The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 28, 2003

Punjabi Literature
Dalitís passage to consciousness
Jaspal Singh

INDIA, from time immemorial, has remained a fragmented society owing to the caste system. Almost one-fourth of the countryís population constitutes what B.R. Ambedkar called the "depressed classes". Though there have been many saints and social reformers who castigated the caste system in India since medieval times, there overall impact has been peripheral. Only in 20th century Ambedkar was able to sharpen the consciousness of the "untouchables" as a "class" and groom them as a powerful constituent of the present-day political system.

In recent times there have been a host of publications mainly dealing with the "Dalit situation" in India. A parallel body of literature called "Dalit literature" has appeared on the literary horizon that perceives the world from the Dalit angle. There are quite a few Dalit ideologies and theoreticians. Many universities have Ambedkar Chairs dealing with the theoretical aspect of Dalit consciousness.

Recently a few Dalit writers have published their autobiographies that dilate on the Dalit situation and the process leading to the emergence for a distinct Dalit consciousness as a parallel ideology. Mention may be made of Om Parkash Valmikiís Juuth and Baby Kambleís Jiun Asasda (as translated in Punjabi by Soma Sablok).


Now an autobiography of a Dalit Punjabi writer Balbir Madhopuri has appeared focusing on the situation of Scheduled Castes in Punjab in the last half a century. Chhangia Rukh (Navyug Publishers, New Delhi) is both a life story and a social critique of the caste condition in this region. Balbir was born at Madhopur, a small village near Bhogpur in Doaba, in a poor "Chamaar" family a few years after Partition.

His childhood, school and college days are meticulously portrayed without any gloss whatsoever. The author has tried to delineate every minute detail in his "Chamarli," as he calls his locality situated on the south-western side (direction of the setting sun) of the village. The filth and squalor and the improvised mud houses exposed to the vagaries of nature are presented for the readers to have a glimpse of life surviving on the margins of society.

There are many situations in this autobiography where the Dalit-Jat conflict explodes over socio-economic issues in the village structure but is contained with the intervention of the elders. The arrogance of a few Jat bullies always becomes the cause of such blow-ups. The Dalits, on the whole, remain subdued for obvious reasons unless they are forced to challenge the bullies. Time and again Dalits curse the Creator for their situation.

Despite extreme adversity, Balbir is able to receive college education and after doing his post-graduation becomes a junior officer in the Information Service. His days at Jalandhar during his post-graduation are a turning point in his life as a writer. He comes in contact with many people in the media and starts moving in the Leftist circle, which adds to his consciousness level. But he also finds that some of his Communist friends have a feudal approach to many socio-economic problems. While posted in Delhi, Balbir has to live in rented accommodations and faces problems with caste-conscious landlords.

Two characters in this autobiography stand out head and shoulder above the others. They are authorís mother and grandmother. Both the women display a lot of patience and perseverance and they never lose hope even in the most trying circumstances. Another nodal point in this autobiography is the banyan tree in the basti, where one has a glimpse of the socio-cultural life of the Dalits. In the course of time Balbirís family is able to get out of the social morass, though in a limited way.

This autobiography appears at a time when a lot of social churning is taking place with far-reaching political consequences. Madhopuri in these 200 pages presents a short history of the Dalit situation in Punjab. Apart from writing half a dozen books, including two collections of poems, he has done a lot of translation work in Punjabi, including Catherine Clementís well-known novel Edwina and Nehru.