Against all odds
Om Prakash Valmiki’s memoir displays palpable anger since he can’t help getting worked up while writing about his past
“During a wedding, when the guests and the baratis, those who had accompanied the bridegroom as members of his party, were eating their meals, the chuhras would sit outside with huge baskets. After the bridegroom’s party had eaten, the dirty pattals, or leaf plates, were put in the chuhras’ baskets, which they took home, to save the joothan that was sticking to them.”
Om Prakash Valmiki wrote poetry and fiction but it was his memoir Joothan which made him one of the top notch Hindi writers of the modern era. It became his magnum opus and is regarded as a classic today.
Born in a village of Muzzafarnagar Uttar Pradesh in a Dalit family in 1950, he had to face unbearable poverty along with so much else. His was a life that was nothing but humiliation, caste discrimination and persecution at the behest of so-called ‘Upper Castes’ who treated Dalits in a bestial manner to say the least. It was believed that Dalits didn’t have any purpose in life apart from serving others. Their status in the village was much worse than the animals. And yet, Valmiki braved all this and studied hard and was later smitten by the literary bug.
He published three collections each of poetry and short stories during his literary journey. He began jotting down his life story at the behest of one of his friends. Once he started, there was no looking back. Joothan was published in 1997 and created a furore as it unmasked the horrible face of caste ridden society of India. No wonder then that it was translated into Punjabi, English, Malayalam, Tamil and few other languages of India. Shiraz Hassan, a journalist, blogger and a photographer rolled into one, has translated it from Hindi to Urdu.
Valmiki’s memoir does not follow a linear path as he narrates episodes from different parts of his life. There is palpable anger in the narrative since he can’t help getting worked up removing the lid from his past. Even the reader feels emotional as Valmiki shares shards about being bullied by boys from influential families who would refer to him as ‘choora’ or ‘chamar’.
Valmiki writes that the ‘Upper Caste’ villagers were furious about him attending school. They would harass and ridicule him and even in school there was no escape from the humiliation and misery. Teachers would cane him on the slightest excuse to show him that that the school was no place for him. They wanted him to believe that he was only meant for lowly menial jobs like his forefathers had been. These daily insults left him shattered but through sheer resilience, and with the support of his parents and close relatives, he faced everything and went on studying.
Money was a rarity for him as his parents were field-workers who were paid in grain instead of money. His mother and sister-in-law helped him purchase books by selling their jewellery. Valmiki began college but since he couldn’t support his studies any more he joined an ordnance factory as a junior apprentice.
Valmiki experienced an inner urge to express himself and it was this urge that resulted in poetry, fiction and also theatre as he was an active member of many interactive theatre groups. But despite the fact that it had been years since leaving his village, school and college, the caste stigma attached with his community never left him. He narrates that even liberal and secular people changed their attitude towards him after learning about his Dalit background. Many of his friends suggested that he should hide his caste background but he didn’t. Over the years, he became stoic and continued to introduce himself come what may. Even when he was writing his memoir, a few people advised him to not talk about his caste, but he was adamant. He believed his memoir will give a befitting reply to those people who brazenly state: “hamaray yahan aisa ni hota”[Such things don’t happen in our society].
The translation is up to the mark as the translator has captured the essence of the original text. At times the author appears too aggressive and loud but after finishing the book the reader will agree that he was justified in doing so. Ajmal Kamal, the head of Aaj Karachi, deserves kudos for publishing this important memoir into Urdu.
Translator: Shiraz Hassan
Publisher: Aaj Karachi
Price: Rs 160