Untouchable God

Written by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd | Published on: January 23, 2016


The hotel was an old mix of florid Mughal art and rather shabby modern contrivances. They ate breakfast in the dining hall and went out to explore Old Delhi. At the Red Fort Isaiah noticed two ticket counters. ‘Foreigners pay fifty dollars, Indians pay five!’
 
Jacob smiled a little. ‘The politicians choose to think you are rich.’
 
‘Fair enough. I suppose we are.’ The ticket collector looked at Isaiah quizzically, then motioned him into the Indian line. ‘Sir, whites pay the full price but since you are black you can pay the Indian price,’ he said.
 
Isaiah laughed and said, ‘I’m honoured to be a notional Indian. Thank you.’ They went round and saw the fort. Isaiah was impressed by its mass, its sheer size: it had been clearly intended to be the heart of a vast empire. He could see in its stolid permanence the eternal reality of Delhi: a place to rule from, with the business-like bustle of a military camp and the flamboyant decadence of a highly sophisticated court. He did not doubt that the modern reality would be no different.
 
The next day they chartered a car and went to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. This is the place where every foreign tourist spends some time. They found a guide there, a tall, distinguished-looking man in a churidar kurta who rescued them from the rougher gang that hung around the gates of the great monument. The man explained the Taj Mahal’s history and glory in sophisticated Urduized Hindi, which Jacob haltingly translated. Isaiah was impressed at the grandiose scale of the Taj, and the fact that unlike the Red Fort, this building was supremely purposeless: it memoralised a dead love who had never walked under its domes. He felt the flash of an insight into this culture: no one in America would build anything like this: if they did, the building would also have a function: it would be a concert hall, an art gallery or a theatre, or even a casino. But merely to exist, to embody memory through its beauty and grace, like a painting or a sculpture: that idea was strange and somehow humbling, as though a higher consciousness had conceived it. Would the British empire have ever built anything like this? ‘Is there any historical monument around here that the British built?’ asked Isaiah. There was none, replied the guide. Only the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta, which was a museum. ‘These inlays that you see are semi-precious stones,’ the guide said, pointing to a graceful creeper inlaid into the while marble. ‘Green malachite, purple amethyst, orange jasper, rose quartz, mother of pearl, blue lapis lazuli. The technique was called pietra dura and developed in Italy in the sixteenth century.’
 
‘What’s your name? asked Isaiah, intrigued by the man’s gentle air and fine features. ‘My name is Shahabuddin. I am originally from Benares; I used to be a scholar there. But times are hard, and being a guide pays the bills.’ He shrugged apologetically. ‘I have a particular interest in the Mughals. If only all our kings had been good kings the whole of India would have become Muslim.’
 
‘Why do you think that?’ asked Jacob with surprise.
 
‘Because of caste. All untouchable people and Shudra people have nowhere to go except to Allah. Before Islam came here they did not know there was Allah above the sky. No one had any love and brotherhood to give them, only curses and sops. Now sir, except Brahmins, Kayasthas and Rajputs all the others will go to Allah. Why should they not? What does Hinduism offer them? I know the truth of this because of my own history. My grandfather was a dhobi, a washerman, in the holy city of Benares. We too were untouchables, with no education, nothing.’
 
‘Really?’ said Isaiah, intrigued, when Jacob translated this for him. ‘How did you come here?’
 
‘We lived by clearing the dirty clothes of the upper castes. I remember one day my father toiled all day to clean a silk dhoti stained with crusted vomit. We laboured at washing and drying those clothes, but when we brought them back neatly ironed and folded, they would be sprinkled with Ganga water to ‘purify’ them before their owners would take them back. Because our touch defiled those upper-caste clothes, you see. They had to be symbolically washed again. In return, we would be given some rotten flyblown food that had been lying around the house. Thus we lived like dogs-worse than dogs, because dogs don’t labour for their beatings. Like cattle. Our people never looked at the face of a book, till we saw the book of Allah.’ He pulled a tiny, beautifully bound volume from his pocket.
 
