Om Prakash Valmiki’s JOOTHAN - A Dalit Autobiography
Autobiography has been a favourite genre of Dalit writers. This is not surprising, in light of the emphasis placed by them on authenticity of experience. Here again, Dalit writes have faced criticism from mainstream critics who say that autobiography is not a literary genre. They have questioned the literariness of the Dalit autobiographical narrative, claiming that Dalit autobiographies are unstructured, artless outpourings of Dalit writers’ unmediated experience and have become repetitive and stereotypical. Valmiki says that even some dalit writers have internalized this negative view of autobiography. Valmiki quotes Das’s defence of the genre: ‘Dalit writers should write autobiographies so that not only our history will stay alive, but also our true portrayals of wrongdoers. Dalit autobiographies will provide inspiration to our future generations’ (Valmiki: 20).
Valmiki and other Dalit writers, thus interrogate the mainstream critics’ allocation of a non-literary status to autobiography.
Dalit autobiography, then, is not just a remembering of things past, but a shaping and structuring of them in such a way as to help understand one’s life and the social order that shaped it, on the one hand, and to arouse a passion for change in the Dalit reader, on the other.
Answering mainstream critics who suggest that Dalit literature is nothing but reportage, Dalit writers point to the authenticity of experience as being the most important characteristic of Dalit writing.
Joothan begins by a detailed description of the poor living surroundings of the Chuhra community, where poverty reigned supreme. The lack of civic amenities, and poor sanitation facilities were the curse of that dwelling place. Animals like pigs and human begins shared the same living place as there no other place to go. The writer’s childhood was spent here and it had a formative influence on his character, as he wanted to liberate himself from it at any cost.
The Chuhras worked for the Tagas, an upper class people who ill treated the chuhras in a number of ways, Untouchability was one social evil which confronted the writer as he grew up. He sys:
“Untouchability was so rampant that while it was considred all right to touch dogs and cats or cows and buffaloes, if one happened to touch a Chuhra, one got contaminated or polluted. The Chuhras were not seen as human”. (2)
The narrator goes on to describe the hardships he had to face in the educational institution. The upper caste boys used to tease the writer in ever possible ways. They used to laugh at his clothes, which were nothing but rags. Even the teachers and the Headmaster were not different in this respect. The Chuhras are always entrusted the task of sweeping the homes an public places. It was considered their duty. Hence the headmaster of the school asked the writer to sweep the school. This torture a complaint against the issue. The Dalit people felt that is was a waste of time to get their children educated. When the writer’s father asked his fellow Dalits to send their children to school the Dalits blatantly refused it. According to them:
“What is the point of sending him to school?
When has a crow became a swan?”. (6)
Thus, the dalit children were tortured and abused every where except in their own homes. The writer was fortunate enough to be born in a household where everyone loved and cared for him. The support and encouragement he gained from the family enabled him of face the dangers of being a dalit.
Right from the early stages of his life, the writer was conscious of the importance of studies. He was bright and hence he always stood first in the class. Reading and writing made the writer an enlightened being. He began to read voraciously. The narrator had stood first in the class in all the exams. His results bolstered his self-confidence. He was made class leader after the examination and his seat was moved from the back of the class to the front. Though some teachers behaved in an unfriendly manner the writer loved going to school. This was because most of the students and a majority of teachers belonged to the tyagi community. The writer talks about the discrimination they had to face in the school at different point sin his novel.
“During the examinations we could not drink water from the glass when thirsty. To drink water, we had to cup our hands. The peon would pour water from way high up, lest our hands touch the glass”. (16)
We are also introduced to the term ‘joothan’ at this point of time. The joothan or the left over remnants of food from weddings and other feasts were relished by the chuhras. They used to eat them and also saved pieces of it to feed themselves during hard times. The writer says:
“What sort of a life was that? After working hard day and night, the price of our sweat was just joothan”. (10)
The social ostracism faced by the chuhras haunted the writer’s mind since his childhood right up to his adulthood. As a child, the writer always wished to go to school in neat ironed clothes. But the dhobi refused to wash clothes for a low caste Chuhra boy. Thus the writer realized that one can somehow get rid of poverty and depravation but it is not possible to get past caste. While talking about his memories in school the writer talks about a number of teachers who encouraged him and also about the ones who ill treated him. He mentions the name of a teacher who was not able to understand the anguish of a child trying to teacher made him do menial services after promising the writer to clear his doubts. The incident made an indelible mark on the writer’s psyche.
