She was walking ahead of the procession. There were many garlands around her neck, and she would touch them every now and then. Each time she did, she would smile jubilantly. The traditional dhol was being beaten at the head of the procession and people were chanting slogans: ‘This is the victory of our hard work and unity and we will tell the world about it. We will spread it in the whole country...’

The place was Anantapur, a small town in Andhra Pradesh, where a group of women who had freed themselves of the curse of manual scavenging were walking in a triumphant procession. They had been celebrating their victory in the same manner for over three years. These women have achieved what no government of independent India has been able to do—or has even shown the will to do—in the last sixty years. There was no trace of smugness on their faces, but there definitely was the copper gleam of self-assurance. One could even see their resentment of the Indian caste system shine through. These women might be unaware of how many centuries ago the caste system had placed the stinking basket full of human faeces on their heads, but their entire lives had been shackled to this barbaric tradition. They had all borne witness to this hell. However, they had finally reached a decisive point in their struggle for liberation from this misery. And it is a testimony to their strong willpower that today Andhra Pradesh is a state which is totally free of manual scavenging.

Cherukutotta Narayanamma was a part of the team that accomplished this historic task. I learnt that Cherukutotta is her family name, and that she is known simply as Narayanamma. It was she who was walking foremost in the procession...

Unseen—The Truth About India’s Manual Scavengers: Translated by Reenu Talwar, Penguin, 282 pages, Rs 299
Unseen—The Truth About India’s Manual Scavengers: Translated by Reenu Talwar, Penguin, 282 pages, Rs 299

‘Why is it only women who do manual scavenging?’ I ventured....

‘It is very difficult for anyone other than women to do this work,’ she answered. ‘This job is sickening. The man becomes carefree after putting this basket on the woman’s head. Even high-caste people think that women can be easily pressurized. We women are no better—we don’t push our sons into this hell; we always throw our daughters into it. When I used to fall ill, I would send my daughter to do this filthy work. Only the daughters understand our joy and pain; only they listen to their parents, not the sons. Just like you people, even we consider the son to be the pride of the family, although it is always the daughter who helps out in tough times. Girls like. . .’

Narayanamma paused for a while, and then resumed, ‘This is not a good thing that we do. Not only us, but the whole world takes advantage of the good-heartedness of our daughters. We are the culprits—with our tears, we drag our daughters into the hell we are in, knowing that they will not refuse us. That’s why it was essential that we take the responsibility to ensure that our girls are rescued from this punishing existence. I know that in the entire country, before fighting for their own liberation, the women want a guarantee that their children and daughters stay away from this hell.’...

An important question—one that had been on my mind since the beginning—flashed again. It was best to ask it before I lost sight of it again in the conversation: ‘Then when did you decide to leave it?’

‘I left this work in around 2000, although the preparation began in 1995–96.’

Bezwada Wilson of the Safai Karmachari Andolan told me that, until 1995, there were lakhs of women doing manual scavenging in Andhra Pradesh, but no one spoke out against it. Narayanamma was the first woman to break this silence. The first organized movement for the eradication of manual scavenging began in Andhra Pradesh itself, and that too from within the community....

Narayanamma vowed to liberate not only herself from this humiliating practice, but also her many sisters doing the same work. At that time, when the authorities tried to threaten her, she said, ‘Meeru vintara na godu? [Will you listen to the sad story of my life?]’ During the gherao, this sentence became a popular catchphrase for many other manual-scavenger women too. Pressurizing the authorities didn’t work, so Narayanamma and the Safai Karmachari Andolan decided to rewrite history by themselves.

Narayanamma in Bangalore. Photo: Bhasha Singh
Narayanamma in Bangalore. Photo: Bhasha Singh

‘I am very happy today. And along with me, all these women are happy too. My health is also good. Now I feel like eating everything. It used to be difficult to eat earlier. I used to feel nauseous all the time...My older son, Pennobilesu, was still young then and used to go with me to work. He caught an infection from there and almost died of it. Today, that child of mine is the leader of this movement in Andhra Pradesh and is marching with us in this campaign to eradicate manual scavenging. This makes me very proud. Ever since I have left this work, my life as well as the lives of my relatives and acquaintances have changed. After me, my brother and sister-in-law followed suit. At present they are working in a hospital.’

Narayanamma then asked, ‘Tell me, what work do they do?’

Then, laughing, she herself told us, ‘They don’t do the work of sweeping; they are not sweepers. They work with files in an office.’ While saying this, she had a sparkle in her eyes. ‘You people cannot understand how big a transformation leaving this work has brought about in our lives. For the first time we have understood what honour is.’

‘But will the caste system crumble with this?’ I asked.

Narayanamma replied, ‘Not at all. The caste system will continue to reign supreme. Only political leaders talk about doing away with castes and then ask for the maximum number of votes on the basis of caste. Political leaders and the rich benefit from the caste system. Educated people placate us by saying that caste is God-given. Now I know that neither has God created castes, nor have we been pushed into this hell at His bidding.’

Edited excerpts, with permission from Penguin Books India.