Shock and awe

Print edition : January 08, 2016

Daya Pawar. Photo: Photo courtesy: Pradnya Daya Pawar

Baluta, the first-ever autobiography by a Dalit, is a no-holds-barred narrative which reminds us that cruelty and oppression are still in our midst.

“THE first autobiography to be written by a Dalit, Baluta, hit upper-caste critics and readers alike between the eyes. Pawar’s graphic description of life in rural Maharashtra and in Mumbai shocked readers. And it still does.” These concise thoughts by the writer and critic Shanta Gokhale encapsulate Daya Pawar’s autobiography Baluta. Published in 1978, the book remained inaccessible to non-Marathi speakers for almost 40 years until it was translated into English by Jerry Pinto and published this year.

Baluta holds an iconic place in Marathi literature. Not only was it the first-ever Dalit autobiography, it was written in a straightforward, no-holds-barred style. Whether he is talking about himself, his community, his family or others, Pawar minces no words. Baluta uncovers a world that is ugly, and its story is all the more real because it is told by a man who lived in that world.

That Mahars were forced to live in appalling conditions and lead lives that should have outraged the decency of others was known—but it was like knowing a cold, distant fact. Pawar’s Baluta was the combination of a brick between the eyes and a hard knock on the back of the head.

The very title— Baluta —holds the essence of the book, which is about exploitation. The word baluta refers to the ancient practice of making payments to Mahars with baluta, or grain. Mahars saw this as their share of the produce of the land, but when the baluta was handed over to them, local farmers would be abusive and try and palm off more chaff than grain.

Baluta achieved sophistication through its very rawness and honesty. The book is an autobiography in its most touching sense: Pawar throws himself open, warts and all, to his readers. Confusion, prejudice, elation, depression, rage—the gamut of emotions and experiences were the usual but that itself shocked readers… as if Dalits had no business feeling commonplace human emotions. So complex were the reactions of the time that readers were shocked that they were shocked, and thus Baluta achieved something that perhaps it had not even set out to achieve—an awareness of the self within the persecuting class and a sense of shame amongst some. And for Pawar, in exposing himself, he does not just expose the injustices and cruelties of centuries but also strives to find freedom for himself.

Although the book drew attention from different quarters, it did not entirely win him praise from his own community. In the 1970s, many Mahars were finding their feet in a new world. There was an entire generation that received higher education and went on to become well-settled professionals, and they were extending their new privileges to their own children and to the community at large. The positivism and hard work that has marked the progress of most of Maharashtra’s Dalits was in evidence, and the community saw this as the way out of centuries of oppression. And then to read Pawar writing openly of his life among pimps, prostitutes, criminals was, in a sense, like taking away what they had worked for. For many, Baluta was an unnecessary digging up of the past, casting almost a pall on their progress. Of course, that was not the case, nor was it Pawar’s intention. As Shanta Gokhale, who knew Pawar, says in her preface: “…he has confessed that the release of Baluta filled him with dread, because his own life, including his beloved mother’s, was out there, for all to read... [but] reading books brought him the dignity and fame that had been denied him as a member of the Mahar caste… [and, education] was a partial way out of the trap that Hinduism had set for them.”

Soon after it was published, P.L. Deshpande, the beloved doyen of Marathi literature and theatre, wrote: “On reading this book the cataract of blind traditions stuck to our eyes that makes us unaware of facts will melt away in the tears that fill our eyes… on seeing this horrifying reality will emerge new rays of hope. The reader will then seek to be more humane henceforth in life. What else is the intent of all good literature? Creating new kinship among mankind and free society from artificial and vexing bonds, is that not right?” Baluta is not an easy book to read. Not only because of what it documents but for its reminder that cruelty and oppression are still ingrained in us.

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