Baluta book review: Cast in stone

By: | Published: August 9, 2015 12:06 AM

The English translation of Baluta, the first autobiography to be written by a Dalit, brings out the cruelty in the caste system

Baluta Daya Pawar
(translated by Jerry Pinto)
Speaking Tiger
Pp 297

THE WORLD is fighting many wars now—over race, religion, poverty, disease—but in India, besides these, one of the greatest battles being fought day in and day out by the marginalised and the dispossessed is over caste. A glance at the newspaper headlines, or even at the matrimonial advertisements, is enough to tell us that this battle is far from over. And in the midst of all this comes this book, Baluta, the first autobiography to be written by a Dalit (Daya Pawar), originally published in Marathi in 1978, but only now translated into English by Jerry Pinto.

Noted writer and critic Shanta Gokhale writes in the preface that when Baluta was first published, it “hit upper-caste critics and readers alike between the eyes”. It shocked readers in Maharashtra to read about life in rural areas and the slums of Mumbai written by someone who lived on the fringes of society. The book still shocks because however aware we are now, we can’t be prepared for what Pawar and his people went through, or worse, are still going through.

The book brings out the cruelty that is the caste system and Pawar, from the Mahar caste, writes it as it is, first telling us how terrifyingly the human spirit can be broken, and how it can also fight back.

He starts by telling us his real name: Dagdu. “…. why should this name fall to my lot? It smacks of a clod on which a clod was born. Look at our nicknames—Kachrya, which conjures up dirt; Dhondhya, which suggests stones. The Manusmriti has a list of names for Sudras; it requires that our names should reflect society’s contempt for us.” Not for the Mahars then, names like ‘Vidyadhar’ or ‘Balaram’. The order of things for centuries was that Sudras should have names like “Shudrak or Maatang, names that declare our low-caste status”.

Describing life in the village and at the Maharwada, where the Mahars lived, Pawar writes that there was no timetable for the Mahar’s work, “for he was bound to whatever work had to be done for all 24 hours of the day”. The Mahars were supposed to make the proclamations announcing funerals from village to village; they had to drag away the carcasses of dead animals; play music day and night at festivals and weddings. For all of that labour, the Mahars would get baluta, or share of the village harvest, which was handed out amid curses: “Do you think this is your father’s grain?”

It mustn’t have been easy for Pawar to lay bare his life for all to read, the shame and humility he faced. But this is also such a story of courage, starting with his mother, Aai as she is called in Marathi, who decided to educate her son.

The stirrings of a change came from BR Ambedkar, of course, who would often say why do Mahar women not want their children to become district collectors?

As Pawar began trudging to the taluka school, three miles to and fro, his life began to change, though the cruelty of the caste system persisted. One of the most poignant parts of the book is when Pawar discovers the pleasures of reading.

As he explores new worlds, his own reality hits him harder. Having an education meant he was going further away from his people, and even when he was educated, it didn’t guarantee him equality. And yet, education brought him fame as a writer and, more importantly, as Gokhale writes in the preface, it was a “partial way out of the trap that Hinduism had set for the Mahars”.

“I have tried my best to forget the past. But the past is stubborn, it will not be erased so easily,” Pawar writes. “Many Dalits may see what I am doing here as someone picking through a pile of garbage. A scavenger’s account of his life.

But he who doesn’t know his past cannot direct his future.” Thank you, Daya Pawar, for telling us your story. Thank you, Jerry Pinto, for widening the readership of Pawar’s incredible journey.

Sudipta Datta is a freelancer

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