THE WORK OF OUR HANDS

June 16, 2007

Tehelka Jun 23 , 2007

Vatsala Kaul has high praise for Kancha Ilaiah’s book for children on the values of ‘simple’ work
The cavernous divide between those who ‘labour’ and those who ‘work’ in India has always inhabited the shaky bedrock of our social system. Labour is work that leads to no accumulation of wealth, though it often perpetuates its own impoverished struggles. Its devaluation, as scripted in Hindu religious texts and fostered by years of selfish conditioning, has only worsened, aggravating the disengagement between the historically privileged and those banished to the fringes as ‘lower castes’, ‘Backward Classes’, ‘Scheduled Tribes’ and ‘untouchables’. Flung into such compartments without escape, millions of Indians — adivasis, potters, weavers, dhobis, farmers, cobblers and domestic workers — are regarded as a lobotomised, unskilled mass, providing ‘services’ it seems they have no choice but to perform. As Ilaiah points out, the modern education system — in continuance of an ideology that considers physical labour undignified — anoints mental endeavour but is derisive and disparaging of physical work. Basic productive services are neither valued nor well-paid. It is to this work and to those who perform it that Ilaiah seeks to restore a core of long deserved respect.

The book is presented as a possible course book for children of classes 7-10, their teachers and parents. Of the book’s 11 ‘lessons’, eight deal with the scientific temper, artistic abilities, knowledge pool and many skills of adivasis, cattle-rearers, farmers, weavers and barbers. There is enough to grip the imagination — how the adivasis discovered and standardised most of the foods we eat; how leather workers used the tangedu plant for eco-friendly tannin; how tillers use traditional knowledge in planning their harvests; how potters improve their clay with smooth ash and charcoal; how dhobis use fuller’s earth to remove stains and kill germs; how dais — largely the women of the barber community — are able to turn breach babies in the womb without ultrasounds or other costly techniques. There are interesting asides, and inventive exercises readers are encouraged to try — they work as well for adults as for kids. What do you know about CK Janu? Ever tried composting? Or protesting against manual scavenging? How much does a farmer earn on a crop?

Grownups who fret over whether to let their domestic help use the ac are advised to resolve their own conflicts before handing this book to their children. The book was sparked off by Ilaiah’s shock at students from the iits and iims protesting against reservations by going out to sweep roads and polish shoes, clearly demonstrating what little dignity they associated with such labour. Through lucid, logical text, Ilaiah places this work in socio-historical perspective, impressing upon the reader how entire categories of usually marginalised people have learnt, invented, discovered and created products we use but take for granted, and how they are as capable as others — often more so — of becoming teachers, software engineers, doctors, nuclear physicists or anything else.

Ilaiah’s well-intentioned narrative can become simplistic in places, such as in the chapter on ‘Labour and Religion,’ where he denounces Hinduism and its caste system. It’s an impractical approach — one can not imagine the relatively privileged suddenly converting to Ilaiah’s point of view if they are not already attuned to caste’s heinous unfairness. By contrast, medieval Europe is described as a blissfully classless society — an assertion that is simply not true. Admittedly, however, while almost every religion has had cliques that arrogated to themselves powers and privileges, neither class nor slavery were sanctified by religion in the way Hinduism sanctified caste. Even if the word ‘caste’ were now to disappear, a vicious complex of reasons helps its long-entrenched effects to survive in this country and seep even into the lives of converts to more egalitarian religions.

Although one understands that Ilaiah’s case rests on presenting ‘labouring’ people as informed, skilled and creative, it is a little disappointing that he doesn’t touch upon the fundamental, intrinsic equality of all people, skilled or not, learned or not, labouring or not. We may owe weavers a ‘historical debt, so they must be given preference in education and employment,’ but that should not mean that those whom we do not owe any such debt should not get, or be enabled to get, the same opportunities. Ilaiah excludes those who may not be ‘skilled’ or ‘inventive’, and new migrants to the ‘labouring’ classes who may or may not have traditional wisdom and learning.

While most of the writing in the book is blissfully straightforward and not without humour (Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo are ‘cobblers’, for instance), academic jargon does creep in. But then, it’s always hard labour to build up debate and easy work to nitpick.

The cause is worthy, and the last chapter on gender issues more than welcome. This wonderfully designed book is a much-needed resource for both parents and teachers and anyone else who wants to educate themselves — teeming with interesting information, yet spacious and uncrowded. It is also beautifully embellished — one can’t use so neutral a term as ‘illustrated’ — by Durgabai Vyam of Bhopal, whose Gond-style black-and-white drawings are feisty works of art.

In times when children think cows eat garbage and not grass, and that flower pots grow one on top of the other on roadsides, Turning the Pot, Tilling the Land will prove vital in empowering our children to respect all kinds of peoples and their work, and to understand, and hopefully work against, the atrocious machinations of the caste system. Class 7 is too late to start, though; it would be best to share the contents of this book as soon as kids are old enough to understand the words ‘play’ — and ‘work’.

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