In current times, the issue of subaltern and caste-based reservations is quite a controversy in India. This issue has never failed to spark riots and cause days of upheaval in the country, repeatedly. Subalterns are the lower ‘classes’ of the society, which society consider of an ‘inferior rank’. They don’t have their basic rights and lead a life of humiliation for decades. The caste segregation system is highly rampant in India. In ancient times, (and even now, up to an extent) a person’s caste would define the kind of life he/she would be leading, and also their work. The society determines their ‘privileges’, and access to their rights on the basis of the caste. Caste formed the identity, and it will confirm the social stature of a person.
The subalterns did not even possess a voice in the literature. Literature has very conveniently ‘muted’ the voices of the subalterns, all across the globe, for decades. Joothan is the autobiographical account of Omprakash Valmiki, the pioneer of Dalit Consciousness in India. He is the first Dalit writer, who lent his voice to the ‘subaltern’. The book is originally in Hindi and later got a translation into English by Arun Prabha Mukherjee. The book is ‘explosive’, in terms of the shocking revelations it makes.
To understand the perspective clearly, it is vital to know the hierarchal structure of the Indian society. It has four castes- Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. The delegation of the work was also dependent on the caste. Brahmins were supposed to do rituals and/or teach, Kshatriyas were to protect everyone, Vaishyas were to do trade, and Shudras were to do the cleaning. There can be different and varied interpretations to this. This is the most common one. This has been the style of a delegation of work, and even respect. Somehow, the amount of respect one earns has always been in direct correlation to the nature of their work. Apart from this, people considered Shudras untouchable, because of their nature of the work. People also associated religious beliefs with it.
The writer ‘belonged’ to the caste known as Dalits, furthermore, in the community of ‘Chuhras’. Their main work was to do the ‘hard work’ at the farms, clean houses, and pick up wastages. The payment in lieu of their work was way too meager, not even enough to sustain themselves and/or to run the household. Yet, this had always been the way of life. One more interesting, and disgusting mode of payment was ‘joothan’. Joothan literally translates to the ‘leftovers’, something that people save for animals.
These leftovers were given in lieu of work, or even when the people went from door-to-door. Going door-to-door, was a ritual imposed upon this community, by the ‘upper crusties’. Whenever there would be a wedding, the Chuhras would certainly be invited- to collect the leftovers. The author remembers this painful memory quite vividly. The weddings meant food for months. They used to leftovers would be scraped off, taken home, and preserved until weeks. If people served them warm pieces of bread (chapatis), the flour would be mixed with husk, because it was for them.
The housing system was also lopsided. The Chuhras were to live far from the others, and not to mingle with anyone outside of their community. The community lived near the banks of the river, where the people used the space for open defecation. Just when we begin to think that it can’t get any worse, the actual nightmare begins. The tiny, narrow lanes were filled with mud and pig excrement, and all of it released an unbearable stench, once it started to dry out. Their houses were made of clay. When the rains unleashed their wrath, the author and several others were rendered homeless. Such was the treatment of the entire community for decades.
Society used to imposed rituals upon the community. It is also the proof of the fact that how convenient and an ego boost it was, for others, to treat certain human beings in an absolutely inhuman way. One of them was at the time of marriage, when they had to go to the Upper Crusties, to ‘seek their blessings’. The blessings were nothing but a steady flow of abuses hurled at them. The couples began their newly wedded life on an extremely melancholic note, which caused an inferiority complex to reinforce itself even stronger in the minds.
The author had been extremely fortunate, because his parents were encouraging and supportive. The school was another hell for the author. The convention dictated that since their work was to remain the same for ages and ages to come, there was absolutely no need to study. It was obvious, that their future would be the same. They tortured the author at school. People used to hurl abuses at him. They made him sweep the school, and what not. Whenever he was thirsty, during exams, he couldn’t drink the water from a glass. The peon would pour into the cupped hands of the author to avoid others getting themselves dirty because he was untouchable! He even faced the bias in terms of scoring marks in exams, where they failed himself purposefully. This was because he had roots to a particular community.
Adulthood did not come easy either. With the onset of youth, one longs to be in love. This was different for the author, who had roots in the community which was an outcast. There was no such thing as love for them! Even considering them a human was non-existent! How can one love them, without accepting them?
The author met a woman, who was a Brahmin, and they did not realize that the author was a Dalit. Once the woman got to know about it, she distanced herself, immediately, from the author. When no one treats with respect but has to endure inhuman ways of treatment, what respect would that human have for his/her own self? Yet, they had to live with their own selves, and even with others, and wake up every single day only to tolerate the torture. They always remember their own identity which the society created for them.
The book explores how people face rejection, sadness, and humiliation in their entire lives. The only dignity seemed to be that of death. This depicts the mentality of the society, and how they perceived their equals. The book acts as a mirror of the Indian society, the society which is full of blemishes, flaws, and shallow standards. Just when we start to feel proud of our ‘Indian Culture’, we must remind ourselves of this, and show ourselves the black mirror, and reflect upon the manipulations, tricks, and dual standards of the society.