma wants the untouchables to trust their fate to the flowering of self-awareness and humility in the upper classes. His words inspire Bakha, but Iqbal’s solution is the one that he ponders over as he goes back home at the end of a long day, that is the one that holds out real hope.

Yet today, 73 years later, manual scavenging is still practiced despite a legal ban issued in 1997. Bezwada Wilson of the Safai Karmachari Andolan says their fight is to eradicate this practice, it is a fight not for higher wages but for the dignity of human labour. Let us hope that they win it soon.

9 thoughts on “The broken people

  1. Yes, this is one job I am still not resolved about.I hate asking the maid to do it. And when I do it, I crib and demand help.

    I wonder why hubby never ever thinks of doing it himself.Is it that men don’t have noses?

  2. Good thing your daughter is reading a book about principles/values at this age..Living in India today which is still so feudal, its so important to talk about inequality with children. I wish I could see Lilkee somehow..I am coming to India in November, I would love to buy a copy.

    I just read your piece at upperstall and I was very moved and saddened. Also checked out the video on Shivam’s blog. That made me really upset. I can’t believe this is present day India. I mean I can believe it, I’m not surprised by it because I grew up surrounded by the inequality and became immune too..But when I saw the video all those feelings of injustice, wrongness and pure inhumanity rose up. Especially to see that d#$k talking about how he used to rape women. And that poor man very resignedly saying he can’t drink tea from the cup because then no one else can, ‘becharo’. Or the bastard who laughs so cruelly when he serves the man tea on the floor.

    I will visit and

    Thank you for your strong piece

  3. Thanks for the links, Banno. Very informative and well-written and the video very moving. Puts global market woes into perspective, for sure!!!

    It’s parents like you and kids like Dhanno (don’t tell her I called her a kid b/c I don’t really believe she is one) who make that change, it just takes too long for too many…

  4. Brilliant writing Banno, as always. I am also glad Dhanno is reading “Experiments w/ Truth”- not many ppl seem to nowadays.

  5. Grasshopper, men and their dirty habits require another website entirely.

    Anja, Yes, that video really shakes you up. As for ‘Lilkee’, if you mail me your address in India, I’ll send you a copy there. You don’t need to buy it. I’d be happy to give it to you. If you look at my last post on my Lilkee blog, you’ll know why.

    Memsaab, thanks. Yes, the change is so slow. 73 years after Anand’s novel is written, it still seems as if he is talking of today, bar a few improvements.

    Shweta, thanks. Dhanno is reading bits of it. It’s tough for her to do it in one go, as she’s not a big reader.

  6. Hi Batul,

    Thanks for giving my immature story (Karant wale Balaji ka Mandir) a chance. Glad that you liked it.

    It’s really appalling that a country housing one sixth of humanity has still not risen above the basic human problems of harmonious living, whether it’s between people of different communities, or different castes. I live in Hyderabad, and thankfully our city doesn’t have that much poison it its air as some of the cities in the north.

    I liked both the form and content of your blog. You have a new reader now 🙂

  7. I was worse. Never lifted a glass to place in the kitchen sink until I moved to Sydney for higher studies. Forget washing just own toilet, I did wiped out public loos as well once I started working at Burger King.

    Since then no job seems impossible. 🙂

  8. People learn in their own sweet time. I am sure Dhanno would have done too.

    When I lived in Uni hostels, it was shared bathrooms so they were cleaned by our Sheela-ji. When I started working, I lived alone and the best way to get murdered etc in Delhi was for a single woman, living alone to employ a servant. Cue cleaning of toilets, doing jhadoo-pocha before going to work every day, washing towels and bedsheets every weekend, and cooking every evening. Moving to Europe was then a doddle. I have kept a housekeeper for the last 5 years or so, but I clean the bathroom even now a couple times a week. Old habits. What to do?

  9. Aniket, Your story is not immature. Now you are fishing, I guess. But thanks for your comments.

    Sakshi, you are certainly trained now for any situation in life. Wow.

    Shefaly, Yes, Dhanno would have learnt. The sad part is that most people in India just take the sweepers and cleaners completely for granted. Those working in private homes are better off, but those working in public spaces work under the most horrific, unhygienic and dangerous conditions.

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