Interrogating Caste, Gender, Modernity
Radha Chakravarty
THE WEAVE OF MY LIFE: A DALIT WOMAN'S MEMOIRS by Urmila Pawar. Translated by Maya Pandit NA, 2009, 348 pp., 375
August 2009, volume 33, No 8/9

The writings of dalit women are gaining greater visibility today, especially through translations. The Weave of My Life, Maya Pandit’s English translation of Urmila Pawar’s autobiographical work Aaydan (2003), is a welcome addition to this fast-growing archive. A courageous narrative that interrogates prevalent ideologies of caste, gender and modernity, this book narrates the experiences that led to Pawar’s emergence as a dalit feminist writer. Pawar recounts her childhood and adolescence as a member of the Mahar community in a small village on the Konkan coast, her group’s exposure to Ambedkarite ideas and their conversion to Buddhism, her relationship with Harishchandra whom she eventually married, and their move to the metropolis. She describes her struggles in the city, as she studied for her B.A. and M.A. degrees while working in a bank, rearing her children and doing all the housework.

The text charts her growing commitment to caste and gender issues, her evolution as a writer and activist, her emergence as a public figure, and the strain that this caused in her personal relationships.

In her useful Afterword, Sharmila Rege calls The Weave of My Life a dalit feminist testimonial. Autobiographical writings traditionally focus on the individual self, but Pawar eschews narrow individualism, insisting that ‘each and every person’s life is a social document’. While narrating her own personal experiences, she also delineates the life of an entire community as it evolves through three generations. In this respect, the text may be read as an attempt to reclaim the history of a group that has traditionally been denied voice and visibility. Pawar does not see caste as a reified category, though. Instead of constructing reductive images of a singular dalit identity, the narrative underscores the heterogeneity of dalit experiences and their rootedness in particular histories. She writes consciously as a woman. Unlike Baby Kamble, who placed community above individuality in her autobiography The Prisons We Broke (Jina Amucha, 1985), Pawar does not allow her individual gendered identity to be entirely subsumed by the consciousness of a caste-based collectivity.

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