Untouchables

Sweeper Cleaning Sewer in New Delhi

This posting is not about Eliot Ness and his war leading an FBI contingent against Al Capone and his ilk. Rather, it is about millions of lower caste Indians who are labeled by the Hindu religion as unclean by the nature of the work they are assigned—generation after generation—keeping the streets, byways, and sewers clean of the excreta of their fellow Indians.

I am currently reading a novel written by Mulk Raj Anand called Untouchable (1935), which details a day in the life of one such Dalit family. The older son, Bakha, accidentally touches a Brahmin who almost causes a riot because he accidentally touched him as he passed by in the street. Any physical contact of a Dalit with a Brahmin requires that the latter take a purifying bath. Sweepers are required to announce their presence as they walk among men so that higher caste Hindus can avoid unwanted contact.

Dalit Sweeper

Anand’s novel launched his career as an Anglo-Indian writer. English novelist E. M. Forster, author of A Passage to India, has penned this tribute to him:

Some readers [of Untouchable], especially those who consider themselves all-white, will go purple in the face with rage before they have finished a dozen pages, and will exclaim that they cannot trust themselves to speak. I cannot trust myself either, though for a different reason: the book seems to me indescribably clean and I hesitate for words in which this can be conveyed. Avoiding rhetoric and circumlocution, it has gone straight to the heart of its subject and purified it. None of us are pure—we shouldn’t be alive if we were. But to the straightforward all things can become pure, and it is to the directness of his attack that Mr Anand’s success is probably due.

The plight of the Dalits will always astonish those who believe the words of our own Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”