The Prisons We Broke 935287370X, 9789352873708

Writing on the lives of the Mahars of Maharashtra, Baby Kamble reclaims memory to locate Mahar society before the impact

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The Prisons We Broke
 935287370X, 9789352873708

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Baby Kamble lives in Phaltan, a small town in the Satara district of Maharashtra. She is a veteran of the Dalit movement in Maharashtra. Inspired by the radical leadership of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, she has been involved with the struggle from a very young age. She has established a government approved residential school for socially backward students in Nimbure, a small village near Phaltan. She has been honoured with awards for her literary and social work. Collections of her poetry have also been published. Maya Pandit is an activist who is involved with the womens and teachers’ movements in Maharashtra for the last two decades. She has published research papers on issues in the women’s movement as well as education. She has also been associated with the alternative Marathi theatre and has translated Marathi plays into English. She now works as a professor and teacher educator at English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.

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THE PRISONS WE BROKE Orient Blackswan Private Limited Registered Office 3-6-752 Himayatnagar, Hyderabad 500 029 (A.P.), INDIA e-mail: [email protected] Other Offices Bengaluru, Bhopal, Chennai, Ernakulam, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mumbai, New Delhi, Noida, Patna, Vijayawada © Orient Blackswan Private Limited 2008 First Published 2008 Reprinted 2009, 2011, 2014, 2015 eISBN 978-93-86689-10-8 e-edition:First Published 2017 ePUB Conversion: Techastra Solutions Pvt. Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests write to the publisher.

For all my comrades who wish to change the world


Cover Title Page Introduction The Prisons We Broke An Interview with Baby Kamble Afterword Glossary

Acknowledgements It has been my privilege to translate Baby Kamble’s Jina Amucha into English. These memoirs were first serialised in 1984 in Stree, a Marathi women’s magazine, and later published as a book in 1986. The memoirs have been translated into many languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, French and Spanish. It gives me great pleasure to have been able to make this book available to readers of English. Translating these memoirs has not been easy. Baby Kamble uses the dialectal Marathi of the Mahars living around Phaltan—a small town in Satara district of Maharashtra—while writing about the life of her community, and a standard and more formal language for discussing political developments. The dialectal Marathi comes alive with live cadences, subtle humour and varied tonal patterns. I am aware that much of that flavour is probably lost in translation. The last chapter in this translation is an addition and is being published for the first time. Many details of Baby Kamble’s growth as an activist are recorded in this chapter. Another distinctive feature of this work is a long interview with Baby Kamble, where she discusses her personal life and work, and raises many issues related to women and patriarchy, family and violence, problems encountered by Dalit women in the articulation of their experiences and in political struggles. During the course of this translation, I have received help from many quarters. I would especially like to thank K. Satyanarayana for his help in the initial stages of this project and later on for having read the translation; Jayanti Alam, for reading the initial draft of the translation and pointing out many problem areas as well as for her extremely valuable suggestions. The responsibility for any gaps that remain in the final translation are, of course, entirely mine. I would like to thank Malathy Krishnan and Meera Manavi for reading the translation and for their encouragement; Baby Kamble and her family for giving me so much time and making me and Uday feel at home; Uday for being with me throughout and for helping at each stage of this project, including the interview; Nikhil and Neeraj for their invaluable support. I do not know what I would have done without them.

I am grateful to Prakash, Kumari and Nagamani for taking care of the home front. Without them cooking, cleaning and washing, this translation would not have been possible. And, finally, Sivapriya for taking a keen interest in this project. MAYA PANDIT

Introduction Jina Amucha, the Marathi original of The Prisons We Broke, is a milestone in the history of Dalit writing in Marathi. It is probably the first autobiography by a Dalit woman not only in Marathi but in any Indian language. Like most Dalit autobiographies, The Prisons We Broke is an expression of protest against the inhuman conditions of existence to which the Hindu caste system has subjected the Dalits for thousands of years. There exists a long Marathi tradition of protest writing against the caste system. Since the nineteenth century, radical social reformers like Mahatma Phule and Shahu Maharaj had raised their voice against the atrocities of the Brahmin-dominated caste system. It was Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar who provided the intellectual and ideological foundations for a sustained critique of the caste system. Under his leadership, Dalit protest acquired the form and force of a militant, political movement and challenged the very foundation of varnashramadharma—the Brahminical creed that has sanctioned and perpetuated the oppression of Dalits. However, since Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar's mahaparinirvana, the situation changed. The oppositional forces represented by the Dalit movement were sought to be contained, controlled and demobilised by the hegemonic structures of power in political and social spheres. Dalits were concentrated in rural Maharashtra and were largely landless labourers. The Indian National Congress had begun to build a base among the rich and middle-class farmers with the policy of green revolution, which transformed them into modern capitalistic land owners. But needless to say, Dalits were not the beneficiaries of this revolution. Since most of them were landless agricultural labourers, they became the chief target of exploitation. At the same time, the upper castes, smarting under the frontal attacks from Dalits, especially the Mahars who were politically more aware, retaliated with vengeance, and innumerable atrocities were committed against the Dalits. The unholy alliance between feudal forces and the bourgeoisie in the political sphere on the one hand, and between the Brahminical systems of domination and control in the sociocultural sphere on the other hand, tried to whitewash the inequalities and the resultant oppression in society under the garb of the so-called developmental policies. In reality, these policies pushed the already oppressed communities further into desolation, depriving them even of basic resources like water and food. There was a large-scale migration of Dalits

to cities. The Congress lured away many Dalit leaders with a little share in power. At the ideological level, there were attempts to selectively project the pluricultural ethos in terms of a fundamentalist, Brahminical concept of a Hindu nation. There was growing disillusionment among the poor people, especially among the Dalit masses. It was in this atmosphere of coercive suffocation in the 1960s that radical Dalit sensibilities sought to give vent to their frustration and outrage, thus aligning themselves with other revolutionary and radical movements and events taking place around them, such as the Black Panther Party, anti-Vietnam war protests, the Naxalite movement, Left struggles, anti-price rise movement and so on. The establishment of the Dalit Panthers was one of the major happenings in Dalit cultural politics. On the literary scene in Marathi, there was a conscious attempt to challenge the universalist, metaphysical and aesthetic norms that had created a closure in the literary discourse. Little Magazine and the writing produced by the Dalit Panthers rebelled against the established literary, linguistic, formal and cultural conventions, and opened up new horizons of creative articulation to engage with the disease and chaos in the world. Dalit writing bloomed. Poetry (Namdeo Dhasal, Yashwant Manohar), fictional narratives (Baburao Bagul, Arjun Dangle) and autobiography emerged as the dominant forms of articulation. Daya Pawar's Baluta, Pra. Ee. Sonkamble's Athawaninche Pakshi, Madhav Kondvilkar's Mukkam Post Devache Gothane, Shankarrao Kharat's TaralAntaral may be cited as the major Dalit autobiographies written during this period. Baby Kamble’s autobiography The Prisons We Broke is located in this tradition of direct self-assertion. But it also went two steps ahead; it was a head-on confrontation with Brahminical hegemony on the one hand and with patriarchal domination on the other. In one sense it is more of a socio-biography rather than an autobiography. As Baby Kamble states in her interview featured in this translation, it was published almost twenty years after she completed writing it. Yet, it redefined the tradition of autobiographical writing in Marathi in terms of the form, the narrative strategies, the experiential world and the selfhood and subjectivities articulated. The Prisons We Broke is written with a deep-rooted urge to engage with the history of the Mahar community’s oppression. The political edge of such a critical scrutiny comes obviously from the radical, self-assertive politics of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, a major source of inspiration for Baby Kamble, as he is for many radical and Dalit writers in Marathi. Whereas most of the Dalit

autobiographies by men are in a sense written for a mixed readership of Dalit and non-Dalit readers, Baby Kamble asserts that she is writing for her people. In her foreword to the original Marathi autobiography, she asserts, ‘Today, our young educated people are ashamed of being called a Mahar. But what is there to be ashamed of? We are the great race of the Mahars of Maharashtra. We are its real original inhabitants, the sons of the soil. The name of this land is also derived from our name. I love our caste name, Mahar—it flows in my veins, in my blood, and reminds me of our terrific struggle for truth.’ Baby Kamble’s engagement is with the history of Dalit oppression. She does not try to glorify the life of the Dalit community, rather she explicitly states that her intention is to subject the life of her community to critical scrutiny in order to demonstrate how Brahminical domination had turned the Mahars into slaves, forcing them to live in conditions worse than animals. ‘I have described in this book the details of the life of our community as I have experienced it during the last fifty years. The readers should not feel ashamed of this history. I have tried to sketch a portrait of the actual life of the Mahars and the indignities they were subjected to. I am writing this history for my sons, daughters, daughters-in-law and my grandchildren to show them how the community suffered because of the chains of slavery and so that they realise what ordeals of fire the Mahars have passed through. I also want to show them what the great soul Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar single-handedly achieved which no one else had achieved in ages.’ Obviously, the fire of emancipatory struggle characterises this recasting of history. Memory becomes a device to inculcate the urge for resistance in future generations. It also serves the purpose of bringing to book the Hindu caste system as the perpetrator of heinous crimes against humanity. During the course of the narration, Baby Kamble brings alive a world that is constituted by 'difference in location'. The difference is not only in terms of geography. Her world is physically located on the margins of the village and also on the margins of the 'social imaginary,' it is at once alienating and alienated by being cut off from the village as unclean, impure, polluting and untouchable. The customs, rituals, rites, festivals and the jatras that she describes are indeed a source of unexplored treasure for a sociologist, as Maxine Berntson has stated in her brief introduction to the Marathi edition. But more than that, they represent the composite apparatus of Brahminical dominance perpetrated through superstitions, illiteracy, ignorance and oppressive practices.

Baby Kamble's narration reflects her love for her people without seeming to glorify their terrible condition. Outrage against the inhuman conditions of existence and love for her suffering people are organically fused to evolve a selfcritical and yet humane and mature tone. Nowhere does the narration sink into self-pity. On the contrary, the narration is fused with a subtle sense of humour as evidenced by her descriptions of ritual baths, unwashed children with dripping noses, the games and the weddings. Another significant feature of The Prisons We Broke is the transparency with which Baby Kamble brings out the internal trauma in the psyche of her people situated on the threshold of a fundamental transformation. Her descriptions of their negotiations with this whirlwind of change — the contradictory impulses they had to confront, their bewilderment and doubts, their urge for self assertion, the intense struggle between the pulls of an oppressive yet familiar way of life and the promise of a more dignified yet unfamiliar new world — brings to light a view from within, which would otherwise have been irretrievably lost. A singularly important aspect of Jina Amucha is Baby Kamble’s Dalit feminist critique of patriarchy. She graphically describes the physical and psychological violence women have to undergo in both the public and private spheres. If the Mahar community is the ‘other’ for the Brahmins, Mahar women become the ‘other’ for the Mahar men. Baby Kamble demonstrates how caste and patriarchy converge to perpetuate exploitative practices against women. It is here that the urge to define the self becomes most evident in women. Baby Kamble shows the remarkable dignity and resilience of the Mahar women in their struggle through which they have emerged as the agents of transformation in their community. The Prisons We Broke thus brings to light experiential worlds as well as discursive practices that have rarely been discussed in mainstream writings. It reveals the diverse ways in which the construction of the resistant selfhood and subjectivity of not just a person but an entire marginalised community happens. It also brings to the fore the tremendous transformative potential of oppressed people to change the world. Maya Pandit Hyderabad

1 Children love their grandparents’ home. At least it used to be so forty-five years ago. Besides, in those days, most children were born in their maternal grandparents’ home. Growing up in the grandparents’ home was like being in the cool shelter of love. Naturally, children would prefer their grandparents’ home to that of their own parents. I was no exception. I always loved being with my grandparents, that is, my aai’s parents. They belonged to Veergaon, a village in the Purander taluka in Pune district. The village was small and so was the maharwada. But the people in the maharwada were large-hearted. They were poor, of course, but they were very affectionate and simple, ready to even lay down their lives for someone they loved. My aai’s parents did not have a son; that is, my aai did not have a brother and I was deprived of having a mama. They had only two daughters. The elder one was Chandrabai, and Sunderabai was the younger one. Even my mawshi had only one daughter, Vithabai. She too was brought up by our grandparents. My aai had two children—me and my elder brother, Babu. Both of us stayed with our grandparents. My father was a contractor and he had to stay away from home quite often. So my aai generally stayed with her parents. My father approved of this arrangement, as he was sure that his parents-in-law would take good care of his children. Babu was my parents’ first child. My aai gave birth to three daughters after him, but none of them survived for more than two or three years. Then, for a long time, Aai did not conceive. Finally, in desperation, my aaji went to a village nearby called Harni. Now this village was famous for the goddess Kalubai, who granted devotees their wishes. Aaji prayed to her fervently for a child for her daughter. The devrushiin in the village had also put the angara mark on aaji’s forehead and, as luck would have it, I was born. I fell ill when I was about one and a half years old, and in a couple of weeks’ time, I came very close to dying. One day, at about six in the evening, my condition began to get worse. My body grew cold in a couple of hours. My aai, aaji and the neighbours started wailing loudly. My aai cried so much that she almost fainted with grief.

The people around decided to give me an immediate burial to spare her the prolonged agony. Armed with a hoe and a spade, a couple of young men got into the garbage pit and started digging a grave. When they had dug enough, my chulat aaja bent down to pick me up from my aai’s lap. But she clung to me fiercely and would not let go. There was a sort of tug of war for a while. Then, with tears pouring down her eyes, she begged people around to let her hold her child in her lap at least for the night. ‘You buried all my daughters in the night. Now let me at least hold this girl in my arms till the break of the day. Let me gaze at her face, I won’t see it again!’ This heart-rending appeal affected her uncles and aunts so much that they let the baby lie on her lap and prepared to keep vigil by her side through the night. ‘Alright, we will do whatever you wish but please don’t cry so much!’ they said. My aaja had brought a book from Kashmir called Pandav Pratap. He began to read aloud from it. Now, all the people of our community were devout Hindus. With great religious devotion, they listened to the exploits of the Pandavas and lord Krishna. It was the first day of the month of Shravan. My aaja kept reading into the wee hours of the dawn. He had come up to the eleventh chapter. The first cock crowed. Then one of my aunts happened to cast a glance at me and to her intense surprise, she saw my eyelids twitch. She whispered into the ears of the elders sitting around. The warmth of happiness flowed into the cold hours. My aaji held some cotton in front of my nose and it fluttered. My body grew warmer. People were overjoyed. Then my aaja came forward and folded his hands in prayer and supplication. ‘The holy mother at Veergaon has given rebirth to my grandchild. But if she makes her strong like the corn, I’ll offer a holy feast to all the people in the community,’ he declared. By then, my eyes had opened. Then members of the bhajani mandal, falling over each other, rushed forward to apply the holy bukka on my forehead. Then some old wise men remembered an old dictum that a burial pit should not be left unoccupied. So my aaji chose the plumpest hen from among her birds and gave it to the people to be buried alive in the pit. Accordingly, the bird replaced me in the burial pit.

My aai stayed with her parents for two more years after this. When I was three and a half, my father came to fetch us. But I was so attached to my aaji that I refused to go with my parents.

My father’s name was Pandharinath. He was a contractor by profession, but he had so generous a heart that he was called Karna, the epitome of generosity in the Mahabharata. An extremely kindhearted man, he had no craving for wealth. His only wish in life was to make people happy. There is an amusing story about how he became a contractor. In 1918, a canal was to be dug in Phaltan. But before the work could start, the thick wild cactus bushes had to be cleared. My father bagged this contract and completed the work quite satisfactorily. He was also able to work out a little profit. He developed a liking for this profession. When work on the canal started, labourers got paid at the rate of one cowry shell per basket of soil removed. For carrying fifty baskets of soil, fifty cowries would be paid. Five cowries fetched one ganda, that is, one pei. Five peis made a paisa. So a labourer could make ten paise every day. People somehow managed to survive on that meagre amount so long as there was work. But once the work on the canal got over, they had to face tough times. Soon there was an outbreak of an epidemic. This disease had plagued them for ages. It killed many and compelled the survivors to migrate to distant lands. When people started migrating to escape the epidemic, my father too joined the crowd and somehow reached Pune. Terrible hunger awaited them there. The government had started some construction work in order to help the migrants. But the migrant labourers had no shelter, nor any help. Hoards of labourers flocked to the work sites. The news that there was work available, spread far and wide by word of mouth. Families from Phaltan also got wind of the news that work on the construction of a dairy was going to begin. All of them rushed to the site of the dairy with their meagre belongings and camped nearby, under the trees and against the walls. In the morning, the European engineer arrived at the site along with a host of other officers to start the work of laying the foundation.

When the labourers saw the engineer, there was a great commotion amongst them. My father approached the engineer with his notebook, which contained the record of the fifty-rupee contract he had undertaken to dig the canal. The sahib stared at my father with great curiosity. My father was a mere boy of sixteen or seventeen years—hardly four and a half feet tall, his thin body barely covered by a torn and patched shirt, a torn dhoti mended in innumerable places, and a turban which looked no better than a bundle of rags on his head. He must have presented a very unusual sight to the sahib. In those times, a white sahib always carried a cane in his hand. This sahib was no exception. The sight of this strange-looking character must have tickled his sense of humour. He raised his cane and flicked off my father turban. Then, poking his stick into my father’s tattered shirt, he asked him, ‘How will you undertake this contract? Do you have any qualifications? You need at the least labourers in order to take up this contract.’ My father blurted out, ‘Why not? See all those people squatting there? They are my labourers.’ No sooner did he signal at them than the crowd of people rushed towards the sahib who stared at my father in sheer amazement. The sahib fixed some amount and my father bagged the contract. The digging started. The work proceeded smoothly and speedily. But this brought a new worry. What would the labourers eat till the first payment was made? Now one of my aunts stayed in the Camp area in Pune. My father went to her and begged her to give him her gold necklace. She gave it to him. He took it to the pawnbroker and got some money for it. That fetched food for all for at least four days. Sunday came. His bill was sanctioned. Now he had to go and collect the amount from the treasury. But he had nothing even to carry it in. Finally, he took some cement bags with him to collect the payment. He filled one bag with pure silver coins, another with the pentagon-shaped coins of one, two and four annas, and a third bag with coins of dhabbu paise and peis. The sahib provided him with police escort up to the place of work. When the labourers saw him coming in a tonga with his treasure, followed by the police escort, their eyes filled with tears of joy. From then on, my father got into the habit of being generous. In those days, it was the custom to keep women at home, behind the threshold. The honour enjoyed by a family was in proportion to the restrictions imposed on the women of the house. When no one could see even a nail of the woman thus confined within the four walls of the house, then this ‘honour’

became the talk of the town—a byword among the relatives and friends in the surrounding villages. Then people would tell each other, how one Pandharinath Mistry kept his wife completely hidden in the house and how even the rays of the sun did not know her. My father had locked up my aai in his house, like a bird in a cage. Whatever money he earned, he would squander away. While his contracts lasted, there would be plenty of food, clothes and fun. But when he was out of work, we had to go without food even. My father gradually became an expert in his field. Even then, it used to be awfully difficult at times to get a little kerosene to light a single lamp in the house. My father loved to drink tea. Even during his lean days, he refused to go without tea. He would boil tea leaves without any sugar and happily drink the strong bitter brew. But he would never go without tea. My aai would always fight with him. ‘What’s the use of earning so much money?’ she would grumble. ‘You don’t even have a hut in the village. What’s the point? You earn so much and here we are, without even a few morsels. What will the children do?’ Then my father tried to ‘educate’ her, ‘Come on, can you only get happiness by hoarding money? I have earned a lot of merit, you see! Just as children inherit their parents’ wealth, they also inherit their merits and sins. God sees to it that they do so. Don’t you worry! Our children will be comfortable. If I do well unto others, I will earn a lot of merit. Then they will automatically get a share of my merit. They will be quite well off. Why do you unnecessarily worry about such petty matters? I don’t care for money.’ My aai must have felt so oppressed, so suffocated! And that must have made her so insensitive, so cruel towards the others. She could never maintain good relations with her relatives, not even with her own mother and sister. She could never get along with people. She was basically a very difficult person, with scant regard for others. My father was the exact opposite of her. He loved people far more than he loved money. Thus they were two opposite poles. They never got along well with each other. Aai used to expose my father’s so-called capital, that is, his sense of morality. If I was around, she used the opportunity to push a few lessons down my throat too, ‘What have we earned with such values? We followed the path of morality all right but what have we gained? What has morality earned for us?’

‘Morality! What rubbish!’ She would say angrily. ‘The world belongs to the man with money. Don’t ever be taken in by your father’s lofty words. There’s no merit, no sin. It’s only money that matters. Money whitewashes your sins. It’s money that brings fame. Nobody is bothered about how you earned it. Be rich and people will willingly pluck ticks off your body. You can earn while you are young. Earn money you must, whichever way, then your children won’t have to worry.’ She often told me, ‘Baby, you have only one brother. It is your duty to help him!’ She would go on and on like this. I wonder whether this was her true nature or whether her poverty-stricken life made her speak in this way. Actually, she learnt to speak out only because she travelled to many cities with my father. It was staying in the cities that had taught her how to live. Whichever city my father went to, the only thought he had in his mind was of helping his people to survive. Whenever my father went to Mumbai, he used to buy lots of things for me— thick silver anklets, thin and hollow silver anklets, a silver nose ring with a red bead, gold earrings with red stones, three big silver tassels for my hair, silk for a long skirt and blouse, and a red chunni with a crescent on it. He used to send all these to me through my mawshi. In the maharwada of Veergaon, I behaved as if the locality was my personal property. I called all men, mama, and their wives, mami, and their parents, aaja and aaji. All those fifteen or sixteen houses in our maharwada were like family to me. My father had named my brother, Babu, and me, Baby. For the maharwada, I was their Begabai. I used to walk in style with silver tassels down my back, silver anklets on my feet, silver chains clinking above them, my half-tola nose ring, earrings, and silk clothes! The tassels and the anklets used to make sweet jingling sounds when I walked or ran and everybody used to admire me so in all my finery. I used to roam around from house to house, chatting away about something or the other. There were around fifteen or sixteen houses in our community. Only three or four among them were in somewhat good condition. These belonged to the Mahars who were granted the sixteenth share.[1] The rest of the houses were the poorest of the poor, eternally stricken by poverty. The walls were nothing but stones arranged vertically with some mud coating. They were tiny huts really. There would be a big clay pot with a small

mouth kept at the entrance for drinking water. The pot was called keli. The mouth would be covered with a broken coconut shell that also served as a cup for drinking water. It had three holes at the bottom. One had to pour water into the coconut shell, and blocking the holes with one’s fingers, hastily empty the shell into one’s mouth. One corner of the hut would have a clay chulha near which lay a couple of clay pots, a wooden pali, and a tawa. The centre of the tawa would usually be burnt out so there would be a big hole in the middle. There would be a wooden katwat, for rolling the dough and a long piece of tin for turning the bhakri while baking it. A grinding stone would be in one corner. Above the chulha would hang a long string called walni. These strings were our holy threads, the markers of our birth, our caste—like the janeu of the brahmins. These strings had to be there because on these strings we would hang the intestines of dead animals in order to dry them! There would be rags used as mattresses heaped in another corner. Near the chulha would be a small platform called bhanwas with a few clay pots on it. They matched the overall decor of the house. People would be covered in thick layers of dust and dirt, a black coating on their skin. You could see the deep marks where moisture had trickled down. Hair, untouched by oil, fell over their shoulders in thick tangles. They looked like rag dolls, nibbled and torn by sharp-teethed mice. The thick tangles of hair would be infested with lice and coated with lice eggs. Children looked as if they had rolled in mud, snot dripping from their noses in green gooey lines. If one were to use a figure of speech, their noses were like leaky taps of snot. Their bodies would be completely bare without a stitch on them. Each hut contained at least eight to ten such kids; some even had fifteen to twenty. The custom was to offer the eldest son to the mother goddess. That was important. He would be called potraja. Children up to nine years of age would look as thin as sticks. When girls reached puberty, their mothers would pull out some dirty rags from a bundle and put them on their bodies to somehow cover them. That was all, by way of clothing. A rag would be tied around the waist; its ends pulled between the legs

and tucked up at the waist. The traditional khun blouse pieces offered to goddess Mari Aai would be assiduously saved for such purpose. They would be brought out from a bundle and with huge stitches would be somehow made to resemble blouses. That was the uniform for grown-up girls. For the boys, a rag of an arm’s length and four-finger width would be considered adequate to cover their nakedness. But they needed one more thing—a waist string called kargota. This would be made up of sari borders rolled into strings. Even this waist string would be infested with lice, so the skin continuously itched and had to be scratched. The two ends of a rag tucked into this waist band from the front and the back… that was enough of clothing for a boy. He was considered dressed. The lady’s son, they said, has come of age! There used to be a small god’s place — a platform made of stone and mud — in each house. The size and shape of these platforms indicated the status and prestige of the householder. Small size, small status. Big size spelt out prestige! Big-sized gods would be placed on these large platforms. The god was a huge, round, smooth stone, weighing two to three kilos, painted saffron, with long lines of bhandara and kumkum drawn on it. Some stones also had two large protruding eyes and huge mustaches painted on them. A blood-red piece of cloth would be spread in front of the gods, on which lay neem twigs with leaves gone crackling dry and a heap of green bangles. One glance at this would be enough to strike terror in the heart of the beholder. The goddesses of the house — the women — matched the goddesses named Wadjai and Kadjai in their appearance. Guests visiting the house, impressed by the ghastly platforms, spread the fame of the house far and wide. The chawdi was the place for exchange of views. ‘You know that guy Satwa,’ someone would start. ‘Yesterday, I had gone to leave my daughter at her in-laws’ place. She really is most lucky, you know, to get into such a house. What a prestigious house! What a huge platform they have! Easily comes up to the waist! And the number of gods they have on this platform! O my! Simply unbelievable! The senior woman of the house, our relative, narrated their individual histories to us at night when we were chatting. Their great-grandfathers, it seems, had travelled as far as the Konkan region! They brought these gods from those faraway places. Such demanding and strict gods! What can I tell you about them! They can immediately make out everything you know. Since their old man passed away, these gods possess the young son. Their house has become a holy shrine now, with people pouring in from everywhere. It’s crowded like a fair.

And that young man—what strength! You should see him when the god Laman Pathan possesses him. Even twenty strong men can't control him. But he has one rule: in the holy food offered to him, he must have a suti roti and an opium pipe. Without those, Laman Pathan won’t possess him.’ The listeners would immediately nod furiously and endorse the god’s urgent need for an opium pipe. ‘Yes, yes, quite so, quite so! After all, it is the god Laman Pathan! He must be given his due. Otherwise the body possessed by him would suffer.’ This endorsement would be fuel enough for the narrative to proceed at full steam. ‘Absolutely right. The man possessed by Laman Pathan can tell everything about anybody who comes to him. He’ll not have any inhibitions even with his parents. He leaves nothing unsaid, nothing secret! He can read one’s innermost secrets and he brings everything out into the open, for all to see. I was completely nonplussed to witness that. Now that’s what I call achievement. You should do something like that to make your parents proud.’ Old people listening to this talk would nod reverently and add their own pearls of wisdom, ‘Yes, yes young man, you’re right! The parents must have earned a lot of merit, that’s why holy spirits like Laman Pathan possess their son. That god won’t possess just anybody out there. Why go far, let me tell you my own tale. Now you know that my own in-laws are from the place called Jeur Mandki. They also have such huge gods on their platform! Its height would easily be up to the waist of any full-grown man. Now he gets possessed by no less a god than the Yetal Sahib himself. Now that’s a real tough god, if you know what I mean. He won’t allow womenfolk to even come and bow to him. And his black magic! Perfect! Whosoever he wants dead, will vomit blood and die at that very instant. Well, this relative of mine was very famous in the whole region. Even a pregnant cow would abort the calf when she heard his name! Now this guy I’m telling you about was the only surviving child of his parents. All the others, nineteen of them, had died. Once when this child was on the threshold of youth, growing a moustache and all, he had gone to his field. Suddenly, his eyes went blood red and he started speaking in the Musalmaan dialect. That was Yetal Sahib! He told him in his own tongue, “I’m sitting in your body.” From

then on, Yetal Sahib made him his vessel. But the relatives got envious. His mawshi went to some place in the Konkan, she returned with Margi Mata. A bolt meant for the young man. One day a thorn pierced his foot. That was all! Immediately Margi Mata entered his body and possessed him. She and Yetal Sahib fought a fierce battle over him; but who’s heard of Margi Mata losing to anyone? Around sunset, the young man fell down frothing at the mouth. How shall I describe the victory of the other? The young man’s tongue hung out like a goat’s and he breathed his last. But since then, everybody is dead scared of the mawshi! Now it’s her house that’s famous.’ After this narration, his listeners would immediately slap themselves and start praying to Margi Mata most devoutly. ‘Oh mother, please forgive us our mistakes and sins, and have mercy on us, oh holy mother from Konkan!’ Come to think of it, what kind of life did these people really lead? What was there worth living for? Generation after generation wasted away in the senseless worship of stones, in utter misery. Generation after generation perished. But it is a basic human need to hope for change. The tiny sapling of hope was reared in their hearts too. It grew tall, drawing strength from the iron in their souls. [1] The leader of the Mahar community was entitled to 16 per cent share of whatever payment the community received from the village for the services rendered. The payment was usually in kind—for example, bhakris.

2 Of all the months in the year, Ashadh was their favourite month. The Mahars considered this their own month. This was the month for ritual baths, house cleaning and the polishing of floors with dung. This meant a lot of work. And yet it was a month of comfort, of sweet food! Even better than the months of Ashwin and Kartik, when Diwali comes—these were months of false happiness. They decidedly liked Ashadh better. If eleven months of the year were together a horrible curse on the Mahars, Ashadh was an antidote. When else could they experience moments of joy and comfort? This would be only a tiny drop of happiness in a sea of suffering and yet it was this that helped them endure every misery in their life. This one month of happiness developed in their hearts an iron will to endure whatever suffering came their way during the remaining eleven months. Such strength would put even the gods to shame. That great maker of the universe had indeed made some provision for the meek slaves of the earth. If he had given a mouth, he also had to give a few morsels to feed it, to compensate for the fasting of the remaining eleven months. Perhaps Ashadh was the provision that had been made to allow them a little food. Slaves needed this provision. Ashadh for them was the burgeoning of happiness. A blessing for their starved bodies—when the tongue was satiated with the tastes it loved. It was also a golden opportunity for the godmen to display their skills, when the holy spirits of their gods possessed them. The happy times began with the women, though. Women would clean their huts, and polish the walls and the floor of their crumbling huts with dung. All their precious belongings — what else but their clay pots! — would be brought out. These pots contained all the wealth saved by previous generations of women. But would the treasure troves be in good shape? A clay pot would have at least two or three holes, large enough to allow entry to at least a couple of mice. But our women were more than a match for the mice. They would close the holes with rag balls, which had sharp babhul thorns stuffed inside. This would prevent the mice from chewing them away. The delicately engraved mouths of the clay pots were usually broken and the pots chipped and cracked. Yet, that was all they had by way of wealth, preserved for generations! Women would polish the mud walls and then the floor of the house with cow dung or buffalo dung. After that, they would bring all the broken pots inside and arrange them in a pyramid, one on top of the other. In poor households there

would be only two or three pots. But the house which had the right of the sixteenth share would have at least five such rows. Then all the rags would be washed and hung on the carts to dry. All the impurities would thus be washed away. The first day would thus be spent in cleaning and washing. The next day would be assigned for bathing. The ritual began in the early hours of the morning. Women would wake up and start making preparations for lighting the chulhas. This would mean sifting through the waste pits for dry twigs and sticks for fuel. Then they would go looking for burning coals. Generally, everyone would go to the house that had set the chulha going. There they would light up a rag and, holding it in their palms, rush back home. After putting the smouldering rag into the chulhas, they would blow on it till flames sprang up. Then they would push sticks and twigs into the flames and place big clay pots filled with water on the chulhas. The old woman in the house would be given the duty to tend the chulha. Once this was done, the lady of the house would go to the village shop. Standing in the courtyard, keeping a distance from the shopkeeper, she would pull her pallav over her face and then, using the most reverential and polite terms of address, she would beg him with utmost humility to sell her the things she wanted. 'Appasab, could you please give this despicable Mahar woman some shikakai for one paisa and half a shell of dry coconut with black skin?’ The shopkeeper's children would be trickling out into the courtyard for their morning ablutions. He would give the innocent children lessons in social behaviour, ‘Chabu, hey you, can’t you see the dirty Mahar woman standing there? Now don’t you touch her. Keep your distance.’ Immediately our Mahar woman, gathering her rags around her tightly so as not to pollute the child, would say, ‘Take care little master! Please keep a distance. Don’t come too close. You might touch me and get polluted.’ The shopkeeper would come out and, from a distance, throw the things into her pallav, which she had spread out in order to receive them. She would then respectfully keep her money on the threshold. That of course did not pollute him! By the time she returned home, the water on the chulha would be hot. If she had a young daughter-in-law in the house, she would order her to grind the shikakai into fine powder. This would be done on the huge stones set outside the house. The tiny tot of a daughter-in-law would dutifully start grinding. Meanwhile, the woman would hide the dry piece of coconut in her blouse for

fear of the children finding it and eating it up. Then she would empty the hot water from the clay pot on the chulha into another pot and carry it outside. While mixing some cold water with it, she would repeatedly warn her daughterin-law to grind the shikakai well. Then she would go up to her elder son, still sleeping unawares on his bed of rags, grab him by the scruff of his neck, drag him to the door and push him down on the big bath stone. The boy’s hair would be long and tangled—a mark of his having been offered to the mother goddess as the first fruit the marriage had borne. The snot-nosed eldest son would bawl at the top of his voice, his fists beating against his mouth, vehemently protesting this assault in the name of a bath. He would thrash wildly, looking for the first opportunity to escape. But his aai, impervious to his tantrums, would pick up a stone and start scrubbing his legs with its rough surface. The continuous scrubbing would scrape the already cracked skin and blood would flow from the wounds. The boy would howl till he went blue in the face. The gooey streams flowing freely from his nose would hang long and low like two green cords. The boy would try to draw them back into the nose, screaming all the while. This in-and-out manoeuvre would go on till the bath was over. The more his mother scrubbed, the more the child howled, and the more he thrashed his feet against the stone. Mother’s temper would rise slowly and once it crossed the danger mark, she would use the same stone to give the boy a sound beating. Finally, the child would helplessly submit to this ordeal. Then she would pour the scalding hot water into another clay pot. Pressing him down immobile on the bath stone, she would bring out the dry piece of coconut from her blouse, break it into pieces, put a piece into her mouth, chew it into a fine paste and spitting the whitish mixture of coconut juice and saliva on her palm, she would massage the child’s head with it. When she was convinced that she had covered each strand of hair on his head, she would massage his head further and then wash it with hot water. The water would be so hot that it would kill all the lice, which would fall in a shower over the body. The bath stone, covered with dead lice, would look as if black sesame seeds had rained on it. Then she would embark upon the next task of combing the hair. The boy would already be suffering terribly because of his burning skin and the tangled hair that had been tugged at roughly. The comb with its sharp teeth added new dimensions to the torture. The mother would attack the tangles in the hair with such force that the comb would make a thudding sound every time it landed on the boy’s head. She would virtually tear through the hair, pulling

out half of it along with the knotty tangles. The poor child would go completely numb with pain and shock. After the bath, the boy would be dressed in a small piece of newly washed loincloth. The mother would get the haldi and kumkum box and smear his forehead with the yellow and red powders. Now he looked proper, like the vaghya or the coachman of the goddess. Finally the ordeal got over. No sooner had the mother finished dressing him, than the boy pulled himself free from her hands and threw himself down among the rags near the grinding stone. Completely exhausted, he would remain inert for the rest of the day. All the children had to undergo the bathing ritual experienced by the eldest son. The programme easily went on till two o’clock in the afternoon. No worries about cooking, no hurry in eating! Just baths. That was the motto! The mother herself took a bath only after she had bathed all her children. Then she removed her sari and wrapped herself in a longish rag. The sari she had taken off would be handed over to her young daughter-in-law to wash. It has to be called a sari, of course, for want of any other suitable name for the rag. Actually it looked like a tri-colour flag, a piece of cloth made by stitching together different rags. It had big holes; the borders were folded and stitched, and the stitches looked like thick strings. The cloth was rough and coarse, thick as a bed sheet. A sari had to be long, so the women had to stitch many pieces together till the piece attained the length of a sari. This sari, thick as a blanket, was given to young girls, barely nine or ten years old, to be washed. I too had been one of them. All of us young girls carried the saris to the stream to be washed. How we loved to wash them! First we soaked the saris in the flowing water and then rubbed mud all over them. Then we repeatedly dashed the saris against the rocks to wash the mud off. The more we washed and scrubbed, muddier was the water squeezed from it. And the more we scrubbed, the saris became cleaner. After washing, we spread the saris over the rocks to dry. Another joy awaited us! The lice could not crawl out of the wet cloth, so we could see clusters of lice and their eggs sticking to the saris. Even the borders of the pallav would be thickly infested with lice. It would appear as if the sari was embroidered with lice. This sight enthused us to no end. The lice would be too numerous to be picked out one by one. So we would gather some stones or coconut fibres and virtually scrape the lice off the saris. After the saris had dried, the big lice crawled out from the folds, which would send us into yet another bout of frenzied activity. We picked them out, crushed them against the rocks with our nails and they perished with a 'plock’! When our gang had

killed enough of them, we would be very tired, and so, after folding the washed clothes, we would saunter back home. In the meanwhile, the woman in the house prepared for her bath. She would pour hot water from the clay pot on the chulha into the pot on the bath stone, mix some cold water to make the heat bearable and then sit down on the stone. Wrapping herself in a longish rag, she would scrub herself vigorously with a stone till her skin turned black and blue. She would scrub her face so hard that the stone virtually rattled against her bones. Once she was satisfied that her body and face were clean enough, she started on the head bath. The coconut paste ritual would be the same as for the children, with only one difference. She had to apply the coconut paste to her hair herself. By this time, it would be four o’clock in the afternoon, but that made no difference whatsoever. By now, her sari would be ready, washed and dried by the young girls. She would wrap it around herself, her wet hair dripping down her back. Hair was generally combed only at the time of the bath. Then she would apply a big kumkum tilak on her forehead, with a dot of haldi below. The pallav would be pulled over the head, pleated and crumpled at the right places. Pulling the crumpled part down to cover her face, the woman would visit her neighbours to enquire after them and to exchange notes. ‘Haven’t you finished bathing the children yet?’ ‘You know what happened while I was bathing my elder son? The god Mad Malhari suddenly possessed him. You know how strong that god is!’ Immediately another woman endorsed this assessment of the god’s strength, ‘O yes, yes, that’s right. But let me tell you, Saru, your father-inlaw was a vaghya of the same god. You know how much he used to earn! He used to return from his collection round, his rusted bones creaking, his back bent double, with heavy bags of food hanging from his shoulders. Even the neighbours used to survive on that food. So naturally the same god wants to possess this child as well, don’t you know? And why not! Isn’t he the eldest son? He has to continue his aaja’s tradition. But tell me, did you apply the bhandara on his forehead?’ The other woman would hastily reply, ‘Yes, yes, I did all that, Atyabai! It is our simple devotion that has brought the god to us.’ ‘Now Saru, you must take good care of this child. The child is being possessed for the first time. Be careful now, don’t pollute things. Some sluts

around here will be quite jealous, you know! They may go to any lengths. That’s why I am telling you, be careful.’ The women would go visiting their friends’ houses and such talk could be heard all over the neighbourhood. The village would reverberate with such conversations. The whole of Ashadh was hectic; but especially hectic were the Tuesdays, Fridays and the full moon night of this month. There was a lot of work to do. Women made the most of these days, exploiting this opportunity to the hilt. Hindu philosophy had discarded us as dirt and thrown us into their garbage pits, on the outskirts of the village. We lived in the filthiest conditions possible. Yet Hindu rites and rituals were dearest to our hearts. For our poor helpless women, the haldi-kumkum in their tiny boxes was more important than even a mine full of jewels. We desperately tried to preserve whatever bits of Hindu culture we managed to lay our hands on. And yet no one tried to understand us. Our minds somehow kept on hoping against hope—that we too would be able to live like the upper castes, that we also would be able to enjoy wealth like the Patil’s wife and practise the same rituals as them. But when our very bodies were considered worthless, who was going to spare a thought about our minds? The upper castes knew quite well that they would be able to control the Mahars only if they were kept on a tight leash. They were scared that if the hold was loosened even a little, the suppressed community would spring up in revolt and break their domination. These rituals were, in a sense, an outlet for their oppressed souls. This was how they tried to find some solace in their terrible lives. It was to the Hindu gods that they prayed for deliverance from their suffering. They consoled themselves with the hope that their time too would come one day.