When he reached the tenth standard he was determined to study well inorder to get good marks which would fetch him an opportunity to study in a college. But on the eve of his mathematics examination he was made to do forced manual labour. He spent one whole day sowing cane under the instructions of a Tyagi. He felt humiliated and tortured.
“My mind was set aflame by his swearing. A fire had engulfed my inwards that day. The memories of these crimes of the Tyagis continue to smoulder deep inside me, emitting red hot heat”. (57)
When the narrator was offered proffered rotis to eat, he refused to touch it. He said he won’t eat it as he knew very well that the rotis were offered not out of love but with the aim of making them work more and more. His refusal infuriated the Tyagi and he decided to beat the writer. But somehow he managed to escape from the scene of torture. When he narrated the whole incident to his father he too became agitated. According to the narrator’s father one should improve one’s caste by getting education. But the writer feels not the same way.
As he says:
“He (the writer’s father) did not know that ‘caste’ cannot be improved by education. It can only be improved by taking birth in the right caste”. (58)
The Writer narrated the tragic circumstances under which they wrote the board exams. There was no electricity and hence they depended on lanterns and oil lamps. Moreover it was difficult to concentrate while the neighbours were making a lot of noise. They were all indifferent to narrator’s interest in studies. They all wanted him to drop from the school and do the menial jobs entrusted to the chuhras. They wanted him to clean public places, bury dead cattle etc and to lead a life that was expected of them. As a result of all this, the narrator decided to socialize less and instead he found company in books. It was during these days that he began to read the works of Premchand, saratchandra and Rabindranath Tagore.
Inspite of all the hardships that the endured the writer managed to pass the high school examination with good marks. He was very happy to see his name in the newspaper. It was the first time that someone from the Chuhra community passed the examination. It was indeed a time for celebration in the whole basti. The writer specially mentions the name of Chamanlal Tyagi, who came to congratulate the writer on his hard earned success. This simple act of kindness from the part of an upper caste tyagi boosted the confidence of the narrator who began to feel that education can bring respect and self-dignity. During this time the narrator was made acquainted with Bhagavad Gita and though he was too young to understand the complex philosophical ideals mentioned the book he felt happy that he could read it.
After passing the board examination, the writer went on to study further. He took science as optional subject. But even at this stage, his low birth became the butt of ridicule. He talks about a teacher named Omdatta tyagi, a caste minded teacher who insulted students based on their caste. He also mentions the name of the so called progressive minded mathematics teacher who had a post-graduate degree but was scared that he would lose his caste if he drank water from a chuhra’s hand. Thus the writer makes it very clear that education had not altered the degenerated mindset of the people. The assaults suffered by the Chuhras and the other low caste people remained the same though the persons themselves changed. Thus an uneducated Tyagi’s attitude towards the chuhras was no different than that of a teacher with good education.
The writer transferred all his anger and frustration to his studies. When he reached class twelve new problems began to crop up and this time it was in the form of a chemistry teacher. The chemistry teacher named Brajpal dashed all his hopes of securing good marks in the examination. This caste mined teacher didn’t like the idea of an ‘untouchable’ studying in the school.. Hence he decided to torture the narrator by not allowing him to do lab practicals.
The narrator says:
“I felt that whenever I went to the lab for practicals brajpal would keep me out on some pretext or the other” (65).
When the results were announced, the writer’s name featured in the list of failures. He had secured good marks in all other subjects but had failed in the lab test of the chemistry paper. This turn of events had put a terrible obstacle in his path of continuing education.
According to him:
“I no longer felt interested in studying. I couldn’t make up my mind as to what to do next. I felt surrounded by darkness”. (66)
The narrator’s older brother Jasbir was working in Dehradun and he was staying with their mama. He was the one who inspired him to study further.
He reassured him by saying:
“Come on let this village go to hell. Come to Dehradum and study there. I will get you admitted to DAV College. Why are you worrying? You aill definite pass next year”. (66)
In Dehradun things were much better. Though there were occasional conflicts with the members of the Jatava community the writer was not bothered by that. It was during his stay in Dehradun that he became acquainted with Dr. Ambedkar’s writings. Dr. Ambedkar’s life long struggle for eradicating untouchability inspired the narrator. He was extremely grateful to Hemlal, his companion who asked him to rea the biography of Ambedkar. Moreover it was only after reading that book the writer came to realize his misconceptions regarding the teaching of Mahatma Gandhi.
