First of all I want to make it clear that I was born on 24th July, 1955 in a former untouchable caste, Chamar in village Madhopur, district Jallandar in Punjab. It would be pertinent to inform that my date of birth does not tally with the birth date as told by my mother. My community had never made a Janam Patri or a Teva. It had also never believed that giving alms can improve their lives. What I want to say is that my caste does not come under any class or religion in the societal order. It had no social, religious, political or economic rights before independence.
According to societal classification, the cluster belonging to my caste people is in the western side of the village where the entire filthy water of the village passes for disposal. My house is situated at the beginning of the main street of the village and on the opposite side of the street is Gurudwara of the Jats which was once upon a time considered a Sikh fort. Even though Sikh religion recognizes all human beings at par but in Punjab almost all the Gurudwaras in its twelve thousand five hundred villages are constructed on caste lines. In about ten thousand villages, Dalits have their own Gurudwaras/religious places. Most of them are connected with Guru Ravidas ji. One can easily conclude from the existence of separate Gurudwaras as to why such a Gurudwaras were constructed.
For example, my community people were not allowed to go inside the Gurudwara and pay their obeisance before the Sri Guru Granth Sahib. One can easily understand as up to what extent untouchability was prevalent in the Gurudwaras from the daily happenings with me and those of my age group which are referred to in brief hereunder. For example, every month when Sangrand or a Gurpurab was celebrated in the Gurudwara, we used to go for getting Parsad or having food from the free community kitchen. The organizers used to call us bad names because of our caste and uttered such words which should have no place in any religion. We used to be pushed like cats and dogs to a place where the people sitting inside take off their shoes. Bhai ji used to throw Parsad upward towards us so that his hand does not touch our hands. Many a time Parsad would not fall into our tiny hands folded in a bowl shape to get it but used to fall on the ground. The dogs standing nearby in expectation used to eat it losing no time. When the people used to leave, the dogs would get inside and search the Parsad which had fallen down by smelling here and there and eat it. If somebody tried to hit them, the other would easily and instantly say that ‘a dog is a recluse; it would go out just with a minor threat.’ Undergoing such a treatment, I stopped visiting the Gurudwara in my childhood itself. At that time, I was perhaps studying in class two. Our ancestors never visited that place as we were never a social part of the Hindus or Sikhs.
The fellow students, boys and girls used to behave in the same manner and kept a distance from us when we used to take water from the school water well. They used to wash away with water our pollution and then only take water. When piped water came and a tap was fixed for drinking water, they used to wash the tap first and then only take water.
While at school, I and my classmates belonging to my caste used to walk more than three kilometers to village Sohalpur to wash and feed the animals of our Khatri teacher. We were not allowed to drink water from the water tap in his house even if it was extreme hot and we were dam thirsty. Our teacher’s wife used to give water to us from a distance above and we would drink it by accepting it in our hands folded in a bowl shape.
There was a post office in the village. I and my class mates used to go to three nearby villages to deliver letters. These villages were situated at a distance of one kilometer to five kilometers. Walking bare footed in extreme hot or cold weather was no wonder to us. But the thought that why only we are drafted for the upkeep of teacher’s animals or delivery of dak while the sons of the Jats who were well built and wore good clothes were available, used to haunt us.
During these days, many a time I had to take off from my school to work for driving the animals of the neighbouring Jat family yoked to drain water from the well so that their son could go to school for study. This was a sort of a forced labour. After feeding her husband Taro aunty would ask me ‘Gud, get off the drive as your uncle has to drink water.’ I used to be astonished as to how the defilement reaches such a distance to the water buckets and then to the water in the well. My mind would appear to go into deep anxiety like the water buckets going into the water in the well. Such incidents have left deep imprints on my mind which are not forgotten despite the efforts to do so.
In winter, I and other boys of my caste would stand near the jaggery machines with buckets in our hand for collecting juice dirt. The dogs used to hover around us in the expectation of eating the juice dirt being thrown there. We used to drink the juice dirt as there was an acute shortage of food during these days. I used to be daily busy in collecting the juice dirt. If I was unable to go, my elder brother would collect the juice dirt. Many a time, the hot juice dirt would fall on the feet and burn these. During these days, small cattle and old oxen and cows would die and my father, sons of my uncle and other male members in the neighbourhood would carry and remove them. Heavy animals were carried in hand carts. I also used to help them in pushing the cart. I always used to feel ashamed of in doing the above mentioned two menial jobs and was often compelled to think why only we people are compelled to do such jobs? Our funeral places are also separate from the Jats – what sort of links we have with them?
