Friday, October 14, 2016

My Father Balaiah - Y.B. Satyanarayana

Mohan gave me this book to read. After that I heard this book is shown in the Rajnikanth movie 'Kabali'. The cover looked interesting. The story even more so.
Harper Collins, Rs. 350, 211 p

Mr. Y.B. Satyanarayana writes the history of his family in a dispassionate manner (similar to the unemotional narrative of Viktor Frankl in his masterpiece I felt). What's interesting about his family is that they belong to the Madiga caste which is among the untouchable castes in South India. Hailing from a village Vangapalli in Karimnagar district, the Yelukati family suffers the discrimination of untouchability and rises above it thanks to the one weapon they had access to - education. Not to mention the huge part that the Indian Railways played by giving equal opportunity and treating them like normal people.

The first visual of the book is a haunting memory. Of the author's grandfather Narsiah carrying his wife's body to bury her (she had died of cholera and no one would help) along with his young son. The distressed Narsiah is too fed up of the caste politics in the village and leaves behind his home, his land of two acres, his full grown harvest and walks off. From living in a settlement outside the village to having their land taken away (of the 50 acres gifted by a nawab 48 are taken away by the local landlord), to not having access to schools and education for their children, having to drink from separate wells, working for no wages, surrendering their women at the whims of the landlords the untouchables find no hope. Narsiah's son Ramaswamy however learns to read a bit thanks to a Muslim priest (the Hindus won't let them into the schools - but when it comes to the politics of power untouchables become a part of Hindus as claimed by Gandhi). But the untouchables are not allowed to read even.

Narsiah heads off to Jangaon, walking a distance of 70 kms with his young son,  and gets a job in the railways. For the first time the untouchable family feels equal - they are allowed to live in the same quarters as the sudras. Though they still have issues they find some confidence. Much thanks to the Englishmen who did not discriminate as the higher castes did. Ramaswany, who later becomes Balaiah, knows how to read and understands that education can make his children get out of the hell hole so he decided to educate them all. His family comprises of 13 children (one from another wife) of whom three die as children. But Balaiah does not compromise on his resolve to educate the youngsters. Not only does he educate them - he also inculcates in them a rigorous discipline of waking up at 4 in the morning and studying. Three of the nine children study well and become PhDs and serve as academics including the author who was the Principal of Dharmavanth College. (I remember the name of the college because it would play the Inter-collegiate tournament and we would meet it in early rounds - one good cricketer by the name of Laxman, an all rounder would play for that college).

Back to the untouchables. One wonders what kind of a mind would have separated one creation of God from the others by branding them as untouchables and giving a set of rules to be applied specifically to them. But that is what happened somewhere in the Hindu scriptures and have been religiously followed by many - even till date. The untouchables cannot live in the same areas as the higher castes, they have to live outside the town - check out the Ambedkar colony's in every town and you know where they belong. They could not hear the vedas or recite them or their mouths and ears were to be filled with molten lead. Ok, In the villages since molten lead was not easy they could pretty much beat them to death (still do). They could not wear clothes as others did and had to wear clothes in a way that showed that they were the untouchables. They could not touch people or things of course and the objects they touched were to be purified by water first (including money - which for some reason was touchable by the higher castes - could be taken from the untouchables). They could not wear foot wear, turbans, garish clothes, have loud celebrations, certainly could not pray in temples, draw water from wells. They could not go to schools and had to sit outside the class on a separate mat and not touch anyone or drink from the same water. They were pretty much condemned to serve, do the most menial jobs, be available to the doras and bear the brunt of their anger, greed and lust. No law protected them and Hinduism's laws had various punishments only for them, no rewards. What kind of a perverted mind could think this up and why, is something one could ponder over. And what kind of minds followed it and perpetrated it is another thought. After all these were people too - two eyes, nose, mouth, two ears, legs, hands, red blood. They were not animals (I believe animals were treated better - in fact they still are). The little gains that they got were thanks to the reservation system but they are still at the bottom of the pit, just finding some economic stability even after so many years. Politically they are marginalised and are only used as tools or symbols. Surprisingly, like the black man tried to ape the white man after slavery was abolished, the untouchables tried to ape the upper class in their effort to be accepted and approved.

'My Father Balaiah' is written by Satti, or Sattiah, later named as Satyanarayana by the kind Principal of his school in Secunderabad who did not want the bright student to face discrimination in future. From the Englishmen to the many brahmin teachers, the railways to the Muslim priest, many  people of different castes and communities helped the family in its struggle to find an equal place in society. But what remains significant in a life of poverty which the family braves through together are the barbs and insults that remind them that they are different. The incident where Satti plays with his friend who belongs to a higher caste inside his home and is thrown out by the cook for sitting on the sofa is chilling. The taunts of the upper caste boy who comes second in class to Satti with their frequent references to their caste, the open discussion on how people with reservations are taking away jobs meant for the meritorious in a national level conference, the constant questioning of his ability to be head of an institution are all incidents that he faces. For every bad experience there are good people too but at all times, said or unsaid, Satti feels that he is different, that he has to prove that he belongs. As the book ends one senses that we are still far away from that dream of being equal. In fact we are more polarized than ever before - community and caste have become bigger issues than ever.

The role of the Railways in providing a huge escape route for the untouchables who served as bonded slaves and which provided a sense of equality by providing quarters etc is immense in integrating this huge segment of people belonging to different castes and tribes. In one fell swoop Gandhi successfully branded the entire lot as Harijans and they all became one big vote bank with no voice. Whatever rights Ambedkar won for them in the Round Table conference by seeking separate electorates for the untouchables were marginalised by Gandhi. In the politics that played out the untouchables became Hindus after being treated as outcastes till then, thanks to the power of their vote. But again thanks to Gandhi's fast to death and the relinquishment of the demand by Ambedkar under his immense pressure, the untouchables gave up their hard won political gain. Till date it shows - there is no untouchable leader nor an untouchable group that has a clear voice.

Harper Collins allowed at least three typos to get through. Sad. The book offers many new perspectives into the lives of the untouchables and certainly makes some points without dramatizing anything. Once more the power of education to pull people out of the unequal system becomes evident. They have the same brains too pal - in case you guys thought they probably had smaller brains. With a bit of hard work the author beat the higher caste boys in his class. So much for keeping them out of the system.

There are many familiar names in the book - of places mostly. I loved the way Balaiah takes his large family on a 12 day trip to Rishikesh and Haridwar, takes a tonga ride with them around Delhi, the way 20 odd people live in a small house, how they sell coal and make some money, the incidents at school. Nicely told and a tale worth telling.

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