I have never read Mulk Raj Anand before. ‘Untouchable‘ describes the day in the life of a young untouchable boy, Bakha as he wanders around and outside the outcastes’ colony where he lives and works as a sweeper with his father, in Bulandshahr, North India.
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.