About the Book
The first dalit autobiography in Punjabi to appear in English, ‘Changiya Rukh’ means a tree lopped from the top, slashed and dwarfed. Balbir Madopuri uses it as a metaphor for the dalit robbed by a tradition that places every sixth Indian beyond touchability. Significantly, by bringing forth fresh branches and leaves, the lopped tree proves its innate worth through defiant resilience.
Set in the village of Madhopur in Punjab, the work leads most centrally to the question of how a man conducts himself among people who either do not understand him or would like to see him in the slush where they think he belongs. Madhopuri’s vision is both melancholy and honest as he captures and sensitively portrays the plight of his community despite all constitutional and legislative measures. But in the end, this real life story of a dalit’s rise from bonded labourhood to the editorship of a socio-economic journal is one of triumph of resistance, of achievement, and of hope.
Perceptively introduced and contextualized by Harish Puri, this book will appeal to students and teachers of caste studies, Indian literature in translation, comparative literature, and translation studies.
Balbir Madhopuri is Deputy Director (News), All India Radio. He is in charge of Punjabi publications (Ministry of information & Braodcasting ), and Editor, Yojana, published by the same department.
The writing of my autobiography was not something of an epiphany. The idea did not even occur to me. Its origin lay in something direct, natural, and simple. On reading an excerpt of Sheoraj Singh’s autobiography in a Hindi magazine, I remarked to my friend, the dalit-thinker, S.S.Gautam, ‘There is neither any remarkable content in this nor ideology. My family has faced far more difficult situations.’ ‘If you can write better than this, then do it,’ he answered tersely. I felt somewhat abashed. Off and on, he reminded me, ‘What? When are you going to write?’ Then one day I wrote ‘My Daadi – a History’ for Bhapa Pritam Singh’s publication. He cleared his table to publish my piece in the December 1997 issue. ‘Write your autobiography. I will publish it,’ he said. Within the next few days, I was flooded with complementary phone calls and messages, and Ajit Kaur commended my point of view in an interview on Doordarshan.
As I unravelled myself and held conversations with myself, I found I was writing the autobiography of my community. It was no longer just my story.
There were many discouraging questions and remarks as well; not the least of which was that an autobiography is somehow considered less than top-class literature.
It look me four years to complete my autobiography. My language and our lifestyles, characters and incidents described are all true, as are the names. The essence of this work is to explain the dalit heritage and culture to contemporary India and to the future, and to both depict the poverty amongst the dalits and expose the cruel reality of the oppression they suffer at every step. I steadfastly held in my mind’s eye the events and problems of grave socio-economic significance, in order to portray them without bias or sentimentally. I think of the times when only chattala, a low-quality fodder was available. Then came berseem. Red rice has since been replaced by many varieties of white rice. There have also been great changes in the quality of cotton, wheat, and other crops; even deserts have blossomed. But has the life of peasant India or the urban poor changed?
I sometimes feel that the most a writer like myself can do is to place a stone on the foundation of the edifice of a new society which is yet to come into existence. Dr B.R.Ambedkar’s writings inspired me in the preparation of this work, the object of which is to spread the message of socio-economic equality and human rights in line with the vision of ‘Begampura’ by Guru Ravidas.
It is my moral responsibility to thank every person who ever supported my enterprise whole-heartedly: its language, dialect, and point of view. I have no words to express my gratitude to, and regard for, Tripti Jain for her excellent translation, her humanity, and cooperation. For selecting my autobiography to be translated into English and for her skilful editing and dedication, I thank Mini Krishnan. I am grateful to Dr Harish Puri for his comprehensive introduction and to Dr Ronki Ram for his valuable suggestions.
Changiya Rukh means a tree lopped from the top, slashed and dwarfed. As the title of his autobiography, Balbir Madhopuri has used it as a metaphor for the dalit or an ‘untouchable’ Indian whose potential for growth has been ‘robbed by the Hindu social order’.
Leafless trees look like my kin, my brothers and sisters … When they start growing, their heads are cut mercilessly; the arms and feet are chopped, like branches hacked down. As such thoughts came to mind, the third or fourth part of the slashed tree would take the shape of my father, uncles, and their sons.
Significantly, the lopped tree also denotes its inherent and defiant resilience that brings forth fresh shoots of branches and leaves. Written originally in Punjabi, Madhopuri’s autobiography is the story of a dalit’s angst of deprivation, social exclusion, and humiliation, as well as of resistance, achievement, and hope. The subjective narrative of a dalit writer tends to universalize the caste-based experience of his community. Indeed, it goes further and resonates with numerous Black American autobiographies. No wonder that when Martin Luther King was reminded of his social status, during his visit to India in 1958, while in Kerala, he hastened to declare, ‘Yes, I am an untouchable, every Negro in the United States is an untouchable.’ Though the burden of being a dalit in India may be different from that of a Black in America, there is much in common in their real-life experience of pain and humiliation, as also in the purpose and process of autobiography writing. As far as deprivation of land rights and ostracization go, there are echoes between the Aborigines in Australia and dalits in India.
