Cover Story : Shabdaghar-Selected Best Book 2021-Novel
We are humans, hey, we are humans
Our anatomAy is the same as every one of you.
Do you think we have no iota of self-respect?
Do you expect us to prostrate before your whims?
From “Manusangada” by Late Tamil poet Inquilab
1. Ramgolam (2012) of Harishankar Jaladas (b.1955) is a poignant portrait of the harijans, a socially neglected class involved in manual scavenging for ages. The novel is born out of the writer’s anguish simmering as an undercurrent of the caste-based social discrimination and injustice of which he is a direct victim. During the British period, the harijans were brought to East Bengal from different Indian locations, particularly Delhi, Kanpur and Madras to keep cities clean and ensure a better life for the upper class. In an interview, Jaladas once said that he had lived with the harijans for 5-6 years to get adequate firsthand experience about them before he wrote Ramgolam. Hence, he takes an ethnographic approach to writing the novel which maximises its authenticity making it easy for the readers to empathize with the wretchedness of the community. The author deserves appreciation especially for his craftsmanship in delineating the lives and occupational hazards of the harijans who live in sweepers’ colonies, locally called methorpattis, on the northern bank of the Karnaphuli away from the city’s gentlefolk.
2. Jaladas is probably a very late addition to the tradition of the writings on the marginalized in Bangla popularized by Manik Bandupadhyay (1908-56), Adwaitya Mallabarman (1914-51), Samarseh Basu (1924-1988), and Mahsweta Devi (1926-2016). The author, however, has been able to carve a special niche for himself in the literary circle of the country since his award winning novels Jalaputra (2008) and Dahankal (2010) came out. The novels actually show the author’s literary genius, inaugurate his writing career, and mark him out as a promising writer who deals with themes put aside by others. Since then, Jaladas has published a number of novels which include, among others, Kasobi(2011), Ramgolam (2012), Mohona (2013) and Ami Mrinalini Noi (2014), Batase Boithar Shabda ( 2020), and Kuntir Bastraharan (2021). The author’s fourth novel Ramgolam has got positive reviews from the literary connoisseurs, and earned him City-Ananda Alo Puroshkar in 2012.
3. Unlike its preceding ones, Ramgolam portrays the plight of the harijans who are deprived of social, occupational and religious rights, and have been shown to be undeserving of any respect even after death. In Ramgolam, the author presents three major characters representing three generations: Ramgolam, the protagonist, his father Sheucharan, and grandfather Gurucharan. Set in Firingibazaar, a crowded and grimy area in Chittagong city, the novel captures a time during Bangladesh’s post-independence years when new sewage systems and sweeper recruitment policies created anger and led to protest among the harijans.
4. The novel begins with Ramgolam’s enquiry about his name which, to him, sounds unusual and doesn’t rhyme with his father’s. Gurucharan informs him that the name combines two sacred terms in Hinduism and Islam. The blending was done expecting respect from both the communities because typical Hindu names had only brought contempt and neglect. The plot of the novel progresses with a few significant events which are important to understand the author’s imaginative profundity and the novel’s coherence. The novel climaxes with the corporation’s notice that the jobs once reserved exclusively for the harijans would now be kept open for all—irrespective of caste and religion. Since the Harijans are not permitted to do any other jobs, they fear this would put them into severe economic hardships and existential crisis.
5. Gurucharan, the sardar of the four sweeper colonies and driver of the corporation’s sweeper truck, lives with his wife Anjali and son Sheucharan in a sweepers’ colony. Their days pass in sweeping the streets, cleaning the human excrement and filth, and carrying them to distant dumping locations. They drink profusely before they step into the shit pit which makes them oblivious of the surroundings, and help them stop suffocation and nausea. They return home exhausted, clad in sweat and dirt and often drunkard. When the harijans feel dejected, they go to their temple, and listen to Babathakur, the priest, who tells stories of Mahabharata, the Chandravanshi king Yayati and other mythologies.
6. As Gurucharan is about to retire, Ramgolam, the only person to study till SSC in the entire community is made the sardar. Ramgolam is now pledge bound to be in the vanguard of protests against misery and social injustice. His courage and commitment to his community push him into a life of uncertainty and insecurity though he does not seem to be giving in to the frowns of the government high-ups. Situations reach breaking point when Abdus Salam, corporation’s senior officer, plans to build a slaughterhouse adjoining the sweepers’ colony. This infuriates the harijans, and makes them worried about their religious rights. As protest sparks among the harijans under the leadership of Ramgolam, Abdus Salam sacks Ramgolam from his job only to ignite the anguish of the protesters. On the day of the sweeper recruitment as per the new policy, Ramgolam with hundreds of his followers, gheraoed the corporation office, and braved the wrath of the officers by refusing to accept the policy. On the spur of the moment, Jogesh, a sweeper known for his betrayal of the harijans’ trust, has been murdered by the sidekicks of corporation officers only to ensnare Ramgolam and his fellows. Ramgolam is arrested and sentenced to 14-years’ imprisonment while Kartik, Ramgolam’s most trusted brave fellow, is accused of the murder, and later hanged.
