“During a wedding, when the guests and the baratis, those who had accompanied the bridegroom as members of his party, were eating their meals, the chuhras would sit outside with huge baskets. After the bridegroom’s party had eaten, the dirty pattals, or leaf plates, were put in the chuhras’ baskets, which they took home, to save the joothan that was sticking to them.”
This might not come as a surprise for those already acquainted with caste violence in India, but certainly for those who are unaware–some voluntarily–and have no more than a general picture of the life of the ‘untouchables’ in India. And this is exactly where Omprakash Valmiki’s ‘Joothan’ fills this gap by allowing the reader to know about the life of a Dalit vis a vis the life of Dalits in general. Although, it could be a matter of debate whether or not the life of a Dalit could reflect the life of Dalits in general.
Compared to other autobiographies, it is a small book in terms of the number of pages. But it is different in nature as it tries to not speak just of the achievements of the author, but instead, is used as a mirror against the Indian society asking uncomfortable questions on caste violence. Joothan, refers to scraps of food left on a plate, destined for the garbage bin or for animals. However, for centuries, Dalits have been forced to consume joothan and ironically the best food that they ever get to eat comes from joothan.
The writer gives an example of how joothan became a part of the folklore of his community:
“During the marriage season our elders narrated, in thrilled voices, stories of the bridegrooms’ party that had left several months of joothan.”
An achievement of Omprakash Valmiki’s book is that throughout the book (also as an argument for those who try to sanitise or justify caste) he has argued for and emphasised a distinction in experiences. Being a Dalit and knowing about being a Dalit, i.e., experiencing as being and experiencing through knowing is an essential difference considering it shapes the outlook and action of individuals. For example:
a) “I was kept out of extracurricular activities. On such occasions I stood on the margins like a spectator. During the annual functions of the school, such as rehearsals of the play, I too wished for a role. But I always had to stand outside the door. The so called descendants of the gods cannot understand the anguish of standing outside the door.”
b) “The children of the Tyagis would tease me by calling me “Chuhre ka.” Sometimes they would beat me for no reason. This was an absurd, tormented life that made me introverted and irritable. If I got thirsty in school, I had to stand near the hand pump. The boys would beat me in any case, but the teachers also punished me. They tried all sorts of strategies so that I would run away from school.”
c) “If the people who call the caste system an ideal arrangement had to live in this environment for a day or two, they would change their mind.”
To be kept out of cultural activities in school, not being able to satisfy one’s thirst because of ascribed untouchability and being called names could easily be confirmed as a common experience for a lot of Dalit children, but for the upper castes, these realities do not exist. Hence, those who say that they understand caste violence and insist on measures like education and better jobs for the poor and uneducated Dalits, do not realise that this is a partial solution. Even after a good education and job, the Dalits are still looked down upon and discriminated against and examples of this the writer has shown drawing from his own experiences. In one case, when Omprakash Valmiki had to present a proposal to one Mr. Gupta (his senior), Mr. Gupta after having seen the proposal commented,
“So you have reached till here.”
And whenever Omprakash would score good marks in school, the upper castes would try to show him his place by saying,
“Study as much you want, but you will still remain a dalit.”
This is not to suggest that real sympathy or understanding can come only by being a Dalit. Rather, it is an attempt to say that the people who argue for modification and not annihilation of caste, do not understand the issue in its depth and also have some vested interest in the status quo of the caste system. Omprakash rightly notes that,
“But, father’s face and words kept coming back to me: “You have to improve the caste by studying.” He did not know that caste cannot be improved by education. It can be improved only by being born into the right caste.”
It would be a great error to imagine that education and economy alone could provide equality and justice to Dalits. What could one possibly do if even after being educated and economically well-off one is still measured by one’s ascribed caste, as was the case with Omprakash? And yet, to believe in these measures would be delusional.
The following examples from the book show that it is not just social or religious discrimination, but also the living conditions which further worsened life. Again, it is these experiences which do not exist for the upper castes, which in turn breed a romance for village life (in the backdrop of industrialisation in India). And this, Omprakash criticises by targeting a poem by a well-known Hindi poet Sumitranandan Pant (a Brahmin):
a) “Literature can only imagine hell. For us the rainy season was a living hell. The epic poets of Hindi have not even touched upon the terrible suffering of villages. What a monstrous truth that is.”
b) “The days of the rainy season were hellish. The lanes filled up with mud, making walking difficult. The mud was full of pigs’ excrement, which would begin to stink after the rain stopped. Flies and mosquitos thrived and were as thick as clouds of locusts.”
c) “The poem by Sumitranandan Pant that we had been taught at school, “Ah, how wonderful is this village life”–each word of the poem had proved to be artificial and a lie.”
