The Literature and Politics of Shit (Shit Does Not Happen, It Is Allowed to Happen)

I

This might be the blog post nobody reads. Who wants to read about shit? (Yes, I too am wrinkling my nose.) But for reasons mentioned in this important Human Rights Watch report prepared by researcher Shikha Bhattacharjee there is no getting away from writing about it, especially now: http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/08/25/india-caste-forced-clean-human-waste.

There is no getting away from shit, period. It is the most human of things, and also the most inhuman.

II

I can remember visits as a child to the home of relatives in Thirunelveli in South India during which the inhumanity of shit in all its domesticated ordinariness was illustrated for me through a toilet. The toilet in this old and rambling house was an outhouse in the back, open to the sky and without a door. When in use, a chombu of water placed strategically on a wall was warning enough to await your turn. Inside was a long dry trough I remember well, only too well. It was cleaned manually by a scavenger (you should not have to ask me about this person’s social status), who daily came early in the morning before anyone in the house had need to go.

What does it mean that I remember this outhouse so vividly decades later? Let us just say that on my visits I woke up as early as I could.

III

This very outhouse makes a brief appearance in my last novel No End to the Journey, which is set in a similar village. But the most famous Indian novel in English about shit and manual scavenging is of course Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, written nearly eighty years ago. In that novel, Anand, writing in the midst of the Indian nationalist movement, depicts the life of Bakha, an “untouchable” boy who is a manual scavenger. Towards the end of the novel, Anand has Bakha imagine the flush toilet as the utopian solution to his life of degradation. Technology, Bakha imagines, will free him from a desperate profession through which the untouchability of shit is reconstituted as the untouchability of his body and identity. Eighty years later, and manual scavenging still goes on in India. The technological solutions exist, as do the financial resources; still the horror of manual scavenging has not ended.

The simple truth about shit is that it doesn’t just happen, it is allowed to happen. Read the Human Rights Watch report.

IV

Some of my fellow Indians have no doubt begun to groan by now. They are thinking: One more bit of writing on shit in India! Hasn’t V. S. Naipaul done this already? Haven’t we had enough?

No, we haven’t—not as long as the outrage of manual scavenging exists. I’m no Naipaul. Long ago I wrote critically about him for his silly and ignorant declamations about shit and India. I am not about to join his camp. There are many things of which we Indians should justly be proud. I have written about some of them in earlier posts. Manual scavenging, however, is not one of them.

V

Manual scavenging is shameful, but the shame of it sticks to us (Indian and non-Indian, frankly) rather than the scavengers. Thank you, dear reader, for getting to the end of this post even if only with wrinkled nose.

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