Some 20 years ago, I came face-to-face with this Dalit reality while serving on board an Indian naval destroyer. As officer of the day (OOD) I embarked on my 'rounds' of the ship at 9 PM sharp. The quartermaster at the gangway piped and announced the commencement of rounds on the ship's PA system. This was to alert all the 'off-working hour' duty personnel to be on their post to report cleanship and safety of their part of the ship.
Besides, inspecting the mess decks and galleys the OOD also inspects the bathrooms and toilets during the rounds. The job of cleaning the toilets is done by a special branch in the Navy known as "Topass''. To accord a modicum of dignity to sailors of the Topass branch, the navy calls them “sanitary hygienists”. The education eligibility or entry into this branch is VI standard.
During my rounds a young duty-Topass was standing outside the sailor's toilets to report. He saluted me, I reciprocated. But my eyes shifted to his faded name tally, which hardly revealed his name.
I asked him his name.
He replied, NAHAK.
I said, NAYAK form Orissa.
He said, no sir, my name is NAHAK and I am from Orissa.
The moment he repeated Nahak, I remembered these lines from a poem by Faiz, "Sheeshe ka Messiah",
"Tum Nahak Tudke chun chun kar daaman mein Chipaee bethe hou..."
I told myself but NAHAK means USELESS. How could a person be named USELESS?
I finished the rounds, went back to the wardroom, lit a cigarette and thought to myself... in that one particular name there is so much history. It shouts out the story of centuries of Dalit oppression and exploitation in India.
Nahak’s name is his pain and his reality. It is much more than the pain Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan) felt in Dewaar when he understands the meaning of the words, “Mera Baap chor hai”, inscribed on his arm by the oppressing classes to remind him of his status and position in the society.