Monday, February 25, 2008

Literary Edge 1

Book Review

Outcaste: A Memoir - Narendra Jadhav

Narendra Jadhav is a well-known economist, public speaker and a social worker. He is presently the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Pune and the Head of the Department of Economic Analysis & Policy at the Reserve Bank of India. He has also served many international assignments with IMF.

Outcaste: A Memoir is an adaptation by Narendra Jadhav, from his own Marathi best-seller Amcha Bap Aan Amhi (Our Father and Us). At one level, it is a tribute from a son to his father; while on the other hand, it is the story of the Dalits through three generations. The story begins in the 1930s when Damu, the protagonist of the story, is continuously addressed as “Mahar” in his ancestral village in Western Maharashtra where caste determined one’s destiny. Influenced by Dr. Ambedkar’s teachings, Damu stands against the Police and the caste system.

Outcaste is the first Dalit biography. It can also be referred as an autobiography since it also traces the course of Narendra Jadhav’s life. The book traces the extraordinary voyage of Damu from a small village at Ozar in Maharashtra to the city of Mumbai to escape persecution. It was a journey that brought back his dignity and “touchability”. In the city, he earns respect in various jobs, despite being a low-caste and an illiterate. His uncompromising spirit inspired his wife who realized that their emancipation could be possible only through the pursuit of academic excellence. Outcaste is also the story of Sonabhai, the author’s mother. Her innocence as a pre-pubescent bride and horrified reluctance to give up her old and trusted gods for the unknown Buddha are instances of an ordinary Dalit woman’s experiences. In the book, Sonu’s story alternates with that of Damu’s. At the other end of Damu's story, is his sixteen year-old granddaughter's epilogue. Born in Bloomington, Indiana, she writes with confidence, "Now I think I know who I am. I am just Apoorva, not tied down by race, religion or caste." But her father, Dr. Jadhav is not so sure. At one point he asks, "Will I ever be able to free myself from the bondage of caste?"

Outcaste is more than a mere personal account of the caste divide in India. It examines the Dalit awakening spearheaded by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the Independence movement, the Civil Disobedience Movement, Gandhiji’s relation with Ambedkar, the mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism in 1956, and caste in its current reality. One can find Ambedkar’s call for the Dalits to “Educate, Unite and Agitate” as a recurrent theme in the book. Outcaste is the first book to portray Ambedkar as a character in its story. There is also a long note at the end of Outcaste on untouchability, the caste system and Dr. Ambedkar. Dr. Jadhav has wisely retained many Marathi words in the text, thus retaining the essence of the story intact. Personal anecdotes keep the book lively and easily readable. The book ends with a note of self-realization that in modern India dignity rests in the minds and hearts of people, and that archaic prejudices do not really matter. Outcaste thus gives an interpretation of caste, which is astonishingly different and enlightening.

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