Honour Girish Karnad not with Obituaries but by Making Caste a Thing of the Past

Unless we practise equality, giants like Girish Karnad and writers of his generation will have written their plays in vain.

Sadly, I can’t read Kannada in the original so I’ve never read Girish Karnad or U.R. Ananthamurthy’s work. I know having read Rabindranath Tagore in Bangla just how much gets lost in translation.

But my Bangalorean husband was an avid fan of Karnad, Ananthamurthy and the filmmaker, Pattabhi Rama Reddy. A theatre buff, he had met all of them and acted in an English version of Tughlaq. At eminent critic and professor T.G. Vaidyanathan’s Sunday sessions, I have listened to detailed discussions on Samskara and its utter brilliance. Thus I have learned about the nuances and subtleties of the play and the film, and was deeply affected, without ever having watched it.

Reading the articles and tributes that have been coming in with the news of the great man’s demise, I am immensely moved by some stories. Ramachandra Guha talked about him walking with oxygen supply and tubes in the Bengaluru rain, on a day close to his 80th birthday, to show solidarity with Muslim victims of hate crimes.

At the protest for gutsy editor Gauri Lankesh whose father P. Lankesh was a friend of Karnad’s, photographs appear of him holding up protest placards. Here was a man who did not just write and act about injustice and oppression – though he did both passionately and brilliantly – here was a man who walked the talk, at times when it was dangerous, even fatal, to do any of the above.

Karnad walked with oxygen supply and tubes in the Bengaluru rain, on a day close to his 80th birthday, to show solidarity with Muslim victims of hate crimes. Photo: The Wire staff

A thought flashes through my mind. How can we honour such a man? Can we follow his lead and walk the talk? Can we make Samskara a point of discussion in every household? Can we make ‘caste, a thing of the past’? The promise of these would surely have appealed to him more than the most eloquent eulogies, the most beautifully written obituaries. They would carry forward his spirit and ensure he never dies.

As a non-Bengali Kolkata child I did not know much about casteism or caste-based atrocities. We grew up in a pretty cosmopolitan culture. Being Christian rendered me ‘twice removed’, mainly as my grandparents broke the mould and travelled to the city from different south Indian states. Only after I moved south to Bengaluru did I discover aspects of caste that were different but not alarming. Bengali Brahmins, including a ‘Chatterjee uncle’, ate chicken and mutton often and fish everyday.

One ‘TGV,’ as he was fondly called, was my first close encounter with a Tam-Brahm and I was suddenly face to face with someone to whom flesh eating was abhorrent. “How?” he had asked,”could two such sensitive, thinking people like you and Stan (my husband, his student) not be repulsed at the thought of killing a living creature in order to eat it. Such a barbaric practice, I cannot comprehend how you eat a once living, defenceless creature…”

We had muttered something about believing in vegetarianism ‘intellectually’ and about old habits dying hard…

My education about serious caste issues, atrocities and injustice came later.

Caste in India propagates the idea that some people are born to clean excrement. Photo: Vishaka George/People’s Archive of Rural India

In 1997, I toured Gujarat, to write an article about safai karmacharis. Martin Macwan, Dalit leader, spoke on “his people carrying human excrement on their heads on the eve of 50 years of Independence”. I could not believe it. Wearing my journalist’s hat, I went to Gujarat. I documented it, with a team of the Navsarjan Trust, in all its sheer horror. Frontline magazine carried it in 1997.

The disgusting, inhuman and dehumanising spectacle of our people, our fellow Indians carrying, sweeping and handling human excrement when we were talking about India’s galloping economy hurtling us into the 21st century, was for all to see. We could dominate Silicon valley, but we could not get our act together to clean up our own refuse in a civilised way. At the basis of this is the fact that caste propagates the idea that some people are born to clean excrement. Destined to do this always. They and their ancestors, and their childrens’ children. This filthy feudal mindset must change.

Also read: Rehabilitating Manual Scavengers Must Go Beyond Reinforcing Caste Hierarchies

I must point out and highlight the fact that most Indians at some level or the other, cling to their caste identity. Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, anywhere in India you go, safai karmacharis are the people with ‘reservations’ to clean toilets. At the time of Independence, Pakistan reportedly refused to let ‘bhangis’ leave because then who would clean their toilets? ‘Bhangi‘ is the derogatory, degrading, objectionable and horrid word that the north uses for safai karmacharis. I consider ‘manual scavengers’ an offensive word too, but will we ever learn?

My Frontline article led to a book, Endless Filth. Bezwada Wilson, founder of the Safai Karmachari Andolan took me to most north Indian states so that I could write about the state of his people. When I thought I had seen everything and that the situation could not get worse, I encountered little children cleaning toilets near Jaipur in Rajasthan. The Hindu published that report.

Twenty years later little has changed even though Wilson says that the Swachh Bharat scheme has allegedly led to the establishment of poorly constructed toilets with appalling infrastructure that do nothing to as more blockages happen and more men die drowning in liquid excrement in sewers all over India.

The HinduIndia's Bezwada Wilson, who is among the six recipients of this year's Ramon Magsaysay Award, in New Delhi on July 27, 2016. Wilson, who was the first in his Dalit family to pursue higher education, is being honored for his 32-year crusade. He recruited volunteers and worked with Dalit activists to organise a people's movement called Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) that has filed cases and liberated around half of an estimated 6,00,000 people from manually removing human excrement from dry latrines. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Bezwada Wilson, founder of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, took the writer to most north Indian states so that she could write about the state of his people. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

I discovered (in my ignorance) the shocking fact that many Mangalorean and Goan Catholics settle for arranged marriages or try to, with upper caste people, for upward mobility. ‘Nab a Brahmin Catholic, preferably rich’. It is astounding how strongly Christians adhere to caste roots as well. An old Syrian Christian relative of my husband once proudly recounted to me how his grandfather smashed and rebuilt the verandah seat I was sitting on because someone of a lower caste had sat on it.

“Remember, were Brahmins and Nairs when we converted. Now, things have changed, child,” he had lamented.

Also read: The Wire’s #Grit series on manual scavengers

A dearly beloved Mangalorean priest, while officiating my marriage, told me that I could hold my head high as my grandfather’s relatives, the Soanes family from Balmata in Mangaluru, were Kannada-speaking and converted Brahmins who were “upper caste at any rate”. I had a proud and glorious heritage, he assured me! If 2,000 years of Christianity could not get caste out of Christians, it will undoubtedly be an uphill task for anyone else.

Daunting though the task may be, can those who revere Girish Karnad get Bengaluru to lead the way? For his sake? In his memory?

That would be the most fitting tribute of all, making caste a thing of the past. Or at least taking some steps forward to start a movement of all progressive people for this cause. Because, though Dalits have fought for their rights for decades now, unless dominant caste people start a movement to ‘name and shame’ casteist practices among their own, unless we question the unfairness of it all, unless we practise equality, giants like Girish Karnad and writers of his generation will have written those plays in vain.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a freelance writer based in Gudalur, Tamil Nadu.