Kamble from Mahar Batallion with an amputated leg— Daya Pawar (translated by Yogesh Maitreya)
Looks in the darkness with searching eyes
“Whom did we fight for on the border, why did we rot ourselves for the country?”
The question pierces his heart through, with all the agonies of life
The gun already confiscated from him
He anxiously searches the bed side
Some books leave us with a sense of bafflement, a few provide us a sense of clarity, and only a handful shake our conscience. Baluta falls into the last category.
Writer Daya Pawar was born on September 15 in 1935, the same year that Babasaheb Ambedkar announced his decision to convert from Hinduism. A senior auditor with the Indian Railways, Pawar was also a remarkable poet, short story writer, and literary critic. But it was the publication of his autobiography in 1978 that granted him the status of a literary giant, turning him into a household name in Maharashtra.
An unprecedented work
Baluta tells us the story of Dagadu Maroti Pawar before he became Daya Pawar. Running parallel between Mumbai and Dhamangaon, the village where the author was born, the book is as much about the starkness of the hopes of a Dalit person, as it is about what migrating from a village to the city offered him. While being intensely personal, it is not however, person-centric. It’s about a community, its collective pain and struggle, and the remarkable pursuit to attain an individuality snatched away by the caste system.
In the absence of a literary tradition that looked at and understood the lives of Dalits, Baluta instantly become a controversial book when it was published. It was a significant and unprecedented attempt to rectify the world of broken men, rather than romanticising it. Yet amid the criticism that it received, some from Dalit readers, the book also surprisingly drew a positive response from some Brahmin writers, such as PL Deshpande, who held the book in high regard and called it “a tree filled with sufferings”. With an intensity and honesty they has not witnessed in Marathi literature till then, Baluta provided brahmanical classes with a theoretical perspective with which they could, at least now, reflect on themselves in relation to the wretched conditions created by the caste system that favoured them.
The value system of looking at oppression – and a resistance to it – as Baluta does was possible due to several facts, one of which was Dalit literature produced during the Dalit Panthers movement, culminating in making Dalits capable of express themselves in “their” language – one that allowed for a vocabulary for the darkest experiences of lives in a caste society.
Apart from its pioneering autobiographical narrative, Baluta’s appeal lay in its rejection of heroism. Pawar did not believe in one person rescuing an entire community, instead he illustrated that each person has the potential to liberate themselves, to rise, to fight. Writing about when he was still in school, Pawar notes:
It was unlikely that I would have had the courage of my convictions at that age. But were they my convictions? Here, in school, I was being taught “Always speak the truth” and there, I was taking Dada’s loot to sell at Chor Bazaar. The world I learned about at school seemed fraudulent compared to the world I lived in.
Writers rarely put their faith for liberation in common people. They always have a hero. Pawar didn’t do that. The world he was taught in school and the world he lived in, were opposites. In a such a dilemmatic situation, it was the collective conscience of a community that guided him.
Baluta was an attack, in order to cure the wounds of Dalits. It rejects heroism but at the same time, preserves the valour in each of us, it strengthens us as readers. By effectively portraying the journey of a man in the “transition between caste to class”, it asks what a man loses and what he gains in the process? It illustrates the tussle between “being” and “belonging” in the life of a Dalit person.
Interestingly, immediately after its publication the book generated a mixed response among some Dalit readers for its no-holds-barred revelations. Addressing this in the second edition of the book, Daya Pawar wrote, “two reasons can be anticipated for the anxiety of white collars among Dalits. One of them is that it makes them anxious while reading about the past – one they too had lived – which was surprisingly ‘shameful’. Secondly, they could not digest the fact that after Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, this movement has become handicapped and its revolutionary spirit has vanished. Instead of them feeling disgusted about the past, those who had put them in this life of misery, should be feeling disgusted.”
The message was clear. Baluta was meant to communicate the oppression of a Dalit community – and subsequently, a refusal to bear this oppression anymore – to brahmanical society, in order to humanise them. The condemnation of the book, however, was due to another reason – the depiction of sexuality.
In brahmanical Marathi literature of the time, readers were only offered a romanticised or very distorted version of sex and sexuality. It was marked by the absence of a sociological understanding of sexuality and readers were made to believe that interpreting sexuality through words was a moralistically abnormal line of thought. Baluta, then, was perhaps one of the first autobiographies that constructed, through novel-like narratives, a succinct sociological understanding of sexuality. Kancha Ilaiah, writing about Dalit-Bahujan society, also indicated this in his 1996 magnum opus, Why I am Not a Hindu?:
Sexual behaviours and mores are also taught as part of family and peer group life. A girl listens to older women talking to each other in groups about “disciplined” women and “undisciplined” women; their sexual lifestyles, their relations with husbands and others. A father does not hesitate to talk in front of his children about his approach to life or his relations with other women.
A literary milestone
Forty years after its publication, Baluta undisputedly remains a milestone in the world of Marathi literature, Dalit literature, Indian literature, the domain of literature itself. In 1979, PL Deshpande wrote, “after reading this book...one will be in pursuit of living life more close to humanity”. When it was published, Baluta won the Maharashtra Government Award for literature. Three years later, in 1982, it won a Ford Foundation award. Between 1981 to 1992, Baluta was translated into Hindi, German, French and Italian languages and finally in 2015, into English by Jerry Pinto.
In its original Marathi, the book has had six editions and each year, it is reprinted at least thrice, unabatedly and has the distinction of being a Marathi book that is routinely pirated and sold on city streets. Not only has Baluta stood the test of the time and proved its critics wrong, today, it tells us that stories written with honesty and an intention to find the root of suffering, have the potentials to talk across generations. The vision of Baluta broadened our understanding of ourselves, one that told the truth as it is.
Writers who comes from a world in which oppression is an everyday reality have no option but to face it with all their strength to defeat it. The African-American writer Toni Morrison once said “My vulnerability would lie in romanticizing blackness rather than demonizing it; vilifying whiteness rather than reifying it”.
Baluta has traveled a long journey over its 40 years of existence. It was one of the first books in Marathi of its kind, controversial at its beginning, widely read nonetheless, and now accepted as a book, in Marathi literature broadly and Dalit literature specifically, that had guided generations of writers and readers. It understood that breaking the shackles of a life of shame constructed by caste is possible by telling the truth of oppression, and by telling that change can be brought when oppression is not romanticised.