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A Tale Retold in Another Tongue

An English translation of the first Dalit autobiography refreshes the hard-hitting portrayal of the lives of people from the Mahar caste.

Published: July 25, 2015 4:59 am

Written by Maya Pandit

Book: Baluta

Author/Translator: Daya Pawar/ Translated by Jerry Pinto

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Pages: 336 pages

Price: Rs 350

Daya Pawar’s Baluta has enjoyed an iconic status in Marathi literature for various reasons. It was the first Dalit autobiography to arrive on the literary scene in 1978 and it challenged the universalist assumption of the dominant Marathi literary tradition that literature “celebrates” universal human values. The hard-hitting portrayal of the life of an entire section of people from the Mahar caste, who for centuries had been treated as beasts of burden, as far less than human beings, had jolted upper-caste Marathi readers out of their self-complacency in the post-Independence euphoria. It signified a literary revolt against the Hindu Brahmanical caste system that had subjected people from lower castes to a cultural, social, economic, and political quarantine for ages.

But Baluta was not merely a radical revolt against that quarantine. It also had a sophisticated and linguistic creativity that was unparalleled in Marathi literature. Pawar had used the narrative technique of two voices for the narration of the construction of his selfhood; one of the sophisticated, educated self that listens and the other of the raw “caste” self in the making that speaks out. (Vishram Bedekar is another author in Marathi to have used this technique of two narrative voices. He had used it in his autobiography Ek Zad Ani Don Pakshi, meaning “one tree and two birds”). Baluta had a language with a wonderful blend of various linguistic varieties of Marathi, standard and dialectal, sophisticated and raw, with candid admissions and covert understatements. Baluta had been the recipient of many awards, yet the flipside of the coin was that it had also invited the wrath of people from Pawar’s own community for having displayed their life of humiliation and indignity to the public. Thus, Pawar had created linguistic, literary and cultural history of sorts with his autobiography, a milestone in Marathi literature. Unfortunately, Baluta had remained unavailable to the English readers for a long time. Jerry Pinto’s translation has filled that void.

Since a sizeable number of Dalit texts from diverse Indian languages have been translated into English, there is now a strong literary tradition of Dalit writing in English translation. Dalit literature is a live cultural archive and with a good translation, the repressed and the forgotten can re-emerge with a sharp edge of the politics of alterity.

Pinto’s translation contributes substantially to this tradition for various reasons. His introduction to the translation revokes a cultural memory to open up the history of oppression of Dalits in diverse fields, and also of resistance to that oppression in an era where the “shock value” of such writing is much diminished. The introduction brings out the repressive social context and the personal angst and ambivalent attitudes of Pawar to his community, to women and to the very act of reading and writing. The translation, interestingly, is not only of Baluta and the life of colourful characters from the Mahar community; it also brings alive the dark and bright life of Mumbai, that
“colourful city”, in the process of its journey to modernity.

Translating a Dalit text into English is not an easy exercise as the English language does not reflect the hierarchies of “caste”, but Pinto carries out the task admirably well. In the translation, the history of what modernity meant to diverse sections of people in Mumbai also unfolds, rather unintentionally, through a language with the nuances of contemporary English. This makes the translation quite readable and fluent but in the process, the edgy tone and angst of the original caste voice gets somewhat blunted at times.

This also raises an interesting question: should the translation be deliberately “fluent” and reader-friendly, or should it retain the challenges in the original text in terms of the linguistic and cultural codes that contemporary young readers may find a little difficult? Pinto seems to have worked his way out of this dilemma with an interesting strategy. He uses contemporary, idiomatic English with its racy rhythms and colloquial tones in his translation; and then provides extensive footnotes to several culturally-loaded terms and practices in the text as well. This blend seems to work well in enhancing the readability of the text as well as retaining its “alien” cultural codes to some extent.

The translation also carries a preface by Shanta Gokhale, an eminent critic and translator, who notes the distance of time between the original text and its translation and the blunted sensibilities of readers today. Pinto’s translation will help readers to sharpen their awareness of the past and the radical tradition of Dalit writing in Marathi.

Pandit is professor, School of Distance Education, EFL University, Hyderabad

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