Book Reviews

Joothan: A Dalit Story

This article is written jointly by Dr. Ram Sharma and Dr. Archana

The term Subaltern or Dalit literally, refers to any person or group of inferior in rank and station, whether because of sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion. But the term Subaltern does not make the kind of an impact the term ‘Dalit’ makes; it has a sort of pathos attached to it. There are so many terms in vogue since times immemorial to describe a ‘Dalit’ but none them has succeeded in inculcating the feel the term Dalit has. As Bishop A.C. Lal aptly puts: The word ‘Dalit’ is a beautiful word, because it transcends narrow national and sectarian frontiers. It is a beautiful word because it embraces the sufferings, frustrations, expectations and groanings of the entire cosmos. (Dalit Solidarity, xiii) The term ‘Dalit’ even found easy acceptance, which no other term found, even the ages old Achut, Panchamas, Atishudras, Avarnas, Antyajas, Asparshyas, and Pariah. Not even the ones provided by the Constitution of India – Schedule Caste or Depressed Class or the one lovingly bestowed by the Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi – Harijan.

The term ‘Dalit’ is often confused and is taken to be a caste but its not so as Arjun Dangle elucidates:

Dalit is not a caste but a realization and is related to the experiences, joys and sorrows, and the struggles of those in the lowest stratum of society. It matures with a sociological point of view and is related to the principles of negativity, rebellion and loyalty to science, thus finally ending as revolutionary. (‘Dalit Literature, Past, Present and Future,’ 234-36) There is nearly no historical reference found of untouchability even great historians like D.D. Koshambi and Majumdar have no answer to this question. To quote Mukherjee: After a long and tedious wandering through the Labyrinth of innumerable texts, one may find a word or a line about people not liked by that particular author. And even when the relevant material is found, one has to ask the question: ‘Who writes for whom?’ (Beyond the Four Varnas: The Untouchables in India, 15)

The Brahmanas, the Kshatriyas and Vaishyas literally ruled over the Shudras. The dominated class wasn’t allowed the kind of life the dominating classes had. They weren’t made to participate in religious rituals, social gatherings and especially the Upnayan sanskara which made the other three classes’ dwija or the twice born; this ritual symbolized that now one was fit to study the Vedas. Shudras were never given the right to education. Dr. Ambedkar in order to have an individuality of the Dalits, tried to get the right of separate electorate for them from the British, when the moment came for it to materialize Gandhi went on a fast unto death. Gandhi got his way and Dr. Ambedkar was made to sign the Poona Pact of 1932, but Dalits took it as a great betrayal; as they were getting a right, which none had given them – the political right. Gandhi gave the plea that Dalits were the invincible part of Hindus, so how could they ask for separate electorate but it was interpreted as Hindu domination over the Dalits. Dalits whether are Hindus or not is no more a debatable question as Dr. Ambedkar said that he was born a ‘Dalit’ but he won’t die a ‘Dalit’. True to his words three months before his death along with millions of followers, he became a Buddhist.

Gandhi in Harijan wrote,

“…one born a scavenger must earn his livelihood by being a scavenger, and then do whatever else he likes. For a scavenger is as worthy of his hire as a lawyer or your president. That according to me is Hinduism… The law of Varna is the antithesis of competition that kills.” (Joothan, xx) Dr. Ambedkar took it as, “…economic destitution of the untouchables, constantly reiterating how they were denied access to education, ownership of land and jobs above the level of scavenging, sanitary and other menial occupations…” (Joothan, xx)

Gandhi somewhere could not understand the ache of a Dalits the way Dr. Ambedkar did as Dalits were made to work against their wish, wages were not paid and atrocities were inflicted upon them but Gandhi took rights to Dalits in a different way, Gail Omvedt rightly remarks:

The point is that Gandhi, who feared a ‘political division…in the villages’ ignored the division that already existed; in his warning against the spread of violence, he ignored the violence already existing in the lives of the Dalits. (Dalit and the Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India 172)

