Joothan: A Dalit’s Life has been reprinted in 2014 with an addition, ‘Remember ing Omprakash Valmiki’. This is the third reprint. The English translation of this originally Hindi book was first published by Columbia University Press at New York, as also by Samya at Kolkata in 2003. Omprakash Valmiki passed away in 2013, after fighting a two year battle with cancer. The translator, Arun Prabha Mukherjee, is a Toronto based academician and scholar. Valmiki was a multi-faceted personality who won fame and acclaim for Joothan an autobiographical account of a ‘Chuhra’ boy, an untouchable caste which employs itself (rather, is forced to employ itself) in cleaning human excreta or skinning dead animals. Much of the account is searing with pain, and fills the reader with a sense of unease and even self-disgust at her (the reader’s) not being able to intervene to alleviate Valmiki’s suffering. However, it is through the same account that the reader also gets clear glimpses of Valmiki’s poetic/creative self, his interest in theatre as well as sports and also his sound grip on subjects of social and political interest. Once out of the clutches of caste ridden, destitute and illiterate village life, Valmiki displays strengths, both of intellect as well as character, despite having a dark, brooding temperament.
Very frequently in the narrative, especially when Valmiki is still talking about his childhood, he goes through extremely harrowing experiences. The text is replete with phrases like, ‘When I think of those days today, I feel nauseated’, ‘When I think of all those days today, thorns begin to prick in my heart’, ‘If Ma had not looked after me that day, I think the blood vessels in my brain would have burst’. Describing incident after incident where he is either being brutalized by upper caste elders for having the gumption to enroll himself in the village High School and attend classes along with the others, or by his own peer group of higher caste boys, Valmiki seems to be insisting that those incidents constitute him. Another thread of abuse that runs parallel through the narrative is the lifestyle that the narrator and his people are forced to have and the tasks they are forced to perform as a given of their existence.
Particularly hair-raising among them is the part about the ‘joothan’, the scraps of leftover food that the Chuhras are supposed to go begging for rather than their labour being solicited as a necessary task of cleaning up after the feast is over. In this context, it is interesting to note that while Gandhi had referred to this practice of the Chuhras as a ‘bad habit’ which dalits—read Harijans—should discard, Ambedkar had exhorted fellow dalits not to accept joothan even if it led to violence.
The incident described by Valmiki is worth quoting in some detail. ‘The barat was eating. My mother was sitting outside the door with her basket. I and my younger sister sat close to my mother in the hope that we too would get a share of the sweets and the gourmet dishes that we could smell cooking inside. When all the people had left after the feast, my mother said to Sukhdev Singh Tyagi, as he was crossing the courtyard to come to the front door: “Chowdhuriji, all your guests have eaten and gone … please put something on the pattal for my children. They too have waited for this day!”
Sukhdev Singh pointed at the basket full of dirty pattals and said, ‘You are taking a basketful of joothan. On top of that you want food for your children. Don’t forget your place, Chuhri! Pick up your basket and get going.’ That night the Mother Goddess Durga entered my mother’s eyes. It was the first time I saw my mother get so angry. She emptied the basket right there. She said to Sukhdev Singh, “Pick it up and put it inside your home. Feed it to the baratis tomorrow morning.”’
When his mother is told ‘not to forget her place’, Valmiki says that the words ‘penetrated his breast like a knife’ and ‘continue to singe [him] even to this day’. At another place what he says is translated as ‘many such incidents of my childhood are sprawled inside me’. Which brings me to the question of language, and the other question is the question of translation. In his book, Dalit Sahitya Ka Saundarya Shastra Valmiki asserts that content has primacy over expression in dalit literature. Any technique or craft applied to expression will come a poor second if not regarded as entirely superfluous. This, however, does not seem to ring true when one reads Joothan. In the text there are innumerable instances where it almost flounders for the lack of a coherent expressive technique which would have stood such ‘experiential literature’ or ‘literature of pain’ in good stead. Besides, there can be no doubt that it is felicity of language that has come to Valmiki’s rescue in expressing his outrage at the inherent injustices and hypocrisy of the prevalent social system and stake a claim for equality, independence, brotherhood and so on. Valmiki’s claim that dalit literature is related to life and the struggles and experiences related to it raises another important question for the dalit writer, who is now a transformed being, a speaking subject—What happens to dalit writing when you ‘escape’ the dalit experience or you deny caste?
