Narendra Jadhav’s Outcaste as a Dalit text


The word “caste” has its roots in the Latin word ‘castus,’ which means pure or chaste. The caste system is often defined in an idealized manner as constituting four distinct social groups, also known as varnas. The varnas are ranked in hierarchical relation to each other with Brahmins (priests and teachers) at the apex of the social order, followed by Kshatriyas (rulers and warriors), Vaishyas (merchants and farmers), and Shudras (workers and craftspeople), who are at the bottom tiers of the caste pyramid. In addition to these four caste groups, there is another distinct social group of people in the Indian society who, on account of their polluting nature, are regarded as socially unworthy to be included in the caste or varna system. They are a people without any caste identity and hence are the outcastes of the Indian society. Their “outcaste” status does not imply that they constitute a separate society; they are, in many aspects of life very much an integral part of the Indian society. While the outcastes are not part of the caste system, their lives are inextricably tied to caste system. There is little or no caste mobility for the outcastes of the Indian society. They are almost always ranked at the bottom of Indian society. Throughout the known history of the caste system, the outcastes of the Indian society have been called by a variety of pejorative terms such as Chandalas (dirty), Panchamas (the fifth caste) Avarnas (without caste). Untouchables, Depressed classes (under British rule) and Harijans (God’s children, Gandhi) are terms used before the word ‘Dalit’ gained widespread appeal among the caste oppressed communities to assert their selfhood and identity. The term was first used in the nineteenth century by a Marathi social reformer and revolutionary Mahatma Jyotirao Phule to “describe the outcastes and untouchables as the oppressed and broken victims of [the] caste-ridden society”. The term gained mainstream appeal during the 1970s Dalit Panther Movement of Maharashtra where it was used as a constant reminder of their age-old oppression, denoting both their state of deprivation and the people who are oppressed.

The institution of the caste system is a complex and multifaceted exploitative cultural system that for thousands of years has been the primary source of oppression of Dalit communities in India. The caste system is not only a form of socio-cultural exploitation but also a form of group identity for Dalit communities. As an outcaste community, the Dalits in India endure a variety of prohibitions, discriminations, disabilities and segregations imposed on them by the dominant caste groups. The most pronounced form of segregation is the geographical seclusion of their residential areas from mainstream society.

The Dalits constitute a large but significantly distinct population of India whose cultural experiences are profoundly marked by discrimination and oppression based on caste. Even though they are not a homogenous social category, they are demarcated from the rest of the society by a fault line that runs through the Indian society. This fault line is the notion of ritual purity and pollution that is the ideological base to the structural reality of the caste system, a unique but fundamental organizing principle of Indian society that is closely identified with the orthodox version of Hinduism. With no legitimate place in the caste order and deemed as ritually polluted people by the caste Hindu community, Dalits endure the most inhumane forms of oppression and exploitation.

“Dalit literature is one which acquaints people with the caste system and untouchability in India, it’s appalling nature and its system of exploitation. In other words, Dalit is not a caste but a realization and is related to the experiences, joys and sorrows, and struggles of those in the lowest stratum of society. It matures with a sociological point of view and is related to the principles of negativity, rebellion and loyalty to science, thus finally ending as revolutionary.

Dalit life writing is a genre of Indian texts that emerged first in regional languages, and, in the1990s, in English; the genre situates personal and collective suffering within a larger discourse of human rights. “Dalit,” derived from the Marathi—the predominant language of Maharashtra state—literally means “of the earth” and “that which has been ground down” and now signifies socially oppressed caste groups and tribals. Ironically, these marginalized Dalit peoples constitute a large segment of the population, and have been forced to mobilize themselves in order to fight for rights and justice in postcolonial India. Dalit writing is revolutionary in its aims; the destruction of the caste system and the establishment of equality in the social and political spheres. Dalit critics and writers have raised a number of critical questions about Indian literature and Indian literary history. Alok Mukherjee, a literary theorist and a human rights activist, aptly sumps up the significance of Dalit writing, “Indian literary history and theory as well as the teaching of Indian literatures are spectacularly silent about Dalit literature. Yet, dalit cultural and critical productions make a significant critical intervention in the thinking and writing about Indian society, history, culture and literature.”
He identifies two of the important functions of Dalit writing. Firstly, Dalit writing attempts to deconstruct ‘the dominant, casteiest constructions of India identity’ and secondly’ it constructs a distinct Dalit identity.’ Dalit writing presents a dalit centric view of life and constructs Dalit identity in relation to Colonial identity and Indian identity.

The reading and writing of Dalit literature is mostly passionately autobiographical involving the search for the self or identity. Each individual writer makes it her/his privilege to write the stories of their community in the stories of their own. By means of writing these writers break the silence of Dalit community. They as an individual writer articulated or gave voice to Dalit experience which until now was hidden, repressed and secreted. These writings are not just about finding voice but also about finding voice but also about revelation of the most inner life of a community in a public or a kind of confession or a scandal. Their task as a writer is to transform voice and silence into literary tropes. The search is not merely sociological one as a search for Dalit community, culture and so on, but it is a philosophical aesthetic search for Dalitness.

