My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Baluta is a collection of memories. Memories of a life trapped in the fetters of India’s social structures. The frustration and helplessness of being born a Dalit, and the inner conflict that roils in the writer’s mind as a result of his education, something he thought would be the means to an escape from his downtrodden life, but ends up being the agent of his lifelong distress. At one point, feeling ashamed of living off his old mother’s earnings despite being educated, he says
“What was her work? The hardscrabble of collecting and selling paper? What dignity did society offer her for her labour? The question of dignity had been put into my head by my education. no one around me seemed much concerned by it. When you don’t know that you’re supposed to be unhappy, you can chug along quite well; only I was being hollowed out from within, as a tree by termites.”
The blurb on the book’s back cover describes how the book, when it was first published in 1978, hit upper caste readers and critics between the eyes, with its graphic and candid narrative, holding nothing back. But as I read the book, I realised that even though I sympathised with Pawar’s condition, the details of his plight did not “hit me hard”, and his story did not emotionally move me.
I wondered what that said about me or us as a society living with the privilege of not being born Dalit. Are we so far removed from the oppression of the caste system that we fail to acknowledge or recognise the realities of those who never had a choice in the matter? Or are we so overexposed to these inequalities that it has taken on a normalcy to the extent that we have become numb to its existence? Or is it just an inconvenient truth that we’d rather not deal with until it affects us directly.
I don’t think there is any foreseeable solution to the deeply entrenched and prevailing caste system in India anytime soon; there are too many vested interests and power dynamics that won’t allow it to end. But I do think that books like these have an important role to play, because they force us to see what we’d rather not and compel us to ask ourselves some difficult questions that might in some small way change how we operate in our more privileged lives and contexts, and not contribute to the existing caste divisions and prejudices.