Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 34, March 2014

Well, Isn't the Well Still the Issue?

M. Sridhar and Alladi Uma

    Water, water, everywhere,
    Nor any drop [for them] to drink.
    Samuel Taylor Coleridge[1]

  1. Today, especially in India, people are talking about water scarcity, about water being a very dear commodity. But how many of us realise that this very water has been denied to a majority of Indian people in the name of caste, in the name of pollution. Water is believed to be a great cleanser, but unfortunately it is the same water that keeps people of certain castes away, terming them unclean.[2] 20 March 1927, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar led a protest march at Mahad in the state of Maharashtra, known as the Mahad Satyagraha,[3] with the aim of proclaiming that the 'untouchables' had a right to draw water from the Chawdar Tank, and drink water from the tank. Yet, L.S. Rokade writes of an unborn Dalit still crying in the late twentieth century:

      Mother, this is your land
      flowing with water
      Rivers break their banks
      Lakes brim over
      And you, one of the human race
      must shed blood
      struggle and strike
      for a palmful of water.[4]

  2. In a recent study by Rakesh Tiwary and Sanjiv J. Phansalkar titled 'Dalits' Access to Water: Patterns of Deprivation and Discrimination,' that explores what they call 'a relatively less studied domain—linkages of water scarcity and dalits' discrimination and deprivation,' they show how,

      Dalits and Scheduled Castes (SCs) of India still face multiple deprivation and discrimination, particularly with regard to access to natural resources. These disabilities are most pronounced with regard to access to water. In rural India, access to an imperative resource like water shows differential pattern across regions, where poverty, physical separation of hamlets, ideas of purity and pollution, poor access to government welfare programmes, discrimination in access to public water bodies and structures and so on play a critical role.[5]

  3. Tiwary and Phansalkar discuss the problems of Dalit women which far exceed those of their male counterparts:

      In dalit households, women are entrusted with the job of collecting water for domestic consumption. Due to assured sources of potable water, they have to collect water from distant places….They are subjected to various forms of discrimination and hardships like cleaning the source after use, waiting for others to draw water and so on….They have to wait till the upper caste women pour water into their pots. The upper caste women shout at them and constantly humiliate them by saying: 'Keep your distance, do not pollute'[6]

    When Dalits have been denied the most essential of things like drinking water every day of their lives, they cannot but turn their experience into literature, when they write.
  4. As far back as 1872 and 1878, both Srirangarajacharitra (The History of Srirangaraja) by Narahari Gopalakrishnamah Setty, [7] and Rajasekhara Charitramu (The History of Rajasekhara) by Kandukuri Veeresalingam, [8] the earliest Telugu novels, interestingly refer to incidents where people of the lower castes feel that they have been born 'low' for having sinned in their previous births, and that they would commit a greater sin by offering drinking water to a thirsty person from the upper castes. Mulk Raj Aanand, one of the foremost Indian writers in English, wrote, in 1935, about a day in the life of Bakha, an 'untouchable' boy in a novel titled, Untouchable. It is significant to note that Ambedkar in his Autobiographical Notes (sketches written in 1935) recounts the incident of his having faced the problem of access to water in his very office from even his subordinates.[9] Drinking water from a common source and entry of Harijans into temples were in fact used across the country by Indian nationalists to bring together a fellow feeling among people of all castes.[10] Mahidhara Ramamohanarao's Telugu novel, Kollayigattitenemi (What If He Wore a Loin Cloth),[11] though written after Independence in 1965, draws on this context. Kolakaluri Enoch, one of the foremost early Dalit writers, wrote a short story in Telugu on the theme of water in 1968.[12] The story is Oorabavi (Village Well).[13] Telugu Dalit poetry that came out in the 1990s, which may be termed the Dalit decade in Telugu writing, is surfeit with poems that express their experience of the denial of drinking water. In the early 1990s the term 'Dalit' in Telugu writing encompassed writing not only by the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SCs and STs), but also the Other Backward Castes (OBCs), 'Abadhapu Patham' (Lesson of Lies), is by Juluru Gowrishankar who comes from an OBC/Bahujan background. He uses a real-life incident of a five-year-old Dalit girl, Dhanam in a Tamil Nadu school, who was blinded when her teacher hit her for drinking water from a pot that she ought not to have touched:

