Caste and pollution

Mohd. Asaduddin. Review of Valmiki, Omprakash, Joothan: An Untouchable’s Life. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. April, 2010


I have signed up to receive many book reviews from a range of sub-disciplines in history. Sometimes I read only the first paragraph and become disinterested, and other times I read the entire piece and promptly forget all about it. Some reviews makes me think or leaves an impression. This review was one such example that intrigued me. I cannot say I have a firm opinion on the merits of the book or the review, since I am an ignoramus on the issues that this book deals with.

What struck me was the depth – ingrainedness – of the caste system in Indian culture, which I cannot really understand. Throughout history, different cultures and societies have created hierarchies, determined by factors such as birth, gender, background, colour, religion etc. Some of these boundaries can be crossed by fortune or individual effort, while others cannot be changed. Many of these distinctions are reinforced by differences in clothing, speech and mores. All of these are methods of separation. So whenever two people of unequal standing meet, there is a potential danger for pollution. Somehow a touch or a conversation will imperil the person of higher status because he or she is polluted by the person of lower status. This fear of pollution, or being polluted, exists elsewhere too. This is an extremely distressing belief.

Perhaps times are changing and will be changing in India and in other societies, but this work will not be the last of Dalit and similar literature.