[This is an excerpt from Adrishya Bharat, (Invisible India) Penguin Books, 2012. Translation HUG]
Dabbuwali (Bengal), Baaltiwali (Kanpur), Teenawali (Bihar), Kamaai-Ka-Kaam Karne wali (Large swathes of North India), Tokriwali (Haryana-Punjab), Thottikar (much of South India), Paki/Peeti (Odisha)—the more you travel, the more the variations. These names bear a direct connection to their work. These are not qualifiers that designate caste or creed. These are names of containers in which Dalit women (and a few men) from all over India scavenge, place and carry shit and other waste products with their own hands. These words that immediately bring a look of visceral disgust on to the faces of the civilized world, since the stigma embossed on them is centuries-old, actually name human beings of flesh and blood. Believe it or not.
These words have become their identity and most of them have forgotten their given names. The households they work for have lost track of their names too. As if their very faces ought to give away their profession and social position. Narayan Amma spent 60 years of her life at Anandpur, Andhra Pradesh: the last time she heard her name being called was in the 1950s when she was an adolescent. Thereafter she was Thotame. The universal Thotame. Right from the early hours of the day till afternoon she cleans the dry latrines of her area, bare handed—with the constant buzzing of the all too known phrases, phrases that define her too: “Thotame, wipe this, scrub that. Double quick!”So, a major chunk of her life passed by nameless, until one morning, the activists began to call her by her name again. Amazing! It was she who led the movement for eradicating the dry shit-holes of her area and even during that ongoing struggle would no one call her Narayana Amma. When asked, Savitri, a neighbourhood woman who routinely used the latrines, replied pat: “What’s in a name? We all know her job!”
Shanti in Kanpur has an identical tale to tell—the universal Baltiwali that she is. Heera from 24 Parganas in Bengal is the ever active Dabbuwali; Indira at Tonk in Rajasthan is quite naturally the local Tokriwali. With a slight awareness of such geographical variations that tell us remarkably similar stories, we may have a vague sense of how Invisible India functions, goes about its business day after day, generation past generation.
These women are so mired in the endless cycles of caste maltreatment, physical exploitation and economic disparity that we do not even know where to begin. Where do we start? Even these women have no clue when and how they got into these exploitative cycles and of ways to come out of these patterns. The heavy baskets of dirt and shit—ah, to even contemplate quitting this job means revolting against the grim fixed orders and expectations of husbands and in-laws. Clearly caste and patriarchal hierarchies are responsible for making this profession perfectly fit for women (around 95-98% of the womenfolk constitute this profession). As I have said, the story is more or less the same around India. The pain too, is similar: “The man does not work. Is a drunkard. Abuses me physically. So, it is my shit-cleaning job that actually helps run the household. How shall we make two ends meet otherwise?”
It is important to realize how the caste system works and patronizes a whole support system for running these households: a few rotis and some money could lead to some bonus if these women agree to help in disposing off dead animals or do menial, ad hoc jobs during the ‘rituals’ of birth, death and marriage in the locality. And yes, during festivals—may be some old torn clothes too for them. With a tacit understanding that during trying times they will get some odd help from the exploiters. The women have this impulse to run the family in a sound manner, a compulsion that the men folk often elude. This, the exploiters know very well and use the knowledge to wage a kind of psychological warfare quite astutely. Naturally, there are a good number of women around the nation who do not wish to come out of this abusive cycle.
Ghulam Muhammad of Ujjain had to fight tooth and nail with his own mother and sister so that they may relinquish cleaning these dry-latrines once and for all. The old mother kept on arguing that this very profession had maintained generations in her household. So, it would be criminal to quit. Vimla, Kamaiwali for the past 25 years in the Aishbagh area of Lucknow was also not ready to give up her job so easily. The pretty looking Vimla was as enamoured of her beautiful jewellery as she was of her job. She felt she had always nurtured and children with this, her job. Her daughter got married by her kamai. And then, how much of life was still left for such momentous changes! Her husband, a serial gambler, works for the municipality and anyway wastes all his money in drinking binges. In our one hour of exchanges, she told me at least 4 times that since 1985 she had bought off the jajmani of the 25 households where she works in 2 thousand rupees by selling off all her jewellery. Her working households are mostly poor Muslim families. Vimla, working thus for decades, does not see her work as part of a throbbing hellhole.
It is this mental slavery and cycle of domination that is at the bottom of these women getting invisiblized all around us.
The men work for municipalities and so their salary is assured and is comparatively higher than what these women make within this informal sector. The informalization is important to note. Why do women get into cleaning dry latrines and manual scavenging? If you ask Bezwada Wilson of Safai Karmachari Andolan or Manjula Pradeep of Navsarjan or Srilata Swaminathan (CPIML) or even D. Raja (CPI)—all will give you more or less the same answer—that since these are shudratishudra women—Dalits even among the Dalits—they have been pushed into this ultimate menial profession. The males have ‘given’ the ‘jagirdari’ or ‘jajmani’ of the dirt and shit to them. Quite amazing to hear these feudal words being deployed in this fashion. Around the nation the community of shit and dirt cleaners claim difference of identity. These are all Dalit communities. But each of these communities is keen on arguing for the manner in which their particular community fares above the rest. This is one way to understand the everyday deployment and tremendous staying power of the Manusmriti.
Bhasha Singh is a senior journalist , working currently for the Outlook magazine.