There is an inherent paradox in denying the existence or identity of a caste and at the same time asserting one’s identity as a member of a certain caste. However unpleasant it may sound the fact remains that this paradox leads to an untenable position because one can and also cannot be member of a caste. If one is not a member of a caste then one joins the majority and if one is a member of a caste then one has to discharge all the obligations falsely or rightfully imposed on the member of the caste. For instance, if sitting in a council or any any social situation a person asserts that she is a member of a certain caste she is implicitly also affirming all the obligations, however evil, that she is expected to discharge as a member of that caste. The episode which Valmiki has in the coach of the air conditioned Shatabdi Express in which he is travelling with his wife is a case in point. Chatting merrily with their fellow travellers, suddenly when the subject of caste comes up, Valmiki’s wife wishes to conceal their caste while Valmiki announces ‘bhangi’ almost emphatically as if deriving some sort of pleasure from their reaction. Needless to say, there is an embarrassed silence and the warm chatter cools off for the rest of the journey.
Valmiki disagrees with many of his friends and his own wife about declaring his Chuhra caste before others. But his wife would be within her rights if she would also expect Valmiki to have no hesitation in removing carcasses or skinning them and taking them to the market to fetch a fair price. The problematic of simultaneous rejection and embracing of identity is a problematic dalit autobiography studies may need to address. I need not repeat the several instances of horrific memories that Valmiki testifies to and wishes to break free from. Yet there are several instances where one feels that they give Valmiki ‘great causes to die for’ and make a hero out of him. Almost a glorified victim.
Or perhaps he is asserting the Chuhra identity for what the people stand/stood for, their pigs, their liquor, their expertise in skinning dead animals, their exorcists. You don’t really get to know. At one point in the book Valmiki says, ‘It was quite common to quarrel, swear and get violent after drinking liquor. Even little things got exaggerated, and people ended up with bashed heads. Such was life. These were important times for me. Those days I wanted to run away from them. Today they are my strength. They provide me solace.’ (italics mine)
With regard to Mukherjee’s translation, one would compliment her for attempting to keep pace with Valmiki’s searing pain and his insistence on the etching of memories on his mind and heart. Since authenticity of experience is regarded as the most important feature of dalit writing, in order to be recounted, it has to be recorded accurately, almost photographically. The translator has had to use a variety of words for inscribing, etching and photographing so as to enable the narrator to testify that what he is recounting is nothing but the truth. Similarly, there are many expressions for angst and oppression and burning anger which is being bottled up, like, ‘erupting lava’, ‘explosions’, ‘conflagrations’, ‘piercing dagger’, ‘deeply scarred’, ‘wave upon wave of memories of events’, ‘the wounds of torment I suffered are still fresh on my skin’ and so on, to give testimony for Joothan to be nothing but the truth.
Omprakash Valmiki’s insistence on the status of documented dalit history for Joothan is also evident in the pains he takes to establish the factual identity of people he has had truck with in his own life at the cost of causing them affront. To those who would cast aspersions on dalit literature to be lacking in imagination therefore, Valmiki would argue that it is a document and yet it is literature. It is a known fact that truth or testimony does not necessarily constitute a literary truth. To establish the truth of the truest of true accounts the narrative has to be handled with imagination and skill. There is no doubt that Omprakash Valmiki was blessed with both.
Baran Farooqi is Associate Professor, Department of English, Faculty of Humanities, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.