Subaltern Literature



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Subaltern Literature
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Chronicle of an Outcaste: An Analysis of Om Prakash Valmiki’s Autobiography

Joothan, A Dalit’s life.

Aswathy Chandrabhanu,

Assistant Professor of English,

S N College, Punalur.

An expanding interest in the relationship between fact and fiction, along with a leading interest in life-narratives has pushed the genre of autobiography to the literary forefront. Studies reveal that the number of autobiographies has tripled from the 1940’s and a huge attention to life writing has followed this trend. But most autobiographies feature the lives of some of the world’s most famous people and greatest achievers, whose achievements have helped shape the modern world. In other words the focus was always on the big picture and not necessarily on the little pieces around.

Based on such a fact, when we analyse the literature of India, we find that the country’s literature, until very recently, has never focused on the lives of the ‘untouchables’ or ‘dalits.’ They, who represent the ‘crushed and broken,’ have been plagued and desecrated by the Hindu faith and the immoral atrocities of the caste system. The ball has in toto been in the side of those who wielded power. Kancha Ilaiah^1, in his book Post-Hindu India states that the upper caste Hindus regarded the Dalit Bahujan masses as “spiritually impure and historically stupid.” It is at this juncture that the significance of Dalit literature comes to the limelight. Limbale in his work Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature says: “By Dalit literature I mean writing about Dalits by Dalit writers with a Dalit consciousness (chetna) (1)”. He goes on to define Dalit ‘consciousness’ as “the revolutionary mentality connected with struggle.”

Dalit consciousness makes slaves conscious of their slavery. Dalit consciousness is an important seed for Dalit literature; it is separate and distinct from the consciousness of other writers. Dalit literature is demarcated as unique because of this consciousness (32).

The literature of the dalits comprises a group of socially and culturally anguished people who denied presenting their lives according to culturally available scripts. The literary genre of the autobiography in Dalit literature deserves special attention. The unique attribute of the emerging genre of dalit autobiography is typified by a concentration of the experience of the individual. In spite of the emphasis on the individual, there is a sharply outlined relation between the depiction of the individual and its social and public ramifications. Moreover dalit autobiographies quite honestly represent the life experiences and viewpoints of this group of people who are ‘unfortunate bunches’ of caste discrimination in India. These real life narratives by the victims of caste oppression correspond to the mythical bird phoenix which regenerates from its own ashes. Similarly these personal narratives are born from the ashes of the anguish and anger of the unfair social system based on caste.

Om Prakash Valmiki’s celebrated autobiography Joothan is one such work of dalit literature which succeeds in giving a voice to groups that were heretofore silenced and suppressed. Valmiki is among the very few grandmasters of contemporary Dalit writing, without whom the very term “Dalit Literature” would mean less than it does. In his autobiographical work Joothan, Valmiki highlights the society’s practice of pressing the so-called “untouchables” to the lowest level of society merely because they belong to the ‘lesser caste.’ Despite the fact that the Dalits have made productive and constructive contributions in the creation and development of India, they are visibly neglected. Thus their history and experiences have become largely ‘ahistorical.’ Even though the political power structures proclaim the abolishment of untouchability, a sort of ‘hidden apartheid’ is still visible in the Indian social space. Valmiki’s autobiography stands as a document of protest against the gross and tremendous injustice and victimization that has been the heritage of the Dalits for centuries. The title of the book, ‘Joothan’ encapsulates the pain, humiliation and oppression suffered by the Dalit community as a whole, which has been relegated to the bottom of India’s social pyramid for millennia. Valmiki starts out his life story by insisting that:

Dalit life is excruciatingly painful, charred by experiences. Experiences that did not manage to find room in literary creation. We have grown up in a social order that is extremely cruel and inhuman and compassionless towards Dalits (vii, Author’s Preface).

Untouchability was so rampant even in post-independence India. The Dalits, who were on the lowest rung of the social hierarchy, have been subjected to the worst atrocities. The treatment meted out to them was worse than to animals. It was considered all right to touch dogs and cats, but if one happened to touch a “Chuhra”^2, he got contaminated or polluted. They were not seen as humans. They were simply things for use and when the work was done they were thrown away. Valmiki underscores the toughness of the caste system, when he announces: “One can somehow get past poverty and deprivation, but it is impossible to get past caste (2).” Valmiki feels greatly disturbed to note that even if the Dalits wanted to join the mainstream of society after getting an education, the superior classes prevented them from such a gesture. They regard them as ‘inferior beings.’ “Doubts are cast on their intelligence, their ability, their performance (127).”

