Glimpses of Dalit life

Glimpses of Dalit life

Umpteen years ago, when I was still in school, a woman called Hirabai used to come to my grandfather’s home in Poona to clean the commodes. Even at that time, I thought of her as extraordinary: she carried those disgusting pots with as much grace and dignity as if she were wearing a tiara. It never occurred to anyone in my home to disrespect her. I have never forgotten her and think of her, especially when I read all those depressing stories of what is now called Dalit life.

I can’t remember when the flush system was made compulsory in Poona and I don’t know what work Hirabai and her sons found after that. Was it sometime after the assassination of Gandhiji? I remember a tonga racing down Main Street (later Mahatma Gandhi Road) announcing his death. His concern with cleanliness was not just a matter of clearing rubbish. It involved the idea of the dignity of labour of any kind and, of course, that involved all the unpleasant jobs “untouchables” were called upon to do. (It’s always intrigued me that people who create excreta in the first place feel it below their dignity to clean up after themselves.)

There have been numerous novels about Dalit life and numerous autobiographies and poems by Dalits themselves. Jerry Pinto’s translation is the first in English of Daya Pawar’s autobiography, Baluta, (Speaking Tiger, 2015) the first Dalit autobiography to be published in Marathi in 1978. Shanta Gokhale, in her preface, writes, “I met and got to know Daya Pawar. He was a gentle man, a reticent man, who listened more than he spoke. I knew from my reading of Baluta, from its extraordinary clarity and self-implication, that he carried a freight-load of anger and grief inside him.”

For Jerry Pinto, translator, “What prevents this from being a misery memoir is the way in which Pawar implicates himself. For a victim narrative, the central assumption is that the teller is blameless and the villain is someone else out there. In his relationships with women, Pawar presents himself with warts on.”

Daya Pawar (1935- 1996) himself writes about a girl everyone thought he would marry. “Hers was one of the richer families in the Maharwada. Their house was awash with milk and butter; it was covered in English tiles.


The girl’s father had many acres of land…His wife, strapping as a Pathan was always swathed in gold ornaments…I knew that everyone wanted me to marry into that house. But even at that age I felt a deep hatred for the rich. I would not let myself be sold off to them. And then, I didn’t want a dark-skinned wife. I was dreaming white-skin dreams. I would dream of children who looked like Brahmin-Baniya children.”

Jerry Pinto mentions an essay by Adil Jussawala included in Jussawala’s prose collection, Maps for aMortal Moon.” The essay is titled, With Daya Pawar in Paris. Jussawala and his wife, Veronik, met him at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and then later in Paris. “Daya and I went for long walks, Veronik took him to the cinema.


They saw Carlos Saura’s Blood Wedding which Veronik liked but Daya slept through for a while. They went to The Colour Purple which Veronik hated and which he loved. At no point did he try to impose his views on us, not even try to project himself as a Dalit, nor aggressively promote the idea of Dalit literature. I think we understood each other, despite our different backgrounds.”

Jussawala ends with, “Collapsing in the middle of a seminar in Delhi isn’t the best way to go, though it does convey an extreme reaction to seminars.”


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