      Swearing by the untouchable 'Dhanam'
      The words have become untouchable
      The moonlight has become untouchable
      The water has become dirty.[14]

  5. Serving water in separate tumblers is a practicethat is followed even today in some districts of Andhra Pradesh to discriminate against the Dalits.[15] Sikhamani, another powerful Dalit voice, shows how inhuman the casteist society is in 'Inupa Paleelu Molustunnay' (Look, the Steel Nibs are Sprouting):

      For the sin of requesting
      Water with parched tongues
      We have been shown dirty ponds—
      I am bent on cutting
      Those pointing fingers! [16]

    A more recent play by Vinodini, a Telugu Dalit feminist writer, critic and activist,[17] titled 'Daaham' (Thirst) deals with the issue of water:

      Yes….What else could I do? I went in the morning with the pitcher and stood near the well. Not even a single bitch gave me water…. I pleaded with them….I couldn't stop myself. I went up to the well and tied the rope, that's all. Then all of them came running, broke my pitcher, pulled me down from the well and beat me up.[18]

  6. Antarani Vasantam (Untouchable Spring) by G. Kalyana Rao, a Telugu Dailt and a revolutionary writer, deals with Dalit experiences of different kinds, including their problems of not being able to share water with other castes:

      There was no drinking water well for the malas and madigas. The entire village had only one drinking water well…. Except for the malas and madigas, every one else in that village only drank that water. As for the malas and the madigas, they would stand at a distance from the well carrying pots…. for a potful of water, there would be a big fight. Every morning that was a strange scene near the well. Pleadings, insult, abuses, rejections—all for a mouthful of water, for quenching thirst.

      …it is at such times that men would become water thieves…. They would go stealthily to the well. They would draw water stealthily.[19]

  7. Many of these texts were written before the 1990s Dalit movement in Andhra Pradesh. Setty, Veeresalingam, Anand and Ramamohanarao are not Dalits, and Gowrishankar is a Bahujan/OBC. Therefore they bring in their own socio-cultural locations to their writings. Even within the Dalit community, we know that gender, sub-caste, class and political affiliations often determine how each writer views his or her community.[20] Today, the question of and demand for sub-categorisation within the Dalit community for reservations in government jobs in Andhra Pradesh is a factor that needs to be taken into account. It is against such a background that we revisit Kolakaluri Enoch's powerful rendering of this experience in Oorabavi. We look at this text (by a Dalit man from the Madiga sub-caste) alongside Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable (by a non-Dalit man) and Vinodini's 'Daaham' (by a Dalit woman), so as to understand how gender and caste of the authors impact the text.
  8. The main plot of Oorabavi revolves around the carcass of a bull that has been thrown into a well used by all the villagers, purportedly by Chidambaram, a young Dalit, who had the reputation of not having got up to give his place to the upper caste youths. The upper castes see it as a deliberate move by the Dalits to pollute the well which the upper castes use, when the other well used by them goes dry. Precisely because this well was used jointly by the upper castes and the Dalits, the Dalits had to wait at the mercy of the upper castes for drawing water from it. The woman protagonist who remains curiously unnamed throughout the short story—who is referred to either as Chidambaram's wife or as Ramudu's daughter-in-law—has to put up with the experience of being ogled at and physically handled by an upper caste male while going to fetch water from this well:

      Staring at her eyes, nose, lips and neck with protruding eyeballs, alternately closing and opening his eyes and looking at her from top to bottom, he held the vessel by the edge and lifted it up…he withdrew his hands in a hurry even before she had placed the vessel on her head and was caught red handed in the act.[21]

