Wherever there is a village, there is a Maharwada. The Maharwada is always outside the village. The Maharwada of the Mahars! Of the dogs! Of pigs! Of donkeys! Of garbage! Of dirt! The Mahars had to do all the menial work of the village. And what they got in return was refuse and waste. Ambarnak, Bhootnak, Sidnak and Dhondamay they were the four Padewar Mahars of Sonai. Dhondamay, neither man nor woman, too Bhimnak and Sidnak’s help to do the menial work a job she had inherited from her father. Dhondamay lived by herself.

Some of the Mahars did domestic work in the houses of upper-caste Hindus. They worked in distinguished houses. They were called “House Mahars” or “Raabta Mahars”. Those who were Mahar Padewars would get these jobs by dint of inheritance. This work was not given to the Mahars who came from outside the village. Every year, only four houses got this job. Once the duties were assigned, these Mahars would be given a stick with bells attached to it. They would have to enter the village with it, so that the sound of the bells would warn people of their approach. This stick and the sound of the bells were a symbol of pride for the Mahars, but for the other villagers, these were associated with the untouchable Mahars a warning that they should keep away from the approaching Mahar and even their shadow. There were other marks, too, of a Mahar the black thread around their necks and hands, the black thread around their waists and, above all, the look of helplessness on their faces. It wasn’t just the Mahars’ attire or appearance, even their language marked them out.

The Mahar who was assigned domestic work would be regarded as the Padewar Mahar for a given time. The village would assign him jobs which he would then divide among other Mahars. This was the way the Maharwada and the village functioned. The Mahars were proud of this tradition.

Collecting rent and debt from defaulters, following up with them, making arrangements if a big client happened to come to the village, taking care of horses arranging fodder for them and massaging their bodies patrolling the village, being the drummer when required, looking after the fields, crops and the threshing floor, being the watchman, showing the way sometimes, protecting the trees and the forest, killing dangerous wild animals, looking after and patrolling the mountain passes, keeping an eye on strangers and intimating the Patil if someone’s presence in the village was suspicious, finding thieves, keeping the village roads clean, carrying dead animals from the village, collecting firewood for the upper castes…and in return for all this, begging for food. The Mahars could not say no to any of these jobs. They would be tortured mercilessly if they refused. They would be evicted and expelled from the village, and all their food supplies would be cut off. They were thus compelled to do these jobs. If a Mahar man refused to work, his wife and children would have to fill in. The Mahars mostly accepted their condition with the thought, “This is our fate. How can we possibly fight it?” In the discriminatory Hindu religion, the Mahars were on the lowest rung. The Hindu religion was based on segregation between the upper and lower castes, and on discrimination. Inequities were the very basis of the caste system. The untouchables were at the foot of this hierarchy. This was because they had sinned in their previous lives and their present low-caste birth was their penance for those past sins. This was the tradition. This was the belief.

Restricted from access to public spaces. Separate colonies. Separate wells. Even separate crematoriums. The Mahars could never step outside the limits set for them. They would have to stay put where they had been placed at the very bottom. The Mahars had to lick the spit of the upper castes and suffer a slave’s life, and their predicament was to be content with this life. The Hindu religion sustained itself not on the valour of the Kshatriyas but on the manure generated from the carcasses of the Mahars. The Mahar a two-legged animal. And he was used to lifelong slavery.

The Mahar would skin dead animals and sell the hide to the Dhor. The Dhor would dye the hide and sell it to the shoemaker, the Chambhar, who would make shoes and sell them. The upper-caste people made the Mahar drag and skin dead animals!

Ambarnak was sitting under the tamarind tree. He would watch over the village at night. Keeping an eye on the hide of dead cattle by day and watching over the village by night he knew no other life. Sometimes he would introspect. He would stare at the village Chand Minar. His grandfather had built it. Mehmood Gvan, the wazir of Bidar, was returning victorious after the Konkan mission. He had put up a rest camp in Sonai. The army halted for two days there. The victorious army had received a royal welcome from the king. Ambarnak’s grandfather Bidnak was in charge of the grand black horse, and the wazir had personally inquired after Bidnak!