Dalits are a major force in India; they are playing a vital role in the shaping of the future of the nation, but they continue to face the old problems, which emit from their status as untouchables. Das gives a wide-ranging picture of how untouchability affects the day-to-day lives of Dalits today: Land-holding upper caste people in villages do not allow the Dalits to wear decent clothes, cast votes freely, ride on a horse in marriage procession, draw water from a public well, sit on a cot while the upper caste man is standing. In cities a student belonging to Schedule Castes is purposely given low marks, an officer is prejudged as incompetent and inefficient just because of his birth in an untouchable caste. A professor, a lawyer, a doctor, an architect, born in an untouchable family is considered inefficient and inferior without even seeing his performance. A patient refuses to be treated by a Scheduled Caste doctor and a house owner refuses to let a vacant house to him for the fear of pollution. A superior gives bad reports to a Dalit subordinate in order to obstruct his promotion. The author further adds: In everyday talk in canteens, buses, trains and airplanes, offices and establishments, aspersions are cast on the men and women of untouchable origin and derogatory remarks are passed. Universities and colleges abusing the power and authority given to ‘autonomous bodies’ close the doors of progress to students, teachers and employees to protect ‘merit’ – merit earned with fake certificates, unfair practices in examination, nepotism and corruption. (Thus Spoke Ambedkar: Selected Speeches, 58)

Though this kind of treatment is prevalent in rural parts of the country, still the impact is seen on the urban scene as well. Dalits struggle against these injustices through political and cultural means. Dalit literature is one of the chief sites of their struggle and imaginary creativeness. Dalit literature has taken a face of Dalit Literary Movement, raison de être being the sense of liberty of expression and of putting forward their own perspective. Omprakash Valmiki's Joothan, is an autobiographical account of his birth and upbringing as an untouchable, or Dalit, in the newly independent India of the 1950s, is one of the first portrayals of Dalit life in north India from an insider's perspective. He narrates a mesmeric story of growing up in a village in the recently independent India. It is a story of survival, of oppression as severe as slavery or apartheid, and of triumph, as the author gets education and learns to embrace his uniqueness and become a spokesman for his community. Valmiki in his book on Dalit aesthetics writes: Dalit literary movement is not just a literary movement. It is also a cultural and social movement. Dalit society has been imprisoned for a thousand years in the dark mist of ignorance, deprived of knowledge. Dalit literature is the portrayal of the wishes and aspirations of these oppressed and tormented Dalits. (Dalit Sahitya ka Saundaryashastra, 97)

There is an old saying, Jaake paun na fati biwai who kya jane peer parai in English it is framed as ‘Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.’ Dalits never found place in literary representations and so it is only a Dalit who can with ease and perfection express the plight of a Dalit rather a non-Dalit. Valmiki beautifully lays the problem of expression on non-Dalits about Dalits as: If the non-Dalits are unfamiliar with the burning miseries of Dalit life, it is because of the distance between Dalits and non-Dalits that has been created by the Indian social order. When they do not know the reality of this Dalit life, whatever they write about it will remain superficial, born out of pity and sympathy, and not out of a desire for change or repentance. (Joothan, xxvi) Gayatri Spivak raised a question, ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ but Valmiki’s Joothan raised the question, ‘Can dominant society make space for subaltern to speak?’ To this Valmiki answered: We need an ongoing struggle, and a consciousness of struggle, a consciousness that brings revolutionary change both in the outside world and in the hearts, a consciousness that leads the process of social change. (Joothan, x) Instead of following a chronological model, Valmiki moves from memory to memory, indicating how his present is intensely scarred by his past in spite of the distance he has traversed to become one of the well-known authors in Dalit literature. He describes his childhood in the village in Barla district of Uttar Pradesh and pens down the ill treatment meted out to him when he was at school since he was an untouchable. The author writes, “The Churas were not seen as human. They were simply things for use. Their utility lasted until the work was done. Use them and then throw them away.” (Joothan, 2)

The title itself explains the plight of the Dalits; Joothan means the leftover, “However, such food would only be characterized Joothan if someone else besides the original eater were to eat.” (Joothan, xxxi)

 Joothan literally means scraps of food left on a platter, intended for the garbage or for the family pet in a middle-class urban home. It is associated to the word jootha, which means impure and such scraps are characterized as Joothan only if someone else eats them. India's untouchables have been forced to admit and eat Joothan for their survival for centuries. The word encapsulates the ache, disgrace, and paucity of this community, which has lived at the bottom of India's social pyramid for millennia.