  9. This is in sharp contrast to the image of Sohini in Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable. Here the Pundit is 'exhilarated by the thought of doing the beautiful girl a favour'[22] and asks her to come to the temple to sweep from that day onwards. There is no need for any elaborate explanation as to why the Pundit wants her to come to the temple. Sohini 'shyly nodded and went her way….'[23] In direct contrast is the response of Chidambaram's wife who gives the youth a tight slap. That such a woman remains unnamed becomes even more puzzling when we at the end of the story realise that it was she who had thrown the carcass into the well. That Enoch gives such a significant role to a Dalit woman as far back as in 1968 is indeed commendable. Compare this with the portrayal of the Dalit woman who dares to draw water from the upper caste well in Vinodini's play, Daaham which was written in the first decade of the twenty-first century. While the initial move made is by a woman, it is the younger generation of Dalit men who initiate the process of confronting the upper castes. Even so, it is a Dalit woman who has the power to insist on the fifth pulley being installed through her refusal to breast feed, to save the upper caste woman's child in the throes of death. How different are these portrayals of women when compared to the portrayal of Sohini in Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable?
  10. Sohini may not be as imposing in physical stature as Chidambaram's wife, or Subhadra in Kalyana Rao's Antarani Vasantam for whom they may need to raise the roof of the house. But descriptions of Sohini as well-formed and 'shapely' are certainly male descriptions that have their resonance in Enoch's description of Chidambaram's wife as tall and beautiful:

      She was a tall and hefty person. Did not decorate herself much. Had all the wealth youth had bestowed all over her body. Huge figure. One felt like looking at her again and again. Her eyes and nose were shapely and reminded one of a carefully sculpted idol. The body parts were all in perfect symmetry. Her eyes had a charm about them.[24]

    We need to turn to Vinodini to discover the difference that can only come from a Dalit woman writer. Even so, we cannot but admire the power, the determination and the intellectual calibre that Chidambaram's wife possesses to outwit the upper castes in Enoch's Oorabavi. We are here reminded of an incident in the Tamil Dalit woman writer Bama's Sangati where a Dalit girl takes her revenge for not being allowed to swim by spitting into the water.[25] Having said that Enoch does invest the Dalit woman with power, we find that he cannot help himself falling into the stereotypical representations of a woman by a male writer towards the end of the story. This happens when Chidambaram's wife enters the well to remove the carcass which no other character manages to successfully accomplish. Noticing that none of the many onlookers was coming forward to help her in this act, she screams out, 'Aren't there men among you! Are all of you only women? If there are men, come and help me [emphasis added].'[26] While this may be justified as a move to provoke the men and spur them to action, we wonder whether a woman writer would have used such expressions.
  11. We cannot obviously expect a story written in 1968 to have used the word 'Dalit' as the term had yet to gain currency. Enoch uses the word Harijans for the Dalits and Harijana palle for the locality they live in. But we wonder why he does not make the further distinction of the separate locations of the Madigas and the Malas within the Dalits till he is well into the story. This is surprising because Enoch is obviously very conscious of writing this story as an insider to convey the experience of the profession of leather tanning and making footwear by the Madigas. The story is remarkable for the detailed description of the different stages of the process of making chappals, for its presentation of the taken-for-granted attitude of society towards those who practise this profession. They treat them shabbily, sometimes not even thinking that they need to be paid for their labour. The detailed descriptions of tanning leather confront our familiar notions of what are 'aesthetic,' notions that get theorised years later in Sharan Kumar Limbale's Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature.[27] The writer's involvement in the process of leather making also challenges our notions of creativity. We give here a description, just to give a feel of how Enoch demonstrates that repairing a pair of chappals too is a creative art:

      Ramudu sat in the middle of the pandal. On the right were the tool bag and the hide. On the left, reddened water in a small pot. Behind, leaning on the pole was the tortoise shell bag filled with water. The work-stone in front. Next to it hammer, awl and work-knife. Ramudu was stretching the thread on his little finger. Someone had left a pair of old chappals with a broken toe-ring. He had left them in the water. Before that he had unfolded the hide, which was on the attic, took what he needed and put it back on top.[28]

    None other than one who is located in such a situation can bring out the nuances of the work. Such a description forces one to stop and reconsider 'accepted' mainstream notions of aesthetics, of creativity. It is here that we must realise that there is a thin line between celebration of an occupation and its romanticisation.[29] Bakha's dance-like movements in the narrow latrines in Anand's Untouchable cannot surely be compared to the above description where Enoch shows the dexterity with which Ramudu makes the shoes. One is reminded here of the poem by Maastraji, a Madiga poet, where he talks of the creative contribution of the Madigas:

      He is the Dharmavyadha
      who preached millions of deities
      you pray to today!
      He is the Chandala
      who provided moments of revelation
      to the Sankaracharya
      who grovelled in the darkness of ignorance!
      He is Matanga
      who created the veena
      to make you flow in the ocean of music,
      to provide succour for your life
      ridden with agonies and wailings!
      He is Madiga!

