One way to imagine the future of caste – or a future with less and less caste – is to look once more at moments in the past that lie somewhere in the crevices between history, legend and folklore. In these moments, we can look at caste through the eyes of those who instinctively know what is unnatural. For children and lovers, what is unnatural is what comes between them and others, making intimacy, or even friendship, impossible. With the help of the stories that have grown around the medieval poet and activist, Basava, we can imagine one such moment and the poetic truth it may suggest to us:
The fields. Sugarcane tall and sweet-smelling, perfect for hide and seek. Safety on the ground between rows of stalks, the sky so far and vast above.
Beyond the fields of cane and rice and pulses, the well by the old tamarind trees. Channayya and Kakkayya, their muddy brown faces glowing as they show the boy Basava how to play the tamarind seed game.
Basava pulls out the coconut sweets from the temple, sugary pellets that he has tied together in a corner of his waistcloth. The sweets are all stuck together in a lump, and he has to pull apart the sticky mess and divide it into three equal parts. The well water they slurp from their hands now tastes different. It’s sweeter than usual.
Then they hear a shout; the big uncle from across Basava’s house is bearing down on them. They don’t know why he is angry, so they do not run away. He swoops down on them and his large hairy hand flies out. Not in Basava’s direction, but the hand swings out at Channayya and Kakkayya. They fall as easily as swatted flies. Channayya’s face is smeared with mud and sugary coconut sweet and tears and snot.
Basava cowers, waiting for his turn. He can’t bring himself to run away.The hairy hands come toward him. They lift him to the uncle’s high, hard shoulders. The uncle races (Basava’s bottom bouncing on his shoulders) to the pond.
The uncle walks into the water and Basava shuts his eyes. But once they are both completely wet, the uncle takes him home.
Basava is almost asleep in his mother’s lap, but he’s still shivering with cold and fear. There is a man’s voice – no, there are many voices – saying to his father: “It was God’s will that he was saved today from contamination. An untouchable’s son and a butcher’s son for playmates!”
Then he hears the uncle’s cold, hard voice: “Next time, I’ll break their legs if they come near our Basava.”
There’s something buzzing in Basava’s head; it’s as insistent as a sharp and pesky question. And there is something else – though if this is an answer, it’s too soon to call it more than a beginning. It will take some years, a few more years of Basava and Channayya and Kakkayya playing together, for this something else to grow words that can come together as they should.
The son of the slave in Untouchable Channayya’s house,
The daughter of the maid in Butcher Kakkayya’s house.
Those two went to the fields to gather dung and fell in love.
I’m the son born of these two;
the lord of the meeting rivers is my witness.
Even in English translation, this vachana, words said in Kannada during the 12th century then retold many times, gives us a hint of possible meeting points. To find a road that may take us to sangama – confluence – he who used to be upper caste has to begin with acknowledging, in the most sacred and the most intimate way possible, his link with, and his dependence on, everyone else. And he and she who used to be lower caste or intermediate caste, or slave, or maid, has to find the confidence to work, to love, and to accept their prodigal child when he returns to the human fold.
~ Githa Hariharan is a writer based in Delhi. Her recent novel is Fugitive Histories.