Untouchability is the dehumanizing practice of ostracizing the members of the lowest stratum of the society from the mainstream. From the very word ‘untouchable’ we understand the meaning as, the one who cannot be touched. Untouchability is the practice of not touching a member from the lowest class. These untouchables are referred as outcastes of the society and are often ill-treated by the members of the upper class. Their presence is considered to be polluting the environment and hence is always kept away from public places.Who are untouchables? How did they become untouchable? Who decides one being an untouchable? This chapter will try to answer these volleys of questions alongside analysing the practice of untouchablity in the novel the Scavenger’s Son.
It is very difficult to understand untouchability without understanding the caste system in India.The Hindu society was largely castiest since time immemorial. Though origin of caste system in India is ambiguous, there are several theories understanding the nuances of caste system in the country. The Hindu society was divided into four groups based on ‘Varna’ and ‘Jati’ that share an intricate relationship. Varna and Jati are Sanskrit words, used in the Rig Veda, that divide the Hindu society on the basis of class and caste. If Varna is based on colour and characteristic division, Jati is based on the birth of the individual to a particular clan. According to this system, Hindu society was divided into four main Varnas namely; the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas and the Shudras. The Brahmins were considered to be the elitist in the social order. They were the priests and the learned of the other three. Kshatriyas were warriors who were involved in the administration of the nation. Vaishyas, the third in the social ladder, consisted of those involved in business and trade. Shudras were the last in the social ladder who did menial jobs and basically served the other three class. And from this class some theoreticians assumed that the outcastes and untouchablity emerged. But Dalits are not Shudras nor did they belong to the four fold system. It is also to be noted that the caste system was changeable as it was possible for a Kshatriya to become a Brahmin or a Brahmin to become a Kshatriya. Sharma talks about the flexibility of caste system in the essay titled “Caste System”:
In the initial stages caste system was quite flexible and not at all rigid.The caste changed with the change of profession. Parushuram, a Brahmin, became a Kshatriya, when he took to arms…Valmiki, the great author of epic Ramayana, was a Shudra in his early life and became a Brahmin later. The famous hymn in the Rigveda, which reads,“I am a poet, my father is a doctor, and my mother is a grinder of corn” Alludes to the flexibility of the caste system. (Sharma 26)
Many theories were put forward for caste system based on colour, occupation and economic status. Colour of the body decided the Jati to which a person belonged to. The Aryans were fair skinned and hence belonged to the highest rung of the society. According to Sharma people were classified based on their occupations. The Brahmins were the learned once whose job was to impart knowledge. They were the teachers. The Kshatriyas were the warriors whose duty was to govern the country. Occupation of the Vaishyas were to do trade and commerce. They were the merchants, peasants, Businessmen,etc. Shudras were people who did lowly jobs and whose duty was to serve the other three Varnas. Economically, the Vaishyas were the richest since they did trade and business. The Shudras were inexplicably poor as they occupied the last position in the four fold system. Their menial jobs fetched them little money and their condition was deplorable.It is a misbelief that Shudras were untouchables because, “the PurushaSukta, in the Rig Veda, clearly points to the equality of four castes in the social set up” (Sharma 50). According to the PurushaSukta, the Brahmins emerged out of the mouth of a Purusha, Kshatriya from the arms, and Vaishyas from the thighs and Shudras from the feet. There is no mention of outcastes being included in the varna system in the PurushaSukta. They were the caste outside the other four.
The untouchables were excluded from the varna system since they occupied a Jati outside the Chaturvarna and hence became outcaste. It is a misunderstood concept that Shudras are the untouchables. Chamars, Bhangi, Pulayas are some of the outcastes in India. These outcastes were referred as ‘Harijan’ by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and later as Dalits by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.“The term Harijan was adopted by Mahatma Gandhi in 1933 as the winning entry in a national competition for a suitable name to replace… Harijan is translatable as People of God” (Mendelsohn and Vicziany 3).The untouchables consisted of the butchers, fishermen, tanners, cobblers and scavengers who are enrolled in the list of the Scheduled Caste. Scavengers are the lowest of the lowest strata of the caste system and are the most vulnerable to the practice of untouchability. A scavenger’s job is to clean the latrines and privy, andkeep the streets tidy. Because of this, their job was considered to be the filthiest of the filthiest. They were denied entry into the temple and prohibited from public places in fear of causing pollution.“A temple can be polluted according to the holy books by a low caste man coming within sixty-nine yards of it” (Anand 53).
