Veeraswamy Krishnaraj


There were four school-age kids in Maduvakkam village. People called them Madaiyan (Madhavan), Sadaiyan (Seshaiyan), Komban (Govindan) and Sumban (Sundaram). Roughly translated, they meant Dolt, Matted hair, Dunce and Fool. They belonged to a lower caste, which might have been the reason they received the pejorative monikers. The names did not bother the children because they were used to monikers as matter of upper caste denigration of the lower castes, Dalits and tribals. They could not change the behavior of the villagers, even if they tried. They did well in their scholastic pursuits. Other children kept distance from them because they wore rags, went to schools without footwears, were thin from undernutrition, and had bad hair, bad breath and body odor. They brushed their teeth with twigs broken off medicinal Neem trees (Azadirachta indica = வேம்பு). The taste of the twig is bitter. More often they used the twig from Acacia nilotica (Babul) available abundantly in the villages. The villagers sold these six-inch long twigs for pittance. The user chews the end of the stick to a fine fiber and used it as a toothbrush. It is a use-once toothbrush. Some children cut off the end and used it again. For soap and shampoo, the children used powdered Soap-pod wattle (Acacia concinna = சீகைகாய் = சீகை+காய் = hair + fruit). They used to come out of bath smelling like the powdered soap-pod. The children used old dog-eared textbooks discarded by the well-to-do children from a previous batch. They picked up discarded pencils shorter than their pinkies. Their parents were not hesitant to accept the old clothes from the rich villagers. Both parents worked as day laborers (coolies). The villagers treated the children and parents well not because they believed in equality, but because they did not want the quality of work to suffer because of bad treatment of their children.

