The village where I shot much of Bandit Queen was physically divided into the Lower and the Higher castes. You could tell. The low caste dwellings were not only on the lower part of the gentle hill, but built of mud and bits of trees, shrubs and any other material you could lay your hands on. Quite run down. On the rise of the hill was the Upper Caste village. Built of bricks and mortar. The people better dressed and looking healthier. Better fed and less dark from being land owners rather than agricultural labour.
On a really hot day I was scouting for locations in the low caste part of the village. My throat was dry and I leaned over the prickly bush fencing to a woman in a house and asked for some water. There was hesitation. She looked embarrassed and called out to her husband. I repeated my request. The husband too looked hesitant , and then finally apologized and said that they could not give me water to drink. I asked why.
“You will be going to have lunch at the ‘high caste’ house after this” was his reply. I was surprised. Lunch for the crew was normally served in one of the houses of the ‘higher caste’ families in the other side of the village. Everyone knew that. But his response intrigued me.
“So may I have some water before I go ” I asked.
“Sir, we are low caste people” He replied.
“So ?” I responded.
“The high caste people will not want you walking into their house after you have drunk water given by us”
I was taken aback. Who does not know about the caste system in India, but to come face to face with it like that was a bit of a shock.
“Well, it does not matter to me, and if you want, I will not tell them” I said.
“They will know. It is our duty to tell you this”
I realized how difficult it is to break a centuries old tradition that is ingrained into your psyche. Fear of retribution. Fear of imagined sin.
But I did get my small pitcher of water to quench my thirst , by promising the family that I will tell my hosts that I have dunk water from a low caste home before I enter their house. As I came to have lunch with the rest of the crew, I thought about forgetting the whole incident. But I had made a promise, so I informed the high caste host that I had just had drunk water from the hands of a low caste family.
The family looked at each other not knowing how to handle this. I was after all a known film maker from the city and to them therefore and important guest. I had put them in an awkward position. The head of the family resolved the issue.
” It’s ok. Just wash your hands outside the house before your step in”.
So vividly do I remember their young daughter stepping out with a small steel ‘lota’ (vessel) in her hand, and just outside the house symbolically pouring water over my hands, before I stepped into the house.
A small symbolic gesture that upheld centuries of oppression.
My previous post was a short story called ‘Brides of the Well’. It was written for the National Geographic book published last year called ‘ Written on Water’. Some arguments have turned to whether I should have used the caste system to tell the story, and in doing so am I anti Hindu and pro- Muslim. I found these arguments ridiculous. Writings come from interpretations of ones own life experiences.
My parents were refugees from Lahore during Partition. Being a doctor my father went back to Lahore to treat the injured and dying. He felt compelled to do so by his medical oath. Only a few times during his life time was I able to provoke him to talk about the horrendous violence he saw. Yet not once in his life did he ever express an anti Muslim sentiment. In fact when I almost married a Muslim girl my parents fully supported me, proud of the fact that her father was a great Urdu poet. He himself wrote Urdu.
“We lived like brothers and gave as much respect to each other’s festivals as we did to ours. Till partition came there was only harmony between communities in Lahore” Was all he ever said.