Reviews

Hindi Belt: A glimpse into an unfamiliar world

Kuldeep Kumar   | Photo Credit: mail

To write an autobiography is an act of tremendous courage. One has to bare one’s soul to the world and go through the agony and ecstasy of living one’s life all over again. Writing biographies or autobiographies is not very common in Hindi and one can count them on fingers. The most notable biographies to date are Vishnu Prabhakar’s “Awara Maseeha” (on Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay) and Amrit Rai’s “Kalam Ka Sipahi” (on Premchand), while Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s four-volume autobiography has come to enjoy the status of a modern classic.

Recently, Vishwanath Tripathi has also come up with an autobiographical account of his village as well as reminiscences of his guru, the legendary Hazari Prasad Dwivedi.

However, the two-volume autobiography of Tulsi Ram, a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, is in a class of its own. Published by Rajkamal Prakashan, its first volume Murdahiya “Murdahiya” came out in 2010, while its sequel Manikarnika “Manikarnika” appeared four years later. Perhaps, he will complete the grand narrative of his journey from ordinariness to extraordinariness by writing another sequel.

After reading these two volumes, one feels even more convinced that while writers belonging to upper castes may sympathise or empathise with the Dalits and other lower castes, they can never understand what members of these castes have to experience in their lives. A Dalit by birth, Tulsi Ram offers us a glimpse into a world with which we have no familiarity. This is the world of a landless Dalit, whose grandfather, great grandfather and other ancestors were bonded labourers of the upper-caste landlords. In these two volumes, one comes across the saga of courage and determination of a rustic Dalit boy who defines his destiny and succeeds in becoming a professor, a writer, and a Marxist.

No book of sociology will tell us what the introductory chapters of Murdahiya “Murdahiya” do about the social structure of a village in the Azamgarh district of eastern Uttar Pradesh and the life of the Dalits who lived there. Murdahiya is the place where dead bodies of both human beings as well as animals arrive and which is, in Tulsi Ram’s words, the centre of the Dalits’ existence. Manikarnika is the famous ghat in Benaras where the dead are cremated in the belief that they will go straight to heaven. Thus, in Tulsi Ram’s worldview, death is a life-defining reality, a veritable metaphor for life.

Tulsi Ram reminds us that 2,300 years ago, the Indo-Greek king Menander had remarked that Indians did not know how to write and were not familiar with script. Even today, millions of Indians do not know how to read and write. But, since childhood, Tulsi Ram had dreamt of becoming educated. Braving all odds, he fled home and went to Azamgarh to study up to intermediate. If one wants to know what kind of discrimination a Dalit has to face on account of his caste, one has to only read Murdahiya “Murdahiya”. As one finishes the book, one is filled with admiration for the sheer courage, perseverance, tenacity and determination of Tulsi Ram.

Manikarnika“Manikarnika” is an engaging account of his life in Benaras and its famed Banaras Hindu University that had a strong RSS presence even in the 1960s. How Tulsi Ram journeyed to Marxism via Buddhism is a fascinating story. And so is an unforgettable sentence that occurs when he narrates the incident when he, contrary to his shy nature, violently threatened those who had come to evict him from Kailash Bhavan because he was a Dalit.

Writes Tulsi Ram, “It was Marxism that gave me this courage. I thought if I could drive God out, why couldn’t I drive casteism out?” It was at BHU that he made friends with Gorakh Pandey who later became a cult figure among the Left-wing political and literary circles because of his extremely popular songs in Hindi and Bhojpuri.

Tulsi Ram recounts a heart-rending story of how Gorakh Pandey was kicked out of a math (monastery attached to a temple) near the Assi drain because the Brahman priests were furious when he (Tulsi Ram) tried to visit his friend there. As Gorakh was a Brahmin and a Sanskrit scholar, he was allowed to stay in a math where no low-caste person was allowed to enter. Social attitudes are changing albeit at a very slow pace. Little wonder that even now, entry of Dalits is barred in many places.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 8:26:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/hindi-belt-a-glimpse-into-an-unfamiliar-world/article6815242.ece

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