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I testify that

Daya Pawar’s autobiography Baluta is a record of unspeakable humiliations in a caste-ridden society. I devoured it with great hunger, writes Amitava Kumar.

brunch Updated: May 14, 2016 20:17 IST

A letter came from Los Angeles. It had been written by an upper-caste Marathi chemist. From this letter, an untouchable poet in Maharashtra found out that Indians in America were treated like dogs. This, I imagine, was in the 1950s or early ’60s, before Ravi Shankar had played with the Beatles or Hollywood had used Gandhi to sell popcorn to millions.

The poet reading the letter was Daya Pawar. Beside a dusty rose bush in what was then called Bombay, with the news on the radio close by, our poet read the letter. His joy made him cry. He sat down to write a reply. “I feel so damn good,” he wrote in Marathi. “Now, you’ve had a taste of what we’ve suffered in this country for far too long.”

I received the story I have told above nearly 30 years ago. I was a new graduate student in the States. The friend who told me the story, a white woman from Minnesota, was translating Dalit writing into English. That is how Daya Pawar came into my life. I put his story into a long poem I was writing and didn’t read Pawar again till, just last week, I devoured with great hunger his autobiography, Baluta.

Pawar, who died in 1996, belonged to the Mahar community. Babasaheb Ambedkar was also a Mahar, a caste that Hindus considered polluting. The term ‘baluta’ refers to the share of the village harvest owed to a Mahar for the work done during the rest of the year – running in front of the horse of an important person who came into the village, announcing funerals, dragging away the carcasses of dead animals, chopping wood, playing music day and night at festivals, welcoming new bridegrooms at the village borders on their wedding days.

Out of the huts of history’s shame: In Marathi, ‘baluta’ is the share of the village harvest owed to a Mahar (a caste that Hindus considered polluting) for the work done during the rest of the year. In his autobiography Baluta, Daya Pawar spares no one, and least of all himself. This is the book’s great strength.

Baluta is a record of unspeakable humiliations in a caste-ridden society. Pawar spares no one, and least of all himself. This is the book’s great strength.

Here’s an example. When Pawar was still a schoolboy, his father died. Pawar’s mother, unknown to the boy, was a couple of months pregnant at that time. A little later, an older man taunted young Pawar with a question: “Your father’s dead and gone but your mother’s pregnant. How did that happen?” This threw the boy into turmoil. When his mother miscarried and lay in bed, Pawar asked her, “How come you’re pregnant when my father’s dead?” The question was the wrong one, born out of an older man’s malice, but this is what Pawar writes about his shame: “If you had asked me about this terrible moment even a couple of years ago, I would not have been able to talk about it. But Aai made me promise to tell the whole truth to at least one person in my life. It was she who gave me the strength.”

One of the voices: In VS Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now, what made a great impression on me was conversations with Mallika Amar Shaikh, whose autobiography was sexually frank and honest about the failure of her marriage.

Around the same time that I first heard about Pawar, I also read VS Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now. In that book, Naipaul had described his meeting with Namdeo Dhasal, poet and founder of Dalit Panthers. What had made a greater impression on me was Naipaul’s report of his conversations with Dhasal’s wife, Mallika, the daughter of a Muslim father, a communist, and a Hindu mother. Mallika had written a book in Marathi, I Want To Destroy Myself. It was an autobiography that had caused a sensation. After all these years, I still remembered the bold title. And when I went back to Naipaul’s book, I was reminded that Mallika’s book was sexually frank and honest about the failure of her marriage.

“If I hadn’t written the book, I would have gone mad,” Mallika had told Naipaul. She also said that Namdeo had supported his wife’s right to say what she wished about her marriage. When I read those words, my mind went back to Pawar’s Baluta. At his book’s end, Pawar mentions seeing once or twice in a town-market the wife that he had abandoned years ago. She would be dressed in rags. I was struck by Pawar’s candour, and his sense of shame. Pawar married again. Unlike his first wife, his second wife was educated. She also wrote an autobiography in Marathi, Truth Be Told…

The sad truth is that a young Dalit woman in India might not get a chance to tell her life’s story. On March 28, a 17-year-old in Bikaner, Rajasthan, called her father to tell him that she had been raped by her physical education teacher. This happened after the warden of the hostel where she lived had sent the Dalit student to clean the room of the physical education teacher. The next day, her body was found floating in a water tank.

The Bookist is a monthly column

From HT Brunch, May 15, 2016

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