Manual scavenging is an age old practice in the country that continues even today. This primitive method of cleaning the latrines and public toilets by engaging a human is only found in India. These scavengers are the lowest of the lowest caste who bear the brunt of oppression and ignorance. They are the “untouchables among the untouchables” (Poddar). In the book Untouchable we see how Bhaka and his sister are treated by the washermen community for belonging to the lowest caste. The washermen though they are outcaste, are one caste higher than the scavengers. “Are you running away to play with that dirty sweeper and leatherworker on the very day of your sister’s marriage?” (Anand 83).
The scavengers were socially cut-off from the mainstream society, had no privilege of education, economically-politically disabled, prohibited from entering temples and drawing water from wells. There are instances where they are forced to clean latrine without wages. Their wages are substituted by providing them with left-over food.BhagirathPoddar in his book says that India is the only nation where a particular section of society continues the traditional responsibility of cleaning the privies and latrines and carry human excreta in the shovel and tin. He writes, “This is a disgrace to our country. Instances are not rate even today when one can see people carrying night soil on their heads in the buckets or removing excreta by physical touch” (Poddar 17).
Untouchability in Scavenger’s Son
Untouchability is deep rooted evil that is reflected in the novel and its essence continues till the very end of it. Scavengers being the outcastes of the society are treated as untouchables. Since their very job deals with human waste and filth, no body wishes to befriend the untouchables. They are prohibited from entering into the areas of upper caste and are expected to rot within their boundaries. Shunned away by the society the scavengers themselves have created a community of their people where they can be normal human beings. Chudalamuttu becomes a scavenger not by choice but by fate. It was his father’s whim that he becomes a scavenger and he eventually ended up being one. Though he was treated as an untouchable before, his first tryst with untouchablity begins with his encounter with a little girl whom he asks for drinking water. The girl “pinching her nose with thumb and finger” (Asher 4) ran off without even looking at Chudalamuttu. And ever since that episode Chudalamuttu’s life becomes a saga of untouchability.
Day and night scavengers toil to keep the latrines clean and yet, they are denied the dignity of life. Chudalamuttu is a very dedicated scavenger whose life is tormented by the overseer and other superiors. After being initiated officially as a scavenger, Chudalamuttu goes around cleaning the latrines of the municipal town. Despite his disinterest in taking up the menial job that was passed down to generations, Chudalamuttu quite meticulously does his work. He does not even accept the left over rice that was a token of appreciation, which he received from the households he went to. But he was denied water and food from people whom he approached to quench the thirst of his dying father. Chudalamuttu is welcome only in the mornings because his presence is inevitable for the entire town of Alleppey who are waiting to answer the natures call. Apart from that, a scavenger is just dirt who cleans dirt. An untouchable, whose mere presence defiles the environment. It is an irony that a scavenger who becomes an unavoidable person in the dawn is treated as an alien by dusk. Chudalamuttu is also dawned by this realization in the novel and he recalls, “When the latrines are unpleasantly full a scavenger will get something. In the evenings latrines are empty. So nobody recognizes him” (Asher 6). The scavenger is required in the mornings to clean the latrines and hence people would recognize and acknowledge him. Come evenings he is neglected and treated cruelly like an animal.
Well, there is nothing for you here to eat at the moment. Go and stand by that waste bin. When they bring the used leaves, help yourself. You’ll get plenty. The waste bin he pointed was full to the brim with leaves. Some left-over food could be recovered from them. Dogs were fighting over it inside the bin. (Asher 5)
The hotel employee who offered him food in the morning refused to give him in the night and feigned ignorance on this new scavenger in town. He takes Chudalamuttu for granted and directs him to the waste bin, thereby denying his father and him the dignity of life. The hotel employee represents the hypocritical society who exploits the outcastes. We seem them being treated as low as the animals, in fact animals had much more dignity than the untouchables in this vicious circle of caste hierarchy.
Imagine the plight of the scavengers during death. If they are denied the dignity of life while living, what happens to their dignity during death? It requires no much thought to answer this question because it is very lucid from the novel that even at death they are victims of untouchablity.Their lives are like human excrement, when excreted they are cleaned by the scavengers and dumped at the night soil depot. Their lives are nothing but mere ordure which nobody wants. A scavenger is an untouchable for his entire life and that his untouchability haunts him even in death. Ishukkumuttu’s death met the same fate as that of every scavenger. He was the only scavenger to have lived beyond the age of fourty. Death is an unwelcome guest who frequents the door of a scavenger more than any others. Cholera, dysentery, typhoid and many such assortments of diseases take away the lives of scavengers. Ishukkumuttu was an exception who died of old age and not of a disease. But his death was a result of the torture of untouchability. His death was fuelled by hunger and thirst. The torture of untouchablity continued further unto his funeral. Until midnight Ishukkumuttu was not buried. He was an untouchable and untouchables did not have a proper crematorium.
