on caste, women's oppression, communalism, and class struggle in South Asia from a Marxist perspective
"About the Griefs of the Mangs and the Mahars" (1855) by Muktabai
Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present
By Susie J. Tharu, Ke Lalita
Published by Feminist Press, 1991
ISBN 1558610278, 9781558610279
We have little biographical information about Muktabai. We know only that she studied at the school in Pune founded by Savithribai and Jotiba Phule and when she wrote this essay in 1855 she was fourteen. Of what happened to her later, or indeed of any of her other writings, we have no record. Yet through her vivid and acerbic polemic we get an unmistakable impression of intelligence and self-confidence. For an untouchable, and a woman at that, to write "O learned pandits, wind up the selfish prattle of your hollow wisdom and listen to what I have to say," would be surprising even today. In Muktabai's time it was awe-inspiring.
This piece was originally published in 1855 in Dnyanodaya, an Ahmednagar journal that was designed to disseminate information about such new scientific disciplines as physics and astronomy and also discussed religion and morality. The essay was reprinted in the DnyanodayaCentenaryVolumes, edited by B. P. Hivale, in 1942. It is probably the earliest surviving piece of writing by a mang woman, an "untouchable."
MANG MAHARACHYA DUKHAVISAYI(About the Griefs of the Mangs and Mahars)
If one attempts to refute, on the basis of the Vedas, the argument of these brahmins, the great gluttons, who consider themselves to be superior to us and hate us, they counter that the Vedas are their own property. Now obviously, if the Vedas are only for the brahmins, they are absolutely not for us. Teach us, O Lord, thy true religion so that we all can lead our lives according to it. Let that religion, where only one person is privileged and the rest are deprived, perish from the earth and let it never enter our minds to be proud of such a religion.
These people drove us, the poor mangs and mahars, away from our own lands, which they occupied to build large mansions. And that was not all. They regularly used to make the mangs and mahars drink oil mixed with red lead and then buried them in the foundations of their mansions, thus wiping out generation after generation of these poor people. Under Bajirao's rule, if any mang or mahar happened to pass in front of the gymnasium, they cut off his head and used it to play "bat ball," with their swords as bats and his head as a ball, on the grounds. If the victim managed to save his life and Bajirao came to know of it, he used to say, "How dare they save their lives? Do these untouchables expect the brahmins to hand over their duties as revenue officers to them and to start roaming with their shaving kits, all over the town, shaving the heads of widows?" With such remarks he used to punish them.
Second, were these brahmins satisfied with prohibiting the knowledge of writing to us? No. Not them. Bajirao went to Kashi and died a dusty death there. But the mahars here, no less untouchable than the mangs, have absorbed some of his qualities through their contact with him, and consider themselves to be superior to the mangs, so much so that they do not allow even the shadow of a mang to fall over them. Do the merciless hearts of these brahmins, who strut around in their so-called holy clothes, ever feel even a grain of pity for us when we suffer so much grief on account of being branded as untouchables? Nobody employs us because we are untouchables. We have to endure miseries because we do not have any money. O learned pandits, wind up the selfish prattle of your hollow wisdom and listen to what I have to say.
When our women give birth to babies, they do not have even a roof over their houses. How they suffer in the rain and the cold! Try to think about it from your own experience. Suppose the women suffered from some puerperal disease, from where could they have found money for the doctor or medicines? Was there ever any doctor among you who was human enough to treat people free of charge?
The mang and mahar children never dare lodge a complaint even if the brahmin children throw stones at them and injure them seriously. They suffer mutely because they say they have to go to the brahmins' houses to beg for the leftover morsels of food.
Alas! O God! What agony this! I will burst into tears if I write more about this injustice....