TELLING THE TRUTH ABOUT CASTE
Baburao Bagul’s When I hid My Caste retains its great force in a new translation
When Marathi writer Baburao Bagul’s debut collection of short stories was published in 1963, it triggered a storm. The visceral prose broke the shackles of respectable, Brahminical language and the stories centered the lives of people the caste system meant to erase. More than half a century and 11 editions later, Jevha Mi Jaat Chorli Hoti or When I hid My Caste retains all of its punch-in-the-gut force in Jerry Pinto’s powerful new translation.
Bagul’s 10 stories are not an easy read. They revolve around the lives of people most writers have been happy to ignore, courtesy India’s unique nature of knowledge production that limits writing largely to certain privileged castes.
As writer Shanta Kamble says in the introduction to the book, Bagul’s characters are larger-than-life and he paints their suffering and dissent through the force of his words shorn of the sophistry and genteelness often used to dull the violence of caste. His protagonist doesn’t just climb a staircase, he “pounds the ribcage of the staircase”. The stories, which range from chronicling the life of a Devadasi struggling with the tyranny of a Brahmin priest to a village festival tainted by caste oppression, are meant to leave the reader unsettled and uneasy.
But instead of just dwelling on the pain and the suffering, Bagul strikes at the foundation of this pain in revolt. His characters refuse to bow down to reified systems of caste – their attempts are not always successful but it is a mistake to see these stories as devoid of hope. His protag- onists articulate forcefully their humanist vision and in a country where 300 million people are condemned to ignominy by the accident of their birth, the mere visual of an insurrection against a centuries-old structure is itself hope.
The past two decades have seen a surge in discussion around what we think of as Dalit literature. Unfortunately, in a country where one can live a full life without developing intimacy with someone of a different caste, this discussion has often focused on the “anger” and the “rawness” of the narrative. Bagul’s stories refuse such slotting.
His most poignant story, Revolt (which tells the story of an educated Dalit trying to escape his caste profession of scavenging), is simultaneously an ethnography of caste oppression, a telling of gender roles shaped by caste, the ways Dalit women are both oppressed and erased, and a critique of the political economy of a caste society. “Where is it written that a Bhangi’s son must become a Bhangi?” the son asks. The father responds, “In our poverty. In our Dharma. In our country.”
The title story talks about a Dalit man at the crossroads of modernity, democracy and caste societies. Bagul’s empathetic description of a man determined to do well in a society designed against him, and his frustration and disgust at constantly having to hide his identity is as relevant in today’s India as it was in 1963.
For me, the most powerful narrative in the collection is right in the middle of the book, a story called Monkey that describes a family seething with anger at the prospect of losing a wrestling match to a community of lower standing. Bagul gets into the head of the pehelwan, his mother and his wife, all of whom are alternatively driven by human emotions (hunger, lust) and caste logic, which ultimately costs the woman her life. Bagul’s meticulous flipping of the gaze from Dalits to oppressor communities reminds the reader that not only is caste everywhere around us, but that it is also shaping our lives and choices in ways of which we may be unaware. That skill, coupled with Pinto’s fluid and compelling translation, leaves a powerful impact.
■ A manual scavenger on her way to clean dry toilets.