A review of a memoir by an ‘untouchable’ starting in the 1950s in rural Uttar Pradesh.
I grew up in the central Indian city of Gwalior until I left home for college. This was the 70s and 80s. My father worked as a textile engineer in a company town owned by the Birla Group, where we lived in a middle class residential quarter for the professional staff and their families. Our 3-BR house had a small front lawn and a vegetable patch behind. Domestic helpers, such as a washerwoman and a dishwashing woman, entered our house via the front door—all except one, who came in via the rear door. This was the latrine cleaning woman, or her husband at times. As in most traditional homes, our squat toilet was near the rear door, across an open courtyard. She also brought along a couple of scrawny kids, who waited by the vegetable patch while their mother worked.
My mother often gave them dinner leftovers, and sometimes tea. But unlike other domestic helpers, they were not served in our utensils, nor did the latrine cleaners expect to be. They brought their own utensils and placed them on the floor; my mother served them while they stood apart. When my mother turned away, they quietly picked up the food and left. To my young eyes this seemed like the natural order of things. These were the mehtars, among the lowest of the so-called ‘untouchables’. They worked all around us, yet were ‘invisible’ to me, as if part of the stage props. I neither gave them much thought during my school years, nor recognized my prejudices as such. I, and the kids in my circle, even used ‘untouchable’ caste names as playful epithets, calling each other chamaar and bhangi.
It’s possible that I first reflected on the idea of untouchability only in college, through art house cinema. Even so, upper-caste Indian liberals made these films and it was their viewpoint I saw. It is hardly a stretch to say that the way even the most sensitive white liberals in the United States knew and described the experience of black Americans is partly why one had to read Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and other black authors. A similar parallel holds for Native Americans, immigrants, and women, as well as the ‘untouchables,’ now called Dalits (‘the oppressed’), numbering one out of six Indians. For some years now, they have been telling their own stories, bearing witness to their slice of life in India. Theirs is not only a powerful new current of Indian literature, it is also a major site of resistance and revolt.
Joothan by Omprakash Valmiki is one such work of Dalit literature, first published in Hindi in 1997 and translated into English by Arun Prabha Mukherjee in 2003 (she added an excellent introduction in the 2007 edition). It is a memoir of growing up ‘untouchable’ starting in the 1950s outside a typical village in Uttar Pradesh. Told as a series of piercing vignettes, Joothan is also a remarkable record of a rare Indian journey, one that took a boy from extremely wretched socioeconomic conditions to prominence as an author and social critic.