Tuesday, March 6, 2012

[ZESTCaste] A story that has not been told


March 3, 2012
A story that has not been told

My Father Baliah by Y.B. Satyanarayana.
Special Arrangement My Father Baliah by Y.B. Satyanarayana.

A powerful and poignant book on what it means to be a dalit in pre and
post-Independence India.

A tall man, walking away from his village with a heavy heart, his
wife's body tied to his back, and almost dragging a little boy, his
son, in a chilly evening drizzle, towards a distant stream….It was a
small village that he was walking helplessly away from; his three-year
old son weeping aloud as he, half naked, followed his father in the
gloomy evening. The village was Vangapalli, in the Karimnagar district
of Telengana, the native village of the man. The man with the dead
body on his back came from the Harijanwada, the untouchable dwellings
in the village. He walked fast so that he could reach the banks of the
stream before dark. He was powered by the thought that he had to dig a
grave to bury his wife and that he had to do it all by himself.

Thus begins Y.B Satyanarayana's absorbing "family biography" My Father
Baliah. The book, rooted in the Telengana dalit madiga experience, may
be written in English. Yet, the world that is presented to us is far
removed from the urban, upper-class English-speaking world. In style
as well as in substance. For not only does Satyanarayana dwell
powerfully and poignantly on what it means to be a dalit in pre and
post-independence India, he does so by altogether eschewing a
narrative of individual success. By choosing to embed individual
stories in three generations of family history, Satyanarayana deftly
and gracefully gives credit where it is due, resisting the temptation
of turning this into a narrative about any one individual or the self.
His own journey has been a long and difficult one and yet this is not
the story he focuses on.

Spotlight on family

At the emotional heart of this narrative, is that simple and yet
increasingly rare sentiment of gratitude. It is interesting too that
while Ambedkar is mentioned, the author chooses to highlight the
familial sphere as central to his growth and formation. The spotlight
is not on the broader dalit political movement but on the struggles
and sacrifices of the narrator's family – his father Ramaswamy alias
Baliah, his mother Narasamma, his brothers Balraj and Abbasayalu and
his sister Bachamma (who, despite having had to drop out of school
herself, monitors the education of her brothers). It is the history of
a people told by other means, told charmingly and with great honesty
and reads like a tribute to them.

As Satyanarayana presents it, the struggles of his family – the
Yelukatis - are not entirely joyless. The family is one of many dalit
beneficiaries of the British railway system. The railways represent a
relatively caste-free space, a space which holds out the possibility
of growth. In the railway colony, caste is markedly less-pronounced
even though it does not entirely disappear. For one thing, the
employees live side by side – the sudras beside the untouchables –
something that would be unthinkable in the village. The colony also
has schools for the children of the employees.

As with many other dalit autobiographies, the raw material is
compelling, the depth of experience is unbeatable. The narrative makes
visible what would otherwise remain unnoticed, unremarked upon. The
work undertaken by railway gangmen and pointers, mostly untouchables,
is one example. Every now and then, Satyanarayana gives us a quick
glimpse into their world. Once when a train hits a cow, it is a madiga
pointsman who skins the dead animal. The meat is then distributed
amongst all the untouchables.

Caste follows the Yelukati family wherever they go, though its
intensity varies somewhat. It follows Satyanarayana through school,
through college and later through his career. He fights back with
grace. While Baliah accepts caste-based practices as sociological
fact, he is aware that the most important thing in the world is the
preservation of self-respect. This despite the fact that he has never
read Ambedkar. Baliah's dogged belief in the value of education and
the lengths to which he is willing to go so his sons are able to get a
post-graduate degree is simply yet movingly narrated.

In a growing line of dalit narratives, My Father Baliah is significant
also because of its specificity – its documentation of caste and the
dalit Madiga experience in the Telengana region.

My Father Baliah; Y.B. Satyanarayana, HarperCollins, Rs. 299.


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