Understanding Untouchability


In India there is a section of society that have historically termed ‘untouchable’. I never understood why some humans were treated as pure and clean while others were dirty and impure. Even today my understanding of this issue doesn’t stem from deep academic research nor is it founded on obscure theory. Through this blog I am penning my understanding of this issue. It comes from observing practices, reading about them and over the years trying to form a rationale on practices and customs that are today, unacceptable.


The earliest memory I have of being asked to ‘move away’ when a fellow human being approached, goes back to my childhood and my trips to Amritsar to my grandfather’s house. I don’t remember details of each trip; but I know we went there in our summer holidays. I don’t have a clear memory of one trip; my memory is more likely a collection of trips between the age of 5 to about 10 years of age. I remember that the toilet in my grandfather’s house was distinctly different from the one in my house in Mumbai.


I have two distinct memories of the toilet in my grandfather’s house. In the early years, I recall that I was made to climb a couple of short steps to what appeared to be a hole in the ground. There were markings around the hole where I was taught to place my feet. I was told strictly NOT to look into the hole. I was to do my job, use some water to wash up and then report to my mother. She would waltz in and shut the door from the inside as she made sure I walked out. She would come out of the toilet and rush to wash her hands. The same was not true when using the toilet in my house in Mumbai. The one in Mumbai was a traditional squatting pan with a feature known as the “FLUSH”. The toilet was generally odourless. There was no “FLUSH” in the Amritsar toilet. This toilet had a distinct odour that made me sick. But I had no choice.


In Amritsar, sometime around noon, a woman with a wicker basket on her head with a set of brooms and tools showed up and that’s when I was shooed away. The elders of the house too stayed far away from her. She walked into the toilet, closed the door and a few minutes later emerged with a clearly heavier basket. The stench around the toilet and the woman only amplified as she hurried outside to a waiting cart. There was a man pulling the cart and everyone hurried around them on the street with their faces covered with a cloth. I remember the eyes looking at these human beings with contempt and sometimes even with anger. ‘How dare they…’ the eyes of strangers seemed to say. The man and the woman only lowered their heads as they went from one house to another. Many years later I heard about manual scavenging and that’s when I recalled the couple that came to my grandfather’s house to help take the ‘night soil’ away.


It is then that I started understanding of at least one root of untouchability and why an entire community was branded for no fault of theirs. The practice of manual scavenging isn’t as ancient as one would imagine. The movie “Toilet – a love story” captured the more acceptable practice of ‘going in the fields’. Earlier inhabitants of the subcontinent generally went into the fields at night, dug a hole in the ground, finished defecating and covered the hole with soil; hence the term ‘night soil’. At some point different timings for men and women evolved – some literature suggests women went to the fields early in the morning; men either followed later or went at night. Generally one went to the fields when it was

dark. This helped hide the identity of the individual. There were some sort of toilets for kings, noblemen and other more affluent dwellers. However, these were strictly away from the house in a separate bath house of sorts. The common villager only knew the fields and these too were far away from his house. When cities like Amritsar (in the walled area) were built, there was very little plumbing, I recall water coming out of a handpump located in the centre of the house. Planned sewage was conspicuous by its absence. Streets were narrow, electricity was infrequent and in general it didn’t support a growing population.


In the second memory of my grandfather’s house, I recall the toilet changing. I remember a squatting pan making its appearance along with its companion, the “FLUSH”. But it created a new sort of problem. The city didn’t have a planned sewage system and yet water flush toilets were built. The result was that the toilets were connected to drains running alongside the street. These drains helped get rid of rain water but now they became an open sewage system. The manual scavengers stopped visiting houses but they continued to unclog open sewers. Very little changed for them.


It was many years later that I visited the street where my grandfather lived in Amritsar. I was happy to see that the streets were clean and the open sewage system had gone underground. The air in the street smelled sweeter even in the April heat. But I don’t think the prejudice against the community of manual scavengers changed a lot.


