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Why Everyone Should Read My Father Baliah

YB Satyanarayana’s poignant tale of generations of caste struggle and the changing generations of Dalits is an inspiration to the youth.

“My message is struggle and more struggle, sacrifice and more sacrifice. …… that will bring their emancipation. Nothing else will”

 –        Babasaheb Ambedkar in April 1947

The book first came into mainstream conversation in the opening scene of the 2016 Rajinikanth-starrer Kabali, directed by Pa Ranjith. In that mellow introductory sequence, Rajini is shown reading a book – “My Father Baliah” authored by YB Satyanarayana.

The book, first released in 2011 by publishers HarperCollins, is a poignant narrative of caste, as experienced by three generations of the author’s family in colonial and independent India. Last week, the Tamil translation of the book, penned by A Jenny Dolly and published by Kalachuvadu under the title “En Thanthai Baliah” was released in Chennai.

A small unintended spark may result in radical transformation in the structure of family, society and polity. Changes in material wellbeing and mindset would not be possible without consistent and uncompromising struggle. The spark that lit Narasiah, Baliah’s grandfather, a Madiga (shoemaker caste), was when he affectionately gave a specially made shoe to Nawab Mir Tahaniat Ali Khan Afzal ud Daulah, the Nizam of Deccan in the early 19th century. In return, the Nawab gifted 50 acres of land.  From then on the determination to achieve a life with self-respect and dignity began. In fact, this forms the integral part of the story that provides a clear message on how to swim against the current in an extremely segmented caste society.

The tales of hard work of an illiterate grandfather and the semi-literate father of the author is meant to give confidence and hope to the millions of the oppressed classes.

The account of the author’s grandfather’s struggles is blood curdling – especially the descriptions of the feudal casteist Zamindari colonialisation of the “untouchables”. The land given by the Nizam was forcefully taken over and Narsiah is left with a mere 5 acres. This was only the tip of the iceberg of the caste barbarity that prevailed in late 18th and early 19th century.

The author narrates the terrible tale of Narsiah’s young wife’s death and her last rituals.  “Abbamma breathed her last. The end…. Narsiah wailed like a child and beat his chest. His son lay across the dead body of his mother and wept, but there was nobody to console the father and son. The people of his community had abandoned his house because of the disease… He sobbed as he wrapped his wife’s dead body in a cloth. It was drizzling outside as he lifted it gently to his shoulder and tied it to his back. He had a long distance to travel… It was five in the evening… Narsiah reached the stream. He slowly put down his wife’s body. Her face seemed fresh; to him, it appeared as if she were looking at him, begging him to take care of her son… started digging the grave. Finally, he put his wife to rest. Forever.”

What was commonplace in that colonial era strikes a chord even today. In August 2016, news reports showed how an impoverished Dana Majhi lost his wife Amang to tuberculosis at the district hospital in Bhawanipatna, Odisha. Poverty did not allow him to rent a vehicle to take her back home to carry out the last rites. Majhi carried his wife’s dead body on his shoulder as his 12-year-old daughter walked alongside him for 60 km back to his village. Only reason and form seem to change but the content remains same.

The three-generation family story has no regrets or accusations but is full of hope and inspiration. The author narrates many first-time accomplishments by his family. The first friendship with a non-Dalit and his experience reveals audacity – “Caste and untouchability did not matter to our friendship. As young children like us did not know about those evil practices.

The first posting as school teacher at a caste Hindu dominated village – “…I was there only for a short spell, the village was a teacher to me. I learnt many lessons there that helped me later in life, including how to live on my own. One thing I lied about my caste. My brother had suggested that I keep my caste a secret, lest I find no place in the new village…”.Because he conceals his original caste, he has to live in constant fear that anybody could, at any time, discover his caste – that he is an untouchable – with unimaginable consequences that would have followed. The author also speaks of facing hardly any challenges from his Brahmin colleagues when he was a college principal but that casteism was evident in the behaviour of those from the intermediary castes. He also describes how fellow Dalits, who were jealous of him, refused to support him resulting in his not being able to complete his PhD thesis on time.

The uniqueness in this narrative are many – the author is frank about his father and family members’ drinking habits, their beliefs in rituals and superstitious black magic. He writes in vivid detail about his and his brothers’ constraints, successes and failures. The book acknowledges the patriarchy in the family, which deprived his sisters of education. Some changes that occurred along with the rest of society – such as the ease of moving from millet roti to wheat roti to rice meals; from mud pots to aluminium and then stainless steel vessels.

The different generations taking pride in watching their sons read – Narsiah (illiterate father) watching his son Baliah Ramasamy read a book and in turn Baliah watching Satyanarayana read texts in English. Balaiah’s compassion is revealed when one of his son’s lovers, a Brahmin girl Varalakshmi, comes to his house.

As a reader and a researcher on Dalit issues, I feel “My Father Baliah” is an important book for today’s generation to read as suicides of students in higher education are on the rise. Suicides of, especially youth belonging to the Dalit community, are also numerous. The struggles of our forefathers against all odds in fighting back and achieving some degree of reduction in caste inequalities are highlighted in this book. Reading the horrific struggles of the past generations gives us more hope that we may battle and conquer the problems faced by our brethren today.

[The author is an Associate Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.]

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