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"Death for Dalits is metaphorical. An 'Untouchable' never existed as a person worthy of respect from society or recognised as a mind. He was simply invisible, except when his labour was extracted, exploited and used for free…"
Water in a Broken Pot is the memoir of Yogesh Maitreya, who is a poet, writer, translator and the founder of Panther’s Paw Publications, which is devoted to publishing literature by Dalit- Bahujan writers. The book chronicles his experiences of pain, loneliness, depravation, alienation, and the growing political consciousness of his caste identity.
Maitreya is a person who refuses to fit in and do what is expected of him. His is a search for self, and for asserting his identity in a system which continues to be casteist and exclusionary.
Throughout the book, the author keeps returning to the idea of stories, and how a casteist society denies Dalits the right to their stories. He says his family history is like a broken pot- many shards are missing, and no matter how hard he tries, the family story will never be fully replicated. He talks about his own memories of growing up- “So I have my own memories… my only clue and bridge to my story…. Memory is the only possession that one can’t take away from a Dalit; otherwise caste-society has the heinous power to make a Dalit forget who they are because they are made to hate themselves.”
During his childhood, he was very close to his father, and they enjoyed watching Bollywood movies. Those were the days of the Angry Young Man, and perhaps his father identified with the hero who was fighting for justice. It was only much later that the author realised that Dalits were invisible in those movies, and that in reality the might of the system was used to crush vocal Dalit voices.
As he grew older, he recognised that his father, like many other Dalits, sought escape in alcohol, and that he took out the frustration of being rendered invisible in the world on his wife. The author’s struggle is to be different from his father- to carve his own identity and to ensure that his voice was heard.
His relationship with women is similarly complex. He has passionate long term relationships with more than one Savarna woman, but in each of them, while the woman is willing to invest emotionally and physically in the relationship, there is a reluctance to take it forward. In each case, she takes adequate precautions to ensure that her family does not know about her relationship with a Dalit man, and caste is perhaps the reason for them breaking up. This is symptomatic of inter-caste relationships in India– very few stand the test of time- and as long as it remains socially unacceptable for a Savarna (or OBC) woman to marry a Dalit man, we cannot claim that caste has no relevance in our lives.
“Non-Dalits may find it unbelievable, but death for Dalits is metaphorical. An ‘Untouchable’ never existed as a person worthy of respect from society or recognised as a mind. He was simply invisible, except when his labour was extracted, exploited and used for free….. Not existing for others, not being recognised by others, is a condition of simply not being extant. It is in this sense that death is metaphorical for Dalits…. Suffice to say, that as long as the caste system will prevail, physical death for Dalits will always remain metaphorical. Their actual death lies in an inability to be in text, or transform into a text as a story, memory and history.”
It is this erasure from history that the author has dedicated his life to fighting.
As a poet, as a writer, as a translator and as a publisher, Yogesh Maitreya is doing all he can to ensure that the dreams, aspirations, and reality of the Dalits is documented. Their search for an identity that will accord them the self respect that they deserve, and which has been denied to them by a society built on caste lines.
Many well-meaning Savarnas believe that the emancipation of Dalits lies in economic prosperity. We recognise that most Dalits do not have access to the education, the role models and the networks that others have access to, and we like to believe that once these inequities are removed, over the course of a few generations, Dalits will no longer remain an oppressed community.
However, Yogesh Maitreya reminds us that the problem is far more deep seated- it is the invisiblization of Dalits that is the problem. Till we start seeing Dalits as equal human beings, and not as units of production, there can never be justice. Dalits deserve to be treated with the same respect as anyone else, and this memoir reminds us that it can only happen with the total annihilation of caste.
Author’s note: I received an ARC of the book, however my review contains my honest opinion.
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Image source: book cover Amazon
Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...
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