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I have tried my best to forget my past. But the past is stubborn, it will not be erased so easily. Many Dalits may see what I am doing here as someone picking through a pile of garbage. A scavenger’s account of his life. But he who does not know his past cannot direct his future.
The Maharwada I knew in my childhood has been destroyed over the last thirty or forty years. But how can I erase those vivid images? They haunt me still.
It was not in the Mahar’s nature to beg. The Mahar did not see baluta—his share of the produce of the land—as charity. It was his by right and it was one of the fifty-two rights that the Mahars had been granted by deed of gift. Everyone was proud of this tradition. By this tradition too, they had received land that had been granted with only a nominal tax attached. This is something you see especially in Western Maharashtra. The small piece of land that adjoined a Mahar house was called the haadki, the bone yard, perhaps because the bones—the ‘haad’ in Marathi—of the dead animals we stripped ended up there. The land that was some distance away was called ‘hadavla’. I don’t remember ever seeing the Mahars from my village at work on the land. I was told that they had once tilled the soil but that was in the time before my birth. But since it was very far away, everyone used the hadavla as the village commons. In return, we were given some nominal payment.
A disturbing story is told in the Mahar community about the fifty-two rights. The Muslim king of Paithan- Bedar is said to have given us these rights. Vitthal Ramji Shinde wrote in his book, The Question of Untouchability in India, that he had seen the copper plate recording the grant. It said: ‘A bastion of the Purandhar Fort was being built but would not stand. The Padshah had a dream that if the eldest son and eldest daughter of a family were to be buried there alive, the work would be completed. When the king awoke, he told Yesaji Naik Chibe, [who was a Mahar], about his dream. Naik did not hesitate. “I offer you my son and daughter-in-law,” he said. And so Nathnak and Devkai were buried alive on the eighth day of the bright half of the lunar month of Ashwin. And the bastion was completed.’
Another legend of the origin of these rights concerned the honesty of the Mahars. A beautiful young daughter of the Padshah had to be escorted to Delhi. On the way, she had to cross a dense jungle. This was the time when there were no vehicles and so a trusted Mahar was sent with her. He was a young man, virile and tough. When he returned to the court after completing his task, someone suggested that all was not as it should be. It was suggested that he might have raped the princess. The Mahar reminded the Padshah that before he left he had entrusted a small wooden box to the ruler’s care. ‘This contains something of value to me,’ he had said. ‘Please keep it until I return.’ Now he asked the Padshah to open the box. Inside was his penis. He had had it cut off in advance.
The king was pleased by this display of honesty. He said: ‘Ask what you want.’
‘I want nothing for myself,’ said the young man. ‘But give my community something that will last for generations.’
The king granted the Mahars the fifty-two rights. These are the glorious traditions that gave rise to the Maharki, the
entitlements of the Mahars.
What I saw of this Maharki as a child has left its scars. This history will not be erased. Perhaps it will only go when I die. This stain of helplessness on my face? It dates back to that time. However much I scour my face, even to the point of bleeding, it will not be wiped away.
There was no timetable for the Mahar’s work. It was slavery, for he was bound to whatever work had to be done for all twenty-four hours of the day. This was called bigar labour. Most of these jobs needed neither study nor skill. Some of the jobs fell into disuse. But others remained, millstones around our necks. We still had to take the village taxes into town. We were supposed to run in front of the horse of any important person who came into the village, tend to his animals, feed and water them and give them medicines. We made the proclamations announcing funerals from village to village. We dragged away the carcasses of dead animals. We chopped firewood. We played music day and night at festivals and welcomed new bridegrooms at the village borders on their wedding days. For all this, what did we get? Baluta, our share of the village harvest. As a child, I would always go with my mother to claim our share. Each house had its own bounden Mahar and once the grain had been stacked in the threshing floors, someone from each Mahar family would be on his or her way, shorn widows included. Each Mahar would carry a coarse blanket. The farmers grumbled as they handed over the grain: ‘Low-born scum, you do no work. Motherfuckers, always first in line to get your share. Do you think this is your father’s grain?’ The Mahars of those days were no pushovers. They were glossy black and well built. They gave the Marathas as good as they got. The Marathas would try to fob us off with grain from the top of the heap, where it is at its thinnest. We wanted grain from the bottom, where the ripe grain would settle. Finally, the Mahars would spread their blankets on the grain and the Marathas would give them whatever was beneath. This came with a stream of abuse. The Mahars would ignore them completely as they tied up their bundles.
Speaking of the duties of the Mahars, another story comes to mind. Once all the taxes of the village were collected, it fell to the Mahars to deliver the money to the authorities in the taluka. When the money had been deposited, the clerk would hand over a receipt.
In much the same way, an old widow goes to pay the tax. The poor thing deposits the money but forgets to take the receipt. The next day, when the old lady comes running to the courthouse for the receipt, the Brahmin clerk, cunning as a fox, shows no humanity. He pretends not to remember. Slapping herself across the face with both hands, the old woman comes back to the village. She is accused of stealing the money. She begs and pleads. She swears her innocence at the feet of the goddess. But no one has any pity on her. All the villagers spit their scorn at her. She is handcuffed and taken to the taluka headquarters, deemed guilty of theft. The clerk walks out scot free. The old lady serves a jail sentence of two or three months and returns.