7. The harijans live subhuman lives. Insufficient accommodation, social rejection, sexual harassments and excessive alcohol consumption feature their life. What is most distressing is that they are denied access to burial grounds. One day Gurucharan shares his life experience with Kartik that they live like crows. From the wee hours, both the methors and crows jump into the dustbins. The crows feast upon the human shit; the methors carry them on their head, and proceed to dump them into the well. The only difference is that the crows are free, the methors aren’t. Here, I would give a few instances that make us visualize their sufferings and feel the streak of pain that runs through their collective experience.
The Gurucharan family lives like prisoners crammed against one another in a small room after Sheucharan’s marriage and Ramgolam’s birth. One night, Anjali finds that Sheucharan fails to be intimate with his wife due to inadequate space. She sighs deeply, and vainly attempts to soothe her anguished mind: “Is this life? The life of foxes and dogs! (p.59)”. In this context, the author alludes to Manusanghita, a scripture held holy by them. To Anjali’s dismay, Gurucharan hurls verbal abuse to Monu, the saint who composed the holy text, and holds him responsible for their present destiny. According to Monu, “The lower castes have no right to live in the city close to the gentlemen. We have to live far from the city—in the hills, under the trees, on the graveyard. And that Brahmins are entitled to live in five rooms, Kshatriyas in four, Vaishyas in three, but Shudras in two rooms” (p.60).
After Gurucharan’s death, when his body was taken to a nearby crematorium, a drunkard henchman of the upper class stopped Ramgolam and his bereaved fellows, and ordered them to go elsewhere as this crematorium was only for the upper class corpses. This exasperated Ramgolam and the situation went beyond control. The henchman was bound to a tree and Gurucharan was cremated. Ramgolam’s moving speech to the henchman before the mourning attendees is worth quoting:
There is no easy escape route from the oppression and hatred of the babus. All, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims, avoid us. Wagging their fingers at us they tell their kids–look, those who are sweeping the streets, taking the garbage bins on their heads are not humans; they’re methors. It is sin to touch them … I hate this class division.” (p.111)
Harijan communities are predominantly patriarchal, but women contribute significantly to the household chores as housewives and share family expenditures as most of them are corporation sweepers. They are often oppressed by their husbands at home particularly when poverty hits them hard. They also become objects of lust and carnal appetite of the locals. The author excellently describes the status of the harijan girls: “The harijans are very careful and sensitive about their daughters. Every daughter in the community is as precious as the emerald. The most important part of that emerald is chastity” (p. 84). There are several instances of sexual harassments of the harijan women by both Hindus and Muslims. Rashid Sawdagor, a local shop keeper, along with a gang of youths, hurls sexually offensive words to Rupali, wife of a local sweeper Indal. Rupali, unlike other girls, protests it with utmost bravery and comes home in tears. The harijans throng his shop to avenge Rupali’s harassment. The situation was however cleverly managed by the local commissioner keeping the forthcoming election in mind. Indal consoles Rupali, “We should be more careful these days. When they see a woman, they emit saliva and their eyes blaze with desire.” (p.126)
8. In Ramgolam, Jaladas attempts to reexamine the religious chicanery and political skullduggery which have perpetuated casteism and untouchability. He beautifully juxtaposes the harijan subjectivity and the gnawing presence of the establishment, the corporation officers who protect and promote the upper class. In addition, the author gives the novel a different dimension by often alluding to Hindu mythologies particularly the Mahabharata and Monusonghita. Brahma, the supreme God in Hindu tradition, is said to have created the Shudra from his body dust to clean the filths and shit of the upper class. From the very creation till date, these people have been denied human rights and have lived like outcasts. They are as untouchable as the human dung they clean from the pit latrines. The author, however, argues that the story of the creation of the Shudra is in fact concocted which has been spread and popularized by the Hindu priests and others having a vested interest in perpetuating the divisions in society. According to the author, all classes, lower or upper, are entitled to equal rights as all are created by Brahma.