Although untouchability was legally abolished in the constitution of the newly independent India in 1949, Dalits continue to face discrimination, economic deprivation, sadism, and mockery. Ironically, author’s childhood went by consuming leftovers that too with relish. The title encapsulates the ache, disgrace and paucity of the Dalits, recalling all those far forgotten incidents bring back the pain and disgrace the author went through all his childhood: The pieces of pooris that were collected from the pattals were dried in the sun. A cloth would be spread on a charpai to dry them. Often I would be placed on guard duty because the drying pooris attracted crows, hens and dogs. Even a moment’s lapse and the pooris would vanish. Hence, one would have to sit near the cot with a stick in hand.

The author further adds: These dried up pooris were very useful during the hard days of the rainy season. They would be soaked in water and then boiled. The boiled pooris were delicious with finely ground red chilli pepper and salt. Sometimes they were mixed with gur or molasses, to make gruel and this dish was eaten with great delight. He painfully recalls: When I think about all those things today, thorns begin to prick my heart. What sort of a life was that? After working hard day and night, the price of our sweat was just Joothan. And yet no one had any grudges. Or shame. Or repentance. (Joothan, 9, 10)

In spite of the barriers of caste that proved to be an obstruction at every step throughout his years in school and college, Valmiki persevered to get enhanced education and evolved. Both his parents have been portrayed as daring figures in the novel. They preferred something better for their child and fought for his wellbeing and development. One of the most potent moments in the novel is when his mother overturned a basketful of Joothan at a wedding after a high-caste Tyagi embarrassed her. His father, Chotan Lal, always stood by his son and told him that he should always do what he desired. It is quite apt that Valmiki has dedicated this novel to them. The Dalit were insulted and threatened when they refused to accept Joothan from the higher class. Dr. Ambedkar and Gandhi were always against the Dalit accepting Joothan, in fact, Valmiki was even never in favour of accepting the Joothan. It doesn’t always take an era to bring about change a moment is enough, and that moment arrived at the marriage ceremony of Sukhdev Singh Tyagi’s daughter, Valmiki’s mother used to clean their place she was busy collecting the pattals and the Joothan along with him and his sister. When Tyagi came, she asked him if he would give something for her children as they even have waited for this day in keen anticipation. Tyagi pointed towards the basket of Joothan and said; “… Don’t forget your place, Churi. Pick up your basket and get going.” These harsh words penetrated deep in the heart of the author. However, that night something happened which changed the course of their lives:

…the Mother Goddess Durga entered in my mother’s eyes. It was the first time I saw my mother get so angry. She emptied the basket right there. She said to Sukhdev Singh, ‘Pick it up and put it inside your house. Feed it to your baratis tomorrow morning.’ …

After that day Ma never went back to his door. And after this incident she had also stopped taking their joothan.

This incident made Valmiki internally very strong and later he faced the atrocities levied upon him in school, society and life ahead gallantly. The right to be educated wasn’t bestowed upon the Dalits, they were made to work in the fields without being paid, and even if they had no inclination to do it. When the author went to attend his friend Hiram’s marriage, they were made to go for Salaam; it is a tradition where the groom goes from door to door offering his respect and accepting gifts from people. Valmiki comes face to face with a high class woman who when comes to know that he was in ninth standard says, “Howsoever much you study … you will still remain a Chuhra.” (Joothan, 32) whenever he lost hope Valmiki was told by his father that, “You have to improve the caste by studying.” (Joothan, 29)

Valmiki despite many hindrances was preparing for his class tenth examinations when this incident took place it happened so that author was studying Fauza came:

Fauz Singh Tyagi, whom everyone called Fauza, came and stood by me, a huge shaft on his shoulder. He said, ‘Abey, Chure, what are you doing?’

‘I am appearing in the Board exams. Tomorrow I have to do the maths paper,’ I replied in a low voice.

‘Study at night…come with me. I have to sow cane.’ (Joothan, 57)

Despite of many requests Fauza dragged Valmiki to work in the fields. In the afternoon when Fauza’s mother brought lunch, the Tyagi’s sat in the tree shade and all the untouchables were made to sit in the sun. They were all handed over the lunch, as one won’t even offer to a beggar. The author denied to take the food that way, over which Fauza started shouting, ‘Abey Chure ke…Just because he has learnt to read a little he has gotten above himself … Abey, don’t forget who you are .…’ (Joothan, 57) The author’s intent doesn’t stop at evoking empathy towards the subjugated Dalits in the mind of the reader but questions, “Why is my caste my only identity?” This one question leads the reader into introspection. What sort of a life was that? After working hard day and night, price of our sweat just Joothan. Yet no one had any grudges. Or shame. Or repentance. (Joothan, 10)

