It is difficult to describe the shock with which the middle-class reader received Baluta. Speaking of it personally, this was the first time I had been exposed to a life of such squalor, deprivation and cruel discrimination. As a middle-class woman who had had a privileged upbringing, it was a rude awakening to the realities of our pernicious caste system.

…I was ignorant of all the humiliating specificities of what being a Mahar meant. I didn’t know that Mahars skinned dead cattle and ate their flesh. I didn’t know that Mahar children were made to sit apart from the upper castes in village schools. I didn’t know that their touch was supposed to pollute water, rendering it undrinkable for the upper castes.

Baluta opened this other world to me without mincing words, in direct, simple language, making escape impossible. I had to look at Daya Pawar’s world as part of the reality of being Indian. It filled me with shame. I felt complicit in the creation of these harrowing lives. I felt frustrated because there appeared to be nothing I could do about it.

...I do not know whether today’s reader will feel the same sense of shock that I did on first reading Baluta. Atrocities against Dalits are reported every day in newspapers. Has that blunted our sensibilities? Daya Pawar felt the need to create an alter ego to whom he was going to relate his story. It was a defence mechanism.

- Shanta Gokhale

So have you eaten the meat of dead cattle? Tell me honestly, how does it taste?’ I was asked recently by an intellectual at Sahitya Sahvas, a writers’ colony in Mumbai. The question took my breath away. I answered in some confusion:

‘When I ate it, I was not at the age at which one remembers tastes. I only knew how to assuage my hunger, by filling the hole in my belly. During a famine, Vishwamitra ate the leg of a dog. During the great war, the Maratha platoons ate the meat of horses. So I won’t talk about the dead cattle that I may have eaten.’

But it is true that the death of cattle brought great excitement to the Maharwada.

It is also true that if the animal had died falling off a cliff, the excitement was even more acute. Such an animal’s flesh would be fresh. News that an animal had died in the wilds did not take long to get to the Maharwada. It would pass along faster than the telexes of today. When the vultures and kite began to circle, like aeroplanes, the Mahars would locate the fallen animal. They would rush to get there before the birds picked the carcass clean.

How many vultures? Fifty or so. Their wings flapping, they would make strange sounds, ‘Machaak machaak.’

Annabhau Sathe has compared vultures to the velvet-jacketed sons of money-lenders. If you threw a stone at them, they’d flap and move away a little but their greed drew them back to the body. They probably hated the Mahars. After all, we were snatching food from their claws. Their cruel eyes, their sharp beaks! Were they considering me as a possible snack? I would wonder.

‘It’s been a while since we’ve had a good cut of meat in the Maharwada,’ many an aged person would be heard saying. ‘I’ve forgotten what it tastes like.’

Taking whatever was to hand, pots, pans, dishes, ghamelas, the Mahars would run. Until the last strip of skin had been cleared, no one took a break. The women would chatter excitedly with each other. Children our age would be delighted for an entirely different reason. Just under the hide was a membrane that could be used to make musical instruments like the dafli and the dholak. A piece the size of a lota or an empty rolling board was enough. Stretched out and left to dry in the sun, it would thrum like a percussion instrument in a day or two.

Carrying a dead cow is killing. Its dead weight is enormous but only two men would carry it. All four of its hooves would be tied and a bamboo would be inserted between them, a huge needle threaded through the gap between its legs. It looked as if a palanquin were being carried. When it was a cow, the sight of those pathetic eyes turned sightlessly towards the sky would chill me. Those eyes haunt me still. My mother’s eyes and a cow’s eyes showed remarkable similarities, it seemed to me. When it was our family’s turn to carry the carcass, my mother would have to do it. I could not bear to see her struggle for breath. I wished I were a little older, so I might be able to lessen her burden.

The carcass was distributed among the entire community. It was divided according to annas in the rupee, so that one Maharwada meant one rupee.

Each family had a different share. One family might be entitled to half — or eight annas, as a rupee then had sixteen annas; another might get just one-and-a-half anna. These divisions and entitlements reflected our social structure. If a family was large, it got a smaller share. Within a family, the male siblings were entitled to portions of the share. If you had a larger share, you were worthy of respect. Those who got large shares were seen as our elders and betters. Our share was two annas in the rupee, one-eighth of whatever the Mahars were given. The suffering of those whose share was one or two paise (one-hundredth or one-fiftieth of the whole) was inhuman. Into some houses, half the carcass would go; into others, it would only be the intestines, the cartilage, the offal.

The animal was divided according to the gudsa. This word appears in Laxmibai Tilak’s autobiography. Who knows whether the Marathi litterateurs have heard of it or not? Laxmibai had heard of it. After all, she knew some Mahar Christians. Unless you know something about that caste, you wouldn’t know.

What was I saying? I was talking about the gudsa, a name for the animal’s bones. I remember some of those names even today. The one near the back, we called ‘dhharya’. The one above the fetlock, we called ‘chaaklya’ and the one above the knees, ‘metya’. The Mahars would fight over these bones. Sometimes blows were exchanged. The women would pull each other’s hair, and abuse each other’s mothers. Even today, the struggle for the bones continues. It’s a struggle over who should get the cut of meat with the gudsa. And everyone curses and swears, so much abuse flowing that it covers the whole carcass, from the tip of the horn to the end of the tail. I remember one of the scenes of this division. There was a huge boulder in the Maharwada. There were hollows in it, which looked like vessels of different shapes carved into the stone as if it were wood. Some old ladies would recount their childhood memories: ‘We would sit and eat on this boulder. You could break the gudsa easily on the edge of the boulder. The gudsas of those days! How thick the blood that oozed out of them.’ Who knows why but this would bring back my school history text books. Illustrations of primitive men sitting at the mouth of their caves. A fire in the middle. The carcass of an animal on the spit. Teeth tearing into the meat. I could see a relationship somewhere, or so I would think.

Excerpted with permission from Baluta, Daya Pawar, translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger Books.