Prisons transcends the boundaries of personal narrative…
The Prisons We Broke: The Autobiography of a Community, Baby Kamble, Orient Longman, 2008, p.178.
The suffering of my community has always been more important than my own individual suffering. I have identified myself completely with my people. And therefore Jina Amucha was the autobiography of my own community.”
It is difficult to slot Baby Kamble’s The Prisons We Broke as autobiography. It transcends the boundaries of personal narrative and is at once a sociological treatise, a historical and political record, a feminist critique, a protest against Hinduism and the sordid memoir of a cursed community. Translated from the original Jina Amucha, which was serialised in 1982 and first published in 1986, it is possibly the first such narrative by a Dalit woman in any Indian language, and most certainly in Marathi.
A note on the translation. Not only does translator, Maya Pandit, activist and professor, retain the flavour of the original, she goes a step further by writing a detailed introduction on the Dalit movement and conducts an insightful interview with the author.
The Prisons We Broke is a graphic revelation of the inner world of the Mahar community in Maharashtra. “We were just like animals, but without tails,” she says, describing in lurid detail a world of lice-infested rags for saris, feasts comprising maggot-ridden innards of diseased carcasses, the tearing hunger of starving new mothers, babies cleaned with saliva instead of soap, and intestine-damaging cactus pods consumed to quell hunger.
Born to an entrepreneurial father, the author’s “privileged background” barely keeps her above the abject poverty suffered by her people. Her English-speaking aajas or grandfathers were butlers to European sahibs, far removed from their poverty-stricken and superstition-ridden Maharwada that lay on the fringes of society. However, for the author, it is a world of buffalo fairs and sacrifice, of people possessed by spirits and boys offered to the mother goddess as potrajas. She recounts vividly the people of Maharwada, their houses and customs, their joys and sorrows. Women, especially, occupy pride of place in the narrative.
Baby Kamble’s autobiography is unique because in critiquing Brahminical domination, it also speaks out for the women of her community, presenting an unflinching portrait of its women, subjugated by both caste and patriarchy (later, the same women become the driving force towards education). The younger women suffer the worst fate. Usually married off at the age of eight or nine, they are often physically chained or have their noses chopped off for incurring the displeasure of their husbands or in-laws. And it is in these circumstances that she embraces the teachings of Dr. Ambedkar, their saviour and messiah, their “very own Buddha”.
The Prisons We Broke is significant because it traces the evolution of the Mahar community from pre-Ambedkar days to its rapid transformation through education and mass conversion. It presents the seeds of a revolution through images of impromptu speeches and bold entries into temples, of poems in praise of the man who rescued them from the mire of Hinduism, their “Baliraja, Ravan, Buddha and Bhim”. However, she also contributes to the deification of Ambedkar (“…he is our God. Nay, he is even better; he is the god of gods…He is certainly superior to God.”) and is sharply critical of the current generation of educated Dalits that rejects its roots and drives Babasaheb out of its life.
The narration varies to hold the interest of the reader, and includes stories with fairy tale beginnings (“Once upon a time, there was a hut”) that end with the ludicrousness of their situation. It often engages the upper-caste reader in angry monologue, sometimes succumbing to emotional outburst, and finally makes the transition from social to personal towards the end when the author speaks of her education, her marriage, entrepreneurial skills, her children, her ashramshala for orphans and the influence of Dr. Ambedkar on her life and thinking. Comical incidents such as the one where the author as a young girl, together with her classmates, enters a temple to “pollute” the idol of Ram, are almost metaphorical. The girls, terrified by the idols of the god’s guards are “saved” by the local Brahmin priest who chases them out of the temple.
The interview with Maya Pandit covers interesting aspects of the Dalit movement including the Riddles controversy and the feud between Gandhi and Ambedkar. She breaks her silence on the domestic violence she faced and tells us how her writing lay hidden for 20 years before she had the courage to share it with sociologist Maxine Berntson. Today, Baby Kamble is a leading figure of the Dalit movement with her residential school for Dalit students in Nimbure near Phaltan, and numerous awards for her literary and social work.
Dalit literature, historically, has been writing of protest and part of a larger social movement. While Baby Kamble’s The Prisons We Broke continues the tradition, it is also an important life narrative whose original title Jina Amucha (Our Existence) communicates simply an urge to share the trials, tribulations and triumphs of an extraordinary people.