“After reading Ambedkar, I had realized that by naming the untouchables Harijans, Gandhi had not helped them to join the national main stream, but had saved the Hindus from becoming a minority. Guarded their interests, in fact. And yet, these upper castes were angry with him because he had turned Harijans’ heads! The Poona Pact episode had completely erased any illusions I had harboured about Gandhi. It was the Poona Pact that had made Ambedkar lose heart”. (72).
“A new word ‘Dali’ entered my vocabulary, a word that is not a substitute for ‘Harijan’ but an expression of rage of millions of untouchables”. (72)
The friendship with Hemlal was the beginning of a new chapter in the writer’s life. It was a bond that strengthened the will of the narrator to achieve big things in life.
During this period the narrator became an active participant in various activities in the college. In Dehradun protest against the English was in full swing and the writer was plunged into the middle of the action much to the distress of this family members. He was even thrown his uncle’s house on account of his late ‘working’ hours in college. He was infuriated and threatened to send the writer back to the village. Valmiki didn’t want to compromise with his studies for a second time. So he decided to agree to whatever his uncle ordered. He had to suffer a lot during his stay in Dehradun right from the cold winter to the icy cold treatment he had to receive from the upper class chaste Hindus. However, his period of distress got lessened when he got a job. Soon he abandoned his college education when he got admitted to the Ordnance Factory as apprentice. When he informed his father that he had got the job his father responded in a positive way.
‘At last you have escaped “caste”.’ (78).
But the writer knows very well that no one can escape the intricate labyrinths of caste created by the upper class society. As he says:
“caste follows one right up to one’s death”. (78).
With a job in hand, Valmiki was happy as it meant a life of self-reliance. He began to receive a monthly stipend of one hundred and seven rupees a month during his apprenticeship, which seemed a princely sum as far he was concerned. Even during this time, Valmiki never abandoned his reading habits.
“Books were my greatest friends. They kept up my morale.” (79)
After a year’s training at the Ordnance factory, the writer appeared for a competitive examination and was selected. Hence, he was sent to Jabalpur for further training. It was indeed a new experience for him as he says:
“The new surroundings and the new environment gave me new experiences. The hostel was huge, large enough to accommodate up to five hundred students. The rooms were very large and ten to twelve students shared a room. The students had come from different parts of the country.” (84)
The new atmosphere also brought him come in contact with Marxist ideals. This was because there were many students who had Marxist leanings studying in that institution. The writer started to read Marxist literature after coming into contact with them. He was particularly attracted to maxim Gorky’s novel Mother and also by Anton Chekhov’s brilliant short stories. The writer was so interested in the ideas propagated through these works that he decided to join a theatre group with the aim of keeping alive the Marxist tradition. He also started writing poetry, began to write short one-act plays and to stage them and later to act in them. Thus the writer, a poor Dalit boy was becoming transformed from being an ugly duckling to a swan through his courage and perseverance.
“Jabalpur changed me. My speech patterns changed. My manners also changed. I made friends who were deeply interested in contemporary issues and constantly argued about them. I took part in seminars and cultural functions. I became involved in Jabalpur’s literary life. I also began to develop my own views on literature. I was more attracted to social realism than to aestheticist and formalist types of writings.” (85)
During this period, the Ordnance factory Traing institute in Bombay had sent out a call for applications for dratsman training. The writer applied and he was selected to come to Bombay to appear for an interview. The family ‘s financial situation was miserable at that time but he managed to go to Bombay due to the kind-hearted gesture showed by Mr. Thomas, a senior lecturer in the institute. Valmiki soon got acquainted with the atmosphere of Bombay particularly with the hostel library. It was in that library that he read Boris Pasternak, Hemingway, Victor Hugo, Pierre Louis, Tolstoy, pearl S Buck, Tugenev, Dostoevsky, Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, Romain Rolland and Emile Zola. It was here that he read the entire works of Rabindranath Tagore and Kalidasa. It was during his stay in Bombay that he learned more and more about dalit literature and marathi dalit literature in particular. The words of Daya pawar, nemdev Dhasal, raja Dhale, Gangadhar pantavane, Baburao Bagul, Keshav Meshram, Narayan Surve, vaman Nimbalkar and Yashwant manohar. Their ideas exhilarated the writer and the sparks of their writings inspired Valmiki to champion the cause of dalits and the down trodden masses to which he too belonged.