9. The harijans, by and large, do not question about their origin and fate. However, Ramgolam, being the only man with some education, is curious about his community’s past. The elders inform him that the sweepers in Chittagong speak mainly two languages: Telegu and Hindi. Those speaking Telegu were hired from Bishakhapattam of Andra Pradesh by the British government, and those speaking Hindi came from Kanpur of Uttar Pradesh. During the British and Pakistan periods they enjoyed some privileges—rationing, reasonable salary, accommodation facility etc. He is informed that his forefathers in India fought tooth and nail to get their basic human rights. He also comes to know about BR Ambedkar who is more venerable than the Gods for his lifelong endeavour to establish the rights of the marginalized. This makes Ramgolam wise and gives him moral support to stand up against discrimination.
10. It is to be noted that the idea of creating a lower class to do the scavenging work can be associated with the social practices that existed in late 15th century England. In Tudor England, a group of people called ‘gong-farmers’ were involved in contemptible occupations who used to collect human faeces and filths, and dump them into the community pits outside the town boundaries. They had no rights to safety and cleanliness, and lived in occupational perils. The gong-farmers were known as night-men because they were only permitted to work at night so that the common folks were spared from seeing and smelling them. This gong-farmer system continued till the 18th century. In course of time, the colonial administration is said to have introduced this system in India in order for the Indian upper class to live a comfortable life. The system fitted well in Indian societies which had already been torn apart by extremely unkind caste system.
11. Ramgolam, since its publication, has earned critical acclaim despite having a few weaknesses. Subrata Kumar Das, a literary critic, makes some points about the use of language, the setting of time and a few other minor issues. First, the Gurucharan family, though all are uneducated except Ramgolam, speaks almost standard Bangla though other minor characters speak with code mixing between Bangla and Hindi. On the other hand, quite unjustifiably, Kutubuddin, the school teacher at Firingibazaar Sebak Colony Govt. Primary School, is made to speak in dialect. Therefore, the writer should have been more careful about the appropriacy of language used by the characters. We have good instances, such as Padmanadir Majhi (1936) by Manik Bandupadhyay, Khoabnama (1987) by Akhteruzzaman Elias, Agunpakhi (2011) by Hasan Azizul Huq where language of the peripheral class has been skilfully dealt with maintaining a fine balance between appropriacy and intelligibility. Second, the time of the novel’s setting is not indicated or stated which results in some confusion over the exact time of the events. At the beginning, when Gurucharan assumes the sardarship, we think the time referred to is the post partition period, but as the plot proceeds, the author repeatedly refers to independent Bangladesh when the harijans were gradually losing their earlier benefits. But for me what seems to be unjustifiable is that a series of events towards the end of the novel have taken place so rapidly that the readers may have difficulty in coping with the plot’s progression. For instance, Jogesh’s murder, arrest of Kartik and Ramgolam, their punishment and release, and Ramgolam’s reflections on the past and contemplation over the future uncertainties of his community—all happen in such a quick succession that only the readers trapped in ‘suspension of disbelief’ may let them go unnoticed. Last, I think the novel ends before the character of the protagonist is fully developed. The writer could make a more convincing interplay between Ramgolam’s inner disturbances and external experiences to give the readers a deeper insight into the psychological tensions that exist in the shared consciousness of the harijans i.e., untouchables.
12. The novel leaves the readers in a state of ambivalence—whether adhering to traditional occupations and faith systems or accepting the inevitable change in every sphere of life. Ramgolam, in this sense, can be compared to Okonkwo, Achebe’s immortal character in Things Fall Apart (1958) who fought for upholding his clan’s socio-cultural integrity, but his inexpedient and non-pragmatic approach to the colonial aggression brought about disintegration to the Igbo clan. Another good match for Ramgolam is perhaps Bakha, Mulk Raj Anand’s hero in Untouchable (1935) who is equally looked down upon and whose job is to sweep streets and latrines for the upper class. The main difference between them is that Bakha accepts his limitations as destined, but Ramgolam believes that they are, to a greater extent, socially constructed.
13. At the end of the novel, Ramgolam is released from prison. The valor and verve which once marked his profile have disappeared. He finds none who were once his fellow fighters. Ramgolam, probably for the first time in life, feels himself as an outlandish stranger in his own community. He loiters along the solitary alleys of the colony, and broods over the impending disintegration to his community.
14. Mahatma Gandhi’s attempt to alleviate their status by euphemistically calling them ‘harijans’ or ‘children of God’ gave them a new name, but failed to change their identity and destiny. Class discrimination based on the age-old caste system has always remained in renewed forms and complicated patterns. Through Ramgolam, Jaladas brings back the most sensitive and significant issue of caste and untouchability and challenges its socio-political construct. In this context, Ramgolam can be deservedly called a hard-hitting statement against casteism and untouchability with a clear message that the fight is far from over.
The writer teaches English language and literature at Chittagong University. He can be reached at email@example.com