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Cities can bring freedom from the caste system

Vibhuti Narain Rai writes about the changes villages are undergoing in this neo-liberal age and the continuing rural-urban migration. He says the caste system turned villages into hell, and the cities, which are to a large extent free from this institution, can be made more human

I was going to have bhatwan after a long time. ‘Bhatwan’ is a simple meal of dal and rice – with a stew of mashed potato (chokha or barta) on the side at the most and, depending on the status of the owner of the house, a dash of homemade ghee. Once in a while, you are served curd, too. ‘Bhatwan’ gives the women of the house a breather amid the hectic schedule of a wedding. At the groom’s house, the day before the wedding procession leaves, relatives, uncles, cousins and friends are invited to partake of bhatwan. At the bride’s house, this meal is served either on the day before the wedding or on the day of the wedding procession. The wedding procession was leaving the following day from this house where I was invited for bhatwan. A lot of the changes awaited me in this house.

To begin with, I was witness to the reality that Bhatwan was no longer a meal of dal and rice. Apart from rice, puris, kachoris and half a dozen dishes were served on my ‘banana leaf’. Actually, it’s no longer a ‘banana leaf’; instead, it is a paper plate lined with plastic. People like me no longer sat on the ground – there were chairs and tables. At the first glance itself, I could tell that the women of the village weren’t frying the puris, but that a caterer had been hired to prepare the dishes. Those serving the food were indeed relatives. Because the women weren’t cooking, the songs that usually filled the air as the guests savoured the food were also missing. To kill the monotony of their difficult life, women have songs for every occasion – be it working the stone mill, sowing seeds, harvest, birth, death, tonsure, wedding, rituals. They are a necessity – as a collective expression of joy or pain.


The scene of a wedding feast in villages has undergone a change

It was the presence of the caterer that made me realize that the market had reached the village. Those days when women, both relatives and neighbours, gathered to fry the puris and as their songs filled the air, the local youth would rush to serve the food. Those days, the bridegroom’s wedding party would spend three days at the bride’s house. Neighbours would contribute beds, mattresses, quilts and pillows for the guests. Once the guests left, and these things were returned to their rightful owners, there would be a few entertaining debates for sure. But the coming of the caterers has meant the end of this socialization.

A lot of things have disappeared. For example, there are no wells to be seen. India Mark II handpumps have done them in. The songs from the watertanks and associated mischiefs have also died. I don’t know if a wayfarer, as he cups his hands to drink water from a handpump, even has a conversation with the person who happens to be pushing the lever. Since oxen are no longer used to plough the fields, there is no need to leave the bed after gauging the time of the night by Venus’ position in the sky. The image of a farmer rushing to the fields with a plough on his shoulder at the break of dawn has become extinct. The weekly market has been reduced to a mere formality because every available space has a shop that opens daily, selling even products of multinational companies.

A royal well that has dried up – Agrasen ki Baoli

It is very hard to decide whether to rejoice over or mourn this interference of the market. The piquant symbol of a village watertank hid the harsh reality that a Dalit who had come in search of water to a Thakur’s well would be found in a state worse than that of animals. The handpump humanizes a Dalit’s relation to water. It is because of the market that despotic community panchayats cannot excommunicate anyone. The barbers, laundrymen and carpenters of the village can now open a roadside stall and demand their wage in cash for their labour. They are free from the inhuman tradition that forced them to work for the upper and well-off middle castes for the whole year and left them at their masters’ mercy for a tiny portion of the harvest. Mechanization has not only added to the convenience of the farmer and increased his production, but also humanized his status. The plougher, who drove the oxen through the fields, and in the eyes of the owner, was lowlier than animals, is now the “driver saheb” at the wheel of the tractor. Market helps Dalits to be treated like humans but even it cannot accommodate everyone.

Delhi’s congested Laxmi Nagar, home to migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (Photo: Nawal)

We see in every journey that more people have migrated to cities. An old folksong goes, “Laagal jhulniya ka dhakka balam kalkatta pahach gaye”. In other words, “soon after marriage, my lover had to rush to Kolkata to earn a living”. This song is from those days when boys were married off before they came to their senses and became witness to the migration that was their destiny. Even today the situation is almost the same. The folksongs earlier had references to Kolkata or Bombay; today Surat, Amritsar, Noida and Gurgaon have become the new centres to which the youth are escaping in search of employment. Hina Desai studies rural-urban migration. She says more than 80 per cent of youth have migrated from the villages of eastern Uttar Pradesh. They include youth of all castes. Only the elderly, women and children can be seen in the villages. The government’s figures also reveal that today the rural and urban populations are almost equal. This is a global process that we cannot and perhaps should not stop.

Rather than becoming nostalgic over deserted villages, won’t it be appropriate to build in cities better places to live, with the basic facilities, for the fleeing youth? It is the caste system that is largely responsible for turning villages into hell. The cities, which are free from this institution can be made more human only if uncontrolled crowds are not left to their fate, to plonk themselves. The state needs to develop organized residential areas with basic facilities like roads, electricity, water, health and education while keeping in mind the environment.

About The Author

Vibhuti Narain Rai

Vibhuti Narain Rai (born 28 November 1951) is a Hindi novelist. He has been director general of police, Uttar Pradesh, and vice-chancellor, Mahatma Gandhi Antarashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, Wardha. His works include ‘Ghar’, ‘Shahar mein Curfew’, ‘Kissa Loktantra’, ‘Tabadala’, ‘Prem ki Bhootkatha’. His memoir, ‘Hashimpura: Uttar Pradesh ke Itihaas ek Kaala Adhyaya’, has been widely read