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Father Francis and Caste

February 25, 2015

Father Francis grows more impassioned as each sentence brings him towards the end of his speech. “This isn’t a garden, it’s a fight for freedom!” He catches his breath after the declaration, keeping one arm held aloft for emphasis. His audience, eighteen Swedish college students, barrage the 79-year-old man with questions. How did he get involved? His order of Catholic priests works for justice around the world, and they sent him. Why a garden? The Dalits here had always worked for wealthy landowners in awful conditions, skinning dead animals and making leather. It was dirty, thankless work. The people, he says, had lost their love for Mother Earth. They needed hope and self-sufficiency and self-efficacy. So he found some money from wealthy people in his home country, The Netherlands, and gave the land to the people. Who runs the garden? About sixty-five Dalit people tend to the plants and eat the harvest of vegetables. “We all live in the slum,” he says. He has lived here with this Dalit community in Banaras for most of the last 35 years. This is the third time I have come to hear Father Francis speak, and I continue to be fascinated.


The garden is a twenty-minute walk south of Assi, our neighborhood, in a section of town that just twenty-five years ago was all agricultural land. The brick pumphouse we are sitting in was the only building here when the garden was established. In the flurry of building that has accompanied India’s rush toward urbanization, this community garden became an urban garden, with some neighboring houses reaching four or five stories tall. Building is still proceeding at an amazing rate in this area. Just three days ago, large chalk squares appeared on the vacant lot next to the Dragons program house. One day later, all the vegetation is gone and the squares became five-foot-deep pits: the hand-dug beginnings of a new foundation. Half of the buildings in Assi appear to be under construction with exposed concrete columns and rebar extending from their roofs like floppy antennae.


The topic of Father Francis’ lecture today is caste. It’s easy to understand the basics of caste: they’re roles. Each caste was traditionally a social strata that people were born into. A caste defined your job, your income, your friends, your treatment in society, and your privilege. The people formerly known as “untouchables” renamed themselves Dalits in the early 1900s as a new identity as they struggled to escape systemic oppression. They were in or below the lowest castes, traditionally working the dirtiest and least desirable jobs. At Indian independence in 1947, the caste system was officially abolished, but something three thousand years old doesn’t die so easily. Father Francis compares their current state of affairs to the American civil rights movement and the fight to end Apartheid in South Africa.


On my way home from the lecture, I take the long way through the narrow, winding alleys of Assi. I get stuck behind a truck as wide as the street inching its way along with a truckload of dirt for new construction. I weave through piles of bricks and sand ready for a small addition on one of the buildings nearby. The alleys are my favorite part of Banaras. They’re dark enough to be a network of tunnels and they’re paved with large square stones. Some are wide enough for a car, and some are barely wide enough for two human beings to squeeze past one another. As I turn a corner towards home, I come face-to-face with a huge bull in the alley. A young girl giggles at the near collision. She is pumping water from a communal well. It’s the kind with a long handle that I would expect to see in villages around the world, not in a a city of millions. I speak to the big cow calmly as I dodge his horns. Tangles of power lines snake their way overhead through the alleys, connected to the tall, grey and pastel-colored houses. Here and there, wires emerge from windows to connect to the main bundle. The connections often look hastily attached and not altogether safe. A few thick cables branch off at each intersection, and I wonder if anybody really understands the layout of this electrical system — so many threads going in so many different directions.


The Dalit gardeners are sixty-five people struggling to have their narrative heard against the dominant Hindu Brahmin narrative of this holy city. It’s the narrative of the countless pilgrims who come to Mother Ganga and the great stone ghats, the staircases leading down into the river. Alongside that narrative are others: Muslim and Christian and Dalit. As I arrive home, I laugh aloud, thinking of modern India as the messy spider web of power lines running through the narrow Banaras streets just above head level. It’s tangled and unsightly and a little too close for comfort, but somehow it all fits together into something that works.

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