The eldest son was the pride of the house. He would be offered to the deity as vaghya or potraja. Fathers had a lion’s share in preparing their sons for this role. To offer the son as vaghya or potraja was considered a great honour and prestige for the family. Besides, giving away the child in the service of the deity would sort out the problem of earning a livelihood—it was like making a provision for generations to come. These customs, in fact, had provided their ancestors with the resources with which they had earned their livelihood. And

what sort of resources were these? The god’s house in each home would have a square copper tray called kotma, a tiger skin bag called ghol that was used for keeping the bhandara, and a string instrument called chawandake. These four items formed the property that had been handed down by successive generations. Nobody had objected to this practice. The potraja’s capital, in the form of these various things, would hang on a peg in the god’s house. The father very diligently saw to it that his son was properly trained. The training would begin when his son was seven years of age. The first Tuesday in Ashadh was chosen to initiate the son into the ritual. The father would begin by decorating his son. First, the parents took down the bundle hung on the peg. It was necessary to sprinkle gomutra on the bundle before it was opened. Square pieces of choli cloth, which had been saved over a period of several years for this occasion, were brought out of the bundle. The son was first dressed in a frock, then the choli pieces were hung on his chest with their ends tucked inside. Brass anklets were clasped around his feet. These made a tinkling sound when he walked. A big whip called asud, the mark of the mother goddess, was hung on his left shoulder. On the right shoulder was hung a bag of haldi and kumkum. He also had to wear a small brass ring which made a musical sound. They combed his long hair and let it hang loose on his shoulders. Then they smeared his forehead with haldi and kumkum, applied kajal in his eyes and gave him green bangles for his wrists. The boy would be given another bag called madaan to hang on his shoulder for collecting alms. Every family decorated their elder son in this way. The relatives — the kakis, kakas, aajis and aajas — gazed upon the child, now become a potraja, with eyes brimming with admiration and love. Thus began the child’s training in the art of being a potraja. The father would teach his son how to carry on his head the devhara; how to dance, bend and revolve balancing its weight; and how to sing the prayer to the mother goddess; how to conduct the dhupa arti, beating the brass ring worn on his thumb to keep rhythm. The prayer went like this: Hail our Mother of the land and water/ Lakamai is your name/ Dressed in yellow silk cloth/ the temple resounds with your name// You wear around your neck/ necklaces of diamonds and rubies/ What you love to wear in Aakhad is the kumkum on your forehead/ Your eyes are dark with kajal/ Your mouth is full of tambul/

The Mother sits on a throne/ Her food is hen and goat// Suti roti is what she likes/ It's potraja's honour to offer it to her/ The food makes her happy and quiet/ Thus will she protect all of us// Chang bhale Mari Aai/ Chang bhala Laxmi Aai// The surrounding crowd would join the prayer, singing in a chorus. Then they would touch their foreheads and fall at the child’s feet. This would send the young sons into an intoxicated tizzy. Even before their fathers finished giving them further instructions, they would hurriedly take out pinches of haldi and apply it on the foreheads of the people in the crowd. Furiously sounding the rattle in their hand and the anklets on their feet, they would strut around, singing a prayer for the mother’s grace. Surrounded by an adoring crowd of snotnosed children, their bodies bare and faces dirty, they would proceed at furious speed to the chawdi. The enthusiasm of the young potrajas gladdened their parents’ hearts to no end. This would be an unforgettable moment of ultimate happiness for them! Then both the husband and the wife would praise their family. The husband would say, ‘Lake, see how bright our young boy is. I taught him to sing the prayer just once and he has mastered it in no time at all! See how well he sings it. And how lovely he looks! Like a nachya!’ The wife would blush and answer, ‘Why wouldn’t he? After all whose son is he? Like father, like son!’ This left both the husband and wife feeling elated. The boy would feel heady with all this adoration. Stamping rhythmically on the floor, the tinkling anklets providing music, he would sing the prayer loudly, dancing all around the locality. These young potrajas drew admiring crowds — of men and women, both young and old, who devoutly listened to their songs — everywhere they went. Then they would shower praise on the boys. Mothers scolded their younger sons, ‘You silly good-for-nothing oafs! Learn something from him! Stuffing yourself with food is all that you’ve learnt! See how well this boy sings! You can’t even clean your nose properly!’ The older men would say, ‘Well done, my boy! You have done your father absolutely proud today! You have brought fame to his name!’ The child-hero, who had thus brought fame to his father’s name, would then embark on the tour of the village to beg for alms. He would go begging from door to door, ‘Madaan, madaan of Lakshmi Aai! Give generously!’

This was their only joy, the only oasis in their wretched lives.

For married women whose husbands were alive, Tuesdays and Fridays in the month of Aakhad were full of activity. A lot of work had to be done. The poor daughters-in-law would really benefit from the grace of goddesses like Lakshmi Aai and Mari Aai. It seemed as if ten days of this month — four Tuesdays, four Fridays, Amawasya and Pournima — were reserved specially for them by the goddesses. The sasus invited daughters-in-law from another family to eat with them. The whole year’s prayers would now fetch them some reward. They could eat sweet dishes made from wheat flour to their heart’s content. The sasus would begin making preparations for the meal early in the morning. First, they soaked some arhar dal in water to make sweet chapattis. But before they proceeded further, many would become possessed. Resounding screams of these possessed women could be heard all over. We kids used to rush from place to place to see women getting possessed. It wasn’t an ordinary thing, getting possessed. The screams could be heard from a long distance. You know how it is with women! One would give an earsplitting scream, another would hear her and she too would begin to scream. Some more would follow suit. That’s how the screaming epidemic spread, creating a huge commotion all over. Meanwhile a potraja started beating rhythmically on his dimdi! That would excite the women all the more. They would just sprint towards the chawdi, like excited shebuffaloes, completely unaware of what they were wearing or the people around. They would dance around the potraja, screaming all the while at the top of their voices. These possessed women were called goddesses or mothers. When they started dancing, the potraja too slipped into his element. The goddesses got more and more frenzied. The potraja would alter the rhythm and the women matched their dancing to the changing beats. The potraja would get tired, but the women? No way! In case a potraja wanted to stop, the mothers would get terribly annoyed. They fixed him with hard stares, and vigorously nodding their heads, signalled him to go on. The poor guy would get exhausted. Then he urged the mother, that is, the spirit of the goddess possessing the poor woman, ‘I beg you, oh mother, please don’t get so agitated! Please leave this tree, this woman whom you have possessed. I promise you, we will play again, but later, after some time. Now please leave this poor woman and go home.’

Then one possessed woman would sit down sobbing and another would roll her eyes and grind her teeth at him and shower curses on his head. They used some strange form of language, suffixing each word with a ‘tri’. They shouted in an adamant tone, ‘No! Never! I will never leave this woman. I don’t want to go.’ Then the wise old men from the community would come forward with folded hands before the potraja and begged him to play on, ‘Oh coachman, don’t you know today is the mother’s day of playing and dancing? Please play on and let them dance to their heart’s content. Let them go on till they are exhausted.’ This request was sufficient enough for the coachman, that is, the potraja. He whipped up different rhythms and the possessed women danced to the beats in frenzy till they collapsed in a heap on the floor, their jaws locked. Then the potraja squeezed lemons into their mouths, on their heads and pushed spatulas into their mouths to unlock their jaws. Many such dramas would be played out. Even when a couple of mothers fell down, the potraja would not stop. The mothers would get completely exhausted, but even then they would not stop. Then again the senior members of the community came forward with folded hands and begged them, ‘Oh holy mother, please don’t exhaust the poor woman’s body so! Oh Mari Mata, Oh Laka Mata, we are all your children. Please protect us. Let the children grow to a ripe old age. They may have to go hungry but see to it that they survive. Please give us a good omen, a good forecast.’ Then the senior most among the possessed women, a leader of sorts, would come forward and announce, ‘I promise you a good future. All the children and the people in this community will be as strong as rocks. I won’t allow even a thorn to prick their feet. Now come on coachman, give me my due and let me go. My bahin is waiting for me elsewhere.’ When one mother forecast a happy future, another burst into tears. Yet another harped on something completely different. She started with a strange humming sound, ‘Unh…hun, unh…hun, you silly men with black heads, you have not recognised me at all…Oh children, I’ve come a long way just to meet you. And yet you do not recognise me? I have come across from the seven seas to this small place of Veergaon. And yet, oh my child, you haven’t given me my due. This doesn’t augur well for you. Mind you, I am the bahin of no less a god than the Aagya Vetal. My name is Sat Asra. You haven’t treated me with reverence. You will have to suffer for this.’

The threat generally struck terror in the leader’s heart. His mouth went dry. A frenzied activity then ensued. All the men folk took off their turbans and placed them at the mother’s feet in utter supplication. They begged her not to be angry with them. At other times, these men commanded great respect as the father-in-law or brother-in-law of the woman who was now possessed. But now, she was the mother goddess, and they her children! They fell at her feet; it was the goddess who was speaking through her. With folded hands, the wise men prayed to her, ‘Oh mother, we are the stupidest of stupid people. What do we know? We are so ignorant. We know nothing, oh mother! You can see everything! You can see everywhere. But we are blind. We can't see. Please, oh please mother, forgive us.’ At this point, the old men spread their turbans at her feet, in a gesture of utmost humility, and continued, ‘Oh mother, please forecast a good future for us. These are all your children. They need your protection. That’s all we want mother.’ This humility finally worked. Then the mother said in a conciliatory tone, ‘You silly coachman, I have come from far beyond the seven seas to see you. I was angry because you did not give me my due.’ The old man then turned to the women around him, ‘Hey you, are you women from good families or female donkeys? Go and fetch the kumkum box like a good wife. Give the mother her due! It is because of your stupid ignorance that the mother is angry. Hurry up, smear the mother’s forehead with kumkum and haldi.’ Then some woman hurriedly fetched the haldi-kumkum box. Then five suwasinis applied the haldi and kumkum on her forehead and fell at her feet. It was only after all this that the mother cooled down. She then laughed uproariously and said, ‘Don’t be so afraid, child! I won’t allow even a thorn to prick your children. Don’t be worried at all. This is your mother’s promise to you.’ This assurance made everybody very happy. Exulted, they hailed her. After this, the spirit of the goddess left and the woman became conscious of her surroundings, as if she had just woken up from a deep sleep. Hurriedly, she tied her dishevelled hair into a knot and pulled the pallav on her head, becoming, once again, a docile and virtuous wife. Then she exclaimed in anguish, ‘Oh, is my mamaji here? Oh god, how my pallav has slipped from my head, like a slut, in front of all these elderly people!’

She felt extremely embarrassed. Meanwhile another possessed woman began to wail loudly, wildly gesticulating with her hands. People rushed and gathered around her to listen to what she had to say. ‘Mother, what's wrong? Please don’t wail so. Do let us know what has hurt you.’ The goddess possessing this woman began to grumble, I have come to see you from beyond the three Times and seven nether worlds. And yet you haven’t recognised me!’ ‘O mother, what do we know? What do we understand? We are men with black heads. We are like dust underneath your feet. Oh mother, please help us understand.’ ‘O children, for your happiness, I have brought with me the deity Laman Pathan. He grinds his teeth at you! He stares at you with big round eyes! Give him his due. Make a place for him under the banyan tree. Bathe him in the blood of a goat and a cock. Give him the ritual offering of suti roti. Right now he is sitting under the karanja tree, near the stream. Build him a temple. Now let me go. I am already late. My bahins are waiting for me. Here I go.’ The old wise men would say in supplication, ‘Yes, yes, goddess mother. You are so right. It is so kind of you, indeed, to tell us stupid people about the god Laman Pathan. This god is very strict. He can't tolerate women folk at all. The mother goddess has brought her own brother for our protection! This is a great favour indeed. Now our children will be healthy. Our land will be happy. Now please mother, please tell your brother, the god Laman Pathan, who can be very dangerous, not to send any problems our way. Not even a thorn should prick us. Only then shall we worship him and give him his due.’ ‘O don’t you worry!’ the mother goddess would answer, ‘I know my brother quite well. Everything will be alright.’ ‘That’s all we want.’ ‘Then give me my due,’ the mother would demand, I am in a hurry.’ Again the suwasinis would come forward to smear her forehead with haldi and kumkum. Then the spirit left and the woman became normal, as if an electric current had been switched off. Then she would cast a frightened glace at the people gathered around her, pat her hair into place, pull her pallav down her forehead and sit among the other women around her. She would then ask them what the mother had forecast. Somebody would lean forward to tell her, ‘Oh

my, what a strong spirit possessed you! All these elderly men found it so hard to control you! They were completely exhausted. When the spirit showed itself in you, it was agitated. It was wailing. You know, our hearts literally stopped with fear. The spirit of the mother goddess told us that the god Laman Pathan is sitting on our land near the stream. Now we have to establish him properly. That is the omen the mother gave.’ Another would endorse this, ‘Yes, yes, that’s what the mother said. She said she had asked her brother to take us under his protection.’ On hearing this, the woman loudly slapped her own cheeks, asking for the forgiveness of the god Laman Pathan. The chawdi buzzed with the talk of the new spirit Laman Pathan and his demand to establish a temple for him properly near the stream. Day and night, this was the only subject of discussion. The only goal in their life now was to build a temple for this new god. People crowded into the chawdi discussing this issue threadbare. Old men, youngsters and children—everybody would be obsessed with it. The old wise men instructed the young, ‘Boys, this Sunday go to the stream early in the morning. Sweep the place under the karanja tree well. Make it absolutely clean. Then go to the Lonari people. Ask them for some lime. Tell them that a new god, Laman Pathan, has come to our land, and that we need good lime. Then go to the stream and look for nice round stones; wash them clean and then colour them white with the lime. Let us make an offering of lemon, ganja and thick wheat rotis to the god in the morning. Around twelve, we’ll make an offering of suti roti. Let us do all we can to properly establish him in our land.’ The women returned home, their head awhirl with this new spirit and his chosen location. All the people — young and old men, women and children — felt as if they were possessed by the new god and his spirit. Women made sweet chapattis engrossed in thoughts of the new god all the while. Then in the evening, there was again a great deal of work because women had invited each other’s daughters-in-law for a feast. They would be in a hurry to fetch them from each other’s houses. Once five suwasinis gathered in the house, the woman of the house kept a big wooden plate in front of them, generally used for mixing dough, with a little jaggery and two jars full of water. One girl would be asked to mix the jaggery and water well. Then seven or eight chapattis were crushed to crumbs by the woman of the house into the plate and kneaded well with the jaggery mixture. Even while she was doing this, she would become possessed. The poor daughters-in-law would sit quietly, their eyes fixed on the

plate. Hordes of flies hovered over the plate and many fell into the mixture. Several kids, related to them in different ways, accompanied the daughters-inlaw and they would attack the plate. Their noses dripping, they hurriedly stuffed themselves with the food, unaware of the world around them. The syrupy mixture would trickle down their arms as they scooped it with their palms and filled their mouths. The daughters-in-law, worried whether any food would be left for them at all, stared anxiously at the quickly depleting mixture on the plate. Since they were daughters-in-law, decorum demanded that they eat only after the children had finished. The poor souls could do nothing but just stare at the plate, licking their lips, hoping against hope that some food remained for them. Meanwhile, the goddess possessing the woman of the house would be in her element. The goddess made the woman utter a fearful scream. She repeatedly made the ahun…ahun sounds and then, wailing loudly, she addressed her husband, ‘How could you forget me? I have walked all the way from a distant land to your house. Yet, you don’t have time to see me, eh? What had I told you? I had said, when you get your first son, offer him at my feet. Your son is now seven years old and yet you haven’t brought him to me. I am so sad, I’m so sad! But you still have time; at least now open your eyes and do your duty.’ The man of the house would then literally fall at his wife’s feet. He begged her to have mercy on him, ‘Oh holy mother, I fall at your feet and beg you, don’t be angry with me—I accept all my mistakes. I’ll offer you my child. I’ll pawn my right hand and offer you a worship of five annas from today. But mother, take me under your wings. Protect your poor child, mother. Please don’t take my mistake to heart so. Mother, I haven’t forgotten my promise, but I am so poor that I wasn’t able to do anything about it. That’s why I wasn’t able to offer you proper worship. I’ll try everything in my power to give you your due. Please forgive me. I accept my mistake. I’ll even untie my turban and put it at my wife’s feet to express my humility. But please don’t torture her body so. Please give us a good omen. Mother, it is in your name that we have invited all these suwasinis for dinner. Please forgive us stupid people our mistakes, mother. Please give us a happy omen. Depart for your home happily, mother!’ This cooled the mother down considerably. Still punctuating her speech with ‘ahun…ahun’ sounds, she assured him, ‘Child, don’t be so scared. I have taken you under my wing. Now for your safety give me something with two

feet. Give me my food—an egg, opium, roti. I am going to do good to you. Now I have to go, I have no time. I depart for my home.’ Then all the married women in the house rushed to put the haldi and kumkum marks on her forehead and fell at her feet. Then the ‘zad’ regained her consciousness and scolded the other women, ‘Why are you idling away, you lazy girls? Look, the chapattis are all crushed and ready to eat!’ Then all the daughters-in-law would say in unison, ‘Oh Atyabai, you were possessed by the Mother! What a strict goddess she is! It was only when our mamaji promised her what she wanted, that she gave us a good omen.’ On hearing this, the woman would slap her own face a couple of times, and then, turning towards the girls, she would say, ‘Come on girls, now for the food! Say the mother’s name and start eating!’ The children would have polished off half the plate by this time. The hostess would then crush some more chapattis in a plate with a small ball of jaggery and a jugful of water and give the mixture to the young daughters-in-law. The children would again attack it, but in this round the daughters-in-law could join the fray and eat to their heart’s content. The sweet food pacified their ever hungry, burning stomachs at least once during the whole year.

3 The entire maharwada looked upon the four weeks of Ashadh as one of those rare occasions of festivity and joy. On every Friday and Saturday of this month, the yeskar Mahar would carry several huge cane baskets to the temple of the goddess. The entire village flocked to the temple with varied dishes as offerings to the goddess—fried delicacies, curd rice, bhajis cooked with choice spices and kurwadya. They also offered beautiful pieces of khun and bangles to the goddess. The food offered to the goddess would fill three or four baskets. People would break coconuts before the goddess and the broken halves would fill up a couple of more baskets. After sunset, some of the Mahar men would keep folded ghongadi on their heads, place the huge baskets filled with the offerings on top and carry the load to the chawdi. There, they would spread the ghongadis on the floor, take out all the food from the baskets and arrange it neatly on the ghongadis. The food would then be divided into small heaps on yet another ghongadi, for distribution among the Mahars in keeping with their status and honour. Meanwhile, someone would rush to the maharwada to make a public announcement, ‘Come on folks, all you men, women and children, come and take home your share of the offerings.’ The announcement would cause such a frenzy in every household! Seven or eight kids would burst forth from each house. Naked, their noses running, they would sprint madly towards the chawdi. People flocked to the chawdi in the incessant drizzle, fully drenched. Covered with mud, they crowded around the ghongadis of food, clamoring to collect their share. The entire chawdi would soon get mud smeared. The karbhari would divide the food into small portions, according to the share due to each of the Mahars. People would literally pounce upon their share. Children jumped up and down to snatch food from their parents’ hands. Half the food would get over on the way home and the remaining food did not last very long either. However, without saying a single word and with their eyes glued to the food, the poor hungry daughters-in-law would helplessly wait for their turn to eat. Just in case a sasu noticed this, she would contemptuously throw a morsel at her daughter-in-law, saying, ‘Push that down your throat, you shameless hussy! Aren’t you ashamed to stare so at a child who’s eating? At least let the food get down his throat! Your evil eye

will make the child choke. Don’t you know how to behave like a good daughter-in-law?’ By the time three weeks of Ashadh were over, amawasya would be approaching. The hearts of the people would be fired with grand expectations. This amawasya night was known as the goddess mother’s rede jatra or the buffallo fair. Rede jatra was an extremely important event, considered to be a gift the Mahars had received directly from Indra, the king of gods. From the moment the first cock crowed, the white-haired Mahars, the wise old men of the community, could be seen rushing about hectically. All the men would get up at the crack of dawn, bathe in the stream, gather loads of the wild pink kanher blossoms and carry them to the chawdi where they were piled neatly in a corner. Then the men would return home, grind sandalwood paste and apply it on their forehead as a holy mark. The women would have already polished the ground with dung on the previous night. By now even the young boys would have bathed in the stream. They arrived at the chawdi looking fresh and clean. Then an elderly Mahar would take charge of the affairs, distribute the work among them and send them all off on different errands, ‘Boys, now go and fetch Dadu’s Shriranga, Guni’s Sadya, Awa’s Ranya. The buffalo will be very difficult to control. You won’t be able to handle it by yourself.’ The boys would immediately set off. They would go from house to house, calling out to people by their names, fetching them to the chawdi. The elders often pretended to scold the young men in mock anger. ‘Come on, you bastards, you know that nobody can do this work except you. Now look sharp. String the buffalo through the nose, take it to the stream, bathe it and bring it back. In the meantime, I’ll send a word to Ranba. Yesha’s daughter-in-law will be our suwasini today. I’ll ask her to put kumkum on the buffalo.’ Then one of them would turn to the women, ‘And you there, Sitayvahini, Kondaykaku and Gunaykaku, take these grains of jowar and distribute them among the households for pounding. Take care that the work is done well; otherwise, mind you, we’ll hang onions in your hair. Gunaykaku and Kondaykaku, take these red chilles and grind them fine. The panji must be good. Remember, you are not like sluts on the streets! So don’t cook like them. The panji must taste good. It must become like laki, soft and properly mixed.

Relatives and guests will come from all nook and corner for the fair so take care that the food is cooked well.’ And the women, pulling their pallav over their heads to show that they were decent housewives, and not like some woman on the street, would say in reassurance, ‘Oh karbhari, we do belong to respectable families! We know how these things are done. Don’t worry, leave it to us. We’ll cook the barbat so well that our guests would never have tasted anything so delicious in their whole lives.’ Then the women would bathe, put red kumkum marks on the foreheads with a line of haldi below, and begin the sacred work. They would beat the jowar grains and grind the red chillies to a fine powder. Everything would be kept ready. In the meantime, the young men would have got the buffalo back from the stream, its back glistening in the sun. They would string a rope through the buffalo’s nose and tie it to the iron railing at the chawdi. Someone would massage the buffalo with oil. Someone else would paint its horns red and yet another would stick lemons onto the sharp ends of the horns. Then the Mang suwasinis, specially invited for the occasion, would smear the buffalo’s forehead with red kumkum, wash its feet with water, worship it, and finally feed it with the pounded and cooked jowar grains and liquor. The men would put garlands of kanher flowers around the buffalo’s neck. Meanwhile, one of the Mang suwasinis would take the holy bath. She had to wear a green sari and a green blouse. They would rub haldi all over her body and smear her forehead with kumkum and place a coconut and some grains in her pallav. The coconut would be broken during the ritual. The suwasini was made to carry a jar of water, with the coconut placed above it, on her head. By two o’clock in the afternoon, the buffalo would become fully intoxicated. The Patil, the chief of the village, would then give the Mang suwasini a new sari and a piece of khun. By now, the preparations for the fair would be nearly over. Then one of the men from the Mang community would be asked to publicly announce that the buffalo fair was about to begin. ‘Listen honourable folks, listen,’ he would shout at the top of his voice. ‘The Patil has given orders to start the buffalo fair. So the buffalo will now be paraded through the village. Everybody should remain inside their homes and keep their doors bolted while the procession is going on.’

The whole village would disappear indoors and stay behind closed doors. Not even a stray mongrel could be spotted anywhere. The entire place acquired a deserted look. With this, the preparations for the fair would be complete. One man carried a clay pot, containing ambil and ghugrya, another held a leafy neem twig and yet another followed with a pot of gomutra. The Mang suwasini swayed in her green sari and green blouse, a garland of kanher flowers around her neck, her untied hair falling loose down her back. The Patil wore the traditional brocade turban and carried a sword in his hand. Some people from the village accompanied the Patil. Once everybody had gathered, two more ropes would be strung through the buffalo’s nose, with their ends hanging out on each side. Then the procession would begin, with the Patil accompanied by other men from the village, leading in the front, followed by the Mang suwasini and a couple of men holding her on both sides. The entire Mahar community followed behind. The buffalo fair, as this procession was called, marched silently in the hot sun. By now the Mang suwasini would be possessed by the goddess. She would sway from side to side, moaning and twisting her body as if in a trance. It required at least four men to control her. The buffalo would be completely intoxicated. Its eyes would acquire the colour of blood. The Patil would already have made cuts on its thighs from which blood oozed out. With a kumkum-smeared forehead, kanher flowers hanging around his neck and the wounded, bleeding thighs, even its eyes seemed to ooze blood. Without any band playing, or any kind of fanfare, the buffalo would be silently paraded through the village. The procession then arrived at the temple and halted at the courtyard. At this point, the entire village flocked to watch the buffalo sacrifice. The Patil would lift his sword and bring it down with brute force, severing the buffalo s head from its body in a single blow. The buffalo would collapse on the ground with a huge thud. Blood would spurt out and the sword would drip with blood. Then the Patil wiped a little blood off the blade of the sword with his finger and touched the forehead of the goddess, to make a mark with the blood. Then he touched his own forehead with the same finger and made a mark there as well. Another young buffalo would be brought forward and have haldi rubbed over it—a preparatory rite for its sacrifice the next year. After this ritual, people from other communities in the village would depart in a hurry, leaving only the Mahars on the scene. Then the Mahars loudly hailed the goddess and made preparations to skin the buffalo with knives and axes sharpened to an edge. They first skinned the buffalo, and then separated each limb from the body, cut off its four hooves and placed them in the mouth of the severed head. The head was

then placed in front of the goddess, with a lamp made of wheat flour burning on top. The protruding bulging eyes, the long red tongue hanging out of the mouth, the bared teeth, the four hooves jutting out from the mouth of the buffalo lying at the feet of the goddess and the red light in the temple—what a sight that was! The goddess, a huge brass mask with large protruding eyes, and a long nose with a huge nose ring hanging from it, was draped in a green sari. The fierce-looking goddess, the burning lamp with its flickering red flame, the surrounding darkness in the temple—the entire scene used to be so terrifying that the onlookers would be literally petrified. Once the buffalo was completely skinned and its limbs removed, the remaining flesh would be cut into large pieces, each weighing about half a sher. These pieces would be placed in huge pots. Even today, if you find large pieces of meat in your meal, they say, ‘Such big pieces! Are they from the buffalo fair? ’ The liver of the buffalo would be as large as the cane basket used for sifting corn, and its heart as big as a huge pitcher. The organ, which looked like a bunch of grapes, was called boka. These three organs — the liver, the heart and the boka — were not cut. The Mang would already have prepared a special rope, three feet long and quite thick, especially for this occasion. The three organs, tied together in a bunch at one end of a rope, were cooked in a huge pot. The other end of the rope was tightly wound around the mouth of the pot. After the uncut organs were cooked, the rope would be unwound and the meat taken out. Meanwhile, women prepared the nivad, which included rotis made of wheat flour without oil. The rotis were then stacked in a neat pile and the three cooked organs would be placed on top. This nivad was then brought to the temple as an offering to the goddess. Later it would be brought to the chawdi and cut into smaller pieces and distributed among the Mahars as the blessing of the goddess. Even young children would first touch this sacred food to their forehead as a mark of reverence and only then would they put it in their mouth. By this time, huge stone chulhas would be ignited, with the pots kept atop, the huge flames licking them. One of the pots contained beaten grains of jowar. After the meat had been cooked till it was tender, some red chilli powder, prepared and kept ready, would be added. Jars of water would be slowly poured into the pot. The panji was now ready. If it turned out to be very tasty, it would qualify as laki. After the chilli powder was added, all meat pieces were taken out and kept in a huge basket and the hot soup would remain in the pot. Then the pot was filled with red chilli powder and brought to the boil. Now it was time to serve the food.

The guests would be served first. They would be lovingly served repeated helpings. Only after the guests had had their fill, would the hosts sit down to eat. Children would be extremely impatient to eat. Each child carried an aluminum bowl and a plate. Each received a plateful of panji with a couple of meat pieces and a handful of cooked grains. Some men would polish off six to seven plates and yet ask for more. Such heavy eaters they were! The meat was distributed among the twenty-five odd houses in the maharwada and the mangwada, and thus the entire buffalo would be finished up in no time. Bursting at the seams with the meat, the men would pace around the maharwada till late in the night. Memories of the buffalo fair would help them survive their miserable and wretched lives. They would live in their dirt pits on the periphery of the village, like discarded rags, ignored by society, and wait for the buffalo fair to come again the following year. Meanwhile, there would be work to do. The elders would arrive at the chawdi next morning. The young and the very old would follow them there. The potrajas would come, dressed in their ritual finery and decked up in their traditional ornaments. The players would arrive with their instruments. The women who dispensed medicines and who could cure illnesses caused by evil spirits would now play a very important role. Only these women knew which rituals should be performed to appease the goddess. Nothing should go wrong! Otherwise they might invite the wrath of the goddess upon themselves. In the lilting tunes of the shehnai and amidst the rhythmic beats of the drums and dimdi, men and women would let themselves go. The potrajas would start their dance, and the women and young girls joined the dance, their hair flying wild! The accompanists would tire out, but the whirling women would not. Nor would they allow the players to stop. Dancing non-stop, they would signal them to continue to play the music. If someone did not listen, they would impel him with fierce stares to play on. While dancing, they would be possessed by the spirit of the goddess. Then each dancing goddess would predict what the future had in store for the village. ‘I have crossed the waters, the spaces, the seven nether worlds to meet my children,’ they would declare. ‘I’ve come in answer to your call. I’ll depart after bestowing happiness on all of you. Your simple devotion has pleased me immensely. Therefore I give you a good omen. This land has my blessings.’ Their speech would be punctuated with those terrible humming sounds, ‘unhun, unhun, unhun’. Then they would continue, ‘My children, there

is a rain this crops will grow...all animals will mother will know her child, nor any child its mother...yet my children, i’ll help you. But give me my due in time...don’t keep my followers, the ghosts, hungry and dissatisfied. They take off at my command...if they don’t receive their share, they will be furious; they’ll grind your houses to dust in their fury. So children, don’t deprive me of my share...take this charm of good luck and tie it to your ceiling. Be careful, protect sacred things from any kind of pollution. ’ ‘Unhun, unhuun, unhuun...’ another would intone. ‘Come on, come on my coachman, let me go, give me my favourite bhaji.’ Then the senior most karbhari would hand her a twig of neem leaves, which she would chew and eat with evident relish. Since the neem leaves are extremely bitter, onlookers would watch her in fascination, completely spellbound. This was proof enough that it was actually the goddess possessing the woman’s body. No ordinary mortal could eat something that tastes so bitter. Women would burst out in wonder and amazement, ‘Oh my, look how she eats the neem leaves! We can’t bite even one leaf, it’s so bitter! But she’s eaten a whole bunch of them!’ While one possessed woman demonstrated her holiness so, another would let out a piercing shriek and pick up a quarrel with the potraja himself. Grinding her teeth fiercely, she would accuse him of ignoring her and shout at him, declaring that she felt upset and would not dance. Then she would flounce away and start wailing aloud. Then the potraja would dance all the way to her and smear her forehead with haldi. He would blow his pipe into her ear, and holding her hand, lead her back to join the crowd of dancing women. Yet another possessed woman would dance in such a mad frenzy that everyone watching would begin to feel scared. Then the karbhari would rush to pacify her, ‘Oh Mother, please don’t torment the tree so.’ Then the woman would twist her body even more, ‘Coachman, you’ve forgotten me. I won’t go back without taking revenge on you. You know my wrath.’ This threat frightened the karbhari so much that he would beg her with folded hands, O Mother, we are just ignorant and foolish creatures. What do we know of anything? You live in the midst of the seven seas. Yet, you have come all the way, especially for us, to take us under your wings. Please forgive us our mistakes. We beg you to have mercy on us.’ Speaking thus, he would take off his turban and place it at her feet as a mark of utmost humility. Then everybody would rush to touch her feet in supplication.