Somewhere a revolt took birth in the author. When Fauza’s mother called him he went near but on getting the rotis dropped in his hands he threw them and ran and managed to elude away Fauza. Valmiki’s parents were hurt but they couldn’t do anything though his father wanted to but his mother stopped him Valmiki’s father taught him that through education he could only improve his life. Valmiki beautifully brings out a very emotional incident where after the High School results were Chamanlal Tyagi comes to his house to congratulate him, the author says: It was for the first time a Tyagi had come to Chuhra home to offer congratulations. Even more momentously, Chamanlal Tyagi had taken me to his home. Sitting close to me he had fed me lunch, that too, in their own dishes. In the all-pervasive atmosphere of untouchability, this was, indeed, a special gesture. (Joothan, 60) Even while the author recalls he had pleasant memories of Chamanlal ji, his eldest son even studied in his class who was too very nice to him. The author felt very awkward throughout the lunch but the thing that made his eyes well up was when he was about to pick his dishes after eating, Chamanlalji stopped him and called his daughter to come and remove Bhaiya’s dishes. Valmiki felt touched by his mild behavior it was all so different from the atrocities he had faced, this docile treatment acted like a balm over his wounds. However, he could recall that this man was always very kind to him.

Once Valmiki’s father was going on some errand to Muzaffarnagar and he took the author with him. On the road side book stalls his father came across Gita he bought it and gave to his son his father, when they came back Valmiki read to his father who felt, “that his life had been worthwhile, that his ‘caste’ had improved.” (Joothan, 61) But authors half-baked couldn’t understand the profound thoughts stated in the holy text whenever he tried to clear his doubts by asking his teachers at school but, the taunts of my teachers and fellow students pierced me deeply. “Look at this Chuhre ka, pretending to be a Brahmin.” (Joothan, 62) The student and teachers both behaved in an obnoxious manner, though students up to an extent can be forgiven the teachers can’t. They give the lesson for life, they are not supposed to make discriminations based on caste, creed, each one of us is God’s creation, and we have no right to keep one away from what he deserves. Due to teachers like Brajpal because of whom Valmiki flunked in Intermediate and the hypocrite like Narendra Kumar Tyagi, who when comes to know that Valmiki is a Chuhra boy doesn’t want to have a glass of water from his hands. Valmiki feels his friends Chandrapal and Shravankumar are better who are not scared to lose their ‘caste’. These assaults of being a Chuhra ripped the author apart every now and then.

Valmiki has rightly said, in the National Seminar on Dalit Studies and Higher Education: Exploring Content Material for a New Discipline:

For the Dalits the memory of history, past and tradition is only one of deprivation and subjugation. Even today they do not have community assets basic to a community. Materially rich and dominant communities are intact because they have the resources, and a desire to use the logic of community in order to protect their power.

He further adds:

Against all odds, pitted against the time and several other exigencies, Dalit literature is buoyant and hopeful for an enhanced life situation. It is to be appreciated that despite the suffocating and disgusting contestations, Dalit literature has ensured that it does not loose vigour and budding possibilities. Briefly, the prospect of Dalit literature is literature alone, and Rajendra Yadav is very apt in his remark that the ‘next century will belong to Dalit literature’

Valmiki’s decision to leave college and go for technical training at The Ordinance Factory Training Institute proved to be a wise action it gave an impetus to his career and his individuality. However, life brings things in a package deal though the author was ecstatic by his newfound friends who were not only good to him who even shared the same reading and theatrical interests. Nevertheless, caste is as Valmiki said stays with the person until he dies. Kulkarni family treated the author in a very pleasant manner well but that was, the treatment he got as a Brahmin and not as a Chuhra. Kulkarni family was very rigid, they treated Scheduled Caste, and Muslims alike i.e. like untouchable. Savita got attached to him but on coming to know about his caste her reaction was as hurting as it was of Tyagi’s in the past; but they were not close to him but Savita was so this pain left him tormented. On having been mistaken for a Brahmin because of his adopted last name, “Valmiki” (used to signify a community of untouchables in Uttar Pradesh) he found out that just the exposure of his actual caste to well-educated middle class people was received by distress and a sudden alteration of approach towards him and the same he experienced with Savita.

