The journey of life unfolds and reveals many a memorable incident and experience which stand out any time one tries to recall any of them. Memories of childhood are more incisively etched and are easily brought back in a flash back.
One such experience of the early 1950s relates to my childhood in Allahabad. One day, at the age of eight or nine, when I was on my way back from my school (RR Inter College, Daraganj) to my home, which was about 2-3 kms away, I felt almost giddy in the scorching heat of the early October sun, after the rainy season was over. My head and feet, which especially absorbed the sun rays, prompted me to stop somewhere for rest for a while.
Unexpectedly, as if literally out of the blue, I spotted Jamadarin (sweeper woman) Mai (lady- term of respect). We called her Mai because we had imbibed the sanskar of addressing older people with respect. Before I could accost her, she endearingly called out Bachchi, my nick name, and asked me to come in to have a little rest in the shade of her thatched hut and so-called house. Having realized that I needed some instant respite, while I was trying to make myself at ease in the shade, she promptly brought out a wooden patta पट्टा (wooden board, also peedha in Allahabad) for me to sit.
But for a moment she hesitated a little as her anxious looks revealed before she again lovingly prompted to me to sit.
Having ingrained centuries of discrimination in her blood against Dalits (or Shudras as per the Hindu religious tradition) and being an untouchable. i.e., the lowliest of the lowly, she could not muster courage to overcome the social stigma. But Nature's over-powering impact of the sunlight and heat swept away all barriers in a momentary flash of emotional outburst, and she insistently spoke her mind, "Bachwa baithja Peedha Par. Hum tohar amma jaisal hai - Baitha - Baithja. Mat Sharma." (Son, come and sit on this wooden board. I am just like your mother, come, sit; don't feel shy).
I sat down instantly. And, then I accepted a glass of cool water in a clean metal tumbler offered by her. It was against traditional norms for me, a high-caste Hindu, to accept water from an outcaste. But, all barriers created by a ritualistic Hindu mindset were broken down in an instant - in my time of need.
In an instant, I could recall even as a child, the forms of discrimination practised by my mother against Jamadarin Mai. Water was thrown from a distance by my mother to enable Jamadarin Mai to clean our dry lavatory and the drains. On festivals like Makar Sankranti, Suryagrahana or Chandragrahana, demanded, she was given daan (charity) in the shape of foodgrains, dry vegetables, and clothes, etc. These were dropped in the bag or her arms from a distance. Even her monthly wages in coins were dropped on her hands. A Hindu's mindset made an untouchable literally so and if such a person came across one's way was shunned or avoided by the passersby.
But apart from the much needed rest under the midday sun, which forced me to sit on the patta what probably worked in my subconscious mind and finally clicked when I accepted a glass of water from her hands was the fine example already set by my eldest brother, Vishnu Chandra. My father was a Gandhian intellectually, and Gandhi opposed untouchability. (In his youth, my father had reached Bardoli near Dandi in Gujarat to join Mahatma Gandhi's Salt Satyagraha movement, and was prevented finally from doing so on receiving a false telegram sent by a relative.)
Vishnu had translated into action Gandhiji's clarion call to give up untouchability. Much against our mother's wishes, outburst, and warnings, Vishnu had taken a pledge in this regard after attending the immersion rites of Mahatma Gandhi's ashes at Sangam at Allahabad in February 1948. Vishnu sat with Jamadarin's son on October 2, Mahatma's birthday, and shared food with him seated on a patta on the ground in the verandah of our home, where our mother was forced to serve food on pattals पत्तल (plates made of leaves) to them through youngsters like us.
Jamadarin had her share of pattal in her arms, for she respected the religious sentiment of my mother without any qualms or ill will. Social harmony and cohesion demanded such acquiescence through the ages. Of course, at that age, I was neither expected nor required by my brother to join him in this occasional ritual of breaking the barrier of untouchability. People of our mohalla (locality), however, watched with curiosity and a little animosity too at my brother's open defiance of the social norm of untouchability but nobody could sway his well thought out action.
I am sure I told my mother what happened but I don't recall telling her or any response from her. My mother was deeply religious but also forgiving out of affection. She was very charitable and kind-hearted towards servants and others.
This unforgettable incident of the instant collapse of the untouchability barrier in later years symbolized for me the bursting of a dam. In the summer of 1959 or 1960, I had written a short story with title Tootata Baandh टूटता बांध in Hindi on this emotional encounter with Jamadarin, which strengthened my belief and mental make-up against all forms of discrimination.
As children we had inculcated in our minds, the social-cum-religious norm of conduct in paying obeisance to all places, scriptures, saints belonging to various religions and respect for elderly persons of all castes, creeds, and classes in society. We have cherished and nurtured these social norms and secular values with millions of like-minded persons.
© I C Srivastava. Published January 2020