Alsopoverty aggravates the deplorable condition of the scavengers. Chudalamuttu did not have enough money for the burial and so did the other scavengers. Palani, a close friend of Chudalamuttu explains the math to other scavengers, “If we take him to the other burial ground we shall have to give the man there something. Then we must give the bearers something, even if it is only water. It will cost about five rupees in all.” (Asher 9). Burying Ishukkumuttu was a difficult task for the scavengers for they could not ask money from the houses they worked for nor did they have any of their own. A proper burial for Ishukkumuttu was a distant dream for Chudalamuttu. The poor old scavenger was buried in the compound of the night soil depot. His death was kept a secret from the overseer and other caste Hindus.
Two days after the burial when life resumed its normalcy for Chudalamuttu, he was struck with another blow of fate. He sees the rotten corpse of his father which was dug out by dogs and was relished by crows and vultures. “If a corpse is buried and covered over, some sorrow too will be buried. But even that consolation is denied the scavenger. Even after the body has decayed the son must see it yet again” (Asher 13). Unlike normal human beings death for a scavenger is a thing to worry about. Pillai captures the agony of Chudalamuttu who has to witness the tragedy of his scavenger father. He has explicitly described the demeaning fate of the son who has to re-bury the half decayed body of his father and who also has to face the wrath of the overseer for covering up the act. Denied justice all through the life as a scavenger, Ishukkumuttu’s corpse too faces the agony of humiliation. The following excerpt gives us a ghastly picture of the unforgettable event that took place in Chudalamuttu’s life:
While Pichandi was digging a hole Chudalamuttu was busy dragging out the corpse, which was still half buried in the ground. Caught with a blow from the spade, the distended belly burst open. One hand came off. After working without a break for quite some time they got Ishukkumuttu buried again. (Asher 14)
Economic statuses of the Dalits are quite deplorable. The scavengers belong to the low income group and struggle hard to make ends meet. Lack of money is an important reason why the Ishukkumuttu was denied a proper burial.The agony of the scavengers did not end with Ishukkumuttu’s death and his re burial. Already they were poor and this secret burial evoked the wrath of the overseer. And this results in the cutting of wages in the monthly salary. Belonging to the lowest class and lowest of the lowest caste, scavengers were always exploited. They outcastes are victims of economic disparity as well.Despite slogging for two months cleaning the stinking latrines, Chudalamuttu do not get the wages for his first two months as a scavenger. It was the over seer who decides the wages of the scavengers. There is no fixity of wages for any scavenger; he is paid according to the whims and likes of the overseer. Some received eight rupees, some nine and some even as less as five. And the over seer has the liberty to cut the wages as and when he likes and that too without prior notice. This way the over- seer becomes the bourgeois and the scavengers the proletariat. The scavengers like the proletariat are not aware of the exploitation of their labor. They are submissive to the whims of the overseer. There are no unions to voice the concerns of the scavengers and if it all there is one, the union is never a success. Being an outcaste denies them their right to economic equality.
Education plays a pivotal role in bettering the conditions of the scavengers. But the stigma of being an untouchable denies them with the right to education. Education for a scavenger is out rightly denied by the upper caste people and those in the highest rungs of the society. The disgrace of untouchability associated with the Dalits, prevents their entry into educational institutions. It’s a dream for a scavenger to enter the compound of a school and this dream to be educated is unrealized for Ishukkumuttu, Chudalamuttu, Pichandi, Vadivelu and other scavengers. They haven’t had the opportunity to be educated. If at all they wished to be educated, the society would prevent them from attaining educational benefits. Education for them was a luxury as no scavenger had the money to send their sons to schools. It was something unattainable for a person belonging to thelow caste. Mohanan, son of Chudalamuttu was the only scavenger boy who had the privilege to be educated. Mohanan was also a victim of untouchability. He was denied the opportunity to study as he hailed from the scavenger community and hence no teacher wanted a scavenger’s son in their class. Finally, Chudalamuttu had to bribe a headmaster to get his son admitted in the school. Even while being admitted Mohanan could not have a scavenger as a father. Hence the headmaster manipulated and changed the guardianship of Mohanan. At school Mohanan was disliked by other students as he is a scavenger’s son. He says, “All the children say I stink and run away from me holding my nose” (Asher 89).
Thus we see the evils of untouchablity ingrained in Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s novel. The problems of untouchablity lead to anger and disgust in the minds of the humiliated. The next chapter shall focus on the anger and disgust that lead to the feeling of self-pity in the mind of the protagonist.
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Sivadasan, C.P. “Comparative View: Two Proletarian Novels: Similarities in Anand’s “Untouchable” and Thakazhi’s “Thottiyude Makan” JSTOR. SahityaAkademi, May-June.1997.Web.23Feb.2015.<http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublication?journalCode=indilite>.
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