Born in 1955 in the Ad Dharmi caste, a category of the Chamar caste of ex-untouchables, Madhopuri is a Punjabi poet, with two collections of poems, Maroothal da Birkh (Tree of the Desert, 1998) and Bhakhda Pataal (The Smouldering Netherworld, 1992). Presently working as a civil servant with the Government of India and serving as the editor of the Punjabi edition of the monthly magazine, Yojana, he has also translated a number of novels from English into Punjabi, in addition to a pictorial book on the monuments of Delhi. It was his autobiography, Changiya Rukh, however, having gone through five reprints in the last six years, and subsequently translated into Hindi, which brought him recognition in the literary world. Through this translation, Changiya Rukh will be the first Punjabi dalit autobiography to appear in English.
Madhopuri’s education and his association with progressive writers and the Communist Party of India (CPI) enabled him to view things in a broader ideological perspective. But he was troubled by questions such as, why these same progressive intellectuals had silently watched the brutality against dalits in our society for so long; why they had failed to overcome their upper caste arrogance in their dealings with low caste comrades; and why were mainstream Punjabi writers so blatantly indifferent to dalit history? As an educated dalit, he realized that dalits should start telling their own stories. Any recollection of the past by a dalit who had progressed in life and moved out of his village was bound to be a painful exercise. ‘Believe me,’ he writes, ‘as I read again what I had myself written about many of the actual events of my life, my eyes blurred and I felt choked.’ Much of what the reader finds in the misery and suffering in Madhopuri’s recollections of his childhood was probably the fate of poorest families of small farmers, artisans, and landless labourers in India’s villages- whether dalit or non-dalit. But the social exclusion and insult of being treated as unclean and polluted, on grounds of birth, was a kind of emotional violence reserved for dalits. This autobiography, therefore, is also a strong critique of caste and ‘untouchability’. What strikes the reader, however, is the author’s poise and ability to narrate his story without sentimentality or hatred towards his tormentors.
The Context of India
There are nearly 170 million dalits in India. This means that one in every six Indians is a dalit. The term dalit, first used by B.R.Ambedkar, is a Marathi word derived from the Sanskrit, and means ground-down, downtrodden, broken, or oppressed. It is an emotive term used to denote the former ‘untouchables’. Eleanor Zelliot pointed out that, ‘The term is one of pride- untouchables have been oppressed by others’ (Anand and Zelliot 1992: 1). In the traditional caste hierarchy, the ritual status of those at the bottom of the pyramid was that of physical ‘impurity’, as against the ‘purity’ of the upper castes. In theory, ‘untouchability’ was abolished at India’s Independence, and its practice in any form became a criminal offence. All such caste communities, numbering more than 750 at present, according to the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI), came to be termed as ‘Scheduled Castes’ for the purpose of a variety of constitutional and legal protections and affirmative action by the state. B R Ambedkar used a number of alternative terms- untouchables, depressed classed, exterior castes, and dalit- according to the context. Mahatma Gandhi’s description of these people as Harijans (children of god), also remained in currency until the late 1970s. For Gandhi, removal of untouchability from the minds of Hindu upper castes was a question of social morality. Since the rise of a militant dalit Panther movement in Maharashtra in the early 1970s, the term dalit has come to replace the term Harijan, as an ideological alternative to the legal term, ‘Scheduled Castes’. At the local level, however, most dalits tend to identify themselves as belonging to their particular jati such as Chamar, Jatav, Mahar, Mang, Mala, Madiga, Pallar, Parayar, Namsudra, Valmiki, etc. In their own communities, they maintain their own hierarchy which prohibits the acceptance and exchange of water and food (Singh 1995: 11).
Four out of every five dalits who live in the villages of India are landless. They are the real face of India’s notorious and endemic poverty. A glance into an office, a college, or a railway compartment will afford no signals about who belongs to what caste, but within minutes of one’s arrival in an Indian village, the caste divisions and labels will be quite stark. All the unclean and degrading, exhausting tasks are usually assigned to the dalits. Despite the abolition of untouchability six decades ago, the imposition of a variety of social disabilities on persons, for reasons of their birth into particular castes, remains a part of social reality in rural India. This social exclusion affects not only their outward lives but also their inner worlds. The practice of caste-based exclusion and discrimination was a plan to block access not only to economic but also to civil, cultural, and political rights, and has been rightly described as a ‘living mode exclusion’. While varying from region to region in India, the prejudice against the castes stigmatized as untouchables continues to remain deeply embedded.
The highest concentration of dalits is in Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s largest state, known for electing a dalit as its chief minister for the fourth time. Yet the dalits have been the target of obnoxious human rights violations, caste atrocities, social boycotts, and police abuse. Amazingly, even the judiciary was not immune to caste prejudice. In 1998, a judge of Allahabad High Court ordered his chambers to be ‘purified with Ganga Jal’ )’water from the “holy” river Ganges’) because its former occupant was a dalit Judge. There is a huge gap between the moral values inscribed in laws and institutions of governance and social practice. Under the impact of liberalization when there has been a retreat of the state from its constitutional moral commitments, and when civil society, yielding to consumerism and self-gratification, appears to make a mockery of public good, dalits continue to feel deprived and apprehensive about the future.
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