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A Milestone in Dalit Writing

Uttara Bisht

Omprakash Valmiki, who contributed so much to Hindi literature, and especially to dalit literature, was a contemporary of another great dalit poet, Namdeo Dhasal, who wrote in Marathi. Even their deaths were separated by just a month. However, Valmiki’s writings and death, unlike that of Dhasal were largely unnoticed by the English media. Valmiki’s account of dalit life in his autobiography Joothan is unsurpassed in its portrayal of the pain and humiliation that casteism inflicts on its victims.

O mprakash Valmiki may not be a widely known name on the Indian literary scene outside of

Hindi literature. His contribution to dalit writing, however, is definitely not less than that of writers like Namdeo Dhasal and Kancha Ilaiah. It is not too well known either that Valmiki translated Ilaiah’s book Why I Am Not a Hindu which is considered to be one of the big- gest contributions to dalit literature by any writer in Hindi. Valmiki made a major contribution to dalit literature through stories, poetry and his auto- biography and right up to the last days of his life was actively involved in it; he was a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla in 2013. In 1989, Valmiki published his first collection of poems under the title Sadiyon Ka Santaap (centuries of suffering). His writing is a mirror to the suffering that the dalits had to undergo due to caste dis- crimination. It was mainly through his efforts that dalit writing found its place in several seminal Hindi magazines, one of them being Hans edited by the late renowned Hindi writer Rajendra Yadav. Not only did he help give dalit writing its deserved place in Hindi literature but also provided it with the best autobiog- raphy that one can possibly find in Hindi till date.

Uttara Bisht ( is a PhD scholar, at the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.


Valmiki’s autobiography Joothan pub- lished in 1997 is the best known of his works that talks about caste exploitation and the struggle of the writer to rise above it. What makes Joothan such an impor- tant dalit autobiography? Why is it so im- portant for any reader to read it in order to understand dalit literature? And, what is its contribution towards the creation of dalit history or identity? The title itself is suggestive in so many ways. Joothan which can be translated as “leftovers” is symbolic of the sheer exploitation of the dalits at the hands of the Hindus on the basis of the varna system that places

Economic & Political Weekly


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vol xlIX no 23

them at the bottom of the hierarchy and therefore subjects them to incessant torture and humiliation. Hinduism, which is as much a social system as a religion, uses the caste system as its framework to push the notion that one’s duty (dhar- ma) is calibrated to one’s particular class. And this centuries-old notion gives it the right to perpetuate caste discrimination that is still a reality in modern India and of which the khap panchayats can be seen as examples. The joothan in the form of leftover food from wedding parties also became on several occasions the only form of sustenance for his family. Joothan is not only a powerful narrative about caste oppression but also about Valmiki’s struggle to rise above the hu- miliation and denigration that he had faced since childhood. In the preface, Valmiki writes,

Dalit-jeevan ki peedayein asahneeya aur anubhav-dagdh hain. Aise anubhav jo sahityik abhivyaktiyon mein sthaan nahi pa sakte. Ek aisi samaj-vyavastha mein hamne saans lee hai, jo behad crur aur amaanviya hai. Daliton ke prati asamvedansheel hai. (The sufferings of dalit-life are intolerable and heart- wrenching. These are experiences that can- not find a place in any form of literary ex- pression. I have breathed in a social-system that is not only extremely cruel and inhuman but also, insensitive towards dalits.)

Scars and Stench

Joothan is a remarkable personal narra- tive. Valmiki describes his village Barla at the beginning of the autobiography. Its location, separated by a pond from the village of the Tyagi community, is itself a site segregated from the rest and subjected to discrimination. It is a site filled with filth and garbage chosen by the Tyagi women to defecate. The stench from the filth is something that the dalits could not escape and became a reality of their daily life. The stench was just one aspect of the multifaceted discrimina- tions that filled all the corners of the village and thus their lives. From doing unpaid labour to disposing of carcasses of dead animals to literally eating the leftovers from the patals (plates), Valmiki had been a close witness to it all. His childhood memories were scarred by inci- dents that exposed him to hatred and hu- miliation that lived with him all his life. Particularly disturbing is the incident



when he was asked to skin a dead animal. He recalls,

Chhuri pakadte huye mere haath kaap rahe the. Ajeeb-se sankat mein phas gaya tha…Us roj mere bhitar bahut kuch tha jo toot raha tha. (My hands were shaking as I held the knife in my hands. I was caught in a weird situation… That day I realised that a lot of things inside me were breaking down.)

