The frequent governmental reminder that the nation is celebrating Gandhi Centenary Year sounds almost obscene to one who has visited Ratnapuri and is fairly familiar with its life.
Ratnapuri is a small hamlet washed by lovely rivulets and decked with red and white lilies, hiding its ponds from envious eyes. And who are the lucky people basking in its beauty? Gandhiji would have said with a poignant tenderness ‘Harijans’, the children of God. Yet, no amount of euphemism however nobly intended can brush aside a harsh reality. A more honest description would be the ‘children of darkness’; children conceived in anguish and delivered in despair. From then on, theirs was a life of unrelieved insults and humiliations – everyday a hideous reminder of their existence.
Let’s take a trip to Ratnapuri. After all it is a Gandhian year. Here we are. The street lying nearest to the main road is the agraharam, the exclusive preserve of the twice-born. A little further lies the Kudiyana Theru, the street of the peasants. Are all the residents tillers of land? No, most of them are owners not tillers of land. More significantly, they are caste Hindus.
Hurry up, let’s go to the ‘heart’ of Ratnapuri. The ‘heart’ is a cluster of mud hovels or to use a Gandhian expression a ‘dungheap’, perched in the midst of the field and at least about half a mile from the market place. Watch out, you have to wade through the marshy slush or walk on the field embankment. What do you expect, a concrete highway to the cheri? The caste Hindus usually referred to it as the Para Theru, street of the Paraiyas, but when talking to an outsider they corrected themselves and said ‘Harijan Street’ as if suddenly remembering Gandhiji. What difference does it make anyway?
A lot of people, young and old, are out in the streets. Is no one working today or is there a fair going on? It is the middle of March. Harvest is just over. Until the middle of June when the transplanting season would begin, it is a long, if unpaid vacation for the cheri which consists wholly of landless labourers. One rarely finds even a tenant cultivator among them. What is more, they cannot even rear cattle or sheep for their street is literally suffocated by paddy fields on all sides. No stray cow or goat can long survive the landlordly wrath.
A young man squats on the ground scratching the earth with his toe – neither angry nor aggrieved perhaps weary and bored. His woman who has long ceased to think farther than the next meal watches on. Her immobile face wears but a touch of pain. Was this the face that haunted Gandhiji and provoked that hideous term, ‘dumb millions’?
One can hardly find a grocery or even a teashop in the cheri. The residents go to the Kudiyana Theru or to the village market place to buy their paltry merchandise. Why not open your own teashops? The answer reveals a tremendous diffidence – ‘We don’t have enough capital. And even if we do, no one will buy from us, not even our own people. You see, we can’t make good tea. And even if they do buy from us, they won’t pay us properly. They only pay the caste Hindu owners because they are afraid of them. We will run into a loss in no time.’ Although the ‘high caste’ teashops served them tea few Harijans dared enter the shop to sit and enjoy it in leisure.
Why are the Harijan children playing in the filth all day long – don’t they go to school? The lady teacher tending her flock in the brand new school in the center of the village says defensively: ‘Who prevents them from coming? We can’t help it if they don’t want to come. You see, they couldn’t care less about education.’ A Harijan mother explains shyly and with a trace of guilt: ‘The school is so far away. I can’t check everyday if my son goes there or not. He is probably playing somewhere with his friends. But I can’t send my girl to school for who will look after the baby when I am out working?’
Let’s talk to the Panchayat President for a while. ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea to locate the balwadi and the school in the Harijan Street? The government says we must make a special effort to reach the Harijans. And if they do not avail of these services, let’s take them right to their doorsteps. After all, they were not born with an extra dose of inertia. And who kept them isolated for centuries? Also, if the Panchayat office is shifted to the Harijan Street, the street lights and watertaps might suddenly crop up after being in the waiting list for years!’
The President seems horrified and even a little amused at our bizarre suggestions and replies very officially: ‘But we have government orders that the school and the Panchayat office should be built at the center of gravity of the village.’ Yes, it does make sense. Street lights and schools are for the ‘center of gravity’ people, not for the ‘peripheral people’.
Oh, no, casteism is no exclusive monopoly of the higher-ups. The Harijans have their own hierarchy too with the Pallars at the apex and living separately from the Paraiyas. Strangely reminiscent of the pattern of the ‘higher castes’, the caste hierarchy within the Harijans is also based on food habits. The more inhibited one’s dietary habits, the higher up he is in the pyramid. The Pallars would not eat a dead cow which became an exclusive delicacy of the Paraiyas. But for this exception, poverty has inculcated in them healthy food habits. They dine on crabs (field crabs), snails, every available kind of herb and even winged ants. The residents of Kudiyana Theru however would not even touch these with a barge pole. The social rejects feast on the left-overs of the higher castes.
