Editor’s note: Under the norms of the caste system, Dalits were denied the pen. Before the advent of Dalit literature in India, much of Dalit history was oral in nature. Their lives were not available to them in written form, and even when available, it was a depiction by those who had no experiential connection with Dalits.
It was Dr BR Ambedkar who stressed on literary assertion as a means to struggle against the caste system. Thus began the ceaseless movement of literary assertion by Dalits, who went on to write powerful stories about their lives. It marked a resurrection of their experiential world, which had been appropriated by the pens of Savarnas.
Poems, stories, novels, biographies, autobiographies produced by Dalits established a new body of literature in which, for the first time, the downtrodden took centrestage. People who had been denied what humanity considers the ‘basics’, started to transform the lives of others like them, through the written word.
As this movement of literary assertion by Dalits grew stronger, the unseen side of India — the side that is brutal and inhumane — became visible to the world. Maharashtra was at the forefront of this revolution that has, over the last six decades, helped transform the worldview about Dalit lives. Almost all of the writers who shaped the early theoretical discourse of Dalit literature were from Maharashtra and in this series, we revisit the lives and works of 10 distinguished Dalit writers from the state — and their impact on the literary world.
In this third column, we look at the literary legacy of Baburao Bagul.
Those who by mistake were born here
Should themselves correct this error
By leaving the country! Or making war!
— Baburao Bagul
It was the winter of 2014 in Nagpur, and I was reading English Literature for my Bachelor’s degree. Until then, all the short stories I’d read had been restricted to those of Brahmin and upper caste authors, who wrote in English. Then, Dr Prakash Kharat, a writer of compelling Marathi short stories, introduced me to short stories written by Dalits in Maharashtra. He told me about Baburao Bagul and gave me one of Bagul’s early short story collections, Jevva Mi Jaat Chorali (When I had Concealed my Caste; 1963). The book was old, the pages yellowed and torn. Dr Kharat told me, “Get a copy made and return the book to me; it’s a rare one.”
Unlike my previous experiences of reading short stories in English, Bagul’s words made me feel unsettled and discomfited — yet there was a sense of belonging in my heart. It’s a rare feeling when someone makes you feel uncomfortable, and yet close, to his/her words. Perhaps it is because the writer in them does not live in imagination but in the world of you — brutal and merciless yet hopeful; as a reader, you cannot dig in, but wish to swim across. My first reaction after reading Bagul’s stories was: I know these people, I have seen them and I do not want to revisit them, as theirs is a world of suffering. But the greatest insight that Bagul offered me through his stories was the revelation of the source of that brutality, that suffering: the caste system. The greatest strength of his stories was that his protagonists always had an identity, and the ability to rebel. And Bagul’s gift to the world of literature — especially Dalit literature — was that he provided the theory to their anger, rage, restlessness, compassion, hope and vision of life, caught amid the inhumane, chaotic circumstances of the caste system .
Bagul was born in Nasik on 17 July 1930, the period during which Babasaheb Ambedkar’s anti-caste movement was gaining momentum; it was the same year in which Ambedkar led a famous protest in Nasik in front of the Kalaram Temple. In 1963, when Bagul’s magnum-opus, Jevva Mi Jaat Chorali, was published and fell like a bomb on the Marathi Brahminical literary circle, Shankarrao Kharat, Anna Bhau Sathe and Bandhu Madhav (a pseudonym of a Dalit PSI), were writing short stories about Dalit lives that were widely read. Contrary to their writing styles and narrative approaches, Bagul’s depiction of people in his stories was harsh, passionate, vigorous, and full of hope to persuade (them to) rebel in life. This was also the time when Brahmin critics of Dalit literature did not give much importance to it.
Bagul’s appearance on the literary scene was a breakthrough: not only did he challenge the prejudiced views of Brahmin writers on Dalit literature but he also consequently provided a theory to the narratives of Dalit writers. His second short story collection, Maran Swast Hote Aahe (1969; Death Is Becoming Cheaper) is another seminal work that secured his position as one of the greatest writers in the language of Marathi. The tone of stories in this collection was that of terror as readers were introduced to the harshness of lives around them. It was the world of destitutes, women in brothels, goons, beggars, slum dwellers that Bagul explored, depicted, and captured in his words. Unlike Manto, who came from the ‘outside’, and lived in (then) Bombay for a while and wrote about the people here, Bagul has shared his life with them, was one of them. This is why you may not like his protagonists, as they are merciless visionaries. But you also cannot ignore them as they introduce you the barbarism of caste in your society. Bagul’s characters so powerfully inject the reality of caste society in your heart as you read about them, that you cannot remain silent within.
Toni Morrison brilliantly explained the conscience of a Black writer within her when she said, “My vulnerability would lie in romanticising blackness rather than demonising it; vilifying whiteness rather than reifying it.” Bagul seems to us, through his stories, to have achieved this splendour of conscience that Morrison is talking about, in which we — as readers across castes — neither like nor hate his characters (brutish and compassionate at the same time) as they stand in front of us like a mirror in which our caste inheritance is clearly visible to us. It is because his characters do not romanticise casteism but demonise it and then so sharply communicate that demonisation to us that it appears to us as ours. One of the stories from Death Is Becoming Cheaper is Kavitecha Janma (The Birth of Poetry), the remarkable illustration of a Dalit man who wants to pursue a life of the mind but is caught amid material infatuations and family ties. Neither can he avoid them nor does he want to be swayed by them. The story symbolises the entire dilemma of a Dalit youth of that time who wanted to live the life of the mind as they were fully aware of the past and aspired to create a new future for themselves and their generations. In the story, despite being caught amid the horrible domestic situation, the protagonist still aspired to be Kabir.
Baburao Bagul as a man, writer, and poet was a visionary. Not only did he realise the need to get rid of casteist attitudes but he dreamt of discovering that human being who had been lost and mutilated by the caste society. He did that in his stories. Veda Aadhi Tu Hotas (You Were There Before Vedas) was a poem by Bagul that for many people in Maharashtra, scholars and writers alike, is the anthem of human beings, a theory that we need to rediscover the human within us. I saw this poem, framed and placed in many houses, offices in Maharashtra. Such was the greatness and strength of the verses.
Here it is:
You lived before the birth of the Vedas
even before the birth of the Almighty
looking at the frightening material world
pained and anxious
you raised your hands and prayed
those prayers went to make the Vedic verse,
it is you who celebrated the birth of all gods, and
named them happily
oh the mighty humans, you named the sun
and the sun got its identity,
you named the moon
and the moon got its fame
only you gave a name to this world
and it was accepted with honour
oh the creative, the genius humans,
you are the cause
because of you so beautiful, so lively is the world.
Yogesh Maitreya is a poet and translator. He is the founder of Panther’s Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.