The 'Pakis' of Coastal Andhra: The Men and Women Who Carry Away Human Waste

Excerpted from Sujatha Gidla's Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family And The Making Of Modern India

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The caste whose occupation is the most degrading, the most indecent, the most inhuman of all, is known in coastal Andhra as pakis. In print, they are called manual scavengers or, more euphemistically still, porters of night soil. In plain language, they carry away human shit. They empty the “dry” latrines still widely used throughout India, and they do it by hand. Their tools are nothing but a small broom and a tin plate. With these, they fill their palm-leaf baskets with excrement and carry it off on their heads five, six miles to some place on the outskirts of town where they’re allowed to dispose of it. Some modernized areas have replaced these baskets with pushcarts (this being what’s thought of as progress in India), but even today the traditional “head-loading” method prevails across the country.

Nearly all of these workers are women. They don’t know what gloves are, let alone have them. As their brooms wear down, they have to bend their backs lower and lower to sweep. When their baskets start to leak, the shit drips down their faces. In the rainy season, the filth runs all over these people, onto their hair, into their eyes, their noses, their mouths. Tuberculosis and other infectious diseases are endemic among them.

When India developed into a modern society with public buildings, schools, offices, railways, cinema halls, and sewage systems, these paki men and women were hired as janitors and sanitation workers. Since the pakis’ work is a caste occupation, their wages are not true compensation but charity that may be given or withheld. Because of the resulting fluctuations in their income, most pakis are forced to borrow at high rates and become mired in debt. Even their hours of work are irregular. Those who work for the railway are told a day’s work stops when the trains stop coming. The trains never stop coming.

The pakis of Gudivada lived in a separate peta of their own, located behind the Gowri Sankar Cinema Hall. Cinema halls were typically built in poor neighborhoods because better-off  people wouldn’t live within range of the noise. But the Gudivada pakis loved having a noisy cinema hall right beside their homes. From outside its walls they could enjoy the music and dialogue all day and all night. And they befriended the ushers, who when the hall was not full would let them in to sit for free in the floor class (that is, on the bare floor—the cheapest class of seating in Indian theaters). By the first or second week of a movie’s run, every paki in Gudivada could recite all its dialogue word for word, with every nuance in tone, and sing all the songs. At night, they would get in for the late show that otherwise only unrespectable types, and the prostitutes they brought with them, attended and learn the dances that went with the songs. Every man, woman, and child in the paki colony loved to perform. Even the elderly pakis loved to dance, although they preferred their traditional koya dances to the cinema choreography their children and grandchildren were learning.

Satyam’s idea was to recruit volunteer performers from the paki colony in place of paid professionals. Nancharayya predicted just how the party leaders would react. He described the scene acting out the reactions of the party leaders, mimicking their voices and gestures. Yelling, seething, his nostrils quivering, his face turning red, he showed Satyam what he should expect.

And that was just the reaction Satyam received. What will it do to the party’s reputation, the district leaders demanded, to associate publicly with such dirty people?

In the 1940s, when the Communist Party first came to Gudivada, the pakis were spontaneously drawn to it. But after setting up a paki union and a municipal union for the paki sanitation workers, the party did little organizing among this community. The only member who had anything to do with them was the town secretary, an impoverished kamma man named Atloori Seetharamayya, who was also secretary of the paki union. On this account the other kammas in the party used to mockingly refer to him as “Paki Seetharamayya.” They never considered him and his wife as their own because they subsisted on food donated by the pakis.

After the district leaders went off  shaking their heads, Satyam got Atloori Seetharamayya to call a meeting of the town committee. At the meeting Satyam explained at length how absurd it was for a party of the oppressed to be ashamed of being represented by the oppressed.

Excerpted with the permission of Harper Collins.

Cover of Sujatha Gidla's book ‘Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India’. Image credit: Harper Collins
Cover of Sujatha Gidla's book ‘Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India’. Image credit: Harper Collins