Baburao Bagul did not write stories that leave you contented, he wrote stories that wake you up. These are stories that cannot be understood by merely reading the words – they are the sound of experiences. His writing strongly reinforces the fact that literature possesses the promise to make us better human beings when it is democratically written and reflects the reality of the masses, when it captures the imagination of all aspects of life through stories that are irresistibly personal.

However, most literature in India, written by brahminical writers, has failed to provide a real picture of its society because of the caste location from which it has been produced. Maharashtra is no exception to this failure. Literary critics in Maharashtra have long held the notion that people who have no newness or adventures in their lives are unable to write or be the subjects of engaging literature.

A shift in literature

The emergence of Dalit literature from Maharashtra and its dissemination across the world, however, is the phenomenal truth now, challenging this prejudiced understanding of literature. Dalits, prevented from holding a pen for centuries, even from listening to “sacred” mantra, have become the creators of their own stories, rejecting brahminical hatred with a love that seeps through their literature, their words flowing like the water from a cold stream. Jevha Mi Jaat Chorli Hoti, now translated from Marathi to English by Jerry Pinto and published as When I Hid My Caste, is not only Baburao Bagul’s magnum opus but a book that exemplifies this shift by aesthetically portraying the stories of those who had never been the part of the imagination of upper caste writers.

Baburao Bagul started writing stories in 1952, by which time the tradition of short stories by Dalits was already a decade old, pioneered by notable practitioners such as Shankarrao Kharat and Bandhu Madhav who paved the way. But unlike other writers of his time, Baburao Bagul grew up in an ideologically vibrant environment and witnessed the advent of Marxism and the development of Ambedkarism as a way of living life.

Fertile grounds

In 1947-48, when he was 19, the Matunga Labour Camp in Mumbai was one of the epicentres of the Ambedkarite as well as workers’ movements. Baburao Bagul grew up listening to Babasaheb Ambedkar. At the same time, he was exposed to Dalit writer Anna Bhau Sathe – a Marxist for a major part of his life – who performed shahiri and plays in the area. The Matunga Labour Camp wasn’t just politically active but a vibrant hub of literary activity, all of which provided Baburao Bagul a base for his stories.

In 1963, with the publication of his first short story collection Jevha Mi Jat Chorali, the horizons of short stories suddenly expanded, turning literary imagination into an egalitarian force. In Baburao Bagul’s stories, creativity blooms out of the reality of an unjust society of caste(s) and the book’s publication marked, in the truest sense, the arrival of protagonists who were “outcastes” in the brahmanical literary tradition.

Rebels against injustice

Each of the ten stories in this book offers the reader scope for self-reflexivity. The story “Prisoner of Darkness” is about the heinous practice of Devadasis – where young women are “dedicated” to a temple and considered its property – and its consequences on the lives of the women affected by it. In the story, Baburao Bagul brilliantly highlights that even upper caste women can turn themselves blind to the suffering of other women if they are from lower castes or Dalits.

The characters in all the stories have much in common but at the same time, they are the heroes of their lives. They rebel against unjust situations and possess an ability to change within, even if they are surrounded by the brutal reality of caste. “Gangsters” is one such story that explains the transition of a man from a gangster and known for his terror to someone who feels compassion as he helps Jayantiben, who stays in a slum, to arrange her mother’s funeral after an earnest plea for assistance.

Caste doesn’t just make a victim out of those it oppresses, but also an inhumane social being out of the oppressor. In “Pesuk”, an upper caste Kshatriya man, falls prey to his patriarchal casteist pride and leaves his wife – physically deformed from a severe injury – to seek pleasure from other women.

The title story “When I Hid My Caste” finely portrays the dilemma of a Dalit man who migrates to a new city in Gujarat to work for the railways. He is initially forced to keeps his caste a secret in order to find a place of residence, but it is eventually revealed and he barely escapes death at the hands of caste-Hindus. Kashinath, a Dalit man who works with him, asserts his identity as a citizen of free India and rescues him from the casteist mob. The story references a historical incident that goes back to the life of Babasaheb Ambedkar who also had to escape a casteist mob in Baroda when his untouchable identity was revealed while he was staying at a Parsi guest house. The story masterfully exposes the fact that caste is the main determinant for discrimination in India and the superstructure of all social actions and interactions.

Hope and imagination

While the most striking aspect of Baburao Bagul’s stories is his ability to provide words for the pain that Dalits have to suffer in their everyday life, he does not stop there. His writing possess a charisma that make a reader feel what most literary narratives lack in India – he encourages us to develop a perspective that is humane amidst an inhumane society of caste(s).

The stories in this book are less about depiction through narrative and more about providing words to the different sounds of pain in a caste-based society. Translation of such stories is a tricky process since it may not be able to render the effect of one language into another. However, this translation of one of India’s greatest writers into English is sure to have an impact on the conscience of a reader about the subjects of his stories who, even after suffering from so many indignities and atrocities at the hands of those from upper castes, never lose the hope to imagine and seek a life of dignity.

When I Hid My Caste, Baburao Bagul, translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger Books.