Born to an extremely poor family in Barla, Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh on 30 June 1950, Valmiki recalls how the family survived most days on starch water for they could barely manage two meals a day. In such circumstances, education was a distant reality but the only dream that his parents lived for was to educate their son so that he could improve his social position. Post-Independence India promised a society that would be free of any social discrimination based on caste or class. But the land of Jyotirao Phule and Mahatma Gandhi soon disillusioned Valmiki who was quick to realise that even the bound- aries of the school had been infiltrated by social inequalities. He narrates how school itself became the site for discrimi- nation against the lower castes not only by his classmates but also the teachers. The incident where the headmaster of the school asks him to sweep the floor of the school because he belongs to the low- er caste is one such example. It was quite common for him to be addressed not by his name but by his caste. Life at the university level was no better, though the severe forms of injustice had now given way to discriminatory remarks or comments targeting his caste. Valmiki was often reminded of his father’s words about improving his caste through edu- cation which he realised could only im- prove through birth as he writes in the autobiography,

Kehete the, padh-likhkar apni ‘jaati’ sudharo. Unhe pataa nahi tha, padh-likhkar jaatiyan nahi sudharti. Veh sudharti hain janam se. (He (father) used to say improve your caste through education. He did not know that castes do not improve through education. They improve through birth.)

And later he adds,

Lekin ‘jaati’ se mrityuperyanta peechha nahi chutataa, iss tathya se vah anth tak aparichit rahe. (He remained unaware until the end that one cannot get rid of one’s caste even after death.)


These statements can be read as sharp comments on not just the education sys- tem but also on its role in widening the caste differences.

Liberating Force

Amidst all the hatred and suffering that had become a part of his life, literature became the only liberating force. He recalls how his friend Hemlal introduced him to the writings of B R Ambedkar during his college days. These writings did not just fill him with strength and a sense of self- respect but also gave him a direction. During the 1970s, Valmiki took to writing and theatre (he founded the Meghdoot Theatre Group in 1974) in order to voice his opinion about the situation of dalits. He was part of many organisations that worked for the upliftment of the oppressed caste. In his writings, however, Valmiki fails to touch upon the subject of religion and its role in perpetuating caste differ- ences and steers clear of any polemical debate. He exposes his discomfort at show- ing allegiance to either Hindu gods or local deities but does not question the role of religion in creating particular identities. He writes,

main Hindu bhi toh nahi huan. Yadi Hindu hota toh Hindu mujhse itni ghrina, itna bhed- bhaav kyon karte? Baat baat par jaatiya-bodh

ki heenta se mujhe kyon bharte?

crurtaa bachpan se dekhi hain, sahan ki hain. (…I am not a Hindu either. If I were a Hindu then why would the Hindus hate me or dis- criminate against me? Why would they, time and again, fill my heart with the inferiority

Hindu ki

of caste difference?

cruelty of the Hindus and have tolerated it

since childhood).

I have witnessed the

He explains how it is difficult for an individual to create his identity without following a particular religion. How could one follow a religion that is intol- erant of people belonging to the lower castes was what Valmiki found so baf- fling. He admits how these questions about his religious identity bothered him but he could never gather enough courage to discuss or question this aspect.

Passive Protester

An autobiography is a piece of writing that mainly discusses the life and times of its author. Valmiki perfected the form through his attempt to give a realistic ac- count of the suffering and the turmoil in

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his life. However, there are some prob- lematic aspects. His work is mainly about a man who faced social inequality at the hands of a predominantly Hindu society. Though this strengthens the narrative, it, at the same time, limits it to the extent that it becomes an attempt towards self- aggrandisement. It becomes a celebra- tion of one’s pain and suffering rather than a weapon to fight oppression. It can sometimes also be read as an attempt to assimilate oneself into the mainstream in order to be accepted. Valmiki himself ad- mits that his approach has been that of a passive protester. He believed that in a so- ciety where caste is so deeply entrenched and is the only yardstick to measure an individual’s capability, change cannot come overnight. Other than some fleeting references to discrimination that his friends faced, there are no incidents that describe the plight of other dalits. Now- here does he discuss the problem of the women in his community who are doubly oppressed because of their caste and gen- der. Any form of dalit writing is to a cer- tain extent, autobiographical, but it can- not be centred on one person and is about all those who have suffered the same kind of atrocities and hatred and shared the same fate. It is a narrative that aims to weave together the stories of all for it is essentially a narrative of protest. Though his writing does not use the kind of passionate anger and aggression that Dhasal did to express his pain, the reason for writing was the same: to give voice to dalit suffering. Not many people are aware that Valmiki and Dhasal were contemporaries (Dhasal was born on 15 February 1949). It is rather unfortunate that Valmiki could never get the kind of recognition that Dhasal got even after his death. Dhasal was given the Padma Shri in 1999 and the Sahitya Akademi’s Golden Life Time Achievement award in 2004. Whether the English language press was completely oblivious of Valmiki’s writings and his death (17 November 2013, exactly one month and two days before Dhasal) or they deliberately chose to ignore it is not clear. But dalit literature can neither be envisioned nor understood, neither envis- aged in its totality nor even partially imbibed, without a reading of Valmiki’s account of dalit life.

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