Mukherjee’s translation of Valmikis ‘Joothan’ describes life as part of India’s lowest caste, the Dalit...
With her eyes closed, Arun Mukherjee, a post-colonial theorist at York University, prepares to read from Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan.
Mukherjee is credited with transporting the Hindi text to the English reader.
“It is a scalpel penetrating deep into the flesh, a scar in my deepest consciousness,” she says, introducing the work. She takes a deep breath and reveals the pain of Joothan. Her students drop their pens and hold on to their hearts.
Joothan is Valmiki’s autobiographical account of growing up as a Dalit in India, and Mukherjee, born in the final years of British-occupied India, has devoted much of her literary career to penning the voices of one of the most oppressed communities in the Indian social landscape.
Mukherjee asks, “I wonder in the present about the past: why did a Dalit have to pick up my shit?”
Dalits, also known as untouchables, are the lowest class in the Varna caste system. Dalits are ostracized as impure, born from the feet of god and hence not worthy of any respect from the higher castes.
From birth, Dalits are organized within a social order that leaves them with the duty of performing menial labour, including, as experienced by Mukherjee, cleaning up excrement.
Out of fear of pollution, Dalits are excluded from social life and are forbidden basic human rights. They have limited, if any, access to water, are denied education and cannot partake in social interactions with any but those of their caste.
Joothan is a map of the author’s journey from childhood to adulthood as a Dalit. Living with pigs, dogs and naked children as roommates, Valmiki’s life is punctuated with violence and brutality.
Valmiki’s story mirrors that of many Dalits, and, although some Dalits have broken the shackles of oppression, the system continues to exercise its archival authority.
“One would be mistaken to think that casteism is dead. It is very much alive and, you need only to browse through Indian matrimonial pages to realize the emphasis on caste,” Valmiki says.
Although the practice of untouchability, not the Varna, was abolished in secular India’s constitution of 1949, government malfeasance has kept the hostilities alive to this day.
According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, a crime is committed against a Dalit every 20 minutes. One only needs to read Anand Teltumbde’s Khairlanji to realize that Dalits are regularly humiliated and killed through rape and torture.
Full report here Excalibur