      He too is-
      Adi Jambava,
      Valmiki, Vyasa![30]

    Thus it becomes evident that Enoch is of course talking of the specific experience, and that too, a specific experience of a sub-caste among the Dalits.
  12. There are indirect references to the time period of the story. There are indications that the story must have been written after the Harijan Temple Entry Act was passed in the 1940s. There are also indications in the story that though the act may have come into force, it has been slow in its implementation. It is clear that the Dalits are still hesitant about temple entry and are scared of the consequences of facing the wrath of the upper castes in some parts of the country, like Chidambaram who wants to break a hundred coconuts in the temple for getting to marry a girl of his choice. He has to ultimately fulfill his wish with the help of a policeman. The policeman here does not represent the human angle but the law, for often law precedes actual societal changes. The writer must have consciously named his male character, Chidambaram, to make his readers draw from their memory the story of Nandanar, a Dalit, who when not allowed entry into the temple of Lord Siva in Chidambaram, prays to god in the popular Tamil song, 'Varuhalamo Ayya' (May I come in, ayya?).[31] It is said that the Lord came down to meet Nandanar or moved the idol of the bull to make him get a view of the sanctum sanctorum. The story, Oorabavi also indicates that the Dalits may have been converted into Vaishnavism, with the reference the writer makes to the Venugopalaswamy temple. However, it is not clear why their later conversion into Christianity is not hinted at in the story.
  13. Given Enoch's commitment to deal with several specificities in the story, it is rather surprising that the geographical location of the story is not mentioned. Does one have to understand that this is deliberately done to generalise the experience of the Dalits as a larger group who face similar caste-based injustices across the country? How do non-Telugu readers understand this aspect of lack of specificity of location when they read Enoch's story in another language? We wonder how, given a chance, Enoch himself may wish to re-write his story in the light of several changes that have occurred in Telugu literary history in the last forty years since the writing of the story.
  14. Taking an upper caste male writer writing in English, a Telugu Dalit male writer from a Madiga sub-caste, and a Telugu Dalit feminist activist-writer, we have demonstrated how gender, caste (including sub-caste), location and language inform the complexities of literary texts that try to read life.


    [1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, text of 1834, online:, accessed 3 February 2014.

    [2] Water does not keep people away but water is one of the basic necessities that are deprived to some people in the name of caste. Village ponds and wells are prohibited for people from "untouchable" communities while they are open even for animals and birds. Water, like fire, is considered to be a great cleanser but even such a great cleanser can also be polluted by the touch of the "untouchable" communities is the notion of casteist society. (note by the guest editor)

    [3] Approximately 10,000 protestors assembled under the leadership of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar at Mahad and marched to the Chawdar water tank. Thus they asserted their right to drink water from the water tank of town which was prohibited for Dalits. A conference of satyagrahis was organised by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar on 25th December in 1927 and the Manusmiriti was burnt. Both the incidents were very crucial as revolts against the Hindu casteist ideology. (Note by the guest editor)

    [4] Shanta Gokhale, ed. Arjun Dangle, Hyderabad. Orient Longman, 1992, pp. 1–2, ll. 31–38.

    [5] Rakesh Tiwary and Sanjiv J. Phansalkar, 'Dalits' access to water: patterns of deprivation and discrimation,' International Journal of Rural Management, vol. 3, no. 1 (2007): 43–67, p. 43, online:, accessed 25 September 2013.

    [6] Tiwary and Phansalkar, 'Dalits' access,' p. 47.

    [7] Narahari Gopalakrishnamah Setty, Srirangarajacharitra: Sonabhayi Parinayamu. Hinuvulayacharamulu Telupunatti Naveenaprabhandamu, Madras: Viyavaharatharanginee, 1872.

    [8] Kandukuri Veeresalingam, Rajasekhara Charitramu, Hyderabad: Vishalandhra, 2004.

    [9] B.R. Ambedkar, Autobiographical Notes, Pondicherry: Navayana, 2003.