This isn’t the only source of untouchability that I have found. The more I read about ancient India the more I learnt about vegetarianism as a way of life not as a religious practice. It made sense for agriculturists and plain dwellers to refrain from eating flesh. Animal flesh produces a lot more heat in the body since it is calorie dense. Animal protein is also difficult to digest especially in summer months when the body’s metabolism slows down. Vegetarianism became a healthier choice. Domesticated animals such as cows, bullocks and even sheep were reared for everything but their meat. But what happened when these animals died?


In all probability carcasses of dead animals were abandoned by former owners. Aging cattle were probably kept together giving rise to Gaushalas (schools where cows are kept). But when they died there was the problem of disposing of the carcass. In many texts I found reference to cows being given the last rites like human beings. This may be so but I see it as being the exception rather than the rule. In practical terms it would have been very difficult to lift a dead cow or bullock, place it on a pyre or even construct a pyre around it. There would be wood needed, ghee to fuel the fire and then someone to tend the fire till the entire carcass was reduced to ashes. This is clearly an expensive proposition. It is difficult to believe that every household that had cattle or bullocks could afford this ritual. Given that the plain dwellers were agriculturists it is difficult to think that they would contaminate the soil by burying carcasses; it takes a very long time for the carcass to disintegrate and merge with the soil. The most probable solution was that a section of the community helped get rid of the carcass.


The carcass was perhaps taken out of the main living area and deposited some distance away by another sect of society. Here the carcass was most probably skinned and the hide was tanned (again a smelly and offensive process). The meat was probably eaten because

the community that handled carcasses must not have been paid much for the duties they performed. They produced shoes or cured leather to use in drums, shields and weapon handles. Not all the meat was consumed instantly because of the sheer size of the dead animal. A portion might be fed to animals such as dogs or left for vultures (there was a sizeable vulture population across the region). Some of it surely rotted adding to the stench of the immediate environment. A person living with any smell tends to become immune to it (the human nose is very adept at doing this). But for a visitor the stench could be gut-wrenching. When all these factors are viewed together, it is easier to understand why an entire community was given the tag of ‘untouchable’.


As I grew up my visits to my grandfather’s house became fewer. I lived in Mumbai for some time and then moved to Bengaluru. In both these cities I distinctly recall a sweeper woman coming in to clean our well flushed toilets. While the Mumbai had a squatting pan for many years, the Bengaluru one had the more modern commode. Another aspect that differentiated the two toilets was the fact that the one in Mumbai was separated from the true ‘bath room’. In Bengaluru thanks to the western commode the bathroom was an integrated one. The floor of the toilet and the bathroom were now common. There was no night soil, no odour, and no open sewage. But the one who came to clean these toilets were treated the same way as manual scavengers were.


When the sweeper woman walked into the house, people moved away from her path. She carried a modern broom, a toilet brush and a clean wash cloth. No part of her or the cleaning process came into contact with any ‘dirty’ matter in the toilets. And yet there were separate utensils for tea, if and when any was served. The same woman was NEVER allowed NEAR the kitchen and she had to enter and exit through the backdoor. She wasn’t called an untouchable but was surely treated as one.


If the two types of untouchability are plotted across time, it is easy to see how a simple act of providing community service became a millstone around the necks of a section of society. All the prejudices of not drinking from the same well or entering temple because of being ‘unclean’ stemmed from real life problems in an era that existed long ago. When that era died we didn’t abandon the prejudices of that time. Look around you and even today the same look of contempt is in the eyes of educated individuals when crossing paths with a garbage collector. Caste that was once nothing more than a tag to identify the job one did changed into a label to discriminate and suppress fellow human beings. It is for us to make the change we want to see.


Today the world is different. The days of door-to-door manual scavenging are over. There continue to be sewage cleaners but every effort is being made to do away with this process and get machines to do the job. In my house today toilets are cleaned, sometimes by us and sometimes by a maid. There are no separate utensils for anyone. No one is forbidden from entering my kitchen (except my dog). No one shuns the path of anyone who helps clear the garbage; to my garbage collectors horror I sometimes ride the elevator with him! I am sure my daughter and her generation will not have any memories of discrimination in her immediate surrounding. Hopefully the world will realize that as human beings we are one, under one sky, on one earth, breathing the same air, without any discrimination.

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© 2020 Vivek Mehra