The parents used to receive grains, rice, and other provisions as wages besides regular cash and gifts. They lived well though they could not afford going to town for fun and frolic. They lived in a humble house with mud walls and thatched roof far away from the upper-caste families. In the one-room school, they sat separately. They, like all other children, ate the same food for midday meals. They brought their own utensils because the upper-caste parents would not allow communal dining with utensils shared by the Dalit children. The indigent children played by themselves. They were well-adjusted, smiling and happy. They also learnt from their parents not to look into the higher-caste person in the eyes. They had to avoid eye contact because eye contact would establish a relationship of equality, physical closeness and feared sexuality (if the Dalit was a teenager or adult). There were no bathroom facilities for any caste in the school premises. If ever they had toilets, it would be segregated toilets. They defecated and urinated in the open fields and wash their bottoms in the channels with running water in the fields.
The teacher was a fair-minded Brahmin born and brought up in the village, with a university degree, a feather in his cap. Though he was of the highest caste in the Indian Varna system, he treated all children equally and marked their papers fairly. He would praise the child for his or her good performance. The indigent children received accolades for excellent schoolwork from the teacher as other children did.
Once one of the indigent children developed a fever and had chills. He was in need of immediate treatment, and the public hospital doctor was five miles away. The higher-caste parents immediately withdrew the children from the school, and no one offered to take the child to the doctor. The parents did not have transportation, and the village buses never ever kept the schedules.
The Brahmin teacher felt the obligation to render help to the helpless. The villagers had no objection. The teacher took the child in his bullock cart to the town and admitted the child to the hospital, where he was treated for typhoid. The cart was padded with straw so his germs would stay with the straw. The teacher gathered the straw and burnt it, as a precautionary measure.
He made a full recovery and was brought back to the village after two weeks by his parents. In the meantime, the whole village was immunized for typhoid. Luckily, in the month, no one came down with typhoid. The parents and brothers were very thankful to the teacher for his yeoman help. When things were falling apart in the village, they all pulled together to help one another, irrespective of caste and status. The villagers knew that calamities did not make targeted visitation only on the Dalits but on all castes. That was not the case in every village.
The villagers were forward-looking people; there were college-educated parents, who lived in the village and take care of their lands. Actually, they were going back and forth between the nearby town and the village. When the time came to go from one-room school to a better-equipped school, they sent the children to the town.
When the indigent eldest son was ready to move to the town for his further studies, his paternal uncle in the town offered to take him. Though he was called Madaiyan, his real name was Madhavan. He was doing well in the school. He had better clothes, shoes... from his uncle and parents. In the school, there was a mandatory recording of a student's caste, religion..., which were kept away from the prying eyes of other parents, teachers, aides, and others. No one in the town noticed or enquired about his caste. At last, he broke away from humiliation and shed the moniker.
There was a forest between the town and the village. There was no way to avoid the forest path to the town, Mandalam. It was so named because the main streets were laid out as spokes on the wheel going from the center of town to the outskirts with a circular beltway connecting all the streets. The center was the business district. Adjoining to the center were the rich peoples' homes. At the periphery were the homes of the less fortunate and the less privileged.
The town had many religious denominations, mostly Hindus and a motley of people like Tribals, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, out of state visitors and retired British public servants. The Hindus commonly fell into one of six groups: Ganapathiyas, Kaumaras, Saivas, Sakthas, Sauras, and Vaishnavas (= The worshippers of Ganesa; Kumara, Muruga or Skanda; Siva; Mother Goddess; Sun; and Vishnu). These were the different sects as classified by Sankara. Most of the Hindus worshiped all of them. There were die-hards and blowhards whose devotion rested only to a particular Hindu deity. There was no piped-in water supply or indoor plumbing. Most had either well water or lake water for cooking, cleaning and bathing. The lake or pond was a man-made humongous pit in the ground, which collected rainwater and was fed by a humongous canal that collected the rainwater from the city and suburbs. There were debris and fecal contamination of the water from open-air defecation. The weather ranged from hot, hotter to hottest interspersed with some cool interludes in the rainy season. The well water was brackish. Servants, women and children used to fetch water from the pond, which went almost dry during the height of summer. The health-conscious boiled their water before drinking. Most did not. Some had the sense to harvest rainwater for storage in concrete sumps. The schools and college were strategically located to serve the public. The teaching staff at the college by a little more than half were Brahmins, and the rest were non-Brahmins. In Christian schools, half the teachers were Indian Christians.
There was no industry. There was a thriving livestock market in the outskirts of the town. There was no sanitation as we know now. Most effluents and sewage flowed in the roadside concrete trenches and collected in concrete sumps outside the house. A municipal worker with a bullock-drawn cart with a wine barrel look-alike but larger would collect the sewage and dump it outside the town, where the tall grass grew and thrived on the organic matter. The sewage sumps and the sewage canals were the breeding area for the mosquitoes. Again, a municipal worker would go around town spraying oil over the sewage in the sump and roadside canals so the larvae suffocate and die.
Most of the Hindus were vegetarians. Some non-vegetarian Hindus worried about sick cows ending up in the meat stalls, and the Muslims worried about pork contamination of their meat. There was no animus between Hindus and Muslims. The Muslims were mostly in the tanning industry.
Health-conscious vegetarians ate in "Brahmin-run eateries" where they can be sure that no meat was cooked and served, and the fare was reasonably hygienic. Where they served meat products were called "Military hotels or eateries." Chicken was the common meat preparation followed by sheep, goat...
There were very many temples catering to the spiritual needs of the populace. They were the places where exponents of Hindu religion conducted their Kalakshepams (=
காலக்ஷேபம் kāla-ksēpam = Exposition of devotional stories with music). People celebrated many festivals; the most popular ones were the Festival of Lights (தீபாவளி) and Harvest Festival (பொங்கல்).
Coming back to our Dalit Student Madaiyan (Madhavan), he received scholarship for books, fees and living expenses paid for by the Government, with an active program to support, preserve, protect and advance disadvantaged students from tribal and oppressed classes. It was a good thing. He went on to the law college and graduated with distinction. He became a politician, was elected by the people and served them well. He moved easily with the former oppressors, Brahmins and all other castes. He remained a bachelor.
Sadaiyan (Seshaiyan) went to agricultural college and became a public servant in the state Government. Only his close fellow workers knew his caste or below-caste status. Others had no clue. He married another Dalit girl with a college education, who became a teacher.
Komban (Govindan) was the smartest of all and that is why the village elders called him Komban. Govindan on public assistance went to college and graduated as a doctor in Medicine and instead of going into specialty education, he set up a practice right in the town. Initially, people were reluctant to go to the Dalit doctor and be touched by him. General attitude was Dalit's touch was polluting. He could not even hire an office assistant to serve at the front desk. There was no suitable Dalit girl to fill the position. With that disadvantage, he ran the practice alone by himself. There were liberals and broad-minded people within the community. Iyengars were the first ones of the highest caste to accept him as their doctor and supported him with no reservation. Some of the Iyengars -the true Vishnavas- believed all people were equal. A true SriVaishnava (Uttama Bhaktha) is liberated from caste encumbrances. Without the burden of caste, he serves the people of all castes; this sets the way for him to serve mankind.
Vishnavas classified the Vishnu followers into three types: Kanishtha Bhakthas, Madhyama Bhaktas, and Uttama Bhaktas. Kanishtha = Neophyte. Madhyama = Middling. Uttama = Highest. Bhaktha = devotee.

Kanishtha Bhakthas are the idol worshippers, childish, innocent and clouded by ignorance.
Madhyama Bhakthas ignores the hate mongers, serve others with friendship and show true and exclusive (ananya) love for Bhagavan Krishna.
Uttama Bhakthas are the true devotees of Bhagavan Krishna and sees the Supersoul in all beings and matter. They serve all beings irrespective of caste, race or religion.
The Dalit doctor was fortunate enough to have Uttama Bhakthas of Iyengar caste as his first patients. Where Brahmins go, others go; what Brahmins eat, others eat; what Brahmins do, others do. Sanskritisation spread from north to south first to the Brahmins and later upper castes and still later lower castes. The Iyengars took the doctor to temples which barred entry to the Dalits. When the priest's family brings the Dalit doctor to the temple, resistance dissipates quickly. The doctor had a thriving practice as time went by. He never forgot his humble origins. He treated the deserving poor people at no cost.
The last brother was Sumban (Sundaram). He studied anthropology and religion. Eventually, he was to become the curator of the local museum in the town. He went about the town and surrounding villages talking to children what an education can do for them.
Pejorative Monikers of the four Dalit children:

Dolt: மடையன் or Madaiyan = மாதவன் = Madhavan = Name of Bhagavan Krishna;

One with Matted hair =சடையன் or Sadaiyan = சேஷையன் = Seshaiyan = Name of the snake whose coils serve as the bed of Vishnu;

Dunce = கொம்பன் or Komban = கோவிந்தன் = Govinda, Name of Krishna;

Fool: சும்பன் or Sumban = சுந்தரம் = Sundaram = the Beautiful.