This story follows on from the previous one: Burial for Barbarians.
Quite a long time ago a wise District Forest Officer took me to the crux of our incapacity to prevent uneducated people breaking Forest Law, thereby engaging in what – from our educated perspective – passes as ‘vandalism’: destruction of Reserve Forest causing erosion and depletion of precious underground water. This crux of the matter was – he said, that the law-breakers are the true owners of the designated area.
In other words on the bottom line even though Forest Law prohibits the presence of unauthorised persons on RF lands, prohibits grazing there, wood-cutting, grass and timber burning – despite this, the masses take precedence. It is after all their native place, their birthright. Confronted with this axiomatic reality I had no difficulty conceding; it opened a vast subterranean field of adjustment to the needs and rights of those far far less privileged, in a society of vast extremes in fortune, privilege and access to basic needs.
Today I discovered a disconnect with that old respectful orientation, realised I had been standing on my high-horse outraged by the accusation of disrespect that I hurled at the lowest of the low, the most downtrodden, those who have very bad manners and do not behave nicely. The old bones near Helga’s grave insisted I remove my blinkers.
I revisited those bones this morning on my way into town to ask questions.
It came as a surprise to notice that someone had cleaned up all the mess of yesterday. Maybe Arunagiri – dutiful son, had simply moved all the debris to the side in a matter of fact manner. Maybe.
This morning my monkey mind set me off to spotlight a question, in search of points of view. I found a hunch on whom to ask, I found others blinkered like me who echoed outrage embellished by local iconic gestures; I empathised with their disenchantment but I needed boundaries to break, I felt acutely that something had to extend the horizon, open it out, something was missing.
A very well-mannered young man advised me that the people who arrange funerals behave like this. They all are drinkers. He made a clicking sound with his tongue. That is the place where they bury them and they all behave like this. Very ugly. They have always done it like this. It is their custom. All the other people find it very bad but what can we do, they have always done it like this.
Who are these people? He frowned. It is a caste. He waved his hand in the south westerly direction. Do you mean the people who live in that area near the People Hospital? He nodded. Ha, I thought. “The Thief Caste.” “The Bad End of Town.”
Why don’t we find other people from another part of town to arrange funerals? Why don’t we arrange them ourselves?
Why, because these are the people who do this. They have always done this.
They are not good people.
These people have the (traditional) Right to do this. These people from The Bad End. We just have to put up with them. This is why Hindu graveyards are so disgusting. What can we do? Is this the story?
Exactly, he said.
So these people have the traditional Right to bury the dead; within the caste different roles required in burial are adopted by different families and different persons within families, there are Rules. The big primary Rule is that only these people have this Right. Nobody else can bury the dead in the Yemma burial ground. (Yama is the god of execution: he appoints the time for each individual’s death. He takes you at your Appointed time.)
When there is a death an agreement is made by family and friends – according to each situation, about the allocation of funds for the various roles. One of the roles is that of “gardener” – Totakaran, who returns to a new grave and cleans up the mess made during the actual burial.
(You pay for this service but if the housekeeping is not carried out there’s nothing you can do about it unless you clean it up yourself. Whether the work is done properly or not, one particular man turns up at the end of every funeral and demands money, even though everything has been prepaid. He’s a snappy dresser.)
This Totakaran role is a freakish precedent in Tamil culture – on no other occasion does anyone commit to clean up after any occasion or event or undertaking whatsoever. (Of course if women clean up then that’s just what women do – it has no significance to speak of.)
These people are the Pariahs.
Pariah is a very dirty, bad name. We can call them by many other names: Yesey and Adobi casts, and Amatan – Barber Caste. They are complimented by the name of The-First-Child-of-Every-Farmer’s-Family because they are functionaries in essential ceremonies at every stage of life from Birth to Death.
Despite the significance of their role in society, they always were, still are and will always be the utterly downtrodden for all time. They are the ones who become polluted on behalf of all the other casts, they do the dirty work.
Because they are polluted we despise them, we keep them downtrodden because we need their dirty work to be done, but we despise them. Because we need them they are free to be as uncouth as they please, they have always done it this way and nobody can stand up and order it differently, this is the way it happens: we need them to bury our dead, we pay them, but if they don’t do what they agreed to do or do it in a disgusting way, then we can’t do anything about it because they are the Pariahs and they’re here to stay.
I don’t know whether they or Arunagiri cleaned up Helga’s grave after the barbarians moved their corpse into the grave next door, but I do know we were fortunate to be present with Ram Kumar, whose presence definitely deepened our collective consciousness of the occasion.
I was thankful for Ram Kumar’s presence again today when I went in to The BadEnd of town for the few photos here, especially the little boy in the red shirt – lending the perception that men of nobility can arise from the pits under our feet.