The ‘Big God’
Let’s watch this mother and her little son talking. The mother gives the boy a coconut and two annas and tells him: ‘My boy, go to the Kudiyana Theru temple. Don’t go in but put the things on the floor. The priest will take them. But don’t you dare go into the temple for anything in the world – for, if you do, you will become blind.’ The little boy never did try to go into the temple to see if he would really become blind for he knew that the caste Hindu God more than his home, must be feared and obeyed. Once in a while, the ‘Big God’ was taken out on a procession. When he came to the corner approaching the cheri, the procession was stopped to receive the offerings of the Harijans. These gods had never been polluted by parading the cheri streets. It would be ridiculous to ask if Ratnapuri had ever heard of Gandhiji or of his temple-entry campaigns. They might have opened the gates of the opulent Madurai Meenakshi or Kanchi Kamatchi temples but many of the less privileged village temples even today remain closed to the children of God.
Would it make any difference to Ratnapuri if tomorrow, a deluge was to swallow all the Harijans in an act of infinite mercy? It should not, considering that they had never been a part of the mainstream of the community. But in reality, the community’s life might well come to a standstill. For who will till the land? The caste Hindu land-owners were unused to the dirt and slush of the fields and their sensitive skin was allergic to the sun. Who will attend to the cremation of all the deaths that occur in the community? What an irony that the Harijan who was kept at a safe distance all his life from the Caste Hindu should be the latter’s faithful, solitary companion when his lifeless body lay burning in the pyre. And who will bury the dead cattle of the village? Who will carry the village news, especially bad news such as the death of a child or a mother to the village public? It was the Harijan who announced the incidence of plague or any other deadly disease in the village.
And most of all, who will warn the villagers of an impending flood? When the clouds darken and the rivers swelled, it was the child of darkness alone who kept vigil throughout the night so that everyone else might sleep in peace. At the first sign of the enraged river approaching the village, he alerted his oppressors to save their skin. And his ‘betters’ told him that the flood will subside only if the village was guarded by a Harijan. Why? Mother Ganga would rush back in fear lest the Paraiya’s feet should pollute her holy self.
Is Ratnapuri a figment of a perverse imagination or a scene from fifty years ago? There are thousands of Ratnapuris (perhaps not with such fancy names) even today in Tamil Nadu. Should anyone challenge this, I can only counsel him or her to take a trip to our backwoods. It would not exactly be an ideal vacation resort but it would do no harm to have a glimpse of the ‘other India’. In fact, it would be an excellent idea if our diplomatic corps, among others, was required to tour these villages (instead of taking riding lessons) as part of their training or as part of ‘Bharat Dharshan’. After all these widely prevalent vestiges of feudal India are as much an integral part of ‘modern’ Bharat as are the great steel plants and the multipurpose Bhakra Nangal dam. If nothing else, it might at least embarrass them later on, while making glowing speeches condemning apartheid or racial discrimination in other parts of the world. If our Foreign Service men, the most loquacious champions of human rights from international forums, take a good look nearer home, they will get a sense of balance.
Divinely Ordained Division
Ratnapuri’s tillers of land and the sustainers of the nation’s life are not merely deprived of the fruits of their labour but stripped of all human dignity. Not content with economic exploitation, society has even convinced them that the division of human beings in rigid hierarchical categories was divinely ordained. The acceptance of slavery by the slaves was cleverly secured. Religion as in innumerable other instances was used by the ruling class to sanctify man-made inequality.
No real liberation in history was ever handed over on a silver platter. Even these ‘dumb millions’ notorious for the passive acceptance of their lot and impotent anger, might one day rise against their oppressors and turn the seemingly tranquil streets of Ratnapuri into a bloody battlefront.
A self-won equality after all does much more to infuse a sense of dignity and pride in the oppressed than does an ultimate social adjustment necessitated by economic and political factors and rationalized as a Gandhian change of heart. It was only when the Black Panthers [a militant socialist and Black nationalist party of the USA – Eds.] and the militant followers of Stokely Carmichael [a Trinidadian-American, member of the Black Panther Party and active in civil rights struggles – Eds.] made even the lily-white neighbourhoods in the United States unsafe for Whites that they (the Whites) began to think of the Blacks as a force to reckon with. Can, and more significantly, should Gandhi’s India which worships at the altar of non-violence if only to cover up the increasing incidence of violence in her streets, escape her share of the ‘hot, bloody summers of Harlem’ [a reference to the black people’s protests of 1965 in Harlem, a black neighbourhood in New York city – Eds.]?