They would swear eternal loyalty to her, beg for her mercy and throw lemons over her body. Then she would relent and say, Alright, my children, alright, I forgive you. But my entourage of ghosts has been put to a lot of trouble. Give them their due.’ The karbhari would agree immediately, ‘Yes, yes, Mother, we are your humble servants. But we want good omens from you. Oh Mother, if the child wets her mother’s lap, does she punish it? Yes, we have erred. But please forgive us.’ The Mother would say, ‘Alright, coachman, spread your hands and collect what I give you. I give you all my gold. Sprinkle it in all corners and your people will lack nothing.’ Then somebody would bring the ash from the chulha on which the buffalo had been cooked and would give it to her. This she gave to the karbhari and declared that she was ready to depart. Then the woman who had been possessed would become conscious as if she had been woken up from a deep sleep. Meanwhile, another woman’s teeth would lock, as did yet another’s arms. The day would end with thousands of such happenings. The entire community had sunk deep in the mire of such dreadful superstitions. The upper castes had never allowed this lowly caste of ours to acquire knowledge. Generations after generations, our people rotted and perished by following such a superstitious way of life. Yet, we kept believing in your Hindu religion and serving you faithfully. We may be coarse and ignorant, yet you must admit that we have been the most devoted children of Maharashtra, this land of our birth, and it is we who are the true heirs of this great land. You played with our lives and enjoyed yourselves at our expense. But remember, we may have lost everything, but never the truth. We never rebelled against you, did we? We did not perform namaj when you worshipped, did we? You considered the cow holy; we never insulted her, did we? We obeyed every diktat of your Hindu religion, we followed all your traditions—why did you single us out for your contempt? We were the people who lived in your house, yet we dared not drink even a drop of water there. We never dared to cross your path. We dedicated ourselves to the service of the civilisation and culture that was so precious to you, in spite of the fact that it was always unkind and unjust to us. Why, we would even spread out our hands like spittoons for you if you wanted to spit! Then why did you treat us with so much contempt? Coarse we may have been, but we always remained so loyal to you! You have always been treacherous to us but we never deceived our mother. We

ate dry husk and told ourselves we were eating rich food; we considered our huts great mansions; we considered our terrible poverty as the golden peak of affluence. We dreamt and floated among the clouds, waiting for one little ray of hope to lace our dark dreams.

4 Once upon a time, there was a hut. Not a big one. Just a small makeshift structure that stood on three sticks on the sides, with leaves arranged on the top as roof. Inside the hut lay a makeshift chulha of three stones. All the wealth of the family lay around this chulha. And what was this wealth? One big clay pot, one mud bowl to eat from and a cracked coconut shell with a piece of wood nailed to it which functioned as a spoon. A family used to live there with their children. What did they all do? Well, everyday the children would go to the town to beg, with a cloth bag on their shoulder and a tin pot in their hand. Their tin pots would overflow with decaying food, and their bags with stale and dry jowar roti. The children would then return home, happy with their booty. Then their aai would put all the rotting food into the big clay pot, along with the pieces of dry roti. She would collect twigs and sticks from the garbage heap to light the chulha and bring the mixture to the boil. Since the spoilt food had a sour taste, the dish was called ambura. After it was cooked, it became ukadala. Then the grub would be poured into the mud bowl and everybody would feast on this. This was their daily routine. One day, however, they could bring home nothing. The man of the house became very sad. He said to his wife, 'I'm sick of this life. We either have to remain hungry or eat rotten food. I think I’ll go out to some place where I can find work. You too try and find some work.’ The wife agreed. The next day he set off in search of work. For two days and three nights he walked and walked. On his way he begged for food. Food he got, but not work. He walked on and on in search of work. But alas, he could find nothing. Feeling angry, he walked further. He trudged on for one whole month. Finally, he reached another kingdom. This kingdom was quite prosperous. It was full of well-to-do people. He walked up to the main market. A diamond merchant's eyes fell on him. The merchant's servant had quit the previous day. The merchant called out to him, 'Will you work for me?' The man accepted the offer with a glad heart as this was exactly what he wanted. He started working at the merchant’s house as the family’s manservant. The merchant gave him place to stay in his own house. After two months, however, the man started missing his family. So he sent a letter to his wife. When the letter reached them, his wife and children were very happy because he had finally found work. The children immediately spread the

news among the neighbours. The wife promptly lost herself in daydreams. Meanwhile, a pack of dogs entered the hut. They jumped on the pot that was on the chulha and spilt the food. The dogs ate up all the food and then ran away with the makeshift spoon. The commotion jolted the woman out of her fantasies. She saw that the food had vanished, the bowl was broken and the spoon was missing. Now, what was she to do? She started thinking. Her husband’s letter had to be answered. But what could she write about? Then an idea struck her. She called her son, sent him to buy a postcard and asked him to write what she dictated; 'The army of Mr. Hound launched an attack. There was great commotion in the royal hall. Sir Pot fell down; the squire, Mr. Bowl, was severely wounded and Princess Spooneria was taken away.’ When the letter arrived, the man got someone to read it out to him. He understood the message perfectly well. This coded language was not new to him. It was an everyday affair. Everyday, they would use it. The woman would sit at the door of their hut and say, 'Come on kids, it’s time for the king to dine. Let’s serve him. Bring Sir Pot from the chulha. Also get Mr. Bowl and I hope you have not forgotten Miss Spooneria?’ They all understood the language so well. The man started worrying, ‘There was just one pot in the house. Now how will they cook? I had fixed a piece of wood to the coconut shell and made a makeshift spoon. Now what will they stir the mixture with?’ The moral of the story is that so far we have been calling our huts, royal palaces; our poor husbands, kings; and the leftovers we got, rich dishes. We use this language even today. We might say to a friend, ‘Come on, I’ve so much work to do. I have to polish our royal hall with cow dung.’ We are very protective about the kumkum on our foreheads. For the sake of the kumkum mark, we lay our lives at the feet of our husbands. We believe that if a woman has her husband she has the whole world; if she does not have a husband, then the world holds nothing for her. It’s another thing that these masters of kumkum generally bestow upon us nothing but grief and suffering. Still the kumkum that we apply in their name is the only ornament for us. It is more precious than even the Kohinoor diamond. But the most important thing is that we love to dream. For it is in our dreams that all our hopes come true! When we were children, our hopes breathed some life into our miserable existence. At the same time, the life of the elder people in our community made a great impression on us. Their behaviour

and thoughts, and the customs they followed, shaped our young minds. We tried to emulate them, to think and behave like them. We used to keenly observe the behaviour of the elders in our community and the customs followed by them, especially those practised during the month of Ashadh. This festive month was over in no time, but it left a lasting impression. All children love to imitate their elders. We were no exception. My grandparents’ house had a tall gabled roof on one side, which offered lovely shade. Since our house was on the banks of a stream, there was open space around. We had all that space to ourselves. We girls used to sit under the shade of this huge roof and play our game of mimicking our elders. We would arrange clay pots around us. One girl would go fetch water and another would collect firewood. A third one would take two flat stones and putting some earth in between, pretend to grind grain. Somebody would become a yeskar Mahar and go off to beg for stale bread. Yet another would pretend to bathe herself or her children and make the same sounds as her mother. When the boys saw us playing house, they would come running to join us. Then they too would take on different roles. Some boys would make small trumpets with leaves, some would hang broken tin pots around their necks and would pretend to play the drum. Some would pluck leaves off the banyan tree to produce musical notes. And some would become potrajas. Then the boys would make small mud balls and grind some red tiles. The mud balls rolled in the red powder from the tiles were our sacred offerings. After all this was done, we would set out in search of a goat or a cock. Not real ones, of course! We would collect the blood-red buds of the cactus which grew in abundance around our homes. These were huge plants that were about ten feet in height with a circumference of about seven feet. The ground around the cactus would be layered with fallen cactus spines. In the hot sun, we would get into thickets full of sharp spines. They would pierce our feet and we would walk around with bloody feet. However, we had our own remedies for such wounds. If the bleeding was profuse, we would take some soft soil from under the plant and press it hard on the wound. Nobody took the thorns and wounds seriously in the heady spirit of the game. If it became difficult to walk on our feet because of the wounds, we would walk on our toes. The cactus had huge hood-like stems that together formed a tall structure. Sharp spines, almost as long as our fingers, grew on each stem. The stems were covered with lovely looking golden yellow spots. They were actually deadly bunches of thorn, so small and light that they could float in the wind. These were far more dangerous than the spines.

Those tiny thorns ruined the lives of many young children. Sometimes they would pierce the eyeballs or even the iris. Then the iris would lose colour and become white. After sometime the eyeball would just pop out! At least one in ten children would lose an eye in this manner. Even the slightest pressure was enough to release the thorns from the stems, like bees from a hive, and then the thorns would land on any part of the body. They would get lodged too deeply for them to be pulled out. But we too had our own ways of plucking the red buds. We would cut a long slim twig from a tarwad tree, nail its end with a sharp thorn, and then with a flick of the wrist, we would get the red bud off the cactus stem, without touching it. When the bud fell down, we did not touch it with our fingers. It would be gathered with tarwad leaves, placed on a piece of tile and then rolled in the grass to remove the tiny but deadly thorns. Then we gathered all the red buds and‘brought them to the place where we were playing house. There, one girl would place the pile of mud cakes on another girls head. Someone else would dress up another girl in neem leaves and yet another would carry the red buds on her head. Another girl would smear all our foreheads with the red tile powder as though it was kumkum. We distributed stones as nivad. All the boys would walk in front, pretending to play the musical band. Our procession roamed all over the place where people went to defecate. The boys too plucked cactus flowers, with their red buds. All the girls wore them as nose rings since the flowers looked like pearls. Then we would shake our bodies to the beats of the drummers. We danced to the rhythm of the tin pots, our hair flying in the wind. We even hummed like possessed women, running all over the place. The ground would be covered with various creepers and thorns. But we were completely oblivious to this. We danced as if drunk, sweat running down our faces, our hair in tangles, and our bodies covered in dust. This was our fair. We would halt at some tall rock. Then all of us would jump on that rock. We would decorate the rock by smearing it with the red powder and pat mud upon it. Then we would cut open the red cactus pods we had gathered as if they were goats and hens. The cactus was a boon to us poor people. It yielded us everything, right from toys to firewood. When we went hungry, they supplied us with food. They gave us our ornaments too, like the flowers we wore as nose rings. Everything that we did was thus an exact imitation of the adults. Like

them, we even put small children at the feet of the rock god. The earth burnt our feet. The silky thorns pierced our flesh. We are the children of this mother earth; we have survived all the thorns, the sun and the heat. We kept praying to god for a little comfort, which never came our way. We smeared our foreheads with earth and finally die same earth took us into her arms; in the end, we merged with mother earth. Anyway, that is how we played, mimicking our elders. The play, of course, would invariably end in fights. Then the defeated party would abandon the game and run away. Play time would get over. Tired and hungry, we would saunter homewards, and lustily attack the Stale and dry rod pieces kept in a basket.

5 There were about sixteen houses in our maharwada. All the people of the maharwada were illiterate except for my aaja. He was an educated man. I had three aajas from my mothers side and all of them spoke excellent English. They had lived in cities like Pune and Mumbai and, interestingly, they had all worked as butlers. It was because of their association with the European sahibs that they could speak English so well. Whenever my aajas sahib got transferred to a different city, my aaja moved along with him. His salary was sixteen rupees a month. His butlers clothes used to look so elegant—the beautifully pressed white uniform, the white coat, the turban on his head with a brass buckle pinned to it that hung down on his forehead, the red sash around the waist and another red sash wrapped from under the arm over the chest! The villagers would be so impressed! He appeared no less than a minister to them. He did not have to spend anything on his food and other necessities as almost everything was available to him free of cost. As his salary of sixteen rupees remained unspent, he used to send my grandmother a money order for ten rupees every month. A man getting a salary of sixteen rupees every month was a unique phenomenon in the village. The money order would be a heated topic for discussion everywhere—both in the maharwada as well as in the locality of the higher castes of the village. The day the money order was received would be extremely eventful. The entire community would flock at the chawdi in a state of palpable excitement. They would talk, talk and talk. When the postman came, they would stare, agog. Everyone would take the postman aside and whisper secretively, ‘How much?’ People would come to our house to escort my aaji to the chawdi. When Aai, as we called our grandmother, arrived at the chawdi, there would be hustle and bustle, everyone far more excited than any of us family members. The discussion would continue long after she had collected the amount and gone home. ‘Looks like Malari is in a far away land.’ ‘Of course!’ another would explain, ‘He is educated, isn’t he? That’s why he has found a job with the white sahib. And so Sitay Kaku gets a money order of ten rupees every month. Ten rupees! Will you ever be able to even see such a sum in your lifetime? Besides, wherever he goes, he sends her

saris, ornaments and what not. You know he can write very well too. And oh my, the way he chats with his sahib! In the sahib’s own tongue, you know! He’s a special one, I tell you, our Malari. And you know what? He has brought such wonderful books from that place — what do you call it — Kashmir. They have everything about gods and holy matters. You can even find out about medicines and things of that sort in those books. If he ever visits our place, Veergaon, who will be able to say that he’s a Mahar? He looks so smart, just like a king!’ Tulsa and Kasa used to live right in front of our house. They were sisters-inlaw. Both women were around fifty years of age. Their hair, never touched by a comb, was completely white and lay tangled on their head like a basket turned upside down. Their saris were rags and their blouses mere tatters. Poverty oozed out of their house as it were. Everyday they would come and squat at our doorstep in the tender morning sun. They would sit there for hours, enjoying the sun, scratching their heads like mad with both hands and searching for lice crawling about in their tattered clothing. Around ten o’clock, they would pick up their baskets and brooms and set off towards the Maratha households where they cleaned the animal pens. They would return in the afternoon with a couple of baskets full of leftover food. These leftovers saw their family through till the next morning, for that’s what they ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their family included Kasa’s husband Ganpat and their two children, Bapya and Housi. The children were just like their parents, with the same couldn’t-careless attitude. When Tulsa was taken ill and had to lie in bed for a couple of weeks, one day she felt a terrible craving for the bombil fish. But where was the money to buy it? Now my aaji had just received her money order. When Tulsa heard about this, she came to my aaji and said, ‘Sitayvahini, I'm dying to eat bombil, but I have no money. Lend me a ginni, I’ll return it after I sell some firewood.’ Aai immediately gave her an anna. Tulsa bought some bombil worth two paise, a little oil and some chillies worth half a paise each. Since she had lost her appetite, she also added a little channa, dhania seeds, some jaggery worth a damdi and a little raw turmeric. With this she prepared a concoction to add a little taste. By the time she returned after shopping, it was nearly evening. She placed the bombil on the chulha to roast. When the children smelt the roasting fish, they raised hell. They squatted down on the floor, thrashing their feet wildly, demanding to eat the fish. Tulsa gave them a piece each, with some stale bhakri. Delighted, the kids ran out, parked themselves on the heap of firewood and

started eating their favourite dish with relish. Housi ate her fish fast but Bapya ate his sparingly, in fact he did not eat it at all. He just put it in his mouth along with a piece of stale bhakri, pretended to chew it but actually brought it out again because he wanted to eat it only after his sister had finished her s, so that he could annoy her. Soon after Housi finished her fish, he started teasing her. Wiping his sticky nose with his wrists, he started to sing, O silly monkey, sitting on the gate Fall at my feet, but this you won’t get. The song, which called her a monkey, annoyed Housi. The angrier she became, the more Bapya teased her. Amid all this commotion, the fish on Bapya’s bhakri rolled down and disappeared somewhere in the wood heap. When Bapya noticed that his fish was gone, he lost his head. Beating his fist against his mouth, he climbed down from the heap of firewood. Then howling and screaming madly, he started running around the heap in circles, trying to retrieve his lost fish. Housi followed him. Their collective screaming brought out their parents and they too started looking for the fish. Their voices added to the racket and all the neighbours anxiously rushed out of their houses to find out what was happening. They feared that something terrible had happened. They kept calling out loudly to make themselves heard amid the din,‘What’s wrong? Did something bite you or what?’ Finally their voices managed to penetrate the din and Bapya told them what had happened. Everybody was so amused that they burst out laughing. The kids, of course, were a chip off the old block, as Ganpat dada was quite a character! It was the Nagapanchami festival. Women would knead a snake out of mud and keep it in the corner of the house where the gods were kept. They would worship the snake, offer prayers and then immerse it in the stream before they ate in the afternoon. That was the custom. On that day, Tulsa and Kasa had collected leftover chapattis from various households and kept them in a small cane basket. Tulsa told her brother, ‘Dada, I have kept the chapattis here and a piece of jaggery in the alcove. You can mix the chapattis and jaggery for breakfast and give some to the children as well.’ Tulsa and Kasa left for cleaning the pens. Ganpat dada took down the tagari, poured two pots full of water into it and instead of jaggery, took out the mud figure of nag narsoba and put it in the water. He kneaded it with his fingers till it dissolved in the water. Next he took out the chapattis and breaking them into

small pieces, mixed them well in the mud. He gave a plateful of this mixture to Bapya and Housi who gobbled it up in no time at all, with much relish, licking not only their fingers but their elbows as well, where the muddy mixture had trickled down. When Tulsa and Kasa returned, Kasa started groping in the alcove, looking for the nag narsoba, which had to be immersed before they had their food. But all that her groping fingers could find was the small piece of jaggery. Where was the narsoba? Intrigued, she confronted her husband, ‘Tell me, did you crush the narsoba instead of jaggery in the water?’ ‘O my god, was it the narsoba?’ ‘Of course, it was there in the alcove.’ Then I must have mixed the narsoba instead of jaggery with the chapattis. So that’s why the chapattis didn’t taste sweet!’ Such was the condition of our people. We were just like animals, but without tails. We could be called human only because we had two legs instead of four. Otherwise there was no difference between us and the animals. But how had we been reduced to this bestial state? Who was responsible? Who else, but people of the high castes! They destroyed our reasoning, our ability to think. We were reduced to a condition far worse than that of the bullocks kept in the courtyards of the high castes. The bullocks were at least given some dry grass to eat. The bullocks ate the grass and slogged for their masters. But we were merely given leftovers. We ate the leftovers without complaining and laboured for others. The only difference, however, was that the beasts could eat a bellyful and they could stay in their masters’ courtyards. But our condition was far worse. Our place was in the garbage pits outside the village, where everyone threw away their waste. That was where we lived, in our poor huts, amidst all the filth! We were masters only of the dead animals thrown into those pits by the high castes. We had to fight with cats and dogs and kites and vultures to establish our right over the carcasses, to tear off the flesh from the dead bodies. Our lives were governed by various calamities. We were imprisoned in dark cells, our hands and feet bound by the chain of slavery. Our reason was gagged. But it is because of us that the world stands. We are the foundation. Shallow water makes a lot of noise, but still water runs deep! Like the ocean that covers mountains of sin under its huge expanse, we covered the sins of the high castes. That is why we, like the ocean, deserve the admiration of the whole world.

Our people in these villages lived in abject poverty. They had absolutely no power, and yet their hearts were full of kindness and love for each other. Women would wake up at the crack of dawn. The grains would have been cleaned the previous night and kept ready. At cock’s crow, the grinding stones in each house would start whirring. When my aaji sat at the grinding stone, I would crawl out of my covers and put my head on her lap. All children did so. The women would pull down their pallav, cover the sleeping child and then, pouring small quantities of grain into the opening of a small hole, they would start grinding. In the quiet of the early hours, the sound of the grinding stones and the sweet notes of the women singing would float all over the maharwada. Every woman would sing a song to the child sleeping on her lap. The songs would be full of love for their children and grandchildren, their brothers and sisters-inlaw, their fathers and their mothers. Through the songs, women would praise them all, describing their good qualities. The songs expressed their hope and conviction that their future was bright. Their aspirations and their dreams, which would never materialise, blossomed through these songs and the melodious notes issuing forth from the depth of the heart. Baby, my daughter’s child Is lovely like a flower Avert your evil eyes Oh you wicked neighbour / It’s your evil eye That’s cast its spell on her My tiny Baby has got Oh such a burning fever / With salt and mustard seeds I’ll drive the spell away Sleep soundly on my lap O my sweet Bebabai / In these songs, women sang about their children. Like fountains, their love sprung through these songs. Children bubbled with joy as the songs had their names. I would sleep till Aaji finished her grinding. Then I would shake the sleep off my eyes and get up. Aaji would collect the flour around the stone with a small kuncha. It would be daybreak by this time. Then, along with a couple of my friends, I would go to fetch water. We would carry earthen pitchers on our heads. Other girls would join us. We would walk by the banks of the stream up to the jutting rock from where it originated. This rock was nearly thirty feet high. There was a cave inside this rock. A small stream

flowed from the rocks inside the cave and people had dug a channel to give it a proper outlet. In the cave, we would dig into the bed of the stream with broken coconut shells and then begin to collect the water that seeped through the sand till our pitchers got filled. To get inside the cave, we had to climb the steep rocks one by one and collect water by turns. Then we would wash our faces in the stream. We would grind small pebbles with bigger stones into a fine powder and clean our teeth white with it. After I returned home, Aaji would give me piping hot tea in a glass, along with previous night s stale bhakri. The taste of that bhakri still lingers on my tongue. The bhakri tasted far better than the orange biscuits that we have today. It was only in our house that tea was made. No other house prepared tea. After breakfast, Aaji would go with other women towards the Veergaon dam to fetch firewood. They collected firewood in summer and grass in winter. During the night, they would sharpen their axes on the stones, gather strings and keep them in bundles and keep everything ready for the next day. In the morning they would depart in a big group. Children in maharwada would be left to fend for themselves while their mothers were away, with nobody to discipline or take care of them. Nobody knew whether they were alive or dead. Someone would carelessly hurl a stone at someone else s head and blood would gush out. One of them would put black soot from the tawa, on the wound. Finished! The child would wipe its running nose and rush back to the game once again. Around one or two o’clock in the afternoon the women would return, almost running in the scorching heat, with bundles of firewood on their heads. The children would look for their own mothers in the group and then, holding the pallav in their hands, follow them home. The women would be drenched with sweat running down their bodies. Their throats would be parched dry. They would find the shade of a tree, throw their burdens down in the dust and squat down on the road. The children fetched water in tin pots and the women would pour it down their throats in great gulps. Then they would return to their houses and look for the basket of bhakris. Most of the times these baskets would be empty as the children would have finished the bhakris. Having had no breakfast in the morning, and with no food in the house, hunger gnawed at their empty stomachs like wild fire. What could they eat? They would go looking for some crumbs in their friends’ houses. Our house used to be a storehouse of food as there was no one else to eat except for my aaji and me. The bhakris we received for our duties as yeskar would be drying in the sun. Aaji generally dried these bhakris till they were crisp and stored them in big containers. Anyone who did not have food came to Aaji.

She was a very kind soul. The women would keep their bundles of firewood at home and come to our house one by one. Aaji would bring out the dried bhakris and hand them over to the women who put them on wooden plates. Half a basketful of onions would be brought out. Then all of us, my aaji, myself and the women, ate the stone like dry bread with raw onions to our heart’s content. The pieces would be so dry that our collective munching would sound as loud as a machine thundering in some factory. The women ate the bhakris with two or three big onions and washed it down with a jugful of water. Belching contentedly, they returned home. Now they had to break the firewood into small pieces. Once the big branches were cut into small pieces, they tied them up in small bundles and carried them on their heads to the village to sell them. They were not allowed to use the regular road that was used by the higher castes. When somebody from these castes walked from the opposite direction, the Mahars had to leave the road, climb down into the shrubbery and walk through the thorny bushes on the roadside. They had to cover themselves hilly if they saw any man from the higher castes coming down the road, and when he came close, they had to say, ‘The humble Mahar women fall at your feet master.’ This was like a chant, which they had to repeat innumerable times, even to a small child if it belonged to a higher caste. We children followed the women, holding their pallav. Sometimes there would be a young, newly wed girl in the group and she would fail to join the chant out of sheer ignorance or awkwardness. All hell would break loose then. The master would simply explode in rage. He would march straight to the Mahar chawdi, summon all the Mahars there and kick up a big fuss. ‘Who, just tell me, who the hell is that new girl? Doesn’t she know that she has to bow down to the master? Shameless bitch! How dare she pass me without showing due respect?’ Then the girl’s sasra and other elderly men from the community would fall at the man’s feet in utter supplication, begging for mercy. ‘No, no kind master! That girl is a new animal in the herd! Quite foolish and ignorant. If she has erred, I, her sasra, fall at your feet, but please forgive us for this crime.’ ‘No! You Mahars are transgressing your limits. It is all this food that you get free of cost that has made you forget your place, isn’t it? But listen carefully. Next time, if anybody passes by me without bowing, you’ve had it! No mercy would be shown to you any longer. What do you take us for? Are we Mahars like you or do you take us for naive children? Daring to pass by me without bowing! Think twice before doing any such thing again!’

At this, everyone would beg him again, ‘No, no, master, we will not let such a thing happen again! Please forgive us this time.’ The master, fuming with rage, would walk away, grumbling and muttering to himself, all the way back. The Mahar men would return to their huts. But the matter did not end there. Everybody then vented their wrath on the poor young girl, the daughter-in-law, and took her to task. For her sasu, this would be a fine opportunity to abuse her! The sasra also joined forces with his wife, ‘You bitch, Paru, will you allow us to stay in this village or not? Do you know what havoc you’ve caused today? Do you know how terrible it was for me today? The whole village has started spitting on my face. We eat their food, don’t we? Should we pass by them without bowing? Do your parents belong to the Kolhati caste?[1] Don’t they have this custom of bowing down before the masters of their village?’ Immediately, the sasu would sarcastically add her own bit to the tirade, ‘Her father must be a Patil, you know, that’s why she’s behaving so! What does she know about our customs! Impudent bitch! They are our masters, do you understand? We must behave according to our custom, that’s our religion! Was your mother a she-donkey that you behave so? Didn’t she teach you anything? Your sasra moves among respectable people and you have blackened his face!’ Everybody, even the neighbours and relatives, would join in the fray, and abuse the girl to their heart’s content.

We used to accompany the women to sell firewood. They would be wearing saris —their sacred cloth stitched out of rags patched up together with the stitches as thick as fingers. Even their rags were made of several patches put together. Their pallav reached to their knees. A veil fell over their forehead. They wore the saris in the traditional way, the front pleats taken through the legs and tucked behind. There were caste rules even for how one tucked the pleats. Mahar women had to tuck them in such a way that the borders remained hidden. Only high caste women had the privilege of wearing their saris in such a way that the borders could be seen. A Mahar woman was supposed to hide the borders under the pleats; otherwise it was considered an offence to the high castes. Their foreheads were smeared with huge kumkum marks. Their blouses were also made from

rags. The tired and dusty Mahar women walked on one side of the road with utmost humility so as not to offend anyone. They tried to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible, hiding themselves from all others. They would walk through the lanes where people from other lower castes lived. The lanes were known as dhangar lane, vinkar lane, mali lane, teli lane and so on. Finally, they came to the Brahmin lane. All their firewood would be sold in this lane. Every house in this lane had a chest-high platform, like a wall, to prohibit the Mahars from directly reaching the door. The Mahar women would stand in the far off corners of the platform and call out, ‘Kaki, firewood! The Mahar women are here with firewood.’ The kaki would be sitting on the swing; slowly, she would stop swinging and get down at a leisurely pace to bargain with them. She would offer one and a half or two paise for one bundle. Finally the price would be settled at five paise for two bundles, the actual price of which would be at least three paise each. But what could the women do? Even god in trouble, they say, has to fall at the feet of a donkey! Even after the price was agreed upon, the work for the Mahar women was not over. The women had to carry the bundles to the backyard or the inner courtyard of the house. Then they had to untie the bundles and stack all the wood neatly. Thereafter, they had to pick up each stick and check it for any strand of long hair, or thread from their saris that may have stuck to the wood. The Brahmin kaki, sitting in the cool shade and supervising this operation, would keep shouting instruction after instruction, ‘Listen carefully, you dumb Mahar women, check the sticks well. If you overlook any of the threads sticking to the wood, there will be a lot of trouble. But whats that to you? Your carelessness will cost us heavily. Our house will get polluted. Then we will have to polish the floor with cow dung and wash all our clothes, even the rags in the house! Such trouble we’ll have to undergo for your foolishness! And how will the gods tolerate this, tell me? They too will be polluted, won’t they? That’s why I’m telling you, check the sticks well! The Mahar women would check the bundles carefully, saying, ‘Kaki, we have taken out every strand of hair and thread from the sticks. Each stick has been checked. Have we gone mad that we will pollute your house? You are god’s own people. Don’t we know even that?’ We children, curious about the various things lying in the kaki s courtyard, would try to move about and touch them. But one step forward and the kaki would shout, ‘These idiotic Mahar women! Hey you, why do you bring these

brats along? They’ll touch things and pollute everything. Tell them to sit quietly.’ Then our Mahar women would shout at us, ‘You bastards, can’t you keep quiet? Sit quietly in one place! Look Kaki, these brats just follow us when we come here. Hey you there, don't touch anything. You make mischief and we are kicked for no fault. But what’s that to you?’ Meanwhile, all the sticks would be checked and stacked properly. Then the women would carefully gather whatever strands of hair and threads they had found sticking to the wood, hold them carefully in their palms and again go to the front of the house and stand away from the raised platforms, their palms outstretched in utmost humility. Finally, the kaki would throw from above, to avoid any contact, a couple of coins on each palm. The same process was followed while selling grass as well. The kaki would get the women to carefully check each blade of grass! What a beastly thing this Hindu religion is! Let me tell you, its not prosperity and wealth that you enjoy—it is the very life blood of the Mahars! Mahar women's sweat would have soaked the firewood. Sometimes when thorns pricked them, blood trickled and dripped on the sticks. Sometimes they cut their own limbs instead of the wood and blood poured down, drenching the wood with blood. Thus it was the very essence of the Mahar woman's life that was found sticking to the wood. And yet the Brahmin woman objected to what they found sticking there! When the Mahar women labour in the fields, the corn gets wet with their sweat. The same corn goes to make your pure, rich dishes. And you feast on them with such evident relish! Your palaces are built with the soil soaked with the sweat and blood of Mahars. But does it rot your skin? You drink their blood and sleep comfortably on the bed of their misery. Doesn’t it pollute you then? Just as the farmer pierces his bullock’s nose and inserts a string through the nostrils to control it, you have pierced the Mahar nose with the string of ignorance. And you have been flogging us with the whip of pollution. This is all that your selfish religion has given to us. But now we have learnt how utterly worthless your religion is. And the one who has taught us this, the one who has transformed us from beasts into human beings, is the architect of our Constitution—that shining jewel of sheel and satwa, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.

[1] Kolhati s are traditionally associated with tamasha, the folk art in which Kolhati women dance.

6 Our women offer their entire lives to the service of mother earth. But when they themselves become mothers, what do they get? After having given birth to their children, they have to tie up their bellies and lie down helplessly. . In those days, there would be no food in the house, not even the water leftover from boiling rice, to satiate the fire of hunger raging inside the belly of the new mother. After the baby comes out into the world, a terrible void is left inside. The stomach needs soft and light food. But from where could Mahars get such food? With the hunger gnawing her insides, the poor woman would just tie up her stomach tightly and lie down on rags, her body a mass of aches and pain. Mahar women would go out begging in the neighbourhood and try to collect at least a handful of grains. Some woman would procure from somewhere a little jowar, tie it carefully in her pallav and bring it to the house where the poor mother lay. She would give the jowar to the women in the house, who would crush the grains on the grinding stone and cook the coarse flour in water. The gruel would be poured onto a wooden plate and mixed with a little oil, if there was any. Otherwise the mother would eat it plain, to quench the raging hunger in her stomach. There is a saying that a black cow can survive even on thorns. Our women were like that proverbial black cow. Even on occasions when they had a right to be indulged a bit, they had to fill their stomachs with thorns to stay alive. Daughters usually went to their mother s house for their first delivery. Not that there was a great deal of difference between the house of their parents and that of their in-laws! Poverty and adversities were the same for Mahars everywhere. The one thing that was found in abundance was firewood. And so the girl, after her delivery, was given plenty of hot baths. And that used to be so painful! Actually, the ordeal would begin from the time the labour pains set in. In the first place, the girl generally would be very young as all girls were married off at a very tender age. Obviously, they were physically quite underdeveloped at the time of their first pregnancy. The labour pains would continue for quite a long time, sometimes for even three or four days. The whole of the maharwada, in fact, would gather around the house. Women in any case did not have much work to do at home so they would simply flock to the house where a delivery was taking place. The ignorant midwives would keep thrusting their hands into the

poor girls vagina to see how far the baby had progressed. Invariably, the vagina would get swollen, obstructing the babys path. The girl could overcome all obstacles and have a safe delivery only if her luck held strong! It was a battle with death. Her parents would be in a petrified state till she delivered the baby. They did whatever they could for her safety; that is, whatever did not cost any money. The poor girl would keep screaming aloud in pain and their hearts would be rent apart. The girls mother especially would be in a state of utter shock and bewilderment. People would suggest a hundred different things to her. The elderly women would come up with their own advice, ‘You should go to the stream and take a bath. Keep the wet sari on. Then go and pay a visit to our goddess Lakamai and pour water over her stone. Pray to her for an easy delivery. Don’t forget to ask her to allow your daughter to return to her husband’s place safe and sound along with the baby!’ Then the poor mother would hurry to the stream to bathe and then pour water over all the saffron-coated stones of goddess Lakamai, worship them with haldi and kumkum and pray for her daughter’s safe delivery. Her teeth would chatter with cold and fear. When finally her daughter gave birth to the baby, the relief that she felt would be so intense, that she would nearly faint. But the ordeal would not yet be over for the poor girl. Helpless, she would lie completely at the mercy of the women surrounding her. Her vagina would be swollen stiff as the surrounding women kept thrusting their hands inside. There would be several wounds and cuts inside, which throbbed with unbearable pain. For want of cotton or cloth pads, blood continued to flow. Why, the girl would be fortunate if her family could find even some dirty rags for her. This was the extent of their poverty! Then the girls mother would heat some water. In the meanwhile, her father would dig a pit in one corner of the hut for her bath. The soil dug out from the pit would be spread all over the hut. Once the pit was ready, they would spread sticks on top of the pit, put the spade and other tools used for digging inside the pit, and make the new mother sit upon the sticks. Then they would give her a bath with scalding hot water. They would massage her as well, but of course, without any oil. This went on till she started sweating profusely. Then they would spread dry paddy upon the floor. That would be her bed for the next twelve days. She was made to lie naked upon it, her sari spread over her as cover. After the hot water bath, she was given the hot coal treatment, that is, pieces of burning coal were kept around her to keep her warm. This made the poor girl

sweat even more, as if she was having another hot bath. Only after all this torture was over, was she was allowed to sleep. Then the newborn baby would be given bath with hot water. People lived in filth, yet no one told them about the use of soap. Women would spit on their palms and clean the babys face with the saliva. Then they bathed the baby till it became completely exhausted. Both water and fuel were free of charge, anyway! So there might even be two baths a day. The crushed jowar would be cooked till it was soft; some jaggery and a little oil would be added to it before it’s given to the mother. It was believed that the baby would not suffer from stomach aches if the mother was fed such soft gruel. The hungry mother would quickly pour it down her throat, and feeling utterly exhausted, throw herself down on her straw mattress and close her eyes. Sleep would be instant and peaceful as her stomach was full. A neem twig would be hung at the doorstep as a sign that the house had a new baby. A visitor had to stop at the entrance for five minutes and spit three times before being allowed to enter. This was supposed to ward off any evil spirit that might have accompanied the visitor. Of course, it was only the more fortunate who could enjoy the luxury of eating cooked jowar, though this was the cheapest grain available. Many new mothers had to go hungry. They would lie down, pining for a few morsels while hunger gnawed their insides. Most women suffered this fate. Labour pains, mishandling by the midwife, wounds inflicted by onlookers nails, ever-gnawing hunger, infected wounds with pus oozing out, hot water baths, hot coals, profuse sweating—everything caused the new mother’s condition to worsen and she would end up getting a burning fever. On most occasions, it was tetanus. The family would have to look after the infant on the one hand and the suffering mother on the other! There would be neither food nor money! Only unlimited grief and suffering! The fever was often called madanvayu. Heated discussions would follow. Many remedies, which did not cost any money, would be freely prescribed and followed. Some women would become possessed and the spirit of some goddess would speak out, ‘This girl is possessed by an evil spirit. The hadal from that place, Shertati, possesses her. She has come into the house lodged in the feet of a neighbour. The girl met the spirits eye exactly at twelve o’clock. Now I’ll tell you what the remedy is. Take some oil, jowar, beaten jowar, kajal, kumkum in a bowl, move the bowl over the girl’s body and then put it under the banyan tree at midnight. That evil bitch ties a swing to the banyan tree and sits swinging there

