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Sympathetic Portrayal of the Agony of Sanitary Workers

kazhisadaiPhysicians, nurses, police and sanitary workers are at the forefront in this COVID-19 lockdown.  They are now very much appreciated and respected.  The first three always enjoy a social status.  What about the sanitary workers?  Will there be an attitudinal change in our society about these ‘scavengers’ even after these ‘corona’ days?  A particular group of people are forced to live with the human waste in toilets, drainage pits and in heaps of garbage. Arivazhagan, the author of the novel ‘Kalisadai’ (2003 in Tamil) depicts the life of these people through the character Anumanthaiah, a Municipal conservancy worker (scavenger). The word ‘Kalisadai’ means ‘shameful creature’ and ‘low birth’ in Tamil. Hence, this novel speaks passionately about these people who are made ‘shameful creatures’.

Politics of Names

Dr. B. R. Ambedkhar, in his article “Indian Slums: Centre of Untouchability,” says that the touchables give to the untouchables fifteen rules of crime. The untouchables are not supposed to give ‘good’ names to their children. If they do so, it is a crime. They are permitted to name their children with demeaning and ridiculous expressions. The main character of the novel ‘Anumanthaiah’ is not his original name. His original name is ‘Rasappan’ meaning father of the king. When he joins as a Municipal conservancy worker, they changed the name into Anumanthaiah, meaning the monkey-faced.

People are taken to the municipality Inspector by agents for doing works like clearing night-soil, scavenging the street and cleaning heaps of garbage. There is a vivid description of writing their names in the register. The scavenging community is severely condemned for having decent names. The names of the people of the ‘lower’ caste are changed by the ‘upper’ caste people. For example, the person Chinnasamy has been changed to ‘Chinnapaiyan’ (small boy). The name of Balaiah is changed to ‘balikadu’. The ‘upper’ caste people are not ready to call him by his original name because ‘aiah’ in Balaiah refers to ‘superior’. The names of Penjiliah and Rosiah were too changed to Penjilikadu and Rosikadu respectively.

The novel begins with “Today is the 45th independence day...”. But it talks about the people who are enslaved in their own independent country in terms of caste. They are treated as slaves, and they are not even permitted to possess decent names!

Toilet Cleaning

Anumanthiah wants to escape from the Inspector and Mestri. He enters into the public toilet at the entrance of the street. The toilet plate is filled with human waste; some part of it has been dried on the top. His legs become sticky in the toilet with the dung. The people who are not able to come inside for fear of muddiness stand outside and piss. As a result of it, urine has stored as puddles in the toilet. The floor is stained with yellow colour, and red sand also added the stain. The betel juice, cigarette butts, beedi and cigarette wrappers are scattered all over the toilet room. Aunanthiah is unable to bear the reek and stale smell of the urine. The picture of the toilet portrayed makes one to puke for its ugliness.

The author Arivazhagan records not only the hideous condition of public toilets but also the lifestyle of the scavengers who clean these toilets. There is the news that the use of public toilet would result in venereal diseases. Anumanthiah expresses his anguish that many people who work as scavengers and clean the public toilets are not only afflicted with deadly diseases but also harmful skin diseases like itching, tuberculosis and AIDS. They die of working in the stingy odour for a long time. Anumanthiah continues, “Would our lazy people splash enough water? If water runs fast, the dung would glide smoothly. If there is no water, the dung would block the passage”. These are the reasons for the unhygienic condition of toilets.

Manual Scavenging

The toilets above mentioned can be cleaned and managed easily in a way, but it would be very difficult to clean what is called Dry Latrine of the ‘upper’ caste people. When Anumanthiah’s son remarks this as injustice, “Cleaning the human waste by human beings is a great sin”, Kondamma, his mother, expresses their fateful life, “This is our duty to clean it, and there is no place for protesting and frowning at it, and we would be used to it”.

The ‘upper’ caste people build this type of toilet in their houses. A ‘U’ shaped takaran box would be kept in which the human waste and the wastewater will be stored. Anumanthiah takes the box and cleans it. While cleaning the box, water spills over his face and on the body. But he does not bother about this and is conscious of his work. But people who pour water are very conscious about the splash of water.

