Sunday, February 8, 2009

What if God was one of us...

I see him often, walking purposefully in the flat compound, a smile ready to show up under the thin moustache.

I smile and say kem cho, a generic greeting that means little but just hello. He smiles back, making me smile wider and more honestly in return.

Three times a week I meet him in the lift, at 6:00am, as I head out for a workout, a broom and a plastic bag in hand. He collects garbage from the flats, picking up the those remains of our lives that we've thoughtlessly discarded.

Sometime back I was at a mall close to where we live, struggling with bags of groceries, a very cranky Nino refusing to walk unless carried. I was flustered, tired and hoping for a miracle.

Bhabhi, Bhabhi, he yelled, running towards me in a clean yellow and green tee-shirt and cap, the logo of a shop on the tee, worn like a tag of acceptance. He helped me towards the car, God-sent in his timing and enthusiasm. You work here, I asked him, and he smiled and said, here and four more places.

This Friday, I opened the door to a lobby littered with garbage - street dogs had come looking for their food and the dustbins are an easy prey. There's dog shit on the door mat. Cursing, I get a plastic bag and wear in my hand, intending to pick up the crap, unaware that he's already at work in the dark corner of the lobby.

Rehva do, bhabhi, ae to maru kaam che, he says.
Leave it, bhabhi, its my work.

He smiles and gets back to picking up the litter, the shit, scrubbing the gravy stains, pushing the vegetable peels into his bag. Thank you, I say. Tamaru naam shu che? What's your name? Bhagwan, he says. God.

Later that morning, in the parking, I see a middle-aged neighbour screaming, 'Bhangi, bhangi'. I'm a little shocked at the use of the word, shocked more to see Bhagwan running towards the man. Sweepers and garbage-pickers are always a particular caste here, a vocation that is thrust upon them by destiny.

Bhangi's have been India's worst-kept tradition since the medieval times. 'Untouchables' delegated to cleaning toilets, collecting garbage and handling dead bodies. It's a malaise that cannot be cured - it's a caste you're born into, that no amount of prayers or education can wish away or change.

Mahatma Gandhi coined a term for them, Harijan, people of Hari, or God, but the words did little to dilute the stigma, the vicious racism that they live with everyday.

I wonder what his parents thought of when they named him Bhagwan. Generations of people who had accepted or given in or were forced into their fate of being the keepers of India's dirt, tangible and that of our minds. Was it hope for a better future, faith in a God who treats them no better than society does?

It's an irony that is more cruel than beautiful, and I wonder if he hated the name growing up, in municipal schools with classmates who were perhaps only reiterating the jokes and the slurs they picked up from their parents. He's a young man, less than 30 I guess, and I wonder if he's married, has children of his own. I wonder what he tells them, segregated so deeply from society, with a sense of submission so subconscious that they probably know no other way of life, have never had the freedom, the undeniable right of a human to 'choose', to make a choice. What has he named them, they who have a future that has been pre-determined before they were born?

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

A very good post, Nino's mum!

God everywhere, and cruelty also.

It is a long battle. Dalit women in Andhra pradesh have been urging for 5 acres of land, for freedom from hunger, and for dignity!

Some months back we did a story on sweepers of gandhinagar on strike, because they have deliberately been kept as contract labourers by government officials.

You have expressed it in a very human way. Really liked your piece.

Warmly, Anjali

OrangeJammies said...

I'm horrified. And heartbroken. But not surprised. Which makes me even sadder.

girlonthebridge said...

I'm mortified because as kids we called girls "bhangi" when they were badly-dressed or were just messy in some way. I didn't even know the history or where this came from and parents or teachers never corrected us.
Did they know I wonder or were they complicit in the connotation of this caste...

Aniruddha said...

Very good post and very nicely written.

These kind of words are used for abusing even today. Hope people would realize soon...

momstir said...

Thanks for such a warm and honest post, NM. How is Nino doing now?

ra said...

just praying for the day we are free of this nonsense of casteism. so well observed as usual.

Nino's Mum said...

Anjali - so true, what you said, 'god everywhere and cruelty also'.... are you a journalist too? would love to read some of your work.

OJ - I know. If only I could send you his pic - his smiling face - has been haunting me.

GirlOnTheBridge - don't be: kids are always more cruel. It's a term that's popularly used - jokingly - and often our folks don't get into dismantling the history behind it, because well, eventually life does make us comfortably numb.

Aniruddha - thank you. I did a little digging around and I know that legally a person can take you to court for calling him/her 'bhangi'. How much that has helped ease the stigma is only something the future will tell.

Momstir - Nino's much better and back to his mischief :) He calls himself the 'mask-man' thanks to his nebulizer sessions!

Ra - you know what, I don't think we'll ever be free of it. For generations the best writers, poets, bureaucrats and musicians from India were brahmin, not because we are a more intelligent caste, but because we were the only ones to get the opportunities for education. This has seeped through even today - and for all our corporate accomplishments, in rural India, the caste on the birth certificate is so important.
I know of friends who've not been given jobs because they belong to the denotified tribes known as charras, who were once tagged as 'theives' by the British. They are still the first locality to be checked everytime there's a big robbery in the city.

Gauri Gharpure said...

beautiful post..

things are slowly changing.. they are conscious of their rights and have an indomitable urge to progress... our house-help of more than 15 years is from one of the very low castes, and we marvel at the way she takes informed decisions for her children, her family.. the way she counsels women to get operated after two babies after she herself went under the knife after three.. the way she walked out of a bad marriage to find solace in a husband without any vices...
and I am sure Bhagwan, in the green and yellow t-shirt and the four other jobs he juggles, would find himself quite away from the tag he has carried through the ages..

Anonymous said...

Hay Nino's mum, have written a mail to you.

I like the new header :)

Best wishes,
Anjali

Sujatha said...

Love the new header. I've been thinking about something and that's just the color and texture of it.

Brown Girls said...

So many stigmas to get rid of, so many stereotypes, so many forms of discrimination. This is exactly why my blood boils when people pontificate about 'racism' in the west and pedestalise Shilpa Shetty. We've got to be one of the most racist nations in the world, discriminating on the basis of not just colour (or 'complexion') but also gender, caste, religion, region, language, god knows what not. So easy to point fingers at other people..

Lovely post as usual Nino's Mum.

Brown Girls said...

What new header?

Brown Girls said...

Oooooh lovely grainy b&w Nino! Love it.

Nino's Mum said...

Gauri - so heartwarming and so heartening, all at the same time. thanks for that.

Anjali - am heading to read that right now!

Suj - The header that I really wanted to put is at the bottom of the page, and somehow I just can't get it to appear as the header because it's html. help!

BrownGirls - I echo that sentiment, perhaps why I wrote such a morose response to Ra's comment hoping for a change. How much can you hot-glue a really cracked up vase?

Sujatha said...

You've got mail.

momstir said...

Hey NM. Love the header... you did that for me, didn't you? Where is the adorable one's patang?

Nino's Mum said...

Momstir - You popped up in my head when I put the header up :)
I din't get many of the kites, couldn't stop clicking the little kite-flyer.

the mad momma said...

the more things change, the more they stay the same....

i hear cries of bhangi in a lot of places. and you can tell people to shut up - but you cant change the way they think. sad.

choxbox said...

Got goosebumps now, Nino's mom.