to her heart’s content. She is evil, I tell you, evil! She’ll simply take away the body she possesses.’ The suffering of the woman would be beyond endurance. Even the onlookers found it difficult to watch her plight. Her family smeared her forehead with ash from the chulha. Two or three days would pass like this. People around her would try to soothe her with kind words. Life in that poor mother gradually diminished and she would finally sink. Many young girls on the threshold of life succumbed to death. One in every ten lost their lives during childbirth. Infants died as well. The fear of death drove people to the goddess Satwai and they would perform all the customary rituals. On the fifth day, a ritual called the Pachvi would be performed. On this day, there would be a lot of work in the house. If no dead animal could be found in the village, an animal would be killed as sacrificial offering to the goddess. The new mother, it was believed, needed to eat five particular organs of an animal on this day. The elderly women in the house would wake up early and polish the floor and the chulha with cow dung. The new mother would be given a hot water bath. Four dry jowar sticks would be placed in the four corners of the house. The women in the family went and stood in front of the queue if a dead animal was being skinned, and staked their claim on the five organs required as offerings to the goddess Satwai. The butchers would nod with understanding and give the women the required organs—the kidney, the stomach, the liver and an organ with several veins that looked like a slipper and the large intestine full of fat. The women collected these in a big earthen pot and immediately carried the pot home to cook the organs to a soft pulp. At sunset, the women would get busy. First, they would take seven small stones, wash and arranged them on the bath pit in a line and smear them with haldi and kumkum. A big earthen pot would be kept on the bath pit and a lamp of kneaded flour was lighted inside. Then the black soot from the flame was gathered and applied on the stones. The cooked limbs were offered as the sacrifice. Then the mother was covered with a blanket and the baby put at the feet of the goddess, that is, in front of the seven stones. After this, the mother was given a large plate full of the cooked organs. After the meal she was made to wipe her tongue with a tattered piece of jute cloth. It was believed that by doing so she would prevent the baby from getting stomach aches. Then the new mother and her mother had to keep vigil the whole night without even a wink of sleep. No cat was to be allowed inside. It was believed that the goddess Satwai and the god Barama visited the house at

midnight to write the baby s future on its forehead. Barama, it was believed, had a pen with which he made Satwai write the fate of the baby. There is a saying that Barama s words and Satwai s writing are indelible and can never be wiped off. But didn’t all the babies in the Mahar community share the same fate? So what was there to write on the forehead of each baby? Actually, both Barama and Satwai probably give the Mahar household a miss. Or they must have made one common stamp for all the Mahar children! In any case, what was so glorious in the life of a Mahar that they could choose to write about? So one common stamp was probably more than adequate for all Mahar babies! Today, if we come across Barama and Satwai, we would like to give them both a sound thrashing and ask, ‘Barama and Satwai, you ruined the lives of generation after generation of the Mahars! You wrote our fates, didn’t you? Religion must have bribed you quite well to do this. Otherwise why should you have done this? Religion must have handed over a stamp to Barama instead of a pen to Satwai, you kept sealing our fates with your writing! And yet, our simple folks were so loyal to you and your religion! But now we are more than a match for you, do you realise? Fine, you stamped a fate of misery on our foreheads ten times and we suffered a thousand times more. But now we have vanquished you. We have true power, because we have sheel, satwa and neeti, and they stand supreme in the whole world.’ Thousands of our generations were sacrificed and their lives were utterly ruined. Millions perished but their essence of truth and morality did not. This endured, seeped into the soil, and enriched it. And then a small sapling grew out of this enriched soil. It went on to become a huge tree of light and truth. It gave shelter to millions who were suffering. The tree transformed beasts into human beings. This tree was that ideal human being, our very own Buddha. From 1930 onwards, his name started reaching villages like a gentle breeze that brings succour in the scorching sun. Our Bhimraja decided to awaken his people who had sunk to the level of subhumans. He began to organise small meetings and speaking to the people. But reaching out to millions of people was a stupendous task. Then the senior leaders in Mumbai decided to organise meetings at the time of jatras because that was the time when all the people in the community would gather together. The leaders took up the job of enlightening ignorant people with Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s thoughts and their words found a way right into peoples hearts. The first meeting was organised on the Pournima night in the month of Chaitra in Jejuri. God Khandoba of Jejuri had been the family deity of

the Mahars for generations. They flocked to this jatra from various places, walking for several miles. In Jejuri, a huge crowd of Mahars yellowed with haldi[1] flocked at the Mahar chawdi for the meeting. Dr. Ambedkar was the topic of discussion among them all. ‘Hey, have you heard? It seems there is a meeting of the Mahars in the chawdi,’ one would say. Another would respond immediately, ‘Yes, yes. You people from Veergaon, this is exactly what our relative from Saswad was saying too. You know, they say this boy Ambedkar belongs to our Mahar community; but he has been educated at a place far beyond the seven seas. Such great education he has had, you know. Imagine, he returned to Mumbai in a ship! And he can actually speak in the white sahib’s own tongue and hold his own.’ This would be enough of an invitation for yet another to chip in, ‘This man is nothing less than a miracle of god. That’s why he’s been able to cross the seven seas, you know! Anyway, let’s sit down and listen to what he has to say.’ There were many, of course, who, after having eaten till their seams burst, just wanted to lie down at some place and would have listened to anyone. But many wanted to listen specifically to Ambedkar. Thus a lot of people gathered at the chawdi, and in the moonlit night, camped on the large ground in front of the chawdi. My aaja from Mumbai had also come for this meeting. Even my grandaunt, Bhikai Aaji, had come. They too were among the audience. When Dr. Ambedkar arrived in his car, they could not believe their eyes. They had never expected their own man to arrive in a car, dressed in European clothes. Open-mouthed, they gaped at him in sheer amazement. It was difficult for Baba to reach the chawdi through the milling crowds that surged forward to see him. Somehow he made his way to the chawdi and began his speech. ‘My brothers and sisters, all you folks, including the old men, women and children who have come to Jejuri from far off places. You walked barefoot for eight to ten days to get here. While on the way, you were tired, your feet ached, you had nothing but a few stale pieces of bhakri to eat, yet you kept on walking and finally reached Jejuri. Why? Because you wanted to see your family deity Khandoba. But tell me, did Khandoba see you? What did he say to you? Could he see your condition? Did he see your suffering? Generation after generation, our people have paid homage to this god. They did not mind the discomfort. You, too, came after an arduous journey. But did your Khandoba see you? Could you

meet him really? Why have you come after having suffered so? You have no clothes to wear. You have nothing to eat. You have no place to stay! And yet you come here. Year after year! You walk barefoot for the sake of this god. Your god should at least have inquired after you. Did he? Now, if he can’t do anything for you, why do you take so much trouble for him? ‘The stone steps in front of the god’s temple have been worn away by hapless people beating their heads against those steps in utter supplication. But has he ever taken mercy on you? What good has this god ever done to you? Your people have served the villages, the upper caste communities, for ages. You clean all their filth. And what do they do for you? They feed you with their dead animals. Even then this god does not take pity on you. Do you know something? You don’t worship god; you worship your ignorance! Generations after generations of Mahars have ruined themselves with such superstitions. And what have you got in return from this god? ‘From now onwards you have to follow a different path. You must educate your children. Divorce your children from god. Teach them good things. Send them to schools. The result will be there for you to see. When your children begin to be educated, your condition will start improving. Your family, your life will improve. Your children will bring you out of this hell. We are humans. We, too, have the right to live as human beings. Your children will make you aware of this. ‘Our women have had a major role in being superstitious, but I’m sure they will now give up these superstitions and take a lead in educating their children. They will have the honour of being the first to take this step forward. I have full faith in you, my sisters. Go ahead, educate your children. Let all our women take this step. Discard all such customs that strengthen our ignorance. My poor dear brothers and sisters, do not eat carcasses any more. Don’t clean the filth of the village. Let those who make the filth clean it up themselves. Let us teach them this lesson. This slavery, which has been imposed upon us, will not disappear easily. For that we need to bring about a revolution. Let three-fourth of our people die in this endeavour, then, at least the remaining one fourth will be able to live their lives with dignity. At least, their future will be better. I appeal to you, my mothers and sisters, be the first ones to step forward for reform.’ Babasaheb’s sturdy physique, his glowing youth, his fair complexion, his high forehead, and his European attire, his suit and boots—all of these impressed

people to no end. They basked in the warmth and glory of his words; words that were like elixir to them. It was as if all their suffering had finally earned them a glorious reward. They left with his words echoing in the innermost core of their hearts, feeling deliriously happy. The mirage of their aspirations and dreams had taken a real form. His words and his defiant spirit had electrified the women. Bhikai Aaji was born in Mumbai. She was used to addressing meetings and did not experience stage fright. She climbed onto the stage and made a fiery, resounding speech, addressing the huge crowd, in the presence of Babasaheb, ‘Let me assure you, my sisters, what Bhimrao Ambedkar says is absolutely right. We must educate our children. We must not and will not eat dead animals. We must reform our community. Let us resolve to fight along with Ambedkar. He speaks nothing but the truth. Let’s follow him to the end. This is what I say.’ The meeting finally came to an end. Ambedkar had mesmerised everybody in the huge crowd. My grandparents started repeating Ambedkar's words to every person they met. They never got tired of repeating the things that he said. All the people who came to our house had to listen to them. ‘My, my, that Ambedkar! What a dynamic young man he is! He has returned from far beyond the seven seas after getting educated there. Just like a white sahib. And he is so learned. Like a sahib too! He is so tall, so big and so fair! And such a high forehead he has. He dresses like a sahib and also looks like one. When he got down from his car, we thought a governor was stepping out. What a speech he made! As if it was a meeting attended by lord Indra in heaven. Ambedkar said, “Start educating all Mahar children. Stop eating dead animals. We must reform ourselves. Don’t stay ignorant anymore. Don’t believe in god and religion.” He said so many things. How many, I cannot tell you! His words have rent my heart.’ My aaja spoke as if he was drunk with happiness. He would gather people in the chawdi and repeat to them what Babasaheb had said in the meeting. Aaja said to the karbhari, ‘We must now give up eating dead animals. Ambedkar knows what he’s saying. He has been educated in the white man’s land. Is he mad to say so without a reason? He says this because he knows something about it. It is time to discard this maharness. Look at our people in the cities, how they have progressed! Now put your children into schools first. Give up cleaning the filth of others. Don’t eat dead animals. Look at that young man’s concern for us. Now, we should listen to him and do as he says. Listen, he is our own, of our flesh and blood. He has become a balister [barrister]! Now tell me, does he not know more than us?’

The karbhari did not like this. He was quite upset. Finally he got exasperated with my aaja and gesticulating wildly, burst out, ‘What are you saying Malari? Stop teaching us this padri knowledge of yours. How dare you ask us to give up our custom of eating dead animals! You are asking us to revolt against the village. I’ve been listening to you for too long. Suppose we give up all this as you and your Ambedkar say, then how can we call ourselves true Mahars? Aren’t we the children of this land? This duty of being the yeskar has been earned by our forefathers. They worked so hard for it. They suffered a lot but they never thought about giving it up. And you suddenly want us to give it all up! You get these silly ideas stuffed in your head and then come and pour them down on us. Stop preaching us this Christian knowledge. Why do you want us to put our children in schools? Are they going to become teachers? Or are they going to become Brahmins? Send them to school, indeed! That’s pure drivel! Listen, you can’t make the river flow backwards. The village land is our mother. We have to carry forward whatever order she has given us. Why do we need foreign knowledge? The yeskar’s stick is the mark of the happiness of the land. We have in us real Mahar flesh and blood. And you preach us this Christian knowledge? You and your sister-in-law, both of you are nothing short of troublemakers. That woman also keeps blabbering the same nonsense constantly. ‘You survived on the morsels of the army where you served! But we are the real Mahars. We will last forever. God has drawn a line for us and you want us to cross it? Listen, we are born for this work. That’s our sacred duty. Why should we give up our religion, our duty? We are the real original and pure Mahars! We aren’t any of those half-baked converts! Listen, that Ambedkar has turned your head with his strange foreign knowledge! He has lived among foreigners. Then isn’t he polluted? Probably he has become a Christian, that’s why he preaches this padri knowledge! What else can he tell us, if not all this foreign Christian knowledge? Now you and your sister-in-law come and pour that down our heads. ‘Listen Malari, the yeskar’s staff is not just an ordinary stick with a bell. It is no less than a royal staff! It is the mark of the real strength of the Mahar! The Mahar is a very proud breed. You say, don’t offer women as murali or jogtin to god, you don’t want to offer men as potraja in the service of the god. Then what is it that you want? Tea and roti? Listen, a murali woman is the first fruit obtained by a couple in their marriage. She has to be offered at the feet of our god Khanderaya. We have been doing so for ages; that’s why we have his blessings and our

children are protected. And the jogtin? She is also a woman offered to our goddess. And you don’t want to do any of this? You are all set to burn and destroy a living tree. The string of beads and the sacred basket are the marks of the mother goddess. You take these things as ordinary? Do you know that if the goddess is displeased, she can ruin the entire house? She will burn our houses as punishment. The potraja is supposed to be the servant of the goddess. Do you think that this is an ordinary thing? It’s a great honour given to us. Stupid man comes and tells us to forget our gods and gives us Christian gods instead! No, no. For us what our ancestors did is the right thing.’ My aaja countered angrily, ‘Listen Tatya, if you want to worship those gods of yours, you are free to do so. But why ruin the lives of young people?’ Then another man came forward with yet another set of arguments, ‘Listen Malari, god Khaderaya is the deity of all Mahars. He blesses us with so many fruits; what’s the harm in offering him one of ours? Why should we hesitate to do so? The custom of murali is actually an honour given to our house. She is supposed to be the god’s wife. A murali is married to god. This god has a fiery temper. If we don’t do so, he will lose his temper and punish us. He can wreck such havoc that we will be left: whimpering like dogs. You also ask us not to offer our girls to goddess Ambabai as jogtin. But that too is wrong. Why, if we offer one fruit to her, she will bless us with many more in return. The goddess Ambabai specially favours the house that offers her a girl as jogtin. That house becomes her favourite. Stop these idiotic arguments, Malari.’ There were innumerable such arguments and counter-arguments. The chawdi resounded with people ceaselessly debating these issues. The wind of Ambedkar’s thoughts had started blowing incessantly, though its force was not very strong yet. Several activists in the movement, such as Ranpise, Madhale and Gaikwad, along with many others, organised meeting after meeting during jatras, addressing people and bringing about a change in their perception. It was as if Dr. Ambedkar was the god people had come to pray to, for bringing about a change in their lives. And people began to change slowly but steadily. They began to be aware. Parents now discarded the loincloth for their children and began dressing them up in pajamas. Children also got used to the new attire. They began cutting the hair of their young daughters. The style was called English bal. Parents began to enroll their children in schools. Gradually, the wind of Ambedkar s thoughts

turned into a whirlwind. Everybody began to understand, argue and consider. The dead cells in their blood were charged with a new life. Blood began to flow through their veins with new vigour. People got charged with the spirit of revolution. There was one name on every tongue— Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. This included the young and the old with no exception. Each hut reverberated with his name. Young men began to argue about the custom of eating dead animals. They were convinced that this custom had to be discarded. But old habits die hard, especially among older people. However, they could not hold their own in the arguments with the young men and found themselves completely outwitted. It was the youth everywhere who brought about this radical change. Yet, there were some families who would secretly obtain carcasses. The young men of the community started excommunicating those families. They were not allowed to come to any weddings. If they were found sitting for meals in a public function, they were served food in the broken pieces of a clay pot. After such public humiliation, people learnt their lesson and mended their ways. Once they gave up such habits, the community again accepted them back into its fold. Our village, Veergaon, also witnessed such changes. Generally the jatra at Jejuri on the full moon night in Chaitra would be preceded by the jatra in Veergaon on the full moon night in the month of Magh. The temple of god Maskoba was very famous all over. People from far off places would come for this jatra. But it was the daughters of Veergaon, girls who got married and had gone away, who were very particular about attending this jatra. They never failed to come for this jatra. Once my mawshi had come from Mumbai for this jatra. As luck would have it, some sick animal died the next morning. Now, my aaji was on the alert as my mawshi loved to eat meat. The moment she heard that the animal would be slaughtered and distributed among the community, my aaji went and stood first in the queue. The animal was duly skinned, the putrid, decayed parts were thrown away, and the flesh was cut into pieces to be distributed among the people according to their share. My aaji’s share did not contain any liver, thigh and other such coveted parts. So she started arguing with the karbhari who was distributing the parts, ‘Look, my daughter has come all the way from Mumbai and she has asked me to get her the liver, thigh and such portions. So give those to me.’

The karbhari did not agree. He said, ‘Why are you so keen on having only those portions? Anyway, youcan’t have them. Take your share if you want.’ But my aaji was firm, she refused to listen and started arguing with the man loudly. Everybody from the maharwada were there. They were waiting for their turn, with their children crawling around the heaps of meat ready to be distributed. None of them was willing to exchange their share with her. This incensed my aaji so much that she shouted, ‘Anybody who eats a dead animal today will eat a pig!’ Like the Muslims, the Mahars were prohibited from eating pig meat. They could not even utter the word ‘pig. No sooner did my aaji utter the word ‘pig, than people started spitting in disgust and horror. They threw away their share of the meat back on the skin spread on the ground. Some women got up to beat my aaji. Others started cursing her loudly for having deprived them of their meat. But all the young men who had gathered around were very happy. They congratulated my aaji. ‘Well done, Sitayvahini,’ they said. ‘You did a good thing. Today you have given the maharwada fresh insight. This is exactly what Dr. Ambedkar has been saying and if we listen to Sitayvahini, that’s what she is saying too. So let us make a resolution, that from now on, we will not eat dead animals.’ Thus did our maharwada join the Ambedkar movement. Everybody took an oath never to eat dead animals and the atmosphere resounded with the slogan, ‘Bhimrao ki jai!’ From that day onwards the Mahars of Veergaon stopped eating dead animals. Even today when people come together, the memories of this incident conies alive. Everybody admits that Sitayvahini was the first to stop the eating of dead animals in Veergaon. [1] A lot of turmeric is customarily used to worship this particular god and it is literally showered on the worshippers. As a result, everybody gets coloured in turmeric.

7 The Mahar of the sixteenth share held a prestigious position in the Mahar community. He was accorded within his community, nearly the same kind of prestige as a village gave to the Patil. To give one’s daughter in marriage to a member of this Mahar’s family was considered a great honour as it meant forging links with a wealthy and prestigious family. His status was so high that if he attended a wedding, it was akin to a mill-owner attending it. A marriage proposal from his family was considered a great honour. The moment such a proposal came, people in the girls village would feel as if they were in seventh heaven. There would be endless discussions about his wealth, prestige and status. All those who had given away their daughters in marriage in the village where the Mahar of the sixteenth share lived would not tire of praising him and his family. ‘He is related to me in a way, you know. He is my distant aaja. What a huge house they have. They even have a big storeroom! And would you believe, they have built a separate shed for their animals in the backyard. And what a huge backyard it is! They have five huge pyramids of earthen pots reaching up to the roof. And all the pots are kept full. You won’t find any free space in the backyard. They receive so many bhakris from the villagers in return for their duties as a yeskar that you will find nothing but bhakris drying all over the place. This, along with the meat of dead animals! And do you know, they have so many people working for them. Whenever there is an epidemic in the village, you wont believe me, as many as five dead animals are brought to their house at a time. Your daughter will live in great comfort. She will live like the Patils wife! But let me add, she will have her hands full. She will have so many people to look after that even twenry-four hours will not be sufficient. And her sasu! She is so sharp sharp, she can immediately make out the worth of a man. They even have a jatra during every full moon and amawasya. They sacrifice a goat and a cock during the jatra. People flock from all over, you know, especially from places where they don’t have such jatras. They are very good as fortuneÂtellers and medicine men. All that you have to do is offer something to the god and you get well. And did I tell you about those bhakris they receive as yeskar? No? Oh they receive so many of them! Do you think they eat them all? No, my dear, they don’t. They just fill up their huge containers with them. The entire maharwada survives on them. And you know, the sasu is sometimes possessed by the spirit of the

goddess. That’s a deadly spirit, and so exacting. The platform for the gods in their house is so high! It should easily be upto the level of your waist. They have got idols of gods from far off places such as Konkan and so many rituals need to be performed for them! Earlier, the spirits used to possess the greatgrandmother. After her death, they have started possessing aaji. And if our girl, their daughter-in-law, serves them well, then who knows, they might come to possess her as well. I pray to goddess Lakamai for this marriage to happen.’ In those days, the Mahar of the sixteenth share enjoyed more prestige than even a judge does today. Today, the girl’s future depends on her husband’s education; in earlier times it was determined by the largesse of the share of dead animals that the boy’s family was entitled to. Delicacies such as the liver, kidney, etc. went to the Mahar of the sixteenth share. Naturally, getting a daughter married into such a family was considered a matter of great honour and privilege. The daughter-in-law of that house was kept busy all twenty-four hours of the day. The men folk would bring home loads of meat in big baskets on their heads. The meat needed to be preserved. This was a very arduous task. And many a time, the duty fell on the daughter-in-law. More often than not, she would be not more than eight or nine years old. She had to sit down with a sharp knife, cut the huge pieces of meat into smaller ones of about half a kilo each, and then stretch these into long snake like strips. A couple of women from poor households were also called to help in exchange for a potful of meat. They would work for an entire day for a pot of meat. The women would finish cutting the huge heaps of meat by the end of the day. Pieces of fat, and even the bones, had to be separated and preserved. Nothing was allowed to go waste. The meat strips were then rolled out into long ribbons called chanya. These were then hung out to dry on the thorny babhul branches spread all over the courtyard to ward off birds. The house of the Mahar of the sixteenth share buzzed with activity. The dried meat strips were brought inside the house and stacked in heaps. The poor daughter-in-law had to sit and beat them with wooden tongs and cut them into small, finger-length pieces. The sasu stored these pieces in huge cane containers and sealed their mouths. There would be two or three rows of such containers in the house. Every morning, the son who was a wresder would be given the meat pieces for breakfast to build his strength. The elderly women in the house would take out a huge bowl full of meat pieces and roast them crisp in fat. This would serve as breakfast for the whole family. The leftover fat would be cooked with a

little turmeric and oil and stored in big earthen pots. This would be given as a tonic to the wrestlers in the family. Women would spend the day drying the meat pieces. At noon they would take a big plate of meat pieces, roast them well and eat them with ten or twelve big onions and a handful of bhakri. The women crunching these pieces could easily have outdone machines in a factory as far as noise was concerned. They loved this food more than any kind of sumptous delicacy.

The yeskar Mahar had to wait upon the Patils chawdi for the whole day. The yeskar s family would have to do any kind of work that the Patil assigned. This could even be spread across various localities. The labour of the entire family was paid for in the form of bhakris, which the yeskar had to go and collect from house to house every evening. The yeskar Mahar had to carry with him a stick fitted at one end with a small bell. The reason for this was simple. If the men sitting down for their dinner heard the Mahar s voice, they would have to discard their meal and get up. But if they heard just the sound of his bell, they could finish their meal. His voice could pollute but not the sound of his bell! When the Mahar set off in the evening on his begging round, he felt great pride in the sheep-wool blanket on his shoulder and his belled stick. His chest would swell with pride. He would twirl his moustache and clear his throat as if he was a very important man. Then he would stride forward, beating his stick on the ground with great flourish. The stick was like a royal staff and the blanket on his shoulder, the black coat of a barrister. But the moment he entered the village, his chest would deflate like a balloon and he would shuffle around as inconspicuously as possible so as not to offend anyone from the higher castes. When he stood at the door of any high caste house, he was forbidden to call out. He had to sound the bell on his stick thrice. Then the leftover food in the house would be thrown into the blanket that he spread as a makeshift bag. The village would take every precaution against pollution. The chest-high platform in front of the house was the place where the higher castes conducted all their transactions with the Mahars. After having gone all over the village, his ghongadi bag would be almost half-filled. Then he would stride homeward joyfully as if he was carrying not leftovers of food, but some great catch. His entire family would dine on this food. Then he would proceed to the chawdi with a sense of

achievement. Here, he would chat with the other people in the community well into the night. The marriage season was an especially busy time for the yeskar. The marriage might take place in a high caste family but it was the yeskar from the lowly Mahar caste who had to do most of the work. The yeskar would be summoned eight days before the marriage and given orders, ‘Hey you, Ranya, listen, Akkas marriage is taking place next week. We need dry firewood for cooking. Go to the farm, cut down the big babhul tree and bring the wood home. Do it fast. The branches must be dried well/ All lowly jobs, right from arranging fuel for cooking to making arrangements for Akkas morning ablutions, would be thrust on the Mahars. Akka was not allowed to go out to defecate after they had applied the ritualistic haldi on her, for fear of evil spirits. Instead, she would defecate in the garbage pit. And it was the Mahar who had to clean the shit. He had to sweep the house, clean all the shit of a houseful of children, cut firewood and stack it neatly for cooking. All the dirty and laborious jobs were the privilege of the Mahar! On the occasion of marriage, sweet chapattis filled with jaggery and channa dal were prepared. The chapattis would then be mixed with the sweet syrupy gulawani made from jaggery and the mucky mixture would be served in large plates. One adult and three to four children would eat from the same plate. Their sweat, the dirt on their hands, the sticky stuff flowing from their nose and saliva dripping from their mouths—everything would keep dropping into the plate. The children would stuff themselves with the muck, including the sticky mixture dripping down their hands, which they would keep licking. When they had had their fill, they would get up, leaving behind a lot of food in the plates. But the owner of the house would not like the food to be wasted. The sticky leftover would be poured into one huge cane basket, already polished with cow dung and kept ready in a corner. By the time all the guests finished eating, there would be two such baskets filled with the leftover food. The owner would summon the Mahar waiting near the garbage pits. After having worked for hours on end, he would be feeling terribly hungry, but somehow he would try to satiate his hunger with his own saliva. With utmost humility, he would bend before the master, saying ‘Jee dhani, jee dhani.’[1] The master would then command him, ‘Look here Ghurya, the feast is over. First sweep the pandal clean. Then you can take away those two baskets of leftover food.’

Only after the Mahar had swept the pandal clean, could he carry the two baskets of the grimy mixture to the chawdi for distribution among the Mahars according to their status. Meanwhile, someone would go and make an announcement in the maharwada, ‘Come on, folks, come and collect your share of the leftovers...’ People would be waiting impatiently for the summons. They would rush to the chawdi with whatever small plate, pot or bowl they could lay their hands on. There would be a huge crowd at the chawdi. The karbhari would put his hand into the basket and stir the contents. Then with a big German silver bowl called khob, he would pour out portions onto the blanket, which the people would collect in their pots and plates. Everyone received at least a small basket as their share. Children fought over their share. They would fall over each other trying to snatch food. Finally, the mothers would' pour a little into each persons bowl and restore peace. It would be midnight by the time they reached home. People at home would be still awake. Then all of them would eat the leftover food and go to bed, savouring the sweet taste on their tongue. In the morning, the Mahars would have to go once again to sweep the pandal clean. Again the leftover food from the previous night’s meal would be given to them. The dal, the sweet puran and othe^r things would have been spoilt by this time. Yet, the Mahar women would carry this home in huge clay pots placed over their heads and eat it somehow. The higher castes had created an illusion among the Mahars that the yeskar s stick was like a royal staff. Each yeskar considered this stick as a mark of honour for his family. Each family had their turn. The family with the sixteenth share became the yeskar Mahar for six months and the remaining months of the year would be divided among other families. People would feel so excited when their turn came, that they wouldn’t be able to sleep. The next man received the stick with great pride. His wife would worship it with haldi and kumkum and pray to it with folded hands. The yeskar would get up at the crack of dawn, go to the stream, bathe and gather wild flowers such as the white and pink kanher for worshipping the stick. He would apply sandalwood paste to the stick as well as on his forehead, and then make an offering of the flowers along with haldi and kumkum. Then he would dress for the job, that is, he would put a blanket over his shoulder, tie a tattered turban on his head and pick up the stick in his hand.

Now, he was ready to go to the village chawdi, which was the Patils office. He would feel very proud, as if he were a barrister in a black suit with a royal staff in his hand. He would march off to the village chawdi. Once he reached the chawdi, he would be alloted a place, but not inside the chawdi. His place was at a distance from the chawdi, out in the courtyard. There he was made to stand for the whole day. He wasn’t even allowed to stand straight. He had to stand with his back bent all the while and greet anybody who happened to pass that way, including children! He had to bend down, till his head touched his knees, join his palms together and say ‘Johar mai bap[2] three times, and then touch his head with his palms joined in salutation. He had to stand in the same manner before the Patil. Then the Patil would order him, ‘ Yeskar, today the mamledar sahib is coming. His horse must be properly looked after. Go home and tell your wife to fetch two bundles of fresh grass. The sahib will be here any time now. So ask her to hurry up and fetch the grass. The horse should be tied in the front yard. So clean the yard properly.’ The whole village would be on tenterhooks because the mamledar was coming. A big fat hen was killed and cooked with eggs in the Patil’s house. The Mahar had to toil ceaselessly. When the mamledar arrived on his horse, the Mahar had to take hold of the horse’s reins and help the mamledar alight. Next, he had to tie the horse to a peg, give it fresh green grass and water, and brush the horse’s coat till his wrists ached. The horse was never satisfied, of course! The Mahar also had to collect the horse droppings and clean the yard again. He had to chop firewood for the preparation of the sahib’s food and announce the news of the sahib’s arrival in other localities. He had to give the sahibs messages to various people as well. But he was not sure of being given any food. He would get food some times and at other times, he would have to go hungry. A life without food, living space and clothes—it was a story of permanent deprivation and suffering. Just as the Mahar had a duty towards dead animals, he had a duty towards dead people too. When someone died in the village, he had to reach the news to the relatives. Scorching sun, heavy rains and biting cold—none of these mattered. He had to run without food to distant places. Very often, he would not be able to utter a single word for fear of the relatives’ wrath for having brought bad news. As if he was responsible for the death! He would try to utter the words that refused to come to his lips. The relatives would be furious at his stammering,

‘You bastard, tell us quickly! What happened? Why are you stammering, you fool? Is your father dead or what?’ ‘No, no, Master...’ frightened, the poor man would try to break the news, ‘Your your.. .er...taisaab.. .has passed away...’ The people in the house, men and women, would start wailing loudly but not without having first poured their wrath on the Mahar! Carrying such messages was really an ordeal for the Mahar. The relatives would be in a hurry to go to the dead person’s house. They would immediately harness their bullocks to the cart and set off. The poor Mahar had to trudge back on his w^eary feet. When he was away on these errands, the people in his family had to do other things as part of their duty. They had to collect firewood and take it to the cremation ground and then wait at a distance. Once the body was placed on the funeral pyre, the white sheet covering the corpse was taken off and thrown away. The Mahars waited for this moment. They had a right to the white sheet and the bamboo bier on which the corpse had been carried to the ghat. They could use the bamboo for their house and the sheet would come in handy for stitching clothes. They would happily carry these items back home. They first took the sheet to the stream for washing. We children kept pouring water on it every two hours. After two days of washing, it would become absolutely white. Then it was brought home for making clothes. The yeskar s family could have clothes made only from such cloth. A lengthy piece would be given to the young daughter who would be elated to get it. She would drape it around herself in various styles and perform a kind of fashion show. One moment she would drape it around her shoulder like a Brahmin kaki and imitate her accent, ‘Hey you, Mahar women, shoo, shoo, stand at a distance. Don’t touch anything. You will pollute us and our gods and religion.’ The next moment she would be a Gujar woman, draping the pallav in the Gujarati style, and finally, a Mahar daughter-in-law, pulling the pallav from her head down to her nose. What other evidence does one need to know how the Mahar woman craved to live like a Brahmin or a high caste Maratha or Patil woman? They, like anybody else, aspired for a better life. But they were bound by the chains of slavery. It was on the Mahars’ labour that these idle parasites lived. The condition of the Mahars was no better than that of bullocks, those beasts of burden, who slogged all their life for a handful of dry grass.

The maharwada symbolised utter poverty and total destitution. Epidemics, especially cholera and plague, were extremely fond of the Mahars; a couple of Mahars would die like flies everyday. Today this family, tomorrow the next one! Tetanus was another deadly disease that claimed women, especially during childbirth. But the Mahars did not know about medicine. They used all kinds of superstitious remedies. One of these was the godman. He would get possessed by the spirits of various gods and goddesses. The spirits would declare that the patient was actually possessed by a ghost. Then the poor patient would be tortured in so many ways. The godman would repeatedly slap the patient in the face with shoes. The poor man would scream like a dying animal. The more he suffered, the more frenzied would be the godman’s thrashing. When the patient had fits, ten strong men would sit on his chest and a couple of others would pin his legs down. The onlookers would watch the scene in horrified fascination. They would wonder aloud about the terrible strength of the spirit possessing the man. ‘What a powerful spirit!’ they would exclaim. ‘Ten men cannot control him! We have seen it with our own eyes.’ The entire village would be terrified. Then finally the poor patient, unable to hold on any longer, would gradually succumb to death. The godman would proudly declare, ‘Look, how I have brought him under control! What a terrible evil spirit! But I managed to drive it away! Now see how quietly hes lying down. You may drop him on a rock, he wont make a sound!’ The godman would depart with these assuring words and so would the onlookers, tired of having watched the whole episode. After some time, of course, the sound of loud wailing arose from the dead persons house. Typhoid, too, was a regular visitor to the Maharwada. If anybody got malaria, they would say, ‘Look, he is possessed.’ Somebody would spin a yarn, ‘This man was walking by the narrow lane at noon and a strange thorn pierced his feet. When he told me about this, I immediately knew what it was! The hadal of course! You remember that woman who had died during childbirth? She has now turned into a hadal. She sits there on the tree, with her baby in her lap, swinging her legs, and possesses anybody who passes that way. This man was passing by the tree. She looked into his eye and that’s it! She cast her spell on him! Now the poor thing is in her clutches. She won’t let go of him.’

