“Jaati hii meri pehchaan kyun?”
(Why am I to be identified only through my caste?)
Omprakash Valmiki’s ‘ autobiographical account Joothan is a rare insight into a lived Dalit life, and there is much to learn from it.
The searing instances from the first Dalit autobiography in Hindi literature (later translated to English) claims an important space – not only in literature, but also in the consciousness of the reader. The lessons and teaching of Joothan cannot be contained in a physical copy of the book, nor can it be limited to a digital repository. Valmiki’s words linger, and remind us how this is a space that Dalit voices have been denied through systemic ostracisation.
After all, as Toni Morrison said, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”
Reading Joothan was an emotional experience, but funnily enough, what I want to take away and keep with me is this overwhelming sense of sheer discomfort. The intention of the book is not to trigger you, me or any other privileged savarna – goodness knows, we often manage to make everything about ourselves.
This is a book about caste, a book about shame, about Brahmanical atrocities and the humiliation India brings unto itself. Perhaps most importantly, this is a book about identity. Who do you become when you live in a society that only hammers into your mind everything you are not allowed to be?
Valmiki shares several accounts of caste violence during his school, college and adult life. Personally, I hold schools and colleges culpable for never integrating Dalit literature into our curriculum as it should have been. It implies that these stories are not a part of our Indian identity. These stories, therefore, need to be screamed from the margins, and even then, they remain invisible.
One of Valmiki’s friends, Hemlal, introduced him to the autobiography of Dr B.R. Ambedkar. Ambedkar’s rage and resilience against caste oppression resonated deeply with Valmiki, and made him reflect on his own experiences. This was a turning point where he understood the significance of being politically involved in order to effect systemic change. He writes about Ambedkar’s observations on ‘graded inequality‘ – especially pertinent for us in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Unlike racism, graded inequality is created by the caste system and is a watertight societal structure where the oppressed are not only unable to access any form of privilege, but they too oppress another community in the caste maze. This is the heinous nature of the system in which a lonely Valmiki finds himself.
One noteworthy motif across texts from marginalised communities, especially in the context of Dalit literature, has been the quintessential roti, kapda, makaan (food, clothing, shelter). Like Bhimayana – the graphic novel based on Ambedkar’s biography, structured into segments on water, shelter, and travel – this book focuses on the issue of “leftovers” (joothan in Hindi). If one were to apply Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this would be the time. Though the ‘loftier’ questions of identity, community, self-esteem, and human dignity are ever-prominent, the institutional nature of oppression infiltrating these communities on a fundamental level means that texts like Joothan and Bhimayana cannot help but focus on the bare necessities of human existence – food, water and shelter.
Another important question this book tackles is the question of reservation in India’s education system – one of the most popular questions in the savarna conscience. All too often, I hear the refrain of “why do they [the marginalised castes and communities] still need reservation?”. One often encounters uninformed arguments about the relevance of reservations and how the “backward classes” apparently have enough support. Reading Joothan shows just how far removed we are from the lived experiences of Dalits. This account informs, if not sensitises, its readers to the biases of the education system, and how the legal abolishment of untouchability has failed to bring a change in the lives of Dalits. We understand, through the book, how the history and politics of oppression shape Valmiki’s identity.
As a child, Valmiki was often motivated by his parents, particularly his father, to study further in the hopes that he may finally be able to ‘escape’ his jaati (caste). However, this is no easy escape, and every step of his journey is coloured with caste-based discrimination and violence. The “monster of caste” (as Ambedkar called it) follows him throughout his journey.
The writing is brilliant, expressing the hardest of things in the quietest of ways. It really works its way into your psyche. From police brutality, the relevance of surnames in India, caste-based violence and intellectual nepotism to corruption and education, Valmiki has a lot to share with us. And in these times we must shut up, sit down, and listen.
Anushree Joshi is an over-thinker who studies English literature at Lady Shri Ram College who has strong opinions on why your #IAmHumanistNotFeminist attitude is a problem and why Manto should be taught in schools and colleges across the country. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image credit: Amazon (Editing: LiveWire)