‘Who brought the word of Allah to you?’ Isaiah asked.
 
‘If you wish to hear my story, let us sit in that tea-shop. It’s run by a friend of mine: he’ll let us sit there for as long as we want.’ He smiled a littled apologetically, his fine features creasing. ‘It is a long story, and will take up some of your time, so best to be comfortable.’
 
Isaiah and Paraiah sat on one of the string cots laid out for the customers of the dhaba. Several Muslim youths in pajamas and kurtas were running round serving tea and food to the guests with raw onion salad and green chillies. Isaiah and Paraiah were hungry but Isaiah was not sure of the hygiene of the place. Shahbuddin called a youth with a wave and ordered him to bring freshly made, piping hot food on a clean plate. ‘You will not fall ill, Sahib. They will take especial care.’
 
Tea arrived, then rotis with palak paneer. ‘Delicious!’ Isaiah exclaimed. Jacob translated, but Shahbuddin had correclty understood the broad grin on Isaiah’s face.
 
‘Now let me tell you how my grandfather, Dhobiram, found Allah,’ Shahbuddin resumed once the food was cleared away. ‘One day, my father says, his father was washing clothes at a stream near my village at a place called Dhobi Ghat. A Sufi saint came there to wash himself, do his namaz, and eat his food. He offered some of the food to my grandfather, who accepted it. It was nicely cooked biryani. The saint shared food with my grandpa from the same leaf plate. For the first time in a dhobi’s life a religious saint had eaten food with him and prayed for him. At the end the saint also gave my grandfather Allah’s book, the Holy Qur’an. But my grandfather was illiterate. He held that book in his hands as if it were solid gold. He kissed it again and again.
 
‘My grandfather was so excited he felt that he should see Allah then and there. But the saint told him to wait and think seriously about Allah. After four days the saint again came to my grandpa’s house. My grandpa wanted to become a Musalman, but the saint replied as before: wait. My grandfather wept. He said, “I want to see Allah and become a human being.” The Sufi saint was convinced that he was genuinely interested in becoming a Muslim. He asked my grandfather to have a bath and come back wearing a pajama kurta. My grandfather had some old clothes about the house that no customer would claim. Among them was a kurta pajama set. He put them on. That was the first time he wore anything but a scrap of loincloth. He used to dress like Gandhi-you know Gandhi, yes?’
 
‘Yes,’ said Isaiah, listening with great interest. ‘I see.’
 
‘For my grandpa to be seen clothed from head to foot was a grave offence against Hindu customary law. He could have been abused, attacked and punished. But he decided to wear the clothes. His head was reeling. Yet there emerged an unusal courage in his mind. Maybe Allah was working on him. He felt different, stronger, more protected, with those clothes touching all of his body. His entire house was shocked. His wife – my grandma – started abusing him for wearing Muslim dress. She was scared of the consequences. My grandpa said nothing. He swallowed the filthy abuses from my grandma as he would swallow the tastily cooked food from her hand. He used to enjoy her cooking but they hardly had occasion and resources to cook food in their own house. Mostly dhobis survive on the cooked food – mostly rotten food at that-given by customers. My grandpa went to the Sufi saint who beckoned to him to follow.

Now let me tell you how my grandfather, Dhobiram, found Allah,’ Shahbuddin resumed once the food was cleared away. ‘One day, my father says, his father was washing clothes at a stream near my village at a place called Dhobi Ghat. A Sufi saint came there to wash himself, do his namaz, and eat his food. He offered some of the food to my grandfather, who accepted it. It was nicely cooked biryani. The saint shared food with my grandpa from the same leaf plate. For the first time in a dhobi’s life a religious saint had eaten food with him and prayed for him. At the end the saint also gave my grandfather Allah’s book, the Holy Qur’an. But my grandfather was illiterate. He held that book in his hands as if it were solid gold. He kissed it again and again.
 
