This is as revelatory and enlightening a Dalit autobiography as any yet translated into English. It narrates a seemingly artless tale of Dalit life in all its misery and humiliation, and it shows the child-protagonist striving to pull himself out of poverty and inequality. This book is also a nuanced depiction of the infinitely intricate web of caste equations in which the exploited lose no opportunity to turn into exploiters. It is not the Brahmins or Thakurs but the Yadavs who perpetrate the worst atrocities here. Often, the “Shudras” are “more feudal in their dealings with the untouchables” than the higher castes, and sometimes, they turn against their own.
The sovereign remedy for all the inequities of caste and poverty in this telling is literacy and literature. Assertively literary in aspiration and accomplishment, this book self-reflexively validates itself. The author Sheoraj Singh “Bechain” (the pen-name means restless or agitated) is born a chamar, and is under that umbrella term a skinner, tanner and cobbler all in one. His father dies early, which Sheoraj thinks to be a greater misfortune than his caste, and he has to take up one odd job after another to keep going, now expertly skinning dead animals in the village or brick-moulding, and now hawking lemons or bananas in the lanes of Delhi. He remains for years a child-labourer while what he yearns to be, he tells us, is “a child-poet.”
This is an unlikely ambition, so odd in the context as to seem uncanny. But we find that the Dalit world that the child Sheoraj grows up in, in western Uttar Pradesh, is awash in poetry. His blind Tau (uncle), who is his early mentor, is a spellbinding storyteller in prose and verse who can readily improvise on Kabir and Raidas, and the young Sheoraj learns by example to improvise on them, and also on his Tau. When he does finally get to attend school, he discovers that several of his teachers can readily versify, as they once do for a colleague’s wedding. Sheoraj’s own poems bring him honour transcending caste, and his “gift for words” is looked on as a “divinely ordained miracle.”
Another inspirational source of high literacy and poetry for Sheoraj is the Arya Samaj, which is doubly attractive for practising no caste distinctions. As an acolyte, Sheoraj flaunts a tuft on his shaven head and recites Sanskrit shlokas, including the Gayatri mantra. The only other group in the village which disregards caste distinctions comprises the Muslims, which is an odd coincidence, to say the least. The sage poet Tau tells Sheoraj that this might be because these Muslims, too, were probably untouchables before they converted. Sheoraj is attracted to radical Urdu poets — Faiz, Sahir and Kaifi — but realises that they say not a word about caste because they “belonged to a privileged class among Muslims.” Between Ambedkar and Marx, Sheoraj, while favouring non-violence, inclines towards Marx, for Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism showed him not to have been entirely scientific and rational.
The people of his caste in Sheoraj’s village are so deeply divided that they live in two different localities, use different wells, and do not inter-dine or intermarry. When Sheoraj’s blind grandfather accepts sugarcane juice which a dog has licked in passing, others of his caste castigate him for being worse than a sweeper of excrement and bringing disgrace to the community; indeed, they excommunicate both him and Sheoraj. The only caste peers who succeed in providing higher education to their children, who then get government jobs and marry into higher-caste families, have themselves stuck assiduously to their caste and profession. All this may not sound politically correct, but Sheoraj, the unflinching insider-witness, has no time for pieties and platitudes.
If Sheoraj Singh himself is now a senior professor at Delhi University, is invited to literary events as far away as Vancouver, and considers himself “happy and successful,” it is apparently because he has used his literary ability not as a pastime or consolation but as a weapon. Like several other Dalit intellectuals, he is dismissive of the depiction of Dalits by non-Dalits such as Premchand, for the existential reason that they wrote out of saha-anubhuti, sympathetic understanding, and not sva-anubhuti, felt experience. He certainly has gone beyond Premchand in giving us the unadorned truth about Dalits and the whole truth, thus complicating and unsettling our understanding.