Literary Review

The lives of others

Baluta; Daya Pawar, trs Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger, Rs.350.  

That it should have taken three-and-a-half decades for Baluta, the first Dalit autobiography in Marathi, to be made available in English, is ironical.  It was in Marathi that modern Dalit literature first appeared and many of these texts have been translated into English . When Baluta was published in 1978, it shocked its upper caste readers. Its translation comes seven years after that of the first memoir, also in Marathi, by a Dalit woman, Baby Kamble’s Jina Amucha ( The Prisons We Broke). If Kamble’s narrative horrified readers with its graphic account of the community’s sub-human existence in the rural interiors, then Daya Pawar’s account swings between rural Maharwada and the urban squalor of Kawakhana in Mumbai. Both may be seen as acts of protest in a society where writing itself was considered the domain of the privileged castes.

Jerry Pinto’s translation makes the wait for Baluta worthwhile. The gut-wrenching, candid personal narrative is sensitively interpreted for the contemporary English reader. No mean feat. A preface by Shanta Gokhale and a detailed note by Pinto accompany the text, which begins with the author addressing his alter ego. “He compares himself to Jarasandha, the man whom Pandava Bhima tore into two in a brutal wrestling match. Pawar feels split between the city and village, between the world of books and the world of reality…” says Pinto, in his introduction.

The book derives its title from the share received by the Mahar, from the village produce, in return for various duties. As Pawar seeks his place in educated society, reticently claiming his share of respectability, he learns that education alone will not suffice, nor can he erase his past. He leads us through the squalid gullies of his early childhood in Kawakhana — an area wedged between Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar and the red light district of Kamathipura — presenting a world of scavenging women, alcoholic men, and his early introduction to deprivation, sex and death. There, while well-heeled Jews play billiards at the neighbouring club, he scavenges for little joys — swinging from a horse-drawn Victoria to play Tarzan. As the privileged reader is drawn into this alien world, Pinto’s footnotes prove invaluable, providing the cultural context.

The death of Pawar’s alcoholic father prompts a return to their village, Dhamangaon, where he struggles to focus on his education even as discrimination runs deep. Relegated to the village periphery, the Mahars fight hunger with rotting carcasses of cattle and wait for grazing livestock to fall off cliffs so that they can taste fresh meat. Exploited by Maratha landowners and thieving Brahmin clerks, they develop, in retaliation, the lethal ‘Soma Mahar’, a poisonous potion used to kill the livestock of the upper castes. Like many Dalit writers, Pawar refers to the Mahar existence as animal-like, but it is not without music and entertainers like the Raiwands and Tamasgirs. And while others dull their pain with alcohol, he escapes into the world of books, telling us that he is “already intoxicated with life”.

The desire for education and a fair-skinned bride is fuelled equally by his need to belong and to lift himself out of the misery of tin huts and slums. He is both human and vulnerable, whether lacking in courage when made to dine on the floor by upper caste schoolmates or in his brief tryst with the young Salma. The tone of the memoir is introspective and the act of writing cathartic, with candid admissions of his shortcomings, confessions of guilt (at abandoning his first wife and their daughter) and his disillusionment with the Dalit movement. The reader, if at first a voyeur, is drawn intimately into this monologue and quickly made a confidante.

If writers like Baby Kamble and Urmila Pawar identify themselves not just as Mahars but as Mahar women, occupying the lowermost rung in an oppressive system, then Daya Pawar does not spare the men either. Often, as with the failure of his first marriage, he lays the blame squarely on himself. Women — his mother, grandmother and grandaunt, Taibai — although victims of circumstances, emerge stronger. Taibai, dedicated to Khandoba as a child, somewhat like the devadasi, chooses to walk away from the profession.

Pawar’s story weaves in multiple narratives of his people. At a time when Dalit literature is finding an international platform and drawing comparisons with African-American writing, memoirs such as Baluta become increasingly relevant in a society that remains unfairly divided along numerous lines.

Baluta; Daya Pawar, trs Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger, Rs.350.

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 1:50:33 AM |

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