This story is part of a series on the everyday heroes of rural Maharashtra.
Suganda Kamble, 71, recounts a time when members of his community — the Matangs, classified as a Scheduled Caste — would be served tea in tumblers different from those used for others from their village. “We weren’t allowed to enter even small eateries,” he says.
But today, “I can eat food with a person of any caste,” Kamble declares. “Let’s see who can stop me now.”
The change is in no small part due to Kamble, who a decade ago, skewered the inhumane practice of untouchability by satirically quipping at tea-stalls: “Arrey! I am a Brahmin, Serve me in a different cup.”
For the Dalits of Bahadurwadi, a village in Maharashtra’s Sangli district, Kamble has come to represent hope.
Kamble has, for the past five decades, been sweeping the village, collecting garbage, cleaning the gutters and public toilets, and looking after Bahadurwadi’s sanitation. He is the only person in the village to perform the casteist occupation of skinning and disposing animal carcasses. His wife Raibai, a farmer and homemaker now in her mid-60s, says Kamble is rarely at home. “Throughout the day, he is busy cleaning the village,” she says.
While doing this work, Kamble has also consistently challenged the status quo, with his trademark dark humour.
“Mimicry and joking are in my blood,” he tells me, with a guffaw.
In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, casteism was rampant in Bahadurwadi. There were daily ignominies to be endured, big and small.
“The kirana walas (grocery store owners) would first sprinkle water on the coins we (Dalits) gave them and only then accept the money,” recalls Suganda.
The Dalits weren’t allowed into hotels; the places that did serve them had separate utensils for the purpose. Among the most horrific practices which prevailed was that Dalits having to tie a broom to their backs — to sweep the dust of their feet — and carrying a pot before them. “We couldn’t spit on the roads. We were beaten up for that. We had to spit only in the pot,” Kamble explains.
Entering the village was unthinkable.
Kamble works to keep that same village clean — often performing distasteful tasks for a pittance.
“The other day, I had to dispose the remains of two dead pigs. The carcasses stank, but it had to be done, else there was a risk of diseases spreading in the village,” Kamble says. The task took him an hour; he had to use his bicycle to carry the carcasses three km outside the village. He was paid Rs 20.
“Sometimes, people don’t even pay me. I do this work to keep the village clean, but people don’t understand its value,” Kamble says, anger evident in his tone.
Kamble has four sons — Popat, Arun, Sajan, and Rajendra — aged between 30-45. He doesn’t want any of them to pursue the same occupation as him. “I have faced a lot, how much more exploitation should we bear?” he asks.
Kamble’s father was a tamasha artist. The son picked up the knack of delivering punchlines from the father. As Kamble went around cleaning the village, he began using humour to lampoon social mores. Crowds began to gather around him, drawn to his deadpan delivery. That’s when Kamble decided to battle casteism with his jokes.
Was he not apprehensive of speaking out?
“Earlier I was scared, but now even the government keeps quiet when I speak,” Kamble says.
In Bahadurwadi, Kamble is known as “Bapu”. “People love my vinod (comedy). I know when they will get offended, and that’s how I use my comedy,” he says. He uses a lot of rural metaphors, hyperlocal incidents and real-life stories in his jokes, which make them more relatable for the villagers. Casteism, cleanliness, corruption, inequality are among the subjects Kamble tackles, and his humour incorporates the everyday jokes of everyday people.
Five decades ago, the then sarpanch of Bahadurwadi, Yashwant Chavan, asked Kamble to sweep the village roads. Kamble says he developed a liking for the task; he no longer charges money for cleaning the village. “This is my village, and she is my mother,” he explains.
Bahadurwadi resident Daji Yadav says Kamble is conscientious in his duty of ensuring he village is clean. “He doesn’t need anyone to instruct him in what is to be done,” Yadav says. “If he finds anything dirty on the streets, he immediately cleans it up.”
Kamble’s day begins at 3 am. By 5 am, he has swept the entire village. Since the panchayat cleans the gutters only twice a year (in February and May — a fact that has Kamble ribbing, “This is what cleanliness means to elected officials!”), it falls to Kamble to ensure the gutters are clean at all other times, and that the dirty water is channelised properly outside the village. Sometimes he digs gutters himself to ensure the waste water flows away.
His sons have asked Kamble to discontinue his work, but he says, “If I stop this, how will you people survive?”
A few months ago he met with an accident and sustained a severe injury to his right leg. He’s been forced to slow down since.
No one has ever offered to help Kamble with his work. He receives no pension. While working in the panchayat (with no fixed designation) for 22 years, he never got any safety/protective gear to use when cleaning he village. “I’ve never used gloves. Now, I have become immune to the filth and dirt,” he says.
Kamble has also maintained birth, death, and marriage records for the village — another job for which he was never paid. “It would all depend on the vasuli (collection),” he says, and laughs. Sometimes, Kamble was tasked with cutting the water supply of people who hadn’t paid their panchayat dues.
Kamble picked up several odd jobs over the years since his work in Bahadurwadi didn’t pay: He cut wood in the nearby villages of Kanegaon and Tandulwadi (being paid a rupee for eight hours of work, in the late 1960s); worked as an agricultural labourer; reared cattle in the villages of Panhala taluka. He even worked as a peon in a school in nearby Kurlap village. “I was removed from that job after I played a prank on one of the school teachers,” Kamble recollects with a smile. “Not everyone takes humour in good spirit. But the kids loved it.”
Kamble — who sees his work as carrying forward the tradition of social reformer Gadge Maharaj (“He managed to work in a lot of villages, and I could never move beyond this single village,” Kamble rues) — was elected as one of the governing body members of the Abasaheb Khot Sahakari Co-operative Society, which works for farmers.
Of retiring, Kamble shows no sign. “Till the time my hands and legs are working fine, I am going to do it,” he says. “This is my village. I will do this work no matter what people say.”
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Updated Date: Jun 11, 2019 15:14:33 IST