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First published in the Odia in 1948, and translated for the first time here into English by Bikram Das, Gopinath Mohanty’s Harijan is one of the most original and radical Indian novels of the twentieth century.

It brings to vivid life the story of a group of Mehentars living in a slum. Cleaning latrines with their bare hands is the only work that they can hope to find as their caste excludes them from every other occupation. The leader of this group is the middle-aged and foul-mouthed Jema who starts her day by gulping down a potful of liquor and smoking pinkas in order to deal with the stench of the excreta.

One day, Jema comes down with a fever and is unable to go to work. Fourteen-year-old Puni offers to take her mother’s place. The next morning Puni wakes up early, bathes, puts on a clean sari, and dabs some cheap perfume on her skin. Stepping out of the hut excitedly, she picks up basket and broom. When she arrives at the first latrine, the stink hits her with the force of a hammer blow. She drops her basket and broom, turns around, and is trying to run away, when her friends stop her. ‘This is what you will have to do every day for the rest of your life! It is your fate!’

Avinash Babu lives in a palatial house next to the slum. He is planning to evict the Mehentars in order to develop the slum into a residential colony. One night, a fire breaks out and the entire slum is burned to the ground. The Mehentars leave the slum carrying their remaining possessions on their backs. They have nowhere to go but they are past all worries—they know that no matter where they go, they will still be cleaning excrement, for they are Harijans.

Tagged with:

Bikram Das / caste / fiction / Gopinath Mohanty / indian / Odia / translation /