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The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
by Omprakash Valmiki and Arun Prabha Mukherjee

Columbia University Press, June 2008

Reviewed by Evan Hanczor

Joothan, Omprakash Valmiki’s Frederick Douglass-style memoir, provides a glimpse into an under-discussed segment of Indian culture known as Dalits, or “untouchables.”  Though focusing for much of the book on the Churha community of Uttar Pradesh, where the author was born and raised, Valmiki extends the story’s scope from his personal sufferings of injustice to the broader problems of the caste system, particularly in India’s Hindi population. This story is certainly not a literary memoir in the contemporary American tradition, with flashy linguistic tricks and metaphorical anecdotes of kite flying and drunkenness.  However, the content of the story is strong enough to keep one involved.  Arun Prabha Mukherjee, who translated the story from the Hindi edition, provides an excellent overview of the evolution of casteism in Hindi culture, as well as contextualizes Valmiki’s work inside the emerging field of Dalit literature and literary theory.

“Our house was next to Chandrabhan Taga’s cattle shed.”  

From the first sentence, Joothan sets the reader in the mud through which Valmiki, and other untouchables in casteist India, are forced to wade.  The story follows Valmiki’s journey from his early days of schooling in a rural community through his emergence as an important Dalit writer and activist on the national stage.  The author’s educated position is rare for Dalits, due both to the mistreatment they are subject to as well as the financial inability to send a child to school.  Although untouchability has been outlawed in India for over fifty years, protection for Dalits is hardly enforced, and injustices ranging from forced labor to murder and rape are still present, especially in rural areas.  In 2005, there were 110,000 registered cases of violence, murder, rape, and other atrocities committed against Dalits.1   When you consider that Valmiki’s writing is focused on the second half of the twentieth century, in an even more infantile state of Dalit legal protection, the image of untouchable life becomes even more harrowing.

Throughout the text, Valmiki intertwines personal examples of mistreatment at every level of his life and career with broader information about the Dalit political and social movement in India, which allows the reader to form a picture of both scales of injustice.  Even after Valmiki has moved to the city, married, and become a respected writer and government employee, he is all too able to give the reader a feel for the separate lens through which Dalits are viewed in Indian society.  Although the mistreatment shifts from beatings and exclusion as a schoolchild to being served with different sets of silverware as an adult member of society, Valmiki exposes the same form of disgust and fear present in the minds of upper-caste Hindus for Dalits at all stages of life. 

It is no wonder that Joothan reads similarly to an American slave narrative.  The narrative, both in form and content, recalls the early civil rights movement in the United States, because of the similarities in the injustice suffered. The influence that American civil rights groups had on Dalit activism is also apparent (groups like the Black Panthers inspired Indian activist groups, most notably the Dalit Panthers).  Valmiki is also brave enough to discusses touchy issues such as misconceptions of Mahatma Gandhi, and consistently praises Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a leader of the Indian democratic movement and supporter of Dalit rights, who is often lost in Gandhi’s shadow.

The narrative is straightforward and focused on its goal of bringing attention to the injustice of the caste system and mistreatment of Dalits.  Though it focuses mainly on Hindi Dalits, similar problems run through all religious groups in India.  Valmiki can be, as literary critics claim, somewhat propagandistic, monotonous, and repetitive at times, though Mukherjee notes that some of the passion may have been lost in her translation (a claim that other reviewers, who have read both editions of this book, have echoed). Regardless, Valmiki is not in the business to show off his literary prowess.  He, along with others in the Dalit literary movement, believes that a story should be judged by how factually it represents the Dalit condition, not by its literary flair.  As you read, it is certainly the content, rather than the form, that captures your interest. However, there is no doubt that Valmiki is able to make the reader empathetic to the suffering of untouchables, and interested in the oft-silenced sides of history.
EVAN HANCZOR is a recent graduate of Tulane University in New Orleans.  He is currently writing and working as a chef in Connecticut.