He is offered the left-over food cooked the previous day. He wants to eat it, but he is afraid that he may get the fever and so he refuses it. But the ‘upper’ caste woman finds fault with him “You won’t eat the old food. You’re now used to eat only idly and dosa and live happily”. This is how society ill-treats the people who are doing real service by scavenging and cleaning. Anumanthiah has to clean the toilets of two hundred houses. In some houses, people will not be there, and he has to wait for long for their arrival to clean them.

Anumanthiah clears off the solid dung, but he has to splash water to clean it. The dung of the sick people won’t be cleaned easily. It will be liquid state and water is needed to clean it. The dung of the people who have tuberculosis, diarrhoea, jaundice and typhoid is usually in a liquid state. Thus, Arivazhagan highlights the life of the scavenging community exquisitely nuancing into the details of it.

Cleaning of Septic Tanks

Another main duty of these people is cleaning the septic tank. A vivid picture is drawn about septic tanks. Each tank is divided into three parts inside. The dung and water usually are stored in the first tank, and it goes to the second tank through a narrow passage at the bottom. It will be decomposed in the earth. As the decomposition takes place, the amount of dung also decreases. Phenol and bleaching powder should not be poured because they affect the decomposition process, and hence bad smell comes out of it. In those days there was no lorry to take and carry the dirty water, someone has to take water from the tank using buckets and pour it outside.

 Capturing Dogs and Removing Carcass

Capturing the street dogs is one among the responsibilities of the municipality scavengers. A detailed description is given in the novel. If a dog bites, the person has to be given sixteen injections around his naval. Those who are better-off can give ice-massage, but the poor scavengers cannot think of it, and hot water massage is not permitted.

They are supposed to capture and kill the street dogs only and not the pet dogs of the people. They should not kill the dogs wearing the neck belt. Once they kill a dog of an ‘upper’ caste person by mistake. He mercilessly beats the scavengers for having killed his dog. Nobody stops him, and there is no one to look at the suffering of the scavengers, which is worse than that of dogs.

Clearing the carcass of dogs is also their duty. Anumanthiah digs a foot-deep pit and drags such a carcass of a dog. He places it inside the pit and levels it with the sand. After the burial, he washes his face, hands and legs in the water in the drainage. What a pity?

They also bury the dead bodies of the orphans, and the police summon them for this work. They take the body to the graveyard for cremation. If a dog or human beings dies, it is the duty of the municipality workers to clear it without getting money. Actually, the government pays for it, and the policemen swindle it.

It is their duty to clean the people who vomit on the roadside and diarrhoea patients. These municipality workers are asked to insert a stick with cotton into the anus of the people and take a shit in order that the lab technicians check whether they have cholera. The municipality workers have to pour bleaching powder on the clothes of the cholera patients and put them to dry.

Addiction to Drinking

How can they live with human waste throughout their life? The very nature of their workforces them to drink liquor to tranquilize the body pain for a while. The novel also explains how Anumanthiah becomes addicted to drinking. The novel vividly pictures the alcoholic world of the scavengers. Anumanthiah laments, “Is it my desire to drink? I want to give it up. But the very moment I think of alcohol, I become mad of it, and I drink it immediately”. He gets tuberculosis at last, and his health condition becomes worse.  His son is also forced to do the same work after Anumanthiah. The novel ends with the death of his son due to asphyxiation while cleaning the drainage well.

               Joe de Cruz, a winner of Sahitya Akademi, correctly points out, “When we see these sanitary workers, our arms must raise to wish them. But we ridicule at them.  Arivazhagan’s portrayal of the pain of these workers is the obvious social reality.” Rajam Krishnan, a renowned novelist, rightly observes, “I am deeply pained after reading this novel Kalisadai. This novel should have been given the title ‘HUMANS’. It is appropriate to call the rest in the cities including us as Kalisadai, i.e. shameful creatures”. Human scavenging is prevalent only in few countries like India, although it is legally prohibited.  Now it is estimated that in India there are 13 lakh manual scavengers to clean 90 crore litre urine and 14 crore kilo excreta per day in the open dry latrines.  The Indian society which pushes these human scavengers into this heinous work must be called as Kalisadai.  At least after seeing these sanitation workers as vanguards during these ‘corona’ days, we need to clean up our minds and hearts to respect the dignity of those engaged in ‘unclean’ occupations.

(The reviewer is the former principal of Arul Anandar (Autonomous) College, Madurai and author of the book Basil’s Ethnophilosophising in India Series I: A Study on Arunthathiyars. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Dr. S. Basil Xavier

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