Friends like Kureishi, Ajay Sinha, his wife Chanda gave him the kind of happiness he looked out for throughout his life. Many of his friends think that the author’s name has a typical attraction attached to it and of course, the author is quite gallant to attach his caste as his surname, while on the same hand many think that, “What is so brave about that?... After all he is a Chuhra. His surname spares us the hassle of asking what his caste is.” However, others use ‘Khairwal’ the family’s gotra name instead of Valmiki. Nevertheless, the author has rightly stated that:

‘Caste’ is a very important element of Indian society. As soon as a person is born, ‘caste’ determines his or her identity. Being born is not in the control of a person. If it were in one’s control, then why would I have been born in a Bhangi household? Those who call themselves the standard-bearers of this country’s great cultural heritage, did they decide which homes they would be born into? Albeit they return to scriptures to justify their position, the scriptures that establish feudal values instead of promoting equality and freedom. (Joothan, 133, 134)

Customarily, Indian literatures have either overlooked untouchables or portrayed them as victims in need of saviors, as objects without say or agency. Valmiki has broken new ground with a valid recording of these unrepresented experiences. He tells the stories of life in the untouchable caste of Chuhra, at the bottom step of society; his heroic struggle to endure this doomed life of eternal physical and mental persecution; the cruel obstacles he overcame to become the first high school graduate of his neighborhood; his coming to consciousness under the influence of the great Dalit political leader B. R. Ambedkar; and his alteration into a speaking subject bearing witness to the tyranny and abuse that he endured as an entity and as a member of a stigmatized and browbeaten society. Dalits today comprise about one sixth of India's population. Spread over the entire country, speaking many languages, and belonging to many religions, they have become a major political force. As a document of the long silenced and long denied sufferings of the Dalits, Joothan is not only a contribution to the archives of Dalit history, but a proposal for the avant-garde transformation of society and human awareness. Even though untouchability was abolished in 1949, Dalits sustained to face bigotry, financial deprivation, sadism, and derision. The author shares his gallant effort to survive an inevitable life of eternal physical and mental harassment and his alteration into a speaking subject under the sway of the great Dalit political leader, B. R. Ambedkar.

Times have changed still the age-old caste biased thinking of people seems to have survived. The moment people come to know that one is a Bhangi or Chuhra their attitude changes. Valmiki makes a pertinent question, “Why is my caste my only identity?” (Joothan, 134) Why the author and all belonging to his caste are are not taken as humans instead being taken as one from Schedule caste?

A text of the long-silenced and long-denied sufferings of the Dalits, Joothan is a major contribution to the annals of Dalit history and a manifesto for the revolutionary conversion of society and human perception.

Works cited & consulted:

  1. Dangle, Arjun. ‘Dalit Literature, Past, Present and Future,’ translated by Avinash S. Pandit and Daya Agarwal. In Poisoned Bread: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Literature, edited by Arjun Dangle. Bombay: Orient Longman, 1992.
  2. Das, Bhagwan. ‘Editorial Note on the History of the Conversion Movement Launched by Dr. Ambedkar on 13 October 1935 at Yeola, District Nasik, Bombay.’ In Thus Spoke Ambedkar: Selected Speeches, vol. 4:73-276; edited by Bhagwan Das, Bangalore: Ambedkar Sahitya Prakashan, 1995.
  3. Lal, A.C., Bishop. ‘Foreword’ In Dalit Solidarity, edited by Bhagwan Das and James Massey, Delhi: ISPCK, 1995.
  4. Mukherjee, Prabhati. Beyond the Four Varnas: The Untouchables in India, Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1998.
  5. Omvedt, Gail. Dalit and the Democratic Revolution: Dr. Ambedkar and the Dalit Movement in Colonial India, Delhi: Sage, 1994.
  6. Valmiki, Omprakash. Joothan: A Dalit’s Life, translated by Arun Prabha Mukherjee, Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi: Popular Prakashan Pvt. Ltd., 2003.
  7. Valmiki, Omprakash. Dalit Sahitya ka Saundaryashastra, Dehli: Radhakrishna, 2001.
  8. Abstract of the paper by Omprakash Valmiki presented in the National Seminar on Dalit Studies and Higher Education: Exploring Content Material for a New Discipline.


More by :  Prof. Dr. Ram Sharma

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