Despite all this, I used to go for child labour in the fields of the Jat farmers. The Jat women would throw loaves of bread at my hands from a distance. They would give me tea or water in the glass or the small bowl which I would carry from my home. I used to visit the houses of the Jat farmers at noon or in the evening with my aunties or brothers’ wives to collect food which used to be part of the meager wages which my uncle earned as daily wages. We used to sit on the ground and many a time the hot curry or vegetable would splash over my naked feet. This would cause small burns. Amidst all this, my mind would be continuously bogged down like the blood running in the veins. A thought would bother why we do not have lands? We labour hard in the fields but still we are helpless in getting enough food. Why there is always tension in our community cluster due to poverty? Can we also have pucca houses like the Jats one day? Secondly, why my age group Jat boys who are my classmates call my father and other elderly persons from my community by their name? We call their young ones and elderly persons and their women folk with respect. My mind was filled with this type of thinking.
During my childhood this type of thinking gave rise to poetic compositions in my mind. I used to remember these by heart which I used to recite before fellow students. I used to compose lyrics and recite them. Later, I and my elder brother used to write these lyrics in note-books. This happened when I was studying in 5th to 8th standard. Many a time, when I used to be in extreme raze, I would stealthily piss in the well of the Jats. I used to feel happy at my foolish act.
The daily social and religious segregation and acute poverty led me to deep desperation. The result was that my method of resentment by composing lyrics got blunt. In my adolescent age, I got busy in tackling the demon of poverty by labouring in the fields. I used to go with my father and brother to shake off paddy, harvesting and thrashing of wheat and harvesting maize in the wee hours and used to work till darkness fell in the late evening. When we used to thrash wheat with naked feet, snakes used to come under the feet. During the work, we often used to kill snakes in daytime or the night.
Reason for My Writing Literature
I joined government college, Tanda, district Hoshiarpur for higher studies after passing out my tenth standard examination in 1972. There I met Prof. Didar Singh. He was a well known Punjabi author and poet. He set up a Literary Forum in the college which I used to frequent. The college published an annual issue “Tarika Mandal”. In the context of my literary writings, one important happening need to be narrated which rekindled my literary bent. It happened when eight boys from my community were travelling in a bus to the college for the annual examination of 12th standard. One of us put his feet over the feet of the beautiful girl sitting there and teased her by pushing three to four time with his arm. Not tolerating it, the girl started speaking loudly in English and Punjabi. She asked the conductor to take the bus to the police station. The fellow passengers tried to pacify the girl. Her face became more red in raze. By that time, the bus reached the Tanda bus stop and we fled from the scene. I could not get sleep for a long time during the night due to this incident. The helplessness of that girl came to my mind time and again. This was perhaps the turning point in my literature writing and I got engrossed in it consciously. In about three day’s time, I wrote a lengthy poem in praise of that girl despite the annual examination. This was perhaps the first simple step in my sub conscious mind for Feminism thinking. My poetry got the base in it.
Me and the Progressive Literature
During my college days, my torn undergarment used to peep out of my only worn out shirt. My thinking was centered round poverty which dominated the seriousness in my poetry writing. Truly speaking, this feeling was given rise by the Soviet literature which was being sold in our college by the Communist Party of India through the Punjab Book Centre. The frenzy to purchase and read literature rose to such an extent that I used to buy books even by earnings through daily labour. I never thought of purchasing clothes or shoes but always thought of creating literary works like that of Maxim Gorky, NikolaiOstrovsky,Dostoevsky,RasulGhamzatov,ChinghizAitmatov,Chekhov,Sholokhov,Turgenev,Gogol, Alesander Rukin etc. I used to read books on Lenin, Marx, Leninism and Marxism. I felt that the conditions of the Soviet people under the Czars and that of the scheduled tribes were similar from many aspects. I never liked the Indian mainstream literature. That appeared to me full of forgery, totally imaginary and prone to spreading hatred, casteism and untouchability. The faces of former untouchables i.e. natives were nowhere to be seen in it. Thus, the Soviet literature gave inspiration to me to write poetry. The purposeful humanism in my mind had shaken me that in India also literary works should be written to create new humanism. I wished to make wordy attacks at rocket speed on the social behaviour of hypocrisy, pretentions, pomposity, superstitions and injustice. The entire world may value human dignity and labour and peace must prevail. In those days i.e. about 34-35 years ago, I wrote poems against fascism, capitalism and in favour of world peace. I present herewith about two lines of my poetry as an example:
Mein Jindagi de fiqran nall lais han injh
jiven Digo Garshia hathiaran nall
Mera Tan-man us kol hai is taran,
jiven America kol girvi Pakistan.
In 1975, I became a member of the Communist Party to bring in revolution. I used to raise slogans like ‘workers of the world, unite’ and Kisan-Mazdoor Unity Zindabad. I along with other comrades used to inspire my community workers and carry them in trucks and trolleys for rallies demanding increase in the support prices of food grain, increase in subsidy on fertilizers and diesel and for round the clock availability of electricity for agriculture. In recognition of my work, I was appointed Secretary of the village branch. In protest, a jat comrade proud of his caste, left the party and joined Panthak party (a Sikh political party). During the discussion on the demand for raising the daily wages by one rupee a day, all jat comrades sided with their community.
When I was working in Food Corporation of India from 1978 to 1983, I found that the non-dalit employees used to cut docile jokes on dalit women working in the godowns for the upkeep of food grain. Such incidents also happened which cannot be penned down by a good natured person. Our Union comrades also used to indulge in such shameful activities.
