Stenches, Smells and India’s Long Tryst With Caste Discrimination
Sara Joseph’s story ‘Smells and Stenches’ discusses caste-based discrimination through the eyes of Little Anni.
Smell is one of those unsung senses – a feeling that can take you back in time, but is also highly underrated.
For some, the whiff of a chalk-stick or the scent of a particular perfume can be the tool for time travel, evoking bitter-sweet memories of childhood. For some others, it can be a trigger for discrimination.
The protagonist of Sara Joseph’s short story Smells and Stenches, Anni, has never been able to fathom why her teacher detests her for smelling a particular way. The little girl also can’t comprehend why Annamma Teacher reprimands her for not bathing, when she does, regularly.
No teacher has any right to fault Anni on cleanliness. Every morning, she and Kuttipappan both brush their teeth. First with powdery black umikkari. After that with a rolled up mango leaf. Next – and this, Anni doesn’t like at all – with a twig from the neem tree. The bitter taste fills her mouth. And finally, Kuttipappan strips the mid-rib of a coconut leaf, breaks it into two and gives her one half to use as her tongue cleaner.
Anni does not know the identity of her father or his occupation, but the context is implied – he is a cattle hide maker, a profession exclusively reserved for the marginalised, the excluded, the dalits.
And regardless of how many times (once a day, Anni asserts) she bathes, she will always stink for her upper caste, status-conscious teachers.
The supremacist idea of Brahminical cleanliness and hygiene is brought with extremely simple words:
Devils. That’s what Annamma Teacher calls those who don’t cut their nails... It was Kuttipappan who told Anni all about the diseases that children who don’t cut their nails could get. It is only because of him that she has clean nails. And Anni, in turn, passes the advice on to her classmates. But they pay no attention. Some even make fun of her.
Smells can have binaries too. Polarisations that are conveniently placed into hierarchies. The idea of ‘stink’ or ‘odour’ is different from that of ‘scent’, although both refer to the olfactory stimuli. They evoke different emotions – one of disgust, the other of joy.
The teachers smell of different things as they pass by. Sometimes of powder; sometimes of special soaps; and sometimes of perfumes.
The little girl is aware of these oppositional categories. The everyday-ness of a working woman’s household is dealt with in a sensitively poignant way.
The sensory experience is also evocative of my mother and how she smells when she cooks for us in the morning.
Anni’s mother smells different at different times. Sometimes, of garlic. Sometimes, of washing soda. Sometimes of rusting metal. Sometimes of naphthalene balls. Of fish on the day that she cooks fish. One day Anni tried asking her to bathe with scented soap. Mother nearly slapped her for that: “There is not even enough money to buy rice. And she only wants scented soaps. What airs you have.”
Beneath the child’s baffling experience of smells, stenches and discrimination at school lies a larger debate: That of India’s long and regressive caste-based exclusion.
She grabbed Anni’s plate from her, flung it away and ordered her back to the end of the line. It was not the slap that had hurt Anni so much as the humiliation of the whole thing. She walked quietly and stood at the end of the line. Her plate lay in the sun like a thrown-away moon. “I don’t want lunch today,” Anni decided.
The months of July and August reignited a debate on self-appointed gau rakshaks in India. Vigilante justice at the hands of these ‘cow protectors’ got even the Prime Minister of the country to take a stand. Reported cases of caste atrocities seem to be rising in number every passing day.
On one hand, dalits are expected to be involved in the skinning of cows; for many, dead cattle is their rozi-roti.
On the other hand, they are excluded from reaping the benefits of their own labour.
Anni’s stink is nauseating for her teacher.
The upper-caste Brahminical hypocrisy around Dalits is equally nauseating, for us.
Smells and Stenches is part of The Two Named Boy and Other Stories – a collection of stories surrounding children who rarely find voice in mainstream children’s literature. The story Smells and Stenches has been illustrated by Koonal Duggal.
The series is published by Mango Books, an imprint of DC Books, Kerala.
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