Roundabout: Confronting a state of mind that goes by the name of caste - Hindustan Times

Roundabout: Confronting a state of mind that goes by the name of caste

ByNIrupama Dutt
May 07, 2023 06:10 PM IST

Ujjal Dosanjh in his debut novel takes up the the theme of caste prejudice in Punjab and how it travels to distant lands but he yet raises hopes in the resistance of the human spirit

It is a family outing from Banjhan Kalhan village in Punjab to Phillaur town in the early 1950s. The destination is Dalip Studio named after the hearthrob filmstar. Dilip Kumar’s charming photograph adorns the main wall of the studio. Although it is one of the many reprints, yet the studio owner boasts saying that he has clicked it.

Author Ujjal Dosanjh’s latest work “The Past is Never Dead is to be released in Chandigarh on May 14. (HT Photo)
Author Ujjal Dosanjh’s latest work “The Past is Never Dead is to be released in Chandigarh on May 14. (HT Photo)

Kahla, who goes by the name of Kalu, passes the studio whenever in town and stares at it admiringly. Born Usuf, the film industry changed his name to make him acceptable to Hindus. This change of name evokes a kinship with him in Kalu’s mind, with acceptance being the key word because although a Ravidasia wearing a turban he has not been able to remove the stamp of caste on his birth and being. He leads his mother Banti and father Udho, who has returned home taking leave from the foundry he works for in England with the aim of getting the passport formalities completed for his wife and son. It is for his son that he migrated so that he may have a life different from him without the damnation of his caste. After the passport photos are shot, Kalu insists on a family portrait because he resents the fact that poverty and prejudice was the reason for his father moving abroad. He wants to celebrate this togetherness.

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This is one of the most touching passages in the mint-fresh novel by Ujjal Dosanjh, “The Past is Never Dead” published by Speaking Tiger, which is to be released in the city on May 14.

Set in a Punjab village, it is not a nostalgia trip glorifying village life and pining for it, but rather a critique of the caste system which is still prevalent in Punjab with the prejudice greater and more visible against the “mean ones” in the rural areas. The thrust of this story told rather well is that caste prejudice tends to travel with the migrants even when they go to distant lands that can hardly make sense of the Hindu caste system. His writing is a validation of the famous saying by BR Ambedkar: “Caste is not a physical object like a wall of bricks or barbed wire which prevents the Hindus from co-mingling and which has, therefore, to be pulled down. Caste is a notion; it is a state of mind.”

Many stories to tell

The novel comes from the pen of Ujjal Dosanjh, who we know as a politician with a spine. He migrated to the UK at the age of 17 and then moved to Canada. A lawyer and liberal politician, he served as the premier of British Columbia from 2000 to 2001, member of Parliament as Liberal Party of Canada Member from 2004 to 2011. He was minister of health from 2004 to 2006, when the party lost the government. A vocal critic of the Khalistan activists, he was the victim of a brutal attack in Vancouver in 1985.

Born a few months before Partition in Dosanjh Kalhan, he could be called a midnight’s child too who grew with the turmoil of Partition leaving its mark on divided Punjab.

Indeed, he has many stories to tell and his autobiography “Journey After Midnight: India, Canada and the road beyond”, published in 2016, was very well received. But he still has more to give. In this novel, he lays bare the prejudice of the land-owning Jat Sikh community, which is not part of the Hindu caste system unleashing its wrath on the Dalits.

Kalu, despite being named Kahla, was addressed as Kalu even if his brown skin was no different from many of the other Jat boys. He grew up believing in Sikhism, the tenet of Guru Nanak and Ravidas. But the reality is that his father is maimed, thrown father and son out of the Quit India rally. As a young boy, he is mercilessly beaten when he tries to join Shivaratri celebrations in a temple and finally when they start prospering with the money his father sends from UK, his mother is threatened with rape. They flee from it all, but humiliation follows when he grows up to threaten the hierarchy of the landed class migrants.

Dosanjh says, “As a young migrant to the UK, I was witness to many such insults, but the worst was when I saw an elderly gentleman brutally beaten and have the worst caste abuses hurled upon him. I was too young to intervene, but there were others who did come to his rescue.”

While this novel exposes the casteist nightmares, it leaves the reader with hope in the form of the courage and resilience of the human spirit in rising above all.

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