Their shadow could not fall on anyone a caste above them. No right to draw water from the village well. Children of God, “Harijan”, said Gandhi. The Constitution titled them Scheduled Caste. Dalit, the preferred word in the world of activists.
Does the term matter? The “Idea” of the untouchable lurks like a shadow that cannot be shaken off. The bright lights of a city can blur the shadow and keep one untouched with idea on a daily basis. Not so in rural India. Not yet.
Some scattered stories.
My first encounter with the tall, stately priest remains etched. He had come for the annual ancestral ritual, “shraadh”, to be performed at home. As he entered, I moved forward and bent to touch his feet. He immediately shuffled his feet back as he blessed me. Lesson one learnt.
All preparations were done. The puja was performed and I was ready to serve him his meal. He immediately declined in spite of much persuasion by my husband and me. Panna called me aside and said, “He won’t eat here.” Lesson two learnt.
We gave the “dakshina” (that he never states), fruits, a box of sweets. He was on his way.
The priest and I have developed a special relationship. Scant as it is, he seems to think I have a great understanding of Indian philosophy and admires me for it. I always needle him. Asking questions about minutiae in the ritual or a “shloka” he just recited. He has a great sense of humour and pulls my leg.
The fact doesn’t change. He has never had a sip of water or a morsel of food in our home. I pay my bent respects with folded palms from a distance. I always wondered who ate the box of sweets “cooked” by god knows who. Maybe the children? Or even they not?
Recently, an Oral History project engaged me with 12 spirited village elders showing great of co-operation and involvement. I thought an evening tea with snacks was quite in order. My local team said, “They are mostly ‘pandits’. They may not even have tea. It will be a wasted effort.”
I was stumped…and numb for many days…
During those days, I thought about a young man, let’s call him Vishal. I invited him to come for a meal with his wife when he got married. Once, twice, thrice. Vishal never said “no”. He also never said “yes”. The matter was always shelved. I always imagined it was because he was busy, which he usually is. It was much later that I got wiser. He was a “pandit”, a top-notch one too.
Flip side. The same Vishal was among the core community members conducting the cremation ceremony for my husband at the riverfront. Placing the logs of wood, monitoring the ritualistic process, stoking the fire till the last. It was not at my behest.
There is the curious case of the local grocery store. Pantji opened this shop about 60 years ago. It was a time when they travelled miles with mules and horses to bring back essentials. Today, you can buy anything, from tabasco to frozen jumbo prawns here.
The story is actually about Pantji’s wife, Kamlaji, a beautiful, green-glassy-eyed petite lady. She rarely comes down from her home in the village. Once, she was seated quietly, smiling at all who passed by. I stopped to chat and asked, “So, have you had some tea and snacks?” She smiled, nodded and simply said, “No”.
Her son, Gaurav, was quick to explain. “She has never had tea at the shop.” One is supposed to understand the rest. Gaurav, the younger brother, himself has no “hang-ups”, as he says. He doesn’t eat non-vegetarian food but has no issues about sharing a table with anyone.
Many days later, I asked Gaurav, “What do men and women like your mother do at weddings and other functions where caterers cook?” Gaurav explained, “There will be a separate kitchen and these women will cook their own food, including wheat dough made with cow’s milk, called ‘chokhaa’.”
It seems, till about ten years ago, the older Pantji did not eat at the shop. Who will cook it, being the bottom line. Food cooked by his wife would be brought to him. Today, the shop is stocked with all possible non-vegetarian stuff of fish, chicken, “even” pork.
I have still not had the courage to have a discussion with the sons. How did it transpire to reach here while the father was still alive? How did he react? What were the arguments at home? Is the mother in the loop or out of it?
It is a delicate matter. After all, the only other equally big store next to them has still not taken this step. Even though there is no patriarch there. I only know the another inside story there.
Local tradition demands that if rice, “bhaat”, is cooked and served, it has to be by someone, naturally daughter-in-law, wrapped only in a cotton cloth. Nothing else. Well, it seems a bit much for the younger women here now. So either the mother-in-law prefers to stay without rice. Or it is washed and kept in a clean kitchen—for her to make—in a sheer cotton cloth.
Where and how does dogma begin—and end? The consuming obsessive fear of an un-seeable virus, passing from one human being to another, is the New Shadow separating us in the Covid Era. A new challenge for Harvard and the likes. Myth and Science in Behavioural Sociology.

Neelima Mathur is an India-based Executive Producer, Researcher, Writer, Mentor and Trainer for documentary and NGO films. She is also Festival Director of the Lakeside Doc Festival.