Between caste and gender
A honest narrative of a dalit woman’s journey through life, told with a sense of irony and humour.
Aydaan is marked by the honesty of its narration.
Aydaan, Urmila Pawar,Stree, p.350, Rs. 350
Urmila Pawar’s autobiography, Aydaan, was published in December 2003; but bits of it had already appeared elsewhere. The story of her life as a child in a village located two hills this side of Ratnagiri, the nearest small town, was published over four years from 1989 onwards. The first part appeared in a Deepavali special issue of a children’s magazine and later parts in reputed literary magazines for adults. Her account of her first night with her husband, the man she had been in love with since her high school days, was published in 2002 by the women’s magazine, Miloon Saryajani. However, as a working woman with a home, husband and three children to look after, it took her all of one year to piece her story together as Aydaan.
The book was given a warm reception by critics and readers, who recognised it as the remarkable narrative of a woman who had, through personal experience and observation, come to an understanding of what it meant to be a dalit, and a dalit woman. Criticism came from within the dalit fold for her use of the word “dalit”, her earthy language and her frank account of the famous first night.
Marked by honesty
Aydaan is marked by the honesty of its narration. Pawar looks at herself as child, daughter, wife and mother as objectively as she does at Harishchandra as a husband. While he chose to remain ensconced in convention, she raced ahead. She did her B.A and M.A., she wrote fiction, made new friends, became a member of a feminist organisation, started a feminist group for dalit women with friends and fellow writers and, somewhere along the line, felt empowered enough to reject old Hindu symbols and customs that dalits had clung to even after they converted to Buddhism. She did all of this while continuing to work full-time in a bank and shouldering the burden of house-work. When Harishchandra, her husband, asked her not to do her Masters but look after the children instead, she felt sufficiently confident of her rights as a human being to suggest that he might come home early instead of spending his evenings drinking, and take the children’s homework.
Aydaan was published when Pawar was 58. Yet, writing about her childhood, she slips easily and unaffectedly into the dialect of her growing-up years. Her language changes imperceptibly as she moves into adolescence, lit up by her love for Harishchandra till, in the final section, it acquires the polish of standard Marathi. Pawar’s language thus mirrors the journey she had made from the days when she avoided both baths and school to a time when she yearned for knowledge and visited dalit bastis advising women on cleanliness and hygiene. There is one feature of her persona that runs through the entire account — her ironic view of life and her irrepressible sense of humour. The latter is brilliantly revealed in her account of her first night with her husband in a crummy lodge with a bagful of live clams, her mother’s gift, chattering away under the bed.
Maya Pandit’s translation does not always manage to reproduce the robustness and flexibility of Pawar’s language, the crispness of her phrasing and the wryness of her humour. It tends more towards explanation than reproduction of the literary qualities of the narrative. Perhaps this has been necessitated by the translator’s approach to The Weave of My Life as an important dalit/feminist, rather than a literary, text.
Maya Pandit’s Introduction is illuminating. It locates Pawar’s book in the intertwining social contexts of caste and women’s issues, and in the literary context of autobiographies by members of the scheduled castes and scheduled and nomadic tribes that had appeared in the 25 years preceding her memoirs, starting with Daya Pawar’s Baluta, which first shook the upper-caste, middle-class reading public out of their complacence.
Sharmila Rege’s lucid Afterword contextualises “The weave of my life” further. She posits it as a touchstone by which to assess the current relationship between dalit scholarship and dominant academia. She sees Pawar’s “testimonio” as a challenge to several notions such as that of caste as frozen in time, which underpin course design in universities. If not ghettoised, she argues,The Weave of My Life should empower subaltern students and enable “the dominant to interrogate their complicity in entrenched privileges without freezing in guilt”.
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