Interrogating My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit

That day I had returned with wood from the Khairkheda jungle. It was a Sunday and the market was busy. About a thousand people milled around the bazaar as I made my way with my loaded bicycle to the eastern fringe where Gopal’s shop was. On reaching there, I saw that microphones had been fitted to bicycles and the parties were canvassing.

Madhu Malakar of the CPM Party had begun his election speech: “Friends, that which we never thought possible has come true by the grace of God. All of us have joined hands in chasing the Congress out, etc etc.”

This was no speech. I thought I heard a cat whining. If the name of the party was Communist, what was the whine doing in this man’s voice? Where was the fire, the anger, the roar that could lift sky-high the hopes of the toiling man? Where was the vocabulary that could string sentence after sentence, directing them, like the mythical sound-tracking arrow, into the hearts and minds of the audience, amazing them with their own defiant dreams? The members of the People’s War Group had carried this flag into Dandakaranya, setting on fire the forests and robbing the capitalist owners of their sleep. Standing there in the bazaar, I was much pained at the lack-lustre whimpering of this Madhu Malakar. My personal scores with this Party could wait. At the present moment, it was a question of ensuring the deserved respect for the Red Flag. Nobody had enlisted me, but the historical onus had, as it were, been placed upon my shoulders by this forested land.

Did I consciously think of all this then? Hardly. The alcohol I had swallowed was creating havoc inside my belly then. As I say, alcohol makes the coward turn brave, and the brave turn reckless. It makes the fool turn garrulous, and the garrulous into the super-garrulous. How else can I explain what I did next? I went up and grabbed the microphone from Madhu Malakar’s hand.

“Here, Dada, you’ve said enough. Now give this to me.”

The CPM supporters had not been too happy with his speech either, though their reasons for displeasure were somewhat different from mine. The topography here was harsh with its hard soil and fierce sun. A language appropriate to this place would need to be in the same league of toughness. Any speech here began with words directed at the opponent’s mother, and ended in the same way. The greater the profanity, the louder the applause. And here was Madhu Malakar who had not once said ‘mother-fucker’ in his speech. How was the audience to be appeased?

And here was I, a wood seller, from the lowest rungs of society. And quite visibly drunk. So the crowd understandably greeted me with some expectation.

One among the audience attempted to tune me to the right note: “Go on, Bhai, give them a few of your choicest curses.”

“I won’t curse,” I said. “But what I will say can father a league of curses.”

I was then buoyant on the wave of confidence powered by alcohol. Looking around me, I felt these people were ignorant philistines who had gathered around me for my sagacious wisdom. They knew nothing. It was up to me to fill their empty vessels with delicious fruit, upon consuming which the ignorant would move from darkness to light. I was the guru. It was my job to teach them. Now all these thoughts were not mine, of course, but of the alcohol that had come alive inside me.

Bare bodied and bare foot, I had only my gamchha tied around my waist. My skin was dark, burnt darker by the sun, and my hair unkempt. People of such adivasi-like appearance did not deliver speeches here. They stood among the crowd, listened and clapped. Seeing such an unlikely speaker holding the microphone, people of the marketplace stopped and came forward, curious. And I began my first ever speech inspired, without the least trace of any doubt, by alcohol.

I began at the very beginning, with the Big Bang, so to say.

“Friends, this world has not been created by any God, Allah, or Bhagwan. It was created by the Sun, an inextinguishable, eternal ball of fire out of which the earth was born. And we are children of that earth, possessing within us that unquenchable blaze which can turn to ashes all injustice and evil. It is that fire that we have to bring back.”

Big Bang in the sun. Creation of the earth. Beginning of life. Evolution theory. Primitive egalitarian society. State system. Slavery. Feudalism. Role of religion. Monarchy. Crumbling of feudalism and coming of capitalism. Birth of the labouring class. The Eight-Hours movement. The Red Flag. Marx’s Das Kapital. Paris Commune. Soviet Socialism. International Communist Party. Manabendra Nath Roy, Rajani Palme Dutt. CPI. Indo-China War. CPM. The Naxal Movement. Emergency. Janata Dal. Bhindrenwale. The Golden Temple. Indira assassination. Rajiv Gandhi. Bofors. The present alliance. And the elections.

Like an actor in a countryside jatra, I narrated all that I had learnt from my Communist friends and leaders all these years, raising and lowering my pitch as the occasion demanded. It was as if I was Shanti Gopal of the ‘Lenin’ show.

I think I spoke for over two hours at a stretch. My body was bathed in sweat. My lips were foaming. And the veins in my forehead throbbed. I ended my speech with,

“You are all intelligent people. I will not have to tell you whom you should vote for. Be careful whom you choose, for it is you who will have to pay the price.”

When I finished, I found that the milling crowds had drawn nearer to me and been rendered absolutely quiet as if by the touch of some magic wand. Within about fifteen minutes of me beginning my lecture, the Toothpaste, the Ringworm Ointment, the Sundari Bidis had had their smaller microphones shut off by the people.

After some moments of absolute stunned silence, the words that first reached my ears were profanities addressed to my father. The words came from a BJP supporter, who thereupon proceeded to hoist me up on his shoulders and do a mad dance with me around the area. I was finally thrown down in front of Avinash’s liquor shop with a “You son of a swine! You know so much and you go around hawking wood!”

He turned to Avinash with a roar, “First a pint of English for him!”

Excerpted with permission from My Chandal Life: An Autobiography of a Dalit, translated by Sipra Mukherjee. Publisher: Sage-Samya

Pages: 330

Price: ₹ 550

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