Odisha’s ‘Mehentars’ Get A Face & Voice In Gopinath Mohanty’s ‘Harijan’

Harijana is the first of the two fine novels that Gopinath Mohanty wrote in the ‘urban phase’ of his literary career, the second being Danapani (1955; English translation The Survivor, 1996; Our Daily Bread, 2015). The novel was published in 1948, just a year after India achieved independence.

As can be assumed from the name, the novel focuses on the plight of a vast class of disenfranchised people who are yet to have the taste of independence, though they may have been legalistically free. They inhabit the bottom rung of Indian society by virtue of their being born into the lowest of the low caste. This is the caste of scavengers—or ‘mehentars’, to give the name by which they are called in Odia—who were engaged in cleaning the earlier type of latrine known as ‘utha or khata paikhana’ (pick up or dry latrine), literally meaning latrine from which faeces have to be picked by hand and put into a basket or tin box or earthen pot to be carried away for disposal.

The author followed Gandhi in naming his novel ‘Harijan’, but minus the idealisation implicit in Gandhi’s use of the term. The author’s use of the terminology was double-edged, meant to show their orphaned condition, which makes them a special target of discrimination in a caste-based society. He wanted to humanise them too. There is a graphic description in the novel of the work that the mehentaranis—the female mehentars—do.

“Almost every house had a ‘khata paikhana’ or ‘dry latrine’ at the back, which had to be cleaned manually by a mehentrani once in three or four days. It was a tiny, windowless, airless shed with a floor that was raised at least three feet off the ground and had a hole in the centre over which the user squatted. The waste dropped into a bucket below and when it was full, it was dragged out by the mehentrani, cleaned, and put back in place. With her bare hands she scooped out the excreta out of the bucket into her basket and carried it on her head to the cart which would transport it to the dumping-ground far away from the city. The mehentrani entered the pit through a trap-door at the rear which had to be lifted by another mehentrani.” (Chapter 12, P. 89)

The plot of Harijan centres around the 15-year-old ‘mehentar’ girl Puni, who is the lotus that grows in the mud of Nakadharapur, the slum where the latrine cleaners live. Her decision to follow her mother’s calling, despite being fiercely protected from it by her mother, sets the novel’s action rolling. The action is slender but it has an intricate backstory that moves it closer to the complex plot dynamics of a novel like Dickens’s Bleak House.

The Harijan girl Puni, the novel’s protagonist, has more than a passing resemblance with the street crossing sweeper Jo of the Dickens novel. Not only is she a scum of the earth like him; she is also, like Jo, the product of the sexual union of a higher-up and a low-born, forbidden by society. The roles here are reversed, unlike in Bleak House, the higher-up being a man and the low-born being a woman, a latrine cleaner. Further, caste is thrown into the equation for good measure. To cut a long story short, Puni is the illegitimate child of a clandestine liaison between Puni’s mother Jema and the well-heeled Avinash Babu whose mansion sits cheek by jowl with the slum of the latrine cleaners. Jema, the latrine cleaner of Avinsah Babu and other Babus like him by day, had been his mistress under the cover of the night.

Now that Puni has attained youth, the same trajectory is poised to be re-travelled, with Avinash’s young, wayward son Aghore, who is intent on seducing her. With an action that leads inevitably towards a brother seducing a sister, Mohanty has imagined the unimaginable in Odia, nay, Indian literature. The depravity of the higher social class was never better portrayed. Nor was the Indian society’s obsession with purity shown as being undermined by its own corrupt and polluting practices. It is a good twenty-two years after that U.R. Ananta Murthy would imagine the unimaginable in his novel Samskara.

The action of the novel moves inexorably towards the defeat of the Harijans and their displacement from the slum to make way for the real estate development of Avinash Babu. Puni awakes from her illusion even as she becomes aware of the class and caste barriers that structure society. The Harijans may have lost, but the readers have moved several steps closer to empathising with them.

Harijan, then, is the first Odia novel to have portrayed the lives of the untouchables authentically. Through this portrayal, the novel critiques the Indian, and, Odia society’s caste-based attempts to segregate the spheres of purity and pollution and to exploit those in the margins. The power and flavour of the novel are conveyed beautifully in Bikram Das’s competent and evocative translation.

(Harijan: A Novel. Gopinath Mohanty. Translated by Bikram Das. Aleph Book Company, Delhi, 2021, pp. 322. Rs. 599.)







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