Thursday, July 8, 2010 Front Page
Society lacks heart for untouchables
CASTE STILL CASTS ITS SPELL…The Dalits are not allowed in this shabby
restaurant in Monharpur village of Jessore.
Emran Hossain, back from JessoreThe din inside the dark tea stall
stopped suddenly. All eyes were set on the silhouette of a figure
standing by the doorway.
Someone coughed nervously. Another tapped uneasily on the table with
his knuckles. At the cash register, the salesman looked sideways to
avoid eye contact with the man standing there.
"Give me a jilapi," the man said. Inside the bamboo-fenced shop, the
words sounded like a bombshell.
"Go away," the salesman said in his clipped voice, without bothering
to look at the man. "You know we don't sell to the Dalits. We don't
have plates and glasses to serve the Dalits. Why bothering us, Robi?"
Robi Das, the Dhopa (washer man), nods knowingly and walks away
without protest. When you are a Dalit--the untouchable--you don't mind
being shooed away. You just can't afford to mind.
In Monoharpur, a dust-bowl village in Jessore, only eight kilometres
from the town, the caste system rages on and the untouchables live in
the twilight of existence.
The Dalits--the muchis (cobblers), the dhopas, the methors (sweepers)
and the napits (barbers)--live a life of social exclusion. Restaurants
don't serve them; those that serve keep separate plates and glasses.
"We are not allowed to even touch any vegetable or chicken or anything
for that matter in the market," Robi Das explains, as he comes out of
the tea stall empty-handed. "They say if we touch anything, it is
In Jessore, about 5,000 Dalits live in about 50 villages. Throughout
the country there are about 55 lakh. They are the low caste Hindus,
and the caste system that started in India ages ago--the exact time
and how it was introduced is still debatable--keeps the children of
the Dalits secluded in schools. Nobody sits next to them. Nobody plays
with them. They just live like shadows, as Robi Das does.
"Football was my life," Robi Das said. "The smell of the leather
football, the sound of ball bouncing off the ground… ahh. I had to
leave that too."
When he was 16 or 17, his playmates one day told him to stay off the
ground. They said football required physical contact and they can't do
it with an untouchable. Robi's passion for ha-du-du also had to end
for similar reasons.
"I was not even allowed to watch football matches standing by the
ground," he said. "I tried badminton, but again nobody would play. No
Hindu or Muslim would take me for a carrom game or even chess."
At 45, Robi feels aged twice. An excruciating burden of existence
weighs heavy on him and his family. He feels numbed when he finds his
17-year-old son going through the same grinding machine of the caste
"He can't play with anyone outside the caste. He has to receive
anything he buys from the shop wrapped in banana leaves specially kept
for the Dalits. I watch him grow in the same wilted society that I was
born into," Robi says, as he walks away from the tea stall.
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