I lost my faith in the Communist party because of the above mentioned different types of incidents. I had now no faith in the traditional resolve of the Indian communists for bringing revolution. I felt that they were not much serious about the socio-economic change. I also felt that they were using the dalits for keeping intact the religious, social and economic interests of their people. In this way, any number of incidents of inhuman treatment, partiality and injustice went on piling up in my mind. I thought that I must pen these down. I read some biographies during this period. I started thinking against the resolve of ‘Ram Raj’. I started thinking about presenting rationale for the Adi (original) people’s guide Guru Ravidas’s Begumpura ideal of radical change. I was already aware of the struggle for the cause of the untouchables by the Adi Dharam Mandal, Punjab.
By 1998, my two poetic collections, four prose books and a number of translated books were published. In the Punjabi literary field, my writings were discussed at length. Many writer friends said on phone and others wrote that Balbir used to be a progressive writer earlier but have now turned purely a dalit poet. What will be the fate of his dalit literature in future is not known. In short, everybody had his own views about my dalit literature.
Why I wrote an Autobiography?
By now my understanding of the literature and the capacity to analyze it had gained much strength. I already had a store-house of social experiences from the dalit point of view. After looking at the literary and cultural tendencies and deeply analyzing them, I decided to write my autobiography as I felt that it was not possible to portray in detail, in poetry the cruel realities prevalent in the society. The main topic of the autobiography – ‘I and my community, a prey of the societal order’ went on developing in my mind. A humanistic and scientific approach went on inspiring me to pen down my tale of woes without any sentimentalism.
In 1996, I wrote one chapter of my autobiography and got it published. I started receiving phone calls from famous Punjabi writers after about a week’s time. How far my writings can go? To evaluate it, I got published two more chapters in the next two years. The result was that ‘this field is lying vacant in Punjabi literature – complete your autobiography immediately’. Alongside, I started getting invitations from national and international forums to read paper. I felt that the right time to publish the autobiography has come.
After this, in about 4-5 months, I completed the autobiography in which my life span up to 45 years of age is briefly portrayed. It was published under the name ‘Chhangiya Rukh (Against the Night) in Punjabi in 2002. It came to be known as a corner stone in Punjabi literature. All my writings got a boost. Its scope widened after the publication of its Hindi translation in 2007. When it was published in Pakistan in 2010, major newspapers and magazines there raised questions on the social set up in India like their approach towards India. The same year, when it was published by the Oxford University Press, I started getting phone calls from the world over. Today,‘Chhangiya Rukh (Against the Night)’ has joined the world classic literature. Much of it could be found surfing on the internet. It would be pertinent to mention that in the last ten years its six editions have been published in Punjabi. Some magazines are publishing it in a serial format even now. Within the country and abroad, many magazines and newspapers are publishing it in a serial format. It is available in Hindi on two websites/blogs.
It gives me immense pleasure to say that the Punjabi Department of Delhi University has included it in the curriculum for two classes this year. I feel, there is now a perceptible change in the social attitude. Those who had no access to education earlier, the books written by them have now found a place in the syllabus.
The type of reaction by the Progressive writers faced by my poetry is being raised against ‘Chhangiya Rukh (Against the Night)’ also. There is no review of Jat writer/critic in the over 200 page book ‘Literary and Social Evaluation of ‘Chhangiya Rukh (Against the Night)’ edited by Dr. S.S. Noor (former Head and Prof. Department of Punjabi, Delhi University. His view is that why should he write about an opponent book? Secondly, in my family my elder brother and younger sister got annoyed. The sister said why I wrote about the worms in her head. Her in-laws laughed at her. But I pacified my brother in 2-3 years. A bosom friend is angry and left my friendship because of this autobiography. He is an advocate and has threatened on several occasions to file a case in the court despite the fact that his name appears nowhere in the book directly. He feels connected to an incident in the book like the thief always living under the fear of being caught.
Anyway, I am satisfied that whatever little contribution I have made to the Punjabi literature from the dalit point of view, has been taken a deep note of by serious readers and selected scholars. I now feel that I represent that human being in a conscious form who was deprived of land, wealth and religion centuries ago. This recognition is apparent in the centre of all my literary works. Its future appears brighter.
This novel’s stow, refined and esthetic language is an example that enables it to take a significant place in the Indian Dalit Literature. This text is a great achievement of the year-2020.
Changiya Rukh (Autobiography) by Balbir Madhopuri A powerful literary testimony to the angst, suffering and attempted rebellion of a dalit community in Punjab…
My Caste-My Shadow (selected poems) by Balbir Madhopuri The poet desires that his poetry should have a direction and provide meaningful guidance to the people and hopes to inspire others despite being ‘dark-skinned’ that has an explicit message for the society. And the English version by T.C. Ghai recreates the same intense emotions and delivers humanitarian message to awaken society towards stimulating Dalit consciousness.