No one book has changed my thinking as much as Omprakash Valmiki’s autobiography, Jhoothan (झूठन) did. Valmiki died late last year, and when he died, I was embarrassed to realise how wrong I used to be, and felt grateful to him for writing the book. I was back home today, and picked up the Hindi original. I realised that even though the book had shaped my thinking substantially, I had forgotten many parts of the book, and cringed again while reading them. Here’s a part that I had forgotten about, from the very first page of the autobiography:
The homes of the Chuhras were on the edges of the pond.All the women of the village, young girls, older women, even the newly married brides, would sit in the open space behind these homes at the edges of the pond to take a shit. Not just under the cover of
darkness but even in daylight. The purdah-observing Tyagi women, their faces covered with their saris, shawls around their shoulders, found relief in this open-air latrine. They sat on Dabbowali’s shores without worrying about decency, exposing their private parts.At this same spot they would have a conference at a round table to discuss all the quarrels of the village.The muck was strewn everywhere. The stench was so overpowering that one would choke within a minute.The pigs wandering in narrow lanes, naked children, dogs, daily fights—this was the environment of my childhood. If the people who call the caste system an ideal social arrangement had to live in this environment for a day or two, they would change their mind.
Since it was in Hindi that I first read Valmiki, and since the Hindi coveys some things that the English translation doesn’t quite, here is the original text as well:
जोहड़ी के किनारे पर चुह्ड़ों के मकान थे, जिनके पीछे गाँव भर की औरतें, जवान लड़कियां, बड़ी-बूढी और यहाँ तक की नयी नवेली दुल्हनें भी इसी डब्बोवाली के किनारे खुले में टट्टी-फरागत के लिए बैठ जाती थीं. रात में अंधरे में ही नहीं, दिन के उजाले में भी परदे में रहनेवाली त्यागी महिलाएं, घूंघट काढ़े, दुशाले ओढ़े इस सार्वजनिक खुले शौचालय में निवृत्ति पाती थीं. तमाम शर्म-लिहाज छोड़ कर वे डब्बोवाली के किनारे गोपनीय जिस्म उघाड़कर बैठ जाती थीं. इसी जगह गाँव भर के लड़ाई-झगडे गोलमेज़ कोंफ्रेंस की शक्ल में चर्चित होते थे. चारों तरफ गन्दगी भरी होती थी. ऐसी दुर्गन्ध कि मिनट भर में सांस घुट जाये. तंग गलियों में घुमते सूअर, नंग-धडंग बच्चे, कुत्ते, रोज़मर्रा के झगडे, बस यह था वह वातावरण जिसमें बचपन बीता. इस मौहाल में यदि वर्ण-व्यवस्था को आदर्श-व्यवस्था कहनेवालों को दो-चार दिन रहना पड़ जाय तो उनकी राय बदल जाएगी.
I recommend Jhoothan unconditionally. By the way, there is no word in English that correctly translates the Hindi word Jhoothan. In Hindi, it means false, dirty, un-edible and contaminated all in one go. Sociologists use the word “polluted” in their writings.