From the earliest renditions of the Ramayana, boatmen have occupied a special place in the traditional moral universe of India. Murals depicting the legendary story of the boatman, Khevat, ferrying Prince Rama, and his pious wife Sita across the Ganga, can be seen all over Banaras, while historical, literary and travel narratives are replete with accounts of encounters with boatmen. The following excerpt from Pankaj Mishra’s (1999, 26) acclaimed novel The Romantics is a particularly good example of literary fascination with boatmen:

As the subject of Miss West’s orientalist gaze, Ramchand is at once exotic, erotic and subservient. Such indulgence, however, is quickly dispelled in the following paragraph:

For all the predictability of a benign orientalism which mars Miss West’s view of Ramchand, she brings a certain informality to her encounter with him, something impossible for the narrator who is steeped in the socio-economic hierarchies which underpin everyday interactions among Indians. For him, the boatman belongs to the low caste occupational group known as the Mallah/Nishad, located near the bottom of the social hierarchy. Miss West’s approach to the boatman, however, is unmediated by such conditioning.