Then they would take a lemon, some haldi and kumkum, a handful of grains ground with oil, a bajra bhakri and a bombil, and keep it all on the path he had passed as an offering to the hadal, and run away in mortal fear lest she cast her spell on them too. Anybody coming from the opposite direction would be scared on seeing these offerings! Even a brief glance at these things was enough to cause high fever. The patient, however, would feel encouraged. He would feel that the offerings were going to save his life. They gave him confidence. He would start talking. His family would feel relieved that the evil threat was now averted and that he had had a lucky escape. Then some worldly-wise aunt would come forward to offer her advice, ‘Listen, you must apply the holy ash of our goddess Lakamai on his forehead. He has had nothing to eat for the past three days— I’ll get him some dry bhakri. In the meanwhile, you prepare some garlic chutney and rub it on his tongud, then see how he revives!’ She would virtually force the hot chutney and the dry bhakri down his throat. The man who had not eaten anything for quite some time would feel reassured that he no longer had to worry, for an offering had been made to the evil spirit! So he would stuff himself with chutney and bhakri, and wash it down with jars of .cold water. Needless to say, the fever would invariably return. A Mahar woman would continue to give birth till she reached menopause. Perhaps, this became possible because of the inner strength that she had. That is probably why Mahar women could withstand all calamities. Hardly a few of the babies would survive. Many a time, these too were given away in the service of the village. But somehow the cycle of birth and death would go on. Goddess Satwai had stamped hunger on our foreheads. How many days did we have to go without food! But there is a limit to ones endurance. A hungry person tries to get food from the most unlikely sources. For instance, from the cactus shrubs! Huge cactus shrubs grew wild around most villages. In fact, wherever there was any open space, around the house or on the banks of streams, these shrubs would be sure to grow. Lovely pink pods, big and juicy, hung from the thorny leaves. Near the stream, of course, they would be bigger and brighter. They looked so lovely! When children were unable to endure the hunger pangs any longer, the woman would beg her husband, ‘Listen, the kids are starving. They haven’t eaten anything for the last three days. They look like living

corpses. For how long can they survive on water? Let’s go and collect some cactus pods. At least we can eat that.’ ‘Well, they taste fine, but later...’ ‘We aren’t eating them for fun! We have to stay alive.’ The argument would end there. Both the husband and wife would go to the stream to collect the pods. The husband would pull them down with a stick and the wife would roll them in the soil to remove the thorns. Their cane basket would soon overflow with cactus pods. The pods looked so beautiful; no other fruit had ever appeared so delicious! They would carry the basket home. Children would come out running on hearing their parents arrive. The old people in the house would remove the skin of the pods and pop the flesh into their mouths. Everybody attacked the basket, ravenously gobbling the pods. When they had had enough, they gulped water. With the pangs of hunger extinguished, they would go to sleep, without giving a thought to the punishment awaiting them. The seeds inside the cactus fruit are so hard that they cannot be broken open even with pliers. Tiny as jowar grains, they went down the throat and then, through the stomach, slid into the intestines where they became slabs of cement or concrete. Life next day would be like hell. But at least for that one night they could sleep peacefully! The next morning the family would feel terrified to attend natures call. They tried to push as hard as they could but to no avail! Their eyes might pop out but their stomachs would not empty. After having tried out this alternative and suffered from the consequences, men would get together to think, ‘Hey, Dadu, its four days now since the chulha was lit. Eating the cactus pods is like killing oneself.’ ‘Tatya, we are in the same boat. Let me tell you something. You know that oil vendor? His wife’s buffalo comes to the stream every afternoon. Let’s do our job, shall we? Well, it’s true that the husband often comes with the buffalo. But so what? We’ll take care. Right? Let’s do it when he’s busy eating his lunch.’ They would prepare a deadly potion for the buffalo. The moment the buffalo consumed the potion, it would collapse, its tongue hanging out. The oil vendor would send a message to the Mahars to carry the carcass away for disposal. The Mahars would be waiting for this to happen. The carcass would be carried to

their chawdi and kept aside. Then everybody would come, ready with sharpened knives. They would skin the beast, spread the skin on the ground, cut the flesh into large pieces and place them on the skin. The distribution would be according to each family’s rightful share. Some had a large share and the others a little less. But everybody got at least a basket full of food. They would then return home with their shares and sit in front of their chulhas. Then everybody would get busy. Young girls with uncombed hair would coat huge earthen pots with mud to cook the meat. Women would cut the meat, wash the pieces and throw them into the earthen pots for cooking. But what could they light the chulha with? Again, they would roam all over looking for pieces of coal. Some woman, by now, was sure to have got her chulha burning. Others would collect a small live coal or a smoking twig from her, wrap it carefully in a rag and bring it home, all the while blowing on it to keep it burning. Their mouths would be dry by the time they reached home. They would push the twig under the dry sticks in the chulha; blow on it and finally the fire would be lit. Then the clay pot would be placed on the chulha. Sometimes they did not even have salt in the house. Again they would go from house to house to collect some salt and sprinkle it in the pot. Children would sit around the chulha, desperately waiting for the meat to get cooked. When the meat started sizzling, they couldn’t wait for it to be properly cooked. Pushing the ladle into the pot, they would take the half-cooked pieces out and begin eating. The halfÂcooked meat would be hard on the teeth but they did not mind that. For the old people in the house, the daughter-in-law would pick out the tender portions like the liver and the lungs, cut them into small pieces and cook them. The old people sat licking the tender meat with relish. Children often choked upon the meat in their hurry to eat. Then the old men would give them a hard slap on the neck and the stuck piece would be spat out. After the hunger was partially appeased, the women would begin to prepare another dish. They would beg the Mahar of the sixteenth share to give them some bhakri or any kind of bean that they would cook along with the meat. People who had the strength would visit the cactus shrubs around which wild leafy vegetables could be found growing in abundance. They would cook these along with the meat, and the dish would be ready within no time. After eating, the men, now satiated, would go to the chawdi to chat and gossip. There they would tell each other stories of kings

and queens, and princes and princesses. Lounging about in the chawdi, they would describe the wealth and prosperity of the kings and lose themselves in the fictitious world of their stories. The house of the Mahar of the sixteenth share overflowed with meat. He would get at least half the animal as his share. During an epidemic, his house would be flooded with huge mounds of meat. The Mahars considered animal epidemics like diphtheria or dysentery a boon. Every day at least four or five animals would die. The internal organs of the dead animals would decay in stages. In some animals, organs like the liver, for instance, would be as hard as stones; whereas, in other animals, the organs would be nothing but mush, like overcooked rice. The inside of some animals would be putrid, filled with puss and infested with maggots. There would be a horrid, foul smell! It was worse than hell! But we did not throw away even such animals. We cut off the infected parts full of puss, and convinced ourselves that it was now safe to eat the meat. In those days such epidemics were common. The entire region affected by the epidemic would wear a deserted look without the grazing animals. But, for the Mahars, this would mean plenty of food to last them for the next four months. The meat would be stored in earthen pots arranged in rows. They did not have to worry about food. No food? All right, take out the meat, roast it in a tawa and eat it! Simple! If there was fat, it would be even better! Men could eat to their heart s content and young children ran around all over the place, dancing in delight with the roasted pieces. During epidemics, there would be many animals lying dead in the pens all over the various settlements and localities. The carcasses of these animals would rot, giving out such a foul stench that people in the house found it difficult to even drink water. They would ask the Mahars to carry the carcasses away. When such summons came, the joy of the Mahars knew no bounds. Everybody shouted out to share the good news with others. The Mahar men would gather in front of the chawdi and set off with knives, leaving word for their wives to hurry after them with huge baskets. All the women and children would rush there, armed with baskets and cane containers. Women carried the large baskets on their heads while the children carried the smaller ones. Everyone would rush to the place, as did the vultures, kites and dogs that competed with the Mahars! The Mahars had to pull out the rotting carcasses and carry them to a deserted spot at a considerable distance from the village. Then they had to sweep the pens that

were full of rotten flesh, maggots, droppings and the bloody secretions of dying animals. They had to wash the floor clean and drive out the flies. Once they had finished this task, they would go to the place where the others would be cutting open the carcasses. After one animal was cut, the meat was divided into portions and the women would immediately begin to transport the food. They would put their share of meat into the baskets and cover it with twigs and leaves. The moment they saw their mothers filling up the baskets with meat, the kids would bring branches from the tarwad trees and make long sticks. After a woman kept the basket on her head, her children would give the stick to her. The woman would balance the basket on her head with one hand, and with the other, she would continuously ward off flies and birds, all the while loudly chanting ghar, ghar, ghar’. The women started homewards, walking through the village, warding the birds off with their shouts. Their heads would be drenched with blood, puss and other putrid secretions oozing out of the meat. Rivulets of sweat mixed with the blood and puss would run down their faces and onto their bodies, already coated with grime and muck. With their arms waving sticks to ward off birds, they would walk, singing the strange chant till their throats dried up. Anybody who came across these women would have easily taken them for a group of hadals. [1]  ‘Jee’ is used in Marathi by lower castes to show their respect and humility to the higher castes. ‘Dhani’ literally means master. [2]  A traditional greeting that a Mahar man had to utter to greet the upper caste men.

8 The other world had bound us with chains of slavery. But we too were human beings. And we too desired to dominate, to wield power. But who would let us do that? So we made our own arrangements to find slaves—our very own daughters-in-law! If nobody else, then we could at least enslave them. Young girls, hardly eight or nine or ten years old, were brought home as daughters-in-law. Girls, even younger, were married off; they were children who could not even remember their marriages. A marriage meant chaos, a lot of hustle and bustle, for eight days. People would go to the fields, cut trees and fetch the trunks for erecting the pandal in front of the house. Once it was covered with the leaves of neem and karanja, the pandal was ready for conducting the marriage. The bride's family was given a bride price of around fifteen to twentyfive rupees. The bride's father had to meet the expenses of the marriage. The bride's family had to go to the groom's place for the event. They had to reach a day earlier than the marriage. They were given a dinner of pithale and bhakri. In the morning they would begin with the haldi ceremony, applying haldi to the bride and groom. A small platform called bohole would be raised with bricks and a blanket of sheep-wool spread on top of it. Then squares would be drawn on it and filled with wheat grains. The bride and groom had to sit on this. Five suwasinis with auspicious stars would be the first to apply the haldi. They would then tie paper mundawalis around their heads. Then, shenai players would start playing and people would be respectfully invited to attend the marriage. The women who came to apply the haldi were given saltless ghugrya of jowar grains, which they received in their pallavs. This was an important ritual. In fact, the women would themselves bring the jowar. The seven-year-old bride would be dressed up in a nine-yard sari, white with wide red border, and a thick blouse. The women would put several things in her pallav which ended up weighing at least two and a half kilos. The mundawali around her head would also be very heavy, weighing at least half a kilo. On the first day, both the bride and groom were bathed while the shenai played in the background. Then, their parents, aunts and uncles would also undergo a ritual bath. Once they were bathed, the bride and groom were made to sit on the bohole. Two large tubs of haldi mixed with water would be kept ready. The women would come forward to pat handfuls of wet haldi first on the head, followed by the face, and finally, the

hands and the feet of the bride and the groom. This ceremony would take one whole day. The group of girls, called karavalis, from both the bride and the groom's side, would carry small purses full of betel leaves. They would prepare paan and keep offering them to the bride and the groom. The karavalis too would keep chewing paan. Once the ceremony was over the bride and groom were taken for a special ritual meal along with the karavalis. The ritual meal comprised of a huge plateful of rice topped with pieces of jaggery. The bride and the groom hardly got to eat the food. The karavalis would finish most of the rice. All the while the shenai would continue playing, providing a melodious background. The haldi ceremony took place the day before the marriage. In the afternoon, around four o’clock, a ritual bath was arranged for the bride and the groom. Two wooden boards would be placed in the courtyard with two huge pots placed on both sides. The pots would contain water that was boiling hot. Four small jugs would be kept on the four sides and a cotton thread would be taken around the jugs five times. The bride and the groom had to sit on the platforms without touching the thread. The bride had to cover her face with a veil. She had to apply oil on the groom's head with both her hands. The groom would rub some oil on his ears using his fingers. Then the bride was made to pour five jugs of water on his head. She had to stand up for this. But the groom would continue to sit when he poured five jugs of water on his bride's head. All this would make the ground quite muddy. Then the bride' s brothers would push the groom into the mud and roll him around till he was fully covered with mud. Once the bath was over, the karavalis on the groom's side would pick him up on their shoulders and the bride's karavalis would do the same. The bride and groom were not allowed to walk on their feet for five days. On the day of the marriage, the bride would be given her bridal sari to wear. The little girl would feel like she was drowning in that sari. The groom would be dressed in a thick coarse dhoti and khadi jacket, with a huge turban on his head. He would resemble a scarecrow perfectly. By the time the bride and the groom were both ready, preparations for the marriage ceremony would be complete. Two huge cane baskets would be kept facing each other. A stone slab used for grinding condiments would be kept in each basket. The bride and the groom were made to stand on these. Then, a khadi towel was held between the couple and they would not be able to see each other. Their mamas would stand behind them. The bride and the groom wore huge mundawalis and over those they wore

huge crowns called bashinga. Their foreheads were covered with kumkum. One could not even catch a glimpse of the bride and the groom as the poor creatures would be literally buried under all this weight. All guests would then be given rice grains that were coloured with haldi, as akshata, to shower on the couple at the time of the marriage. A Brahmin priest would be invited to solemnise the marriage. He would stand at a distance for fear of pollution, but he would never make any compromise on his dakshina! That he took away without any fear of pollution. Apart from the dakshina money, he was also required to be given about two kilos of channa dal, one-and-a-half kilos of rice, three kilos of wheat and a huge plateful of jaggery. This was called the dry grocery. For the marriage feast, chapattis were prepared with cooked channa dal and salt. The cooked dal was distributed among several households for grinding. Children, with their noses running, would surround their mothers when they sat down to grind the dal. They would keep snatching the mixture and devouring it. There would be flies — hoards of them — flying around. Many would fall into the dal. A minimum of ten flies would be crushed during every round of grinding. The ground dal would be rolled out into huge balls. The children would eat these all day long. The flies were terrible. One could not eat without at least three of them falling into one's plate. People had to continuously ward them off. On the third day, such chapattis would be prepared once again. The bride and the groom would be made to apply haldi on each other. The bride was then made to wear a heavy brocade sari called shalu, with a design of coconut trees on its pallav. She would be taken away and hidden among boys who had been dressed and decorated like her. The groom had to find his hidden bride among the crowd. This usually posed a problem since he had never seen her before. How was he to recognise her? It was a tough job. The groom had to search for her all over the place. The brothers would hide the bride by surrounding her. This would make the search extremely difficult for the groom. Finally, he would bribe the karavalis with coconuts and catch hold of his wife. He had to carry her on his shoulder up to the ritual bathing platform. Once he put her down, the boys would make him admit that he had lost to them and would take a khun blouse piece from him.

Once again, the bride was made to sit down for a bath next to the groom. Then two brass plates full of haldi and kumkum would be kept before the couple. Two betel nuts would be dropped in the plates. First, the groom had to hold a betel nut tightly with two fingers of his left hand. The bride was supposed to prise the betel nut out of his grip. This ritual was repeated three times. Then the act was reversed. It was the bride's turn now to hold the betel nut. The way she held it would be quite different from the groom's. She would lock her fingers, holding the betel nut tightly in her palm. The groom had to take the betel nut using only two fingers. He would have to work hard as it was difficult to prise the nut out of her hand. He would soon come close to tears. The bride's karavalis would shout in encouragement and she would tighten her hold on it. The entire maharwada would be present to witness this game. The bride would not give in, though the groom would be prepared to cut off her fingers. Finally, the groom's parents would coax the girl to release the betel nut. This ritual was repeated for three days. After the ritual bath the girl was given another huge heavy sari with an equally heavy blouse. The buttonless blouse would have to be tied up with knots. The knot would come almost up to her chin. The little bride would be buried under the mundawali and the bashinga, and weighed down by the pallav filled with various things. This was called the sada ritual. After the sada, there would be a procession called rukhwat. Crescent-shaped puris filled with stuffing made from the canna plant, would be tied to a dry branch. A comb and several toys made of wheat flour were also tied to this branch, along with many broken sandals. People dressed up to represent characters from mythology as well as real life, would follow this procession with a cane basket filled with small ritual offerings. The shenai players would lead the procession. Many people dressed as the father and mother of the groom would walk along, their foreheads covered with wet kumkum. For half a day, this procession would go all over maharwada. Everybody in the maharwada would dance madly. Finally, it would arrive at the marriage pandal. People from both sides would gather around. The rukhwat basket would be kept between the two groups. Everybody would be eager to see what was inside. Generally, the groom's brothers and sisters were given the honour of opening it. Meanwhile, the women of the bride’s family would start singing naughty songs, which would be parodies of the groom's mother. The songs called her Inibai and his father Iwan: Here comes the rukhwat, come and watch,

Our Inibai's got an itch in her crotch. Give her a couch, she’s on heat, Our brother is so mad, he says, ‘You know what?’ Get a he-buffalo from the jatra to fuck her, That’s the only thing that can please her. Get up, Iwan, take off her clothes, Show her the house, give her a bath. This song would make the groom’s mother burst into tears. She would shriek and holler with rage. Then the women from the groom’s side would pacify her and retort with another song that would mock the bride’s mother, also addressed as Inibai: Here comes the rukhwat, covered with sugarcane leaves. When our Inibai gets hot, you know what she needs. Not less than fifty-six horses! That’s what she must have, So get them for her for that’s what she wants! Our Iwan runs around to catch hold of the horse, Come friends and watch the farce! Thus Inibai cools off her itch, So the groom’s mother doles out sweets. This would enrage the other side, so much so that a fight would erupt. ‘How dare you invite us to your village and insult us?’ they would shriek. Both sides would freely hurl abuses at each other. Tempers ran wild. If the bride’s side proved to be too dominant, the in-laws would straightway attack the bride’s mother and pull her hair. Then fierce quarrels would ensue again. Finally, saner people from both sides would prevail and put an end to the fighting, and the bride’s mother and the groom’s mother would make up with each other. On the fourth day of the marriage rituals, the ceremony of taking off the bridal crowns would be performed. This would always be done in the morning. People from both families would gather for the occasion under the specially built pandal. A brass plate would be placed on the head of the bride’s mother, and the other women would hold the plate in place. Men would quietly sit on one side. Women, with tears streaming down their eyes, would sing the Zalu song.

The song would soon have every person sobbing. The heavy crowns were then taken off. Zalubai zalu, in front of the house   There was a lovely jujube tree. Then came a thief, the son-in-law   He carried it off, for all to see. But the tree was his, that’s how it is, My poor love, helpless, weeps! Zalubai zalu, in front of the house There was a jasmine vine. Weep not, oh poor mother of mine. Zalubai zalu, in front of the house There was a champak white. Weep not, oh poor father of mine. Zalubai zalu, a flock of birds Have flown away, out of sight. Weep not, oh poor brother of mine. Zalubai zalu, what's left behind Is a reflection in the mirror. Weep not, oh poor sister of mine. However, for the girl, marriage meant nothing but calamity. After the marriage, she was allowed to stay with her parents for a few days. But then her sasra would go to fetch her. He would bring with him gram, rice and jaggery. The bride’s mother would then prepare small sweetmeats with these. The girl would carry the basket filled with these sweets to her new home. Thus the girl would embark upon a new life that was harsh and arduous. She was a young girl, a child really, still immature. Yet, the poor child had to break all ties of love and go to her in-laws’ house to lead a married life, without even knowing what a husband meant, or what it was to be given away. Besides, in

those days there were no vehicles. When the cock crowed early in the morning, the sasra would start with his daughter-in-law on foot. It took two to three days to reach his home. Even if the place was close by, they invariably would have to walk for the entire day. When the bride arrived at her in-laws’ home, she would be asked to make bhakris. Two baskets full! The child would sit down to make them, but she would not be able to pat the balls of dough into proper round shapes. They would remain thick and small, no bigger than her palms. When she put them on the hot tawa, it would invariably get burnt in some places and remain uncooked in some. Then the sasu would call all her friends and neighbours and hold an open exhibition of the tiny burnt bhakris, ‘Attyabai, come and see what’s happening here. Didn’t you think that I’d brought the daughter of a good woman into my house? Look at the bhakris this slut has prepared. She can’t even make a few bhakris properly. Oh well, what can one expect of this daughter of a dunce?’ The child was not even allowed to sleep. When the cock crowed at three in the morning, the sasu would wake her, dragging her by her hair. She would make her clean the grinding stones and would sit down to grind some jowar with her. But almost immediately, the sasu’s newborn baby would wake up and start crying. Then the sasra would yell, ‘Come here, you. This Dhondya is crying. Come and stop his wailing. Leave the grinding to her. Otherwise, when will she learn? ’ The sasu would promptly get up from the mill and go back to sleep, nursing her baby. The young girl had to continue with the work. Her tiny hands often could not pull the heavy stones and she would have to stop frequently. Her palms would get blisters. Later on they would harden. After the grinding was done, she would be sent to the river with a small vessel to fetch water. When that was done, she had to sit down to make bhakris. If the bhakris weren’t perfect, her sasu would examine the kneaded flour and slap the girl on the face with the unbaked bhakris, pinch her cheeks, and shower a million abuses on her, ‘What’s your aai really? Tell me! Is she a good married woman at all? Or does she know only how to run after the pot-maker’s donkeys? Didn’t she teach you anything? I pamper you a little and you take advantage of that! Look what a nice sasu I am! My own sasu was a spitfire. A burning coal! Holding a burning coal in one’s palm was easier than living with her!’

Then she would mourn her fate loudly and go on in a voice drenched in selfpity, ‘We could not even dare to call a dog or a hen in our in-laws’ house by any name whatsoever. We had to address these animals respectfully even while we kicked them out. Where would you get a sasu as nice as me? You pampered brat! Lift the plate on your lap and eat! You are like a beast gone mad, eating so! Simply out of control, that’s what you are! That’s why you’re being such a pest!’ The sasu would continue to rant. The poor girl had to endure the abuses of everybody in the household, including her haughty sisters-in-law and her lousy brothers-in-law. By the time she finished all the house work, it would be half past one in the afternoon. By then, all the bhakris would have been eaten up. All that was left for her would be the half-burnt, half-baked bhakris that she herself had made. But what could she eat them with? She would steal some salt from the kitchen when her sasu was not looking, and hide it in her sari. The Mahar daughters-in-law experienced one comfort, however. There were no pots in the house to clean and no clothes to wash, because there were not even enough rags to wear. When the sasu’s monthly period started, she would go straight to the river to bathe, as she had no spare sari. There she would take off half her sari, wrapping herself in the other half. She would wash one half of the sari first. When that portion was dry, she would wrap it around herself, and wash the other half. And that half too would be patched up in several places. It would be afternoon by the time she returned home. Till then, the daughter-in-law had to do everything by herself. This rigorous punishment at a young age, however, was far preferable to what she had to endure once she reached maturity. When the daughter-in-law got her menstrual period for the first time, the sasu would become terribly agitated and keep a close watch on her daughter-in-law and her son. She would watch them with the eyes of a hawk, and would not let them even glance at each other. The husband of the bride would keep hovering around, yearning to talk to his wife. But the sasu was far too clever for him. She would not let them meet. She stayed awake at night for fear of their coming together. She would be terribly scared that her son would be snatched away from her and that he would forget his parents and begin to pamper his wife. Immediately after they went to bed, she would wake her daughter-in-law up to grind the grain. Other women would add fat to the fire, ‘You are so stupid! How can you allow their coming together? Don’t you let her sleep with your son! Beware, the delicate bud will break! Beware of her!’ The sasu would

believe such malicious talk and poison her son’s mind against his wife. She would be worried all the time about his falling in love with his wife. Her daughter-in-law was her enemy! She would feel terribly jealous of her youth. She would constantly keep complaining to her son about his wife. When her daughter-in-law finished grinding the jowar, the sasu would send her to fetch water. The sasu would whisper into her son’s ear, ‘Watch her, you fool! Look how she goes out all the time! That Sirangya follows her to the river and whistles at her. Keep her under your thumb. Otherwise you will be disgraced in public.’ And while she was away, the sasu would grind some glass bangles and mix the glass powder with the flour.[1] When the daughter-in-law returned, she would be asked to make bhakris with that flour. The sasu would put a piece of the bhakri into her mouth and spit it out. Then she would go from house to house with that bhakri, ‘Just taste this bhakri! It feels as if glass is mixed in it.’ The neigbourhood women simply loved such conspiracies. This provided some excitement to their otherwise uneventful lives. The whole village would gather in front of the tortured girl’s door. ‘The witch! Wanted to kill the whole family! Oh, she shouldn’t have attempted to stab her own family in the back.’ Then the sasu would wail loudly, beating her breasts. She would complain to every passerby, ‘Look, master, how this witch tried to do away with my family and the kids as well.’ To make things worse, a woman would become possessed. Then she would start chanting, ‘Ahhhh, it’s because of my blessing that you were saved from this woman. This woman is an evil presence in your house. Don’t ever trust her. But you too forgot your god. Give your son’s firstborn to Madmalu.’ This pronouncement chilled the hearts of the women and made them tremble with fear. They would hastily apply kumkum and haldi on the possessed woman’s forehead and fall at her feet. Amidst this chaos, the poor daughterin-law would tremble like a leaf. Petrified and unable to utter a single word, she would watch the people around her with a sinking heart. The furious husband would beat her to a pulp with a stick and drive her out of the house. She was an easy prey. Anybody could torture her as they wished.

[1] It was not unusual for glass bangles to break while grinding. If a bangle broke, a woman had to take care to pick all the pieces out. A careful worker kept her bangles intact and mentioned with pride that she kept them from one Diwali festival to the next, when the old bangles were replaced with new.

9 In those days, at least one woman in a hundred would have her nose chopped off. You may well ask why. It s because of the sasu, who would poison her sons mind. These sasus ruined the lives of innocent women forever. Everyday the maharwada would resound with the cries of hapless women in some house or the other. Husbands, flogging their wives as if they were beasts, would do so until the sticks broke with the effort. The heads of these women would break open, their backbones would be crushed, and some would collapse unconscious. But there was nobody to care for them. They had no food to eat, no proper clothing to cover their bodies; their hair would remain uncombed and tangled, dry from lack of oil. Women led the most miserable existence. The entire day, the poor daughter-in-law would serve the entire household like a slave. The sasu, sasra, brothers and sisters-in-law, the neighbours—she had to serve one and all. The household chores were no less torturous. Many daughters-in-law would try to run away to escape this torture. Once night fell, darkness would descend everywhere, at home, in the village, on the roads. When everybody was fast asleep, the harassed daughter-in-law would pick up a couple of rags and run away under the cover of darkness. It was not at all an easy thing to do. There were no vehicles in those days to take her quickly to her mother s home. The young girl had to be entirely on her own. She had to be extremely careful, and watch each step she took. She had to find her way in pitch darkness, through hills and valleys and thick forests; she had to cross streams and rivers. Her escape would take place in mortal fear lest people who knew her in-laws were watching her. It would take her at least two days to reach her mothers home. Immediately on her heels would follow her brother-in-law or sasra or her husband! Nobody, neither her inlaws nor any of the others, had any sympathy for the poor tortured girl. The husband or the in-laws would beat her to a pulp. Even her brother and father would flog her mercilessly and ask the in-laws to take her back. The poor girl, numb with pain and hunger, was forced to return to her husband s home. Once she was brought back to her in-laws’ house, an even worse fate awaited her. Her in-laws would take a huge square piece of wood—weighing around five kilos — to the carpenter to have stocks made for her. The carpenter would drill a hole in the wood, big enough for her foot to go through. After this, they would put an iron bar through the sides so as to make it impossible for her to pull her

foot out. The wood itself would be as huge and heavy as a large iron tub. She would have to drag this heavy burden each time she tried to move. She was forced to work with this device around her leg. Her leg would get wounded and blood would ooze out every time she tried to move her leg. She was not a human being for her in-laws, but just another piece of wood. Her hair would be all tangled and spread around her head in complete disarray. She would be made to wear her younger brother-in-law s copper anklets as bangles. Those copper bangles were a sign that she was a Mahar. Besides, she had to constantly listen to the abuses of her sasu and sasra, whose tongues would never tire of lashing out at her. The sasu would pinch her cheeks black and blue; her sasra would thrash her day and night. The poor girl would endure this torture for as long as she could. When it became unbearable, she would run away with the stocks around her bloodied foot. When such girls managed to reach the maharwada, people crowded around to see them. We kids found the entire scene extremely curious. The sasu would pour poison in her son s ears against his hapless wife. She would whisper into his ears, ‘Dhondya, what good is such a runaway wife to you? Some bastard must have made her leave you. She must be having an affair. You are her husband, but obviously the bitch prefers someone else. I suspect that this somebody is from our own community. This bitch will bring nothing but disgrace to us. No, no! I don’t want such a slut in my house. She wants to ruin your life. Don’t let her off so easily. Dhondya, cut off the tip of her nose; only then will my mother’s heart breathe easy! Don’t bring shame on your father’s name. And don’t you worry, I’ll get you as many wives as you want. I’ll get you remarried in just a couple of days. I have already chosen a girl for you. She has a son from her previous marriage. But do not keep this wife of yours! She is not at all good for you. Otherwise, you will suffer like that woman who bought a farm at an inconspicuous corner so that she could till her land in peace, but on the way, she met a Musalmaan and he chopped off her nose and breasts too! We don’t want such a string of problems in our house.’ This speech was followed by a drama of shedding false tears, which the sasu pretended to wipe off with her sari. She would then hide her face in it and after a suitable pause, she would continue, ‘What would this slut have done if she had to suffer like us? Probably, she would have committed suicide. God! We did not even dare to speak to the dog and hen in our in-laws house disrespectfully. Even when we had to shoo them away, we had to address them with respect. We did

not get food to eat for four days at a stretch. We had to stealthily pluck some leafy vegetables from the fields, cook them and gobble them down without any salt. Even these would be difficult to get. We had to suffer so much! Oh, how we suffered! Just like Sita suffered during her exile.’ Torrential tears would follow this outburst. Then the sasra would take over. He would urge his son to be a brave hero, ‘You are a man. You must behave like one! You must be proud and firm. You must walk tall. Twirl your moustache and show us that you are a man. Are you wearing bangles like a woman? Then? Do you know about that Aaja of yours? He was a distant relative, of course! Let me tell you, he was a real hero among men! He could fell down any wild beast, however ferocious, at one stroke! He used to carry an axe with him at all times. Once his wife smiled at his cousin. Finished! He lured her with sweet words, took her to a field and just axed her down. Cut her into pieces then and there! The entire maharwada trembled on hearing his name. Such is your lineage, remember! Never mind if you have to go to prison for six months! You must chop off your wife’s nose and present it to her brother and father. They mustn’t have any respect left to sit with the members of the panch.’ This speech would go to the son’s head. His ego would inflate like a balloon. Then both father and son would make a plan for chopping off the girl’s nose. The sasra would go to her mother’s place and with sweet words, bring her back. Meanwhile, the son would keep ready a razor sharpened to an edge. At night, he would sit on her chest and taking his own time, cut off her nose. Then they would drive the poor girl out of the house, with blood pouring from the mutilation. None of her relatives would give her shelter. She was called mudy and was refused entry in the so-called good’ homes. Then her sasu would happily arrange a second marriage for her son with some divorced woman with a couple of children. She would feel elated that the harassment she had suffered was being finally compensated for. An innocent girl would thus be sacrificed to atone for the sasu’s suffering. Such inhuman practices were quite rampant almost till the 1940s. The poor girls were ill-starred, as it were! Mahar women were supposed to draw their pallav forward from the forehead down to the nose. Now, if a innocent child bride was found to have neglected this and if anybody saw her pallav drawn back even a little, it was provocation enough for all the sasus around to pounce upon her. Immediately, they would taunt her, ‘Hey, from where have you obtained such a daughter-in-law? Her mother must be a slut!

Why, her pallav just doesn’t stay on her forehead! Whenever we look at her, it is always up, on her head!’ Then the sasu would add fuel to this fire, ‘Now see for yourself! Otherwise you will blame me for not being able to stand her. What should I tell you, my friend! You asked me about her mother, right? What shall I tell you? Such a slut she is! God knows what she does. And this one here is her child, isn’t she? What else can you expect then? Like mother, like daughter! A slut’s daughter will be a slut! A good woman’s daughter will be good. Fix her pallav on her head with a nail! That’s the only way to make it stay there. The bitch, her mother, deceived us! She has tied a kalwatin around our neck! Tell me Attyabai, what will happen to my son? How will he survive with this woman? He is simpleminded as lord Shiva.’ Again, tearful talk would follow, ‘Kaki, its all right till were alive. But what will happen after us? This bitch will twist him around her little finger!’ Then the sasu would begin to wail loudly. Her companions would gladly join the wailing. Such was the life of our poor hapless daughters-in-law! The life of the women in the lower castes was thus shaped by the fire of calamities. This made their bodies strong, but their minds cried out against this oppression. A woman is satwa and sheel incarnate. She can put even her creator to shame. Just as the chaturvarna system created castes and sanctioned discriminatory practices, the cunning creator of the world established the practice of making women dependent on men. Men have therefore dominated women ever since. But a woman is goddess Amba on the earth who gives birth to man and sustains that unjust creature with her very life-blood. After having undergone the ordeal of fire for ages, she finally gave birth to a divine flame. This flame showed the world what true love and affection is. Then it tore off the net in which men had trapped women for ages, and rescued them. This was what is known as the Hindu (code Bill. 'The man who gave birth to the Hindu Code Bill was my king Bhim, the son of Morality, saviour of the world. It is because of him that my pen can scribble out some thoughts. It is because of him that I have understood truth; that I can now see how morality is being trampled upon. It is because of him that I got the inspiration to join the struggle against oppression and contribute my small might to it. In a sense, I am grateful to Veergaon and the people there who nurtured me with their love. In fact, Veergaon has a lion’s share in helping me perceive Truth. I will never forget the love they bestowed upon me since my birth. I could enter

any house that I wanted to. I was completely engulfed in the relationships I had formed with the men, women and children in each house. I would move among them calling them mama and mami. The woman of the house would bring out plates full of dried pieces of meat from a storage jar. There would be maggots in some of the bones. She would brush them off in the hot sun. Once the meat pieces were clean enough, she would put them to cook in a big earthen pot. She would roast some onions over the chulha, along with some chillies and haldi, roast some dhania seeds on a piece of burning coal, and grind them all to a powder on the grinding stone. Then she would put a piece of coal in this mixture of spices to make it green. Once the meat pieces were cooked, she would add the spices to it with some jowar flour to thicken the dish. Then other women would make big jowar bhakris. The sasu would first serve the food to the menfolk and the children. Each of the men would get a big plateful of the meat dish, along with some six bhakris and some raw onions. Children usually shared the plates with the men. Bhakris would be mixed with the meat and the children would eat with lusty appetite. All of us children would look for delicacies like liver. Everybody would invite me to have a share from their plate. The taste of that food is still fresh on my tongue. Even great dishes from so-called posh hotels fade in comparison to the food we had. In those days, there was no distinction between breakfast and lunch. Breakfast itself would be like lunch. Nobody knew about tea. It was made only in my aaji's house. My aaja was a butler and hence he was used to having tea. So we too got into the habit of drinking tea. Just the two of us, aaji and I, lived in the house in Veergaon. Aaji used to prepare tea in the morning. We would eat the stale bhakri, leftover from last nights meal, with the tea. Then aaji would go to collect firewood with the other women, and I would roam all over the place, visiting any house I wanted to. I would sit down to eat with anybody who had finished cooking. Dry meat pieces would be available only with the Mahars of the sixteenth share. The other houses did not have anything to eat. Those people were like insects crawling around in hunger. With no food to eat, at least a couple of people would be ill in each house, lying down in rags. They would be almost lifeless with hunger since even ordinary food was scarce. In their desperate search for solutions, they clung to the belief that a sick man could become well with simple remedies. Then they would come to my aaji’s house and say, ‘Sita, everybody in my house is sick. They are all down. So I

thought your tea would help them. Tea is the real remedy. People get well immediately. You know, once Malhari also gave me a bowlful of tea and my sickness just disappeared. So, I thought may be I should give all my people bowls of tea.’ My aaji would advise, ‘Attyabai, get sugar worth three quarters of a paisa, get tea powder worth a damdi. Then boil a jar of water in a pan. Put sugar and tea powder in it and bring it to a boil. Your entire household will be able to drink tea.’ ‘Oh, but there is no pan in my house.’ ‘All right! Then heat the water in a tawa and once it starts boiling, remove it from fire and strain it. Your tea will be ready.’ The woman would follow Aaji’s advice and give everybody some tea to drink and they would all feel better after drinking the tea. They believed that tea was a good medicine. In those days, the tawas were not flat like the modern ones. They would be deep, like a flattish bowl. The whole family could drink tea in one paisa. Yet, they could not afford to drink tea because they could not afford even that one paisa. They breathed, therefore they were supposed to be alive. Each generation left their children to serve their oppressors and quietly got wiped off from the face of the earth. Poor people had a lifespan of hardly thirty or forty years. One generation perished but the next generation would be ready to serve mother earth and the monsters ruling over it. On the one side, there was the entire society, arrogant and insolent, enjoying wealth and comfort; and on the other side, there were people dying without food, like fish out of water. But character, truth and morality among the oppressed did not die. The three qualities merged and were realised in the form of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. He was our Baliraja who gave away his kingdom for Truth. He was like Rawan who squandered away his kingdom for character. He was our Buddha who taught love, brotherhood and equality unto all. He was our Bhim, our king and our saviour, who blessed the blind with sight. He was the weapon forged out of the perfect blend of the three qualities of character, truth and morality, to fight injustice and to break the chains of slavery that shackled our feet.

10 Finally, I lost the shelter of my aaji's love. One day, my aaji brought me to Phaltan and handed me over to my parents. Then she went off to Mumbai to stay with my atya. I must have been just eight or nine years old then. Our house in Phaltan's maharwada was just a courtyard away from the chawdi. It was a small hut, with not more than ten square feet of floor space. For walls, it had stones piled in rows. My father was an established contractor. He was the one who had demolished the hill of Mhamadevi in Mumbai to construct new buildings. He had built the bridge at Curry Road. The milk dairy at Pune was also his project. He had earned a lot of money, but he had not been able to save any of it. Whatever he earned, he gave it all away as if he were the direct descendent of saint Tukaram who was famous for his generosity. There was a terrible outbreak of some epidemic fever that claimed many lives during the time when my father undertook the Pune dairy project. The epidemic spread far and wide, and there was no work or food for people. Whole households were being wiped out. People wandered from place to place in search of food, leaving behind all that they had. When news reached that Pandharinath Mistry from their own village had undertaken a large contract in Pune, the entire maharwada of Phaltan set off to Pune. Many were burning with fever. Many had had absolutely no food to eat. Yet, they walked all the way to Pune. My father had got a bungalow for himself and there was no dearth of servants either. When he saw all his people starving and sick, my father bought two huge pots, two bags of rice and half a bag of toor dal. His servants built two makeshift chulhas in the large courtyard and began to cook pots of rice and dal. People s health began to improve gradually once they started getting food. Thus death was defeated. The news spread like wild fire. Many more groups of people flocked to the site to work for food and camped around the bungalow. My father had obtained the contract only to save his people from hunger. Whenever he bagged contracts and made some money, he tried to protect peoples lives. He was also greatly influenced by the message of education that was being spread by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. He resolved to educate both of us, my brother and me, and came to Phaltan to enroll us in school.