The horsemen roamed the village, each choosing a house in which to spend the night. As night fell, the men of the house carried their mattresses and pillows to the chawadi office or to one of the temples. Back home, the women prepared food. The horsemen reached. The beds that the women had prepared were ready. Decorated. The horsemen spent the entire night in the houses they chose while their horses stood outside and while the men of those houses slept in the chawadi office or the temples.

It was at this time that Bidnak became a Muslim. He came to be known as Chand Ali. He was a mason. He got a minar built. It was taller than the Mahadev temple in the village. The minar lent grandeur to the village. Chand Ali’s grandson Akbar Ali would sometimes invite Ambarnak over to his house, especially on Eid. Sometimes, Ambarnak would go over to deliver meat. There was an invisible but firm bond between the two men. The bond of blood. And that was why Ambarnak often thought of becoming a Muslim. But he kept the thought to himself. He both loved and loathed the Hindu religion. Whenever he had time, he would gaze at the minar. He was proud of his grandfather. A sense of pride and gratification overwhelmed him.

Ambarnak saw Sidnak running after a dog. The dog had some rotis in its mouth, and Sidnak seemed desperate to catch hold of it. Sidnak was hurling stones at the dog, but nothing could stop it not even Ambarnak when he joined in. The defiant dog ran towards the Mari Ma temple. Sidnak and Ambarnak ran behind it. The dog was tired by now. It stood for a moment to catch its breath, panting. The rotis fell from its mouth. Sidnak aimed a stone at it. The dog began to growl. Ambarnak hit it with a stone and drove it out of the temple. The dog ran to the back of the temple and stood there staring at the temple. Sidnak picked up the rotis that the dog had dropped and came out of the temple. They sat under the tamarind tree. Sidnak was happy that the rotis were still warm. His mouth was watering.

The dog’s saliva had wet portions of the rotis. Sidnak threw them away to Champi, who eagerly gobbled them up and sat beside Sidnak, wagging her tail. Sidnak and Ambarnak shared the food. “Champi must be taught to pinch rotis,” said Sidnak with a laugh. “That would be great for us,” agreed Ambarnak, joining in Sidnak’s laughter. Champi’s tail began to wag faster!

Leaves were falling from the tamarind tree. The branches looked dry. Birds twittered. Sidnak showed Ambarnak a green snake on a twig. As thin as a sprig of onion. The birds were louder now. The snake had caused the alarm. Ambarnak changed the discussion. “Have you heard?” Sidnak shook his head. “Then listen,” said Ambarnak. “Do you know what people are saying? Mahadev and Parvati roam the skies at night. Many have seen them. Even I saw them yesterday. Parvati keeps crying with the little Ganpati on her lap. Mahadev looks desolate. They come out on the southern side. People are terrified. If the gods themselves are crying, surely some danger is about to come. Bad days are ahead.” Ambarnak was speaking earnestly. “Yes, Bhootnak told me. The world is going to drown in a deluge. But how does it matter to us? Let the landowners worry. What have we to lose?”

Sidnak appeared untroubled. He added, “How long will this persecution continue? The earth will drown. Sin reigns supreme. I might survive. For I know how to swim. But then how long can I keep swimming? What if alligators eat me? Perhaps I shall have wings! The Brahmin will die. As we keep swimming, we will turn to fishes. Mahar fishes!” Sidnak began to laugh at his own fantastical imagination.

Ambarnak stood up. He pulled down the cattle hide he had laid to dry on the branches and tied it up properly. Kera was on her way to wash the clothes. A monkey had wandered into the village. Children were running after it. The monkey climbed up the neem tree. The branches of the neem tree swayed, and crows began to caw. It was after many years that a monkey had come to the Maharwada.

Excerpted with permission from Sanatan: A Novel, Sharankumar Limbale, translated from the Marathi by Paromita Sengupta, Penguin India.