Water Hyacinth - Namashudra
"This was a community that remained neglected away from the watch of the nation's administration. The people born in nature, lived in their own way and even died in their own way. The name of the history of life and death is 'prisnika' - growing up like the Water Hyacinth and dying like it, uncared for." (Manohar Mouli Biswas)
Eichhornia crassipes, was banned in Ceylon by the Water Hyacinth Ordinance of 20th March 1909, prohibiting import, distribution or possession of the plant. It had been introduced by British colonials to India in 1890 and Sri Lanka in 1905 as an ornamental plant 'Cinderella of the plant kingdom', and came to be known locally as 'Japan Jabara'. It has been blacklisted in India too, where it has come to be termed 'Bengal Terror'.
Manohar Mouli Biswas belongs to an ethnic group identified as Namashudra in India. There are many such groups popularly identified by the term Dalit. Biswas compares their people to water hyacinth probably because of its high adaptability, tolerance to pollution and toxicity and resistance to disease and pests. Yet the Namashudra are not an introduced alien group, but indigenous people of South Asia, and an indispensable part of society.
Biswas wrote his autobiography as 'Amar Jibane Ami Benche Thaki' translated by Angana Dutta and Jaydeep Sarangi as 'Surviving in My World: Growing Up Dalit in Bengal'. Dalit, from Sanskrit 'dal' - broken, ground down, is a name these groups had found for themselves, in place of Harijans (God's Children coined by Mahatma Gandhi) and Untouchables. There are over 170 million Dalits (17% of Indian population). About these statistics Biswas comments, "We were only used in the head count for making the Hindus the majority. Socially, economically, culturally and educationally, we were a massive heap of garbage at the bottom."
Manohar Mouli claims he belongs to the branch of their caste named 'Biswas' (Trustworthy?) while the other two branches are 'Sarkar' and 'Mandal'. The other 'castes' who lived in their region are Jele, Malo, Muchi, Chamar, and Dhopa. "They were hardworking people by birth. Labour is another name for life to them.", says Biswas.
How wonderful it would have been if these people could continue to live their innocent lives without succumbing to greed and envy, introduced by the urban culture. These people were happy with what they had, and also were always ready to share. They did not sell their milk or food. If there was excess, it would be shared with another family who did not have enough food. In such ways they should belong to the highest castes in the country, reminding us of the words of the Buddha. "Action makes a man an outcaste, Action makes a man a Brahmin" (Vasala Sutta).
Manohar Mouli Biswas mentions Richard Biswas who wrote 'Jatiya Jagaran' (1921) who had to sit in a separate place within the classroom at the Moolghar High School. His father had to build a low stool for him. This incident reminded me of how a lab attendant at the Kankasanturai Cement Factory had to sit on the floor because the supposed to be 'high caste' staff would not allow him to sit even on a bench, and these people were not allowed to enter many of the Hindu kovils.
The author's mother was of the Matua faith, propagated by Harichand and his son Guruchand. she would pray to Hari-Guru when children fell sick. They were heroes who were fighting for the dignity and respect these people deserved, by developing the Namashudra community, spreading formal education on secular lines and fighting against prevalent social evils.
There were Muslims in some of the villages, and Biswas draws our attention to the unity which prevailed among the two religious faiths, who lived as one community. "Even though we Namashudras and the Muslims fight among each other over work, we live in the same place, work on the same fields. We do not look down upon each other; we do not hate each other". At the time of the partition, many Hindu Shudras opted to stay in East Pakistan because "We who live on Shalpa (white water lily) and Shaluk (blue water lily) flowers of the fields, whether we are Hindu or Muslims, we are the same- there were no divisions among our forefathers. We are one, and staying united we will dwell in this country. No one will be able to separate us."
Long before the time of Biswas, there had been speculation that many Shudras would convert to Islam, and the Hindu Mahasabha had been worried in the early 30s that even Ambedkar would convert, thus depriving the majority count of the Hindus.
Not all Brahmins would agree to perform the Durga puja in the Dalit villages. The Brahmins who attended were considered to be of a lower status 'baun' by the other Brahmins. Watching this ceremony as a child Biswas had not seen the dark skinned man who was killed by Durga as an evil force, but as another human being on this land.
By a strange coincidence, while I was reading 'Surviving in My World', I received the latest issue of the Indian Journal of Comparative literature and Translation Studies, which carried the interview of the writer, Manoranjan Byapari, who also happens to be of the Namasudra caste. He mentions one of the translators, Prof. Jaydeep Sarangi who organized a conference on Dalit Writings.
It is time now for them to give up identifying themselves as Dalits, and only as human beings, Homo sapiens sapiens. Let me end with a line from the book, "Now it sometimes occurs to me that we were the children of the sun - the infinite power of the sun was present in us and we lived on the strength of that infinite power" May they continue to have the strength of the infinite power.