TELLING THE TRUTH ABOUT CASTE

Babu­rao Bagul’s When I hid My Caste re­tains its great force in a new trans­la­tion

Hindustan Times (Ranchi) - - Read - Dhrubo Jy­oti dhrubo.jy­oti@htlive.com ■

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.

PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

■ A man­ual scav­enger on her way to clean dry toi­lets.

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