Of Human Bondage

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Daya-Pawar

One can read this — an English version of the first Dalit autobiography in Marathi — as an indictment of the caste system. Or one can get lost in a maze of coming-of-age reminiscences, village vignettes, folk lore and insights into human nature that tumble higgedly-piggedly out of its pages. Between 1978, when it was first published, and the present, when Jerry Pinto did the world a favour by taking on its translation as a labour of love, a lot of the cultural texture of Indian life has been bulldozed by modernity and whitewashed by upper caste intellectuals. Reading this book, then, becomes a rediscovery of India, with pangs of guilt about the humiliation society doles out to outcastes like the Mahars.

The minutiae of a deprived childhood are haunting. He spends hours watching the puppies of an upper caste family but is afraid to touch them, though his grandmother washes and feeds the litter. She was a widow, expected to beg for food and “didn’t have a matchstick worth of happiness in her life.” The boys would sit on a wall gambling on the number-plates of cars passing by. An exorcism, leftover food from weddings, the death of men in the family due to alcoholism, inter-caste love in junior school that ends in the boy being beaten up, another beating after sneaking into a temple and being recognised. Brutal lessons learnt early in life.

While in school, Daya began to escape from his heritage — wherein ancestors stripped carcasses for a living — via books. “The poison of reading took the last few simple pleasures left to me. At that time, we lived like animals in the Maharwada [the designated place for outcastes], our lives based on an earthy philosophy.” He was repulsed by the life they were leading, although a school teacher praised him profusely before the class for his cleanliness and academic performance.

When the family moves to Mumbai, caste oppression does not end. The plates in which they eat are ‘purified’ by scalding. On small pretexts, he relates, riots breaks out on the margins of society where they settle — untouchables vs caste Hindus, Muslims vs untouchables. But when it is Hindu vs Muslims, the latter do not hit out at Mahars, calling out ‘Jai Bhim-wale’. Daya, now an adolescent, spies on copulating couples, watches men bring home sex workers — and sometimes transvestites — from the cages of Kamathipura. After his childhood beating, he never accosts girls, preferring to play safe telling ‘off-colour jokes’ about their anatomies. He does fall in love a number of times, as do others in his world. But they cannot cross the line to consort with the high-born.

With the preamble “The story I’m going to tell you now still haunts me” the author tells a heart-reading tale about how his mother, working as a cook for 60-odd hostellers, is accused of stealing rations. This is actually the handiwork of the superintendent, but the poor woman has to take the rap. The hostel has a mix of castes, and could have been a melting pot from which they emerged as biasfree adults. But society’s grip on its ‘boys’ is too great, especially when it comes to marriage.

Interestingly, the Maharwada slowly became a ghost town. On one of his visits, he finds dogs and pigs roaming through broken walls of abandoned houses: ‘At each door, a decrepit old woman sits, looking like she belongs in a ghost story. Her hair grey and wild, she mumbles to herself, punctuating this with angry gestures.’ Once the Mahars refused to perform the tasks demanded by the villagers, they no longer got a share of the crop and drifted away. The land became prime real estate, with bungalows of the rich and landscaped gardens. The dispossessed were further dispossessed.

Back in his sister’s chawl in Mumbai, the Muslims shun the few Mahar families living amidst them. Yet, as it does happen, a Muslim girl falls for him, pursuing him with a persistence that cannot but boost his self-esteem. One day, he asks her if she’ll drink tea from his cup. “And she swigged the tea that had touched my mouth. All day, pleasure tingled through my body.” Finally, daunted by the incident in which a man like him is forcibly circumcised, he lets her wed another, watching the celebrations next door ‘distraught but not shattered.’

About his marriage, Pawar says wryly, his road to hell was paved with his uncle’s good intentions. A match is arranged with an illiterate girl from a neighbouring village, 10-12 years old, whom he had not even seen. The distraction leads to him failing his exams, mostly because of poor marks in English — ironically, the language in which we are now reading his life story. His search for a job in Mumbai too is thwarted by the language barrier, and his mother has to go out and scrounge for scrap. That he finally achieved fame through his poetry and his autobiography is a relief for a reader drowning in the pathos of it all.

Could he have escaped from his identity crisis via a good marriage or job? The reader wishes fervently for justice to be served, but it is dashed with this passage:

From time to time, when I look through the detritus of personal belongings, I find them. I don’t know what to do with these images. No one worships them, no one bathes them. When we converted to Buddhism, we promised, ‘I will not worship the Hindu religion’s Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh, nor any of the thirty-three crore gods associated with it’.

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