Book Review: Sacred Outcast – Dispatches from India by Harold Jaffe

Sacred Outcast: Dispatches from India by Harold Jaffe

Anti-Oedipus Press, 2017

Review by Ishrat Husain

Offered as a unique collection of the author’s recent experiences in Varanasi, the holiest city in India, Harold Jaffe’s Sacred Outcast comes as a shock to the system. Using a variety of stylistic approaches including monologues, dialogues, prose poems, ruminations, conversations, and evoking Mother India itself, this text forms an inquiry into the lives of the low caste people in India. Presenting the text as an assortment rather than a simple narration, the stories of faith, hopelessness, and acceptance of life make a greater impact on the reader.

In this short text, Jaffe exposes the realities behind the Caste system – his observant eye finds that centuries ago castes were probably established on the basis of skin color. While a high caste, light-skinned Brahmin Hindu rides in a white Mercedes, the low caste, dark- skinned Dalit and the untouchable eat rubbish and sleep in cardboard boxes like the untended animals around them. 

In the prose poem ‘Suicide Bomb,’ an untouchable woman wants to destroy a temple so Shiva can recreate the world where all creation including the untouchable is loved.

Aboard a boat on the Ganges, Jaffe recalls the great Indian poet Kabir, and his visions of unity someday among all the peoples of India – the Muslims, and the Hindus.

Jaffe takes his reader by the hand and walks them through the burning Ghats where cremations are taking place among garlands of Marigolds, and where hungry dogs are scouting for food. At Kashi Ghat he experiences the inimitable smells of the Ganges –the decaying wood, half-cremated body parts, the excrement, which make the holy river Ganges smell like “the world in pain.”

The author admires Edgar Allen Poe – he looks at a Dalit and quotes, “forever isolated, and over dreamt / it killed him.”

Jaffe seems shaken by the contrasts in India – the burgeoning digital age promoted as a panacea for everything by India’s Prime Minister Modi. Jaffe deplores the influx of the digital age in today’s India through which people witness the great catastrophes going on in the world but remain indifferent to the plight of the human beings, the untouchables in their own country whose dignity has been shred to bits.

Jaffe looks at the continuous festivals with a jaundiced eye. He sees them as opiates which keep the millions of low castes perennially celebrating, always accepting.

Harold Jaffe’s love for animals is poignantly portrayed when he sees a dog sideswiped by a truck. A donkey is run over and the drivers of the vehicles do not even bother to stop. An emaciated cow, the holy mother of Hindus, chews on a rope which has been used to bind a corpse earlier; no one cares. If however the cow is slaughtered by a Muslim to fill hungry bellies, the whole community has to pay with their lives.

Toward the end of the book, Jaffe uses tourist observations and many different pairs of eyes to describe other atrocities, like acid throwing on women who refuse sexual advances from unwanted men.

A dialogue between the author and a high caste Hindu is satirical, critical, tragic and ruminative.

I recommend this text to anyone who cares about basic decency, dignity, and life on this planet. This book will not go well with those who deny global warming, our need for environment conservation, individuals who lack compassion or have no desire to change this world for the better.

We need more authors like Harold Jaffe who find the courage to stand up against men like the Modis of India and others who are drunk with power and remain blind to the world around us.

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