Read more about it here. I grew up in the central Indian city of Gwalior until I left home for college. This was the 70s and 80s. My father worked as a textile engineer in a company town owned by the Birla Group, where we lived in a middle class residential quarter for the professional staff and their families.

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Read more about it here. I grew up in the central Indian city of Gwalior until I left home for college. This was the 70s and 80s. My father worked as a textile engineer in a company town owned by the Birla Group, where we lived in a middle class residential quarter for the professional staff and their families. Our 3-BR house had a small front lawn and a vegetable patch behind. Domestic helpers, such as a washerwoman and a dishwashing woman, entered our house via the front door—all except one, who came in via the rear door.

This was the latrine cleaning woman, or her husband at times. As in most traditional homes, our squat toilet was near the rear door, across an open courtyard. She also brought along a couple of scrawny kids, who waited by the vegetable patch while their mother worked. My mother often gave them dinner leftovers, and sometimes tea.

But unlike other domestic helpers, they were not served in our utensils, nor did the latrine cleaners expect to be.

They brought their own utensils and placed them on the floor; my mother served them while they stood apart. When my mother turned away, they quietly picked up the food and left. To my young eyes this seemed like the natural order of things. I neither gave them much thought during my school years, nor recognized my prejudices as such. Even so, upper-caste Indian liberals made these films and it was their viewpoint I saw. It is hardly a stretch to say that the way even the most sensitive white liberals in the United States knew and described the experience of black Americans is partly why one had to read Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and other black authors.

For some years now, they have been telling their own stories , bearing witness to their slice of life in India. Theirs is not only a powerful new current of Indian literature, it is also a major site of resistance and revolt.

Joothan by Omprakash Valmiki is one such work of Dalit literature, first published in Hindi in and translated into English by Arun Prabha Mukherjee in she added an excellent introduction in the edition.

Told as a series of piercing vignettes, Joothan is also a remarkable record of a rare Indian journey, one that took a boy from extremely wretched socioeconomic conditions to prominence as an author and social critic.

A high wall and a pond segregated their brick houses in the village from the Chuhra basti, or cluster of shanties. Upper-caste men and women of all ages came out and used the edge of the pond as an open-air lavatory, squatting across from the Chuhra homes in broad daylight with their private parts exposed.

The pigs wandering in narrow lanes, naked children, dogs, daily fights, this was the environment of my childhood. There was one drinking well in their basti for about thirty families, and despite a guard wall around it, it became full of long worms during the rainy season.

They had no choice but to drink that water, as they were not permitted to use the well of the upper-caste folks. Their homes were made of clay that sprang leaks all over. One season most of their homes collapsed; as always, there was no outside help or insurance, and they had to rebuild on their own. What Valmiki had going for him was a headstrong set of parents, determined to give him a better future.

Other boys hurled epithets and beat him casually, turning him into a cowering introverted kid. The hapless boy spent two full days sweeping, hoping it would soon be over. The third day I went to the class and sat down quietly. The pressure of his fingers was increasing. As a wolf grabs a lamb by the neck, he dragged me out of the class and threw me on the ground. Tears were falling from my eyes. I started to sweep the compound while my tears fell. From the doors and windows of the schoolrooms, the eyes of the teachers and the boys saw this spectacle.

Each pore of my body was submerged in an abyss of anguish. As it turned out, his father was passing by that day and saw him sweeping the grounds. Sobbing and overcome by hiccups, the boy told him the story.

And not just him, but there will be more coming after him. His father knocked on the doors of other upper-caste men he had worked for, hoping they would support him against the headmaster, but the response was the opposite. A close call, else he would have ended up illiterate like the rest of his family. Most of his family worked at harvest time. Valmiki gives a detailed description of collecting, preserving and eating joothan.

His memories of being assigned to guard the drying joothan from crows and chickens, and of his relishing the dried and reprocessed joothan burn him with renewed pain and humiliation in the present. The word actually carries a lot of historical baggage. Both Ambedkar and Gandhi advised untouchables to stop accepting joothan. Valmiki describes one such incident, among the most powerful in the text. His community looked forward to marriage feasts in the village when they would gather outside with big baskets.

It was the first time I saw my mother so angry. She emptied the basket right there. Feed it to the baratis [marriage guests] tomorrow morning. Sukhdev Singh had pounced on her to hit her, but my mother had confronted him like a lioness.