In matters of untouchability the people of Bombay were no better than the simple villagers amidst whom the writer had spent his childhood. He says:
“My village was divided along lines of touchability and untouchability. The situation was very bad in dehradun and in Uttar Pradesh in general at time when I saw well-educated people in a metropolitan city like Bombay indulging in such behaviour, I felt a fountain of hot lava erupting within me”.(95).
He also talks about a family who become very close to him thinking that he was a brahmin. They thought that the surname Valmiki was certainly a Brahmin surname and hence he was allowed to visit their household and was given certain privileges. Kulkarni’s daughter Savita had even fallen in love with Valmiki and later when she realized that he was a dalit her attitude underwent a sea change. This incident created a deep scar in the mind of the writer who understood that love, respectability, aboration and privileges were all attained only if the person is born in a high caste. The Dalits are not treated as human beings and this was made clear by the attitude of the Brahmin girl who loved a chaste Hindu and not Valmiki as an individual.
With deep wounds in his mind Valmiki left the place when he was appointed to the Ordanance factory in Chandrapur(Chanda). It was during his Chadrapur days that he became totally absorbed in the strong currents of Dalit movement.
According to him:
“It was in this part of the country I came across the marvellous glow of dalit consciousness. The self-fulfillment that I experienced in connecting with the Dalit movement was a truly inique experience for me. The deeper my involvement became with the movement, the further many of my friends moved away from me. In their eyes, I had wandered away from the right path and was bent on destroying my talent and creativity”.(100).
Valmiki married Chanda around this time and despite the protestations his Pitaji accepted her as his daughter-in-law. Since the writer was not allotted a house in the government colony they had to struggle a lot during the initial days of marriage. But it was soon settled and both valmiki and Chanda started a happy married life.
Later valmiki become actively involved in social work with the main aim of providing self-dignity to the dalits. Thus he become a member of Dalit panthers and together with many leaders started a battle for the dalit self-hood that Dr.Ambedkar had asserted. The rest of the novel is about the trials and tribulations the writer had to face while fighting for the rights of details. He also talks about how his surname created a furore in the literary and social circles. While every Dalit wishes to conceal the fact that he is dalit Omprakash Valmiki was bold enough to keep it as his surname which was like a slap on the face of upper caste superiority that had engulfed the nation from time immemorial.
He proudly Talks about the surname in these lines:
“This surname is now an indispensable part of my name. Ompraksh has no identity without it. ‘Identity ‘and ‘recognition’, the two words say a lot by themselves. Dr.Ambedkar was born in a Dalit family. But Ambedkar signifies a Brahmin caste name; it was a pseudonym given by a Brahmin teacher of his. When joined with ‘Bhimrao’ however it become his identity, complectely changing its meaning in the process. Today ‘Bhimrao’ has no meaning without ‘Ambedkar’. (132)
Valmiki concludes his novel by pointing out the fact that caste still remains an indispensable part of our lives. It is a matter of privilege for the upper classes while it is stigma attached to the dalits and the other low caste people who by the oppressing forces. But it is not as easy task. It involves a lot of courage and strength to shake off the age old fetters imposed on these innocent beings. In his own words he talks about the demoralizing caste system:
“‘Caste’ is a very important element of Indian society. As soon as a person is born, ‘caste’ determines his or her destiny. Being born is not in the control of a person. If it were in one’s control, then why would I have been born in a Bhangi household? Those who call themselves the standard – bearers of this country’s great cultural heritage, did they decide which homes they would be born into? Albeit they turn to scripture to justify their position, the scriptures that establish feudal instead of promoting equality and freedom”. (134)
Dalit writer like Valmiki are thus producing literary analysis and literary theory simultaneously with their literary creations. On the one hand, their work has broken the hegemony of high caste literary establishment which can no longer continue to present its choices as universal and timeless, and on the other, by producing their own discourse and publishing it in Dalit run little magazines, they have created a space for Dalit writing and Dalit readership.
Mukherjee, Alok. “Reading Sharankumar Limbale’s Towards an Aesthetic
of Dalit Literature: From Erasure to Asertion”. Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit literature: History, Controversies and Considerations. Sharankumar Limbale. New delhi: Orient Longman, 2004.
Valmiki, Omprakash. Joothan: A Dalit’s Life. Trans.Arun Prabha Mukherjee.
Valmiki, Omprakash. 2001. Dalit sahitya ka saundaryashastra. Delhi:
R. Jinu firstname.lastname@example.org