Monday, June 24, 2013

Review of 'Joothan- A Dalit's Life' at Shunya

It’s possible that I first reflected on the idea of untouchability only in college, through art house cinema. Even so, upper caste Indian liberals made these films and it was their viewpoint I saw. It is hardly a stretch to say that the way even the most sensitive white liberals in the US knew and described the black experience of America is partly why one had to read Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and other black authors. A similar parallel holds for Native Americans, immigrants, and women, as well as the ‘untouchables,’ now called Dalits (‘the oppressed’), numbering one out of six Indians. In recent years, they have begun to tell their own stories, bearing witness to their slice of life in India. Theirs is not only a powerful new currentof Indian literature, it is also a major site of resistance and revolt. Joothan by Omprakash Valmiki is one such work of Dalit literature, first published in Hindi in 1997 and translated into English by Arun Prabha Mukherjee in 2003. It is a memoir of growing up ‘untouchable’ starting in the 1950s outside a typical village in Uttar Pradesh. Told as a series of piercing vignettes, Joothan is also a remarkable record of a rare Indian journey, one that took a boy from extremely wretched socioeconomic conditions to prominence as an author and social critic.

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