BY KRISHNA CHANDAR
I have been thinking why no one in the entire literature (the little that I read) ever dwelt upon the plight of India’s untouchables. Then I came across this short story in which Krishna Chandar has succeeded in saying a lot without saying much. It is about our society and its unfairness and about the wretched condition of a huge section of us Indians.
The Vedas have proclaimed that some people were born from the mouth (Brahmana), some from arms (Warriors), others from thighs (vaishya/ traders) and some from the feet of Purusha. The feet born became the lowest of the low caste. Thus humanity has been divided into four major groups (called colours) [chaturvarnya].
Excerpts from the internet:
Any attempt to discover who the Shudras were and how they came to be the fourth Varna must begin with the origin of the Chaturvarnya in the Indo-Aryan society. A study of the Chaturvarnya must in its turn start with a study of the ninetieth Hymn of the Tenth Mandala of the Rig Veda— a Hymn, which is known by the famous name of Purusha Sukta.
What does the Hymn say? It says (in part) :
12. The Brahmana was his mouth, the Rajanya was made his arms; the being called the Vaishya, he was his thighs; the Shudra sprang from his feet.
There is no society in the world which does not have classes. Mostly they are socio/economic groups which shape themselves through the forces of time. But the Vedas have gone a step further by institutionalizing the division and by providing a basis for it to be divine. That too can be accepted but the so called three ‘higher’ groups took it upon themselves to make sure these unfortunate fourth people never receive a decent treatment and must remain the object of exploitation, abuse and degradation of the highest order. The Vedas only stipulate the four ‘colours’ (chaturvarna) which could be just administrative and the higher classes stretched the provision to bad, worse treatment also. If there are references in the Shastras that these people must be badly treated, I am not aware. But I do remember that a girl from bhangee class in Amir Khan’s show Satyamev Jayte, who did Doctorate in Sanskrit and is a professor in Delhi University, said that it is mentioned in the Dharm Shastras that these ‘people’ must live filthily.
These unfortunate people have been assigned for five thousand years menial jobs like cleaning human waste and making shoes. No job is too low and I am fully aware of the dignity of labour. It does not pain me as much for these people doing these dirty jobs for next to no wages as I am sad for these people receiving all sorts of insults and abuses besides.
Not long ago in South India a man would shout, “be ware, be ware, a Brahmin is coming” and another would be sweeping with a broom the path before the Brahmin who had decided to tread upon the earth. The first man was warning the untouchables to stay clear lest their shadow should fall upon him, and the other was making sure that the path was clean and had not been defiled recently by any shudra.
In a wedding someone complained to the resident Brahmin that a shudra passed by casting his shadow upon the cauldron with cooked food. The food was ordered to be discarded and the offender beaten.
The character Kaloo Bhangee of Krishna Chandar was dark skinned. His feet were flat and crude, legs were thin with knee bones protruding more prominently than is usual. His chest was full of grey dusty hair, whereas the neck was long and thin and the eyes were beady and deep in the sockets. He was cleaner of the Government Hospital and received salary Rs 8 per month. Apart from hospital duties he tended the Doctor’s cow and the compounder’s (dispenser’s) goat. These two animals were the only friends he had. He never fell sick. The Rs 8 he spent upon simple needs of life like food and reserved a rupee per month for his annual pair of clothes. When he finally fell sick, he was allotted a place in a ward away from others and the dispenser would pour medicine in his open mouth from a distance. He died and was buried unceremoniously by the police.
Krishna Chandar uses this character as a symbol. He sees him often even after his death. In the end he writes,“I alone cannot help you. Stop coming on my conscience. Each section of the society has to come and help you out. Possibly there will come a day when someone will take away the ever-present broom from you and hold warmly your hands to take you to oblivion.”
Krishna Chandar’s wish/prophesy is coming true slowly but surely. In India a lot has been achieved in the last 50 years that was unthinkable during last 5000 years. Now you find people from these classes go to schools and colleges and even pass exams that lead them to become administrative officers. That is due to the policies of Indian Government but still the mind-set of the people at large sadly remains unchanged.
Some people even say that the shudras are paying in this life for the bad deeds of previous life. The worse deed (Karma) that these upper cast Hindus can commit is treat these human beings harshly, and then from their own argument be prepared to be born themselves as shudras come next life!
Even though the low caste people are in majority (more than 80% of Hindu population), India has yet to have a dalit prime minister. The nearest we can say is Mayawati of U.P (CM) and Laloo Prasad of Bihar. In USA they have done a lot of correction to the past atrocities meted out to blacks and now even have elected a black President. Similarly in South Africa, soon after the apartheid ended, blacks there came to power. But the Indian politics is such that the minority (high caste) perpetuate their grip on government and on society. I remember there was a time, 1977 just after emergency, when a dalit, Jagjiwan Ram, was all set to assume as Prime Minister. But to his annoyance Jay Prakash Narayan chose Murarji Desayi. He was from Brahmin class, his curious habit of routinely drinking his own urine notwithstanding.
Some Hindus even consider Muslims and Christians as unclean (Malichh). Thus a character, Godbole in E. M. Forster’s “A passage to India” says to Dr. Aziz, “You almost delayed me”. Godbole was in a hurry and narrowly missed bumping into Dr Aziz. If he had, he would have to go back and take long showers.
Here a famous sher of Bullhe Shah comes to mind.
Chal Bulhiye chal uthe chaliye jithe sare unne
Na koi teri zat phichane , na koi tainu manne.
(OBullhe Shah, let us move to a place where people do not know you and your class, so they will treat you fairly)
Another sher of Iqbal:
Ek hi saf mein khade ho gaye Mahmood o Ayaaz
Na koi banda raha aur na koi banda nawaaz.
(Both the master and the slave join the congregation of prayer in the same line, there was no knowing who was master and who was slave)
I have seen this practically happening. In Brunei, the Sultan would come to the mosque every Friday and all would pray together.