    [10] For information on the significance of the Harijan Temple Act, see Anupama Rao, The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics Of Modern India, California: University of California Press, 2009; and Gail Omvedt, 'The struglle for social justice and the expansion of the public sphere,' in The Public and the Private: Issues of Democratic Citizenship ed. Gurpreet Mahajan and Helmut Reifeld. New Delhi: Sage Books, 2003, pp. 130–48.

    [11] Mahidhara Ramamohanarao, Kollayigattitenemi, Vijayawada: Navodaya, 2007.

    [12] Kolakalkuri Enoch (1939–) 'was born…in a poor Madiga (S.C) family of Vejendla, Guntur District, Andhra Pradesh, India. [He] overcame the shackles of poverty and casteism by contributing his mind and might to write and teach.' He wrote in both English and Telugu. See Professor Kolakalkuri Enoch's Writings, Activities, Philosophy and Photographs, ca. 2013, online:, accessed 3 February 2014.

    [13] Kolakaluri Encoh, 'OOrabavi,' (Village Well), Bangaru Kathalu ed. Vakati Pandurangarao and Vedagiri Rambabu, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2001, pp. 165–83.

    [14] Juluru Gowrishankar, 'Lesson of lies,' trans Archana Chowhan, Indian Literature, vol. 200 (2000): 56–57, ll.33–36.

    [15] P. Sainath says, 'In an astonishingly large number of villages in this country, separate glasses continue to be used for serving dalits and non dalits in teashops.' See P. Sainath, 'Dalits & human rights: the battles ahead – II,' People's Union for Civil Liberties Bulletin (July 1999), online:, accessed 15 October 2013.

    [16] Sikhamani, 'Look, the steel nibs are sprouting!' trans. Kiranmayi, Indian Literature, vol. 200 (2000): 106–07, ll.58–62.

    [17] She teaches Telugu literature at the University level and in her articles she has raised pertinent questions about politics of pedagogy with reference to courses in Telugu literature.

    [18] Vinodini, 'Thirst,' trans. K. Suneetha Rani, in Staging Resistance: Plays by Women in Translation, ed. Tutun Mukherjee, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 492–512, p. 483.

    [19] G. Kalyana Rao, Untouchable Spring, trans. Alladi Uma and M. Sridhar, Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2010, pp. 112–13.

    [20] S. Anand's essay introduces various standpoints on Dalit subjectivity by scholars like Sharmila Rege, Gopal Guru, Swathy Margaret and others. See S. Anand, 'On claiming Dalit subjectivity,' Seminar Web Edition, ca. 2006, online:, accessed 15 October 2013.

    [21] Kolakaluri Enoch, 'The villagew,' trans. Alladi Uma and M. Sridhar, in Gold Nuggets: Selected Pre-Independence Telugu Short Stories, comp. and ed. Bh. Krishnamurti and C. Vijayasree, New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2004, pp. 144–73, and 147–48.

    [22] Mulk Raj Anand, Untouchable, New Delhi, Orient Paperbacks, 1970, p. 31.

    [23] Anand, Untouchable, p. 32.

    [24] Enoch, 'The village well,' p. 147.

    [25] Bama, Sangati Events, trans. Lakshmi Holmstrom, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    [26] Enoch, 'The village well,' p. 172.

    [27] Sharan Kumar Limbale, Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature, trans. Alok Mukherjee, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2004.

    [28] Enoch 'The village well,' p. 153.

    [29] There have been more recent debates among Dalit and Bahujan intellectuals like Chandrabhan Prasad and Kancha Ilaiah about the need for the Dalits and Bahujans to embrace modernity and break away from their traditional occupations to keep pace with the competitive world they inhabit. Kancha Ilaiah, The Weapon of the Other: Dalitbahujan Writings and the Remaking of Indian Nationalist Thought, Delhi: Pearson Education India, 2010.

    [30] Mastaarji, 'Who do you think he is?' trans. K. Damodar Rao, Indian Literature, vol. 200 (2000): pp. 69–70, ll.13–37.

    [31] 'Varuhalamo Ayya' (May I come in, ayya?), The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing, ed. Ravikumar and Azhagarasan, New Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 2012.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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