The shit that makes us and the shit we make

A poem for Gandhi ji on the sweet occasion of his birth and Swacch Bharath anniversary

The ideal Bhangi of my conception would be a Brahmin par excellence, possibly even excel him… A Bhangi does for society what a mother does for her baby… An ideal Bhangi, while deriving his livelihood from his occupation, would approach it only as a sacred duty. In other words, he would not dream of amassing wealth out of it.’

—Mahatma Gandhi, in “The Ideal Bhangi”, Harijan 28 November 1936

What would be there to love if love were not not easy 
What would be there to loss if it did not bear beauty 
What would happen to beauty if it was not found everywhere 
like the Qutub’s mindless splendour impervious to my mindful stare
framed against a russet sky seen through the window of a car 
that helps me unsee grinning holes, and man entering hell’s door 
We are forever made small by tall things that have no say in how we live 
What we go past is what goes past us till we are left with but ourselves

The smile that cannot shame us is the one he thinks we deserve 
His generosity does not leave us debtless although a more honest conversation 
on humiliation and death ]decreed by good citizens, no less[ has not been had 
Not since Gandhi ji told us a bhangi must derive sweet joy from his work
and the shudra may not labour for a wage but hope his masters feel penitent and pay
—not reparations, just a tithe to the Harijan Sevak Sangh, now a Swacch cess 

to make the Ideal Bhangi that Prasoon ji had in mind ]and Modi ji now has[ plumb
no-man-fathomed depths that have made this poem lose all shame
and have caused it to name names that may never know shame

And when he ]Prasoon ji who clogs this poem[ told us there’s no better safety gear 
than Radio Mirchi offering a song about how pleasant the weather inside is—
where a brother ]whom no rakhi can save, no prayer can redeem, no love may
fully claim[ goes—Prasoon ji arrives at a heinous truth like he arrives at a Padmashri—
]may such a man remain unseen so we may remain clean[ finding us all a way
of seeing the bhangi happy in his world—the world of our savarna shit
Brand Equity praised the ad for high recall value—makes a wonderful ringtone, it said 
That no one found it offensive must cause no offence—it’s a free country for the free
Prasoon ji and Modi ji are not the problem—they’re just made of our shamelessness 

We are left with the Happy Harijan, the Ideal Bhangi who smiles without guile 
at a guileful world that’s always in luck ]seems guileful is used only in poems
and dictionaries nowadays[ for a comrade says no point getting hysterical or cynical,
irony is a device of the elite, all is structure, and the revolution is coming, sure-as-death
Till then please don’t hold your shit or breath—in Delhi, the self-defining velocity
of sewage is 1 m/s or 3.6 km/h ]and along floats the revolution, daintily[
Meanwhile, Ravish ji Rahul ji Mayawati ji 6G Gomata ji, do ask Anand ji
not to add to the filth with poems that forsake poetry, only to say guilefully: 
No worst, there is none. All life death does end and each day dies with sleep

Writing the previous poem, that appeared in The Wire—which, among others, rejected this sequel piece you’re reading—I was trying to help the webzine find a photograph where the manhole worker’s face was not shown—putting a face to the worker has not humanised us or the worker in years. Captions anyway almost never mention the name of those whose pictures they print apparently to expose a practice that needs no exposure. Such images reify our tolerance of violence. We ended up choosing a photograph by Sudharak Olwe of Mumbai who has extensively documented these state-aided, society-abetted murders.

While looking at old long-unopened folders, I landed on pictures of three unknown manhole workers in Chennai, one of them about to enter a sewer. These pictures came my way in 2005 when Navayana published India Stinking: Manual Scavengers in Andhra Pradesh and their Work by Gita Ramaswamy (out of print for years now), which documented the early work of the Safai Karamchari Andolan and Bezwada Wilson. The pictures came on a pen drive via Senthil Kumar, a stringer for Outlook magazine when I was their Chennai correspondent. But Senthil was not the photographer. In the brotherhood of up-and-coming news photographers, photographs (and cameras) are shared. Credit too was shared or, like in this case, just not given.

In professional terms this may well be called an amateur photograph taken without any sense of light, composition, patience, tact, and yes, guile. The subject seems amused that his work is being photographed and will appear in a paper or a magazine. He smiles away. What do we do with this throwaway smile? Is he alive now? Still serving society namelessly? These seemingly artless pictures tell us much about the world we live in—and about us, the onlookers who never see—than the best work of celebrated photographer-artists. I wish Gandhi ji had seen it—he would have been moved to write a new Sermon on the Bhangi (if Prasoon ji would let him).

The picture put me at such great discomfort that I wanted to shit. What is it to be the image that looks every gaze in the eye, marking each indifference? I quickly shut the computer. The photograph we had used in a small way on the back cover of India Stinking has haunted me ever since, and it brought back memories of the Radio Mirchi ad of 2007. I began a piece of reportage for Tehelka that year by looking at how and why this ad, made by the Rang De Basanti song-writer, who claims he ‘can see through’, was considered cool (‘simple concept, beautiful execution’). It is this undying comfort that is discomforting. No worst, there is none. The man who made the ad now writes songs for the Swacch Bharath Mission and had come up with the Acche Din campaign for Modi ji.

I hope they will also give me a Padmashri. Satyameva Jayate.


23–26 September 2018, Delhi–Jaipur


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S. Anand Written by:

S. Anand is a poet and the publisher of Navayana and the co-author of Finding My Way.

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