There was a huge tamarind tree in front of our hut. People who came to the chawdi often sat under its cool shade. During the year 1938-39, the courtyard and the ground under the tree would overflow with people. In those days, Dr. Ambedkar was the most favoured topic for discussion among the Mahars. They would not tire of praising him. They would endlessly reiterate Baba's qualities. The chawdi started getting a newspaper and reports of Baba's public meetings and speeches began to be read out to the public. There were constant discussions about the public meetings that had been planned, and those that Baba would attend. There was no other talk besides this. People were mesmerised by Baba. They would constandy speak about him, his personality and his qualities. Our young minds were absorbed. Baba's various names - Dr. Ambedkar, Bhimrao, Babasaheb - became holy chants for us. Young activists, under the influence of Babasaheb's ideas, started enrolling their children in schools en masse. My father enrolled me in School no. 2. His friends enrolled their children in the same school. We were about ten girls in the elementary school—Susheela, Hausa, Shanta Bagad, Begum, Savu, Ulka, Gulbakavali, Shaku, Asha and I. Quite a big group! After school, we all used to rush to the chawdi to listen to the discussions there. One newspaper or the other would invariably carry a report of Babas speech in some public meeting. My father read out the report and people would listen attentively. None of us had seen Baba but his words were like elixir to our ears. The revolutionary fervour of his words set our blood coursing through the veins. We felt as if we should go and shake the orthodox by the scruff of their neck. By the time we reached the fourth standard, we had sort of become grown-ups. We were then transferred from School no. 2 to School no. 5. This school was known as Bahulichi Shala.[1] Now, there were about thirty to forty children from the maharwada ready to go to Mudhoji High School. The first to go to the high-school was my uncle Narahari Junglu Kakade. My brother, Babu Pandharinath Kakade, Digambar Junglu Kakade and around forty other boys followed in his footsteps. But the boys had a problem. They did not have enough space for studying together. Then my brother and my uncle took all the boys and met Dr. Bhadkamkar of the royal family to discuss their problems. Dr. Bhadkamkar was very sympathetic. He visited the school and was convinced that the problems faced by the boys were genuine. He handed over half of the backyard of School no. 2 for their use. There was a building there with some rooms. My brother named the building Harijan Boarding. This turned all the boys into staunch supporters and soldiers of Baba.

Students from other villages also started living in this boarding school. They started studying Baba's philosophy and his writings. Baba's thinking influenced them greatly and all of them became his dedicated followers. Their unity gave them an identity and strength for the first time in their life. Later, my brother joined politics. The constant discussion in the chawdi had a deep impact on young minds. The young were simply electrified. My father could not think of anything else except Baba. He gave up his work and we often had to go hungry. Yet, he forbade my aai to go out and work. My brother was also mesmerised by Baba. This ended in huge fights between my father and aai. My aai drove my father up the wall. She would nag him constantly. Then my father would lose his temper. Bolting the door from inside, he used to give Aai a terrible thrashing. This was almost a daily routine. We began to live in a perpetual state of hunger. My uncle Bapurao Mahadeo Kakade had got a job in the irrigation department and was transferred to Shinde Wadi, close to Phaltan. He was very proud of my brother and me because we were going to school. Since he was in charge of water, big landowners would keep their produce at his place. Our family of four was virtually starving. My paternal aaji, Thakubai, and aaja, Mhadu, naturally felt very sorry for us. Both of them loaded a horse with various necessities and brought them to our house at Phaltan. They brought so much with them that we did not have place to store all of it. Our small hut overflowed with the food and other things. Aaja and Aaji stayed with us for a couple of days and then left. Though the house was filled with what Aaja and Aaji had brought, we did not have any money. So my father sold off everything and spent the money. After a week or so, another load arrived. Gradually, my father gave up work altogether. Day and night he would be found sitting in the chawdi, talking about Baba. Girls too felt thrilled that our caste consciousness, which had been dormant so far, was now awakened. Our school was predominantly high caste. A majority of girls in our class belonged to the higher castes. For the first time in their lives, they had girls like us — who could pollute them — studying with them. They treated us like lepers, as if our bodies dripped with dirty blood or as if pus oozed out of our rotten flesh. If they had to pass by us, they would cover their nose, mutter ‘chee, chee’, and run as if their lives were in mortal danger. The teacher had allotted us a place in a corner near the door from where we could not move till school was over for the day. The blackboard would be in another corner. We could neither see what the teacher was writing on the board, nor could we raise

our doubts, in the classroom. If we went to drink at the school tap, the other girls would raise hell. But we never listened to them. We were greatly emboldened by Baba's brave spirit. We, seven or eight friends, would move together as one person. The higher caste girls would hurl taunts and abuses at us, ‘These Mahar girls put on such airs. They have even touched the taps! Now where should we drink water from? Stupid things!’ Another one would come up with, ‘You know, I have to bathe again after I go home from school. My mother has come to know that Mahar girls sit in our class and she doesn’t allow me to enter the house unless I have a bath. We have to go to the Ram temple. What to do now? Where do we drink water from?’ They would hurl stones at us and throw dust into our eyes. Then we would get angry and attack them. Tucking up our long skirts, we would just barge into their groups like battering rams and scatter them. They would run away and those left behind would be prey in our hands. We would attack them furiously, pull their long plaits, push them to the ground, pinch their cheeks and hands, and torture them as much as we could. But we would get back all of this and more, once we entered the classroom. Then the teacher would hurl insults at us, to hit us with a long ruler, and make us bend down and hold our toes till school was over. We would bend down, touch our toes and smile at each other. But when school was over for the day, it would be our turn again. When the bell rang, the hearts of these higher caste girls would turn to water. Some of them escaped our wrath by quickly running away, but we managed to catch quite a few of these girls. We, seven or eight girls from different grades, would get together in a group and start roughing up any girl whom we happened to catch. The higher caste girls also got together to surround us. They would hurl insults at us, ‘That Ambedkar has educated himself, that’s why these dirty Mahars are showing off! That filthy Mahar, Ambedkar, eats dead animals but look at the airs he gives himself!’ In retaliation, we said, ‘You shaven widows, how dare you take our Ambedkar’s name! You have your own baldy, that stupid Gandhi! He has neither a shirt on his body, nor teeth in his mouth! That toothless old bugger hasn’t any teeth! Ha ha ha!’ Then we would sing a song from our jalsa: Where’s Gandhi’s spinning wheel gone?

Bhim has shaved Gandhi’s head off. Our quarrels were nothing more than the hurling of insults at the two leaders. Finally, we would chase those girls away and walk back home, laughing and repeating to each other the things that we had said to them. These skirmishes were not short-lived. These fights continued till we finally left the school. In the morning, the higher caste girls hurled all kinds of insults and abuses at us in front of the teachers, ‘Its really too much, that filthy Mahar educated himself! Ambedkar is so vain! Who does he think he is?’ They would go on and on like this. Then we would respond, ‘Our Ambedkar looks like a sahib. You know why your Gandhi is toothless? Because our Ambedkar kicked him in his teeth! Ha ha…That’s why your Gandhi has no teeth! And do you know why Gandhi has no hair? Because our Ambedkar shaved it off! That’s the kind of man our Ambedkar is!’ They could not counter us with anything. They would tell one among them, ‘Hey Athawale, come on. Don’t you talk to these filthy Mahars. They say such obscene things. They call our Gandhi ‘Gandi’.[2] Come on, don’t even talk to them. If our Gandhi just utters a curse, that Ambedkar will burn to ashes in a second.’ How could we tolerate this? ‘Bah!’ we would say. ‘Do you take our Ambedkar to be an oldie like your Gandhi? He will snatch your Gandhi’s cane and beat him to a pulp with it.’ They would shout at us in chorus, ‘Filthy Mahars!’ and we would intone in unison: Oh this Brahmin caste has no shame Women squat before the barber for a shave. We did not do exercises from our textbooks, but this recital was our daily routine! On the road to the school, in Mangalwar Peth, we would come across Gujar women going to the temple. The moment they lay eyes on us, they would make a detour to avoid us. At least one of us would then run towards them, touch them from behind and come back running. Touching them would make us feel as if we were in the seventh heaven. My brother had taught us yet another reformist trick. Inspired by Dr. Ambedkar, he had started composing songs. In Phaltan, each square would celebrate Ganeshotsav by having their own idol of Ganesh in their own squares. The boys in the Harijan Boarding also started celebrating the festival. They took sixty long sticks, fitted bells at one end of those sticks, and took out a procession singing fiery songs of revolt through the town at night. They would finally arrive

at the chawdi at around ten or eleven in the night. Then the entire maharwada would gather at the chawdi, drawn by their bells and songs. People listened to the songs with great pride. Eventually everyone would join in the singing. The boys sang these songs with such spirit, force and vigour, that our blood would be on fire. The singing continued throughout the night with people lavishing praise on the boys. Lemons and coconut were smashed to ward off evil spirits. The Harijan Boarding’s mela was so good that the entire town would listen to the songs and praise the performance. Thus the new wind of Ambedkar's thoughts started to blow. The end of the long night was in sight. In the chawdi, Ambedkar’s ideas were constantly discussed and these discussions generated more ideas. One such idea was to celebrate Babas birth anniversary on 14th April. Everyone heartily welcomed and supported the idea. People started collecting subscriptions to gather a fund. Activists like Nana Member, Keshav Member, Kala Dadu, Laxman Dalai, Dajiram, Shrirang Appa, Ramchandra Shankar, Herum and others worked hard. Since this was the first time Baba's birth anniversary was being celebrated, the entire maharwada joined in the planning. New clothes were bought for the occasion by each family for the women and children. Padva, the new year festival of the Hindus, fell a couple of weeks before 14th April. People decided not to celebrate this festival. ‘Our New Year’, they said, ‘will be on the 14th of April. We will raise our gudhi on this day, hang banners, wear new clothes, cook sweet chapatis in each house.’ Since it was the first celebration, leaders decided that all the young men of maharwada would wear the uniform of scouts. So they all got dressed in khaki shorts and half-sleeved khaki shirts, wore a whistle around their necks and put on white canvas shoes and socks. All of them had their hair cut short and some had even gone to the extent of buying English hats. Four days before the event, the womenfolk got busy. They polished their houses with cow dung, washed all the dirty clothes and sheets clean, and swept their courtyards. Invitations were sent to people in eighty-four villages to arrive at Phaltan a couple of days before the main event and camp at their relatives’ places. In those days people had to walk all the way. Every house overflowed with guests, as if it was a jatra. The guests were impressed with all the preparations and were all praise for the young activists of Phaltan. Finally, the day arrived. It was the dawn of 14th April. People had not slept a wink the previous night. They had worked throughout the night erecting the pandal and helping with other preparations. The activists bathed at three in the

morning and thereafter raised gudhis on all roof tops. Women bathed their children, arranged for their guests’ baths and began to make sweet chapatis. The children gathered at the pandal, with their combed hair and new clothes. Various groups had been invited from the adjoining villages to play musical instruments like the halgi, lezim and ghumki. The activists had decorated a bullock-cart and placed Baba’s photograph in front of the cart. Thus the preparations for the procession were in place. A band — the halgi, lezim and ghumki troupes — walked in front of the cart with the khaki-clad boys following behind. The visitors followed them. The procession passed through the town and people watched it in stunned surprise. All the important people from the town had been invited for the meeting. Around six o’clock in the evening, the meeting began. The pandal overflowed with people. Kala Dadu summoned us — Hausa, Sushila and me — to sing a song. We were just kids! What songs did we know? No one was worried about that! They just called out, ‘Girls, come on, sing a song.’ We felt confused for a minute. Then I began and my two friends joined me: What a shameless god! How I’m fed up with him! The stink of abir and gulal, friend, has made me lose my appetite The sounds of the taal and mridung, make any head ache so! Why should I see this Vithoba? He is nothing but a black stone! Somehow we managed to sing these four lines. And how badly we sang! Each one of us sang in a different pitch. Our voices trembled; we gulped words in between, but we sang! Our listeners were thrilled! Especially so when we sang the last line, calling Vithoba a black stone. Kala Dadu became so excited that he started to jump up and down. He picked us up, danced around and showered praise on us. Kala Dadu was my aaja’s cousin. He must have been around thirty or thirtyfive years of age. He looked like the film star Master Bhagwan, but his complexion was coal black. He had quite a humorous disposition. He was completely illiterate and he would have laid down his life for Baba. They were all like children of the same mother. When somebody proposed something, all agreed to it. Wise men were not a dime a dozen then, as they are today. Nobody would say, ‘Who’s he? Why should we listen to him? Why should we do what he says? No, we won’t do it, he’s wrong.’ One person suggested something and ten

people carried it out without a fuss. They all worked with one voice and in one mind. That is why the entire community grew in strength. One body with one soul! Every programme was carried out well, with everybody participating wholeheartedly. The whole world marvelled at this union. Parents gave everything away to get their children educated. But now, the so-called wise men from every house act like dynamite to ruin this union. Even in routine meetings, if one says something, another opposes it tooth and nail. The third, acting superior, points out mistakes and criticises everything that the others do! What work can be done in such a situation? Meetings end in chaos. Every person wants to brag about their own greatness and wisdom. People have started breaking the community for their own selfish ends. This has led to the disintegration of the community. Our strength has dissipated. There is no strong leadership among us anymore. A small community shook the whole world in the 1940s under Baba’s leadership. Today, the community is huge but has become completely ineffective and feeble. However, it is not late even now. Time marches onward and we cannot afford to slacken our speed. We have to snatch the right moment. We have to forge unity in the Boudhdha community.[3] We have to join forces to give life to the helpless, to fight the whole world as Baba's heirs, to allow Baba's suffering soul to rest in peace. We may be like rivers, streams, canals or even gutters; but all of us have to finally merge in the ocean. Our ocean is the community. We have to make it stronger. I may be an illiterate woman, but I speak the truth which I have learnt from Baba. Yesterday we were only a handful, yet we could shake the very foundations of the system; today we number thousands and yet we are dispersed. One man and ten hermaphrodites! That is what we have been reduced to. The gigantic strength of one man yesterday and the stupid helplessness of ten timid men today! But remember, we are the heir of that unique man who could take on the whole world. Discard your cowardice and unite in the spirit of brotherhood that Baba desired. [1] Literally a dolls school. [2] ‘Gandi from gand’, which means buttocks in coarse Marathi. [3] The reference appears to be to the huge number of Mahar people who converted to Buddhism; they are scattered and need to be organised. This

appears to be the import.

11 I made a firm resolve, at a young age, to lead my life according the path sketched by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, the light of my life. His principles have exercised a strong influence on me. However, there were other things that influenced me as well. Cinema, for instance. A man called Gabu Kothari set up the first cinema hall in Phaltan. The first film he screened was Sant Tukaram based on the life of the famous Marathi saint, Tukaram.[1] A ticket cost one anna. The hall was nothing but an enclosure, with bamboo walls. People had to squat down on the sand since there were no chairs. As nobody had ever seen a film before, they were all extremely eager to see it. The students staying at the boarding school also went to see it. My brother took me along. I was completely mesmerised by what I saw. Tukaram's integrity, the threats posed to the virtuous by malicious people, and finally, the victory of truth—all of these greatly impressed me and left a deep imprint on my mind. I think that this was another very formative influence on me. All the illiterate people who watched the film were simply mesmerised. In the morning, people flocked to the chawdi, talking about the wonderful experience that evoked admiration, amazement and awe, ‘Oh my, what a fantastic thing this cinema is! Do you know, pictures walk and talk and sing on the screen! And they are just pictures, mind you, on a cloth screen! But they are for real! The chulha burns, Jijabai pats bhakris! And when Attyakka weeps, you can see tears streaming down her face, just like it is in reality! Fantastic! It's simply fantastic! The man who made that film is simply great!’ They would not get tired of praising the film. Sant Tukaram was followed by yet another film, Sati Savitri. Now we were no longer children. We were young girls on the threshold of youth and of marriageable age. When we saw Sati Savitri on screen, some of the strength and will power lying dormant within us were awakened. There was now a new determination in our hearts. Events in Savitri's life left a deep impact on my mind—such as Savitri pulling her husband’s cart, braving the storms, stopping the sun from shining, the sheer grit with which she challenged her destiny, and above all, her ability to face life’s adversities. I wanted to be as strong as Savitri. Let people say what they want, this movie was one of the main factors that changed my life.

Though my aai used to teach me many things, I was basically my father’s daughter. I must have had more of my father in me. My father’s words were always like elixir to me. Even today, his words are treasured in the innermost depths of my heart. He always used to tell me, ‘Never accumulate wealth. How long will it last? It is the earth that gives us everything and it is the earth that takes it all back. There’s nothing you can claim as your own. God has given us a great gift: our mind. It is your duty to make this mind generous. Real wealth doesn’t come from money lying in the coffers. Dignity is far more important than wealth. That’s what makes you a self-respecting human being. Real selfrespect doesn’t come from wealth. You must work but not for gathering wealth. Work for survival, for dignity. No animal craves for more than what is needed for its survival. And how much does one need for survival any way? If one gets a bellyful, it’s enough.’ My father believed very strongly that our children should not become lawyers, because he felt that lawyers would do anything for money. His words echo in my heart to this day. When my eldest son passed his matriculation examination, all of us sat together to discuss the field in which he should choose to make his career. My husband immediately said he wanted our son to be a lawyer. I was shocked. In front of my son, I reminded him what my father had always felt about lawyers, police officers and commission agents, and how we had decided not to make our children lawyers. When we began to discuss other options, my son suddenly said that he wanted to go to an agricultural college. Both my husband and I agreed immediately and we enrolled him in an agricultural college. I have never worshipped Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar with sandalwood paste, flowers and dhoop sticks. I have never made a public display of my reverence for him. I worshipped, instead, the principles he stood for. I have had to face several adversities in my life and I fought these bravely with the weapons of sheel and satwa. I have remained happy in my poverty because I managed to keep my family on the true path. Everybody in my family follows the path of righteousness. My household is untouched by the corrupt ways of the world. This gives me a sense of fulfillment. It is wrong to say that young minds are shaped well only if their environment is good. Many people believe that culture can be imbibed only from educated, rich and intelligent people. I can confidently tell you from my experience that it is not true. My house is located in an environment where all

kinds of awful things happen all the time. But that does not affect us at all. It is not necessary to live in a distinguished environment for one to be cultured and civilised. These are qualities you must have in your blood. Why did Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar convert to Buddhism? Buddhism means good character. The person who preaches Buddhism has to be morally upright and lead a virtuous and uncorrupted life. Advice from a pure tongue such as the Dalit saint Chokha Mela,[2] will transform millions of followers of Bhim into pure beings. The aim is to serve Mother India well. That is why Dr. Ambedkar introduced Buddhist philosophy as the path of truth and righteousness. Before him, millions of our people had broken their heads against the stone steps of temples, trying to reach their voices to gods who would not hear them. Generation after generation gave Birth to children, only to see them turn to dust. The creator gave us a human form and sent us down to earth, and abandoned us. He was least bothered about what was happening to us. He turned a blind eye to the goings on of our world. It was our Bhim who finally breathed life into lifeless statues, that is, the people of our community. It was he who lighted a lamp in each heart and brought light to our dark lives. He is far greater to us than the maker of the universe. Was there anything that he did not do for us? First he gave us life; then he made us human beings. The first need of a human being is education. He made it possible for us to receive education; he even spent his own money for that. He encouraged us to be graduates. He helped us obtain prestigious jobs. He made our households rich. He empowered us to obtain wealth and power. He demonstrated to the whole world that we had the ability to reach the highest position; that we could even be ministers. He strived hard and brought comfort to our doorstep. Obviously, since he made all this possible, he is our god. Nay, he is even better; he is the god of gods for it is because of him that the age-old suffering of millions of people could be wiped out within fifty years. He is certainly superior to god. He achieved what even god has not been able to do. But look at yourself! Though Baba did so much for all of you, you, who call yourselves intelligent, have just discarded his thoughts. Your children have not even the foggiest idea of who Dr. Ambedkar was, and who Buddha was! You are teaching your children to believe in god! There is an explosion of ritual fasts in your families on days of Sankashti Chaturthi, Saturdays, Thursdays— you observe fasts on so many days! Bhima made you, and you rub your noses before the very gods that he taught us to discard. Ganesh, Lakshmi—how many gods

and goddesses do you introduce your children to? That is precisely what your ancestors did too; they wasted their lives rubbing their noses on those stone steps outside the temples! Which god ever took mercy upon them? And yet, once again, you have chosen to become slaves of the same gods. You are inculcating the same culture in your children! You have simply wiped off Baba's name. All the educated amongst us have forgotten Baba because they are basking in the false glory of their so-called greatness. You are the children of our blood, but you have forgotten the blood relationship. We had never imagined that our children would be so crass and undeserving. We had never thought there would be so much regression. Our hearts bleed. Words choke. ‘Finally, it is parasites that we have given birth to.’ From village lanes to the high thrones of Delhi, everybody is dying to be a leader. There is cutÂthroat competition among the climbers, each plotting against the other. Your real world is the world of the glorious sacrifice of Bhima. We owe our happy lives to his sacrifice. That king among men gave his life for the oppressed like us. The real leader is known by his intense desire and power to transform everyone in his own image. He wants every life to be bright, every home full of light. He wants that light to seep into every nook and corner of society. He wants the entire edifice of society to be built on the foundations of sheel, satwa and neeti for the glory of our country, Mother India. Among all the countries, it is Mother India who gave birth to these principles. We are fortunate to be born here as her children. Life does not mean wealth or comforts. It is a state of pure being. Baba could easily have earned mountains of wealth had he so desired. But he did not. Why? Because wealth would have destroyed all sense of duty. Man is born with a duty assigned to him—to work for others. This was Baba's principle. He gave his entire life in the service of his poor and helpless Dalit brethren. He lived for the Dalits, each droplet of his blood was meant for their well-being. He poured life into every fibre of our being. His life was like a piece of sandalwood. The wood loses itself as it is ground into paste but the fragrance lingers. Likewise, Baba's mortal body died but his work lives on. And it will remain forever. His spirit, too, will last forever. His name will continue to live as long as the sun and the moon are in the sky. His words are eternal; they have conquered death. The one lesson that we must learn from Baba's life is that we must serve others. Baba was like the sun, we can at least try to be like the fireflies. We too can shine and give some light to others, can we not?

We may not be able to work for twenty-four hours a day, but a little time out of our busy schedules is not too much to expect, is it? Friends, you may be busy for six days a week with your own work; what about giving half a day each week for the poor? Believe me, you will achieve a lot. If all educated people show a little sympathy for the weak, it will be a great service to society. Those weaklings will receive a new breath of life; they will be able to take at least a few faltering steps ahead. All they need is a little support. What we need therefore is a group of intellectuals dedicated to the task of pulling out these helpless people from the mire of poverty. It is our duty to ignite a new spark in the community that is bereft of all life. Today you live in bungalows. You have wives who are educated. Your children are graduates. You have occupied high positions in society. You are going to continue the tradition of fighting for human values and rights of the downtrodden. Your life is of the same quality as a life lead in heaven. Did our people even enjoy such a life? You must remember that it was one man who achieved the impossible task of transforming beasts into human beings. That glorious ray filled millions of lives with brightness. That pure stream managed to wash away the sins of all people. He was the only man who made it possible for millions to taste a drop of elixir. There are so many intellectuals today, millions of them crawling around. Why is it that none of them are able to provide leadership even to a small section? Don’t you understand that ignorant people like us can see through your games? Isn’t it a shame that millions of people are unable to achieve what one person could achieve? How did millions of illiterate people follow one man? He was a man who believed in himself. He had courage and fortitude; he was neither a defeatist nor an escapist. His words had the sharp edge of a vajra. Nobody could seal his lips with bribes. He had fire coursing through his veins. He had iron in his soul. He never changed his positions; nor did he ever compromise his principles for selfish gain. Money, prosperity, fame— nothing could tempt him. He understood the times. Whims and fancies did not sway him. His heart was soft and tender, full of love for the downtrodden. He never sacrificed helpless people for his own selfish motives. His character was spotlessly clean, without any blemish. But what about us? Our dark settlements do not have even an iota of clean space. There is a world of difference between him and us. Wherever one goes, one sees needless interference—bribery, selfish motives, self-aggrandisement, relentless and shameless thirst for wealth and fame. What is the true value of a

bungalow or a car? Are they more significant than human beings? Are material things like gold, diamonds and gems more important than living beings? Everybody seems to be preoccupied only with one's own family, one's own wealth. Nobody seems to have any concern for others. Shall I tell you how these self-centered, selfish people think? They say, ‘Where is the need to think about the world? What do we have to gain by thinking about the poor? What do we have to do with the beggars out there? We are people far superior to them. Why should we have concern for them? That would be nothing but degradation for us. Why should we demean ourselves? Those people are slum-dwellers, they speak a dirty language and they eat leftovers. There is a world of difference between their culture and ours. We live in beautiful mansions and high-rise buildings, we move around in cars, paint our faces, and our children call us papa and mummy. We have relations with the high castes and high class. We have assimilated ourselves into their high culture. We worship the idols of Ram and Sita, pray to Maruti and Ganapati, apply a black mark between the eyebrows like the high castes and make our children recite evening prayers like “Shubham karotiâ€.[3] We teach our children how to sing praises of Hindu gods and goddesses and how to worship them. In short, we claim that we have reached the pinnacle of culture! But you parasites of the high castes, you have received the Boudhdha religion from Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar that teaches one to exercise one’s right to humanity. Generations after generations of our ancestors wasted themselves in the service of the high castes who are like cunning thieves. But still some of us will not give it up! Shouldn’t we be ashamed of ourselves? Do you think our struggle was worthless? Baba gave away his whole life for us. Is even that worthless? Some of us have chosen to discard our sight and be deliberately blind. I ask you, do you want to again get into the habit of groping in the dark with a stick just like your ancestors? You narrate stories of gods as if it is true history. The high castes strive very hard to keep alive the stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata in the minds of their young generation. They impress the young minds of children with stories from the Puranas. But look at yourself. You have forgotten real history. It is hardly thirty years since Baba passed away, but you have already wiped your memories clean of his teachings. Tell me, do your children know anything about Baba Ambedkar? Do they know the teachings of the Buddha? Do you have the guts to sing in praise of your religion, your Baba? No. You are simply intoxicated with the power of your wealth. Today’s

generation is not ignorant like us! We were too scared to give up old customs. There was tremendous pressure upon us. Suddenly, the times changed. We had never ever imagined that the country would progress so much. We did not listen to the footsteps of time. We never imagined that our children would scale such heights of success. We were not human beings then. We were alive only because our eyes moved in their sockets. Otherwise, we were merely skeletons, without any life in us! But when Baba came, a new spark enlivened us. The flame of Bhim started burning in our hearts. We began to walk and talk. We became conscious that we too are human beings. Our eyes began to see and our ears to listen. Blood started coursing through our veins. We got ready to fight as Bhim’s soldiers. The struggle yielded us three jewels— humanity, education and the religion of the Buddha. By giving us this religion, Baba led us back into the lap of our real mother from whom we had been estranged for so long. What more could a father give to his children? What more do you want? Whatever wealth he had, he left it to us. We have to cherish this treasure. We have to use it well. Today, many of our daughters and daughters-in-law are graduates. They are a hundred times more superior to ignorant women like us. Even if their husbands forget the Father in the glory of their own so-called greatness, it is their duty to reprimand their husbands. They should tell them, ‘Remember, what you are today is solely because of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. This life of luxury has been possible for you because of him. But for him, you would have had to spend your life in some hut with earthen pots. You would have been begging around for food, biting carcasses to fight the pangs of hunger. And what would have been the state of our children? Dressed in rags, they would be lying in some dark corner of a hut, crying with hunger. They would have served the high castes day and night, been flogged for small mistakes; they would have to survive on flogging than on food. The monopoly over leftovers from high caste houses would be yours. It was our Bhim who rescued you from such a terrible fate. He showed us this golden day. You must fold your hands to this great man, this self-sacrificing soul, and introduce him to our children. He has made us what we are now. He has made this new life for us. It is to him that we owe our present prosperity.’ It is the duty of educated women to impress this upon their young children. They should portray this in poems and teach them to their children. Through all our programmes, we must portray the lives of Bhim and the Buddha. We must see to it that our children imbibe the principles of the Buddhist religion. Then alone shall we be able to call ourselves the children of Bhim. Character, truth and morality are the essence of our constitution. Character is the pillar of this

constitution, truth is its roof, and morality, its the foundation. This is the home of humanity. This is our house, decorated with these three jewels. Baba wanted it to be the residence for the entire human race. If the whole of the human race treads on the path of these principles, only the sky would be the limit for Mother India. What do I have Bhima? What can I offer to you…/ Except for flowers? You gave voice to our suffering souls.// Each flower that I offer is nothing but a burning grief/ With tears flowing from my eyes, I wash your feet.// The fire raging in my heart has ignited this flame/ Through the flickering of these flames, all I see is Buddha and Bhim. [1] A seventeenth-century Marathi saint, Tukaram was born in the Kunbi caste

and belonged to the Warkari sect. He is known for his radical critique of the oppressive brahminical tradition. [2] Chokha Mela was a 14th century saint poet from the Mahar caste. A devotee

of God Viththal at Pandharpur, he was greatly influenced by Namdeo, the Warkari poet from the tailor caste. He has composed many 'abhangas' and he may be described as the first Dalit poet. [3] Shubham haroti is a Sansluit shloka sung in Brahmin households as Part of the

evening prayers: Shubham karoti kalyanam, aarogyam dhanassampada. Shatrubdhdhi vinashaya, deepajyoti namostute. It means 'Oh god, please bless us with health and wealth. Ve light a lamp and pray to it that it may destroy dl evil intelligence of our enemies.'

12 I am a product of the Ambedkar movement. I came in contact with the movement when I was a child of hardly seven or eight years of age. Our hut was right in front of the chawdi and both shared a courtyard. Activists like my father Pandharinath Kakade, Nana Ahiwale, Laxman Kakade were all educated. They used to bring two newspapers - Daily Kesari and Daily Sakai - to the chawdi and read them aloud to the people sitting in the courtyard. Baba published a newspaper called Bahishkrut[1] in which his speeches were reproduced. These were also read out aloud. Men from both the Mahar lanes gathered to listen to them. There would be complete silence. The readers explained the issues to the people. The entire community was beginning to be aware. I grew up in that charged atmosphere. Ambedkar taught us that character is the foundation of this edifice called the human society. When compassion and morality follow character, society achieves its real strength. He wanted to transform society in the light of this philosophy. My young mind absorbed a few drops from that ocean of knowledge. I have already stated how a teacher called Bhadkamkar had provided hostel facilities to the young boys of our community. Gradually, the number of students in this hostel increased to thirty to thirty-five students. They came from Mangalwar Peth as well as from the surrounding villages. My brother, the eldest student among them, became their leader. He used to compose radical songs, many of which used to be sung in the cultural programmes held during the Ganeshotsav. I too participated in them. Messages would be circulated about the programmes being organised. Once, Baba sent a telegram asking us to exert our rights as the sons of the soil, by forcibly seeking entry into temples and hotels. The hostel students discussed this all through the night. They made a plan for the campaign. They planned as to who would enter which temple. They chose the Viththal temple in the Shimpi lane, which was next to the Brahmin lane. The Brahmins came to know of this plan. With fire in their blood, the young activists from the Harijan Boarding set off to forcibly enter the Viththal temple. They were shouting slogans of Ambedkar’s victory. Some young girls like me, of about ten to twelve years of age, ran by their side. In the temple, the Brahmins had surrounded the idol of Viththal to protect it from the polluting touch of the Mahars. Many wielded

lathis. They wanted to stop the Mahar boys from entering the temple at any cost. The fiery young soldiers of Ambedkar were equally adamant. The tallest among them was a boy called Anand Ahiwale who was the son of a wrestler. He dashed through the ring of the Brahmins and managed to touch the idol. This caused a furor. There was great commotion everywhere. The Brahmins scattered and started chasing the Mahar boys with lathis. But the boys were too smart for them. They somehow managed to escape and reached the chawdi in Mangalwar Peth. We, too, dashed into the house of a fish-vendor woman whom we knew. We used to buy fish from her. Her house was exactly in front of the temple. The Brahmin priests in the temple announced that the Mahars had polluted the temple. They also declared that god Viththal’s face had become contorted and that tears were flowing from goddess Rukmayis eyes. Soon the news of the Mahars having polluted the divine couple Viththal and Rukmayi spread all over Phaltan. In fact, it reached all the eighty-four villages in the state of Phaltan.[2] Priests organised the chanting of scriptures and purificatory rituals to wash away the pollution with milk and gomutra. Finally, after one and a half months of incessant chanting, ceaseless worship, and of course, substantial grants from the king, the Brahmin priests managed to cleanse the gods of the pollution, restored the original expression on lord Viththal s face and stemmed the flow of tears from Rukmayi s eyes. Babas word has become law for me since then. Social work became an alternative source of sustenance. A new fire began to burn in my heart. Meanwhile, the movement marched ahead. A new wind had started to blow all over the country. A new sun was rising on the horizon. I still remember the celebration of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary in 1938. I was just nine years old then. The activists in Mangalwar Peth such as Nana Member, Shrirang Appa, Govind Thombre, Black Dadu, Pandharinath Kakade, Laxman Master, Laxman Dalal, Dajiram Kakade, Baburao Ahiwale and Papa Ahiwale got together to celebrate Baba’s birth anniversary. They declared that they would not celebrate Gudhi Padva, the traditional Hindu new year, but instead they resolved to celebrate 14th April as the day of their new year. They decided that on this day they would do everything that high caste people did on the occasion of Gudhi Padva. They would raise gudhis, buy new clothes, clean their houses, decorate their courtyards with rangoli, cook puran poli and invite people from all the eighty-four villages for a festive lunch. The day symbolised

the celebration of the spirit of Bhim. Thus, the people of Phaltan started the tradition of celebrating Ambedkar Jayanti. All houses in Mangalwar Peth were cleaned. Gudhis were raised in front of each house. People bought new clothes. Women got busy. Children got up early, bathed and gathered in front of the chawdi, parading their new clothes, singing and dancing. The activists erected a huge pandal in front of the chawdi. I was so excited that I kept running back and forth, from the chawdi to our hut. I could not sleep at all. The men had worked through the night, making preparations. Nobody had had even a moment’s rest. Each one bathed and returned to the pandal in snow-white dhoti and kameej, and a blue turban with some shiny powder sprinkled on it. Some men even wore coats. The boys from the boarding, thirty to thirty-five in number, were immaculately dressed in white. My brother was also among them. They put Dr. Ambedkar’s photograph on a chair, draped a garland around it and sang their radical songs. The atmosphere was simply electric. This was certainly the first moment in my life when I experienced pure, unadulterated happiness. I felt as though I was bursting with life. Everybody was deliriously happy. Dadu, our aaja, was an extremely cheerful, fiin-loving man who had acquired the nickname of Doctor because he pretended to check the pulse of young children and made them cry. His complexion was virtually coal black. On this occasion, he was dressed in khaki half-shirt and khaki shorts, with white canvas shoes and white socks. He also wore a hat on his head and a tie around his neck like an Englishman. And like all other soldiers of Bhim, he had also shaved off his moustache. He was in his element that day. He caught hold of some child to check his pulse and made him cry; he praised the new clothes of another; and then he teased yet another, saying that his clothes were not new at all and that his parents had cheated him. From ten o’clock in the morning, people from the neighbouring villages started arriving. The visiting villagers were also in brand new clothes. They had come in bullock carts that were nicely painted and decorated with bells. They camped in the chawdi. The activists had made arrangements for their meals. Every house was to invite five people as guests and feed them. Around three o’clock in the afternoon, the boys started decorating the bullock cart in which Babasaheb’s photograph would be placed and taken in procession. They tied the tender trunks of plantain around the cart. They had

invited a band as well, the Chand Tara Band. The band began to play and the procession started. Slogans such as ‘Babasaheb Zindabad’, ‘Schedule Caste Party Zindabad’, ‘Down with Capitalism’, ‘Long live Ambedkar’, reverberated through the streets. Nobody minded the burning sun. The sweat running down the bodies felt like the first drops of rain. The spirit of rebellion was in the air. We wanted to trample the high caste villagers under our feet. Finally, the procession reached the chawdi around five in the evening. Women came forward with the ceremonial plate of tiny, lighted lamps and performed an aarti. Guests sat down to rest.Volunteers brought drinking water from each house. A chulha was ignited outside the chawdi to make tea. Preparations began for the public meeting in the evening. Several prestigious people from the village came for the meeting, including Dr. Bhadkamkar and Sachin Godbole, the king’s secretary. Dadu knew that I could sing a little. My brother had prepared a jalsa for this programme that tried to educate people on the futility of worship and urged them to give up stupid old customs. The actors - Bhanudas Kakade, Anna Mama, Shankar Ahiwale and Viththal Ahiwale - were about to begin the jalsa when suddenly my aaja got a brainwave. He called for me loudly, ‘Hey you, Pandharinath’s brat, start singing the Ithuba song! We will start the programme after your song.’ Catching hold of my hand, he just dragged me on to the stage in front of all the people. I felt terribly confused. My throat went dry and my heart started to race. But I gathered all the courage in my heart and started to sing. People clapped, there was a thunderous applause. Dadu placed me on his shoulders and started dancing. Then the programme began. This was how we celebrated the first birth anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar. Since then, Baba has been enshrined in our hearts. The programme set me thinking. What was the purpose of Babas life? For whom was Baba born? I realised that the purpose of his life was to empower the oppressed and to restore to them their human rights. Once I realised this, I understood that even my life was meant for the service of the society. I realised I had to be one with my people. We, the daughters of the activists in the movement, were enrolled in School no. 5 for girls. It was basically a school for Brahmin girls, with a few girls from other high castes. There were some ten or twelve Mahar girls spread over in various classes. So each class had only a sprinkling of the polluting Mahars. All the girls in the class had benches to sit except us Mahar girls. We had to sit on the floor in one corner of the classroom like diseased puppies. The school was located in Shankar Market, in front of the Ram temple. During the short recess,