Narendra Jadhav is a well-known economist, public speaker and a social worker. He has also served many international assignments with IMF. Outcaste: A Memoir is an adaptation by Narendra Jadhav, from his own Marathi best-seller Amcha Bap Aan Amhi (Our Father and Us). The novel is a multi-layered personalized saga of the social metamorphosis of Dalits in India. At one level, it is a loving tribute from a son to his father. At another, it gives an intelligent appraisal of the caste system in India and traces the story of the awakening of Dalits traversing three generations. At still another level, it is reflective of the aspirations of millions of Dalits in India. The novel forces us to acknowledge the inhumanity and injustice of a social order that treats humans worse than animals. Outcaste captures the life of India’s villages and Bombay’s slums with an anthropologist’s precision and a novelist’s humanity. The story begins in the 1930s when Damu, the protagonist of the story, is continuously addressed as “Mahar” in his ancestral village in Western Maharashtra where caste determined one’s destiny. Damu, refused to comply with the conventional casteist codes prescribed by society and religion.

The politically conscious of untouchables began to feel that they were being used by caste Hindu leaders and the Congress party. Thus, under Ambedkar’s leadership and initiative the untouchables began to call themselves ‘Dalits’ they aspired to take the leadership of anti-caste movements into their fold without letting either Hinduism or the Congress party meddle with their affairs. This process of shifting the leadership was easier said than done; so Ambedkar followed a strategy of initiating the Dalits into politics and activism through education and awareness. The followers were, of course, driven by passion and fervour for revolution but they also knew they were doing and why unlike the communist, Ambedkar followed a more or less pacifist approach by giving the Dalits time and patience to digest the radical ideas.

Influenced by Dr. Ambedkar’s teachings, Damu stood against the Police and the caste system. Damu was not born a leader, nor did he ever become one. But he had one exception—he chose to rebel against the prevailing caste system and create his own destiny. An intelligent man, with no formal education, he worked hard to be allowed to live with dignity. In his Author’s note, Jadhav, describes Damu as, “Damu was not a leader…but he refused to define himself by circumstances and aimed at shaping his own destiny.” or, “Damu had no formal education …yet he steered his children to educational heights and inculcated in them the spirit of excellence.”, or “Damu was not a guru…but he taught his children to believe in themselves and retain human dignity.”, or “Damu was often humbled. Yet he maintained, goats are special offerings, not lions” or “Damu was an ordinary man, they said …..but he did an extraordinary thing; he stood up against the tyranny of the caste system”. (pp. xi-xii).

‘Outcaste’ is a compelling story of a Dalit family and their subsequent transformation and the novel also chronicle Dalit history. Ambedkar’s philosophy, a major influence on Damu, has been brought in extensively in the novel but without disturbing the thread of the tale. Unlike the accounts given by sociologists and political scientist, the book has meticulously kept track of the common man’s response to each political or social development. It hardly tries to theorize or profess any ideology directly but it shows how even an illiterate like Damu was able to imbibe the essence of Ambedkarism and the rationale behind conversion. Gandhiji and Babasaheb were two towering personalities who could understand the pulse of India through both belonged to different schools of thought. The political and ideological conflict between the two was a much talked about issue in independent India. While Gandhiji offered sympathy and support Ambedkar exhorted them to rise and shine wherever they are. The Gandhi-Babasaheb conflict strikes the readers as the central event happening in the background of Damu’s quest for identity. Ambedkar wanted to break away from the prevailing hegemonic religious and political system which hardly gave a platform for the Dalits to voice themselves. The Dalits chose to support Babasaheb because they could relate to him better than anyone else in the Indian political scenario. Ambedkar felt that Untouchables have to fight their own battle and if others are concerned about them then such a concern has to be expressed in helping them to fight rather than prescribing solutions to them’.

Written in the first person, at times from the perspective of Narendra Jadhavs parents, Damu and Sonu, and at other times from his own the book traces the extraordinary voyage of Damu from a small village at Ozar in Maharashtra to the city of Mumbai to escape persecution. It was a journey that brought back his dignity and “touchability”. In the city, he earned respect in various jobs, despite being a low-caste and an illiterate. The caste differences are not so rigid in the cities and urban areas as they in the villages and suburbs. Right at the beginning Damu acknowledges that ‘the city had brought touch ability to his life’ (pp. 6).While people in the village kept him and his community at bay even while offering them food, the Gorasaheb in the city treated him like a human being with respect. He even doubted whether the Saheb knew that he was an untouchable (pp. 92). It was life in Mumbai which made him aware of his right to existence as a dignified being and introduced him to Babasaheb’s movement.

