by- 5th January 2010
Just a 20-minute drive west of Varanasi, where the gods that decreed the caste system are still worshipped with fire, live the poorest people on earth.
They are the Musaha, the ‘rat people’, who have nothing else to live off but the field rodents with whom they have adapted a remarkable partnership.
The Musaha cannot own or even rent land, and live on whatever’s left over – under trees, on the edge of footpaths. As ‘tribals’, they are deeply untouchable, well off the bottom rung of even the finely graded list of non-people that India’s social system implies.
Rats and rats’ grain are their staple diet. They chase the rats to their lairs, then dig out the grain the rats have stashed away there – and this they winnow outside their huts.
Two days of such work will produce a little porridge to live on.
And who’s just opened a school for the stunted offspring they produce year on year? Certainly not the priests of the sacred Ganga whose conch shell horns pierce the eery night to summon the gods.
These rituals merely reinforce the divine laws of Manu, that have underwritten the caste system for hundreds of years.
Those laws dictate that ‘whatever exists in the universe is all the property of the Brahman; for the Brahman is entitled to it all by his superiority and eminence of birth’.
Which doesn’t leave much for the poor rat people - at the very edge of the greatest concentration of poverty in the world.
An old Anglican padre told me a story. For Christmas, the worthy Brahmin ladies of the High Commissioner’s circle whom he chaplains decided to donate sarees to the women of the leper colony he had founded known as the Place of Joy.
The great day for the hand-over arrived, and after appropriate speeches, the two groups of women eyed each other, one group expectant, the other nervous.
Then the Brahmin ladies beckoned to their drivers to hand over the silken gifts to the women of Joy.
Who threw them back enraged.
A leper – doubly untouchable, multiply burdened by caste, disease and displacement - has her pride.