Who'd Be an Untouchable?

Dispatches From Bangladesh

Who'd Be an Untouchable?

Dispatches From Bangladesh

Who'd Be an Untouchable?
Notes from different corners of the world.
April 19 2007 7:22 AM

Dispatches From Bangladesh

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The village of Gosaipur. Click image to expand.
The village of Gosaipur

The people of Gosaipur, a village in northwestern Bangladesh just outside the city of Dinajpur, regard Khokan as their finest hunter. Yet in his turquoise loongi, a traditional Bangladeshi man-skirt, and navy blue T-shirt with a screen-printed portrait of a female Bengali film star, he didn't strike me as a fearsome figure. But the skills needed for hunting turtles and kuchia, a species of eel that lives in the swamp, don't require bravado or great strength. "You need to be quick," Khokan said, describing his technique for catching kuchia with his hands. "You watch for the fin print in the mud, and then you pounce." And the turtles? He shrugged, feigned nonchalance, and added, "I just chase them down and stick a spear through their shell."

Khokan with barbecued kuchia, or eel. Click image to expand.
Khokan with barbecued kuchia, or eel

Khokan belongs to a caste of Hindus known as "Mushaheris," a Sanskrit word meaning mice-eaters. The Mushaheris are Dalits, the lowest of the low, according to the Hindu caste system. They were known as untouchables before the Indian subcontinent became politically correct. Some say that if so much as the shadow of a Dalit touches a person from an upper caste, the aristocrat should bathe thoroughly to cleanse any impurities. Dalits, numbering about 1 million in Bangladesh (and well over 100 million in Hindu-majority India), are socially immobile. Potential employers shy away from hiring someone labeled an untouchable by their co-religionists. Men and women are usually left toiling as brick-breakers. Yet the wages from breaking bricks are meager—around 70 cents a day—and not enough to buy meat. To compensate for protein deficiencies, Dalits hunt and eat anything they can find. Mice are the most common, thus the name "mice-eaters." But mouse season recently ended, Khokan said. Kuchia were abundant. He ran off to retrieve the spoils of yesterday's hunt: two barbequed eel heads, skewered on a knobby twig.

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After showing me his tools for breaking bricks and spearing turtles, Khokan offered a tour of the village. A distinct smell of urine wafted through the air. In one corner, the village pig rolled in dirt while a cow on a short leash circled around a pole. Both animals, Khokan explained, are investments for a rainy day; a Christian village will buy the pig for about $100 next Christmas, and the cow could fetch several hundred dollars.

Gosaipur’s temple to Shiva. Click image to expand.
Gosaipur's temple to Shiva

Gosaipur's main attraction is a soccer-goal-sized temple dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu god of creation and destruction. Apparently, Shiva liked to get stoned, and so, to fully show his veneration, Khokan smoked a lot of pot. He pulled a hash-packed chillum, a pipe traditionally used by Hindu mystics to smoke hashish, from his pocket and suggested we light up. I declined as diplomatically as possible, not wanting him to think my refusal reflected bias against sharing a pipe with an untouchable. "It's only 9 in the morning," I said. "And I still have a day's worth of meetings to attend." Picturing an afternoon of the munchies with the eel heads was enough to make anyone decline the invitation.

After saying farewell to Khokan and leaving Gosaipur, I learned that Muslims inhabit the neighboring village. Bangladesh is a Muslim-majority country, but about 10 percent to 12 percent of the population of around 145 million is Hindu. Bangladeshis boast that their vibrant, liberal culture is a product of Hindus and Muslims living side by side for centuries. Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali poet, artist, and novelist who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 and is hailed as Bangladesh's Shakespeare, was a Hindu. Two of Tagore's poems would later be adopted as national anthems by both India and Bangladesh.

Still, there are others who think that the rise of Islamist groups in Bangladesh poses a threat to the Hindu minority, especially the outcast Mushaheris. "Jamaat-i-Islami has taken advantage of their weaknesses," said Shah Mobin Jinnah, director of the Community Development Association, an NGO based in Dinajpur. Jinnah believes that the Islamists are using the Mushaheris' illiteracy and destitute poverty to encourage conversions. Can you blame them? I asked Jinnah. Wouldn't you consider converting to another religion if the one you belonged to classified you as untouchable? It's been done before. On Aug. 14, 1956, B.R. Ambedkar, a primary author of India's constitution and a Dalit by birth, converted himself—and 380,000 other untouchables—to Buddhism.

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After my meeting with Jinnah, I headed to another Mushaheri village about 30 miles outside Dinajpur. The company that normally runs buses between the main road and the village had, for unknown reasons, scrapped their service for the day, so we rented a "van." I'm unsure how a bicycle pulling a flatbed with two wheels and a lantern dangling underneath was ever dubbed a van, but a friend and I loaded onto the back of it, held the sides so as not to slide off, and went bumping along. After a chilly, 45-minute bike ride on a two-lane road that meandered through rice paddies, we arrived in the second village, Subarna Khuli, or "golden field," at dusk. Three kids played catch with a ball of tape. Across the village, one family performed mundan,a Hindu ritual in which the male child's first haircut involves shaving the boy's head. Fellow villagers gathered to celebrate, and the family distributed handfuls of rice wrapped in banana leaves. The village had toilets and a schoolhouse. A few people even had jobs.

A short, thin man named Donasher introduced himself as a rice farmer. He had just finished a day's work, standing knee-deep in grimy water planting rice. A frequent and violent cough sounded like someone was beating him on the back with a 2-by-4. Soon enough, Donasher said, the rice season would end and he'd have no work. "How do you make your earnings last through the year?" I asked. "We can't," he said. During other "off seasons" he hunted and ate mice. But lately, Donasher hasn't needed to go out hunting. About two years ago, village life improved dramatically when everyone converted—to Christianity.

Donasher recalled how two teams of missionaries, one from the Bangladesh Lutheran Church and another from Thali Ta Khumi Church, entered Subarna Khuli and told the village elders: "We will look after you." They immediately built a church. They followed that with a school, where the children receive one meal a day. "They have given us winter clothes, and in workless times, they have given us money," Donasher said. Before long, responding to the churches' persistent requests, government engineers installed a tube well to pump safe drinking water. "They have helped us both spiritually and economically," he said.

I thought back on what Shah Mobin Jinnah had told me earlier in the day. And he was right: The Mushaheris are a vulnerable lot. Their own religion doesn't seem to want them, so why should they feel compelled to stay Hindu forever? More than that, however, the story of Subarna Khuli illustrates how religious conversions take place. There are plenty of stories about domineering missionaries using force or manipulative tactics to convert. But often, it is just a matter of satisfying people's basic needs. Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist—whichever missionaries can improve the lives of people like Donasher will ultimately win their allegiance.

Nevertheless, neither church has delivered electricity to Subarna Khuli yet. An hour after we arrived, the sky fell pitch black, and Donasher ran off to get a bottle of molasses moonshine. Four of us sat on the floor of his single-room home and passed around the bottle, using the light of my cell phone to find one another's hand. I took one gulp that immediately sent a burning sensation down to my toes. After another swig, we boarded the van and, holding tight, meandered back through the rice paddies.