‘He took him to a nearby mosque, a building so grand that Dhobiram had never even dreamed of the possibility of entering it himself. The Sufi saint opened a chapter in the Qur’an and asked Dhobiram to hold it open and read. Of course Dhobiram could not read, but the Sufi saint said, “That is all right, you can learn later. Come here to the mosque every Friday and they will teach you. For now, hold it and look at the letters.” He asked my grandfather to say “Allah ho Akbar,” and to repeat after him, “I bear witness that Allah is great and Muhammad is his prophet”. My grandfather repeated the words of the Kalima. The saint asked him to hold his hands up and look at his own palms. The palm is like a book for the illiterate, said he. The lines in it are the letters written by Allah. Read them carefully. Then he asked my grandfather to kneel and touch his head to the earth, then stand and fold his hands and look at the letters written on the wall of the masjid in the name of Allah. While this was going on the rich and the poor alike started to gather in the mosque for the midday prayers. It was Jumma….. Friday,’ said Shahabuddin.
 
‘This man is a great storyteller,’ thought Jacob as he finished translating the last part and sipped his third glass of tea. Not only were he and Isaiah listening raptly to the story, but the waiters, were standing around and listening too.
 
Shahbuddin continued, ‘A rich man who knew us spotted my grandfather and ran up to him. My grandfather always used to call that man “nawab” in his mind, although of course the man was not a nawab: it was because of his beautiful courtly manners. This nawab who was a customer of my grandpa saw him, came running to him. He said that Dhobiram, you have become a Musalman. Allah has brought you here. This is wonderful, this is excellent! He came and hugged him. Everyone around started hugging him. The nawab, actually hugging him! Dhobiram started repeating, Allah….ho……Akbar! Allah……ho……Akbar!
 
‘The Sufi saint declared that Dhobiram’s name would be Jalaluddin. What about my wife and family members? asked Jalaluddin. But the saint told him that Allah will take a soul only on that individual’s agreement. “If He calls your wife and children they will have to take to the Qur’an on their own,” said the saint. After the namaz was over, the nawab asked the Sufi saint and Jalauddin to have a meal at his house. Dhobiram the nawab’s washerman, was now going to be the nawab’s guest. He went straight there from the mosque. They set at a table and ate biryani from the same dish. My grandfather had never been close enough to a table to touch it. No doubt he made mistakes, but the nawab never once made him feel ashamed. Trembling, he told the nawab, “I am your servant.” But the nawab said, “Nonsense, in the eyes of Allah all are one.” And he gave him this little Qur’an I carry.’
 
As he looked at the ornate little book in Shahbuddin’s hand, Isaiah, mind was a whirl. He had known, of course, that India had Muslims as well as Hindus, but the implications of this had not occurred to him till now. Clearly this situation was different from that of the hypocritical church fathers he had met in Madras. Lots of questions started whirling through his mind. Were there surviving caste practices in Indian Muslim society as there were among Indian Christmas? Did converted Muslim untouchables live in slums as Rosy and Daniel did? He now had an answer for his local church: they had wondered why, if Christianity offered a way out from the oppressions and injustices of the caste system, Indian people were still unwilling to become Chrisitians? Clearly the persistence of caste in that socieyt held the answer. And if Muslims were comparatively caste-free, then of course the untouchables would prefer that option. He remembered that Ambedkar had chosen to be a Buddhist, but so far he hadn’t met a single Indian Buddhist. He filed this question away to ask Jacob later.
 
‘So what happened next?’ he asked as Shahbuddin put away the book. ‘Did the Hindus accept your grandfather’s conversion?’
 