Memory is something that cannot be escaped. The Dalits suffer from alienation, frustration and misery. This misery and frustration is common to all dalits trying to adjust in a caste conscious society. Their misery is born out of either their heredity or of the tyranny of the social system. Even the thoughts about the past were bringing in shame, guilt and resentment. Thus the memories of the past itself was terrifying and frustrating. Therefore the crux of the problem is psychological, historical and sociological. Valmiki effectively uses the technique of memory to demonstrate how his present is deeply scarred by his past in spite of the distance he has bridged to become one of the prominent voices in Dalit literature. He recounts his childhood in the village in Barla district of Uttar Pradesh. Unlike his upper class colleagues, Valmiki’s childhood memories are tinged with frustration, indifference and sorrow. He was terribly ill-treated in school and the simple explanation for this revilement was that he was an untouchable. He describes the torture he went through when he was asked to spend three days sweeping the school courtyard instead of attending the classroom lectures. Here the protagonist experiences an emotional shock, much similar to that of Ekalavya^3 whose thumb was amputated just so that he does not become a better archer than a fellow of the elite class. The only difference is in terms of characters, the story is very much the same. Valmiki becomes the modern version of the tribal boy and his headmaster the tricky Dronacharya^4.

Education plays an integral part in the development of a country and it is regarded as a fundamental right of the people. No one can dispute that denial of education based on caste or any form of caste-ism is a serious violation of human rights. And in the Indian context, it is a flagrant violation of the Constitutional guarantee of equality. But in practical terms, the violation of this declaration has been clearly seen in matters concerning dalits. Very often, dalits are excluded from the field of education because of the hegemonic class’ impression that they are destined to do menial jobs. Valmiki ruminates over the grievous episodes of his school days and unfolds it in his autobiography. In school he was prohibited from sitting along with his upper class companions. He was forced to sit on the dirty ground aloof from the upper class lads. In another episode, he talks of being dragged out of his studies by a high caste landlord to do unpaid labour. He was also excluded from extra-curricular in the academy. He writes:

I was kept out of extra-curricular activities. On such occasions I stood on the margins like a spectator. During the annual functions of the school, when rehearsals were on for the play, I too wished for a role. But I always had to stand outside the door. The so-called descendents of the gods cannot understand the anguish of standing outside the door (16).

His individuality is often stifled by the upper class society around him and he is often seen as only a faceless member of the society. To them he is nothing more than a ‘Dalit’, ‘Chuhra’, or ‘Bhangi.’ But Valmiki aspires that education is the only window through which he can escape from the mire of untouchability and caste hate and his personal success in education is viewed as a success of the entire “Chuhra” community to which he belong. The powerful tool of education gave him the courage to refuse to crawl backwards with a broom as his ancestors have had to do literally in the past. But in spite of the many successes, he realized that education could erase the boundaries fixed by caste ‘only to an extent.’ His academic skills and technical expertise often failed to grant him immunity from victimization in a casteist society. He says “as long as people don’t know that you are a Dalit, things are fine. The moment they find out your caste, everything changes (134).”

Whatever is the lived experience of the Dalits in India - pleasant, beneficial or bruising - the experience renders them as noncitizens or discredited outlaws. As a result, their social life gets disrupted and the humans are thrown into the burning space of horror ‘signifying nothing.’ But an inspiring account to be noted is that of the support and care showered by his family on Valmiki. His parents as well as his siblings are described in superlative terms. They tried to provide safety, love and stimulation for their child. His father Chotan Lal always supported him and urged him to move forward with perseverance.

As Ambedkar has observed caste strikes all aspects of Indian life in a highly unbalanced way. Inflicted by birth, sanctified by religion and glorified by tradition, caste has brutal repercussions for the Dalits of India for generations together. The word ‘apartheid’ is an African’s word, precisely meaning ‘separateness’. So any separateness that keeps castes apart is also apartheid. The Hindus are born in castes with different rights and deprivation. Through this autobiography, Valmiki contests the basis of India's ancient system of social stratification or caste discrimination. He asserts:

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 would they be born into? Albeit they turn to scriptures to justify their position, the scriptures that establish feudal values instead of promoting equality and freedom. (133-134)

He unravels the reality behind the unreal belief that caste no longer functions as a significant force in the public sphere of modern India. Pockets of social change were noticed but they were mere drops in an ocean of casteism and prejudice. And the ultimate reality behind this history is that these groups have not made similar gains and they are still at the lowest point of almost every socio-economic indicator.

Thus Joothan, which takes the form of a ‘historical memory,’ sincerely presents a socio-cultural history of the Dalits’ experience of oppressive subjugation and struggle against untouchability. Untouchability is clearly furnished in the text as one of the tightly constructed examples of ostracism in Indian society. . He powerfully asserts that until India's "hidden apartheid" is abolished, ‘the world's largest democracy is nothing but a palace built on a dung heap.’ The voice of protest is on but he realizes the fact that when caste is the basis of respect and recognition, “this battle can’t be won in a day.”

Works Cited

Bruek, Laura. “The emerging complexity of Dalit consciousness.” Himal SouthAsian, January 2010 <http://www.himalmag.com/The-emerging-complexity-of-Dalit-consciousness_nw3952.html>

Ilaiah, Kancha. Post-Hindu India- A Discourse on Dalit-Bahujan, Socio-spiritual and


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