Dalit short stories and the rugged terrain of casteism
There can be little doubt that the caste system has contributed significantly to creating a tiny elite and to marginalizing the majority. The caste system and its implications for society have found expression in literature. Dalit Literature contends that even in the 21st century, the upper castes have not shed casteism. The Dalit litterateurs have used every intellectual tool in their possession to expose the monstrosities of the caste system. However, the question of caste was missing from the “Nai Kahani” movement, which was focused on the aspirations, the desires and the pains of the middle class. The credit for social mobilization against the caste system must largely go to Dalit Literature. This series dwells on short stories by leading Dalit writers which explore social discrimination and a casteist mindset. The first part looks at Om Prakash Valmiki’s short stories:
Om Prakash Valmiki (30 June 1950 – 17 November 2013) was an exceptional exponent of Dalit Literature. He published three anthologies of short stories – Salam (2000), Ghuspaithiye (2003) and Chhatri (2013). The ugliness of the caste system and advocacy of Dalit rights are the central themes of his works. Salam, Ghuspaithiye, Yah Ant Nahin, Main Brahman Nahin Hoon, Dinesh Jatav Urf Digdarshan and Brahmastra brutally expose the mentality that pervades the caste system and actuates its patrons.
As a fiction writer, Om Prakash Valmiki delves deep into the caste system, exploring it minutely and analyzing the factors sustaining it. His short stories underline that the elite in society have failed to break free from the shackles of caste even in this 21st century. Caste and Varna have not only divided people but have also pushed a substantial section and women in general, to the lowest rungs of the societal pyramid, depriving them of their basic rights and even denying them the status of human beings. Salam explores the collusion of casteism and feudalism. While the caste system is responsible for Dalits being denied their basic rights, feudalism is behind their oppression and exploitation. The dominant class has crafted norms and traditions that enable them to humiliate Dalits publicly. The feudal forces have been interfering with the social and cultural space of the Dalits and controlling them.
Salam bares the inhumanity and brutality that casteism spawns. Kamal Upadhaya travels from a city to a village to attend the wedding of his friend Harish, who happens to be a Bhangi. Harish’s wedding contingent (barat) travels to a village where casteism and feudal arrogance are the norm. Early in the morning, Kamal goes to a shop for a cup of tea. His attire catches the attention of the tea seller, an old man, who asks him whether he is an outsider. Kamal replies that he is part of the wedding contingent that has come from Dehradun the previous day. “But that ‘barat’ has come to a Chuhad home. You must also be Chuhda or Bhangi, we don’t serve tea to them,” the tea seller says. Kamal tells him that he is a Brahmin but the old man is not convinced. The tea seller exemplifies what the poison of casteism spread by Hindutva forces has done to the people.
But Salam does not stop at exposing the inhuman face of casteism. It also militates against the traditions and taboos born of the caste system. Tradition says that before leaving the village with his bride, the Dalit groom has to go to the Savarna homes to offer his salutations. The protagonist, Harish, refuses to adhere to this humiliating tradition called “Salam”. The savarnas mount pressure on the bride’s father to make Harish fall in line. They want no threat to their dominance. But Harish, who is enlightened, doesn’t budge.
Valmiki’s short stories spring from the real-life experiences of various sections of society and that is why they are miles away from clichéd formulae. His short stories focus on aspects of Dalit life that are overlooked by the big names of Hindi literature. By and large, Hindi fiction has made light of the caste question. Dalit authors, however, have dealt with caste in all seriousness and built a discourse against it. The short story Brahmastra has its fingers on the pulse of the caste system and its sustaining force – Brahmanism.
Arvind Naithani, a Brahmin, and Kanwal Kumar, a Dalit, are friends. Arvind invites Kanwal Kumar to join his barat. No sooner has Kanwal set his foot in the bus Madhav Prasad Bhatt than the village priest objects to his presence. “Who has invited you? This is a barat of the Brahmins. Chuhar-Chamars cannot be part of it. This isn’t the barat of some Dom or Chamar. This is the barat of Naithanis and it is going to the place of highborn Brahmins of Tihri. Doms have no place in it. Go back to your home,” he tells Kanwal. Pandit Madhav Prasad Bhatt represents the forces that block societal change. Such people only deepen the chasm between the high and the low instead of diminishing it. Arvind’s father tries to placate Pandit Madhav Prasad, saying that Kanwal is a very close friend of Arvind and he should be allowed in the barat.
Pandit Madhav Prasad flies off the handle. “Naithani ji, you people have become corrupt … forgetting the tradition of your ancestors, you are befriending these Doms and Chahars. I wish to make it clear that he will not go with the barat …” After lots of arguments and counter-arguments, Pandit Madhav Prasad uses the ultimate weapon – “OK. Let the Dom conduct the wedding ceremony.” The “Brahmastra” leaves Arvind’s father speechless. Arvind continues to assert that he doesn’t believe in caste but he and his father capitulate to the pressure mounted by the priest. What Valmiki is underlining is that even the educated are helpless before the priestly class. Even if the younger generation wants to usher in changes, the priests will have none of it. There are innumerable Pandit Madhav Prasads around us who strengthen the institution of caste by promoting discrimination.
Ghuspaithiye is about casteism in medical schools. Savarna professors and students treat Dalit students with disdain. The Dalits are branded as “quota wallahs” and made fun of. The Savarnas believe that the Dalits admitted under reservation lack the brains. The medical school establishment sees Dalit students as “ghuspaithiye” (infiltrators). The behaviour of his casteist professors and classmates is so cruel that Subhash Sonkar, a brilliant Dalit student, is forced to commit suicide. There might be many deans like Bhagwati Upadhyay in medical schools who, instead of stopping the humiliation and exploitation of Dalit students, encourage it. They don’t want to free their institutions from the vice of casteism. They want to free these medical schools from reservations. Valmiki is concerned that if the campuses of medical schools are not freed from the casteist mindset, many a brilliant Dalit student will be tortured into ending their life.
While Ghuspaithiye raises the issue of casteism in medical schools, Dineshpal Jatav Urf Digdarshan is about casteism in the media. The Fourth Estate is not free from caste-based mobilizations. In fact, casteism is so rampant in media institutions that Dalits simply do not get entry into them. Dineshpal Jatav has to change his name to Digdarshan to get the job of a sub-editor in a media institution. One day, the editor is on leave and he has to select stories for publication. He picks a story related to Dalits for the first page and is sacked for it.
Thus, the characters of Valmiki’s short stories come from all sections of society. His stories bring to the fore the discrimination against Dalits and their exploitation. His Dalit characters are conscious of their rights and resist exploitation and injustice. These short stories show the author’s deep dislike for Brahmanism and the caste system. This craftsman of short stories is committed to equality. He stands firmly in favour of social justice. That makes him the representative author of the marginalized.
- Valmiki, Om Prakash. (2000). ‘Salam’. New Delhi: Radhakrishna Prakashan
- Valmiki, Om Prakash. (2000). ‘Ghuspaithiye’. New Delhi: Radhakrishna Prakashan
(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)
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