Shahbuddin’s face became very grave. ‘I am sorry that the next part of my story will give you pain,’ he said. ‘News got about very quickly of my grandfather’s escapade. The village priest went to see the local landlord, and the landlord put his strongmen at the priest’s disposal. All of the strongmen were untouchables like us. But they were brainwashed into believing they are the counterparts of Lord Hanuman, the monkey servant of Rama, who did his bidding, fought for him, ran errands of him, out of great love. Even today people believe this story: it makes them feel wanted, vindicated. So, out of great love, the untouchable servants of the landlord came to my grandfather’s house. My grandfather had feared this would happen, but he had no idea what to do. Only my grandmother was clever: she took my father, who was then seven years old but very small for his age, gave him the Qur’an to hold with orders never to let go, and tied him up in a bundle of clothes in the courtyard with a straw to breathe through and strict instructions not to move a muscle. My father in that bundle saw nothing, but he heard everything, and perhaps that was worse. The men who knocked at the door were polite at first, pretending Dhobiram was a respected elder they had come to visit. Then the leader said, “I hear you have accepted a gift from a beef-eater. Can I see this precious object?” Then there was silence, broken by the words, “Search the house.” My father held his breath. Then the screaming started. It went on for a long time, interspersed with cries for mercy, curses from the men, and the sickening thuds of flesh being reduced to pulp. The women’s screams were the worst.
 
‘My father does not know how long he lay in that bundle. He says a part of him still lies there. All he could think of, all he knew was that he had to hold on to the book. At one point he felt a violent blow between his shoulderblades. Then, when everything around him was utterly black and quiet, he wriggled out of the bundle. A sword was sticking out of it, having run through almost of the centre, leaving a gash on the skin of his back: he still has the scar. Then with weak steps he left the courtyard. The house smelt of blood: he stumbled on something inside that was soft, and when he came out, his hands and knees were black with blood. In the middle of the road lay the body of his aunt, who had been eight months pregnant. Her face was untouched, but her body from the breastbone down was a mangled shell slit open and spilled. Beside her lay a bloody shape, no longer something that could have been human…..I see I am giving you cause for distress.’
 
‘No, no,’ Isaiah said. ‘I mean, I admit it’s hard to hear this, but my grandmother taught me never to fear the truth. You tell it like it happened: I can take it.’
 
‘Your grandmother was a wise woman.’
 
‘She saw much pain not unlike yours. Please go on.’
 
‘My father walked out of the village towards the nawab’s villa. He could not speak, only held out the holy book in his hand. A Hindu servant of the nawab’ found him outside the gate and brought him in. The nawab wept to see the blood on the boy’s face and body. My father fell into a kind of trance, from which he later learned he took several months to recover. During that time the nawab let him stay in his house. He slowly improved, though he was troubled by dreams and night terrors, and when he was better, the nawab sent him to Benares to join a madrasa. He got a job as a scribe, married a servant of the nawab’s, and had me. For many years I thought he was born a Muslim: he told me this story a few months before he died. It changed everything for me. Suddenly I understood the air of secret sadness he sometimes wore, and why my mother would be especially tender to him at certain times. To know that my family has been the target of such hatred, it turns the food in my mouth to ashes and the air to choking dust. Now I dream about justice. I dream about making those criminal suffer for what they did. If only I had the means….’
 
‘I am sorry,’ said Isaiah, knowing how inadequate the words were. ‘But what of your new life: has caste ever been a problem for you? Has anyone ever thrown your origins in your face?’
 
‘Never,’ said Shahbuddin with a fierce look. ‘I was once beaten for not knowing my Qur’an correctly, and once for drinking my own tears durng Ramzan, but never in all my life has a fellow Musalman treated me any different because of my birth. Hence I know that we are right, and we will prevail. Allah has made us good.’
 
‘Do you hate the Hindus?’
 
‘No, I love justice. That is why they must be punished: to wash away their sins against my family. Then both they and I can rest in peace.’
 
‘I hate to say this to you, but won’t that just perpetuate the cycle of threats and reprisals?’
 
‘Why should it? Rather I would say that if they go unpunished, they will torture others like this again. Some other child’s family will be butchered because they dared to embrace God. God has said that wrongs must be answered with just punishment, yet in this country, the law will never punish the killers of my family. I need a Samson to bring down this temple of hatred and falsehood.’
 
Samson was blind, thought Jacob Paraiah. But he said nothing, and led Isaiah back to the car.
 
(Extracted from Untouchable God,  Kancha Ilaiah, Stree-Samya Publisher, 2013, pages 219-230 and published with the permission of the author)