A powerful and poignant book on what it means to be a dalit in pre and post-Independence India.
A tall man, walking away from his village with a heavy heart, his wife's body tied to his back, and almost dragging a little boy, his son, in a chilly evening drizzle, towards a distant stream….It was a small village that he was walking helplessly away from; his three-year old son weeping aloud as he, half naked, followed his father in the gloomy evening. The village was Vangapalli, in the Karimnagar district of Telengana, the native village of the man. The man with the dead body on his back came from the Harijanwada, the untouchable dwellings in the village. He walked fast so that he could reach the banks of the stream before dark. He was powered by the thought that he had to dig a grave to bury his wife and that he had to do it all by himself.
Thus begins Y.B Satyanarayana's absorbing “family biography” My Father Baliah. The book, rooted in the Telengana dalit madiga experience, may be written in English. Yet, the world that is presented to us is far removed from the urban, upper-class English-speaking world. In style as well as in substance. For not only does Satyanarayana dwell powerfully and poignantly on what it means to be a dalit in pre and post-independence India, he does so by altogether eschewing a narrative of individual success. By choosing to embed individual stories in three generations of family history, Satyanarayana deftly and gracefully gives credit where it is due, resisting the temptation of turning this into a narrative about any one individual or the self. His own journey has been a long and difficult one and yet this is not the story he focuses on.
Spotlight on family
At the emotional heart of this narrative, is that simple and yet increasingly rare sentiment of gratitude. It is interesting too that while Ambedkar is mentioned, the author chooses to highlight the familial sphere as central to his growth and formation. The spotlight is not on the broader dalit political movement but on the struggles and sacrifices of the narrator's family – his father Ramaswamy alias Baliah, his mother Narasamma, his brothers Balraj and Abbasayalu and his sister Bachamma (who, despite having had to drop out of school herself, monitors the education of her brothers). It is the history of a people told by other means, told charmingly and with great honesty and reads like a tribute to them.
As Satyanarayana presents it, the struggles of his family – the Yelukatis - are not entirely joyless. The family is one of many dalit beneficiaries of the British railway system. The railways represent a relatively caste-free space, a space which holds out the possibility of growth. In the railway colony, caste is markedly less-pronounced even though it does not entirely disappear. For one thing, the employees live side by side – the sudras beside the untouchables – something that would be unthinkable in the village. The colony also has schools for the children of the employees.
As with many other dalit autobiographies, the raw material is compelling, the depth of experience is unbeatable. The narrative makes visible what would otherwise remain unnoticed, unremarked upon. The work undertaken by railway gangmen and pointers, mostly untouchables, is one example. Every now and then, Satyanarayana gives us a quick glimpse into their world. Once when a train hits a cow, it is a madiga pointsman who skins the dead animal. The meat is then distributed amongst all the untouchables.
Caste follows the Yelukati family wherever they go, though its intensity varies somewhat. It follows Satyanarayana through school, through college and later through his career. He fights back with grace. While Baliah accepts caste-based practices as sociological fact, he is aware that the most important thing in the world is the preservation of self-respect. This despite the fact that he has never read Ambedkar. Baliah's dogged belief in the value of education and the lengths to which he is willing to go so his sons are able to get a post-graduate degree is simply yet movingly narrated.
In a growing line of dalit narratives, My Father Baliah is significant also because of its specificity – its documentation of caste and the dalit Madiga experience in the Telengana region.
My Father Baliah; Y.B. Satyanarayana, HarperCollins, Rs. 299.