The book “Harijan” by Gopinath Mohanty was first published in the Odia in 1948, and has been translated for the first time into English by Bikram Das.
It is one of the most original and radical Indian novels of the twentieth century. It brings to vivid life the story of a group of Mehentars living in a slum. Cleaning latrines with their bare hands is the only work that they can hope to find as their caste excludes them from every other occupation.
Gopinath Mohanty (1914–91) was an eminent Odia novelist and short story writer.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
How beautiful! Puni tells herself, looking up at the sky. Behind her, the colours of the sunset are beginning to spread while up ahead, the mango trees growing in uneven patches droop under the weight of their blossoms. Bees hum. The spring breeze lingers, trying to disguise the stench of garbage. Behind the mango trees are hillocks and shallow ravines and on the other side, the dust-covered road leading to the cremation ground. The timid footprints of human habitation—the winding road, narrow paths, and hunch-backed fences—come into view. The river runs haltingly here as though reluctant to show its face. It is not visible from the hollows of the basti where the Mehentars live but you can see the sky above the river. Flocks of birds are strewn across the sky like the beads of a necklace whose string has broken. A picture in motion. The old beggar totters on his crutches. The driver of the bullock-cart behind him hurries him along—‘hut! hut!’ Perhaps it is time for a train to arrive. A chain of rickshaws scurries down the road, bells tinkling. The crowded, dirty, noisy city. Beautiful, nevertheless, in an elusive sort of way—ever rushing, fading away. The sun is about to set. The light grows dim on the sand dunes of the cremation ground.
‘Puni! Puni!’ her mother is calling. Let her call! The fading sunlight trails across the thicket of houses. Now the sun has touched the tip of the temple. Coconut trees all around. Above her, hurrying away, never to return, the dying moments of the day—crowded, stifling. ‘Puni! Why don’t you come quickly?’ How she shouts, as though she’s going to topple the earth! Behind her is her own habitat—Nakadharapur, the slum forcibly occupied by Mehentars. A cluster of stooped huts, grown bald with age, making faces at her to tease her! On the other side of the basti is the garbage dump where the refuse of the entire city comes to rest. Nakadharpur—oh! her mother’s shouts will make her deaf! The sun’s rays have brought a little warmth. Again, the dust and smoke rising from the slum. Filthy people, like sewers! Beyond the basti, behind the high walls and the tall houses, curving away towards the river in a half moon—that’s where the old society has its roots. The people who own Nakadharapur. No one can lift Nakadharapur—it squats solidly on the ground.
‘Where did you disappear, Puni? Why don’t you listen when I call you?’ her mother screeched.
On that side stands the great house, raising its head proudly, like a bull. The grandeur of wealth. Another colony of scavengers had existed there once. It is gone; its bones have mingled with the brick and mortar of the great house—Avinash Babu’s sprawling double-storeyed mansion. How pretty his daughter Manomoyee looks in her parrot-green sari! She stands on the terrace surveying the scene. What is she saying? Why is she laughing so much? ‘Who are all these filthy people below our house?’ They must be the same age—Manomoyee and her image from the past.
Manomoyee leaves but her brother, Aghore, remains on the terrace. The only son of the Bada Babu—the Big Boss. He is what every man should be! How beautifully he is dressed! At the peak of his youth. No flaws anywhere. You can never gaze long enough.
What does one do to merit such happiness? The drains of the stinking slum—and rising high above that black world, the enchanted life on the roof-tops of tall buildings. The wind couldn’t possibly contain any dust there—no dirt, no want. No limits on the view that you command. Surely the world must look much more charming from that height. Electric lights, machines that sing to you, flowers blooming in pots, every moment a feast! No carts carrying filth; no basket or broom, drains…. Those above reign over the ones below. Aghore Babu can’t be too far from that elevated world. What is he gazing at now? Could he have seen Puni? Could he be thinking of her? Whether he does or not, how can you take your eyes off him?
‘Puni!’ the call was coming nearer. ‘Oh, there you are, and here I am, killing myself shouting out to you! Just you wait—I’ve pampered you long enough! I’ll send you to work tomorrow! Just because I say nothing, you think you can do what you like, go where you like—just like a queen! Come with me!’
Empty threats! No matter what else she does, there’s one thing that Bou will never do—send me to work!
People have grown tired of telling her, but will she listen? No means no! She might be drowning in filth herself but she’ll never let Puni go!
‘Bou, how can I swallow these dry lumps of rice? They stick in my throat.’
‘Oh, you need some rasagullas with your rice then?’ But Jema has a soft heart beneath the foul tongue. How can the poor girl eat yesterday’s rice, with nothing to spice it up? She tucks a couple of coins into the fold of the sari at her waist and sets off to the market. She will get some sukhua for the child. Puni loves the tang of dried fish.
‘I’ll be back, but don’t you go anywhere,’ she said. ‘Careful now!’
‘Hmm,’ Puni replied, with the ball of rice stuck in her mouth.