Life beyond the pale
IT WAS on the day following Independence Day this year that Chuni Kotal, the first woman graduate from the Lodha Sabar community of West Bengal, who was working for a master's degree in anthropology, decided to take her own life. Apparently, she couldn't cope any longer with the jibes and pressures of a hidebound, caste-conscious academic establishment. Had Kotal read Antasphot (Cry from Within), the autobiography of a Mahar woman named Kumud Pawde, whose circumstances were quite similar to Kotal's, but who learnt to fight the python-like stranglehold of caste at every turn, she could have taken heart.
Pawde's struggle to learn Sanskrit and then to teach it is encapsulated in a brief extract from Antasphot that has been included in a recent anthology of modern Marathi dalit literature, entitled Poisoned Bread. Her story of resistance is just one of many that make up this collection of poems, short stories, autobiographical extracts, essays and speeches.
Dalit writing, perhaps more than most literary traditions in the country, is a literature of protest. Here words themselves become symbols of defiance, hurled at an unjust order. So closely has this literature reflected the dalit movement, it's hardly surprising it first struck root in B R Ambedkar's homeland, Maharashtra.
The overall tone of Poisoned Bread is sombre and angry, in a manner reminiscent of Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths or parts of Emile Zola's Germinal. It reveals the underbelly of human existence, which defies the neat politeness of the middle class. On this stony terrain, even "love grows like a patch of VD".
The search for identity is a recurring theme in the volume. In Prakash Jadhav's poem, Under Dadar Bridge, a child questions his mother who has spent her youth selling herself to the men who walk past:
Who was he? Who's my father?
Scraping and scratching at the VD sores that traced the world's map on her flower-like breasts, Shrivelled during the malaria epidemic, she would answer:"He was some swine or other!"
The search for a father recurs in Sharankumar Limbale's autobiographical excerpt, The Bastard. As a boy, Limbale used to serve illicit liquor in a seedy speakeasy and noticed the men who thronged there for a drink would not touch the water offered by a Mahar. They would have sex with a Mahar woman, but they would not eat food prepared by her. Knowing that his father was a caste Hindu, filled him with self-doubt:
Am I a caste-Hindu? But my mother is an untouchable. Am I an untouchable? But by father is a caste Hindu. I have been tossed apart like Jarasandha -- half within society, half without.
This search for a father parallels the community's own search for an identity. It is reflected in Baburao Bagul's poem, You who have made the mistake: What is untouchability?/ Is it eternal like God?
Bread, or the humble bhakri, is an important leitmotif in the book. So vital is it for life, that even if it has to be rescued from a cattle pen, smeared with dung and urine, it still is one way of banishing emptiness from the belly. Much of the stories and poems deal with a community's tenacity to cling to life, even while being buffeted by storms. So in Bhimrao Shirwale's Livelihood, Kashi fights with her lover to possess the shapeless mass of flesh that is her only child, and her only source of income, because its terrifying ugliness has the magical property of getting people to throw down alms.
Even seeking a life of honour is seen as an act of presumption that invites instant retribution. In The Storeyed House, old Bayaji returns to his village after slaving 35 years in Bombay's dockyards, and builds a storeyed house with his life's savings. It is set on fire. However, this short story by Waman Hoval is one of the few in the anthology that strikes a note of hope. Although old Bayaji dies, his sons and their families raise their pickaxes and build a two-storeyed house, defying the caste Hindus of the village.
Because Poisoned Bread records the evolution of modern Dalit consciousness, it is an important work in a country like ours "broken into a thousand pieces". So the translators deserve all credit for having rendered it into English from the original Marathi. But one does feel at times that some of the more elusive textures of life escape in the discordant tones of the writing. Occasionally, tender human relationships are delineated, like Aji in Daya Pawar's autobiography, Baluta (Labourer), rubbing her grandson's back and muttering, "Son, eat your fill!" But, unfortunately, these fleeting glimpses are more often than not swamped by the nihilistic rage that is the hallmark of this book.