So far I have read 3 books by Amritlal Nagar and Nachyo Bahut Gopal has perhaps been the most impressive among them. It is very hard-hitting, nonjudgemental and of course, well-written.
As I have previously written there are many Hindi writers who are undeservedly underrated simply because there is a glaring lack of a good readership. The writers and publishers are also to be blamed because they didn’t try very hard to cultivate this market, but that’s different issue.
Nachyo Bahut Gopal begins in the first person. You can call it a textual documentary. The narrator of the story is a journalist who is doing a study of the lives of the Bhangi community. The narrator writes during the emergency times (1975 and around) but the backdrop of the story in the 1930s, in the form of various verbal and written recollections.
Although India is divided among various castes and subcastes, Bhangis are not a caste, but a community. Historically they used to clean latrines of the higher class people in India. There was no flush system and the Bhangis used to manually collect the excreta from individual houses. It is one of the most degrading jobs in the world and consequently the Bhangi community came to be known as the lowest of the low.
In the pre-Islamic invasion times there is little reference to this community in the ancient texts because India had an established, water-based excreta disposal system. When Turks and Muslims invaded India they used to humiliate royal families and the communities they defeated by forcing them to carry the excreta of the conquerors. Thence, the tradition was born. That is why the lineages of many Bhangi families go back to royal and other noble families.
But Nachyo Bahut Gopal is not primarily a study of the Bhangi community, it is the story of a woman called Nirguniya who was once known as “Nirgun”. It is the story of the complete transformation of a high-class Brahmin woman into a Bhangi woman. It is the story of a woman who comes from a family where people have to not only bathe completely, but also get their clothes properly washed even if by accident they touch the door of the lavatory and then one day how she’s forced to go from door to door collecting people’s excreta.
While doing his research the narrator meets an influential 75-year-old Bhangi woman who has done stellar work in her community trying to educate people and encouraging them to take up other occupations like playing musical instruments. Though her language and manners hinge upon the boundaries of crassness, there are some strange traces of erudition and mannerism the narrator finds quite intriguing. For instance she knows Vedic mantras, her abode is clean and she doesn’t loath the traditional Hindu religious ceremonies the way most Bhangis do. The narrator’s wife suggests that originally she must be a Brahmin who could have been kidnapped by a decoit, or she must have eloped with a Bhangi when she were young. The narrator finds out that actually she is not Bhangi.
As the story unfolds the narrator finds out that Nirgun belonged to a Brahmin family of the highest category steeped in tradition and higher moral values. Her mother died when she was a baby and since her mother had married a man of a comparatively lower class who was also a “kept” of another Brahmin woman, she was raised by her maternal grandparents. In an unfortunate turn of events, both her grandparents died almost at the same time and her father had no choice but to take her with him. Since he lived with a rich Brahmin woman he had no place of his own and so he carried his daughter to that house and submitted her to the whims and fancies of the woman who’s kept he was. That family was practically a sexual harem. Everybody was having sex with everybody who could. Even at a tender age of 11-12 Nirgun was exposed to such prurient sensations and experiences that by the time she grew into a young woman her sexual appetite was insatiable. Sometimes she even enjoyed being ravaged.
The Brahmin woman (whose kept Nirgun’s father was) used to allure young men into the house to satisfy her sexual needs. Pretending that she would provide good education for Nirgun she hired a very attractive tutor who had to spend less time teaching Nirgun and more time in the bedroom of the woman. Although Nirgun was in love with the woman’s youngest son who had gotten her pregnant (abortion arranged quickly) she started growing tender feelings for the tutor, who also reciprocated. This infuriated the Brahmin woman and she married off Nirgun to a 70-year-old man who was impotent.
Nirgun was 20-21, sexually hyperactive and she totally detested her husband who couldn’t have sex with her. On top of that he always kept her locked up. Even when he went out, he used to lock up every door and window of the house.
Her only friend was a woman sweeper, a Bhangan (female Bhangi), who used to come everyday to clean the toilet. She was her only contact with the outside world. Once the sweeper had to take a leave and by chance her 19-year-old son, Mohan, was visiting her from another town. Desperate to satisfy her infernal sexual urges, Nirgun threw all caution to the wind and ended up seducing the boy by suddenly appearing naked in front of him, although the boy, well aware of the class divide and because of an inherent dislike for the upper castes, spurned her advances initially.
Seen the light once, she didn’t want to go back into her dark, sexless cavern and even the thought of the boy going away made her feel as if she were not going to survive. She convinced him to elope with her and once they did, her entire life changed.
From then onwards began her journey from being a high-class Brahmin woman to a complete Bhangi woman. From a woman who isn’t allowed to touch the door of a lavatory without going through a purification process after that, she transforms into someone who has to manually collect excreta from door to door.
It is the most ruthless and objective book I have ever read. Amritlal Nagar doesn’t mince words. He shows that it’s not just the upper castes who commit unspeakable cruelties upon their fellow human beings, given a chance, even the lowest of the low don’t miss the opportunity. He shows that the Bhangis are not just full of self-loathing and jingoistic pride they also take relish in bringing the others to their level. Nirgun is constantly tortured both physically as well as mentally to force her into the occupation of the boy’s family. Once when she expresses repulsion for the lifestyle, Mohan almost strangulates her and taunts, “It was not repulsive to you to satisfy your physical needs with a Bhangi, but now that you have to adopt his way of life, you find it repulsive.”
Mohan doesn’t live with his mother, he lives with his maternal uncle and aunt and the aunt is very possessive of the boy and totally hates the newcomer, and the fact that she is a Brahmin woman. She makes it a mission of her life to turn that Brahmin “whore” into an out and out Bhangan. Mohan totally agrees with his aunt. Once Nirgun is so fed up with constant physical and mental torture that she complains to Mohan that if it doesn’t stop, she’s going to hang herself. This sends Mohan into a rage and he actually hangs her and almost kills her, while she constantly pleads for mercy. Just in the nick of time he undoes the knot and whispers to her, “If you were courageous enough to die, you would have died by now so stop this bullshit or the next time I will kill you, for real.”
Sometimes you feel you don’t understand the characters and Amritlal Nagar it seems doesn’t want you to spend any effort understanding them. People are the way they are. Mohan tortures her in the most inhuman manner. He burns her with a cigarette butt and bites her while making love and thinks that she deserves the sort of treatment she gets from his aunt. He celebrates when his aunt eventually succeeds in forcing Nirgun into picking her (the aunt’s) excrement and carrying it outside of the house. He hates her for being a Brahmin and constantly mocks her for that. Still, she loves him and she says till the end of the book that he loved her. Circumstances are the way they are. Mohan is psychopathic and rapes young and old women right left and center, like a maniac, when he turns into a decoit, but still he is not only revered by his community but even Nirgun (who turns into Nirguniya) is deeply in love with him and is proud of the fact that people are scared of him despite the fact that in his absence she associates herself with the progressive Aryasamaj activities and opens a small school in the house where she lives. She herself is always scared of him and sometimes she cannot understand whether she loves him or sticks around simply because he would kill her if she went away. Often she feels attracted towards other men (since Mohan turns into “Mohana daakoo” and can only meet her once or twice a year) but by now, either because of fear or by resolve she doesn’t give in.
The writer has borrowed the title of the book from a famous poem by Surdas… ab hun nachyo bahut Gopal … which basically means I have seen so much struggle in my life and now I’m totally tired.
Definitely read this book if you can get hold of it.
The word Bhangi actually comes from the state of “bhang”, severing or the cutting-off.