Social reform movements aimed at abolition of caste in pre-independent India made way for a loose movement in popular culture characterized by an explosion of literary works and movies. Among these, Mulk Raj Anand’s novel “Untouchable” and Franz Osten’s classic movie “Acchut Kanya” (with the great Devika Rani as the lead actress) are well known.
However, the slew of regional novels that emerged during this period are also remarkable, albeit unexplored. The legendary novelist Gopinath Mohanty’s “Harijan” occupies a prominent place among them.
Published in 1948, Mohanty’s work is characterized by a subtle form of radicalness. Much of the story is told through the lens of Puni, the 14-year-old sheltered daughter of Jema. They reside in the slum of scavengers (called ‘Mehentars’ in Odia) and maintain their livelihood by cleaning latrines. The Mehentars are acutely aware of their condition and seem to have made peace with it. Thus, we witness a sense of normalcy in their daily lives. It is perhaps this normalcy that helps Puni retain her brief sheltered existence. When Puni goes to work for the first time, she dresses up in her best clothes and considers it to be a special occasion before being reprimanded by her friends.
Mohanty does not shy away from elaborate depictions of the sufferings of the Mehentars. However, he doesn’t attempt to numb the reader through transgressive exposure. Instead, he highlights the ways in which the Mehentars cope with their work. His characters are not devoid of joy. There are bhagavat tungis and Bhajan recitations organized by Dhani Buddha, reminiscent of an elderly warm philosopher. There are celebrations when a Mehentar goes to work for the first time.
Crucial to the narrative, however, is the slum. The slum is contrasted with the city. For Mohanty, the city is well organized, calculated but pretentious, selfish and inhumane. What separates Mohanty’s work from many other novels dealing with the same topic is its exploration of the intersection of caste and class. To properly comprehend Mohanty’s radicalness, it is important to take a detour into the context in which it was written.
For Mahatma Gandhi, untouchability was a “pernicious custom” which needed to be abolished. His views on the caste system, however, were much more problematic for much of his life. He considered the occupation done by these untouchables to be not only essential but hereditary. It is this hereditary system of occupation, according to Gandhi, which kept the Hindu society organized. The manifestation of this view occurs in its most crude form in his attitude towards the Dalit “Bhangis”. According to him, sanitation was “sacred” and the “ideal Bhangi” should “know how to overcome and destroy the odour of excreta and the various disinfectants to render them innocuous”. His romantic view of poverty in rural life and relatively conservative views on the caste system prevented him from exploring the ways in which caste and class intersect. Thus, Gandhi writes, the ideal Bhangi “while deriving his livelihood from his occupation, would approach it only as a sacred duty. In other words, he would not dream of amassing wealth out of it.” The accumulation of wealth and upward mobility was anathema to Gandhi. What he strove for, instead, was dignity towards the poor and untouchables.
Mohanty, on the other hand, explores the contrast between the lives of the poor mehentars and the rich Upper class residing beside the slum. In a conversation with Puni’s mother Jema, the hollow idealist Aghore Babu remarks about how untouchability has been abolished and the Harijans have equal rights; the right to enter temples, sit and inter-dine with the upper caste. To this, Jema responds “Don’t people have better things to do? Why would anyone want to touch me? And what if he does? Will it fill my belly or rebuild my broken hut? Who will provide the rice for people of high and low caste to eat together? I have no time to spare from cleaning latrines, when will I go to temple? All this talk comes from the heads of rich people like you, babu.”
Towards the end of the novel, when a mehentar acquires money by stealing, the world opens up to him. He is able to buy things, enjoy the bioscope and eat at shops alongside the upper caste. It is the corporate interest of the upper caste that finally leads to the displacement of the slum. Throughout the novel, Mohanty’s narrative follows the lives of the slum dwellers in parallel to the lives of the rich upper caste Avinash Babu’s family. The city and the slum are as central to the narrative as its inhabitants.
With the recent English translation of Bikram Das, the novel is bound to acquire a larger readership. The cultural and linguistic nuances of Odisha are accurately translated by Das. Published over 70 years ago, this novel remains as relevant to our contemporary society today as it was in 1948. Mohanty’s novel is not merely a protest against injustice, it is the expression of the silent rage of the oppressed.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)
More From The Author: Of Congress And The Disgraced Royalty