As opposed to religious revelations which instantly transform the life of the recipient and have the potential to transform the lives of others who are ready to accept it at its face value, the process of critical awakening towards already established ways of life is rather a slow and long process. But it is a sure way to liberate oneself and others by a process of cultivation of the mind and not mere following of dogma.
“I wanted answers to the questions bobbing inside my head.”
What were these questions? These vary from a specific question of why hadn’t Omprakash discovered Ambedkar yet as opposed to other national leaders to a general question of why were Dalits treated the way they were?
a) “The school had a library where books were gathering dust. There I first became acquainted with books. By the time I reached class eight, I had read Saratchandra, Pramchand, and Rabindranath Tagore. Saratchandra’s characters had touched my child’s heart very deeply. I had become somewhat of an introvert, and reading was my main passion.”
b) “The deeper I was getting into this literature, the more articulate my rage became. I began to debate with my college friends and put my doubts before my teachers. This literature gave me courage.”
Roots of atheism:
“Whenever my family performed pujas, or religious ceremonies, I would either sit outside or wander around. I started avoiding the puja early on. Father would get upset with me. He would talk about the belief of the ancestors, but that didn’t work with me. I did not argue with him about these issues but sat quietly. He would get irritated and scold me. Afterward, frustrated, he too would become quiet. He would ask repeatedly, “Munshiji, I hope you haven’t become a Christian.” I would reassure him, “No, no. I haven’t become a Christian.”
But something came to a boil inside me, and I wanted to say, “Neither am I a Hindu.” If I were a Hindu, would the Hindus hate me so much? Or discriminate against me? Or try to fill me up with caste inferiority over the smallest things? I also wondered why one had to be a Hindu in order to be a good human being–I have seen and suffered the cruelty of Hindus since my childhood. Why does caste superiority and caste pride attack only the weak? Why are Hindus so cruel, so heartless against Dalits?”
Discovery and disappearance of B.R. Ambedkar from the national narrative:
“One day I was sitting in the library, looking at some books, Hemlal put a small book in my hands. As I was flipping its pages, Hemlal said, “You must read this book.” The name of the book was Dr. Ambedkar: A Biography. Its author was Chandrika Prasad Jigyasu.
Ambedkar was an unknown entity to me then. I knew about Gandhi, Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Radhakrishnan, Vivekanada, Tagore, Saratchandra, Bhagat Singh, Subhas Bose, Chandrashekhar Azad, Savarkar, and so on but was completely ignorant about Ambedkar. Despite my twelve years of studying at Tyagi Inter College, Barla, I had never encountered this name. The college library also did not have a single book on Ambedkar. I had never heard this name from a teacher’s or a scholar’s mouth. On Republic Day we heard countless narratives of devotion to the country, but they never included the name of the author of the Constitution. All the media of communication had been unable to inform people like me about this name.”
Now, the main challenge for the book is to try to take the issue(s) beyond it being a good book, a must read, thrilling, etc. and place it in a position where it can serve the purpose of annihilation of caste for which radical Dalit literature is written. It is also necessary to further investigate if literature could be an effective means for social change. Other challenges include the task of ensuring that, in an age when everything is depoliticised, including literature, radical literature is brought to the mainstream (without falling into the trap of ‘best-selling’ books). This needs to be done so that people can be made aware of their own histories, to be able to objectively understand and criticise their own society, and self. It has to be done to invoke a critical curiosity to know more about issues that are sidelined. The act of reading has to be taken beyond itself, i.e., beyond being a mere activity for leisure to becoming a means for critical engagement. Vernacular literature can be a means of resistance against English language elitism in India.
“After working hard day and night, the price of our sweat was just joothan. And yet no one had any grudges. Or shame. Or repentance.
This question is to all of us. And it demands an answer!
Note: The original book is in Hindi. English translations for all the excerpts above are borrowed from Arun Prabha Mukherjee’s translation of the book (2003).