Brahmin girls used to visit the temple. Dressed in nice long skirts and blouses, with flowers in their hair and their fair skins glowing, to us they looked very beautiful, flitting around like colourful butterflies. We were like fiery gadflies burning for vengeance. Behind Ram’s temple, there was a big tree, with a round platform built around it. We used to park ourselves on this platform, each lost in her own thoughts. My friend Begum would say, ‘How come these Brahmin and Maratha girls are able to go and see the god’s idol? We should see him at least once.’ Then another friend, Gulbakawali, would vehemently object, ‘No! Never! How can you pollute god? If we do, the god will set monsters after us. Monsters are ferocious creatures, you know. Huge and terrible! They will simply devour us. Do you know that? If the god doesn’t set monsters after us, he is sure to send a cobra with five hoods. Or, even huge drones. He will simply do anything to punish us. His wrath is terrible. Let me tell you, my brother is a bhagat of the spirit Dhawji Patil that often possesses him. You don’t know how that spirit hates things that pollute. Even women are polluting for this spirit god. And he often warns people not to challenge gods.’ Then yet another girl, Ulka, would retort, ‘Stop it! That’s rubbish. Had these gods been real, do you think our Ambedkar would have challenged them? ’ Ulka was the daughter of Shankar Kakade who had thrown away all his gods. Another girl, Bagad, would assert, ‘Come what may, we must see what this god Ram looks like.’ I supported her enthusiastically, ‘Yes, let’s face whatever happens. Let’s pollute Ram at least once. Even, at the cost of death.’ Satu exclaimed, ‘Yes, let us do it. Baby is right!’ Two years passed in such talk. Finally, we decided to carry out our plan on a particular day. We systematically planned our strategy to enter the Ram temple. We divided ourselves into two groups of six girls each. The group of elder girls was to enter the temple and the other group was to keep vigil outside. At nine o’clock, the recess bell rang. This was our time of action. We all ran towards the Ram temple. We reached our usual place under the umber tree in the courtyard and sat there. We decided to enter the temple once the Brahmin girls had returned to school. Our minds were thrilled that finally we were going to see Ram, but at the same time, we were also scared that the god would punish us for our transgression. Slowly, the high caste girls arrived, put the black bukka mark

between their eyebrows, went into the temple, came out and returned to the school, laughing merrily. Now was the time for us to make our move. We stealthily walked to the front of the temple. We senior girls warned our juniors, ‘Be vigilant. If a Brahmin couple comes, sound a warning by calling out “Ram Ramâ€. We will run out.’ Having said this, we valiantly entered the temple to pollute Ram. Our eyes constantly flitting back and forth, our hearts beating against our ribs, hands tightly held together, we crossed the first hall. The second hall was dark and unfamiliar, like a cave inside a rock. There was no electricity in those days. Groping around in the dark, we stumbled forward. Our hearts thundering and mouths dry, we forgot even to breathe. Finally, we reached the end of the hall. We huddled together, wondering how far away we were from the god. Then we looked up, glancing at both sides. Suddenly we saw white eyes, like large woodapples, and huge bodies towering above us. Scared to the innermost core of our beings, we began to yell, all six in one voice. Our legs buckled and we fell at the feet of those demons. The huge white eyes, giant noses with big holes, hands as big as the legs of an elephant holding colossal clubs, jumbo bellies—the six of us would have easily fitted there like cockroaches in a corner. These were the god’s guards. We lay screaming at their feet. Meanwhile, our guards outside took to their heels. Howling loudly for dear life, they waited for us at a distance. Then they thought that Ram must have sent the five-hooded cobra after us because we had polluted him. Or he must have set demons on us. They gave up all hope of our return. In the meanwhile, we kept screaming at the top of our voice. The priest in the neighbouring Radha Krishna temple heard us and got quite perplexed. He had never heard such a racket before. He came into the sanctum sanctorum to find out who was screaming and why. We told him, ‘We are Mahar girls and the god has sent demons after us because we have polluted him.’ On hearing this, the priest threw us out and abused us but we felt as if the Brahmin was a god who had come to save us. How we ran to Shankar Market! Our juniors were waiting for us there, worried to death about what had happened to us. We threw ourselves into their arms and holding each other tightly, began to sob. Finally, the tears stopped. ‘Why did you scream like that? ’ they asked. ‘You know, it was only because of the Brahmin that we were

saved,’ we told them. ‘Otherwise the two monsters would have devoured us!’ Immediately, Gulbakawali ticked us off. ‘I warned you, didn’t I? Never challenge the gods.’ Begum supported her, ‘Yes, you did. But this Baby is mad! She wanted to see the god for herself! Are you satisfied now, Baby? You have seen what gods can do, haven t you? I replied, ‘Yes, I will never ever think of that god again in my life. Nor will I ever climb the steps of a temple again. I can very well do without gods thank you very much!’ Satu said, ‘We went to the temple for the bukka. That we never got! And on top of that those monsters were going to eat us!’ I became angry, ‘Forget all that—the bukka, the gods and everything else! We don’t want that god any more. No haldi, no kumkum and none of that bukka. Let him keep all those things for himself. We’ll have nothing to do with them.’ Bagad exclaimed, ‘And don’t talk about this at home. Our mothers will beat us to a pulp because we polluted god.’ Then I said, ‘Come on, why bother about the haldi and kumkum? Remember those Christian women who come to teach us every Sunday? They never wear any kumkum and haldi! Are they widows? No, their husbands are alive. I will die but never again will I think about this horrid god. I will stay away from him forever. I swear. Otherwise, I will change my name. I won’t be called Baby any more! That was my first active participation in Babas movement. This was followed by many other such incidents. Rani Lakshmibai had established the first women’s club, Mahila Mandal, in Phaltan. She was very young them. It was only Brahmin women who occupied all the positions in this mandal. The rani sahiba decided to allow Mahar women into this mandal. She called Shrirang Appa, Nana Member and my father for a meeting. After the meeting, all these male activists enrolled women from our locality as members in this mandal. Invitations for all the meetings conducted by the rani sahib would be sent to our women in Mangalwar Peth. Women leaders like Thakubai Kakade, Mathubai More, Fattabai Kakade and Vithabai Kakade used to take women from all the houses to these meetings. All these leaders were impressive young women, sturdy and well-built, with deep resonant voices. They were excellent speakers. They would wear white saris, nine yards long, with Dr. Ambedkar’s photograph pinned in front. They were revolutionary women, indeed.

Since my aai had never ever crossed the threshold of our house, I would go in her place to the meetings. I remember a very interesting episode. This must have been my second meeting. The meeting was organised in the dining hall. All the Brahmin and Maratha women had occupied the chairs. They would not allow the Mahar women to sit on the chairs. Helpless, our women stood on one side. At the same time, the rani sahib started to move towards the stage, accompanied by her other followers Godbole, Velankar and Bhadkamkar. Our Thakubai rushed forward. She shook the rani by her shoulder and told her, ‘Your women are not allowing our women to sit on the chairs. Our Ambedkar has told us to demand our rights. I am going to forcefully remove your women from the chairs and seat my women there.’ The rani sahib was taken aback for a moment. But she immediately arranged chairs in the front for all of us. Attending meetings was a new activity for our women. By now they had become more aware because of Babasaheb Ambedkar. With such meetings their knowledge began to increase. They began to take firm steps ahead. I used to poke my nose into everything that was happening. I was married at the age of thirteen. My in-laws were also from Phaltan, so I was closely involved in the politics there. Ulka got married too. However, she stayed in Phaltan at her parents’ house because of some problems with her in-laws. My uncle built a room in front of the chawdi and we set up a shop there. Baba would exhort us in public meetings, ‘We should learn to do business. The high caste in the village will not buy milk from us. In fact, they will not buy anything from us. Undeterred, we should practise business in our own locality. We should not allow the village to earn at our expense.’ Therefore, my husband and I started this grocery store. It started doing good business and earning money for us, and we felt more and more enthused. We became determined to work harder. I used to get up at three in the morning. After I finished the cooking and other household chores, I would work in the shop till ten o’ clock in the night. At least once a month, the leaders would visit our locality. They would come to meet us first, as our shop was in front of the chawdi. We organised their tea and meals and also made arrangements for the public meetings. Forgetting our dinner, we used to keep the shop open till the meeting got over around two or three o’clock in the morning. We also had to see the guests off. At the time of elections, we canvassed for our party candidates. We also participated wholeheartedly in the demonstrations.

We were never out of Ambedkar s movement. I had devoted myself totally to the movement. As long as Baba lived, the community at Phaltan remained united. He was our sole protector. Without him, the world was nothing, a big zero. Nobody in the community was big or small. All were children of Bhimaai. [3] There was no tug of war to occupy a high position. Even in municipal elections, nobody would volunteer their candidature. The whole community would propose the name of a candidate and the word of the panch committee would be final. Nobody would dare to cross the Bhimrekha[4] set by them. Inspired by Ambedkar’s thoughts, I sent my children to school. My eldest son, Sham, has done M.Sc. in Agriculture and has an L.L.M. He has become a regional manager in the Bank of India. My second son, Umakant, has done his B.A. and is a clerk in the Bank of India. His wife, Manda, is a teacher. Our third son, Chandan, is an officer in the government dairy. Vandana, his wife, is also a teacher. My daughter, Kanta, is a block development officer at Baramati. And my daughter Mangal s husband is a supervisor in the ordinance factory in Dchu Road, Pune. Our third daughter, Purna, is married to a rich farmer at Sonori near Saswad. My fourth daughter, Kundan, is in Nashik. Her husband, Kiran, is a doctor at the government press in Delhi. In his public meetings, Baba used to tell us, ‘Educate your children. They, in turn, should spend one per cent of their salary in improving the lot of poor children. Only then will their education benefit the community and the generation next to theirs will be educated. Once they are educated, they can organise themselves and find out various ways of directing the struggle. And I am sure my sisters and mothers will carry out this task with an iron resolve.’ Baba’s words showed me the way. I decided to begin my struggle through my writing. I followed Baba’s advice verbatim, to the best of my ability. When Shashikant Daithankar was secretary in the Maharashtra government, he granted me permission to start an ashram shala for orphans from the backward castes. Today, I am the president of Mahatma Phule Dnyan Vikas Prasarak Sanstha and I serve the community in this capacity. Two hundred children study in this school. I ask my children to donate money whenever the school is under financial strain. We have classes up to the seventh standard. Children are happy to learn in this school. The secretary Bapu Jagtap is a hardworking person and has been a strong source of support. He calls me mawshi. Even Shashikant Daithankar calls me mawshi. He has given me a great opportunity to serve the community by giving me permission to start this school. The vice president of

the school, Ramesh Adhav, has also been very supportive. All of these people have been a great help to me in my old age as well as in my social work. Sheel, pradnya and karuna have been the founding principles of my life. What else does this humble servant of Bhim want when she has these three jewels in her possession? When one has this wealth, what does the ordinary world matter? [1] Bahishkrut Bharat was the name of this newspaper. [2] Phaltan at that time was a small kingdom under the Nimbalkar family. [3] railing the entity (a person or a god) that one worships ‘aai’ is a

tradition in Marathi. The god Viththal is also called Vithai. [4] Here Baby Kamble creates a new word, similar to Lakshmanrekha—a line

you cannot cross. '

An interview with Baby Kamble by Maya Pandit In your autobiography, there are very few references to your personal life. Can you tell us a little more about yourself? Well, I wrote about what my community experienced. The suffering of my people became my own suffering. Their experiences became mine. So I really find it very difficult to think of myself outside of my community. Let me tell you, there were so many women around us. They were determined to get their children educated because their Baba had told them to do so. So our women enrolled their children in schools. Now, they were ordinary agricultural labourers. Where could they get the money for paying fees to the English school? In those days, there were no concessions for the backward castes; schools did not receive any grants from the government. But our women used to find ways of overcoming this hurdle. One woman had to pay ninety rupees as admission fee for her two sons in secondary school. Where was she to get this money? It was the rainy season. There was no work even in the fields. So there was no money! She couldn’t talk about this to her husband. He was a construction worker. He would have put an end to their sons’ education and turned them into labourers working for a contractor. Her relatives too were poor, there was no way she could borrow any money from them. Then she got a brainwave. They had saved some jowar for the rainy season in a big cane container. When her husband left for work, she called her sons,took out all the jowar with their help and quietly sold it to a merchant. The money was adequate for paying the fees. When her husband came to know of this, he, of course, thrashed her. Besides, they had to starve throughout the rainy season. But she did not allow her sons’ education to suffer. They passed their matriculation examination and later on even went to college.

Then, there was another woman who faced a similar problem. She too needed money to pay the fees for her sons’ education. But there was nothing in the house. Then she remembered an upper caste Maratha girl, the Patil’s daughter-in-law, whom she had known since her childhood. Both belonged to the same village. She thought of a plan. She went to her friend and said, ‘I have a problem, can you help me? I have to go to my niece’s wedding. But I do not have even a broken bead to wear. How can I go to the marriage without wearing any ornament?’ Now her friend was quite kind. She said, ‘Oh, that’s not a problem! Don’t you worry! Here, take this gold necklace. Wear it for the wedding. You can return it to me afterwards.’ The Patil girl took off her necklace and threw it into the woman’s hand from above because she could not touch her Mahar friend for fear of pollution! Anyway, this woman took the necklace and straightway went to a pawnbroker. She got a tidy amount for it. That took care of the fees. But now there was the problem of returning the necklace. She thought and thought about it without sleeping a wink the whole night. Finally, she remembered an old aunt of hers who had recently returned from Mumbai after having worked there for many years. Generally, such women were known to buy gold with whatever extra money they earned. She was bound to have a few gold ornaments. This aunt, who was a widow without any children of her own except for one nephew, stayed all by herself in her small hut. She went to her aunt and, after having chatted with her on this and that, said, ‘Mawshi, I’ve come to see you because I feel quite worried for you. You know that nephew of yours! He is a rascal. He knows you have some money, a few ornaments! Do you think you are safe from him? You know what I mean? Suppose he decides to do away with you one night? Whom can you call for help? ’ It was evening. And the house was situated in an isolated corner. There was no one around for miles together. The old woman realised that it was really foolish of her to keep her gold with her. She was quite overwhelmed by this display of affection on part of her niece. She continued, Mawshi, you are the only one we have got. Why keep your gold ornaments with you? Give them to me for safe-keeping! And don’t you worry; you will be much safer without them.’ The old woman gave all her gold to her niece. Next morning, the woman returned to Phaltan, went to the same pawnbroker, pawned her aunt’s gold and retrieved her friend’s necklace from him. Then she went to the friend and returned the valuable necklace to her with much gratitude. Such were our women! So clever and committed! They listened to Babasaheb and did whatever he asked them to do.

Were women different from men in this respect? And why did they believe in Baba so much? It was only because of women that education became possible for us. Generally men would say, ‘Why put our son into school? As if he is going to become a teacher or a clerk! It’s better if he starts working as a labourer like me. At least he will earn a little money! You will ruin us with this madness! Sending children to school indeed!’ But women paid no heed to such talk. Dr. Ambedkar had said, ‘You believed in god. You gave away generations to him. Now give me a chance. Give me this generation! Make sacrifices for twenty years. Enroll your children in schools. Go hungry if you must! But educate your children. After twenty years, you yourselves will come and tell me what is better—god or education?’ These words of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar touched the hearts of our women. All the highly educated men that you see today are from that generation. They are all placed in high positions. But their children have not done so well! May be it’s because of the new affluence. They are engrossed in that. What was the contribution of women to the Dalit political movement then? How did women participate in it? Well, more than half of the people in the movement were women. And how did the men respond to this? What was their reaction? Let me tell you. It so happened that on most occasions, activists who came for public meetings in the chawdi were from Mumbai. The entire community gathered to listen to them. These activists used to publicly say, ‘Look, it is women who are in charge of homes. And therefore it is they who have contributed to the superstitious ‘god culture’. They are always leaders in such things. It is always women who become possessed by spirits. They have played a big role in making superstitions so powerful. It is the woman who is the real doer. So if women can bring darkness, they can also bring light into our lives.’ And men agreed with this. ‘This man, Ambedkar,’ they said, ‘has come from beyond the seven seas. He is so well-educated. He understands things better than any of us. There is a point in what he says.’ So then women began to attend meetings even at far off places. They would carry bhakris to last them for four or five days. And who looked after their homes?

Older women, of course. Their mothers and mothers-in law took education extremely seriously. And they participated in all the programmes as well. They would just leave their children and homes behind and participate in various programmes, such as morchas, forcible entry into temples, hotels and such other places. They got a lot of encouragement from their men folk as well. And both their young and old family members staunchly stood by them. Baba sent telegrams and asked people to do something. Immediately preparations got underway. My brother was in boarding. He was in the ninth standard and I was in the sixth standard. I must have been eleven or twelve years of age then. Because of my brother, I always got a chance to participate in these programmes. What was the experience like? That was a great struggle. There was constant confrontation with the upper castes. They would say, ‘These Mahars are rising above themselves. We won’t allow them to enter the village.’ Everything was out of bounds for us. We couldn’t even go to the flour mill. They tried to make life difficult for us. It was slightly different in my own house, though. My father used to manage things somehow. My mother was not allowed to go out of the house. It was he and my brother, both of them activists, who used to get provisions and other household stuff. What about school? All our leaders used to accompany us to school. Babasaheb’s words Education is your right, you must go to school — were stamped on our hearts. So there was no question of our not going to school. But once we were in school, we were given a different treatment. We were made to sit in a corner on one side. Ours was a girls’ school. It was actually a Brahmin school since all the teachers and a majority of the students were Brahmins. The teachers used to be awfully worried about our polluting them and harassed us a lot as if we were their enemies. They treated us like lepers, really. They wouldn’t even look at us. Our classmates were all upper caste girls and they too used to be afraid of us, constantly worried about our touching and polluting them. They used to scorn us as if we were some kind of despicable creatures. We had no friends among the Brahmin girls. When we went for excursions, they used to offer us food from their lunch boxes but they would never accept anything from us. This must have been around 1945.

When did you get married? There are hardly any references to your personal life in the autobiography. Well, I was just thirteen when I got married and I was considered too old! I had passed my fourth standard. My husband’s name was Kondiba Kamble and he was a student in my brother’s school and stayed in the same hostel. My husband’s family saw me and gave their approval. His family was actually related to our family. They belonged to Nimbure village, near Phaltan. Now Babasaheb had told people that marriages should be performed according to the gandharva ritual that was quite different from the traditional way of marriage. He told us that there was no need to invite a Brahmin priest. The bride and the groom did not have to tie the bashinga and the mundawali. In fact, Babasaheb said, ‘Don’t waste four days on the wedding. Save time and money as well. Just one sari for the bride and one pair of new clothes for the groom are good enough. Don’t invite the Brahmin priest to perform the marriage rites. Let somebody from among your own people do it. And let the marriage be performed at your own chawdi.’ Mine was one of the first marriages to be performed in the new manner. After the deeksha ceremony, marriages began to be performed according to the Buddhist way. Till then we followed the practice of gandharva vivaha that Babasaheb laid down for us. Anyway, for my marriage, my brother wrote the mangalashtakas that were in praise of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s work. After my marriage, we stayed in Phaltan. Now, there were some fifteen to sixteen people living in my husband’s house. It was a house that really did not have too much space. Yet, they all stayed together. We too stayed there for some time. Poverty was common to my husband’s house and mine. Getting a job was next to impossible. Who would give work to a person who had been educated only up to the fourth or the seventh standard? It was difficult to survive. Now Dr. Ambedkar used to say, ‘Don’t get into jobs. Try to start some small business which you can successfully run in your locality. Don’t start with the business of milk. Who will buy that from you? Your people don’t drink milk, and the upper castes won’t buy milk from you. Start with something which you can manage to sell in your own community.’ Then I had an idea. Both my husband and I were jobless. So, I thought, why not begin with something like grapes? There were plenty of farms around and

the rate at the time was five rupees per kilogram. But you could get one kilogram of loose grapes for eight annas. Poor people who could not afford to buy grapes in bunches, would buy these. So we decided to sell loose grapes. I used to go to the farms and buy a basketful of loose grapes. My capital of eight annas would fetch me one rupee or sometimes even more in a day. That was more than one hundred percent of profit. I saved all of it. Gradually, my savings swelled and reached the huge sum of forty-eight rupees. Then we added vegetables to our merchandise. Gradually, along with vegetables, we added provisions like oil, salt, and such other stuff to our list. This also fetched us a tidy profit. So we decided to expand our business. I told my brother and husband to stock our house with grocery items. In those days, we did not stay in a separate house but with my husband’s family. We used to sell these things from my mother’s house as it was right in front of the chawdi. We did not spend any of the money that we earned on food or household expenses. My in-laws helped me a lot. They allowed us to stay in their house and shared whatever meagre food they had. In the next three months we bought provisions worth three hundred and fifty rupees. The quantity was so large that the house literally overflowed with the stuff. There were many Mahar households in Mangalwar Peth. They all became our customers. Our business picked up very well. Then we decided to live independently, but in the same house. That meant a great deal of additional work for me, like cooking and fetching water. I used to get up at three o’ clock in the morning and fetch water from the public tap in Mangalwar Peth. By this time I had two children. There was a canal near our house. I used to wash all our clothes there. Next I would do the cooking! I used to finish everything by nine in the morning and then go to the shop. Till then my husband would sit at the counter. Thereafter, I attended to the customers and he went off to the market to buy provisions. Did you have any problem in getting provisions? We never had any problems in buying anything. They wouldn’t admit us inside the shop but they did supply us with whatever we wanted. We sort of flourished. I gave birth to ten children of whom three died during childhood. I never went to a hospital. All my babies were born at home. My mother and my mother-in-law would come and help me. What was your mother-in-law’s attitude towards all this?

Oh, she was always very supportive! All this was happening for the first time in our community, but she understood this. We used to go to many public meetings, morchas and other agitations. So we used to be away from home, children and the shop. But everyone helped. Besides, we did not allow ourselves to be obligated to anyone. We were quite independent. So we could do whatever we wanted. Both my husband and I were greatly involved in Dr. Babasaheb’s movement. Our not having a job was really beneficial for our work because if you have a job, you are tied down. We would simply lock our door and go to attend meetings, participate in agitations and visit various places. Since our shop was in front of the chawdi, people who came to the chawdi would pay a visit to the shop as well. Many a times, people sat in groups there to discuss things. The entire community used to gather at the chawdi at night. Their discussions created more awareness in me. Did you instinctively become a leader then? Not really. But I used to do a lot of political and social work outside. You were quite young then, weren’t you? You were developing as an activist. Did you have any aspirations to leadership? Did you contest elections? Well, about elections.. .yes, there was the municipality and there used to be some seats for the backward castes. So people did come with those offers. But then I said, ‘No, I don’t want to get involved with that kind of politics. I have to look after my shop, my house and my children.’ Besides, I was an activist in the movement as well. The municipality was a den of goons and musclemen. People urged me several times to contest the municipality elections, but I didn’t want to. Both my husband and I felt that working with those people was not a risk worth taking. Because once you are there, you get involved in many things and I didn’t want anybody to cast aspersions on me. Were there any other women activists at that time who worked along with you? Women who addressed public meetings, organised people? Not really. Women started participating much later, when they became educated. There were very few that worked along with me. We used to address meetings, give speeches. My grandmother was from Mumbai. She had worked with the workers’ unions. Then gradually more women began to participate. I must tell you about the women in the Mahila Mandal that Raja Malojiraje Nimbalkar and

his wife Lakshmibai had started in Phaltan. The raja had taken the initiative and told the rani that at least one woman from every Mahar household in Mangalwar Peth was to be made a member of the Mahila Mandal. Since my father never allowed my mother to go, I became a member. There were quite a few militant women from our community who became members. They would not hesitate to fight for their rights. They demanded chairs to sit and participated in the deliberations. Your father had no objection to your going out? Then why did he not allow your mother to participate in these activities? Well, I was a school-going girl at that time. But the hold of patriarchy was so strong! In fact, not sending the women out was considered to be a mark of real manhood. A man who didn’t allow his wife to go out earned respect from the people. ‘You can’t see even the finger nail of his wife!’ they would say reverentially. My father never sent my mother out for work. But fortunately, he made an exception with me. I always used to be with my brother. How did women from other communities react when you worked with them in the Mahila Mandal? Oh they welcomed us! When there were programmes, they came in a group and made me close the shop. There were a lot of Brahmin, Maratha, Gujarati women in the mandal. But they never opposed me. Why? Is it because you had the backing of the royal family? Well, not really. You see, times were changing fast. Because of Dr. Ambedkar, many new norms were coming into force. People had to accept them. That made a great difference. Besides, the raja had told them that they must have our women in the mandal. Obviously, because of our shop, our contacts and activism, they considered us leaders. This was a great change. So both my husband and I started doing a lot of social work. That became my life. How did you think of writing your autobiography? (Laughs.) It so happened that I used to sit in the shop at the counter. I used to have plenty of time on my hands. There were books that came along with the old newspapers we bought for packing. Some of them were storybooks and I began to read them. Many contained stories about gods and their great deeds. But gradually I started feeling very angry because the stories were all wrong. Consider for instance, the story of Vrinda, a Shudra princess.

What about this story? One day Narad, Lord Vishnu’s celestial follower, paid a visit to Vrinda. He knew that she was going to be the mother of very strong sons. In those days, there was great enmity between the Shudras and the gods. The Shudras never accepted the authority of the gods. They did not even utter their names. So Narad came to Vrinda and praised Lord Vishnu’s prowess. She was a young child and she accepted Lord Vishnu as a great god. She wanted to see Vishnu. So Narad gave her a small image of Vishnu and asked her to worship it. She kept the idol in her room. Her father got very angry with her. But Vrinda did not give up her prayers to Vishnu. Her father tried very hard to convince her that Vishnu was not what she thought him to be. But she wouldn’t give up. She grew up and her father got her married off to Jalandar, the son of another Shudra king, Sagar. She did not leave her idol of Vishnu behind. She took it along with her and worshipped it as usual. Sagar also appealed to her not to worship Vishnu but she did not listen to him either. She continued her worship of Vishnu. She was an extremely virtuous woman and that was her strength. Now, because of her virtue, her husband never suffered defeat at the hands of the gods. When he was at war, she would not eat or even drink water till he came back. And Jalandar always returned victorious. The gods were at their wit’s end. They just couldn’t defeat Jalandar. Then Narad realised that it was Vrinda’s virtue that gave Jalandar such great protection and that the Shudra king would rule as long as her virtue remained intact. So he went to Vishnu and told him about this. Then when the battle started again, Vishnu came in the form of her husband Jalandar and took her to bed. The moment her virtue was lost, her husband was killed, his severed head came and fell on her lap and Vishnu stood before her in his real form. Then Vrinda realised how horribly she had been tricked, she accused Vishnu of treachery and deceit. Vishnu patted her and said, ‘Now let bygones be bygones. I’ll give you a boon. You will eternally be a sowbhagyawati. You will get married to your husband Jalandar every year. People will marry you to a round nut representing your husband. Nobody will call you a widow.’ Since then the custom of performing tulsi vivaha came into being, you know! Vrinda is Tulsi. And you have to keep a shaligram to represent Jalandar in the ritual. But since Tulsi is a Shudra, she can’t enter the house. So the marriage of Tulsi has to be performed outside the house and Tulsi Vrindawan has to be kept outside the house. No one will place it inside their house.

When I read this story, I was furious. The story clearly represented how the upper castes had mythologised the repression of Shudra men and women. So I started writing about these women who were repressed. Then I also got some books on women like Pandita Ramabai. Attending Baba’s meetings and reading these books gave me an acute sense of the agony many people, especially women, have suffered. Then I thought, I have to express this anger, give vent to my sense of outrage. But merely talking about it will not suffice. How many people can I reach that way? I must write about it. I must proclaim to the world what we have suffered. But how did you begin to write? And when did you get time to write—you had to sit at the counter and take care of things? Oh, that’s a long story indeed! Look, I reached the shop at nine in the morning, after which my husband would leave the shop and go to buy things that we required. He used to return only around four o’clock. That gave me plenty of time. I began to write, putting into words the suffering of my community. I also joined a library and started borrowing books. Whenever I had a little time, I would furiously make notes. I filled many such notebooks. Writing was a difficult task. I had to take great care that nobody saw me writing. I used to hide the papers under old newspapers. I used to keep my notebooks hidden in places that nobody bothered about, like the uppermost corner of an alcove where all useless things were thrown together. Why did you have to hide your writing? Firstly, because of my husband. He was a good man but like all the men of his time and generation, he considered a woman to be an inferior being. He would not have tolerated the idea that I had taken to writing. I used to be scared of him. So I had to hide my writing. You started writing when you were thirty or so, but by the time you published, twenty years had gone by. Did you keep your writing hidden for twenty years? (Smiles) Well, I had to. So I hid everything I wrote in the most ignored and dusty corners. My son had started going to school when I started to write. So for me he was a knowledgeable, learned man. I used to be scared of both my son and my husband, scared of their reaction. My husband always called me an ignorant woman! I was afraid of his response. So I kept everything hidden away from their eyes for almost twenty years.

Then it so happened that Maxine Berntson came to stay in Phaltan. Since she was a sociologist working on the scheduled castes, she came to see me for her data collection. I began to go with her on her field visits. In the course of our discussions I told her about the constructive work I was involved in. I used to invite her for programmes like Ambedkar’s birth anniversary. Then one day she said, ‘You have been doing so much work, why don’t you write about it?’ So I told her that I had done a lot of writing but hadn’t shown it to anyone. She invited me to her bungalow with my files. I showed her my notebooks. She was working on her doctoral thesis then. She made me read the files everyday. She liked what I had written. Then she talked to Vidya Bal who was working as the editor of the women’s magazine Stree. And so finally, it was serially printed in Stree. Now my son’s in-laws were in Pune. His father-in-law happened to see Stree and he was amazed to find my writing in it. He came and congratulated me. I felt very embarrassed. Then some people in my family came to know of this. Even then I was not ready to tell them more about it. Then Mr Kulkarni, of Mansanman Publishing House, offered to bring it out as a book and I had to regularly go and visit him in Pune. Fortunately, my son was then living in Pune and I used to go under the pretext of visiting him. It was only when the book was published that everybody at home came to know that I was a writer as well. That is the story of my book. What was the reaction of the people from your community when they read it? Oh, they all liked it. No adverse reactions! Not like Daya Pawar’s autobiography Baluta in which he wrote about issues like sex that are not to be openly talked about. Anyway, I even received letters about the book from college students, both boys and girls, who liked it immensely. Did they feel that the memories of oppression were too painful, such as what young girls had to endure when they gave birth to babies? Incidentally, the Mang girl in Mahatma Phule’s school, Muktabai, wrote about similar happenings one hundred and fifty years ago! Yes, she did. That was the life of our women—unchanged for hundreds of years. So young people welcomed what I had written. Let us turn to the major question of the political participation of women in the Dalit movement and the subsequent developments. Women joined Dr.

Ambedkar’s movement in such large numbers. What do you think about their participation in the post-Ambedkar Dalit movement? One finds very few women emerging as leaders. Why? You are right. Women played a major role in Dr. Ambedkar’s movement. But that doesn’t seem to have happened later. Babasaheb passed away in 1956. After his time, there was a great tug of war among the leaders. Everybody wanted to prove himself to be another Ambedkar. This had an adverse impact. People were confused. Who was Baba’s heir? The people were left far behind in the ensuing power struggles. Leaders went and camped in Mumbai. Every person had his own camp of sycophants around him. Every person was busy blowing his own trumpet. Let me give you an example. Ramdas Athawale was a young man then, bright and intelligent. He was from the Dalit Panther, the organisation that represented the anger of the young men against the established post-Ambedkar Dalit leadership. People were really impressed and many accepted him as their leader. They thought that only he could implement Baba’s agenda. Many Dalits became his followers. They trusted the Dalit Panther more than the leaders of the Republican Party. People felt that old times had been revived. But the upper castes such as the Brahmins, the Marathas and their parties could not tolerate this. They were worried that they would lose their power if the new leadership and the Dalit community became strong. So they played the usual game. Their leaders lured Ramdas away with promises of making him a minister. Dalit Panther became considerably weak. The Republican Party was divided into factions that kept fighting with each other. There was no one left to think about the people and to provide any kind of leadership to the masses. So the same politics continues, doesn’t it? Keep the Dalits down by hook or by crook! Absolutely. In those days, it happened because the Dalits were uneducated. Today this happens because the Dalits are educated. In those days, the whole village kept us down with tactics like refusing to give us water, keeping us at a distance, and through oppression and injustice. Now the educated Dalits are behaving exactly as the upper caste villagers used to behave then. Educated Dalits occupy top positions in the government. Their children enjoy the good life. They are not bothered about what’s happening to poor people. Whatever they do, they do only for themselves. The poor Dalits are left where they were. At least that’s what I feel.

But don’t you think the situation is rather different now? Now many Dalit castes, as well as the other marginalized castes have become conscious of their oppression, their rights, their identities. The traditional hierarchies among castes are being challenged and new alliances are being formed. Dr. Ambedkar had said that the caste system is not only a division of labour but of labourers as well. There seems to be a new awakening about this division among the labourers. Well, that is happening and yet the cruelty and inhumanness of the same oppressive system is crossing all bounds! Let me explain. In 1956 Babasaheb embraced Buddhism. The entire Mahar community followed him and became Buddhist. But in this process, other communities were left out. We gave up Hindu religion, the Hindu gods, their worship, etc. But what about the other twelve Balutedars? They remained what they were, that is, Hindus. The Chambhars, Dhors, Mangs and many such castes did not change their religion. They do not want to do so. The Buddhists are isolated. So now it is the Buddhists versus the entire village, the entire town, the entire country. What is the solution? I feel that we have to spread the Buddhist religion everywhere. But they will not allow us to do so. It is indeed a very difficult situation. We have been isolated. We will have to fight even if we have to die in this struggle. That seems to be our future. The Hindu religion has become more aggressive and dominant since we became Buddhists. Revivalist tendencies are becoming stronger than ever. There never used to take place so many Satyanarayana pujas before, you know. Now just look at the proliferating religious programmes. The Hindus really became more conscious of their religion after Dr. Babasaheb became a Buddhist. Now the Buddhists are deliberately isolated. The media is in the hands of the Hindu fundamentalists. They use it systematically for their own campaigns. We have to face this challenge now. How did the twelve Balutedars behave in those days? What was their attitude? All of them had to coexist. We were all together. There were many castes such as the Chambhar, Dhor, Koshti and others who had been exploited by the upper castes for their selfish ends. We were outside the village, they were inside it. But we were all Shudras. Actually even the Marathas were Shudras. But the Brahmins were so clever, they took all these castes inside the village according to their own needs and very systematically built a hierarchy amongst them. And the bravest

caste of the Mahars, who were the original inhabitants of this land, was yoked to their cart. Because they were most scared of this caste, they wanted to keep them permanently oppressed to avert the possibility of their becoming strong again. Except for the Matang caste, all were allowed to stay in the village. They also created a sense of hierarchy amongst us. The Chambhars used to scorn us. We considered the Dhors to be beneath us. And the Matangas were considered to be beneath us. That was how we were taught to think. We kept on treating them like that and they remained distant. Why didn’t the Matangas join you and convert to Buddhism? For many reasons. Firstly, they didn’t question the Hindu religion. Secondly, they were far less in number. There would only be a couple of houses of the Matangas in the village. They didn’t have the power to refute Hinduism. So they sought safety in sticking close to the Hindu religion, by remaining within the fold. That is why we find ourselves alone now in spite of the fact that we are one of the largest communities. What other things did you write about? In Dr. Babasaheb’s movement, jalsa was a popular form of cultural and political action, wasn’t it? Did you write any jalsa? (Laughs.) No, not really. I used to write songs though. But not for the jalsas. It was mostly men who used to participate in the jalsas. Women came together for celebrating festivals like Nagapanchami in the Buddhawada but the songs would be about the movement and about Dr. Babasaheb. Those were the times of bitter feud between the followers of Gandhiji and us. But they used to come for our programmes. Some of them also came for programmes like basti safai. At the time of the Round Table Conference, Gandhiji had claimed that he was the leader of the Dalits. But then Ambedkar challenged him and appealed to all his people to send telegrams which we all did. It rained telegrams at that time and Gandhiji and his followers had to eat their words and accept that only Dr. Ambedkar was the true leader of the Dalits. Did you ever participate in the programmes organised by the Congress? Never! Dr. Babasaheb had told us that the Congress party was a burning house; entering that house would not help our community. Then we started looking at them as our enemies. But now the situation has changed a lot in the postAmbedkar period. Our militancy is gone. Our leaders are hankering after money.