Without being afraid. His family fell on even harder times when his oldest brother and wage earner got a high fever, and without access to a clinic, died. He dropped out and began tending buffaloes in the field, watching with a heavy heart his schoolmates going to school. Back in school, Valmiki continued to face severe discrimination.

Remarkably enough, Valmiki was determined to make full use of the school library; by the time he reached eighth grade, he had read Saratchandra, Premchand, and Rabindranath Tagore, and relates this poignant vignette.

I had begun to read novels and short stories to my mother in the faint light of the wick lamp. This was the beginning of my literary sensibility.

He studied in the light of a lantern in his intensely noisy neighborhood. His graduation became an occasion for a feast in his community. He remembers that even one of the Tyagi Brahmins came to his basti to offer congratulations, and later took him home and fed him lunch in their own dishes while sitting next to him.

He describes in some detail how their gods were utterly different from Hindu Brahminical gods and how different their religious rituals were. He also describes lots of family drama and interpersonal politics in his community, not shying from reproach where it is due, especially on their rank superstitions. He writes about their jobs, suffering, and everyday struggle for dignity, acknowledging that the women had an even rawer deal than men.

The young men of his community had begun to refuse to work without wages. Valmiki calls this a turning point of sorts; young men began departing from their basti to nearby towns and cities.

Valmiki too left to pursue college education in the city of Dehradun, where his brother and uncle worked. They all shared a single room in a Bhangi basti. His rage grew sharper and he became more active in college events, until his penury made him quit college and seek technical training in an ordnance factory, with its promise of a shop floor job that would judge him only for his work.

But quitting college made no dent whatsoever in his love of reading. After a year of training, he got posted to the city of Jabalpur in , moving in the ensuing years to Bombay and Chandrapur, Maharashtra. The last third of his memoir is on this phase of his life. Now he really came into his own: he met a bunch of Marxists, read Chekov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Hemmingway, Zola, and other Western writers. He began to publish poems and write a column in a local weekly, later also plays and short stories.

Almost two decades later, he published Joothan. In its last two paragraphs, he anticipates his critics: Times have changed. But there is something somewhere that continues to irk. I have asked many scholars to tell me why Savarnas [caste Hindus] hate Dalits and Shudras so much? The Hindus who worship trees and plants, beasts and birds, why are they so intolerant of Dalits?

Today caste remains a pre-eminent factor in social life. The moment they find out your caste, everything changes. The whispers slash your veins like knives. Poverty, illiteracy, broken lives, the pain of standing outside the door, how would the civilized Savarna Hindus know it?

Why is my caste my only identity? Many friends hint at the loudness and arrogance of my writings. They insinuate that I have imprisoned myself in a narrow circle. They say that literary expression should be focused on the universal; a writer ought not to limit himself to a narrow, confined terrain of life. That is, my being Dalit and arriving at a point of view according to my environment and my socioeconomic situation is being arrogant. Because in their eyes, I am only an SC, the one who stands outside the door.

Notes: 1. This is a famous incident in the Mahabharata. By doing this, Dronacharya ensured that Eklavya, the better student of archery, could never compete against Arjun, the Kshtriya disciple. Indeed, having lost his thumb, Eklavya could no longer perform archery. In high caste telling, the popular story presents a casteless Eklavya as the exemplar of an obedient disciple rather than the Brahmin Dronacharya as a perfidious and biased teacher.


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Anyone interested in Indian culture or history or social justice issues should read this book. It is a rare glimpse into that other history of India, the one that everybody knows is there and nobody wants to talk about. Omprakash Valmiki grew up in Northern India in the decades just after Indian Independence, and in this book he sets forth a collection of scenes from his life. He begins as the son of a desperately poor family from the lowest caste in Indian society, a community of illiterate Anyone interested in Indian culture or history or social justice issues should read this book. He begins as the son of a desperately poor family from the lowest caste in Indian society, a community of illiterate Untouchables, who fights to gain an education and becomes, today, a respected playwright. His tells of the torments he suffered along the way and occasionally still suffers , as well as of his political awakening and the development of his consciousness and morale. He gives us an anatomy of oppression.



Joothan literally means scraps of food left on a plate. It is related to the word jootha which means polluted. The sweeper caste untouchables has been forced to eat jootha for centuries. The word shows the pain, hurt, humiliation and poverty of the untouchables.


Joothan By Om Prakash Valmiki – Book Review


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