In search of form

A powerful literary testimony to the angst, suffering and attempted rebellion of a dalit community in Punjab…

Published - July 31, 2010 02:58 pm IST

Before I review Changiya Rukh ( Against the Night ), I must record my strong objection to the semantic quibble asserting that caste is not on par with race; or else, I lose the right to review this or any dalit work. Caste-based discrimination is one of the worst forms of racism because it is practised against one's own countrymen. Like race, it is determined by birth and does not end with death but passes from generation to generation. In theory, it is possible to escape caste (unlike race) by changing one's religion but in practice, we know, caste follows us into whichever religion we convert to.

At first sight, Balbir Madhopuri's Changiya Rukh is a dalit autobiography like many others with all the ingredients that shock and shame non-dalit Indians; or ought to. The unimaginable, horrific struggle for the barest minimum of survival and the daily brutalisation of human instincts are etched as is the incomprehensible capacity of people to survive, escape the tentacles of caste repression and become people of consequence.

In the words of Madopuri himself:

Many a time

I'm dwarfed

Like a tree cut at the top

Over whom passes the power line

I get pruned out of season

When in passing

Someone is curious to know what my caste is.

Sensitive portrayal

Changiya Rukh is a powerful testimony to the suffering, angst and attempt at rebellion of the dalit community of chamars in Punjab but it is something more. It is this something, which makes it significant as a literary work. It is a lively chronicle of a host of people, each significant and memorable, not as a representative of a caste in one part of the country but as an individual.

There is the sensitive boy, planting a mango sapling, acquired with great labour, in his mud hut to have it roughly snatched by his father (Bhaiya), telling him not to ape upper-caste Jats. “My heat wilted like the plant. A storm had blown away the flowers of my desire. Even so, I thought we too should have a tree in our courtyard, so the sparrows, doves, and parrots may come to perch and bicker on the branches.” I heard the future poet in the little child as I read the lines and my heart wilted too.

He is too small to understand the meaning of caste or of defilement, for which he is taunted, abused, beaten, and denied basic human needs. But he has no option but to understand quickly or suffer more humiliation.

There is the dalit grandmother, Daadi Haro who, by sheer force of personality and an acrid tongue, holds her own against everyone. “If a Jat woman (or any other woman) passed near her without wishing her, she would say loudly, “Wonder which arrogant bitch just passed by.” Daadi's authority is unchallenged. One day, Taro Tai (who belonged to a Jat family) and Chachi Chinni are on the swing … when Daadi sees them, no one knows what happened but she shouts, “‘Is this the only work left for these wanton women? They are not bothered about their husbands… Loose women! Bad ones!' The swing stopped… the onlookers slunk away.”

Still around

There is the rebellious Phumman, who tells a Jat landlord, “Threaten someone else; those days are gone when all of us bowed and scraped before you. Think before you speak or else I'll pluck your beard.” Alas, ‘those days' are not really gone, as Madopuri realises when he becomes an assistant editor in the city. “It seemed to me that the curse of caste had permeated our society and there was no indication of its dying out soon. Then it suddenly occurred to me that the Muhay formula may be the most effective method of establishing social equality.” The Muhay formula is no different from the Phumman formula, deliver a sharp slap, termed a ‘humanist slap on the face of casteism', by the writer. Muhay gave a Punjabi poet a resounding slap, when he kept taunting him about his caste, saying, after retirement, he could sit under the Neem tree and polish shoes.

Seeds of hope

The oppressed and hapless father, Bhaiya, too declares time and again in the chamarli of the village, “No one has the time to listen to our plea that this caste system was not ordained by god, but has been made by man for his own selfish motives.” Though his ranting and railing serves no purpose and he often ends up thrashing his sons, his rejection is heartening. As is his instilling a yearning in Madhopuri to study and escape the drudgery of his birth and help others do it too, through political action. The mother, bua , and other women are more down to earth. They accept their so-called fatebut find ways of dealing with it with courage, determination, even benevolence. They somehow manage to retain their person-hood and deal with life as women and mothers do, anywhere, anytime. There are innumerable minor characters who, transcending the caste-stereotypes, show their human face, to make the writer title a chapter as ‘an oasis in a desert'.

As I read this personal saga full of brutality and pathos, I could not help wish that Balbir Madhopuri had used the powerful yet intensely humane material, gleaned from personal experience, to weave a novel rather than an autobiography. It would have given him the freedom to edit and prune the repetitive and sometimes inane details. It is a paradox of human psychology that fictionalising facts does not reduce but increases their credibility and poignancy. A well-honed novel has a greater impact as a chronicle of truth than a recital of unedited events. I could see a vibrant and unique novel straining to get out of the pages of this autobiography. The fact that I finally read it as a novel is a tribute to the literary sensibility of the writer and the compassionate participation of the translator Tripti Jain.

Changiya Rukh, Against the Night: An autobiography,Balbir Madhopuri, translated from Punjabi by Tripti Jain, OUP, 2010, p.215, Rs. 395.

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