His uncompromising spirit inspired his wife who realized that their emancipation could be possible only through the pursuit of academic excellence. Outcaste is also the story of Sonabai, the author’s mother. Her innocence as a pre-pubescent bride and horrified reluctance to give up her old and trusted gods for the unknown Buddha are instances of an ordinary Dalit woman’s experiences. In the book, Sonu’s story alternates with that of Damu’s. Damu is one of the few assertive, independent Dalit characters in Indian writing in English. In the opening pages of Outcaste, the readers read Damu doing his yeskar duties (village duties to Mahars) in his native village, Ozar. Damu is forced to run in front of the Mamledar, senior revenue official, announcing his arrival. Later, Damu is asked to guard the dead body of a woman found floating in the well. He was not allowed to go home to inform his wife and also to have his food. He was abused, insulted and forced to stay near the well the entire night. The next morning Fauzdar (a police officer) arrived and asked Damu to get into the well to draw the corpse out. Damu refused to do so under the pretext that he was not supposed to touch the dead body of an upper caste woman. The author declares: “The caste system is so deeply ingrained that change can, at best, be cosmetic. The caste system was disposed by God and not by mortals. It has such a powerful sanction behind it that no laws, no reform movements, and no revolutions will ever change it completely.” Damu was beaten up by the Fauzdar for refusing to obey his orders. He was stubborn and determined. He speaks out, “…Inspite of these inhuman traditions, I am not going to abide by such traditions. I am a man of dignity and I will not go from house to house begging for Baluta. What are all of you going to do? Kill me?”.(pp.10)

Change, however, does take place, in Damu’s life. He decides to leave his village that very night. He runs away along with his wife Sonu to Mumbai, “Together, they started walking towards freedom”. In Mumbai Damu struggled hard, as the author narrates, to survive through the Great depression in the 1930s. He worked in the Railways, the Port Trust and some textile mills to earn his living in Mumbai. Inspired by Ambedkar’s call for Dalit emancipation, Damu participated in Dalit movement. He actively involved himself in the Nasik Temple Entry Movement in 1930, in Mahad Satyagraha in 1927, in the Buddhist conversion movement in 1956, Ambedkar’s funeral procession and other activities of the Dalits. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s teachings have a profound effect on Damu and Sonu and they begin to develop a sense of self—“Truly, we sensed a change in the way we carried ourselves. We proudly proclaimed ourselves Dalits, with our chin up, and we looked everyone in the eye. We began to lose our former servility, associated with being born in low caste”. They inculcated in their children an ambition to succeed in life through education and hard work. Damu refused to be cowed down by all the odds in his life. He always declared himself as the master of his own will. Throughout the narrative runs the slogan coined by Dr. Ambedkar “Educate, Unite and Agitate”. Damu and his wife educate their children to the best of their abilities. He even tried to educate his wife Sonu, something that was unheard of in those times. Fortunately, the children all fulfil his aspirations and rise to high positions in their chosen careers, a great triumph for a man who has devoted his life to bettering their prospects.

Outcaste is more than a mere personal account of the caste divide in India. It examines the Dalit awakening spearheaded by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the Independence movement, the Civil Disobedience Movement, Gandhiji’s relation with Ambedkar, the mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism in 1956, and caste in its current reality. One can find Ambedkar’s call for the Dalits to “Educate, Unite and Agitate” as a recurrent theme in the book. Outcaste is the first book to portray Ambedkar as a character in its story. There is also a long note at the end of Outcaste on untouchability, the caste system and Dr. Ambedkar. Dr. Jadhav has wisely retained many Marathi words in the text, thus retaining the essence of the story intact. Personal anecdotes keep the book lively and easily readable. The book ends with a note of self-realization that in modern India dignity rests in the minds and hearts of people, and that archaic prejudices do not really matter. ‘Outcaste’ thus gives an interpretation of caste, which is astonishingly different and enlightening. This remarkable book achieves something altogether unprecedented: it gives voice to India’s voiceless. Jadhav tells the awe-inspiring story of his family’s struggle for equality and justice in India. While most Dalits had accepted their lowly position as fate, Jadhav’s father rebelled against the oppressive caste system and fought against all odds to forge for his children a destiny that was never ordained. Based on his father’s diaries and family stories, Jadhav has written the triumphant story of his parents — their great love, unwavering courage, and eventual victory in the struggle to free themselves and their children from the caste system. Jadhav vividly brings his parents’ world to light and unflinchingly documents the life of untouchables — the hunger, the cruel humiliations, the perpetual fear and brutal abuse. Compelling and deeply compassionate, “Outcaste” is a son’s tribute to his parents, an illuminating chronicle of one of the most important moments in Indian history, and an eye-opening work of nonfiction that gives readers access and insight into the lives of India’s 165 million Dalits, whose struggle for equality continues even today.

In this Memoir, the author examines the issues, which are so deep and penetrating in a manner, which is poignant. From one angle, it is an attack on the social structure of Hindu society. If this novel is studied in another angle, it is a call made to unite all the oppressed and humiliated people to empower themselves by devoting themselves to education and finally to stand as one nation of brotherhood to fight against tyranny, subjugation, slavery, oppression. The book ends with a self-realization that obsolete prejudices do not matter if human beings retain their self-dignity.


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