Touching an Untouchable in India
Jaipur in Rajasthan, India, to Western eyes, is an exotic place. You can ride a camel, ride an elephant and watch a snake charmer on the same day. You can stay at the magnificent Rambagh Palace Hotel that used to be the Maharajah’s palace and visit magnificent buildings such as the Amer fort built before the Raj. Dress is still not westernized; most people wear the traditional garb they’ve worn for centuries, from colourful saris, salwar-kameez and dhoti-kurtas to austere turbans. A barber will shave you in the street. To visit Jaipur is to time travel. Yes, Jaipur is different. Of the places I’ve visited, perhaps only Marrakech in Morocco comes closest in terms of exotique.
It is also hot, forty-five degrees centigrade in the afternoon. That’s when you lie indoors in an air-conditioned room with the blinds down and sleep. You don’t go out then, you go out in the early morning. Of course there’s much poverty.1 The government was at the time running the “India Shining” campaign, but the prosperity of outsourcing had not filtered down to the masses. There are two ways Hindu Indians objectify poverty. The first is to accept that we are in the Age of Kali (quarrel). Things are going to be tough for the next 427 000 years. The second issues from the principles of samsara and karma. Reincarnation is a basic tenet of Hindu religion. We are continually born and reborn in an endless cycle of births (Samsara) until we achieve moksha, a state of release from the endless cycle of births which should be the aim of all.2 Karma is a moral calculus where one’s station in any in of our lives is dependent on one’s actions in a previous life, so poverty and wealth are in a way just deserts for actions previously committed. The way to improve one’s lot is to suffer through this life and hope to be rewarded by a better situation in the next one. There is thus less sympathy for the poor or handicapped – it’s bad karma, they’re suffering now for deeds previously committed, but will be rewarded in the next life if good in this one. Good.
In Hinduism everyone is born into a particular caste, a type of religious class. “No-one can convert to Hinduism, you are born a Hindu”, my haughty guide said while taking me through the Amer Fort. He was a proud Hindu too. “The problem is this marrying out of caste today, and Hindus even marrying outside the faith. What do we do with the children? What caste are they? It’s a no-good thing, no good can come of it!” he huffed. But the worst people, according to my guide, were the outcastes who were literally untouchable. While being Hindus, they did not have a caste, were considered unclean and virtual pariahs.3 They were the lowest form of people who eked an existence by doing the most menial jobs such as cleaning toilets and sweeping streets, and are stigmatized by many in the upper castes. My guide was supremely one such person. “In fact, if I’m walking down the street on my way to work carrying my lunchbox”, sneered my guide, “and I happen to accidentally bump into an outcaste, I will throw away that lunch. I will not eat it. That’s how unclean they are.” He curled his lips and expressed disgust. Really? The humanist inside me expressed counter-disgust. Repugnance welled up inside me towards his conceit. I ended the tour prematurely and was overcome by a feeling to unclean myself by touching an untouchable.
The next morning my taxi driver picked me up at the hotel at 6AM. Things were still fresh but already warming up. We were embarking on a city tour. Around fifteen minutes into our drive, he pointed out a woman sweeping at a roundabout. “Harijan woman”, he said, “Harijan woman!” “Stop!” He pulled over and I got out of the car into the early morning haze. I looked at this untouchable so clearly recognized by Indians but just another person to me. She was wearing a sari and half-hid her face behind a long pink veil. She was sweeping the ground with a palm frond in slow, deliberate sweeps. Apart from the veil, which imparted a pained modesty, she carried herself with the most beautiful dignity. I looked at her and had to touch her. But how? You don’t just go up to people and demand to touch them. Or do you? I took out my camera and started taking ostensible photographs of the square, but my aim was her. I gingerly stepped closer to where she was sweeping. She became aware of me at a distance of around ten meters and tensed up. I stopped. She looked at me sideways, or rather at my feet, not making eye contact. I had to speak to her. “I’m sorry for intruding, but would you mind if I took a few photographs of you? I think you’re very charming”, I said truthfully, camera in hand. She didn’t understand English but understood the intrusion. Hopefully there was something in my tone of voice which conveyed harmlessness, peace and outreach. “It’s alright is it?” I took a few more photographs during which she continued to sweep and avoided eye contact, even though totally self-conscious. She was about five metres away. And then I had to move in.
I took a few steps towards her. She froze and gave me a look, protecting her space. But it was more of a ‘what now?’ than a ‘keep away’ signal. “Thank you very much for allowing me”, I said looking right into her eyes, and reached into my pocket for rupees. How else? I held them up to her. “Here, for you, thank you.” She looked at the rupees and looked at me. It was probably a tidy sum for her. She looked again at my outstretched hand and deliberated for a while. What must she have thought? Was this for real? Then, overcoming her downtrodden status through aeons of rebirths, she softly came forward, and as she reached out her hand, I touched it with a slow, conscious tenderness. And she accepted my reaching out with all the serenity and poise in the world. In those moments, in that touch, it felt as though all my prejudices, my sins, what badness there might have been within me, healed and washed away, as I looked at her and beyond to the hope of a better humanity for all.
1. Some people don’t like India because the overwhelming poverty and even misery crushes them. Reports I get from well-travelled people about India are very binary. Unlike Argentina or Vietnam that have an almost 100% success (like) rate, people either love or loathe their Indian experience – there is no middle way. It’s a binary experience. The trick is to lift one’s head a little higher and see the splendor of an intriguing civilization and history. That’s the way to enjoy India.
2. In case you’re thinking that it’s good to be born and reborn, perpetually cheating mortality, the theology (and common sense) holds that it isn’t, since one is reborn to suffer again. You want to attain moksha because it means you will not be born into suffering again. But in order to attain moksha you have to generate good karma and be a very, very good person, a saint through many lifetimes. Very few people attain that, apparently.
3. Ghandi gave the outcastes the name Harijans, literally ‘Children of God’. But not everyone buys into his lofty visions. Harijans are also known as Dalits. There are about 166m Dalits in India out of a population of around 1,3bn. While discrimination based on grounds of caste is officially prohibited in India, prejudice towards untouchables remains.