There is no talk of any struggle now. People have become disorganised. They are divided into so many groups: Gavai group, Athawale group, so on and so forth. But people did come together at the time of the Riddles controversy[1], didn’t they? Yes, only something like that will bring all these groups together. What do you see today as the major problems of Dalits? Consider migration of Dalits from villages to cities. Many people migrate in search of work to the cities from the villages. Yet, quite a sizeable number are left in villages as well. If there are only seven to eight houses of the Buddhists, the village can pressurise them, but when there are twenty-five to thirty houses, then generally there is far less pressure. Of course, in cities like Pune, Mumbai, even Phaltan, there is no question of anybody trying to apply pressure on them. But then, how many have access to education? How many have jobs? Basically our people are still quite poor. And now there are so many divisions. Big versus small, Ambedkarites versus non-Ambedkarites, high culture versus low culture. But there is one thing I must say. Today, untouchability is not so big a problem as reservation is. That’s a major problem. But any struggle requires a good leader. Dr Ambedkar, it is true, had said, ‘Don’t run behind jobs, get into business.’ But in spite of so many banks and loan facilities, how many of these things reach the poor? Take government schemes for instance, they don’t reach us. We have to face problems of superstitions, corruption, liquor, addictions like that. There is no control on these. Do you think women suffer more? Yes I think so. Now take for instance, reservation. Many illiterate women from communities like Dhanagar, Ramoshi, etc., have the opportunity to become village sarpanchs. But how many women are allowed to function meaningfully? The upper caste goons will never allow them to work. They control everything. Women are still slaves. And it is not just Dalit women; I see around me many women from both upper and lower castes. All women are facing problems. Especially, women from the villages! Their oppression doesn’t come to light. All cases of rape are suppressed for fear of family honour, pressures from the dominant communities and political parties. Women work very hard and yet face so many problems in spite of a slight improvement in the financial position.

You have done so much work in your life; contributed to the social and educational development of people from many oppressed communities; you are running an ashramshala in Nimbure for them. You are trying to reduce their suffering... Well, the school in Nimbure is a real achievement; there are two hundred and fifty students now in my school. That’s what Dr. Ambedkar used to tell us to do. Suffering has been a constant companion for us. Did you suffer in your personal life as well? In my personal life, I had to suffer like many other women. But how do you go and talk about it when everyone is suffering? In my personal life there were some issues. In those days, men always wanted to control women. It was quite common for a husband to beat his wife because he doubted her faithfulness. And I wasn’t an exception. Once we went to Mumbai to attend a meeting, we travelled in a general compartment that was very crowded and some young men happened to stare at me. My husband immediately suspected me and hit me so hard that my nose started bleeding profusely. But people do look at you in the train, don’t they? How do you stop them from doing so? But there was no point in explaining this to him. He wouldn’t listen. We did not stay for the programme either. The same evening we returned and he was so angry that he kept hitting me in the train. Such things were so common. All my life I had to face this violence. How did you endure it? Where did you get the strength? He would beat me up for some flimsy reason. Actually he used to be very suspicious. I tried very hard to prove my innocence. I used to cry, explain, plead with him. Then for a few days everything would be normal. Then again after a week or so, something would happen and suspicion would raise its head once again. I had to pass through a series of such things constantly. In fact this was the life most women led. Every woman knew it by heart. Every woman tried to negotiate her way out of these hardships. Giving up one’s husband and marrying another wouldn’t solve the problem because the ‘husbandness’ would be the same in every man. So I decided that I won’t leave. I wanted to do something constructive and that I would, come what may! I never retaliated. I used to say, ‘Let him say whatever he wants; nobody else says it except him! It’s okay.’ All the others in the society had good words for me. And I had

the support of all our men and women. That was very precious for me. That was my strength, really. Do you feel it was the fear of this violence, the fear of the suspicion in the husband’s mind, that kept women away from staking claims to political leadership? Absolutely. Women used to be afraid of even looking up at their husbands. Fortunately I was from Phaltan, people here knew me, I had the backing of everybody—my father, my brother, people in the community. So I could achieve something. Did you ever tell your father or brother or friends about this? No, never! I never discussed my suffering with anybody. I bore it all alone. Sometimes, I used to feel desperate. I used to feel like giving up everything. I had an old uncle. He was blind in one eye. He used to tell us stories of pativrata women from mythology. May be those stories influenced me a lot. I think that they also gave me strength to go through all this. My mother-in-law, sister-inlaw, they were all so good to me. Except for my husband, no one else behaved like this. It is the man who suppresses the woman in our society. This was not just a relic of the past. Even-after-independence anything would cause the husband to suspect his wife. Now suppose a woman was cleaning pots and pans at the front door because there was no other place where she could do it, the direction in which she threw the dirty water might be taken as a signal of some sort to a lover. Then the husband would attack his wife, ‘Why did you throw water in that particular direction? Who was standing there? Who was the signal for? Where will you meet your lover?’ The poor woman would lose her power of speech. She would be too scared to even utter a word in self-defence. When she carried two or three pitchers of water on her head, she had to support them with her hand. Even that raised suspicion, ‘Right hand or left hand? Was that a signal? Why did you bend your hand in that way?’ It was an impossible question. How could she answer this? Can you imagine how women must have suffered? But they faced all this and did so much! Didn’t you ever feel like writing about all this? Well, he was my husband after all! I spent so many years of married life with him. Besides I had my community to consider, our lack of education, progress. It would be so demeaning. Besides this was the fate of most women; I wasn’t an exception. So why write about it, I felt. Besides, the root cause of this was the

male ego. Look, husbands then didn’t have anything else to do. No education, no jobs, even food they had to beg for. Their male ego gave them some sense of identity, ‘I am a man, I am superior to women, I am somebody. If the whole village tortures us, we will torture our women.’ Fathers used to teach their sons to treat their wives as footwear! A wife’s place was near her husband’s feet. That was their way of asserting that they too were somebody! Now of course, things are changing. Because of education, jobs, there is a sense of achievement. Their ego is sustained by that success. Anyway, for me, the suffering of my community has always been more important than my own individual suffering. I have identified myself completely with my people. And therefore Jina Amucha was the autobiography of my entire community [1] The 'Riddles controversy' was generated with the publication of an essay written by Dr. Ambedkar entitled 'Riddles of Rama and krishna' where Dr. Ambedkar has severely criticised the Hindu gods Rama and Krishna. This essay was published as a chapter in the fourth volume of Dr. Ambedkar’s collected writings published by the Government of Maharashtra in 1987. Madhav Gadkari, the then editor of a Marathi Daily called Loksatta wrote in his column 'Chaufer' that Dr. Ambedkar had maligned Hindu gods and had hurt the feelings of the Hindus. Bal Thackrey, chief of the Shiv Sena, a Hindu fundarnentalist organisation, demanded that the controversial chapter be deleted from the fourth volume of Ambedkar's writings. Dalit masses, the left and other progressive sections in the society, joined hands to counter the attack of the Hindutwa forces. Huge protest marches were taken out all over Maharashtra. The Congress government had to retain the chapter and the controversy died after a while. It is interesting to note that this controversy took place against the backdrop of the Government of India's ban on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the Ramjanmabhoomi Andolan started in 1986 by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Afterword In one of his important works, Colonialism, Tradition and Reform, Professor Bhiku Parekh has argued that writing autobiographies require certain conditions which according to him were present in the West one thousand years ago, but were absent in India. He attributes this phenomenon to the limited value on individuality ordained by the Hindu metaphysic. He thus rightly suggests that individuality forms a precondition for writing autobiographies. In Indian philosophy there is not much scope for celebrating the self, as it is morally constituted by the tradition of renunciation. This self does not like to brandish its achievements but rather aspires towards self-effacing moral qualities. At least till the arrival of bourgeois society with a strong sense of glamour, it did not long for recognition. On the other hand, the western self is driven by the need to demand recognition from others; this urge to extract recognition has its roots in the Hegelian master-slave relationship. Thus, material self in the West is driven by the cultural need for self-affirmation while the Indian self is defined by its moral capacity to refrain from claiming credit for achievement. Thus, autobiography as a practice is linked to individualism that articulates itself in the conditions of modernity. In India, writing autobiography therefore is a modern phenomenon. However, it is interesting to note that Gandhi, who belongs to the tradition of self-effacement and not self-affirmation, has written his autobiography. In India, one comes across some early attempts by women to write autobiography, particularly from the upper castes. In Maharashtra there are several women who wrote their own story. In fact, in Maharashtra there are more autobiographies written by women than men from the upper castes. This tradition of writing the self-story probably starts with Ramabai Ranade in 1910. The most illustrious among them all is the autobiography by Laxmibai Tilak, published in 1930. This tradition among the upper caste women of writing the self-story, also existed elsewhere in the country, particularly in Bengal. Tanika Sarkar, commenting on Amur Jiban by Rashsundari, observes,

“Autobiographies as genre confuses the boundaries between the word and world†(Sarkar 2001). However, she further goes on to say that, personal narratives of the upper caste women do not appear in the form of a direct speech. It is, on the contrary, narrated in an indirect form of a Bhakti or devotional song. It is here that die dalit women's autobiographies differ from the life-stories of the upper caste. The writing of autobiographies by dalit women is a much recent phenomenon, probably dating back to a mere twenty years. Dalit women from Maharashtra, and later from Tamil Nadu, have taken the lead in writing their own story without fictionalizing it. These autobiographies reduced the difference between the word and the world. These self-stories are written in a speech that is embodied in them. However, scholars have used a varied vocabulary for naming the story-telling act by dalit women. Sharmila Rege (2006) has used testimonies as the substitute term for autobiographies written by dalit women from Maharashtra. Is it possible to defend the usage? In one sense it would be difficult to defend this usage. If one chooses to use testimonies, particularly in the context of a legal discourse, then this usage is hardly available for radical reading of the stories. In the legal discourse, testimonies are provided in the court by the victim, with the intention to provide supporting evidence to enable the judge to deliver judgment impartially, perhaps in favour of the victim. The use in this sense could be objectionable for two reasons: first, it puts onus on the victim to provide evidence for innocence; second, it puts the judge in the privileged position. If we use testimonies as a substitute for dalit womens autobiographies then such form of representation puts them in to pleading mode, thus denying them an initiative to interrogate the judge himself. In fact it leaves the initiative with the dalit male who often act as judge to deliver the judgment. In the language of court testimonies, it acts as certification from the male. However, one can defend the use of testimonies if it is understood in another rather radical sense. Testimonies can be interpreted as a powerful moral medium to protest against the adversaries both from within and outside. Dalit women's testimonies could be seen as the political imitative to engage with the dalit patriarchy and social patriarchy. Dalit women's personal narratives are a kind of protest against the exploitation by the state on the one hand and market on the other. Dalit women's autobiographies are also the statement of protest against their exclusion from the dalit public sphere— literary gatherings, academic gatherings, publishing sphere and other spheres of recognition, like political parties. Dalit women make only a guest

appearance in the autobiographies written by dalit male. I believe Rege is using testimonies in the second and not first sense. In fact, it is possible to use testimonies and autobiographies in an interchangeable manner, in as much as both these genre involve the conception of the narrative self. This self, like the self in the West, is not disembodied and is deeply rooted in the mores of community. This self is partly constituted by the life-story and acquires larger meaning only in the context of the narrative of the community. Thus it not only represents a promising future for the individual but also for the community. This self is both the individual and also the collective. This self in the dalit women's autobiographies is historically located and sociologically constituted. It is this normative link between the individual and the community that empowers dalit women to offer dispassionate criticism of community practices. Dalit women's stories, unlike the dalit male autobiographies, are more inward looking as they tend to interrogate the evil practices of dalit community. Although this internal critique is the common feature of almost all the autobiographies written by dalit women from Maharashtra, it is particularly prominent in Baby Kamble’s autobiography. Of course, these autobiographies also question the larger social system for its antidalit stance. As is the case, the dalit women flow freely in their autobiographies. This is because they are relatively free from the colonization of their body by the dalit patriarchy. The cultural life of dalit women is thinly anchored in Hinduism, which is a thick bed of ritual practices. Rituals tend to govern the time and space of women, particularly from the upper echelon of society. Arguably, an upper caste woman's daily routine is imbued with an heavy dose of rituals, right from early morning to late evening. She is also consumed by the kitchen and the various ‘satsang gatherings’. This colonization of time and space is clearly visible in Amar Jiban—the life story of Rashsundari, a Brahmin woman from a zamindar family in West Bengal. This complete colonization denies her any opportunity to access the world of literature. She is deprived of reading material and she has to satisfy herself with trash newspapers that fortuitously enter the kitchen as packing material. The ritualization of upper caste women’s time and space is also clearly evident in the TV serials. The coercive patriarchal backgrounds, which seek to colonize the female body is less likely to motivate women to tell their story publicly. The ritualization of space and time results in the folding up of upper caste women’s body into the patriarchical inner. This ultimately tends

to limit the flow of the narrative which is forced to take indirect forms of speech as it has been noted by Tanika Sarkar (2001) with reference to Amar Jiban. Amar Jiban shows that an upper caste woman is folded into a kitchen. On the contrary, the testimonies written by dalit women show that they flow freely from the domestic to the public spheres. The literary scene of Maharashtra represents a very rich collection of autobiographies written by women from subaltern background— dalits, tribals and de-notified tribes. However, it has to be noted here that there is an uneven response from these women in terms of autobiographical writings. For example, as compared to other subÂcastes, the Mahar-Buddhist women from Maharashtra tend to dominate this form of representation. Dalit women, particularly from Matang and Charmakar sub-caste of dalit caste cluster in Maharashtra seem less inclined to adopt this form of representation. We have no space to offer serious explanation as to why testimony escapes these women. One can make a quick point to say that both objective and subjective factors led Mahar-Buddhist women to achieve the required confidence to write autobiographies, as statement of protest both against the internal as well as external structures of exploitation. Unlike the Matang and Charmakar women, Mahar women were landless agricultural labourers. The slack period in agriculture always pushed Mahars (male/female) to search for other alternatives to better their life chances. At the subjective level, the ideological mobilization of Ambedkar and also the self-help efforts by some of the rich Mahars from Vidarbha region to start schools for girls seem to have contributed in creating a strong sense of assertion among Mahar-Buddhist women. In later years, confidence led these women to articulate their acute sense of exclusion in the form of autobiography. The Mahar-Buddhist women developed selfconsciousness of their marginalization and exclusion that they make only a guest appearance in autobiographies written by the dalit male. In autobiographies written by the dalit male, woman is projected as a sacrificing mother or a mother patiently enduring pain and suffering, but very rarely as the agency for change. It is this subordinated image that keeps appearing in the dalit autobiographies that motivates dalit women to write their own authentic story. To put differently, politics of presence has led these women to make statements of arrival in the dalit counter public. In fact, dalit women's testimonies have added to the subversion value of the counter public. Secondly, as compared to MatangCharmakar women, the Mahar-Buddhist women have arrived at modernity quite early and hence acquired early confidence to write their life-story as they have

been in the public sphere right from the early decades of the twentieth century. This early arrival to modernity was not arbitrary as the socio-economic conditions had pushed these women out from their traditional role. Kumud Pawade, Shantabai Krishnji Kamble, Urmila Pawar, Shantabai Dani, Mukta Sarvagod and Baby Kamble are some of the important dalit women writers who wrote their autobiographies. The narratives of exploitation, humiliation and starvation are common to all these autobiographies. The triple exploitation (caste, class and gender) is the common theme and representing modern Ambedkar also forms a common reference point in almost all the autobiographies. The theme of resistance, against dalit patriarchy in particular and social patriarchy in general, is also commonly seen. It is only in case of Mukta Sarvagod's autobiography Mitleli Kavade (Slammed Doors) that one finds attention distributed between Ambedkar and other upper caste socialist workers. She seems to have been influenced by the kind of humanism that the socialists represented in Maharashtra. Modernity is another common theme in these autobiographies. The autobiography under reference is different from other dalit women's autobiographies as it offers a frank description of the nature of dalit patriarchy. It is a modernist narrative which begins with dreams of modernity and its realization in the end. These are some of the features that women's testimonies share in common, and yet Baby Kamble's autobiography is distinct from other testimonies for the following reasons. First, Baby Kamble's autobiography The Prisons We Broke is an important text which offers us an insight into the possibility of understanding the tension between tradition and modernity. Second, it shows us that it is through the every day response to this tension between modernity and tradition that the dalits are determined to chart out their journey to modernity, which according to the author is epitomized in Ambedkar. Third, Baby Kamble informs us about some of the important social practices that indicate resonance with modernity and its sphere of influence. For example the traditional notion of chawdi and kalgi tura represents what Habermas would call public sphere based on the ability of deliberation and argumentation. Chawdi is not like the traditional caste court, jati panchayat, where disputes are discussed and judgments are delivered by the traditional elite. In fact, the chawdi, in Baby Kamble's story, appears as a much more open sphere of discussion and debate, offering an opportunity to everyone to participate in the deliberation on issues concerning the community. As the

autobiography shows, the chawdi as the dalit public sphere has played an important role in questioning the distorted reading of Ambedkar's movement in Maharashtra. For example, the reference to Buddhist conversion in Kamble's story challenges the bias reading of some of the scholars, according to whom dalit conversion to Buddhism was Ambedkar's personal decision. To put it more bluntly, it would suggest that Ambedkar imposed the decision of conversion on the dalits from Maharashtra. This kind of an ahistorical reading might suggest that the common dalit had no moral responsibility to own up to the decision of conversion. Baby Kamble's autobiography provides evidence to the contrary reading of the conversion decision. Her narration suggests that the Mahars from several villages in the vicinity of her own village town, Phaltan, debated the question of conversion and the option of Buddhism. They met regularly at the Chawdi to debate and discuss the issues. These debates often involved the resistance that some of the traditional Mahars put up to neutralize the impact of Ambedkar's alternative modern thinking. The author, through the reinscription of her memory, acquaints us with the bitter but interesting debate between two Mahars—a modern Mahar(her own grandfather, Malhari) and a traditional Mahar, the karbhari. The debate is about the intervention of Ambedkar in the cultural inner that is built up around the religious practices of Mahars. The traditional Mahar seeks to resist any attempt of intervention in this culturalreligious domain. The modernist Malhari, from Mumbai, attempts to force dialogue on tradition, and is vehemently opposed by the conservative Mahar who tries to protect the cultural inner. The conservative Mahars resistance seems quite firm. He says to the modernist “Ambedkar has spoilt your head with his strange foreign knowledge. He has become the Christian. Then is not he polluted?†It is interesting to note from Baby Kamble's testimony that the traditional Mahars treat western Christianity as a source of ritual pollution. The notion of ritual pollution as internalized by the Mahars shows that they are the victim of what Dumont calls continuous hierarchy. That is to say those who are the victim of the ideology of purity-pollution also participate in its perpetuation. The political fall out of this ideological externalization led the Mahars to treat a body of the upper caste with timeless sacredness. The acceptance of purity-pollution by dalits tends to sustain asymmetry of cultural relationship between the Mahars and the upper caste. As the testimony of Baby Kamble shows, the internalization of the ideology of purity-pollution, compels a Mahar to keep his body folded, fearful of touching the upper caste and thus polluting the sacred body. Kamble s story offers an important clue to argue that

Ambedkar’s attempt to culturally delink dalits from Hinduism through conversion was an attempt to consolidate the hold of modernity and reason over the Mahars. Baby Kamble's story brings out brilliandy how the body of a Mahar is tormented with the tension between the moment of folding and flowing. She has offered an insightful observation, which suggests that the moment the yeskar Mahar entered the feudal space, he was forced to bend his back in honour of the upper caste. Secondly, he was supposed to ring a bell to announce his arrival in the public sphere infested with caste and the ideology of purity-pollution. Thus, the public space’ had a diminishing impact on a yeskar Mahar. But as soon as he entered the maharwada, or a dalit colony in the contemporary time, his body language would radically change from a hunchback to a person with an inflated chest, his head held high. His speech act would also change from infrasonic to supersonic. The familiar would assign to his voice a confidence and firmness. He could retain the control on his body in the familiar context. He would choose the familiar as the moral sphere to dissolve the guilt that he is not able to retain the continuity in the freedom of body language across different spheres. In the context of Baby Kamble’s story it is further interesting to note that a Mahar's body begins to undergo painful compression because the public sphere is occupied by the upper caste presence, both physical and metaphysical. The Mahar is possessed by the fear of the upper caste, who keeps scaring him even if the latter is not physically present in the public sphere. As the story shows, the maharwada would give him the confidence to treat his black blanket, which he would use for collecting leftover food, like a black attire of a modern barrister. In The Prisons We Broke we see that the architecture of upper caste houses in Phaltan was designed in such a way that it would help in keeping the polluting Mahars at safe distance. In order to cordon off the upper caste from ritual pollution, the exterior of upper caste houses had raised platforms around it. The upper caste home was designed with a double purpose of providing a secluding interior to confine their women within it, and an exterior to keep the dalits outside. However, with the passage of time, dalit women showed an extraordinary courage to challenge the upper caste attempts that involved assigning conceptually inferior meaning to public spaces. The upper caste could no more confine dalit women either to their dalitwadas or push the latter to the polluting margin of the public spaces. Baby Kamble describes this dalit women's struggle for equal recognition in her life-story. Thakubai, a dalit woman is

refused a seat in the last row of the public hall and insisted that dalit women be permitted to sit in the front row. The queen of Phaltan had to concede this right to sit in the front. Today, of course, the public sphere in Phaltan has democratized the spatiality, thus enabling the Mahars to own shops in the prime location of this town. However, this dalit response to spatial modernity also has the tragic side to it. The dalits claims for modernity are very seldom welcome and tolerated by the upper castes. The caste riots reportedly engineered by the upper castes undermine this claim by attacking the symbols of dalit modernity. For example, in the riots of 1972, the upper castes are reported to have attacked the shops owned by the Mahars in Phaltan. Finally, the life story of Baby Kamble and other dalit women writers decisively destroy the myth which certifies dalit patriarchy is democratic. Baby Kamble in her narratives of dalit women's suffering brings out the worst form of exploitation and physical torture that the dalit male inflicted on dalit women. The physical torture not only involved physical injuries but also inflicted deep psychological pain, leaving a scar of humiliation in the minds of dalit women. As The Prisons We Broke shows, dalit men did not hesitate in chopping off the nose of those dalit women who according to the former failed to abide by the patriarchial norms. Baby Kamble also describes in her story a Devdasi system, which brings disrespect to their individual self. In the Devdasi system young dalit girls are married either to a god or goddess. This is done for the well-being and survival of a male child. The conservative mahars are shown opposing the efforts to demobilize common dalit masses from this system. The argument advanced by the conservative Mahars in support of the system is quite interesting for they sought to defend the system by elevating it spiritually. They would argue that marriage of a dalit woman with God Khandoba is a rare privilege, while the reformist would argue that this elevation is a reduction of a human being to the worst form of exploitation. This reduction and elevation is an on-going tension between those who support the system and those who oppose it. This system is prevalent among the dalit women from several states in the country. The autobiogarphy of Baby Kamble also suggests that the radical and motivated Mahars sought to resignify the pilgimage, like the one to Jejuri, where the traditional Mahars used to dedicate their girls to God Khandoba as Muralis, into the modern sites for demobilizing the Mahars from these humiliating practices. As the autobiography shows, the radical Mahars often used these jatras, or devotional conglomerations, for culturally mobilizing dalits against the Murali system. Just to contextualize it further, the upper caste used pilgrimage to

imagine the nation, but the dalit used it for imagining a decent society. The humour that Baby Kamble has used in her Marathi writing and which is accurately retained in its English translation by Maya Pandit, makes the reading of dalit mobilization on certain socially sensitive issues like dowry and eating the flesh of dead cattle very interesting. The size of share in the flesh of dead cattle was a point of serious consideration for marrying a girl. The radical mobilization against this was always difficult. This has been shown by Baby Kamble with a remarkable touch of humour. The autobiography also describes the trick that the radical dalit had to deploy for demobilization of dalit from dehumanizing practices like eating the flesh of dead catde. Baby Kamble shows how her grandmother used the idea of pig as a weapon to dissuade Mahars from eating the flesh of the dead cattle. The Mahars in those days were repulsed by the very idea of pig. Her grandmother used this source of repulsion to keep the Mahars away from eating dead cattle. It is ironic to note that the Mahars reproduce the same mechanism of which they were the victim at the first instance. As the testimony under reference shows, the upper caste avoided eating their food in the presence of a Mahar who was treated even less than a leper. Now the Mahars have transformed themselves from lepers to leopards (Dalit Panther). The story also depicts another dehumanizing practice but with remarkable sense of humour. According to the dictates of Manu, dalits, even today, are entitled only to the negative right to cast off cloths or the cloth that is used for wrapping the corpse. The dalit women from Kamble's village often used this piece of cloth to critique the dress code of the women from the different upper castes. This cloth would be used to reproduce the dress styles of the upper caste women. A dalit woman would act as a Brahmin kaki with a particular dress style and then again she would wear this cloth like a Gurjar woman. Finally, a distinctive style prevalent among dalit women would also be represented. This can be seen as a critique of the dress codes that sought to establish patriarchical controls over the body of upper caste women. The dalit women offer the critique of this cultural policing by the upper caste patriarchy. Today, fashion shows are driven by considerations of promoting a product in the market. But Baby Kamble's testimony shows what is discarded as obnoxious can be resignified as a weapon to make a comment on the dress code that would seek to connote the folded body of an upper caste woman. Dalit women's use of the fashion show does not smack of envy but it is a much larger comment to reveal the constraining dress code. This is something remarkable in Baby Kamble. In the dalit male autobiography, Taral-Antaral by the late Shankarro Kharat, one of the

leading dalit writers, the cloth used for wrapping the dead corpse is used only to stitch a garment whereas Kamble infuses it with a parodic element. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Baby Kamble’s autobiography offers several important clues for doing serious research on the normative issues of dignity and self-respect and also the much debated issues like tradition and modernity. It is really heartening to note that the insights that one can get from Baby Kamble's story would now be available to a larger body of scholars, besides the Marathi scholars. The translation by Maya Pandit would certainly help scholars and activists to draw on the valuable resources for recontextualizing some of the insights that are embedded in the life-story of Baby Kamble. What is the role of translation? Translations help in bridging the gap between two minds existing in two different spaces and times, viz. the sociological space in terms of the caste location, and the intellectual space it allows the dalit concerns to occupy. It also connects two minds existing in two different spatial contexts. The story of the self, translated in a communicative language also reveals the foreignness of others mind. First order translation seeks to communicate the life experience at the horizontal terrain of language transition. For example, dalit autobiographies in Marathi have invoked among the non-dalits a sincere response suggesting a need for self-reflection and interrogation. In some cases it has also brought out a sense of guilt among the non-dalits. It is interesting to note that Marathi autobiographies have also generated a sense of embarrassment within the upwardly mobile dalits. Second order translation makes the dalit experience available to a larger public through its reproduction in connecting it to a language like English, then possibly to several vernacular languages. Both the empirical and the theoretical tends to underplay the authentic through ruthless editing of the real world of dalit women. Translation plays an important role in terms of creating a moral impact upon the recalcitrant self, usually from the upper caste. It can open an ethical/ moral corridor within the hardened self. Maya Pandit's translation of Baby Kamble's autobiography is accurate and gives a feeling as if we are reading the story in the original. I hope this translation will help in expanding the social base of readers, activists and commentators and will be further translated into several vernacular languages. It is in this sense that the English translation becomes important for transmission of life words both within the country and outside it. Another distinctive character of this translation is that Maya Pandit has succeeded in filling the gaps that Kamble had left in her own writing. For example, she did not focus much on her personal life.

This has been accomplished by Maya Pandit in her interview with Baby Kamble that features at the end of the book. The Prisons We Broke produces not only a use value but a moral value for all of us, both for selfÂinterrogation as well as the interrogation of the system that forced Baby Kamble to write her story. Gopal Guru August 2007 References Parekh, Bhiku. 1989. Colonialism, Tradition and Reform. New Delhi: Sage. Rege, Sharmila. 2006. Writing Caste/ Writing (Gender: Dalit Women's Testimonies. New Delhi: Zubaan. Sarkar, Tanika. 2001. Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation, New Delhi: Permenant Black. Sarvagod, Mukta. 1983. Mitleli Kavade. Amelner: Chetashri Publication.

Gopal Guru teaches at the Center for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He works on caste, gender and Indian politics, particularly on normative issues related to dignity, self respect and social justice.

Glossary Aai







A fragrant powder made from various ingredients like sandalwood


Dialect form of 'Ashadh', the fourth month of the Marathi calendar


Term used to address the elder sister


Coloured rice grains which are showered on the bridal couple in the marriage ceremony


No-moon night


Liquid preparation made with ragi and buttermilk


Stale food gone sour


Holy ash


Holy ash


Old measure of money (The equivalents would be: 16 annas=1 rupee; 2 annas=1 ginni; 3 gandas=1 damdi; 4 cowries=1 ganda or pei; 4 damdis=1 paisa; 6 paise=1 anna)


Term of respect used for a brother or man.

Arhar dal

A kind of lentil


Name of the seventh month in the Marathi calender

Atya, Atyabai

Paternal aunt; often mother-in-law, because of the custom of marrying the girl to the paternal aunt's son


The king of the Shudras. The story goes that he was a very benevolent king, so the gods became scared of his merits. God Vishnu went to him in the form of a young Brahmin and taking advantage of his generosiry asked for land that could be spanned in three steps. When Bali granted him his wish, Vishnu assumed a gigantic form and covered the earth and the sky in two steps. When Vishnu asked for place for the third step, Bali offered his head. Vishnu put his foot on Bali's head and pushed him deep down

his foot on Bali's head and pushed him deep down into the nether world. Balutedars

The twelve major Shudra and Atishudra Dalit castes that were responsible for the village work and were entitled to some return.


Cooked meat; meat curry


Crown of flowers placed on the heads of the bride and the groom


A non-brahmin priest; medicine-man; godman

Bhajani mandal

A group of amateur singers who often sing in the temple at nights. They would also go to people's houses and sing for different occasions.




Roti made from jowar flour


Holy turmeric


A small clay platform




The platform on which the bride and groom sit during the time of marriage


Limb of an animal


Dried bommelow fish


Black powder used for worship


The first month of the Marathi calendar


A kind of flowering tree

Chang bhale

A ritual chant in the worship of god Khandoba and goddess Mari Aai


Pieces of dried meat strings


The system of four'Varnas', viz., Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. This term excludes the Atishudras like the Mahars


A central place in the village for public and official transactions. The Mahars would have their own Mahar chawdi in their locality.


Traditional blouse

Chulat aaja





An old measure; see note on'anna'


Money or things offered to the Brahmin priest as a


Money or things offered to the Brahmin priest as a mark of respect


An old coin, very low in value; see note on'anna'


Platform on which idols of gods are kept




Literally means fatso. The word is used to refer to a round biggish coin worth one paisa in the old times.




Master; low castes had to address the upper caste men as'Dhani'


From'dhonda', a name meaning stone

Dhoop sticks

Incense sticks


A garment worn by men to cover the lower half of the body

Dhupa arti

Ritual worship


A tiny drum carried by the vaghya


Brother-in-law, Husband's brother


An old measure of money; see note on 'anna'


River bank


Coarse blankets of sheep wool


Coarse blankets of sheep wool


A dish of unhusked jowar grains soaked in water, ground and rolled into small balls


A prolonged and deep ringing sound produced in the throat; also a small musical instrument or chord


Old measure of money; see note on'anna'


Cow's urine, considered to be holy by upper caste Hindus

Gudhi Padva

The first day of Chaitra, the first month of the Marathi calendar, celebrated as new year's day




Coloured powder


A syrupy dish made from jaggery traditionally served in festive meals or marriage feasts


A female ghost which is supposed to be quite terrifying




A kind of drum


Kinship term, signifying relationship between the mothers of the bride and groom


The dialectal pronunciation of 'Vithoba' or Viththal


Kinship term, signifying relationship between the fathers of the bride and groom


A public performance of songs


The sacred thread worn by Brahmins as a mark of their status as a high caste




A girl offered to goddess Bhawani/Ambabai as her ritual worshipper

Johar mai/bap

The traditional greeting or'salaam' that the Mahar was supposed to offer to the higher caste people




Paternal uncle, father's brother


Paternal aunt; also a respectful way of addressing elder women


A dancing woman from the Kolhati caste; also means woman artist. The word is also used as a term of

woman artist. The word is also used as a term of insult, signifying a woman with loose morals. Kameej

Long shirt


A wild bush with pink-white flowers which are used for worship


Bride or groom's sister or female cousin


leader of the community


String tied around the waist


Eighth month of the Marathi calendar




Wooden plate


Mud pitcher used to store drinking water


God khandoba of Jejury


A groove


Tiaditional blouse piece with a big border


A nomadic caste lower in the caste hierarchy, famous for men who play musical instruments and women who dance.Women artists in the folk theatre often belong to this caste.


Red powder used to make a mark on the forehead


Small brush used to gather the flour spilt around the grinding stones


Tapioca wafers


Meat soup


A musical instrument in the form of a stout short stick with a chain attached to it like a bow string. Thin round iron slices are woven in the chain, which make a musical sound when the stick is shaken. Used in folk dances and sports.


A caste that traditionally sold lime or charcoal


High fever which especially afflicted new mothers


Eleventh month of the Marathi calendar


The name of an Atishudra caste


The residential colony of the Mahar community located outside the village




Maternal uncle


Wife of maternal uncle


The government official responsible for the

administration of the district and the collection of revenue Mandal

Group or club


The residential colony of the Mang community


A Kshatriya caste. Traditionally fighters, landholders, rulers


Maternal aunt


An honorific term for a carpenter or contractor


A kind of drum


A woman whose nose has been chopped off


Ceremonial strings of flowers worn by the bride and groom on their heads. One string is tied around the forehead and the other two fall on each side of the face, framing it with flowers.


A girl offered to god Khandoba in marriage


Male dancer who dressed as a female in the Tamasha theatre

Nag narsoba

Mud snakes which are worshipped on the Nagapanchami day

Nagapanchami Snake festival

Nagapanchami Snake festival Namaj

Muslim prayer


Ethical, upright behaviour; morality


Sacrificial food offered to the gods


Christian priest


Marathi new year day


Old measure of money; see note on'anna'


The part of the sari which covers the torso


Committee composed of the elder men of the community which dispensed justice




Meat soup


Clay pots


The administrative officer of the village, generally from the Maratha caste


A woman who upholds her husband as god and serves him faithfully


Old measure of money; see note on'anna'


Dish made of dal flour


Ritual worshipper of the god Khandoba and


Ritual worshipper of the god Khandoba and goddesses like Ambabai, who played drums



Puran poli

Sweet chapattis stuffed with jaggery and lentils

Rede jatra

Buffalo fair conducted during the festivities for the mother goddess


Ritual gifts to the bride from her maternal house, kept on display

Saint Tukaram

The 17th century Marathi saint poet who belonged to the Warkari sect

Sankashti Chaturthi

The fourth lunar day of every dark fortnight in a month on which devotees fast to avert difficulties and troubles. Sacred to God Ganapati.





Sat Asra

Seven spirits that are supposed to dwell in rivers and wells, and are worshipped as deities





Satwai and Barma

A pair of deities who are believed to write the future of a child on its forehead on the fifth day after the child's birth. Barma is the dialectal form of Brahmadev, the brahminical god, from the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh worshipped by the high caste among Hindus.


Heavily brocaded sari, generally worn by the bride at the time of marriage


A musical instrument


An old measure (around 1 kilogram)




Fifth month in the Marathi calender

Suti roti

Roti of wheat flour made without oil offered with the cooked liver, heart and lungs of the sacrificed animal


A married woman whose husband is alive


Deep wooden plate


Term of respect generally meaning 'elder sister'




Combination of betel leaf, areca nut, clove, lime, etc, eaten after meals


A wild tree bearing yellow flowers


A term of respect used to address a man. Also a name.


Baking plate made of iron


Oil merchant


Horse carriage


Literally boiled food; here, decayed food that is boiled


Ritual worshipper of god Khandoba offered to the god as a child


The deadly weapon of God Vishnu which is invincible




Here, a string for hanging things


The Mahar whose duty was to work for the village


Literally a tree; here, a person possessed by a spirit, god or goddess

Zalu songs

Zalu is a song sung on the fourth day of wedding festivities before the bride leaves for the groom's

festivities before the bride leaves for the groom's house. The women from her maternal household sit by the bride and her mother and sob as they sing the song. The men stay quietly in the background