Thursday, January 31, 2013

Life lessons from the story of Chandalika

My quest for knowledge particularly in the field of sanitation brought me to India in 2012 and I landed into the very able laps of Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of the Sulabh International Foundation. Through interviews and conversations I have much from him about where he came from, the interaction between sanitation and social deprivation in the form of untouchability.

This year again I am here in Delhi with Sulabh who have made me part of their family and welcomed me in the engagement of the first ever national conference on sociology of sanitation that just ended. Like in many events in India, a cultural item is never left out and this time I was introduced to the story of Chandalika. It truly moved me, I hope it does the same for you.

The cast of the musical drama play of Chandalika in a souvenir photograph with Dr Pathak (on the right of the Indian priest in orange)

The story is about a young girl who, like all other young girls, feels the heady surge of youth flowing through her veins and her soul reverberating with the vivacious music of life. Her heart is filled with little joys that come from simple things like having fun with her friends, buying inexpensive jewellery and eating tit bits of street food. Her dashing and young mind races to the boundaries of freedom pushing at the social barriers that have been set about her.

But, alas, she must limit her joys and her freedom only to her disobedient mind and not actually seek to see such desires reach fruition since she was born with insurmountable social and economic handicaps. She was born in an impoverished and suburban locale into a family where her parents spent all their times working to meet both ends meet and go about the basic activity of sustaining their lives.

Her parents spent all their times working to meet both ends meet and go about the basic activity of sustaining their lives

Her parents would genuinely give her the world to play with if they could, but they have limited means with no chance whatsoever of ever changing their circumstances. To add to her woes she was born into a pathetically low caste, who were relegated since time immemorial to the horrific and dirty menial jobs.

Their ancestors walloped in the dirt and tar of their livelihoods and were shunned by the city and its people. They were untouchables who, as religious texts say, were on a par with pigs and dogs and it was but a curse of the worst sort to be born into the womb of a woman of her caste. Every time her youthful heart wanted to go out and live life in joyous abandon, she would be spitefully reminded of her caste and class.

The girl had little option but to concede to her fate and accept the religious and social hegemony that existed. Of course, it was only conceding defeat and not accepting it. Her rebellious mind refused to accept the treacherous social and religious order and she defied in her mind the powers that be.

She refused to accept a religion or a society that denied her very human identity. But then again what could a young girl do but to resign to her fate and the unquestionable power equations that far predated her small life?

A young man asks for water

It was one hot summer afternoon when she was near their local water spout filling her vessels when a young man stopped by to ask her for some water to drink. Surprised at first she realised he must not be from around here and politely informed him that she was an untouchable so he was asking for water from the wrong person.

The young man showed little reaction to her logic and said he hardly cared what caste she was. All he cared for was some water since he was very thirsty and as long as she was a human like himself, she could very well help him quench his thirst.

The man drank from her vessel and she found out he was an activist who spoke for social justice and equality. He had shunned the hegemonic religious and social order he was born into and had taken to a philosophy of life that spoke of inclusiveness and emancipation of the underclass. He spoke with ease with her and then moved on to where he was headed.

This unbridled sense of equality pushed the girl into an entirely new yet strangely familiar territory. She found the resonance of everything she had felt all her life in what the young man had told her. She found a voice to her suppressed rebellion in his politics. 

In his political vision she found the arms to fight for the liberation of her own self and those like her who. She spread the word amongst her near and dear ones, who at first thought the heat had gotten to her head, but then began to see the sense in it all.

People of the lowest of the lowest caste are forbidden to have contact with those of the upper castes. Here a shop owner pours flour on a cloth for the untouchable. This is after he washed the money that the untouchable person produced to buy the flour.

Her new found passion fired the will of her otherwise latent compatriots who started to take steps and organise themselves. Of course, they knew that showing allegiance to the politics shown by the young man was certain to raise the wrath of the current rulers who would come down upon them like a black storm bringing ransacking their community.

The girl even wondered aloud at times if she had overdone it and pushed her community into the mouth of certain death and torture. But by then the fire had spread into their minds and they themselves saw the light and vowed to fight till victory or death. 

They were convinced that if they could work the skin off their backs to fulfil every need of those who ruled them, no matter how whimsical or fanciful the need, they could very well work hard enough to earn a life of dignity for themselves and their children in times to come.

Many supreme sacrifices later and weathering the rage of the torturous social and political tempest that mercilessly rained down upon them, they came to earn their first victory. The victory was of finding a space in the political process that ruled them. 

For this they rallied behind the young man who had first showed them the truth of what ailed them and showed them that the exploitative system was not an unquestionable truth of life but could be questioned and made answerable even to those the system claimed were far too lowly to ask questions.

What is written here is a simple paraphrasing of what Gurudev RabindranathTagore wrote in his epic Chandalika – the story of the daughter of a family of the Chandal caste; a community that is till date relegated to the horrific task of burning corpses; a community that till date bears the wounds of one of the most hellish form of social and economic oppression in our history.

Gurudev Tagore was far from the apolitical arty person that the many sections of our privileged countrymen portray him as. The elites of the culture world have filtered Gurudev's work and portrayed it in their selective ways keeping his art, which is of undeniable calibre, but sniping away at his ideology and politics so as to suit their way of life and keep the cycle of hegemony intact. 

They have used their money and influence to portray Gurudev's tunes, strokes and words as a near esoteric art to be practised only by some high priests of culture while the mere mortals may only look from afar.

The truth, however, is diametrically opposite. Gurudev learnt as much from the socially out caste Baul minstrels as much as he did from what was best in the progressive Western arts. He embraced people and their lives as his own irrespective of their caste and class in times that were even more polarised and exclusive. He travelled and read extensively and assimilated into his open mind and heart what was best from everywhere.

He spoke of all that which spoke of the need of being a just human and building a society based on love. He was unequivocal in his support for liberty and social justice espousing the true spirit of freedom that went far beyond the narrow walls of racial or nationalistic pride. It is not a mere co-incidence that he wrote the masterpiece with the protagonist as an out caste Chandal girl who is enlightened by an adherent of the Buddhist philosophy of equality.

Sourced from The Hindu written by SIDDHARTHYA SWAPAN ROY

No comments:

Post a Comment